Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Published in Koreana: Korean
Culture & Arts (The Korea Foundation) Vol.
34, No. 4 Winter 2020, pages
(Text in PDF
Won-hee had worked at the bank at the crossroads until the previous June. She walked to work and every Friday she bought flowers on her way home. The flowers she bought – sometimes a small bunch of hydrangeas, sometimes a single sunflower – she placed in a plain glass vase which she put on the table. It was her own private ritual that set the weekend apart from other days and made it fragrant.
Even after she stopped going to work, she did not give up buying flowers on Friday afternoons. On one occasion, Sang-ryul pointed out her changed circumstances and mentioned the extravagant habit that recurred every week. Then she said:
“But flowers are so beautiful. I need something beautiful.”
Now she was attending an academy and learning semi-permanent makeup. She loved it and her hands were fast. But money was a problem. Her savings had soon run out. She didn’t know how long she would have to wait before receiving her license and getting a job. To save money on lunch, she carried a lunch box that left a smell of food in her bag.
Today, too, she bought flowers at the store in front of the bus stop. It was the first Friday of January. When she got home, the lights were off and Sang-ryul was not there. It seemed that he was late leaving work. She poured water into the vase, put in three pale pink tulips, and placed it on the table. She wiped her wet hands on an apron she had thrown over a chair. Then she glanced around the quiet house. It felt strange to think that she would soon be moving out. They were supposed to visit the real estate agent tomorrow morning. It gave her a headache.
insistence on moving to a place with two
rooms was reasonable. He went to bed at 10 p.m. and
desperately needed quality
sleep. But 10 p.m. was too early for Won-hee.
One evening, when she thought he was asleep, he suddenly jumped up, pulled off his sleep mask, and said in a low voice:
can’t live like this anymore.”
He said he had put up with it as long as he could, but he could not bear living in a one-room studio any longer. He said it should be possible for one of them to stay up late if they wanted, while the other one slept quietly in the other room, and in the morning, when one was still sleeping, for the other to clatter about making breakfast. This upset Won-hee a bit for she took it to mean that he didn’t love her as much as before, but she didn’t say so. If she had said that, he would have been angry. Or he would have sighed and told her not to be stupid. So they went around looking at places, and finally the kind of thing he wanted came up. They found it after several weeks spent visiting different real estate agents. As soon as the broker opened the door, Sang-ryul couldn’t hide his excitement.
“This is good, isn’t it?”
It had a small room, a kitchen and a large room, all lined up like a train. It wasn’t very bright. The sun came into the big room, but even at 2 p.m. the kitchen and small room were dark. A bigger problem was that it had no furnishings. They would even have to buy a gas range. Still, it was a place where the space was divided as Sang-ryul wanted, and in many ways, it was the best that could be found in their circumstances. That seemed clear to her, too. Sang-ryul said that he would bear the cost of buying furniture. She could no longer object. How could she object? To Sang-ryul, who said they needed to move, how could she say, “I like it the way we are now,” or “It’s because of my mother.” Even she found it unconvincing. Besides, it sounded presumptuous. Because of her mother? Her mother didn’t understand the way they lived and had no influence on their lives.
They turned off the light early and lay down. However, Won-hee didn’t fall asleep. Her mother’s voice rang in her ears. She had called that morning. It wasn’t the usual time for her mother to call.
“Won-hee, I had a dream, that you were up on a rock.”
Her mother’s voice was trembling, full of anxiety. A phone call from her at that time of day never brought good news. Won-hee closed her eyes and breathed in, suppressing her irritation.
“You were up on some mountain. Maybe Mt. Yangeul? The rock was shaking and dangerous, but you didn’t know, you were standing on it and smiling as you looked at me. You didn’t even know it was dangerous, you were very excited and smiling. I was trying to tell you to be careful, to come down from there quickly, but strangely enough I couldn’t say a word. I was panicking, unable to say a word, I struggled, then I woke up. Is something wrong with you? Where are you now?”
Her mother’s anxiety passed through the handset and flowed into her blood. Won-hee repressed her emotions. She mustn’t show any signs of agitation.
