Pak Wan-so◢ was born in Kaepung, Kyo◢nggi Province, in 1931 and studied Korean language and literature at Seoul National University. She made her literary debut in 1971 with the novel Namok (The Naked Tree), which draws on her own experiences around the time of the Korean War (a translation of it was serialized in the first numbers of Korean Literature Today). In 1981 she received the Yi Sang Literature Prize for ◢Omma u◢i malttuk (Mother's Post). She has also received many other literary honors, including the Korean Writers Award (1980), the Literary Award of the Republic of Korea (1990), the Yisan Literature Prize (1991), and the Hyo◢ndae Munhak (Modern Literature) Literary Prize (1993).
Her work is too copious to list here. She has published more than twenty novels, and numerous short stories, as well as several volumes of collected essays. Her earlier work was centered on the painful aftermaths of the Korean War; later, she began to adopt a more satiric tone as she mockingly portrayed people alienated by distorted 'middle class' values; in her work as a whole, but especially in recent years, she has been particularly concerned to depict the difficulties women face in Korea's heavily patriarchal society. She is one of Korea's most important women writers of the present time, and it is encouraging to see that her works have recently caught concerned specialists' attention in the field and have been translated into English. This present translation is part of this growing effort to make her major novels available for the English-reading public and thereby acquaint readers with the most recent and exciting developments in Korean literature.
In "Dried Flowers" (Maru◢n kkot, 1995), Pak Wan-so◢ has again demonstrated her unsurpassed knack for seizing upon the latest troubling issues in Korean society and has exposed their complexity and dilemmas with her characteristic insight, attention to details, and acerbic humor. Focusing on the romantic adventure of an upper-middle-class, sixty-year-old widow with three grown children, the novella dramatizes the problems of old age, which have been escalating in recent years, stemming from changing perceptions about Korean family institutions and networks. With the increasing breakdown in traditional extended family systems and values in Korea, the dynamics of relationships among family members have altered. One of the growing trends is the shift of hegemony from the older generation to the younger accompanied by a diminution of respect for seniors and a sense that the old have become a burden for them式all to the bewilderment and demoralization of the older members of society. This intergenerational uneasiness, misunderstanding, and even tension, gets further keyed-up as old folks nowadays live much longer than before, often surviving deaths of their spouses, but have not yet fully developed new perspectives, lifestyles, or behavioral patterns that would accommodate their personal needs in their later years. Some individuals may try to work out sets of measures to handle the situation, but they are not always successful, and sometimes the result could even turn out to be an unfortunate and sad bungling like the one in this story.
Pak's narrative is a wry commentary on one of the ways designed to cope with this old age conundrum式the modish notion of carefree companionship in old age between the two sexes式which obviously has begun to capture the fancies of Korean upper-middle classes. She takes pain in providing details on the rendezvous of the heroine and her male companion, which sweeps the two characters into the realm of sophisticated, dreamy romance of Western movies but they at long last run against the hard rock of reality. This tragi-comedy stems from the author's all too realistic insight, which sees such relationships as illusory and often self-deceiving and pokes fun at their dubious and perilous implications, just as the heroine comes to conclude in the end. Pak makes it clear that the indulgence in romance gray式a kind of postmodern fad, which the progressive Korean younger generation approves and even encourages式is sophomoric at best and hazardous at worst and cannot fundamentally solve the problem of the old age, even if it leads to matrimonial relationships. The author underscores that Korean society's long-standing family ideologies, institutions, and practices are still alive and exert influences, especially on women of Confucian patriarchal monogamous ethos, and would deter decisions that would go against those paradigms式at least in the case of the story's heroine. In short, "Dry Flowers" laments the brashness, shallowness, and egotism of Korea's young exemplified in the willful dismantling of traditionally sanctioned ceremonial protocols and slights of the old, notably by the nephew's families and to some extent by Dr. Cho's daughter-in-law. At the same time, it raises questions whether recent trials in remarriage practices in old age by some sectors in Korean society are a too rushed and artificial dallying with a pretentious and alien cultural vogue and warns of potential pitfalls and blind spots neglected by those experimenters. Apparently the author sees too much of a detrimental underside of such experiments to recommend them to any judicious and independent-minded members of her society and instead, cautions their discretion and reappraisal. This story earned its author the Manhae Prize.
At first I saw only his hands.
One of them had a ring on it. I quickly noticed that the deep dark-blue stone set in the white-gold ring was aquamarine. It was not an expensive stone, but it was not a common one either. This didn't mean that I had a good eye for jewels. No, that wasn't the case.
I had a friend who once owned a jewel shop (it's now closed, though) in the subway shopping mall under a five-star hotel. Lured by my friend's talent for smooth talk, I frequented the shop. Her talk was nothing but trivia, little to do with practical skills for judging the quality of jewels or distinguishing genuine stones from fakes. My friend knew all too many sorrowful and mysterious legends associated with gemstones, and she also had plenty to say about human beings' obsessions to own masterpieces in jewel-work. Could the beauty of a jewel control the destiny of a person charmed by it, just as beautiful women could fall prey to their own beauty without even knowing it, I wondered. I was hopelessly spellbound by my friend's colorful and clever explanations of those stories. At times it seemed she was running the shop because she herself had become a captive of such stories式not to make money or for the love of jewels.
Her tale about aquamarine was a bit different from her other fanciful stories, though. She said that a good-quality aquamarine should have the color of the deep sea, but that such gems were hard to come by. As an explanation of this scarcity, she told me the following story. There once was a young man who had lost his sweetheart at sea. He devoted the rest of his life to buying first-rate aquamarines with all the money he made. When he died, he had collected enough of them to fill a large burlap bag. For some reason, my friend told me this story in a rather brief and lackluster manner式a story about the young man, who, robbed of his love by the deep sea, had thrown his soul into sea-colored crystals any number of times, instead of jumping into the sea to follow his love in death. I wondered whether the artlessness of my friend's talk was an ultimate artistry, after all. For, although I wasn't particularly impressed by her tale at the time, when I saw an aquamarine again later, I felt chills all over my body, as if the stone's deep blue color had pierced me, cutting through my chest like a cold, sharp razor-blade.
I missed the last train, and when I reached the express-bus terminal panting and puffing, it was jam-packed with people, and the tickets for the last bus were already sold out. I couldn't believe that I was out of luck, because I arrived a two good hours before the departure time of the last bus, and these Seoul-bound buses left every ten minutes at that. I should have realized that it was a Saturday afternoon. What I had missed at the train station was not the train itself, but the time to buy the ticket.
I was on my way back home after attending my nephew's wedding. I felt betrayed and pissed off at the thoughtlessness of his family, who had sent me a wedding invitation but with no return ticket, even though I was one of the elders of their family, at least in name. Granted I had only myself to blame for not having bought a round-trip ticket, but it was beyond my expectation that I would have to return home on the day of the wedding. My oldest nephew had moved to the southern city of Taegu because of his job and had made his home there for the past five years. Every time I phoned him, he never failed to ask me to visit his family. So, I thought, on the occasion of his youngest brother's wedding, he would invite me to stay over at least a couple of nights式me, his father's younger sister, who had taken all the trouble to come down from Seoul to Taegu to attend the ceremony.
