Brother Anthony of Taizé
Long ago, Mother would often tell me to go stand somewhere.
– Hey, Jeong-woo.
– Go and stand over there.
When Mother said that, I would stand quite still and hold my breath.
– Hey, Jeong-woo.
– Look this way.
I don’t remember who first told me that I should stay still when my picture was being taken. Maybe it was someone very ordinary, someone who knows that good things are soon over, that such days do not come often, and if they do come they easily go away again. So, whenever you encounter those moments, you have to recognize them and pin them down somehow…. I mean someone old enough to know that. In fact, my family had several such opportunities. Not so many, though. At such times, we would stop what we were doing, exactly like in the song, “Let’s dance merrily, then freeze.” Adopting every kind of posture, preparing to become a scene from the past, then count silently, and smile, looking at the camera.
In places where there was not enough sunlight, occasionally a flash would be used. The camera would go, Pop! Pop! as it left a chalk mark on time and clipped out the present moment. The sound of the flash was like a parachute opening, giving us a sense of relief, we were saved! after a moment of anxiety that we might die. It gave us a padded shock, like an airbag engulfing a driver.
– Hey, Jeong-woo.
Whenever Mother set off the flash, Pop! the rest of the scenery that had been excluded went inevitably flying off, white. I often closed my eyes and occasionally smiled brightly, regretting that evaporation. I pulled up the corners of my mouth as if I was pulling on a parachute cord.
In old photos I am always standing bolt upright, looking awkward. I do not know exactly what color to call it, but I’m carrying a 1970s color, an optimistic blue, on my back. I am wrapped in Kodak-style brightness and Fuji-fashion chroma. Sometimes my expression is so blurred it looks as if it’s about to disappear completely. I am directing a low-resolution smile at someone, at the future that someone wants. And the ignorance, the eternal ignorance embedded in the picture, abruptly touches a spot in my heart, making me shudder. When we say we do not know what something is, it usually means that we do not know what it is that we are going to lose. One of the things a photograph always does is to take back something the very moment it gives it. So, way back, when my mother called me with a heavy camera in her hand, the sound of her voice calling me, the name “Jeong-woo,” rich in expectation and pride concerning life, may have been the sound of the name of that strange shudder or the loss I would experience someday being called out in advance, a loss I did not know how to express at the time.
Concerning light, there is one more scene that comes to mind. Father is sitting close to the TV, basking in the electromagnetic waves as though he’s warming himself at a bonfire. When he was a child, he grew up in a remote mountainside village. He had to walk a long way to meet any neighbors, and the village was so dark after sunset that you could not see a hand in front of your face. When it snowed, he used to open his mouth and taste the winter; when it rained, he would overhear the humming sound of earth plunged in meditation; or occasionally, he learned from adults how to appease ghosts. It was already half a century ago, but when he recalled that time, Father said that he felt he had come here after living in another “world,” rather than another “age.” It’s something you actually experienced, but you have the feeling that your life back in those days was like a story you’d read or heard about somewhere. It used to be even more so on weekday mornings, when blankly sitting in front of the TV, he would watch ads for cancer insurance. It was when an older actor repeated slowly and distinctly the phone number of the insurance company he had already given out, as if to make clear that elderly people suffer from loss of memory and understanding. He said that at such moments, both this world and the world beyond suddenly felt unfamiliar, so that he had the impression he had walked into somebody else’s room by mistake. I sneered inwardly, “Yes, Father. Talk about cancer makes everyone feel rotten.” Instead of saying anything, I simply stared at my father’s hand that was holding a cup of coffee. That must have been a few days before I graduated from college, more than ten years ago.
Father’s hands as I saw them that day were still big and thick. Within them lurked humbly the discipline and rigor of someone who has long been training his body through regular exercise. With those hands, Father would live the rest of his life judging people’s faults, informing them of the rules, and imposing penalties. I don’t know the details, but that’s what I heard from Mother. It couldn’t have been easy to give up a stable job at that age and earn a living as an umpire. Yet still, it would not have been possible to return to teaching again, since a scandal stays alive a lot longer than any germs or diseases in this world. Father stared at the lukewarm coffee as if gazing into a well. He kept holding the cup in his hands, as if he had nothing else to hold on to. Those hands were hands that detected irregularities, upheld rules, signaled “fault” and “double fault.” At the same time, they were hands completely at a loss in the presence of the son he was meeting for the first time in several years. From the speaker in one corner of the café ceiling came a constant stream of dance songs. It felt as though someone was pouring noise onto our heads from a bucket. Besides which, students at the next table had been furiously badmouthing somebody for ages, until I was on the verge of a headache. “Her? With that professor? Oh, how could she?” They were enjoying themselves, adopting expressions of amazement, as if it was their own morality that had been wounded, rather than someone else’s. It was a pleasure I knew only too well.
