|The Naked Tree
The box lunch, cold hardened rice in a small rectangular
aluminum container, could be finished in several mouthfuls after dividing
it into bite-size pieces with my chopstick. Even this quick lunch was not
welcome at the PX. The employees at the Korean products section, who couldn't
generate any extra income, were the ones who had to endure the embarrassment
of cold box lunches. We all did similar work in the same building, but
our lives were as different as the origins of our products. I wolfed down
my lunch in a corner of the employees' rest area, a makeshift nook shielded
by thin boards on four sides, and rinsed my mouth carefully with cold water
to get rid of the embarrassing kimchi smell.
The rest area was a rest area in name only. It had a
lone bench and a mirror and was mainly used when the girls reapplied their
makeup or when the cleaning women changed their clothes.
"Have some gum."
Diana Kim entered the rest area with a large purse slung
from her shoulder and offered me a piece of gum. She began to chew a piece
"You look like you've already finished your lunch. I
was thinking of buying something good for you today, Miss Lee."
"What?" was all I could come up with.
I didn't want to look humble in these humiliating situations,
but not being a sociable person, I only managed to look disappointed.
"Do you have something to tell me?" I asked.
She's going to talk about that again, I thought, feeling
a surge of boredom. I assumed a look of nonchalance, spat the gum onto
a tissue and rolled it up.
"It's come again. Well, I need to answer this time. What
should I do?"
She tore off a multicolored wrapper and poked a ring-like
candy into my mouth. I liked the tart candy that made my tongue contract,
but I felt crabby.
We had gotten to know each other because of our similar
shortcomings. She could speak English like an American woman(at least to
my ears) but she couldn't read or write, while I knew only the phrases
that were needed at the portrait shop.
A few days earlier, an American soldier who had come
to pick up a portrait had started to complain, When he said the picture
didn't even remotely resemble his sweetheart, I apologized, making clear
that we would do it again. However, he kept talking a mile a minute in
his excitement, and I couldn't understand anything he said. I tried to
save face in front of the painters by pretending to understand him, inserting
a word or two here and there. He finally exploded, after realizing that
we were talking about two completely different things. He shouted, and
I was almost in tears when Diana Kim materialized, almost miraculously.
She approached, her high-heeled shoes clicking on the
cement floor, and with only a few words, dismissed him. Then she looked
down at me with? confusion of the moment, and trying to minimize my embarrassment,
I said I sometimes had difficulty because the English I had learned at
school was so different from spoken English. I wanted to show that I was
not really an ignorant girl. When I sensed that she was interested in my
excuse, I boldly lied that I had been an English literature major at E
College before the war, but then the war broke out, et cetera, et cetera.
She sounded very surprised when she said, "Oh, my goodness,
we have a lot in common."
"What do you mean?"
"You're half-dumb, although your eyes can catch the writing,
and I can speak, but unfortunately I'm blind as a bat when it comes to
reading English. Interesting, isn't it?"
I didn't understand why it was interesting, but I took
on the job of reading and answering the letters she received from her boyfriend
back in America. That's how I ended up paying for my lie.
Diana said she knew lots of girls who could read and
write, but they were all so gossipy and sly, having been exposed to that
kind of thing for so long. For that reason I was perfect for the job, she
While I was reading the letters which began with "My
darling Diana" and going on about how heartbroken he was without her and
how he missed her so, Diana kept filing her long, beautiful fingernails,
cracking gum loudly. Blocked by her thick eyelashes, the expression in
her eyes couldn't be seen. She had to concentrate on her nails, but the
bags under her eyes revealed her age.
My darling Diana, we won't be separated for long. I
will think of a way to bring you to America, whatever it takes. I love
you. I need you.
- your faithful Bob.
She didn't betray any reaction but simply admired her
nails, gorgeous as a cactus flower, and yawned widely, saying, "Is that
all? Christmas is almost here, but he hasn't mentioned a present."
The opening of her round throat was revealed, as desolate
as a doorway to an empty room, a bleak room devoid of both suffering and
"Write a letter for me. Don't act so prim, eh?"
"I don't know how to write that kind of letter."
"You mean you don't have experience? Don't pretend to
be so innocent. Just write something. Hot and passionate, how's that? And
how can we drop a subtle hint about the present?"
The cleaning women entered, pushing a large trash box
in front of them. They hitched up their skirts, pulled down their underwear,
took out endless tubes of toothpaste and bars of soap from the trash box,
and stacked them up on their calves, tying each row tightly with an elastic
band. They heaped up the goods tier after tier, pulled up their underwear,
and in no time they were fat with a layer of goods reaching from their
calves, over their buttocks, to their waists.
They pulled their skirts back down, put on their coats,
and swaggered out. They were on their way to make an illegal transaction
during the lunch hour. They were experts at the smuggling act but managed
to look as clumsy and dense as before. Another group of women, who had
already finished their transactions, came in as if they were simply returning
from lunch, walking slowly with humdrum expressions. Diana Kim and the
other salesgirls flocked around them, sharing dollars and a fat wad of
Korean won in a brisk, efficient manner. Diana seemed to be out of sorts
over the distribution. She had a brief quarrel before stuffing a wad of
money into her large bag.
"If you behave like this, I'll see you don't get another
taste of it. If you don't do it my way, I'll do it myself."
"Don't be silly. How can you put anything over your waist?"
A woman circled an arm around Diana's slender waist, but Diana's eyes glistened
coldly under her stiff eyelashes.
During the confusion, I put down the letter from Bob
and ran from the rest area, galloping down the stairs. The rattle of the
container inside my empty lunch box echoed gloomily. I shook the box at
Misuk, who was at the brassware section in front of my shop, and sat down
in my chair.
In the Korean products section, the larger stalls for
jewelry and embroidery had several employees, but the brassware and the
portrait sections had only one salesgirl each. Misuk and I always watched
each other's shop during lunch break.
"What kept you so long? I couldn't wait until you
came down, so I just gobbled up my lunch crouched behind the display box."
I suddenly felt curious about this girl who was two years
younger than me, with her shiny hair braided into two pigtails and those
healthy cheeks. Would she be bleak inside?
"Will you yawn for me?" I asked.
"Can you yawn on demand? I've yawned enough today, though,
because there wasn't much business."
"Then open your mouth. Say ahhh."
Without asking why, she opened her mouth widely. I could
see the vivid pink of its inside and the hanging uvula. She immediately
closed her mouth and went back to her shop, where an American soldier was
browsing. I sat without knowing what to do, disgust rising up in my throat
as I thought of Diana's empty room and Bob's love letter that was like
a telephone ringing there.
I wasn't sure if it was myself that I hated, or the others,
or both. Whatever it was, I wanted to crumple the dingy scenery around
me, myself included, and toss it away like rubbish.
"Shit!" His short, fat brush oozing with red, Kim was
about to ruin the picture he had just finished, but then thought better
of it. He swallowed his fury and threw the brush aside instead. He lit
"What grotesque mongrels!" Cash said as he felt about
in his pockets for a cigarette. Then he made a clicking sound with his
tongue. "What mongrels! Do you happen to have a butt?"
"If they're such mongrels, why do you keep painting their
"I'm just asking you for a butt. Besides, can't you figure
it out? I do it for money. For money. Do you paint as a hobby? Do you do
it because it's art? "
"Yes, it's art for me. A houseboy can play the role of
a boss, so why can't a sign painter be an artist?"
"So you have a mouth to talk, all right. Don't act so
dim. I'm just asking if you have a butt."