My family were true-bred Seoul natives, but after my oldest brother and his wife had died one right after the other, their four children got scattered all over the country, each led by his jobs. Even the youngest, the only one working and living in Seoul, had chosen a Taegu girl and decided to have the wedding ceremony performed there. If he had chosen Taegu for his wedding simply because of the locally well-established reputation of the bride's family, I could have been piqued. But since my oldest nephew also lived in the city anyway, I let it go at that. As a matter of fact, the groom, though not particularly choosy, had had difficulty in getting married. It was my oldest nephew's wife in Taegu who finally succeeded in arranging this marriage, after she had her younger brother-in-law go through a number of dates she arranged. So it was only natural that the bride was a local girl.
At the wedding hall, my ears were filled with the din of the region's dialect, which further lowered my spirits, already dampened by the brashness of my oldest nephew's wife, who didn't know how to properly treat her elders. She told me that she had notified the bride's family to forgo the p'yebaek,1 and having had no way of knowing this, there I was all the way from Seoul draped in a Korean dress solely for appearance sake at the p'yebaek ceremony. My oldest nephew's wife curtly defended her own decision to omit the p'yebaek: "We don't even have any older relatives left in the family who'd miss it." I stood aghast. "What does she mean there's no old folk in the family? Am I not, her aunt-in-law, an elder kin?" Shocked that my nephew's wife could write me off so point-blank, in spite of myself, I desperately searched the crowd for some relatives old enough to get excited like me and to trash the generous favor my nephew's wife had given to the bride's family:"Good heavens, why should a bride go through a wedding wearing a veil, if she had no intention to perform p'yebaek? The couple might as well live together, skipping the wedding ceremony altogether. To tell you the truth, this is the first time I ever heard of this sort of thing式all the more outrageous because we are a respectable family. This is truly outrageous! If someone were to take stock of us, they'd think we were a bunch of ill-bred people. Don't you think the other side, which so readily jumped at such a proposition, is something else again? Believe me, I'm not simply bad-mouthing these two households. The whole matter is about something far more serious than that. What I mean is that it's about upholding our beautiful tradition, something no one should take so lightly."But I could find no such allies. Everyone was a stranger to me. What could an aunt-in-law mean to my nephew's wife anyway? Even legally, I was but an outsider married into another family. It occurred to me that my nephew's wife might have sized me up in this light and treated me accordingly, because she didn't even offer me a proper place at the wedding hall and only allowed me to circle around outside the crowd. All of a sudden, I lost confidence, and even felt unsure whether it was appropriate to expect a p'yebaek ceremony when the groom's parents were no longer alive. I wondered if there were anything I knew for sure. My self-consciousness about my own age式I would turn sixty next year式compounded by this complete disregard for me as an elderly person made me feel dismal and even panicky.
At the reception, with a pair of ice-carved Chinese phoenix figures in the backdrop, the bride and bridegroom cut their wedding cake in the midst of the dry ice clouding up from under their feet. Champagne bottles popped open, and were greeted by thunderous handclaps and hearty cheers. Even in this reception hall, with the festivity at its peak, all that I heard was the dialect of the bride's party. My feelings of insult caused by the slight of my nephew's family now turned into a wretched loneliness, as though the dialect of the other party had ganged up to tell me that I didn't belong there. I felt ridiculous in the pink Korean dress, which I had made for my own daughter's wedding. I suspected that the miserably voluminous skirt, which either ballooned up or dragged on the floor, would appear ludicrous, or worse, pitiable. I realized how pathetic it was for a distant relative to put on a loud outfit and unnecessarily attract others' attention. I was merely going through the motions of eating, with my appetite completely gone because of my ever-increasing self-consciousness. All this felt like punishment. "By the way, what is the departure time of your train, Auntie?" asked the wife of my second nephew, staring at me without batting an eye. She hadn't yet properly greeted me sitting next to her, as she had been so busy with feeding her own children. For a moment, I didn't fully comprehend her very first interest in me. I stammered, "Ticket? What ticket?""I mean the return ticket, Auntie. My goodness, you mean you left Seoul without the return ticket in your hand?You know today is Saturday."Instead of answering her, I searched with my eyes for my oldest nephew's wife, who was still busy greeting guests, threading her way through them. My second nephew's wife tracked down her older sister-in-law far more quickly than I and kicked up a fuss over me as if some disaster had occurred. I sat cutting the beefsteak slowly and clumsily like an idiot, trying to show no apparent concern about my return trip.
"It may not be too late yet, if only we hurry now," said the older one, looking at her watch. Just then, it finally dawned on me that I had to return home that very day. I was crushed beyond words at the realization that my expectation for them to ask me to stay overnight, even just as a matter of courtesy, was dashed to pieces. Lest tears well up in my eyes, I stuffed into my mouth pieces of beefsteak I had cut roughly.
"Please take your time. We still have some time," said the younger one.
"No, we may not. You know, it takes time get to the station from here," said the older one.
"We'll take her on our way home. We will leave a bit early, although I won't be able to help you, then," said the younger one.
"Would you?That's very thoughtful of you. Even if you stayed on, there's little left for you to do. It's a lot of help to me, if you'd take auntie to the station. Well, I'll leave the matter to you, then." My oldest nephew's wife and my second nephew's wife, who had come from Ulsan, carried on like this, completely ignoring me.
The younger one's family seemed to have driven from home in their family car, a rather old Hyundai Excel. Except for the newlyweds, all my nephews thronged in couples to the car to say goodbye.
My second nephew's wife sat in the back with her two children. From the passenger's seat, I kept on staring at my nephew driving.
"Why are you staring at me, Auntie?""You seem to take after your father so much. . . . ""When I was young, people told me I took after my mother, though. ""No, no," I denied strongly but without confidence.
"I haven't seen cousin Hyo◢ng-so◢k for a long time. I had hoped to see him come with you this time. . . . ""He has just gone out of the country on business, and his wife has to go to work, too. . .""Honey, when are you going abroad on business?" interrupted my nephew's wife from the backseat with a ringing, almost impudent, voice.
"Why, do you want to sleep alone in an empty bed at night?""Because I'd like to be excused from this kind of function once in a while, too. . . . ""Hey, don't you know there's a difference between brothers and cousins? What's with you. . . ?" The lingering smile around his lips, however, betrayed his adoration for his wife.
"What's so different anyway?I didn't even get any gifts from the bride's family. I heard that your older brother's wife had told them not to bother with gifts. Yet, when we were getting married, she made every effort to make sure that I brought gifts for your family. Look at me, honey, do I have some ugly birthmarks or something?""Okay, okay. Hey, why bother if I don't see any such thing on you?"They carried on this frivolous teasing all the way to the station, excluding me altogether from their conversation.
The parking lot at the Taegu train station was full, and the whistling attendant stopped us from driving in. Taking advantage of the situation, my nephew and his wife dropped me off just like a piece of luggage and sped away. I almost heard their "Hurrah!" raised in unison. The feelings were mutual. Most of all, I felt like breathing again freed from their disgusting antics, and worries about the ticket were secondary. It also felt good to reassure myself that my sons, Hyo◢ng-kuk and Hyo◢ng-so◢k, and their wives don't carry on so tastelessly in my presence.