My father was at a loss after he had said everything he had probably prepared at home, apart from the actual content. After a brief silence the cell phone on the table buzzed, taking him by surprise. He grabbed it with his big hand as if touching something hot, shielded his mouth with the other hand and whispered, “I’ve met him. Uh, uh, I’ll call you later.” Soon after, when I told him I had to get back to the teaching assistants’ room, Father finally laid something on the table. It was a luxurious box with a ripple pattern on the black outer surface. There was a snowflake fixed to the box that symbolized perpetual snows. Father expressed his congratulations in conventional terms. Then he said he would probably not be able to attend the graduation ceremony, as if he were someone who had punctually attended all my other ceremonies.
I never really met Father after that. I saw him once at my wedding five years ago, but it would be more correct to say that I brushed past him rather than met him. Father briefly occupied the bridegroom’s father’s seat. He occupied it in the way my mother and I had wanted, for as long as we had hoped. Mother posed for a picture with Father as if obliged to do so in order to avoid the in-laws finding fault with my family. Then, acting like a “pro parent” in the way we talk of “pro gamers” and “pro golfers,” she never stopped smiling until the ceremony was over.
A few days later, when I visited Mother’s house after the honeymoon, a parcel had arrived. It was a wedding present from Father. I showed no interest in the parcel while I watched TV, drank tea, and was about to go out through the front door, so eventually my wife opened the box. It was full of a not very reliable brand of red ginseng extract. “Shall I take it to the car?” my wife asked, and I remember shaking my head quietly. That was about the time there were rumors that Father had quit being a tennis umpire and was peddling health supplements. Then I heard that he was working at a sporting goods store, and that he was learning how to hang wallpaper. Over the past twenty years, I had heard news of him only occasionally; then recently, a friend from my old neighborhood said he had seen Father in the street. It was near the South Guro day labor market, but he had changed so much that he nearly didn’t recognize him. When I did not respond, he touched his beer glass and said he must have been mistaken, murmuring, “I thought it was a bit strange,” and changed the subject.
Even after he had moved out, one of the things Father kept doing was to be part of events in our house. Just as someone blindfolded relies on his fingertips to recognize the name of an object, Father employed the form of “gifts” as he tried to deal with each important event in my life and commemorate it. To my knowledge, he did so even when he was having a really difficult time. After separating from Mother, Father regularly sent us maintenance support every month. In the first few years, it was one million won, then one day it went down to eight hundred thousand won. Later, I know it went down to five hundred thousand, and then to three hundred thousand. But he kept sending that money for a really long time. The last sum he sent was only a little more than twenty thousand won. Whenever the payment was going to be late, Father always warned Mother in advance. That’s the kind of person he was. Someone like a futon neatly folded on the far side of a room in the middle of winter. Someone upright, heavy, and rather inflexible. So, when I heard that Father had quit teaching because of some scandal or other and was coaching and umpiring in a tennis club in Gangnam, I reckoned the job would suit him very well.
After that, Father sent me an electronic dictionary when I graduated from high school, a tie when I entered graduate school, and a wristwatch when I started my military service. It was always extremely ordinary stuff that he had clearly taken great pains over. Things like a fountain pen everyone gives, a bouquet everyone gives, and so on. Among them, the red ginseng extract was the last gift I received from Father. So, if one day Father’s greetings tailed off, it was not because he had become indifferent, but because his son had reached an age when he had completed all the social rituals. It was because there was nothing left to cheer and celebrate in his life and mine. So, when Father recently contacted me asking to meet for the first time in several years, I naturally thought it was because he had heard of my wife’s pregnancy.
In Korea it was winter and in Thailand it was summer. Thais say they have three seasons, each with distinct characteristics, but for a Korean like me, this just felt like “normal summer,” “muggy summer” and “very hot summer” all together. Seated in a tour bus, I checked the Korean weather, news, stock prices and exchange rates on my smartphone. It’s January. Korea seemed to be as busy as ever despite the constant cold waves and heavy snowfall. On the other hand, the summer beyond the bus windows seemed quite laidback. It looked green, fertile and humid. And since I was in a foreign country looking at information written in my native language, I felt as though my hand was holding a snowball, not a smartphone. Inside the glass ball, a white blizzard raged, while outside it was high summer. It was a noisy, vibrant season. My wife scolded me for surfing the net after coming all this way. On her knees lay the skins of some monkey bananas she had eaten. My wife treated me as a smartphone addict, just as she did at home, but I had a reason for using international phone roaming services in Thailand, even on a family trip. There was a call I was expecting.