"If had one, I'd have given it to you instead of teasing
you. Hey, Miss Lee, why don't you grab yourself a Yankee and ask him to
buy a carton of Lucky Strikes? It would be easy if you just put your mind
"Miss Lee always acts so high and mighty."
They had shifted the target of their attack in my direction.
But I smiled without answering them, for I could guess that they, too,
wanted to crumple up everything around them. Ock Hui-do put down his brush,
slapped each of his shoulders several times, and turned toward the window
in an exhausted way. The window was nothing but a space;once a display
window, the wood had been removed to enlarge the space, and it was covered
with a grey curtain, so no one could look in from outside. Nothing could
be seen but he sat facing that grey curtain as if he were enjoying an unfamiliar
I was thinking of raising the curtain a little for him
when Diana Kim patted my shoulder, smiling. "I just came up with a great
idea, It hit me when I was looking into this direction."
"What is it?"
"If I want to milk a present from him, I might as well
give him a present first. Something inexpensive but wonderful. How's that
sound? What if I send him my portrait?"
"Well, I don't know."
"I'm sure it will work. It's a perfect idea. Which of
them is the best?"
She shoved her face closer to my ear, lowering her voice,
and a strange smell, a mixture of fragrances, overwhelmed me. I pulled
away hastily and, without thinking, pointed to Ock Hui-do.
I instantly regretted it. With loud clicks of her spike
heels, she was marching towards him.
She said, "You've got to draw my portrait as well as
you can. You'd better do a good job because it's for my sweetheart in America."
I couldn't hear what he said.
"Oh, my! You don't have to be so high and mighty. I'll
pay as much as the Yankees. I'll give you six dollars directly instead
of paying the cashier. In dollars. It's all yours. Still, you won't do
Ock didn't answer.
"Why are you hesitating? Just sketch me quickly. What?
Bring a picture in? Gosh! What nonsense! You simply can't deal with these
sign painters. You want a photo when the real person is standing right
in front of you? Don't you know what a model is, huh? Let me see your samples,
She flicked through the portraits Ock Hui-do had drawn,
comparing them with the photos, chattering nonstop and tilting her head
this way and that.
"You should have played up this feature, but you simply
ruined it. And in this one, you made the woman look ten years younger than
the photo and it's probably already ten years old! One of these days you'll
get it for painting these pictures. Do you think the Yankees are that stupid?"
I couldn't see Ock Hui-do because she was blocking my
view, and I couldn't hear what he was saying. But I was so embarrassed
by my mistake that I didn't dare to get closer.
"If you really want a photo, that's just as well. I don't
have time to be your model, anyway. I'll bring in a photo tomorrow. You
make it really sexy so that my sweetheart will go crazy for me."
She walked away, winking at me. My eyes met Ock's and
stayed there for a long time. Exhaustion and depression were reflected
in his eyes, momentarily overwhelming his good nature, and I felt his depression
stab me. I recovered from the momentary pain but felt sorry for him for
a long time.
On the way home I followed him quickly because he had
left a little earlier than I did. I wanted to do something for him, like
listen to his tale of the good old times that I had interrupted several
"You must have been angry because of that woman. I'm
"No, not really."
"I didn't mean to do that. It was an accident," I stammered,
"I had no idea she would behave so rudely."
"What's the problem? She promised a good price for a
picture. You're acting a little strange today."
Come to think of it, perhaps I was the one who was strange.
If Diana Kim had talked that way to Kim or Cash, would I have given it
a second thought? I tried to be indifferent to Ock Hui-do's feelings, but
a strange sense of loss remained in my heart.
Under a tacked-up proclamation issued by the Marshal
Law Enforce-ment Headquarters, a newspaper boy was hawking tomorrow morning's
newspaper in a drawling tone. Next to the boy an old woman was counting
money, smoothing the crumpled bills in front of her piles of American cigarettes.
Ock Hui-do bought a newspaper from the boy and glanced at the headlines
by the light that streamed out of a shop, but he soon folded it up roughly
and shoved it into his pocket.
Puppet Army Ready for Major Attack, the headline
"I hope this winter passes without trouble," Ock Hui-do
I was about to say something but decided not to. I sensed
that his mood belonged to him alone tonight.
The sound of artillery reverberated in the northern sky.
My heart fluttered with fright. I didn't believe peace would come as either
a victory or a cease-fire. I expected the war to continue, sweeping repeatedly
up and down the peninsula. Everyone was foolishly hoping for peace, but
it wouldn't work that way. The war would end only after disaster had engulfed
everyone. The war wouldn't wrong only me and my brothers Hyok and Wook.
A crazed, shrill longing and at the same time a fear of the war; I was
always unbalanced and exhausted because of the conflict that raged within
An electrician who had been changing light bulbs here
and there had finally come to the one that had been off for several days
on the ceiling above my desk. I retrieved my chair which was right under
his ladder, placed it at one corner of my desk, and started taking care
of the things I had to do.
Choosing the photos to be distributed to the painters,
picking a few decent portraits to be placed in the display case, separating
the ones to be sent up to the wrapping department on the second floor,
copying the addresses the customers had left and attaching them to the
bundles sent down from the wrapping department to be taken back to the
second floor where the post office was located. I knew my routine well.
"Miss, excuse me," the electrician called from the top
of his ladder with a sheepish smile. "I'm sorry, but could you hold the
I held one leg of the upside-down V and looked up at
him. The ladder was sturdy and stood firmly on the tiled floor. It wouldn't
have wobbled a bit if I hadn't held it for him, but he kept worrying. He
turned the screwdriver, removing the milky bulb cover and sticking it under
his arm. He looked down again and said, "Hold it tight, okay?" He looked
"Don't worry," I said, spreading out my arms to hold
the two legs firmly.
He was so frightened of falling that he might have tumbled
down on his own accord if I had taken my hands away. It was clear that
he had not been an electrician very long. This isn't the right job for
him, I thought. He unscrewed the old bulb, put it in the pocket of his
work clothes, took a new one from another pocket, put it in, and started
to replace the cover. He must have screwed the bolts in crooked because
the cover didn't fit. He kept working on it, and his posture grew more
stable as he lost his self-consciousness.
He didn't look down again, but I looked up at him, while
he was totally absorbed in his work. It was a new experience for me to
observe someone standing directly above me.
His Adam's apple, that unique male feature,and his firm
square jaw with its shadow of beard sent sweet vibrations through me unexpectedly.
While he was fretting over the work he couldn't do well, the feelings I
was experiencing for the first time were transformed into a more concrete
desire. I wanted to lean my forehead on that shadowy chin. The image brought
a tickling sensation to my forehead, and a refreshing pleasure spread throughout
"Well, I'm coming down. Hold on tight, please."
He was steadier coming down than he had been climbing
"Thank you. It will take me a while to get used to the
work," he said, scratching his head in mortification.
To my great surprise, his face was quite ordinary from
the front. I felt as if I had somehow been duped.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" he asked, stopping
in the midst of folding his ladder.
I rubbed my tingling forehead and said,"You looked totally
different from below. You looked like a real fool, but face to face you
don't look like one at all."
I was making it up, but he flushed like a boy and said,
"I was shaky because today's my first day at work. I'll get used to it."
He folded the ladder and walked toward the shop across
Ock Hui-do had been drawing Diana's six-dollar portrait
since early that morning. He had the airbrushed photo in front of him,
but the portrait he was drawing was much closer to the real Diana.
"Why don't you make it more like the photo?" I muttered
as I hovered over him.