“Mom, it’s not because something has happened to me that you dream that kind of dream, it’s because you think something is going to happen to me.”
“You think so?”
Her mother replied, sounding unconvinced.
“I’m sure of it.”
“That’s good, then…”
“It is. Please don’t worry about me.”
Sang-ryul was asleep beside her, breathing evenly. She was lying in the dark listening to the sound. My thoughts are so complicated, yet this guy is sleeping so well. Sang-ryul made her feel resentful. Should she make the effort to move house? If she moved, her mom would come to see, but how would she explain living in such a spacious place all by herself? Hard-pressed after quitting her job, why and with what money had she moved somewhere bigger? Her family didn’t know she was living with Sang-ryul. It gave her a headache just to think about it. It was beyond the scope of the misfortunes her mother could imagine. Living with a man without getting married! But that wasn’t the only thing her mom didn’t know.
The price she had to pay for living with Sang-ryul was more than he could imagine. However, she had never been able to properly explain her feelings to him. Rather, at some point she had begun to conceal her suffering. She didn’t want him to feel guilty. It wasn’t necessary. “I am an adult,” she kept telling herself. But she knew what it meant to her mother. The very thought left her feeling drained. Just to think about it, while walking down the street or when putting eyelashes on the face of an indifferent mannequin, sapped the strength out of her. Once she had tried to explain it to Sang-ryul. Then, Sang-ryul had said:
“Let’s go see your parents and tell them. They’ll understand. In this situation, what else can we do? How do your parents think you’re paying the rent anyway?”
He wasn’t wrong. They should explain the situation and seek her parents’ understanding. It was the right and proper way. Obviously, that was why she loved Sang-ryul. His reasonable thinking, his ability to look at things objectively. However, her family were by no means people capable of judging things by rational thinking. They didn’t know how to look at or admit their situation objectively. If Sang-ryul believed things could be solved that way, it was because he didn’t know anything about her family. What moved her family were the beliefs, taboos and strong sense of reputation shared by their group. These were entangled and indistinguishable, creating everyday fears. Fear of life. She had long been struggling to get away from the vague fear and horror that were holding her mother captive, and had never been able to explain to Sang-ryul properly that her whole life was a process of trying to escape from that.
It had started when she came to Seoul. How she’d had to fight for that. Leaving her mother, her heart ached. But on the first evening, as she left the dormitory to go to the convenience store and crossed the wide-open campus, she reckoned it had been worth it. Until then, she had never gone out in the evening without a reason.
As the cost of breathing the night air that made her heart tremble with excitement, her mother went to dawn prayers at her church every morning. In the meantime, if she didn’t answer the phone once, in her mother’s imagination, she was being taken to the hospital in a race against time after a car accident, or had died after something even worse.
“How evil and terrifying the world is,” her mother would say.
When she finally answered the phone, her mother would be crying. Such incidents drove her crazy. After establishing that her daughter was safe, her mother became extremely angry, but when she realized that her daughter was even more angry, she grew confused and hesitant. Her mom used to say:
“It’s because I worry about you, because I think of you. You don’t realize what the world is like.”
On her summer break in her final year of school, she went backpacking in Europe on her own. Once, midway through, in a guesthouse in Barcelona, she called home when there was nobody around. Her mother cried, telling her not to go wandering around.
“Mom, I’m traveling. Why would I have come to Europe if I didn’t mean to go wandering outside?”
She laughed as she spoke, but she nearly wept. In fact, she didn’t enjoy traveling and didn’t really want to be there. But she woke up early each morning and doggedly kept wandering around until sunset. She wanted to prove to herself that she could go wherever she wanted, and that nothing would happen, and that there was no power in sinister premonitions or dreams. Yet ultimately, she also had such fears inside herself. In the end, she didn’t enjoy the trip, but she didn’t die, either.