The previous year, I had been going out to a city in the suburbs three times each week. I taught a course each at a junior college and two private universities there. Among them, the “Cultural Theory Seminar” at one university began at 9 a.m., so I had to hurry and leave early. It was an hour from home to the Nambu Bus Terminal, then an hour and a half from the terminal to the city, fifteen minutes from the front gate of the school to the classroom, a round trip of more than five hours in all. On rainy days, I had to stand in a long queue at the school bus stop with the students, holding an umbrella. Sometimes, feeling awkward at being in the same bus with students taking my course, I used to linger for a while near the school before taking the bus. Even so, there were students on the bus who would greet me. It felt doubly awkward when we had to sit side by side on a crowded bus. Even though the road was the same, the journey back up to Seoul felt longer than that going down. It was even worse when I came back after class on Friday afternoons. When the highway was congested I often felt an urge to urinate. The moment I arrived at the Seoul bus terminal, I would head straight for the public restroom. Yet still the urge did not go away easily, and my bladder grew ever larger while I was on the subway. As soon as I got home, I quickly shucked off my shoes and headed for the bathroom. Then, without even closing the door, not knowing whether my wife was watching from behind or not, I would unfailingly pour out a great stream of urine.
First I became a budding lecturer in my alma mater, then started to lecture in other places here and there. Traveling to and fro, I was slightly disturbed on seeing the landscape spread out along the highway, even though I had traveled along it a few times on holiday trips. When the landscape could no longer simply be considered as landscape, when I started to feel that I was part of that landscape, I began to feel anxious. As a native of Seoul, I realized how accustomed I was to the “center” and how used I was to its benefits. And because of that, I was able to see clearly the extent to which I was moving away from the center.
When the sun went down, darkness quickly fell over the fields. Night seemed to come more rapidly in small rural towns than in Seoul. Once I had finished lecturing and boarded the bus home, my whole body relaxed. In addition, a strange feeling of excitement and alertness circulated in me, like the effect of some medicine. There were even times when I had the illusion that I could answer the most difficult question someone might ask. The darkness encountered along the road felt unfamiliar each time. Since it was dark outside, it was hard to tell where I was and how much farther I had to go to reach my destination. At such times, I would feel I had come somewhere very far away. The bus traversed a space that was at the same time “neither a city nor not a city.” Unsold apartments and outlets, greenhouses and factories, garden cemeteries and flower shops, restaurants offering clay-baked duck or grilled eel, and Provence-style motels went flying past. The seams joining the capital city and the provinces were as rough as those on pieces of cloth that had been hastily tacked together. Beyond the darkness, paddies and fields stretched monotonously. Then, when the bus reached the Seoul toll gate, an endless procession of cars suddenly appeared, extending tail-to-tail, like a lie. . Amid countless lights glowing red, we were sucked toward the city.
When I first started teaching eight years ago, I was excited like a new recruit at a company. I was released from the stuffy library and now I was hoping for some kind of social “activity,” reckoning I could gain some credit with my mother and my girlfriend. It was fun to create a fresh curriculum using contemporary pop songs and animated materials, and I didn’t mind the attitudes and intellectual tensions of the students who cast flattering looks on their unmarried “young lecturer.” There was the theatricality of lecturing itself, and it was a time when I even liked the excitement and the embarrassment that comes with a job where I had to talk in front of a crowd. School was school, and school being school, the fresh green colors were pretty in spring, and so were the orange colors in autumn. The students were students, they were innocent and hypersensitive at the same time, and there were times when they were exasperatingly arrogant or ignorant. In the campus floated a rich mixture of sexual eccentricity and moral superiority. In addition, a vague sense of defeat and helplessness hovered like heavy air, but the schools where students frequently took leave of absence or transferred to better schools were the worst. However, even the students at reputed universities were not so different either. Those who had experienced intense lectures at cramming academies in their teens were not much impressed by a lecturer’s hard work, either.
They were apathetic, like spectators who have grown used to watching great actors. They were even wearier than high school students, as they were weighed down with the heavy burdens of managing their credits, their part-time jobs, and their preparation for future employment. Of course, I also gradually lost much of the motivation and expectations I had felt as a new teacher. After class, I less often regretted mistakes I had made while lecturing, and I rarely woke my wife by muttering in my sleep words that I had failed to utter in the classroom. Yet, after serious conversations with the students, I still scold myself that it is good enough if I am a diligent lecturer, so why did I try to be a real teacher. Nowadays, I pretend not to be aware of students who are sleeping or using smartphones, I am not offended by rude questions, and I am more concerned about practical matters than relationships. Maybe I have come closer to being a “pro lecturer” in the way we talk of “pro baseball players” and “pro golfers.” Recently, however, I had a chance to occupy a position other than that of pro lecturer.
It was spring a year ago when I first met Professor Kwak. One day, while I was waiting for the bus in front of the school, I saw someone who looked like Professor Kwak walking up in my direction. He was the head of the Department of Cultural Contents, which had recently been established at the university. I had seen him speaking as a panelist on several TV shows. But I doubted he knew who I was. For a moment I hesitated whether or not to greet him, but he seemed glad to see me.
– Aren’t you Lee Jeong-woo?