Saemau◢l train tickets were all sold out, and the Mugunghwa train had standing-room tickets only. I raced toward the express-bus terminal, clutching my skirt式my six-foot-wide silk skirt, which could have very well seated half a dozen people on it without even making them touch the dirt, if I sprawled out on the ground. Luckily, the terminal was not that far from the train station. But my high spirits were soon broken by the news that even the bus tickets were sold out.
The jam-packed crowd, the stale air, and unintelligible noises of the regional dialects were unbearable. But most insufferable was my pink Korean dress. If for nothing else, I had to return home that day just to get out of this ridiculously garish dress. My distress must have been written all over my face because someone asked me if I was traveling by myself. I just nodded. The person told me that I'd have better luck in the boarding area than hopelessly standing in line in front of the ticket window. The idea was that, if I had no company, it would be easier for me to get on board right before departure on the ticket of a passenger who had missed the bus. Don't they say that it's too early to despair, and there was a way out in the midst of this pandemonium!I rushed out to the boarding area, without even properly thanking the person who had given me this precious advice in this strange city.
But I wasn't the only clever one by a long shot. There was a separate, long line of people who had bet their luck on unclaimed seats. I was greatly relieved, though, that this crowd, unlike the one I had just left, had the sense to stand in an orderly line, not cutting in or fighting with one another, for a chance to board the bus. Although the ten-minute interval felt long, each time a bus left, one or two in the waiting line boarded. Still, the chance to leave the city that day was getting slimmer and slimmer. Priority was given to those passengers who had bought tickets but missed their bus over those of us who were waiting there with no ticket at all. I had no patience to stick around waiting for that slim, unreliable chance. My impatience was further shortened thanks to my out-of-place silk Korean dress. The silk of former days used to wrap around the body warmly, but for some unknown reason, nowadays the silk was threadbare regardless of the season and, at the slightest stir of a wind, would billow up uncontrollably. To make the matter worse, the boarding area was in the open air, and I could feel the temperature drop, as the autumn sun began to set.
I gestured urgently to the young woman behind me in line, motioning that I had to visit the restroom, and asked her to save my place for me. I felt the only way I could get lucky was to go inside the waiting room and check. I thought there was the possibility that the bus company, if ever they had a modicum of conscience, might add a few more buses to the Seoul-bound line, given that it was Saturday afternoon. It even seemed possible that a few people in situations like mine could put their voices together and press the company to listen to us. Spurred by a sudden surge of energy, I charged into the waiting room fluttering my silk skirt like a flag.
Right there, an incredible fortune was awaiting me. From the opposite entrance, an old man leapt inside, hoisting up two tickets. It was my dream come true. On the spot, I knew that he had come to return his tickets. Before he could reach the ticket window, I quickly stopped him and asked the destination of the tickets. They were for the Seoul-bound bus leaving in thirty minutes.
"Sir, please sell me the tickets. How much do you ask?""I heard I could get my money's worth, even if I return them to the ticket office. . . . "The old man clutched his tickets lest he sell them below cost, although I meant to offer him more than what he had paid. It's likely that my facial expression, when I approached him opening up my purse first, appeared extremely shrewd to him. When I offered a figure at cost, he told me he had to sell both tickets. Apparently it was a hassle for him to sell only one ticket and return the other to the ticket office. I didn't mind buying both tickets, because I myself could return the one I didn't need. But before I had a chance to express my intention, there appeared a hand asking to split them between us式the very hand sporting the aquamarine ring! I had yet to see his face, but I had neither the leisure of mind nor curiosity. I was on top of the world, with my heart full and beating, with the express-bus ticket firmly clutched in my hand, as if I had snatched a lucky lottery ticket.
In order to savor this mood more leisurely, I treated myself to a cup of coffee from the vending machine. The remaining thirty minutes was just enough for such an indulgence. There was no chance even in the waiting room to get an empty seat, but nothing could beat my mood drinking a cup of hot coffee leaning against the corner wall. It hardly bothered me how absurd I must have appeared in my costume, striking an unconcerned pose leaning against the lounge wall. The coffee tasted exceptionally good. Maybe I was relishing, not the coffee, but memories of aquamarine that had slipped into my mind unnoticed.
I boarded the bus five minutes before departure and took a window seat. He got on just before the bus left, but I didn't look at him. The moment he took off his khaki trench coat and put it on the overhead luggage rack, the inside of the coat got turned over slightly, revealing the London Fog brand label. I was rather pleased by his refinement. The worst thing for someone traveling alone by train or express-bus is to sit next to a passenger who never stops eating bread, milk, oranges, or some such stuff and insists on your having some, too. It seemed that at least I didn't have to worry on this score. Even then I was not making any connection between the aquamarine ring and the London Fog coat式they were two separate entities in my consciousness. Outside the bus window, the darkness was changing from misty gray into light inky black. Finally the bus left the mist of Taegu behind and entered the highway.
While unfolding his newspaper, he lightly brushed against my shoulder. "Pardon me." The voice was dignified and courteous. I simply nodded, "It's all right," without looking at him directly. My side glance, however, clearly caught the ring on his hand holding the newspaper. I liked the simple and sturdy ring setting, which complemented his thick-boned and firm, manly hands. Surprised at my own heightened interest in someone else's clothes and personal trappings and at the strange stirring inside me, I thought I needed to leave my curiosity about there. I leaned my seat back and closed my eyes. A light, sweet drowsiness came over me. In spite of the considerable fatigue from my long-distance round-trip in one day, part of my consciousness was kept awake by my curiosity about who this man was.
Feigning awakening from a deep sleep, I jerked up the upper half of my body and tried to look outside the window, but the steamed-up window was hazy like a frosted glass pane. When I tried to wipe the window with the window-curtain, he handed me a bunch of tissue paper. Instead of saying "Thank you," I again nodded, took the tissue from him, and wiped the window. The bus was running through vast empty stretches of fields. Although the road signs that kept coming in and out of view told the distance to Seoul at every one-quarter mile, I would rather have been told the number of hours left until we reached Seoul. But with the usual Saturday afternoon traffic congestion, it would have been meaningless to compute our arrival time based on distance, I thought. He spoke to me, "We'll soon arrive at the Ku◢mgang rest area." "Ah, yes," I said briefly to show that I understood.
At the Ku◢mgang rest area, we were told that the bus would stop for twenty minutes. After he got off the bus, I lingered a little, then got out. The public restroom, although not dirty, was wet. While taking care of my business inside the stall, I heard the water being doused outside. Cleaning in name only, they were practically flooding the tiled floors. I got irritated at the hassle I had in handling my bulky Korean skirt. I came outside, and as I was looking for my bus, he caught my eye and flashed me a smile from afar under a street lamp where he was drinking coffee. I quickly looked away because the smile was so irresistible. His silhouette standing there gave me a pleasant impression on the whole, reminding me of the last scene from a good movie. His outfit式a wine-colored V-neck sweater over a blue shirt and a green-pea-color wool muffler casually thrown around his chestu式was a little showy, like that of a new-generation pop singer, but nevertheless it matched his silvery hair well. Quickly I dropped my skirt that I had hitched up to knee-level, baring my underclothes, and quickened my steps toward the bus with a peevish look. I felt both humiliated and angry at myself for having acted as if I were crossing a pool of water even on the dry ground.