The next day, they went to the real estate agent’s in front of the subway station. The broker welcomed Sang-ryul and Won-hee. She was a woman in her mid-thirties, with long hair tied back tightly, revealing a round head like a ping pong ball. She seemed gloomy, so Won-hee didn’t like her at first. However, after spending half a day visiting houses together, she realized that she was a very meticulous and competent broker.
They had to go through another agency to sign the contract for the house. The broker called the agency before leaving. Previously, too, when they had viewed the house, she had called them first. She said that the broker at Bokji Real Estate – that was its name – looked as old as the exterior of the office and equally old-fashioned; she said that the woman had been there for twenty years and had been doing business with the deceased landlord for that length of time.
“Please write the contract in advance. Don’t wait for us to arrive before you start writing. Okay? Am I being clear?”
The broker spoke on the phone while half out of her seat, and her voice was so curt that it sounded rude. Won-hee and Sang-ryul sat side by side on the sofa. The manager was standing next to the water purifier, drinking coffee from a paper cup and looking at them with a cheerful expression. The manager, who looked to be in her late forties, said casually:
“That old woman can’t use a computer.”
After hanging up the phone, the broker picked up her cell phone and a thick notebook, remarking:
“They must be the only people left that don’t use computers.”
“Did she say she’d write the contract?”
The manager asked.
“She said she would, we’ll find out when we get there.”
She laughed testily.
“Chief, are you going out now? Please drop us off at the Bokji office on the way.”
The manager picked up the car key. Sang-ryul and Won-hee followed her as she headed to the door.
“Wait a minute. I haven’t had my coffee yet.”
The broker put her notebook under her arm, turned to the water purifier by the door, and quickly made herself a coffee. Sang-ryul and Won-hee got into the back seat of the manager’s car and watched the broker come hurrying out holding a paper cup.
“Oh, damn it,”
She cursed as she sat down in the passenger seat. She seemed to have spilled some.
“You can have another when we get there,” Won-hee said, as if concerned.
The broker looked at her in the mirror and said:
“We brokers never drink other real estate agents’ coffee.”
As the manager drove, they bantered merrily.
“Never do that.”
“Ah, I guess you have your ways,” Sang-ryul chimed in.
“Of course. Take note when you’re going around. Is there a weakling of a broker who would go to another estate agent’s office and drink coffee?”
“But is there even a water purifier in the Bokji office?”
The broker asked, as if the thought suddenly struck her.
“Chief, have you seen a water purifier there?”
“No idea. Probably not.”
The manager dropped them off at the crossroads. They went into the real estate agent’s next to a supermarket. As the broker aggressively opened the door, instead of a greeting, she asked curtly:
“You’ve written the contract, right?”
“Come on in.”
The elderly broker sat bolt upright at her desk and greeted them with a smile. They had already noticed it before; her kindly smile and relaxed attitude could not be shaken by anything. The old lady looked benevolently at the younger broker, who was thirty or forty years her junior, as if she were a little puppy barking fiercely. Even when her mouth wasn’t smiling, her eyes were arched behind her steel-framed glasses. There was an old-fashioned cabinet behind the glass-covered desk, and the bookcase was full of faded yellow envelopes.
“I wrote it, of course I wrote it.”
Their broker picked up the document and smiled faintly. It was a sheet of paper on which lines had been drawn and the text written with a ballpoint pen. The place where Sang-ryul and Won-hee were to live was a three-story red brick building that had been built nearly twenty years earlier. It was the only property of a couple who had bought it with the money they had saved all their lives, to provide an income that would support them in their later years. The old owner would only take 300,000 won per month. He said that if they asked for more, young people would never be able to save money and buy their own home, the elderly broker explained.
“He was a wonderful person, that old man.”
As if grieving, she looked upward for a moment and murmured quietly. In the summer two years ago, the old man had passed away. The elderly widow had handed over the building and tenant management to her eldest son. However, the eldest son had lowered the deposit and raised the monthly rent to 500,000 won without his mother’s knowledge, but the old lady eventually found it out. So far, their broker had been watching the older broker irritably, but she calmly ignored the signal by not giving a glance in her direction. Her attitude didn’t change, as if she thought it was her mission as a broker to tell new tenants the history of the building.