I bowed awkwardly. Behind him I could see his teaching assistant and several students from the department. Their faces were flushed as though they had been drinking. Professor Kwak held out his hand, saying, “I’ve heard a lot about you from Professor Choi. How is he doing?” Then he glanced at the bus timetable and asked me, “Where do you live?” When I said Seoul, he asked me where in Seoul, and since he lived in Seocho-dong, he offered me a lift in his car to Nambu Bus Terminal.
I sat silently in the passenger seat with my knees together as he started the engine.
– What’s that by the way?
He looked at the box of tonic drinks tucked under my legs.
– Did the students give you that?
– Why, yes.
As I fastened the seat belt, I asked him, “It seems you’ve been drinking, are you okay?” Professor Kwak replied, “Just one glass, along with lunch. Don’t worry. I can drive home with my eyes closed. In fact, I was intending to go on to a second round, but nowadays, students seem to be busier than professors, so it’s hard to insist.” I did not show it, but in fact I was very glad to be sitting there with him. Actually, I had visited his office earlier that day but had gone away again on finding his door locked.
– Still, I think it’s an age to be able to listen to people properly.
– What do you mean?
The students. They treat me as a professor. I don’t
know if they’re just pretending
to listen to me. Even if it’s similar, it’s different
from what I do. When
professors chatter away while we’re out drinking, I
only listen vaguely. Hmm, that’s
boring. Hmm, that’s worth
remembering. I listen to the things I choose to
listen to. But the students
are not like that. Even when they keep listening to
the same boring talk, they put
more effort into showing their boredom as well as
I did not think it would be polite to listen in silence, so I interjected a passive remark.
– That’s right.
– You agree? That’s youth. Being an adult is nothing extraordinary. It just means getting on well with people we don’t like. Isn’t that right, Mr. Lee?
What should I say in such a situation? If I agreed, I’d look like a hypocrite, and if I disagreed, I’d seem to be putting on airs. While I was debating inwardly, Professor Kwak went on speaking.
– It’s not a matter of likes and dislikes, it’s a duty. You just have to think you’re doing your share, playing your role. Those who have only one scale for measuring people are hopeless. They’re really tiring.
I was unsure of what the context was but assumed he was pursuing the previous topic, so I replied.
– It’s because they’re still so young.
– No, I mean the professors.
Professor Kwak was someone who talked without any sequence of ideas. Seen positively, he spoke intuitively, and seen negatively, he seemed arbitrary. Either he had always lived in an environment where he lost nothing by taking no notice of what others thought, or else he had a personality that chattered as a way of taking revenge on what he had lost out on. However, it was not that he was simply garrulous, for when he relaxed and threw down a high card, he was like an expert. Professor Kwak said that he was friendly with professors of science and technology, that people on that side were less likely to be twisted, which he liked. They seem to read books as we do, but being without resentment they are comfortable to be with, he said. I suspected that it too was some kind of illusion, but did not say so. The topic veered naturally to the culture circles. Professor Kwak repeated some gossip and impressionistic criticism about various people, then grew agitated when the name of a scholar I too knew came up. “I know what that guy’s really like,” he began, and explained how base and power-hungry he was. “So, Mr. Lee, in the future, please be careful of people who drool, pretending to shoot negative glares.”
– They criticize elegantly, as though they’re being fair, but in fact….
Professor Kwak muttered viciously as though talking to himself.
– They’re so envious it makes them sick.
Professor Kwak was a good driver. There was no telling whether it was because the car was a good one or because of his inborn driving skills. At least, he was skilled enough to get to Seoul with his eyes closed. He asked me how I usually got to school.
– I had a car before but when my lectures were cut, I got rid of it.
Professor Kwak seemed not unduly surprised as he asked, “Then how did you survive?” I replied, “I just did somehow.” And I felt grateful that he was “not unduly surprised.” Whatever the topic was, his attitude, that demanded neither sincerity nor reward, was frank and masterly. I gazed out at the fields and paddies spreading beyond the window. It still being early spring, the mountains and fields were hardly green. Not long after we left the university campus we got stuck in traffic and Professor Kwak tapped on the steering wheel with his hand, “I hate wasting money on the roads.” He looked restless and ill-humored, then said, “There’s a way round at times like this,” as he turned the wheel.
– Now I’m enjoying driving.”
Professor Kwak pressed the accelerator and spoke in a more relaxed voice. He seemed to be indicating his satisfaction, having said all that he wanted to say in the first part of the journey. For the first time since we set out, a drowsy silence settled briefly between Professor Kwak and me. Professor Kwak hummed quietly as he turned up the volume of his audio player. Swing jazz of the 1940s flowed out of the hi-fi speakers. It was music that I too enjoyed listening to. Professor Kwak kept time with his head. Through the windshield, I could see a large crane looming over unfinished apartment blocks and bleak plains, like a long-necked fossil dinosaur. I noticed a greenhouse complex where the red fruit destined to be shipped to the city was ripening, as well as a self-service motel built in the style of a medieval European castle. As I listened to jazz amidst the smell of new leather in a comfortable car, I began to feel that the boring scenery beyond the window was a more or less acceptable background to life. Was it a familiar sense of life for Professor Kwak? Anyway, I wondered what this person who liked to judge people so much might say about me in front of others. Then Professor Kwak asked me about the atmosphere in the department and whether the attitudes and responses of the students were at all negative.