When I took my seat on the bus, I continued watching him outside. It seemed to me that he not only dressed stylishly but also controlled his weight. He had no potbelly, had long legs, and walked with a leisurely and dignified gait. I looked up at his neatly folded trench coat on the rack. I, too, owned a fine raincoat, though not of the same name brand. I knew I would have had that coat on, had it not been for my concern for that stupid p'yebaek ceremony. If I had worn it, I'd be looking at least ten years younger now.
Without even realizing it, I began imagining him and me drinking a glass of imported wine in a nice bar with our raincoats chilled by the cold wind. I thought the aquamarine had something to do with my sudden indulgence in such wild fantasies. Or perhaps it was because I sensed my deep desires. Back when I used to frequent my friend's jewel shop with no particular business to be there, I was of course much younger than now. But I was not exactly that young, either, in fact. I must have been over forty then, because around that time I was looking back with mixed feelings of both pride and emptiness at my younger days, which were spent breathlessly in joyless struggles rearing my children and supporting my husband. When these feelings had set in, I felt a strange and unexplainable dissatisfaction at both my children (even though they had turned out fairly decent) and my husband, who had become a respected, high-ranking company official. This discontent, in turn, drained my strength, as if numbness had spread to every corner of my body. Perhaps this feeling of emptiness might have caused my rather well-to-do friend to abruptly open her jewel shop and made me frequent it without even buying anything there (I was barely making both ends meet then) as well. At that time, she and I had nothing but aging ahead of us, and we dreaded this prospect more than death itself.
In those days, there was a bar called Cassanova located at the corner where the lines of jewel shops met those of restaurants in the subway shopping mall under the hotel. We sometimes enjoyed drinking wine or cocktails there, not for the taste of alcohol but because of the ambience of the place. At first we felt shy about two women going there alone, and we also felt guilty toward our husbands, so we decided to invite them to join us. Our husbands were also classmates. We tried to cajole them, "Won't you buy me a glass of wine as I feel lonely tonight?" but such coaxing didn't work on either of them. If they had scolded us, we might have retreated home meekly. Instead, they were all too generous, telling us that we should go ahead and enjoy ourselves, as they had previous engagements. Our loneliness seemed doubled, because middle-aged men appeared far less lonely than we. The fact that even our husbands cared little about us worsened our insecurity about our age. Under such circumstances, I found irresistible comfort, though tinged with sadness, in the imported wines and the atmosphere of a classy bar, all thanks to a rich friend, which was not unlike going to a fancy party dressed up with borrowed jewels.
At that time, we were more attracted to the atmosphere of that bar than to the taste of wine or whiskey, and an indispensable part of the atmosphere was an old couple, two of the bar's regular customers. The dignified, refined, and leisurely looking old man and woman always sat at the stand-bar facing the bartender. The long-legged stools matched them well like expensive accessories. The couple chose the well-lit and highly visible seats at the bar, instead of numerous dimly lit, secluded seats reserved for lovers, and this in turn made the stand-bar area far more secretive. If the couple took those seats first, others who used to occupy the area would avoid it. A peaceful aura hovered around their secretiveness式something others felt compelled to honor. In spite of this, we wanted to regard them as old lovers rather than as an old married couple. It was only our wishful thinking, and we never found out their real relationship.
We enjoyed watching their every movement from our dark corner. The good-looking bartender served them simple relishes such as cheese or pickles or put ice over their amber-colored whiskey in crystal glasses. These sights enthralled us as if we were watching a movie. We were not sure what the couple said or what their facial expressions were like, but we felt both envy and comfort at the fact that even aged people could be that attractive. They often clinked their glasses as they very slowly sipped at their drinks. When I watched them clinking their glasses, I even thought that a genuine reconciliation between human beings would be possible only at that age式a thought that had certainly never occurred to me before. Those were the days when my family was financially fairly secure, but I had conflicts with my husband, relatives, and children, which made feel unhinged and miserable, as if stricken by the abrupt and untimely rheumatism. Although my troubles proved baseless, once they were gone, the situation was rather serious at the time. My friend also complained about the meaninglessness of her life. Sighing deeply, I commiserated with her. Our over-glamorization of the old couple was one of our ways of appeasing our emptiness and fear of the ugliness of approaching old age. Those days abruptly ended with the bankruptcy of my friend's jewel business. A drama usually ends with the slow and tantalizing drop of the curtain, but rich people meet their downfall unbelievably quickly. My friend's husband fled abroad after issuing bad checks, and my friend, left alone, was robbed of her jewel shop to pay off their debts. She acted as poor as a church mouse, and one day, disappeared to join her immigrant husband without even telling me her whereabouts. Hurriedly I returned to my own real life and became the same good old housewife, tearfully grateful that my family was still there intact while I had strayed, distracted by some such crazy fantasies.
I wondered how many years had gone by since my last visit to that hotel. It seemed both long ago and just like the day before yesterday. Would the Cassanova bar still be there?Although the Cassnova bar might have disappeared with the old lovers and time, the illusion of them would still linger in me. And I was dreaming of clinking beautiful crystal glasses with "him" in a classy and exotic bar. I felt as if I had cherished this dream for a long time because of those memories but had no partner to realize it together. He handed me a paper cup. It was tea made of grains of Job's-tears.2 I said "Thank you" and looked at him directly for the first time. His handsome, lean face gave me the impression that he was a decent man, and his eyes were warm. My heart pounded. Who would have believed that I could still have such feelings at this age?The traffic became more congested after we passed the Ku◢mgang rest area. Even road signs telling the distance to Seoul disappeared, because the bus driver had willfully got off the express highway, without even bothering to ask passengers' opinions. The bus kept on running through the darkness on some old highways or on short cuts known only to the driver and at times passed by small villages or township-office areas dotted with lighted shops. Every such time I tried to peek out of the window to get clues about our whereabouts, and he handed me tissue papers to wipe the window. But I had no idea where we were because the countryside shops also had such signboards as Seoul Beauty Parlor, Myo◢ngdong Tailor, German Bakery, ◢Uijo◢ngbu Casserole, Yo◢ngjae Reading-Room, and so on. Those shopping areas impressed me as more unrealistic than reassuring, even when they appeared after our long drives on open fields or through secluded mountain roads. While I was long feeling that we were just wandering around rather than moving forward, the bus finally entered a bustling city, giving me the illusion that we had already reached Seoul. Car plates, however, told me that it was Taejo◢n, and by that time, it was almost ten o'clock.
"Here we are in Taejo◢n! At least, this bus is heading toward Seoul," I spoke to him first this time.