Eventually, the family of the third son moved into the fourth floor where the old couple had lived. The elderly owner went down to the first floor. The old person living in unit 101, the closest to the entrance, was the owner.
“From the beginning, the owners trusted the third son the most. The third son has good character and knows how to operate machines.”
It was lucky for them, in any case, because the rent was cheap. Just then, the door opened and a middle-aged couple entered the office. They bowed deeply to the elderly broker, as if to a senior relative, then turned to Sang-ryul and Won-hee. They were the third son and his wife.
“I clearly told her the appointment was Saturday, but it looks like my mother has gone to the bathhouse.”
They were very embarrassed.
“Oh, she must have gone for a bath.”
The old broker clacked her tongue.
“Yes, I told her yesterday, but she must have forgotten. We should have brought her with us. If you’d like, you can meet her later...”
They looked at Sang-ryul and Won-hee alternately as if they had made a big mistake and didn’t know what to do. Sang-ryul and Won-hee said it was okay.
“Yes, it’s okay even if your mother isn’t here. It’s her son who will be signing anyway.”
The elderly broker introduced Sang-ryul and Won-hee to the couple.
“You know I don’t take on just any one. How could I look your mother in the face if took on someone suspicious and the rent ended up overdue? How could I? Absolutely not. These two people have passed my face-reading test. I can see that they are straightforward people who won’t be late with the rent but will pay on time.”
The couple smiled and nodded as if to show they agreed. Won-hee suddenly couldn’t raise her head.
A little while before, the scene had begun to feel uncomfortable. Moreover, the broker’s words no longer reached her ears. She felt as if she were growing smaller, losing herself. It was a feeling from long ago, but she didn’t know what to do because it came as a surprise. She felt helpless, as if she had become a child. Sometimes this happened in front of an important adult. When standing in front of faultless people from a good background who had been raised with a good education. She foresaw that a question would soon arise, and she tried to prepare her own expression and feelings beforehand.
Won-hee watched the thick hand – good at repairing things – of the third son signing the contract. He held a ballpoint pen and wrote his name. Kang Jun-mo. Great strength could be sensed in the hand holding the pen. Sang-ryul also looked impressed by the hand. Finally, the elderly broker put two copies of the contract side by side on the glass-covered table and asked Sang-ryul to sign them.
After completing all the procedures, she asked politely:
“But how do you two… Are you newlyweds?”
Sang-ryul put down the pen and raised his head.
At that moment, Won-hee replied.
“Yes. We’re newlyweds.”
Sang-ryul looked at her. Their broker, who was sitting on a round chair to one side, looked at Sang-ryul and Won-hee. She hadn’t asked them anything like that.
After leaving Bokji Real Estate, they parted from their broker. They took a bus and got off four stops later. Sang-ryul said nothing of what had happened shortly before. He didn’t ask why she had responded that way, and he didn’t seem to care. Sang-ryul wasn’t the kind of person to keep such trivial things – it had clearly been trivial to him – in mind. He probably thought such questions could be answered any way that seemed fit. Maybe he had already forgotten about it.
There was a store dealing in second-hand appliances and furniture just a short way in from the main street. It was a place they had checked out beforehand. The store consisted of a first floor and a basement, but the home appliances were in the basement. A middle-aged woman wearing a scarf with a money-belt round her waist led the way down a steep staircase into the basement. Unlike the first floor, which was so bright and cozy that you wouldn’t know it was a second-hand shop unless you saw the signboard, the basement was cold and dark. On the bleak cement floor, larger household appliances were placed at widely spaced intervals.
Still, it had seemed okay when they first took a look. The items had seemed clean. However, on examining each one in detail, it was a little different. The newer and cleaner items were already marked as sold, whether washing machines or refrigerators. Others were old or stained, each one flawed in some way. It seemed they were a bit too late.
The store’s owner was standing to one side so they could look around. She gave the necessary explanations, but her tone was slightly rough.