Kim ridiculed him. "Do you think you'll get anything
out of it? If you are paid five times more, you'll have to work ten times
Cash butted in as if he were afraid of losing a chance
for a wisecrack, "It's always easier to draw mongrels than a full-blooded
"Full- blooded Korean? How can you call a Yankee
slut a full-blood?"
"What an ignorant man! What's full-blood got to do with
what happens between man and woman? All that matters is the parents' blood."
They're at it again, I thought.
Cash launched into a tirade about the purity of Korean
blood and the mixed-blood of the Yankees, foaming at the mouth and sprinkling
By and by Ock finished Diana's portrait and pounded his
shoulders on each side, much longer than usual, his eyes fixed on the grey
curtain. Cash's theory of Korean superiority grew cruder and more obscene,
and the other painters, who enjoyed it more than his other half-baked theories,
helped him along by joking and agreeing with him. Ock's back remained a
rock, devoid of emotions.
Suddenly, I hoped Ock Hui-do would be different from
the others. He's not like the others. I clung to the idea like an insect's
sensitive feeler that has found a source of honey.
"It was nice of you to help me out this morning. I'd
like to invite you to a tea room. Would that be all right?"
The electrician, whom I met on my way home, said it so
sweetly that I agreed. "Of course."
As we walked side by side, I studied his profile from
his jawline to the neck. I wanted to experience the same tingling sensation
that I had felt in the morning but couldn't. He was a little taller than
me, medium height for a man, so I was not looking up at him. His face,
from the front, was thoroughly ordinary.
As soon as we sat down at a corner table in the Utopia
tea room he said, "My name is Hwang Tae-su." Then he added in English,
"I'm Lee Kyong. My given name has only one syllable,
so people call me Kyong-a."
We smiled and I thought we had become instant friends.
"When you look down from the top, do you see anything
out of the ordinary?" I asked.
"The top of a ladder."
"Well, it was my first time, so my legs wobbled and I
couldn't enjoy the scenery below. But what's the big deal about the top
of a ladder? If you think of looking down at the world, there's always
the second floor, the third floor, a highrise building, and of course high
positions in the government."
"Still, I think it would look different from the top
of a ladder."
"Why do you keep talking about the ladder? It's unlucky,
"Then why did you choose working on a ladder as your
"Choose? I hardly chose it. To choose means being picky.
Who's lucky enough to be picky about a job these days? I just squeezed
in when there was an opening."
"Well, you didn't mind trembling on top of a ladder,
so you managed to squeeze into this PX."
"Oh, well." He scratched his head.
"Are you a draft dodger?" I asked sharply.
PX workers, of course, didn't enjoy the privilege of
military exemption but they wore military uniforms and rode American commuter
buses to work, so I had heard that draft dodgers flocked to the PX for
"Far from it. I may not look like it, but I was given
an honorable discharge because I was wounded."
"I don't believe it. How could you get an honorable discharge
with four strong limbs?"
"I look all right on the outside, but I have a horrible
wound on my thigh. It still hurts sometimes."
He drew his eyebrows together and pressed his thigh as
if it really hurt.
"Really? Does it hurt right now?"
"Nooo," he grinned and straightened out his eyebrows.
Then he slurped the barley tea and called the waitress to ask for a match,
winking at her. He looked frivolous, and I wasn't sure whether or not he
had told the truth.
He lit a cigarette, exhaled the smoke expertly, and said,
"Well, I did what I could for my country and I didn't want to think about
saving face, so I ran around trying to find a job. I ended up as an electrician
at the PX, but that doesn't matter, I've seen lots of money changing hands,
I want to be part of it. I have no other ambitions. I just want to save
enough to continue school after the war, like all the others, without worrying
about money. I've struggled. I came down from the north. I have only two
more years of college to go, so after the war I'll graduate and get a job
at a good place. I'll gain trust in a few years and then respect in a few
more. What do you think?"
"It seems a bit boring."
"I knew you'd say that. One needs to brag in front of
women. I just spill out a bunch of ordinary ideas."
He smacked his lips a couple of times and stretched his
arms as he leaned his head against the back of his chair. The firm, square
jaw, the shadow of beard, and his sturdy neck came into view, and I was
again stirred by a refreshing emotion.
I flushed, drank up my barley tea to squash my shame,
and rubbed my forehead briskly as it began to tickle. He straightened his
head, his face returning to its ordinary state again, and asked, "How about
you, Miss Lee? How's the portrait shop? Isn't it dull?"
"I don't work as a hobby, either. I am serious about
making a living."
"You're still a student, aren't you? Last year of high
school? A college student?"
I didn't want to go into the story about how I had failed
the college entrance examination and spent several months in despair before
the war broke out.
"The war has broken down the order of things so people
experience strange things," he said, "People meet in strange places. Isn't
that more natural? It seems like a tragedy to an old sense of self in wartime."
"What do you mean?"
"Like Ock Hui-do. I'd heard he was working at the portrait
shop but when I saw him, I felt strange. Of course, he only knows painting,
"Do you know him then?"
I was astonished. Thinking back, though, I recalled that
he had exchanged greetings with Ock when he passed through our shop with
his folded ladder.
"He's more than an acquaintance, I should say. We're
from the same hometown, and he was very close to my eldest. They still
"What did he do? "
"I just told you. He only knows painting. He came to
the south during the latest evacuation, so maybe he's not well-known here
yet, but informed people should know about him. He won the national prize
several times during the Japanese occupation. Maybe he even got one of
the grand prizes, too."
"Then you mean he's a real artist?"
I had never dreamed Choe's "unfortunate artists" would
include a real artist.
"I've always thought he was a born artist. He couldn't
be anything else. I crossed the 38th parallel right after the liberation,
but he remained until recently because he has a big family. I sometimes
wonder what he had to do up there in order to survive. Maybe he had to
draw a portrait of Kim Il-Sung or something. If that's the case, then knowing
nothing but painting is a tragedy, isn't it?"
I thought back to when I had asked Ock Hui-do what he
used to do. He had simply said, "I am just a painter."
"I heard he has five children. He should have thought
of something else to do. Instead he's still painting."
He's different and he's not like you, I thought.
"Luckily his wife is competent, so she's managing somehow."
He's not like the others, but nobody knows it, and a
competent wife would only nag him competently, I thought.
"My brother says his wife was a real beauty once."
I stood up and left the tea room ahead of him. A cold
gust of wind swept through my hair. I stopped to wrap it in a scarf.
"Why are you upset?"
Tae-su hurried to catch up with me, put his face closer
to mine, and straightened my hastily wrapped scarf and pulled my bangs
in a friendly way.
"You don't know how to wrap your hair properly."
I felt he was being too friendly too quickly, but I ignored
it and said, "Goodbye. See you tomorrow."
"I'd like to walk you home."
"That's all right. I want to go alone."
Alone, I calmly accepted the pity and affection I felt
for Ock Hui-do and his stubbornness. Both feelings crept into me like the
At home my uncle was waiting for me.
"Why would any girl want to roam about until this
hour? Why did you have to get a job? What a shameful thing to do! Why can't
you can't you just stay home before getting married like a good girl?"
He started scolding me before I had time to greet him
properly. I knew my uncle was not worried about me at all. He just thought
he was supposed to behave that way. He thought it was an elder's obligation
to find fault with the younger generation, especially when there was no
male in the house. As the head of the clan, he thought it was his duty
to be more particular and meddling, a role well-suited to someone who was
concerned with the well-being of his flock.
"When did you arrive in Seoul?" I asked.