– But our students are good kids, aren’t they?
– Yes, of course.
– I’m sure they’re good. And so are the teachers.
Professor Kwak smiled oddly and said, as if giving me an extra point.
– By the way, I’m glad you don’t say the air here is good.
Some time passed. Suddenly Professor Kwak slammed on the brakes. My body was thrown forward and shaken from side to side. Professor Kwak stayed frozen for a moment, gripping the wheel. He looked confused and shocked, as though he thought he had hit something but did not know what it was. Pulling himself together, the first thing he did was take out a throat pastille from the glove compartment beside the steering wheel with almost animal stealth. As soon as I heard the crunching sound as he chewed up the pastille, the thought struck me that maybe it had not been “just one glass, along with lunch.”
A young girl was lying on the road. The child looked dazed, in a state of shock. At the same time, she seemed pretty calm, but when he said, “You should go to the hospital,” she insisted, “First I want to phone my mom.” There was a little blood on one knee under the school uniform, but fortunately she seemed not to be seriously injured. Professor Kwak’s face expressed relief. While the child was talking to her mother, Professor Kwak called me to the side of the road. He was hesitant, saying, “What’s to be done about this, what should I do?” It was spring, but the wind struck a chill. Every time a big lorry passed by, there was a blast of dusty wind and noise. Some drivers showed an interest in the scene beside the road and poked their heads out of their window to look at us. Seeming embarrassed by the stares of the onlookers, Professor Kwak had his back to the road as he looked at me. Then he started to explain that this was the first time such a thing had happened to him, that he was coming up for promotion soon, it was a very difficult situation.
– Mr. Lee, this incident….
– This accident, I mean, this car….
– Could you possibly say that you were driving?
“Right, we’ll soon reach Coral Island. Now, everybody enjoys the sea, right?”
The guide holding the mike spoke cheekily.
– But when you’re traveling, have you noticed how there’s always one negative character in every group? At each new destination, someone pipes up: Ugh, I’ll just stay put, I’ve always disliked drinking, I never enjoy eating, I hate crowds, it’s hot, it’s expensive, I’m not doing it.
Quiet laughter filled the bus.
– But when will we ever come here again? Once we arrive at Coral Island, don’t just do nothing, at least drink some seawater. That’s a payoff that will remain.
– Stand over there.
My mother stared at the camera as she turned forty-five degrees. She showed the awkward rigidity of a generation that has never had landscapes as a background.
– Look this way.
A low cloud could be seen hanging behind her back. Between the gray clouds hundreds of multicolored parachutes were floating, beautiful and mysterious. Perhaps because the day was cloudy, the parachutes looked like a swarm of jellyfish sunk in pessimism. Over there, the mothers in our group were already racing toward the sea, after throwing off their tops. In contrast to the brightly colored bathing suits, varicose veins under their skin struck the eye. One, who had square medicated patches stuck to both knees, was even sporting a bikini. As they poured water over each other, Mother cast an envious look at those other mothers, who had been planning this trip for a long time while they worked together at Yeongdeungpo Market. My quick-witted wife pulled Mother this way and that on an inflated tube. At that, she smiled brightly like a child. I stayed in the shallow part, with only my feet under water, and diligently photographed the two of them. All the while, I kept worrying about the mobile phone I had left in my bag, in case I got a call from the university. I turned my gaze toward the beach, pretending to be checking the pictures I’d taken. Far away, I could see our guide in sunglasses lounging under a parasol, keeping watch over our belongings and happily downing a fizzy drink.
I had been saving up for an overseas trip, two hundred thousand won a month for two years. Mother had turned sixty the previous October. But since I was busy with classes, I delayed the trip until January. So, from Mother’s point of view, this trip was her sixtieth birthday celebration, though it was taking place when she was sixty-one years old. We arrived in Bangkok after midnight on the first day after our departure. As we made our way through the smoke and humidity surrounding the airport terminal and boarded our tour bus, we found other people who had selected the same tour package as ourselves already in their places. There were three separate groups apart from us—the cluster of mothers working in Yeongdeungpo who had pooled their savings for this holiday, a middle-aged couple sporting the same sandals as their children, and a young couple who made it clear that they were “about to get married,” though nobody asked. From the first day, whenever she had a chance, Mother boasted that her son was a professor. No matter how much I shook my hands in denial, she persisted, “It’s the same as, anyway.”