“We need a washing machine, a refrigerator and a gas range,” Sang-ryul said.
The owner and Sang-ryul stood talking in front of an old-style drum washer. Sang-ryul looked at Won-hee, indicating that he wanted her to participate, but she did not get involved.
Won-hee walked away from them and wandered among the home appliances. Her mood quickly grew subdued. Each washing machine and refrigerator had its own story. Like the animals in a shelter. What kind of place did they live in and what kind of people did they live with before finding themselves here? She realized that she had thought too lightly of this situation. Or rather, actually, she hadn’t thought about it at all. She was so preoccupied with her mother that she couldn’t think about the things needed to fill the new house. Sang-ryul had noticed this store, and she had agreed without thinking. But the moment she saw it for herself, she felt it would not do. She couldn’t cope with this cement floor and the discolored items with dents and stains here and there.
As if reading Won-hee’s feelings, the owner said:
“This came from a very high-class house in Yeonhui-dong. We went in to collect it, the standard of the household items was amazing. Nowadays, this kind of 14-kilogram drum washing machine is only used by the wealthiest families. It’s more convenient to buy a larger one while you’re at it. You can even wash bedding.”
Won-hee realized that the owner considered them to be newlyweds, but this time it made her feel ashamed. She could sense how they looked in the eyes of the owner. Here’s a newlywed couple, but they don’t have the wherewithal to set up house properly, so they’re looking at used appliances in this dark basement. That was what they looked like.
“Let’s talk a minute.”
She pulled at the sleeve of Sang-ryul’s coat. Sang-ryul looked confused. She gazed into his eyes with an appealing look.
just step outside for a moment,” Sang-ryul told
Won-hee did not look in the woman’s direction as they went out. They climbed the steep stairs. Won-hee took the lead, crossing between the beds and the tables on the first floor, pushing the glass door open and going out onto the sidewalk. It was darker than when they had come in, and cars were speeding along the four-lane highway. Sang-ryul followed her out and asked:
Won-hee knew she had to say the right thing now, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. She was speechless. Won’t Sang-ryul know what I feel? But his mouth was clamped shut. It wasn’t easy for him either, signing the contract for a house, finding a second-hand store and bargaining with the owner.
“Can’t we come back another time?”
Won-hee barely managed to blurt out.
“What are you talking about? We have to buy the things today. Otherwise, I don’t know when I’ll be able to make time again.”
He was clearly annoyed by the situation.
“I don’t think I want to do this.”
“What do you mean? Don’t you like the stuff? It looks okay to me. The quality isn’t too bad.”
all looks so crappy.”
Sang-ryul burst out laughing with an effort.
“What does it matter so long as it works properly?”
mean you want to use up all your savings buying these
heavy, crappy things? You can’t just throw them away
if you don’t like them, this
pack of things that, once you buy them, you’re going
to have to use for at least
three years? Are we really doing the right thing?”
“What are you talking about all of a sudden?” he said, controlling his expression. “Don’t you know we already signed the contract? Don’t be so childish.”
He strode back inside on his own. The glass door opened and closed again, shaking on the recoil. The proprietor had come upstairs.
“The gas range is here.”
The woman glanced at Won-hee as she reluctantly came back in, and went on talking, as if unconcerned with their circumstances.
“This is the only gas range I have. If you want one, this will have to do. I didn’t have any, but then this came in just yesterday. I guess it was destined to be yours.”
Even from a distance the gas range looked black. It didn’t seem to have been used indoors.
“I have the gas pipe here.”
The owner picked up a plastic bag holding the accessories.
“It’s expensive to buy these separately. That’s why I took great care of it.”
Sang-ryul said he would take it and she remarked:
“You’ll have to wipe it down before you use it.”
They went downstairs again, and Sang-ryul consulted with the owner about choosing a refrigerator and washing machine. At the end, when he tried to knock down the price, Sang-ryul was put to shame. The owner said that she had been in business there for eight years.
“The price on the label is the price of the product. We don’t play games with our items.”