"Today. I should come up more often, but it's not easy
with the documents they require for crossing the river and things like
I simply smiled, not feeling particularly sorry for him.
I knew that he had just dropped in at my house after checking on his own
"I was about to discuss this with your mother, but why
would two women want to live in a haunted house like this? When you wanted
to come up to Seoul, I consented without much thought because I wasn't
settled in myself, but I can't sit back and watch you live like this. This
house isn't fit for sane people! Why don't you come down to Pusan with
me? If not your mother, at least, you, Kyong-a"
He stopped and looked at my mother, but when she didn't
react, he went on, "If you don't like that idea, how about going to my
house and staying there? I'm sure we can't find a buyer for this house,
but we could just lock it up. My house is much cozier."
He must be having a problem with the people watching
his house, I decided. They probably used things from his storeroom, helped
themselves to the quilts he had tied and put up in a high place, and sold
soy sauce and red bean paste from his jars. I could imagine all that without
"My heart aches when I see the way your servant's quarters
have been destroyed. It must be hard for you. But Sister-In-Law, how can
you live in this haunted house? In the house where that horrible tragedy..."
"But where can I go? I'm going to die in this house,
"Why are you talking about death already? What about
Kyong-a? You should live long and share Kyong-a's happiness."
My mother smiled but didn't answer. It was an empty smile
in which I could see something like wisdom. I realized that she wouldn't
be an obstacle to her daughter's happiness.
"Well, I don't know, I'm just suggesting if for your
"Why? Don't you like the people who are looking after
your house?" I couldn't resist saying it.
"Well, they stole the most valuable things, and whenever
I come, they behave as if I were a charity case. What a shameless..."
"You shouldn't worry about it. Isn't there something
wrong when some people flee, while others are left behind to look after
"Did I ask them to watch over our things? They volunteered.
They should feel grateful and behave like decent people, I didn't mean
to ask you to come to my house to watch over it. This haunted house..."
"Are my cousins all well?"
"Yes, Jin received a medal and was promoted to the rank
of lieutenant colonel. He's been sent to a very good post, but Min is performing
his military duty in name only. Thanks to his brother, he's got it easy.
Nan and Mal go to school. Their main complaint is not having a piano at
home, but who doesn't experience some hardship as a refugee?"
His children hadn't been hurt in the slightest during
the war. He looked happy at that moment. His happiness seemed to be perfect
compared to my family. Perhaps happiness was tastier when sprinkled with
"They talk about you a lot. They ask why you can't live
with them, instead of living here like this. Mal misses you the most."
"I miss her, too," I said just to be polite.
In my heart, however, a nasty thought swirled. The war
isn't finished yet. It will continue many, many years, and disaster will
strike everybody equally. I just happened to receive my share earlier than
"You must be tired. Why don't you go to bed?" I said
to my uncle.
After spreading out a mat for him in my room, I lay down
beside my mother for the first time in a long while. Still, we had little
to talk about. My mother let out a low sigh.
"Did Uncle give you any money?" I asked
"Yes. He said it was for our living expenses."
"I don't know. It's over there. You can count it later."
"Did he eat here?"
"What did you cook for him?"
"Nothing special. I just served what we usually eat."
Had my mother, once such an expert hostess, become demented?
"What did he say about my job?"
"He complained that we'll have a hard time marrying you
off now that you're working there."
"Do you think so, too?"
I turned my back to her. My uncle's cough filtered through
the walls intermittently from the other room, as if he couldn't fall asleep
either. I couldn't tell whether my mother was asleep or not as I couldn't
sense even her breathing.
The bleak wind set the shutters clattering, and the sliding
door hummed. The wind swished through the house, making grotesque sounds
here and there.
I pulled the quilt over my head.
Still, I could hear the wind, the wind that shook the
haunted house, that rushed through the hole on top of the roof of the servants'
quarters, that trampled the broken tiles, that shuffled through the broken
pieces of the rafters, that dislodged the clay underneath, that shook the
loose wallpaper and spider webs, that stirred the piles of dirt. The sound
of the wind rattled my eardrums mercilessly, even when I put my hands over
I couldn't help but think of Ock Hui-do. He's different
from the others, he's different from the others, I chanted. Perhaps I was
attempting to knock on the door to a new life by repeating it.
A Christmas tree stood in the center of the arcade, and
colored lights flashed on the Santa Claus and the four reindeer that pulled
his sleigh. The arcade was bustling more than ever, packed with shoppers,
and the Korean products section was in utter confusion. Housecoats and
pajamas with embroidered dragons and peacocks on them sold like hotcakes,
and the small flower baskets were gone in no time. The owners of the Korean
products section enjoyed unprecedented business, and the salesgirls in
the American products section were indiscreet in their restlessness, making
dates with GIs, talking about the coming parties, and bragging about the
presents they would receive from America.
Outside the PX, the streets were as desolate as ever,
weighed down by the dark, anxious atmosphere of a city so close to the
front line. Nobody was stupid enough to be caught up in the spirit of a
The portrait shop was doing a good business as well,
and I kept busy with my work the whole day, but I made some stupid mistakes
because my heart fluttered at intervals. I was fraught with anxiety. Mine
was not like the others' Christmas-season excitement, however, and my anxiety
wasn't solely due to the war or the darkness in the streets.
I had begun to think I was in love with Ock Hui-do. The
thought was painful at times, sweet at others, and frightening once in
a while. I couldn't figure out exactly what my feelings were, but I couldn't
drive the idea out of my mind.
Tae-su bustled around on the heels of the sergeant who
was installing the Christmas decorations. He would call out "Hi!"to me
in English from unexpected places like the top of a ladder or the frame
of a display window. Sometimes he winked at me, and he liked talking about
silly things, his overall-clad behind perched on my desk in a friendly
"How do I Look now? like a born electrician, eh?"
"Does that make you proud?"
"Sure, I'm proud of it. Now I don't tremble at the top
of a ladder any more. Instead I can enjoy the scenery below me."
"Yes, it's really something."
Playing with a screwdriver and a pair of pincers, clattering
them one against another, he explained what he meant by the scenery. So-and-so
had double whirls of hair at the top of her head, and so-and-so's bra-less
"things" were visible inside her loose neckline.
When I got angry, he said, "I tried so hard to come up
with those lines to make you laugh. How do you think I feel when you get
angry? Laugh, for my sake. Besides, laughing is good for your beauty and
I had to smile and say, "That's enough. Now go. Otherwise,
the sergeant will catch you, and you'll get fired."
He buried his chin in an exaggerated way and said, "That
won't do. No, sir. If he is fired, this young man will be ruined, pining
Today, out of the blue, he asked, "Can you dance?"
"No. Why do you ask?"
"In a few days there's going to be a party for the employees
in the basement snack bar."
"Yes, the Yankees are throwing if for the Korean employees.
They said there's going to be unlimited popcorn and Coke."
"That sounds awfully cheap. Just popcorn and Coke?"
"What did you expect, steaks?"
"Steaks or popcorn, it's still cheap."
Suddenly I was infuriated. I crumpled up every piece
of paper in my reach and said, "I really hate Coke and popcorn, and things
like that. It's like eating leftover food at a mansion. Surely, you don't
mean you want to go to the party for your share like some starving beggar,
"No, I don't want to go to eat, but I just want to see
what a 'party' is like. I just hoped I could dance, holding you in my arms."
"What? I said I can't dance."
"I can't either. What's the difference? Still, I want
to try. Hm? Won't you go with me, please?"
I had to laugh again. Was it because he was still young?
He spoke so spontaneously that I couldn't think of him as lewd or sneaky.