The tour package we had chosen was called “Four nights, five days, with three nights’ sleep-over.” It was a conventional tour schedule, eating at pre-selected restaurants, riding designated rides, buying things we did not need, getting a traditional massage just when slight dissatisfaction and fatigue were setting in, eating Korean food, kimchi stew or pork belly, once a day. We encountered a non-standard reality, which was like a fake crystal set in our ordinary lives, and waved to each other as we parted again after spending all our money. Still, it was good. The trip was for Mother’s sake, not for my wife and me. Fortunately, Mother did not grow weary and always kept up with the guide’s pace. Of course, her habitual criticizing and constant complaining about other people remained unchanged. Sometimes I was embarrassed by what I heard. Previously, Mother had always tried to tell as many people as possible what a terrible man her husband was. Once it seemed to me that she was determined to make everyone hate Father first so that she alone would love him. After separating from Father, she changed the target of her criticism to the people around her: I don’t know why that woman does her hair that way, that guy eats so vulgarly, how can she dress her children like that? She tried to maintain her pride by picking on the minor defects of others. It was only when she emerged after a complete, two-hour-long Wat Pho massage with a face bright as the sky after rain clouds have cleared and said, “I don’t know how long it’s been since anyone touched my body for such a long time,” adding, “The girl touched me for so long I nearly fell in love with her,” that I thought for the first time that we had done well to come to Thailand.
The schedule was generally satisfactory. Today, after sightseeing on Coral Island, we were going to see kickboxing and a snake show at an open-air bar in the evening. In the bus returning to the hotel, Mother was overcome by fatigue after playing in the water and nodded off. The guide showed his professionalism by starting a quiz to relieve the tedium.
– Now, when Thai people go to Korea, there’s something they make sure they eat. What is it? I’ll give a present to the first one with the right answer.
I glanced at my phone in case the school had called. There were three missed calls and one text message. My heart pounded briefly, but on seeing the sender I felt disappointed. He had already called I don’t know how many times. My wife leaned toward me.
– Who was it?
– Wrong, sorry.
– You still haven’t made up your mind?
– Shouldn’t you answer quickly?
– Pork belly!
– Yes or no. Won’t that do as a reply?
– No, wrong again.
– I have to consider the situation.
– Kimchi stew!
– Nothing from the school yet?
– Ah, that’s a pity.
– Why not look at the school homepage?
– I’ve already looked.
turned my eyes
back to the phone and reread Father’s messages.
Jeong-woo, call me when you
have time. Jeong-woo, call me when you see this
message. Jeong-woo, are you busy?
Messages that had previously only come very rarely had
recently been arriving more
than once each day. I jumped every time the phone
vibrated because of the other
call I was waiting for. Feeling confused, I looked
through the window. I could
hear someone at the front of the bus shouting, “The
The previous fall, I was given an extra lecture at the university. But I reckoned that it had little to do with “that incident.” Professor Kwak was promoted to full professor without any problem, and I continued my life as before. There was no particular change as a result of the accident. I got a penalty point on my driver’s license, but I did not have a car anyway, and the insurance was covered by Professor Kwak. I ate a couple of times with Professor Kwak after my class was over. As he refilled my glass, Professor Kwak would say, “I owe you a lot.” From time to time in bed my wife would ask ominously:
– Honey, that girl.
– What girl?
– The one that was hit by the car and you said was fine.
– What about her?
– You said there was really nothing wrong with her, didn’t you?
– But suppose she has problems later? The consequences of a traffic accident can show up years afterward. Then we really….
– No, it’s not going to happen.
When I was on my way back home from lecturing, I often looked at my face reflected in the bus window. At such times, I would think that the “past” did not go away and disappear but kept bubbling up and leaking out. I had a feeling that the people who had passed by me in my life, the times I had experienced, and the emotions I had felt all played a part in the look in my eyes, were part of my appearance. Never disappearing, they remained as an expression on my face, a form of atmosphere, and came oozing out from deep inside my guts like air. Especially after summarizing in an unsatisfying manner the emotions that cannot be simply cleared up after some incident. After “that incident,” I realized that my expression had subtly changed. At such times, I really thought that I had “eaten up” my past. Digesting it, disposing of it was still in progress.
Shortly after the start of the semester, there was a notice of the upcoming appointment of a professor at the university’s Department of Cultural Contents. After finishing the day’s classes, I headed for Professor Kwak’s office. Not wanting to go empty-handed, I bought a box of red ginseng extract and went and knocked on his door.
– This is for you.
Oh, you shouldn’t have bought something like this.
I’ll accept it anyway, since
you’ve brought it. But actually, my body has a lot of
natural heat so that
ginseng is not good for me.
Professor Kwak offered me some high-quality Pu-erh tea that he had bought during a business trip to China, then waited for my reaction, explaining how endless the world of tea is, far more so than the world of audio players and fountain pens.