"You mean you thought that we were heading somewhere else?""I have been feeling nervous ever since the bus got off the express highway. You see, I thought we were getting nowhere, no matter how long the bus ran all night.""A bus that gets nowhere. . . how interesting! It's more poetic than what I had been thinking.""May I ask what's been in your mind?""I wondered whether we innocent passengers were being kidnapped to be taken to some unknown place because some individuals on the bus were on secret missions or carried large sums of money.""If the bus driver could overhear us talk like this, he'd think we're two of the most deplorable passengers he'd ever had, because in his own way, I guess, he's been trying to get us to Seoul even a bit faster by taking unfamiliar roads.""What's really deplorable is that we've been awake. Please look around, everyone is fast asleep! We'd never have had such silly thoughts if we had fallen asleep like these other people or trusted that the bus driver would take us to our destination."Just as he said, everyone was really fast asleep except the two of us. I felt a tingling pleasure without quite knowing why.
"Are you from Seoul or from Taegu?" he asked.
"I'm on my way home after attending my nephew's wedding in Taegu.""I guess that's why you are so nicely dressed up.""You are right. I thought a Korean dress would be better for p'yebaek and to properly take care of various duties as a senior member in the family, too." I deliberately omitted that I didn't even receive p'yebaek. Still, it felt very good to be able to offer an explanation about my Korean dress, which obviously looked idiotic for bus travel.
We reached Seoul way past midnight, because our bus was caught in a heavy traffic jam after passing Taejo◢n. While other passengers kept on sleeping all too soundly, we remained awake all the way and carried on like young people. We rambled on about old movies, favorite actors and music, restaurants with tasty food and good atmosphere, the state of things in the world, and so on. We completely left out dull stories such as how old we were during the Korean War, how much we had suffered, or where we had taken refuge. While so doing, I discovered for the first time how talkative, cheerful, well-informed, and witty I could be and felt good about it. That didn't mean that we agreed on everything. Although we passionately agreed how demeaning it was to have lived through the 1960s and the military regimes, I strongly expressed my dislike of his dog of Chindo-pedigree,3 which he said he loved just like a family member, as if I were allergic to a mere talk about dogs. Our conversation couldn't have been any more entertaining. So much so that I couldn't believe we had already reached Seoul, although it was past midnight.
City buses passed by us once in a while, but the subway was already closed. Almost all the express-bus passengers got in line at the taxi stand. The night air was cold. He took his coat off and placed it over my shoulders. I accepted it quietly and curled myself up inside the coat. I forgot the concern about my age altogether.
"Where do you live?" he asked.
"In Kodok area," I replied.
I couldn't believe that we lived in the same neighborhood. It was a rather ordinary area. But how could it remain that ordinary when he lived there, too? My heart beat fast like that of a teenage girl. Almost automatically, there floated in my mind the beautiful woods still left aplenty outside my neighborhood area and the good roads for walks there. Without reserve, we got in the same taxi. There was quite a distance between his apartment and the residential area where I lived, although they were in the same neighborhood. He took me home first, and when I got out of the taxi, he handed me his business card.
I was glad to see the light from the second-floor room occupied by the high school student boarder, although I hardly knew his face. I only heard his mother grumbling several times that her electricity bills were high compared with mine because she had a high school senior. The woman's sweet and gentle manner had led me to ask her without hesitation to pay my tax or utility bills at the bank.
From the beginning, my three-story house was designed to rent parts of it. As the owner of the house, I occupied the entire third floor. Unlike the other two floors, which were structured to rent to two separate households each, my single-family unit on the third floor was spacious at more than thirty pyong.4 As such, I used to feel my place much too forlorn for a single person to live in, but I felt sweet, not at all dreary, when I unlocked the door in the dead of the night and entered the room left unoccupied all day long. Even though I lived alone, I had a photo of my large family of fourteen hung on the living-room wall. The picture, one half the size of a door, was taken before my oldest son's departure for his company's branch-office in the United States. The photo showed my husband and me surrounded by the families of my two sons and one daughter, each consisting of four members. Of these fourteen, my husband passed on first, but around the same time, another grandson was born; so, in my mind the total number in the family remained the same at fourteen. I hadn't seen the grandson yet, as he was born in the United States. My oldest son phoned me regularly once every week, never minding the cost, and sometimes dragged our phone conversation on in order to have me hear his baby's babbling. Both my daughter, who lived close by, and my son, who lived in Pundang, never failed to call me every day to say hello. My house was thus connected closely and regularly with my blood relations by means of the phone line, supplying me the strength for living.
The hallway light turned on automatically when the entrance door was opened. Before the light went off by itself again, I quickly reached for the floor light and, as usual, greeted my family picture with my eyes. While breathing in the smell of my house, familiar and damp like the clothes I had worn, I examined his business card. It was a simple design bearing his name with no official title and the phone numbers of his home and office. The card weighed in his favor, as if the simplicity of the card reflected his character, although I knew little about him. I wasn't particularly curious about the nature of his work at the office.
Within a few days as autumn deepened, I could clearly see from the third floor of my house the tinted autumn foliage of the woods reaching its peak. I heard that the autumn colors in Mt. Sorak had already passed their season. I wondered what time of day he'd take a walk with his handsome Chindo dog. He told me that he and his second son, who lived in a separate house, took turns taking care of the dog, because it had grown too big to be raised secretly in an apartment. He also said that he had never violated any laws, good or bad, in his whole life, but found that in his old age he was compelled to break regulations because of the dog, making him cower in front of the neighborhood women. I believe that he was living quite comfortably and was a good person, too. This meant then that I knew almost everything that I needed to know about him.
His card was nicely placed next to the phone. I often picked up the receiver to answer the phone wondering whether it was from him, despite the fact that I hadn't given him my phone number. Although it is commonsense that the party who knows the number is supposed to make a phone call, I couldn't bring myself to call him. In fact, it hadn't even occurred to me to call him. Even though he knew where I lived, it would be totally out of line with his gentlemanly character to crash in on me, and so, my vague hopes to see him again got me nowhere. The most natural thing in this situation was for me to make the first move. Unexpectedly, such a chance arrived all too soon.
There was a death among my in-laws. My second daughter-in-law's mother, who had been living alone taking care of the country home, passed on. When all of my son's family, including the children, left for the countryside to attend the funeral, they left their hand-sized dog in my care. It was a poodle or some such thing. It was so tiny that it felt like a hand-sewn toy that fit snugly in my palm. Whenever it squirmed, it seemed as if a spring hidden inside its fur was moving it, rather than the animal moving with its own strength. Its owners dumped it on me without even checking with me, because I disliked the dog, as it didn't even look like an animal. They left me with no instructions whatsoever about what the dog ate, where it went to the bathroom, or how to take care of it, either. Probably they had no time to do so, because the death was sudden, throwing them into confusion. Taking a chance, I left the bathroom door open, and to my surprise, the dog was smart enough to take care its business there. But the dog just kept on relieving itself, refusing to eat. It would run away from milk, rice-gruel, and cakes without even smelling them first. If the dog were left to its own devices, I was about to be blamed for having starved it to death. After all my tricks failed, I discussed the matter with the mother of the high school senior on the second floor. She told me that the dog must be used to some special foods and promised that, since she was going downtown the next day, she'd drop by some specialty shops, check around, and buy a couple of things for the dog.