His face was so ordinary, yet it lit up with his simple wish, like that
of a boy; a face that didn't have any hidden intentions. For a minute it
seemed so attractive, so fresh that it dispelled my hatred of popcorn and
Coke. I shook my head violently, trying to push the attraction away.
"What a stubborn girl! I'll get to you one of these days,"
he winked and walked away, as if he weren't hurt at all.
Diana Kim stopped by during the lunch break for the first
time in a long while. She was very excited.
"You won't believe what happened. I need your help. Let's
"You can tell me here," I said firmly.
"I asked you to go outside because I can't talk here.
You must still be angry. I just don't understand. Why do you have to be
so persistent when it's none of your business? You're more meddlesome than
She seemed to have forgotten what I could do to help
her, for she spat out her words, in response to mine, her eyes filled with
contempt, as they usually were. I shuddered with hatred for her. When she
came to pick up the painted scarf from Ock, she had teased him with the
"Incredible. You call this a portrait? You don't expect
to earn six dollars for this trash, do you? How can you call yourself a
"How can you say something like that? This man is...He
I was about to tell her who Ock Hui-do was, but I couldn't
bring myself to do it. If I did, it would be a joke to Diana and the other
painters. Only I knew he was not like the others. The only thing left for
me to do, the one thing I could do for him, was to get the money for the
"Just tell me which part you don't like. I'll ask him
to give it a touch-up. Or, if you prefer, he can do it all over again,"
I pleaded with her.
Ock Hui-do said quietly, "I won't do it. Ask somebody
He snatched the scarf out of Diana's hand and crumpled
it up. The blue veins in his hand stood out, revealing his anger, but his
face was as calm as ever.
"Oh, my, how can you do that? How can you do that to
my face? Give it to me. How dare you crumple up my face! It might be all
right if I iron it. If you're going to throw it away, I'll just take it."
She took the scarf without paying. I kept after her about
paying, like a devil, just as she had described me. I tried to persuade
her, saying that it was quite a good picture, that the GIs did it for fun
anyway. Nobody expected a real portrait, and even if she didn't like it
much, she could grab Bob's heart if she sent it along with a fantastic
Frequently consulting a Korean-English dictionary, I
spent a whole night composing a letter that was crammed with expressions
of love and longing. The letter finally satisfied her, and she said she
would only pay for the portrait later if she got some resuits.
"I never pay up front. Even when I was selling my damned
pussy, I always got thedollars first and stashed them deep in my pocket.
So if I get a present from Bob, and if it's worth more than six dollars,
I will see what I can do. Don't pester me any more."
I gave up on getting her to pay, but after that I didn't
bother concealing my hostility. I felt free, as though I'd thrown away
some miserable old clothes. I could ignore her when I ran into her, and
it was wonderful to know that I was completely beyond her manipulation.
But today she suddenly seemed to be trying to draw me
into her orbit, to use me once again. I ignored her cajoling tone and made
my fingers fly over the abacus. It was Saturday, and I was recording the
five painters' work for the week, the money they were due, and their total
income for the week, so as to make it clear at one glance. The portrait
shop's income was on the rise thanks to the Christmas rush, but Ock Hui-do's
gone away. She stood there playing with her large red purse, opening and
closing it repeatedly. The metal clasp clicked loudly, and my eyes caught
sight of a fat roll of one thousand won inside.
When she saw that my eyes had brushed over them, she
smiled teasingly and said, "Stop acting like that. I've had a plan all
along. I wanted to have a talk with you today and give you the money for
She fiddled with her purse again, opening and shutting
it once more.
"Come on, let's go. I'm so happy, I'll go crazy." Her
voice rose when she sensed that I was coming with her.
I followed her, dispirited. I thought I could get the
money this time. Five children, a nagging wife. The thought that I could
do something for Ock Hui-do prompted me to follow.
When I sat down opposite her in the tea room, I was amazed.
Her eyes twinkled beautifully, perhaps from pleasure, and she spoke in
short breaths, perhaps from utter happiness.
"You stubborn girl! Aren't you going to ask what this
is all about?"
"I think I know. Maybe Bob said to start the wedding
"Don't be silly. Do you think I'd be excited about something
"What is it then?"
She peeled her shiny black gloves carefully. A diamond,
the size of a tiny pea, glittered on her ring finger. Suddenly her well-manicured
hands had become more gorgeous and radiant.
"Bob sent this to me. I was tearing open his letter when
something dropped out, something wrapped tightly in tissue paper. I picked
the paper up and looked inside and found this. It is a diamond, and a real
one at that, and it got to me, despite the careless way he sent it! it
amazing that it didn't get lost in the mail? Yankees are admirable, really.
There's no way it would have gotten here if we damned Koreans were handling
it. I can't even send money to my mother in the countryside because I can't
trust anyone. How can I trust the damned Korean post office? No Korean
would have ever let that diamond get through, right?"
"My, what was I thinking?" Diana chattered on, "Read
this to me, will you? We've got to answer the letter. The last letter was
great. That's why he sent this. Go ahead and read it."
"I'd rather have the fee for the portrait first."
"My, you're getting really slick lately. All right. How
much was it?"
"Oh, was it? I'll give it to you in won since you'll
have to convert it, anyway. Six dollars' worth? Then how much is it by
the official exchange rate?"
"If you want to pay in won, shouldn't you pay the black-market
rate? The difference is considerable."
"You really are getting cheeky. I don't care if you don't
read this letter. You're not the only person who can read it for me, you
Her excitement had cooled and her eyes glistened with
a metallic gleam. I was terrified, thinking that I had blown another chance
to make Ock Hui-do happy. I wanted him to know that I was helping him,
so that he would think of me as a grown-up and his equal. I wanted him
to know that I was mature.
"All right, calculate it any way you wish, then."
She dropped one corner of her mouth in a crooked smirk
that showed how sorry she felt for me and counted the bills deftly. I fixed
my gaze on the diamond, and when she handed me the bills, I shoved them
into my pocket without counting them and began reading Bob's letter.
As usual, he had made a list of exaggerated expressions
of love, but there was no specific plan. All he said about the diamond
was that it was a symbol of his undying love. While I was reading the letter,
she blew a puff of steam on the stone and gave it an earnest rub with her
handkerchief. She didn't show any particular emotion even after I finished
"That's nothing special. No mention of an engagement
or a wedding." I was free to be cynical, now that I had buried the money
in my pocket.
"What? Did you say wedding? I'm well past the Yankee
slut stage where everyone is dying for an international marriage. Do you
think I want to go and live in America where everyone will look down on
me? No way. I want to live right here. I'll make lots of money and look
down on others. All I want is money."
"So, is the diamond real?"
"I had it appraised at the jewelry shop before I came
to see you."
"So what will happen with you and Bob?"
"Nothing. Do you think just because the diamond is real,
the 'I love you' is real, too?"
"I can't believe he sent a real diamond just for fun,"
"People from a rich country like to show off that way,
I guess. The Yankees are so impulsive, aren't they? I heard at the PX they
are going to feed the Koreans popcorn and Coke in a couple of days. They
call it a party. They are so cheap, you know. Bob's like that, I guess."
I didn't get it. If American prosperity represented nothing
more than a flood of popcorn and Coke, I could treat their vulgarity and
frivolity with contempt. But for the life of me I could't believe that
the diamond was in the same league as measure of wealth. If their affluence
didn't suffer from a lack of tradition and a spiritual poverty, wasn't
wasn't the wealth itself terribly frightening?