– Oh, it’s really good.
Wishing to appear not overly dramatic, yet at the same time sincere, I deliberately answered in a low voice, but he shrugged his shoulders.
– That’s nothing special.
Professor Kwak slowly raised his cup to his lips.
– Something really good, something truly good. Something that most people will never know about. Aren’t you amazed at the thought that such a thing might exist somewhere in the world, Mr. Lee?
I replied, although I really had no idea what something really good, something truly good, might be. I vaguely thought of the music, the movies, the liquor that I liked and reckoned I might have experienced something quite close at least. Professor Kwak asked how my former teacher, Professor Choi, was and made similar remarks. Then, unexpectedly, the appointment came up, but with an odd expression on his face, Professor Kwak merely laughed cheerfully and said, “You seem to be tense, but just prepare with an easy mind.” Embarrassed, I wrapped both hands round the cup for no reason. The warmth of the small tea cup warmed my hands. As I slowly drank the tea I looked around the room. Whether because I liked the way the books surrounded me like the bricks in the tomb of King Muryeong, or because the tea was sweet, strangely enough I felt I did not want to leave the room.
I had met Father a few days before coming to Thailand. It was while I was waiting for the result of the interview after I had submitted my application for the position, that I had prepared with the utmost care, and given a sample lecture. Father said he wanted to meet me and talk about something. It was the first time I would see him since my wedding five years earlier. I had a slightly ominous feeling, but I reckoned that surely he could not be so bad a person. It was an appointment I was not obliged to keep, but I was rather hoping that maybe he might want to apologize to me. By this time it was too late for explanations, but I wanted to hear what he had to say. Maybe just as, a long time ago, he had given me a fountain pen and sent me a tie, now he might want to do something for his as yet unborn grandchild.
Father looked older than before. Perhaps I looked the same in my father’s eyes. He may have seen eyes where the brightness had grown dim, a mouth loaded with subjective opinions and prejudice, an impression of being trapped in what I had gone through while relying on experience. It was to ask for money that my father wanted to see me. I had gone out thinking “it couldn’t be that” but that was the reason. He wouldn’t say exactly how much he needed. “Just whatever your situation allows…” he said vaguely. And he wouldn’t say exactly what he wanted the money for. What my situation allows? Does Father know what a lecturer earns these days? His impudence was so breathtaking, his hesitation so stifling that I spoke first. I wanted to finish talking as soon as possible and get away.
Are you sick?
Father slowly nodded. So that was it. Of course. And he can’t just ask for a gift, so he asks for a loan. As if he’ll ever be able to repay it. Instead of compassion, I felt irritation rising. So finally, unlike myself, I spat out words that, as I recall them now, were very disrespectful and coarse.
– What, have you got cancer or something?
Father nodded again. Without thinking, I gave a bitter laugh. “Cancer?” I thought, “You’re indeed living a typical life, I see...” Then I asked in tones as businesslike as possible so that he would not nourish vain expectations.
Father licked his parched lips before he spoke again.
– No. It’s not me. It’s her.
“Right, we’re about to arrive at the latex factory. You don’t have to buy anything, just look around at your leisure. Especially when husbands come to a place like this, they keep looking up at the sky and asking where the smoking room is. They keep rushing me, asking when it’ll be over. Don’t be like them, go in and lie on a bed once, hug the pillows. It really feels different.”
The middle-aged man wearing sandals of the same design as his children raised a hand and asked.
– Do they take dollars at the factory?
The guide responded gaily.
– Yes, of course. They take everything except North Korean money. Now, in you go, enjoy it if you can, steal something if you can.
We left the bus and went into a large container building. There a factory employee led us into a small room, like a conference room, instead of taking us straight to the display space. He then used various visuals to explain the importance of sleep, which accounts for a third of our lifetime. He invited one of us to come forward, and after asking her to lie down on a mattress which had a ballpoint pen lying underneath it, received an assurance that she could feel no discomfort. The next step was for everyone to stroll freely around the display hall and select objects freely. The Yeongdeungpo mothers lay down on the various beds and moaned, “Aigo, so good,” “Aigo.” Mother and my wife each chose a mattress and lay looking up at the ceiling, laughing as if they could see the stars. It seemed that accumulated fatigue made a short rest yet sweeter. Just at the right time, factory employees distributed little paper cups of iced coffee for free. I asked my wife to excuse me for a moment and came outside. I smoked two cigarettes in front of the factory, then called Professor Kwak. It was my first call since the interview. I practiced my prepared speech in my head and started on a third cigarette. After the ringing tone had gone on for a while, there was a message that I would be connected to the voicemail box. I felt sorry and relieved at the same time. After stubbing out the cigarette on the ground I returned to the factory entrance. At that moment, I felt the phone vibrating in my pocket. My heart leaped despite myself.
– Ah yes. That’s right.