On the bus back, they each found an empty seat and sat apart. Won-hee was looking out the window, but she wasn’t looking at the landscape as it grew darker outside.
There are times when vertigo occurs, times when you have to accept reality, when a scene that has not yet been accepted, and has not yet been recognized, suddenly appears plainly as if a light has been turned on, and you want to close your eyes and turn your head away, but even that isn’t allowed. Now was just such a time. Won-hee perceived what she intended to do with Sang-ryul. They were forming a household. It was no different from being married. They had gotten a house, and now they were going around buying home appliances to furnish it with. It meant marriage. This move wasn’t an extension of their previous life. It wasn’t just moving to a house with an extra room.
felt she was being pushed onto an unprepared
stage, and something inside her was stubbornly
refusing, saying, “No, this
isn’t it.” In her mind, marriage wasn’t like that. She
had thought that if one
day she got married, she would feel excited as she
went around looking at houses
and would decide on furniture after going to a lot of
annoying but happy effort.
Scenes she had seen on television came to her mind. A
scene where white
curtains swung open under the light of a chandelier in
a wedding shop. The
radiant face of a bride in a wedding dress. She forced
her eyes shut. It wasn’t
like this. She had never imagined that she would be
doing this in a situation
where she had no money or proper job, feeling so
They got off the bus and headed home. Without a word, they went up the stairs to the fourth floor and opened the door. The home where they lived. The inside of the place was cold but full of a familiar smell, and through the window, Won-hee could see the lighted veranda of the building opposite. Neither of them turned on the lights, so their place was dark inside. They had lived together for two years here. Her parents had visited three times, and each time they had put Sang-ryul’s clothes into two suitcases and his shoes into a large cardboard box and hidden them in the space next to the stairs leading to the roof. This was possible because of his small number of possessions.
“Can’t we just keep on living here?”
Knowing it was quite impossible, she finally said it. She couldn’t figure out why she behaved like a child like this when she had to speak rationally. In the dark, Sang-ryul sat down on a chair at the table. Just before, he had spent all his savings to buy home appliances. She knew that too. But she wanted to cry.
“I hate putting such junk into the house.”
There was a heavy silence for a moment. He spoke finally.
“Come off it.”
In the dark, his voice sounded frightening.
“Don’t you understand our situation?”
She waited for his next words without looking at his face. Every second or two that passed, she seemed to be coming, step by step, closer to the center of darkness. What might be inside it?
“People have to live within their means. Do you think I’m doing this because I don’t know it’s better to buy new things? If I had the money, I’d want to do that too. I want to do everything you want. But our situation doesn’t allow it. This is the best we can do right now.”
His gaze was turned toward the table. They were both looking at the flowers in the vase, and they each felt the other seeing it. She felt that if he said anything about the three tulips, it would be irreversible.
A little later he made a sound as if he were swallowing something. Then he breathed out loudly.
“You have to give up what you have to give up. How are you going to live only doing everything you want?”
She knew too. That you have to live according to your circumstances. That your life doesn’t go as you wish. Nevertheless… I’m not dreaming of anything grand. I’ve never dared dream of grand things. What I was hoping for was something very small. Is that such an absurd wish? Can’t I even hope for that much? Should I be treated as someone who doesn’t even know her place just because I want this?
She put on her shoes again and went out the front door. She went down the stairs and came out onto the road. After hesitating at the junction, she walked past the buildings and headed for the park. She didn’t want to go to a bright place because she was crying. She sat on a bench in a corner of the park.
Whenever she was in a tight spot, a child would emerge from inside her. She felt resentful toward Sang-ryul. They could have gone on living like this. Then there would have been no problems. I don’t want to move and I’m not ready to start a new life.
At that moment, something from long ago came to her mind. The moment she’d heard Sang-ryul’s mother say something about her. Sang-ryul was on the phone with his mother, but the room was quiet, so Won-hee could hear her voice clearly. Still, she wasn’t paying special attention. But at some point, Sang-ryul said:
“Mom, you have a daughter, too, so how can you say that?”