I handed the fee for the portrait to Ock Hui-do as he
carefully straightened out his tools after the other painters left.
"I got it from Diana. Today."
"I just gave it to her."
"Just gave it to her? Do you know how much she profited
from the picture? You don't need to waste your efforts so frivolously.
"All right. But I can't believe that terrible woman parted
with her money willingly. Why did you do it?"
His wise eyes were sad and embarrassed. I felt worse
than if he had been furious.
"Why? Was it a mistake? I just wanted to help you out."
"Kyong-a, do I look so incompetent that a young person
like you needs to help me?"
I wanted to cry. Everything had turned out wrong. He
seemed more heartbroken than when Diana had treated him with contempt,
and I appeared like nothing more than a young person circling around his
despair. He hung his head for a long time, as if he were suppressing something.
By the time he looked up at me, he had regained his calm.
"I'm sorry. You tried so hard to help me."
His eyes were so gentle that they seemed to caress me.
We walked out to the street together.
"I want to spend this windfall."
He peeped into the display window of a clothing shop
but continued to stride down the street.
"Now what shall I do? It wouldn't be right if I bought
something for you with this money. How about having dinner together?"
"You don't have to. Why don't you go home?"
"I'd like to have a drink," he muttered as if to himself,
though he didn't seem to be searching for a bar. He walked on, weaving
through the waves of people crowding the streets of Myong-dong. Their excitement
didn't seem like wartime. I was thinking of saying goodbye, but I couldn't
find the right moment, so I walked along next to him.
"I'd like to have a drink," he said finally.
"Then have a drink. I'll just say goodbye."
"Don't go. Please stay with me."
I was about to turn and run, but he pressed my shoulder
with his hand and held me in place with his heavy eyes.
"Don't go. I won't take you to a bar. How about going
somewhere cozy, so you can have a meal and I can drink just a little? We
have money. It's free money. It's nice to have a have a little free money
to spend. Ha, ha, ha."
He laughed in an exaggerated way, trying to look cheerful,
but I sensed a desperation hidden deep inside.
We ended up in a Japanese restaurant. It was a tidy place
with tatami-floored rooms and braziers, decorated with bunches of camellias
and chrysanthemums in the entrance and the corridor. The room was pleasantly
warm, thanks to the high-necked Japanese porcelain brazier filled with
glowing lumps of pine charcoal. The sukiyaki kettle, brought in on top
of a small portable range, began to sizzle with the aroma of cooking meat.
I stirred the sukiyaki, ladled out a well-cooked portion into a bowl, and
placed it in front of Ock Hui-do. He poured the yellowish sake into a white
cup and drank it. He looked at me as if he were about to say something,
but he just smiled. His eyes were warm again. I was about to say something
myself but instead stirred the kettle intently. I savored the moment, as
if it were as fragile as glass: the calming atmosphere, the perfect room
temperature, the delicious aroma, and the act of serving someone whom I
wanted to love. He was already on his fourth cup of sake.
"Why are you drinking so quickly? As if you were drinking
"Spring water? Right. When I'm thirsty, I long for alcohol
more than spring water. Sometimes that's the way my thirst feels."
"Like today. I'm sorry. I had no idea you would be so
"Don't be silly. Why would I be upset? I'm having this
delicious meal, thanks to you."
He gulped down his drink.
"I think you're drinking too much."
"No problem. I can't even feel it. You're afraid of drinkers.
That's why you're looking at me that way."
"I'm not afraid, only worried. Wine enhances certain
"What do you mean?"
"It enhances merriment when people drink in a happy mood,
but it can increase fury at other times."
"You know a lot about alcohol."
"My father enjoyed drinking. I often served him when
he was drinking."
"Then he must have vented his anger at you."
"No, not really, He was always happy when he came home,
and he loved drinking with his meal as I helped serve him. When he was
pleasantly drunk, I played the spoiled girl and made him promise lots of
"What kind of promises?"
"I made him promise to raise my pocket money or to take
me to a nice restaurant for a Western meal. Things like that."
I was flushed by the warm memories.
"Were the promises kept?"
"Of course. My father never drank too much because he
always drank with his meal. Still, in the morning he pretended that he
didn't remember. But I think he actually wanted me to remind him of his
He smiled as if my story were really interesting, resting
his cup on the table.
"A very good father you have."
I was about to agree with him, but I was jolted from
my recollections. I felt as if something inside me was about to lose balance.
I tried to prevent it from happening by shaking my head repeatedly. Then
I picked up a bite of the cooled sukiyaki from my bowl and tossed it into
my mouth. The slippery noodles were too sweet, almost nauseatingly sweet.
He picked up his cup again and said, "A good father,"
"Not any more. He died."
"Oh, is that so? I'm sorry. You must have loved him very
"Loved him? Now I hate my father."
Now I had completely lost my balance. Everything was
messed up inside my head; my deep love for my father and the resentment
I felt because of him. I grew fierce in order not to cry.
"What do you mean? You're so abrupt"
"My father died. One month before the war, on a very
peaceful and bright day. He died with his sons and daughter beside him.
Comfortably and irresponsibly, he left us behind. He left us behind, "
At first, he seemed to be taken aback, but his face took
on a warm and sympathetic expression.
Encouraged, I blubbered, "That was it. How could he...
I've experienced so many terrible things alone. I asked my father to help
me. I prayed so earnestly. Even the devil's heart would have been moved.
When my father died, I thought he had become a god. Well, if not a god,
a superman or something. But he ignored us. He didn't do anything for us.
How could he? I was so tired of hating him that I decided not to think
about him any more."
I sobbed violently, hoping he would feel more sympathy
"Now, now, that's enough. Let's wipe away our tears."
When I felt his two arms embrace my shoulders, I cried
more furiously, indulging myself in the pleasure of weeping. The handkerchief
he handed me had a faint smell of tobacco and oil paint. I wanted more,
and I flung my body into his arms. His chest was so broad, as comfortable
as a cradle. A deep feeling of contentment came over me. I didn't want
to lose it.
"I like you. That's all right, isn't it?" My heart pounded
a bit, but I asked without hesitation or any sense of shame.
"Of course it is."
I couldn't believe I had gotten his approval so easily.
I wrapped my baby finger around his and gave it a determined shake before
releasing it. I stayed in his arms, with a feeling of restful bliss and
"Now, Iet's go."
He lifted me up, supporting me with his arms. We went
out to the street.
"Let's walk a little. Is that all right?" I asked.
I wanted to confirm my happiness and savor it for a long
time. The streets were quite empty and some of the stores were already
closing. A boy who was selling roasted chestnuts from a torch-lit cart
yawned broadly and began to gather his goods.
"You still have some left, don't you? Buy me some roasted
chestnuts," I pleaded, leaning on his arm.
When we stopped in front of the boy, he began to shout
as if he had been awakened from his slumber, "Warm roasted chestnuts! Soft,
tender roasted chestnuts!"
He stopped to grin with a confused expression. The chestnuts
"These aren't all that warm," Ock said as he handed over
"Wait a moment. I'll warm them up until they sizzle.
It'll take only a minute."
The boy smiled, showing two rows of white teeth, dumped
the chestnuts into the wire basket, and stirred the fire pot. The fire
flickered weakly in the white ashes.
"We'll take them as they are," I said.
I stuffed the chestnuts into the pocket of Ock's baggy
jacket of dyed military fatigue and began husking them one by one before
tossing them in my mouth.
"I know an interesting place," I said, "Let's go and
"It's already late. Won't your family worry about you?"