That night, I added some soup to the leftover hodge-podge and pushed it onto the dog's mouth. Much to my surprise, instead of twisting his neck to avoid the food, the dog immediately took to the food and fiercely began to lick up the soup first with its red tongue darting in and out. "You silly thing, how could the likes of you be so picky about food, when even human beings, the lord of all creation, surrender when hungry? You learned a lesson, didn't you, you rascal!"Before I could smile over my small victory, however, the dog suddenly began letting out piercing cries, writhing in excruciating pain as if it were about to die. I was gripped by terror that the dog might breathe its last, with no time to think about the cause carefully. Concern for my embarrassment toward my son and his wife paled before my panic, when the face of my little granddaughter, who devotedly cared for the puppy like its mother, loomed in front of me. At that moment, "he" leaped to my mind as the first source of help. My hands shaking, I dialed his number, and when he answered the phone, I couldn't speak properly because of my uncontrollable sobbing. Still he managed to understand me, and since he quickly arrived in his car, we could get to the nearest veterinary office in no time.
When I saw him come racing to my rescue, I burst into another round of tears. It was beyond me how I could cry so easily. He held on to the steering wheel with one hand and with the other patted my shoulders to comfort me. When the puppy let out more pitiful whimpers under the vet's hands, I covered my ears with my hands and sobbed, almost collapsing into his arms. I couldn't stop my sweet crying, even while realizing perfectly well that it was a pure show of coquetry. The vet showed us a fish bone he had pulled from the puppy's throat and commented that he had never seen any grandmother cry at the pain of a dog, even though he had seen any number of kids do so.
The puppy turned out to be all right and returned to its home a few days later. Of course, I never missed it at all, because I never really liked dogs. But our phoning, which began as exchanges of news about the puppy's health during its stay with me, developed into our meeting over a cup of tea after the puppy's return to its home. I went out for morning walks in order to meet him, and on the first day it snowed, we finally drank whiskey together, toasting for no reason at all in a classy bar whose atmosphere reminded me of Cassanova. On that particular occasion, I paid for our drinks, and then he returned my favor by treating me to makkolli 5 in a folksy stand-up bar. It was a very nice establishment, no different from Western-style bars. If I treated him to Korean cuisine, he'd buy me Western-style fare. Actually he entertained me with more expensive foods in return for my cheaper treats, but it didn't mean that we set rules to make us feel mutually burden-free. Nothing was set. We acted on the spur of the moment.
I grew accustomed to his good-looking Chindo-dog, too, and we even took it on a drive in his car. I felt as if I was learning for the first time how many good places there were in the outskirts of Seoul. All this happened after I became ingenious enough to cry under the pretext of the poor puppy. I not only openly shrieked to show how I admired the novelty of the places we visited, but also hopped around like a sixteen-old-year girl. I felt within me a sort of surge of frivolous and keen bouncing energy, not unlike a ping pong ball-something comparable to the so-called spark-flying performance of the new-generation talents in show business these days. As a matter of fact, I was staging an act, because the giddy joy I experienced smacked of pleasure in playing games. From the very outset, our affair was hopelessly unreal, because a dream come true was possible only in the world of dreams.
I even went this far. One day, the phone rang while I was taking a bath. I had two phones-one in the hallway and one in my room, but didn't have a cordless phone yet. Whenever the phone rang, I was able to walk out of the bathroom to get it, naked, with no one around to mind-one of the advantages of living alone. My bathroom was adjacent to my own room, and the phone was on top of the low wooden bureau next to the dressing table with a mirror. While I was talking on the phone, standing stiff on a towel to catch the water dripping from my body, I almost screamed "Who is that old hag?"The dressing table with the mirror, which I brought with me when I was married, was old-styled, and so, its mirror was not big. In this mirror only the lower half of my body was reflected in full view.
I had gone through three pregnancies and had three children. More correctly, I actually gave birth to four children but reared only three, because in my third pregnancy I had twins, but the younger one, a son, died before his first birthday. The area below my navel, which had even carried twins, looked gruesome. My protruding lower belly dropped in a steep slope down toward the pubic bone with creases drooping from there, looking like silk wash wrung-dried tightly. Although my body had not come to this pass overnight, its ugliness was shocking nevertheless. It was because, if I held only the upper-half of my body against the steamed bathroom mirror, it was still fairly presentable. Also it was probably because I usually chose only those body parts that I wanted to see and enjoy, either soaking myself in the bathtub or standing outside of it. I quickly covered the unseemly part with the towel on the floor, and swore that "Until the day I die, I won't ever show that part, even to you, the mirror!"As a Christmas present I bought him a muffler, while he gave me a scarf. Both were flashy. We were more concerned about how we could surprise and make each other happy when we selected and exchanged gifts than thinking of their practicality. In this particular respect, we were very much alike, although there might have been more differences between us on the whole. He said that it had been a long time since he had given a woman a present. He said that (although I didn't ask him) it was the first gift in three years he had presented to a woman, as if to hint in passing at his three-year-old widowhood. During our past contacts that brought us this close, we had had plenty of chances to tip off that we were a widow and a widower. This was the first time, though, that he formally mentioned the exact length of his widowhood. I changed the topic as if I weren't interested in what he said. I thought that, unlike our exchange of mufflers and scarves, we had no business trading the details of our personal lives.
The New Year came round and I was to turn sixty. I wondered if there were any significance in one's sixtieth birthday式the year when the zodiac sign (yukkap) of one's birth year completes its full cycle. In fact, the phrase "performing yukkap"6 is never used to compliment someone's action, but everyone tried performing yukkap in front of me, making a big deal out of my sixtieth birthday. My birthday was the first subject my older son brought up when he phoned from The United States on New Year's Day, saying that his call was in place of his New Year's bow to me. He suggested that, instead of having a sixtieth birthday party, I should take a sightseeing trip to the United States. If I were willing, he said, they'd put off the party until my seventieth birthday, suggesting that the three siblings had already agreed on the idea.
"I really don't know. But you children shouldn't worry about that. Listen, even if you don't throw me a party, I won't mind it at all. Also, don't think that you have to do something instead, either. It's too unsettling to be soon sixty. . . ." My answer was dull and lukewarm, but I really meant it, not a mere gesture.
"You see, Mom? That's why we want you to take a trip, rather than, being bothered by it. I'll take a long vacation, and then we could easily take a trip all the way to Europe. We have only one year left here in the United States, so if you miss this chance, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."My son was practically threatening me. He had every reason to push like this, because he had begged me to come for a visit as soon as he had started working in his company's branch office in the United States. But among the things I hated as much as the thought of a sixtieth birthday party was the image of old people going abroad to visit their children. They go in packs式one made up of members of the wife's side, the other, the husband's side式and they board the plane as if they own the whole world. I hung up the phone neither accepting nor declining my son's invitation. When it comes to international calls, I always hung up first, uneasy about the cost.