Sang-ryul got up from his seat with a rigid face and went to the bathroom. But before the bathroom door closed she heard a high-toned dialect from the phone:
“Yes. That’s why I’m not letting my daughter leave home. I’m holding onto her until she gets married, then I’ll see her off nicely wed.”
Oddly enough, Won-hee was calm. But she was surprised. She had simply assumed that Sang-ryul’s family didn’t care about such things, and was envious of him. So she had been thinking that Sang-ryul was “cool.”
She wasn’t hurt. Perhaps she reckoned it was natural to hear such remarks? At least she understood middle-aged women who said such things. She had heard of such girls since middle school. Girls who lived with men. There seemed to be a lot of those kids around her mother. Whenever her mother heard such stories, she came and told her.
“Once young girls are sent to university in Seoul, they all move in with a man. Heavens, aren’t they afraid? They don’t realize how terrifying the world is.”
When she heard that as a child, she used to laugh. She thought that she would never do that, so it went in one ear and out the other. But now she had become just such a daughter. She had become one of the protagonists of those rumors.
Sitting on the bench, she was filled with emotions. She felt angry towards Sang-ryul. Yes, you are the one who’s always right. You are always rational. I’m weak and I’m sentimental and talk like a child. But it’s not just because I’m weak. It’s because you’re a man and a son.
They were two separate individuals. They could break up at any time, and if they broke up that would be it. She would have to cope with it on her own. Yes, Mom might be right. It might be irreversible.
Tears flowed. She was miserable. She had endured all she could. Even just managing this far was remarkable. Suddenly, she lost confidence in everything. She had no idea how long it might take to earn enough money to open a shop. She tried to figure out how much money it would take to get her license and complete her education. It should take another year. Surely that’s absurd? Was she doing everything right? This is all because of money. She felt that she couldn’t take any more, that she had to ask her family for help. She collapsed inwardly. She wondered if she had been right to quit the bank. Reaching that point, she suddenly sighed. What had her mother said when she told her she was quitting? “You mean you’re throwing away a full-time job, in a major bank at that, in order to stick on eyelashes?” It wasn’t possible. How was she going to tell her family and the people at her church?
“It’s not the kind of job as stable as you think. Even what they call a full-time job isn’t the same kind of life-long job as it used to be.”
“What will people say? People will think you couldn’t survive because you’re dumb, that it’s because you don’t have the ability to work there.”
“Are you saying that for my sake? If you’re speaking for my sake, you should tell me to quit.”
Her mother hadn’t contacted her for a month after that. She gradually reduced her expectations for her only daughter. But it wasn’t just her mother. Won-hee had also learned to reduce her own expectations for herself. All the things she thought she would enjoy. All the things she thought would fall into her hands when the time came. The images and ways of life that textbooks and television had been showing her since childhood. And she accepted that she couldn’t be a great daughter. The harder she tried to be a great daughter, the unhappier she became. Maybe she shouldn’t try to be a great daughter and should just do her best not to be one?
Had it not been for Sang-ryul, she might still be suffering from stress and spending half her salary on a hair loss clinic. He supported her and encouraged her to overcome her vague fears and focus on what she wanted.
She thought she had given everything up, but maybe she hadn’t. Was there still something left to rid herself of?
She sat in the park thinking on that winter evening, shivering, until Sang-ryul found her after searching around the neighborhood.
They moved their things during the Lunar New Year holidays. Those were the only days when Sang-ryul could make time. While a ladder truck was lifting everything, a truck carrying the refrigerator, washing machine and gas range appeared at the end of the alley. Two gloved workers placed them one by one on a wide wheeled platform and took them up using the stairs. From the start, the couple in charge of the house came out in sweat suits and helped them as if it were their own moving day. They called Won-hee the “new bride.” When referring to Sang-ryul, they called him “the outside gentleman,” an old-fashioned word for “husband.” The elderly owner, whom they had not seen last time, came out wearing a pink top and bottom, holding a broom, and swept the front hall and stairs. After the workers had left, Sang-ryul came in and said:
“Look at this!”
The gas stove had been wiped clean.