I thought of the chimpanzee that I had watched a few
days before at the toy vendor's. I had giggled at it, but looking back,
I felt sorry for that me; I had been so miserable. I wanted to show off
my happiness to the chimpanzee as it poured whisky and drank it over again.
At the makeshift toy stall under the eaves of a house
the vendor was dozing. The chimpanzee, with a bored expression on his comic
face, stood holding a whisky bottle in one hand.
"Excuse me. Would you wind him up, please?" I asked in
a friendly voice, pointing to the chimpanzee.
The vendor opened his eyes widely, surprised, but he
didn't seem to mind. He wound the spring at the bottom of the chimpanzee,
and it began to move its body rhythmically, pouring the whisky and drinking
it over and over again. People gathered one by one. I chewed the chestnuts,
laughing to my heart's content and moving my shoulders to the rhythm of
stood lonely once more, having finished pleasing people.
His loneliness, his isolation from human beings and animals alike, brought
a lump of thick loneliness and frustration to my heart.
I looked at Ock Hui-do. He was staring at the chimpanzee
the way he stared at the grey curtain after putting down his brush in the
middle of his work. Suddenly it occurred to me that he was suffering from
the same loneliness as the chimpanzee. And I couldn't help him at all.
The contentment I had felt evaporated like bubbles. Silently I was pushed
away from him. The chimpanzee, Ock Hui-do, me...I realized in my bones
that all of us suffered our own loneliness which others couldn't share
We walked to the edge of Kyae-dong without speaking.
"I'm almost there now. Why don't you go home? It's so
late," I said.
"I'll walk you to your house."
"I can go by myself."
I removed my hand from his pocket, fled down the alley,and
turned the corner. I dashed to ward my house, my eyes fixed on the distorted
roof in the distance. Just as he had his loneliness he didn't want to share
with anyone, I had my own which couldn't be relieved by any one else. It
was my job to walk down that long alley, feeling frightened, no less than
the day before, and with pain that had almost become physical, a pain that
I couldn't share with anyone.
I told my mother I had already eaten and went directly
to my room. She followed me and sat absently for a long time.
"Why don't you go to bed?" I asked in an irritated voice
when I couldn't stand her any more.
"I got a letter from your uncle."
"He said to send you down to Pusan. As a big uncle, the
only way he can save face is by sending you to college. His tone was unpleasant.
as if I were keeping you in this house."
My mother hadn't uttered so many words without a stutter
for a long time.
"Do you think I should go?"
"Do as you wish."
"Will you go with me?"
"If I intended to live in Pusan, why would I have fought
so hard to come here in the first place?"
"The same here."
We had said everything we had to say. Still, my mother
sat there dumbly. I changed into my pajamas and yawned loudly.
"I'm so sleepy. Wake me up early tomorrow."
"Well...If you aren't going because of me, give it another
"What? Do you mean you'll go with me?"
I hated my mother, but sometimes I was curious about
the strength and hope I provided in her life.
"No. I can't go. I'm comfortable here."
She stood up as if she were afraid that I would ask her
I didn't want to go to Pusan at all, It had nothing to
do with my mother. Living in this vast old house, just the two of us, we
were not bound by any affection or obligation. We must have been caught
by the spirit of the old house. I couldn't leave it, but it wasn't because
of anyone else.
The next morning, even before I opened my eyes, the first
thing that came to me was Ock Hui-do's embrace. It had given me complete
trust and peace like a cradle. As I lay under my quilt, the recollection
of his warm chest was refreshing and sweet. However, a faint clatter coming
from the kitchen and the tick-tock of the clock's second hand broke my
reverie, and I grew as restless as the red hand raced around the dial.
I wanted to believe that my relationship with Ock Hui-do
had changed since yesterday, but I couldn't be sure. In my memory there
was the residue of the feeling that he had pushed me away. My thought grew
more tangled as I washed my face, straightened up my room, and ate breakfast.
The only clear thing was that I needed him.
I love him. I need him. Repeating these words over and
over in my mind, I calmed down and gained courage and confidence. When
I saw him, I might be able to see that something had changed between us,
If it hadn't I would have to be clever and smart enough to make our relationship
But Ock Hui-do didn't come to work that day or the next.
As I went through my daily routine, I sometimes made mistakes and snapped
at the painters, not knowing what to do with my restlessness.
Another Christmas tree was erected right in front me,
its bulbs flashing in turn, as if they were winking at me. My eyes grew
tired and my head throbbed.
"Good morning," Tae-su said in English, all smiles, as
he walked up holding loops of electrical cords.
"Don't you know what time it is? Why are you being so
silly?" I retorted sharply. I was not in the mood to joke around with him.
"My morning begins when I see you."
"Cut it out."
"Why are you so low today? You'll get wrinkles if you
frown too much."
"Well, if I were you, I wouldn't worry about other people."
"I don't want a wife who ages faster than me."
"Really, I'm not in the mood for jokes. Just leave me
"Come to think of it, you look pale. What's wrong?"
He sobered up and looked at me as if he were really worried
"It must be that tree. All that ragged gold paper and
those flashing lights make me dizzy. I think I'm going crazy. Can you move
it away from here?" I was just trying to be contrary.
"Well, the sergeant told me to put it right here. He's
very particular. What can I do."
Tae-su scratched his head and flared his nostrils, looking
distressed. I couldn't hate him when he looked so artless.
"I've got a good idea." He grinned suddenly, and slapped
his palm with his fist. "Wait a minute."
"What is it?"
"I'll go to the power room and cross the wires or something.
I can make all the lights go out."
I had to laugh at his farfetched idea.
"Don't be ridiculous. You know who'll have the worst
time of all if the electricity goes out!"
With a snap of my chin, I pointed to the painters whose
faces pinched with concentration. Ock Hui-do's empty seat stabbed at my
"Uh, Mr. Ock Hui-do isn't in today?"
Suddenly a bright idea struck me.
"Do you know where Mr. Ock lives?" I asked.
"Perhaps your brother knows."
"He might. Why?"
"I have to go and see him. Please find out for me. Will
"Maybe he'll be in tomorrow."
"If he isn't I'll go see him. We have so many orders
coming in right now."
"Boy, I didn't know this business was so lucrative."
"It's the busy season. You'll find out for me, won't
"That won't be difficult, but..."
"If you like, we can go together. I'm easily scared,
so if you could, come along with me."
"It would be a great honor. Going along with you at night...
"I want to ask you a favor, too, and you have to agree."
He stressed "have to," mimicking me with his lips pouting.
"What is it?"
"Will you go to the party with me tonight?"
"What? That trashy party again? Who would want to go
"I do, with you really."
"I'm not going."
"All right. Then I won't find out where Ock lives. You
don't care, right?"
"You're being disagreeable. All right. I will go with
I was angry at him, but I couldn't dislike him for his
pleading. Besides, I was a little curious about the party.
Twisting the cords in his hands, he said, "So Mr. Ock's
absence helped me?"
"I don't know what's the matter with him. Perhaps he
doesn't want to work here any more."
"Well, I don't think it will be easy for him to find
a better job. He's not aggressive, you know. Maybe he's sick. By the way,
what are you going to wear tonight?"
All he could think of was the party.
"Will you be ashamed if I go in this outfit?" I pretended
to be offended, lifting the corner of my old navy blue jacket.
"No, I like you as you are." His voice was low and hoarse,
and his eyes took on a strange gleam. He suddenly looked mature.
I was about to laugh off his comment as usual, twisting
down my mouth, but I was strangely flustered and didn't know what to say.