It seemed the sixtieth birthday was every bit a hassle to the person in question, but more so to the children. When my children sensed that I was not willing to take a trip abroad, they wanted to know whether I preferred a party instead. When they learned that I wanted neither, they became very anxious to find out exactly what I wanted. I knew that my children wouldn't ever find out what I wanted, because I didn't know, either. Nevertheless, I felt rather good about their concern as well as amused by it. After all, isn't it all too natural for parents to feel proud of their children who try to do their best for their parents, doing nothing short of what other families' children do?My daughter played the usual role of an antenna to feel me out. Since she was the oldest, she was the closest to me in age, and was also easy to talk to because we were both women. As she was born considerate, I treated her like a friend from the time she was young, and her younger brothers, though deferential toward her, used to discuss everything with her. This made her impatient when she didn't know what was going on in her parents' home.
Such tendencies led my daughter to poke her nose into my current affairs. She gradually grew wary about her mom's boyfriend about whom she had only a vague inkling. In Korean society, unless an individual is from outer space, he can never be free of the human network either through school connections or regions of birth, not to mention family ties. So, once my daughter assumed the mission of finding out about him, it was inevitable that not only the old information I had had, but also even new details about him should come to light. At least I knew that he retired last year from teaching at a regional university, that he belonged to a small research institute made up of retired professors of Korean history, and that he lost his wife three years ago.
Now, thanks to my daughter's nosing around, I learned that he had enjoyed a very good conjugal relationship with his wife, that he owned another house besides the one he gave to his son and also some land in the countryside, and that the wife of his oldest son, who took care of him, was from a wealthy family, pretty and bright, too. It seemed that my daughter gathered plenty about the daughter-in-law, because she was the same age as my daughter. All of us were bound to be caught in this human network through all sorts of ties, if we at least attended school from the primary level to college, even if not the same school, in Seoul式a place seemingly large, but in fact, rather small.
My daughter, who went this far on her fact-finding mission, asked me with a solemn look what I was going to do with "that old man." Her bearing was no different from that of a mother who watches over her delinquent daughter.
"What do you mean by 'that old man'?""How could you expect me to speak something nice about the man when I know that he has led you on?"When I saw tears welling up in my daughter's eyes, I began to regret my initial over-eagerness to defend him. But I knew there was nothing of consequence between him and me that called for changes simply because my children found out about us.
"Led on? Who led on whom? Watch your language! It sounds monstrous.""Hyo◢ng-kuk and Hyo◢ng-so◢k don't know it yet.""What if they know?""Mom, what good is there for them to know? It'll only give them excuses to mistreat and disrespect you when you get older.""How would they know if you keep quiet?""Okay! I'll keep my mouth shut, and you be careful, too. Even children have their own face to save, you know."And so in this way my daughter went on with her chatter, as if she were a mother soundly scolding her wanton daughter, talking hush-hush and promising not to report her misconduct to father.
But my daughter's interference did not stop there. Her meddling continued, probably because he and I made no special effort to be any different from before by the simple fact that we had nothing to hide in the first place. But the real reason seemed to be the fact that my daughter got hold of information that was leaked to her directly from his family. His daughter-in-law turned out to be a college classmate of my daughter's closest high school friend. On top of that, his daughter-in-law and my daughter were living in the same apartment compound. Once these connections were established among these girls, our personal secrets became open to anyone's prying, defenseless like those of individuals tied by double marriage.7 Provided my daughter's friend, the intermediary, who knew both sides, might have somewhat refracted or exaggerated the information, the conditions of the other side, thus revealed in detail, didn't seem that disagreeable to my daughter, who had been bristling with ill will. She even made an impudent joke to me, giggling that she ought to give me some credit for my good taste. Then, one day, she asked me, looking quite serious, "Mom, are you in love with Dr. Cho?"I choked on my uncontrollable burst of laughter and spilled the coffee I was drinking, almost burning myself. It was funny because "that old man" was now "Dr. Cho," and also because I knew that he didn't particularly like to be so called. Some time ago, he had a nice chat with one of his middle-aged students he ran into. Afterward he told me that he liked his old students as they greeted him "teacher," but didn't feel at all close to students of today, who called him "professor" or "doctor." There was some such quirk in him.
"Mom, what's so funny?""Isn't it funny that 'that old man' has changed into a 'doctor'?""From the way you like it, I can tell you are in love with him, aren't you?"My daughter pouted, but there was no hint of annoyance. But I could sense a sadness about her, and this made me feel that I had to make my attitude clear sooner or later. There was no avoiding it forever, even though my decision to stop enjoying the relationship would make me lonely, perhaps several times worse than my daughter's present sadness.
Some time after "that old man" transformed into "Dr. Cho," my daughter told me that she was introduced to his daughter-in-law. Even though the meeting was arranged by their mutual friend, my daughter said she recognized the woman's face because she had often run into her in the supermarket or some other such places. I sensed that, with the third-party mediation gone, my daughter's attitude began to change favorably toward his family. I also felt profoundly sad watching her increasingly tilting toward their side as time went on.
"Mom, if it's because of Hyo◢ng-kuk and Hyo◢ng-so◢k that you can't make up your mind, don't worry about them. I will do my best to persuade them and keep your dignity intact."I wondered what kind of scheme my children had come up with to embolden my daughter to talk to me so openly and concretely. Since it seemed to me that his daughter-in-law was pressing the matter, I felt worried about him.
"Are you now saying that you're going to marry your mother off?""You are in love with him, aren't you? How beautiful it is to remarry for love! A remarriage neither for lack of livelihood nor for lack of children to depend on! I will stand behind you and be proud of you, Mom, no matter what others might say."I looked at my daughter, so caught up in her own ramblings about love, and thought "What do you know about love, anyway? What's so special about love? Love is nothing but life itself, you know." The more I tried to make light of it, the more I felt weighed down.
His daughter-in-law naturally became a topic even between him and me without our realizing it. If I commented, "Wow, this Parker coat looks new! But it's too loud," he'd answer, "My daughter-in-law bought it for me, but I don't know why she's so eager to make me look younger these days," scratching his head bashfully. I felt all the more oppressed, as his daughter-in-law, whom I had not yet met, grew more and more to be an important character. Later, when he said that she had invited me to her house and had instructed him to have me set the date, I had a hard time keeping myself from exploding at him for invoking his daughter-in-law so often. Although he didn't press for an immediate response and I dodged answering, he looked pitiful despite all the fresh fragrance of lotion wafting from him.
Then, his daughter-in-law had my daughter relay the same message to me. Without even listening to what I had to say, my daughter was all wrapped up with worries over how she should dress me up, so that I wouldn't feel shabby facing his stylish daughter-in-law.
"She must be a filial daughter-in-law, rare in this day and age," I said.
"No doubt about that, Mom. She is so good to him. But I fully understand how difficult it is to take care of a single father-in-law. She said that when the going gets tough, she takes it like doing volunteer social work."I felt a lump in my throat. Still I couldn't decide this important matter on the spur of momentary anger or out of pity. Yet I said clearly to my daughter, "Look, Hyo◢ng-suk, dear. Listen to me carefully. I, your mother, want to be buried next to your father." Sobered by my words, my daughter didn't push the topic any further.