“Did that lady clean it up?” he wondered.
“If she had any conscience, she should have cleaned it,” Won-hee said. Then she added, “It really was very dirty.”
He threw the plastic bag with the pipe and valves onto the stove.
“How am I going to put this together again? I’ve never installed a gas range.”
After everyone had left and the front door was closed, they felt exhausted and decided to take a rest. The hardest part was over, but now they had to unpack and put the furniture in the right places. It looked as though they would have to remove all the shelves before cleaning the refrigerator. They decided to have lunch first. Sang-ryul said he had seen a store on the way in and went to buy lunch boxes.
As soon as he left, Won-hee’s phone rang, as if it had been watching and waiting. It was her mother. As usual, her heart sank.
She answered the phone casually. Her mother’s voice was not normal. It was that voice again, a hoarse voice, trembling with anxiety, as if speaking after enduring for a long time in silence.
“You know Aunt Seon-hee,” her mother said, “who works with me. Her husband works in a radiology department. Her youngest daughter was preparing to find a job while living alone in a studio in Gwangju after graduating from college. But recently, she’d been telling her not to come down to Gwangju and acting strange. So her oldest sister went to visit her unexpectedly, not telling her in advance that she was going.”
Won-hee prepared herself.
“But, oh my goodness.”
“Why oh my goodness?”
“Oh my goodness, the room was full of people.”
Her mother seemed to be controlling her breathing in an attempt to calm her trembling voice.
“At first, she wondered what kind of people they were. But judging from their religious books and leaflets, they were worshiping there. She said they were all young kids.”
Her mother’s voice was trembling.
“Won-hee, you aren’t doing anything like that, are you? Have you ever heard of the Gospel Holiness Church? They say it’s fashionable in Seoul, too.”
Won-hee was relieved; this was so funny that it annoyed her. Perhaps because she had been tense and on edge from the morning, her eyes filled with tears.
“So what happened?”
“As soon as her big sister came in, everyone left, and then her big sister made her sit down and talk about it. Looking around, the place was full of religious flyers. But then the girl said she was going to the bathroom, and slipped out. Wearing only slippers. Right now, Aunt Seon-hee does nothing but cry, even at work, and can’t eat anything.”
“Oh my, what’s to be done?”
“But yesterday, her daughter called.”
“She said she was away on a brief trip, or something. That her mother shouldn’t worry. Traveling? What a lie.”
“Still, she must have called because she sensed that her mother might be worried.”
Her mother replied hoarsely.
“Won-hee, you really haven’t joined anything like that, have you? I lay awake thinking about it all last night. Why did my well-behaved daughter say she wasn’t coming home for New Year’s Day...? Those people divide families like that and prevent them from meeting.”
Won-hee was running out of patience.
“Mom, please. Do I have to hear about that kind of thing? Don’t you have anything else to worry about? I told you I was moving, didn’t I? When I tell you something, why don’t you believe it and think about something else? I’m busy right now. Let’s talk later.”
She hung up the phone without more ado. Then she dragged a chair in front of the sink and sat down. It was 11 a.m., but the kitchen was dark and everywhere was quiet. The Gospel Holiness Church? Sitting there alone, she laughed. Is that what mom is scared of? I wouldn’t believe in something like that even if they beat me to death. But at that moment, the thought came to her that she had once said she would never live with a man. Indeed, you never know. There is nothing you can be sure of in life. Nothing.
If she had a child later on, she vowed never to worry about her. No matter what she worried about, the child’s reality would be very, very far from it.
Her mother had said that the rock was shaking and dangerous, but you didn’t realize when you were standing on it and smiling. You were smiling without realizing it was dangerous. Her mother’s voice made her head ring. The world is so scary. You don’t realize it, but it is.
She took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled. After taking a few more deep breaths, she stood up. Through the window next to the sink, she could see the red brick wall of the building opposite, which was bright, reflecting the sunlight. They had moved after all. She looked around her new home, with boxes piled up everywhere. She wondered how she would remember this move and this moment in the distant future.