Closing time had been moved up one hour, and people were
giggling, excited about the party. In the rest area on the second floor
the cleaning women had already changed into velvet skirts and gaudy silk
blouses. They sat in a row, making up their faces and arguing earnestly
over whose fabric was more expensive, whose was from a better maker.
In a corner I pretended to comb my hair but immediately
returned downstairs and self-consciously waited for Tae-su. First, the
fat buttocks swathed in velvet skirts swaggered down the stairs leading
to the basement, followed by the laborers transformed by their neat suits.
Then the salesgirls, clad in flashy dresses, jammed the stairway.
I felt more stupid by the minute, and I hated the idea
of going to the party so much that I wanted to flee.
"Have you been waiting long?" Tae-su asked bashfully,
fumbling with his shirt collar, as if the red necktie made him uncomfortable.
His shyness was as fresh as a tender green shoot that I could't bring myself
to trample on.
"Do we really have to go?" I asked, pouting.
But when he offered his hand, I held it without hesitation.
Together we went down to the snack bar, already swarming with people. The
din of their voices, mixed with music, deafened me and the layers upon
layers of people blocked my view. Holding hands, we were carried to the
center of the room until we reached the spot where the activity was crazed.
The music came from a portable turntable and the din that drowned out the
music originated from the food area where boxes of Coke were stacked and
popcorn was being made.
"Let's behave ourselves. Let's save face as Koreans."
Wherever you went, you met a patriot or two of this type.
"What's the use of saving face? Where can you use it?
Does it feed you?"
"Let's wait in line for the food."
"That's right. Everyone line up."
"What do you mean? Then there won't be anything left
for us except air."
"Bastards! Do they call this a party? Shit! Didn't they
say they'd let us eat as much as we wanted?"
"Don't be so impatient. It takes time for the machine
to make the popcorn."
No matter how fast the popcorn maker spewed out popcorn,
it couldn't meet the demand. Tae-su and I were pushed about. A few people
who did not care particularly about food danced, brushing against each
other, a little distance away from the food. The cleaning women flopped
down on the tiled floor, crunching the popcorn and gulping down the Coke
in earnest, their velvet skirts hitched high up around their waists, revealing
their dirty rayon slips.
"Shit! What can you expect from these damned Koreans?
A tall man spat phlegm to the floor, after being pushed
away from the battle for food. He glared at the mass of people. He appeared
to gather his resolve again. He flung himself into the fierce activity
Pressing his hand against mine, Tae-su looked totally
"You said you wanted to dance," I said sweetly to encourage
him, but he kept getting pushed away to the edge, still holding my hand.
"They invited people without thinking about the size
of the hall. Of course, it wasn't really a formal invitation. How could
there be so many people?" He wanted to explain the frenzy in a logical
fashion, but he couldn't finish.
In a place like this nothing looked more backward than
behaving in a reserved and rational manner. I wanted to expose my ugly
side like other people, who were frenetically having fun.
I pulled Tae-su to where people were dancing. Diana's
white face floated among them, next to the head of a black man, rough and
dark. She looked like a woeful lily beside him.
"Let's dance or go get a Coke. Come on." I grabbed one
of his hands helpfully, placing it around my waist, but he let it drop
and said, "Wait a moment. Those SOBs."
Looking in the direction in which he was glaring, I saw
several GIs jamming the doorway between the kitchen and the hall, watching
our struggles in fascination. The sergeant who was in charge of the first
floor was among them. They were smiling triumphantly, as if they were satisfied
with the play they had put on, as if it were a success beyond their wildest
Tae-su's neck reddened and he looked like he couldn't
bear the disgrace.
"Come on, let's dance, or at least get some popcorn."
"No. Aren't you ashamed?"
"Ashamed? Why? Everyone is doing it. I can be like everyone
else. It's exhausting and useless to pretend we're different from the rest."
"But the Yankees are watching us. They think it's funny."
"I want to have a good time, so why are you upset over
nothing? Let them have fun in their own way. We don't have to think about
our different nationalities. The difference is between those who have empty
stomachs and those whose stomachs are full. If they had suffered a war
and had been hungry for entertainment and food for as long as we have,
they'd behave worse than we do. And if we were in a position to dole out
things, we would be more arrogant and showy."
"So what do you want me to do?" he blurted out rudely.
I whispered into his ear more sweetly. "Well, let's dance
and behave like ugly people. Please don't try to be different from the
others, all right?"
I led him into the whirl of dancers. Diana's lily-like
face floated around me for a while and was gone. I swaggered about, brushing
against the others, feeling a sense of pleasure as if I were rolling in
But before I knew it, Tae-su was leading me, and with
his strong arm around me, he took me up the stairs and soon we were outside.
I felt the cool, pleasant night air on my flushed cheeks. A policeman and
an MP, standing at the entrance, eyed us up and down, but let us pass without
"Today we can pass freely, even here. We could have smuggled
out a Coke bottle or something," I joked.
Tae-su didn't answer, but strode on furiously, his arm
still around my waist. He looked sullen. I hummed to myself, oblivious
to his mood. Suddenly, he stopped and embraced me impulsively.
His cold lips brushed over my flushed cheeks in several
spots, but then they parted my lips, urgently going between them, as if
he were looking for a place to warm his frozen mouth.
I shook my head to avoid his lips. All I experienced
from my first kiss was that it was cold.
"I'm sorry," he apologized in a low voice, but he still
held me tightly and wouldn't release me.
I could hear the pounding of his heart. It was not that
I didn't like it, but I felt so confined that I wriggled out of his embrace.
"Why are you doing this now? You could have done it as
much as you wanted over there. You acted so high and mighty."
"I don't want to talk about what happened there."
"But everyone was doing it."
"Why are you playing dumb? You must know that what they
were doing in there and what I did just now are two different things. I
"Do you mean that it's better for lovers to be in a secluded
place? You're the one who badgered me into going to the party, you know."
"That party stinks like a sewer. Stop talking about it.
A man dreams of going to a party in a suit, with his sweetheart. I went,
thinking that my dream had finally come true, but all I saw was ugliness.
I'm sorry, anyway."
"It was fun. Everyone was having fun."
He twisted my arm suddenly and said, "Why do you keep
teasing me? Do you think I could watch you among those whores and let the
Yankees look at you with contempt? You should be different from other women."
He almost sounded threatening. Still, I had never seen
his eyes so filled with longing. I didn't know what he wanted from me.
If he wanted a longer kiss or a longer embrace, I could go along with it,
but if he wanted me to be different from other women, that was a problem.
Just as much as each person looks different and has a different personality,
I was different from other women, but Tae-su seemed to expect me to be
different in other ways as well. He seemed to want to think of me as a
rose blooming from a sewer pipe. Perhaps I could pretend I was one, taking
his fervent wish into account, but it was embarrassing and bothersome for
me. After all, there was no reason why I should perform like a clumsy actress
just to make him like me. I didn't love him and I didn't want to give up
the freedom in our relationship, which was not restricted by anything like
He nervously lit a cigarette but threw it down and trampled
on it after only a couple of draws. Surely he was about to say something.
In an attempt to alleviate his nervousness, I said, "Look
at the sky. Aren't there a lot of stars?"
It was too obvious a trick. He exploded.
"Don't tease me. I'm not in the mood to look up at the
sky. I have more important things to discuss with you."
If he kept trying to discuss important matters with me,
I was certain my arm would suffer a few painful twists.
"Bye, I'm sorry," I said, dashing into the darkness.
(to be continued)
Translated by Yu Young-nan.