Although we didn't have an ancestral burial ground on a countryside mountain, my husband's grave in the communal garden-graveyard was designed so I could be buried beside him eventually. On his tombstone, my name was already engraved next to his. Thus, I already had my own gravesite and tombstone. Only the date of my death had been left uncarved below the date of my birth. I loved to visit the grave. I never felt guilty toward my husband while I was seeing Dr. Cho. My desire to visit the tomb was the closest thing to an absolute free will that I had in my daily routine. Compared with the deep peace I felt at the grave, even joys and sorrows of everyday life, no matter how great they seemed, appeared to be no more than small ripples skimming over the surface. The peace I found there was never a dead peace. There, I found the grasses as well as the ants, grasshoppers, and even the grubs living in those grasses lovely. I believed that his body was nurturing them and that some day I'd be joining him in doing the same. This thought allayed my fears of death, even though I had no firm belief about the soul in the after life, and I even felt special tenderness toward the smallest things in nature. I was going to ask my children to cremate my remains, which would be used to their last sap to nurture the grasses and insects, so that the ashes could freely wander over mountains and rivers. No temptation could derail me from that guaranteed peace and freedom.
After our conversation, my daughter retreated, but she re-approached me, giving me the impression that she had heard something more from his side.
"Mom, please don't worry. Even if you remarry, we'll bury you next to Dad when you pass on. Come to think of it, wouldn't the other party be buried next to his wife, too?"I was at a loss how to explain to her that the peace I desired was far beyond that sort of triviality. I didn't even feel like explaining.
"That's enough. It's scandalous. How dare you say something like that to your own mother?""What's so scandalous?You've seen Jackie buried beside John F. Kennedy, haven't you?Even if our relatives or my brothers raise objections, everything will turn out fine if I hold my ground. You see no one has the right to abandon Dad in loneliness.""Enough is enough!What's gotten into you, really?""Mom, what's gotten into you, indeed?Everyone knows that you are a woman of passion. With that old passion revived, you won't have any problem in overcoming such trifles."I couldn't believe that I would let my daughter go on with this endless nonsense. But her concern was something I could understand. Her straightforward remarks forced me to face up to the course of my own emotions up to that point. As the oldest child, my daughter had heard a lot about my younger days. Born to a large family, especially when we had no house of our own, she had known all too well about the pinched financial state of her family. Such difficulties continued well into her high school years, making it impossible for us to pay her tuition on time unless pressed to do so. My daughter was the one who heard the most from my own mother's grumbling about the causes of my unending hardship. Although my mother felt bad about my financially squeezed life, she made it very clear that I had only myself to blame since I had asked for it. At that time, my husband's family was not only poor (although, as of now, the financial situation of my parents and that of my husband had gotten almost even) but also rough-hewn and vulgar, probably because, except for my husband, few of them had regular schooling. This contrasted sharply with my own parents' urbane, middle-class background. My daughter, at the peak of teenage sensitivity, was bound to feel odd about this, and her grandmother's grievance was likely to have supplied the right answers to her questions.
When I fell passionately in love with my husband, my mother in fact found him to her liking as a potential son-in-law. So much so that she even buttered him up as "a dragon from a ditch."8 Nevertheless, she was firmly against my marrying that dragon. In her view, marriage to a dragon from a ditch was not marrying a dragon but getting mired in the ditch. No matter how much my mother opposed the marriage with her endless wailing, all that I saw was the dragon, not the ditch. My mother's prophecy came true, and my desperate struggle with the ditch continued until I sent away the last of my husband's sisters in marriage. But what appeared to others as a ditch was the reward in my life and the source of my strength. That blind energy, which had veiled my eyes and made me see only one man at that time, was now called "passion" by my daughter, it seemed. You could call it passion or even sexual desire.
That very passion was missing from my feeling for Dr. Cho. My feeling of love was no different from my younger days, but sexual desire was clearly absent from it. I felt love that was satisfied by emotions only was nothing but a superficial attraction. Come to think of it, my relationship with him seemed to me only a flirting with such shallow glamour. Now that I was no longer blinded by sexual desire, I could see everything very lucidly. No matter how stylishly he dressed himself, signs of impending old age were all too visible to me. I could well imagine what he would be like: the dried-up, drooping skin revealed whenever he changes his underwear and the flakes of dead skin that would shower down from his body; his laborious and gasping snoring as if he were climbing up high and steep mountains; cigarette ash dropped carelessly everywhere; thick phlegm coughed up as he cranes his head desperately; breaking wind time after time by deliberately raising his buttocks; the stench of stomach acid when he burps, no matter how much he tries to pass for a gentleman; voracious, egotistic appetites; endless nagging mixed with a loss of memory and a morbid suspicion about his wife's morals; stinginess as if he would live more than a hundred years. All these were too apparent to me. I knew that love alone won't be enough to enable one to stomach all these sorts of things. I believed that in order to overcome them a couple at least should have shared those beastly periods of time, creating children together, giving birth and rearing them. Now I finally came to recognize the beauty of sexual desire, which far surpassed the superficial attraction. I realized there was no room for me to reconsider our affairs. Furthermore, I was way past the age to dream the impossible.
My daughter added an unnecessary footnote, "What shall we do with pitiful Dr. Cho, if you reject their proposal? His daughter-in-law says that she won't be able to take care of him any more. She prefers to have him married to a woman he likes, if at all possible, but she seems to be ready to marry him off to anyone any time now. I heard that she has plenty of women lined up who want to get married for the sake of security in old age. But she doesn't seem to care for women too young for him, either. I guess she wants to avoid younger candidates not just because of the embarrassment in getting along with a young mother-in-law for now but for fear of prolonged responsibilities later on. The best she could do now seems to be to take in some poverty-ridden hag. Mom, would you feel okay if someone you loved became pitiful like that?"My daughter prattled on as if she were cracking jokes with her friends. I flared up, "What's wrong with being poor?You shouldn't look down on people, you hear? Being poor is far more virtuous than doing volunteer work, you know." Being poor should be far holier than looking for flippant glamour, I thought. I spat out those words to my profound relief, superimposing in my mind the face of his daughter-in-law I never met upon that of my daughter.
I no longer wanted to allow either of them to come between us. On our last date, I told him that I was taking official steps to leave soon for a visit to the United States and was planning to stay there for a long time, if possible. Then, carefully putting my hand on top of his ringed hand, I told him that I didn't want to risk widowhood for a second time, for I have tasted its unfairness once already. I tried to read him, fearing that my words, though put in a roundabout way, fell too hard on him, but nothing could be gleaned.
This translation has been supported by funding from the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation.
1. A ceremony immediately following the wedding, in which the bride bows to the elderly members of her husband's family.
2. Called 'yulmu' in Korean, its grains are used for tea and also used in Chinese herbal medicine.
3. Chindo is an island off the coast of the South Cho◢lla province best known for its breed of dogs indigenous to Korea.
4. Pyo◢ng is a measuring unit for land and the size of houses, approximately equivalent to thirty square feet. The thirty-pyo◢ng house would be about one thousand and sixty-five square feet.
5. A Korean traditional rice-wine, milky-colored and rather coarse and dense in texture.
6. Derived from yukkap, "yukkap handa" (performing yukkap) originally meant figuring out someone's fortune. Later, it became a derogatory expression for unacceptable or unseemly actions.
7. This refers to a situation in which two members of a family get married to the same in-law family.
8. The expression is from a Korean proverb, which is usually used to describe a self-made man of humble family origins.