– Ah… Just leave it with the security guard.
My wife purchased a latex pillow for our not-yet-born baby and a mattress for Mother. I pulled out a fountain pen from my jacket pocket and wrote out the shipping directions. Just then, the phone vibrated again. It was a number I knew. I grabbed the phone and went outside, while my wife watched me from afar with eyes full of an anxiety and expectation she could not hide.
– Ah, yes. Teacher.
It was Professor Choi, of my alma mater. It was he who had been my doctoral thesis advisor, and who had introduced me to the university where I was now lecturing. He said he was sorry to be late, he called as soon as he saw he had missed my call. He seemed concerned though I had called primarily just to say hello. But during the conversation, he kept saying things that seemed intended to “console” me. Then, perhaps finding my responses rather strange, he asked, “Haven’t you heard?” adding, “There’ll be other chances, don’t be discouraged.” His voice seemed to indicate obvious signs of embarrassment. Pulling myself together, I uttered a few words of thanks and was about to end the call when he cautiously asked.
– But did you upset him in some way?
– Upset him?
– Yes, I was wondering if there was some kind of problem between the two of you.
– No, there’s nothing of that kind.
– Professor Kim from here participated as an external committee member. It seems that Professor Kwak opposed hiring you strongly. He told me to keep it to myself.
“Mom, stand over there... Mom, look this way.”
I took the last pictures of Mother at the departure lounge in the airport before we boarded the plane. The lights along the runway outside the window were beautiful. Mother looked at me and smiled. Deep wrinkles in the middle of her forehead added a parched element to the formal smile. The square frame on the screen of the smartphone expanded and contracted as it focused itself. I composed the shot so that the airplane wing would be on Mother’s right side. Then I held my breath and at the same time as I pressed the button, I heard a buzzing sound. It was the sign that a text message had arrived. At the same moment, a rectangular window opened at the top of the display. I said nothing.
– What’s the matter?
– But why are you looking like that?
– It’s nothing.
I looked at my phone again nonchalantly. I saw both the square frame that held Mother’s face and a text message window that had not yet disappeared. It was a message from Father. Since the sender was Father, I assumed that the contents would be predictable but it was a collective message. It was a bare death announcement, devoid of rhetoric, urgency, expression or feeling. The name of the deceased, the date of the funeral, and the location of the funeral hall were simply displayed on my phone.
The cabin crew handed around customs declaration forms and immigration cards. I lowered the folding table in front of me and pulled out the fountain pen from my jacket pocket. For a long time I had left it in my desk but once I became a “pro” adult, I started writing with it for purely practical reasons. After I began lecturing, I had to sign a lot of documents. I remembered that I had a good writing instrument, so I opened the drawer and took out the fountain pen. Then, like many people with their own writing instruments, I first wrote my name on a sheet of paper. Later, each time I had to sign an important document—when I opened a new bank account, when I submitted my marriage registration, when I signed a lease for an apartment, and so on—I used the fountain pen. So, when I had to sign the report at the police station a few days after experiencing “that incident” with Professor Kwak, I automatically took out the pen from my inside pocket. Then, before signing the deposition, I put the pen back in my pocket and wrote my name with the cheap ballpen lying on the desk.
On the day I met Father, the day he came all the way to my neighborhood to borrow money from me, he got a phone call from someone. He stretched out his arm as far as he could to check the caller’s name. At that I was a little shocked that Father was seeing things “that way” because I realized that the young Father, who had left us such a long time ago, left because of “another woman,” had become long-sighted from age. My father frowned as he struggled to read the number. He did not notice that I was staring at the picture on the phone screen. The two people in the photo were wearing hiking gear. Father and the woman were looking at the camera cheek-to-cheek. Behind them, I could see a clear sky and multi-layered mountain peaks bright with autumn leaves in every direction. “You two seem to have climbed up to the very top….”
I felt a mixture of envy and mockery, as I reflected, “Mountain climbing? You’re indeed living a typical life.” I laughed bitterly. However, I could not take my eyes off the faces of the two people in the fall scenery. Somehow, they seemed like people who know that good things pass quickly, that such moments do not come often, and even if they come they are easily missed.
As I recalled the message on the phone, I thought of winter inside a glass ball. Inside the ball, white snow flutters, while outside it’s high summer, and I imagined the time difference someone might be experiencing. Through the window I could see the lights of the foreign land fading away. I stared blankly at my face reflected in the window of the airplane, then put on the sleep shades and pushed my seat back. I was determined not to think of anything for as long as the six hours’ journey back to Korea lasted. I breathed slowly, trying to get to sleep, but something hot was rising up inside of me, which I couldn’t tell was gas or fluid. I swallowed dry spit and calmly repressed it. Then, in my heart, I muttered, “I have never wanted anything for free.” Over the roar of the plane’s engines, I heard a voice shouting “double fault” at me.