- The Mouth Waters (Short Stories)
Tr. Jamie Chang 2007309pp.
“Sillim” conjures up a green forest. A forest full of trees, a young forest. The trees in the forest are green, like the light green of Seoul Metro Line Two. Most leaves are of a darker hue, but light green seems more right for Sillim trees. When I say “Sillim,” I can almost hear leaves from a distant forest rustling and whispering, supullim, supullim. Green seeps into my tongue when I say, “Sillim,” the same way a red banner somewhere in the corner of my heart flaps wildly when I say “Gupabal” out loud. Such associations have nothing whatsoever to do with the real Gupabal or the real Sillim.
I cross the Han River hugging a pillow. I have to transfer twice to get to Seoul National University Station. I sit in the middle of the bench, heels up. The pillow is in a large plastic bag that crumples irritably and noisily at the slightest movement. The sound is so frail that I hold it closer. A forest of buildings stands across the river. The translucent skin of the buildings reflects sunlight with their entire bodies. Through the billows of clouds, I see the expression on the face of Seoul at one in the afternoon. The spark of Seoul at one. There are too many windows in the world—people grow dark in all that light.
Where are you?
The phone vibrates. It’s my sister. Her question blinks with the small numbers that indicate when the message arrived.
Eungbong, I answer. Sorry. Running late.
I take a deep breath. It always feels weird waiting for the message to be transmitted. I can’t fathom how words can find their way to the right destination. Tens of millions of people send text messages to each other every day. How is it that one person’s I’m sorry finds its way to the right cell phone without colliding into another’s That’s okay? There are perhaps as many text messages floating around as there are molecules of carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and other chemicals from exhaust fumes. We live, surrounded by messages, inhaling them. She hasn’t replied yet.
I bought the pillow at a bedding store in front of the station. I thought about buying it at Sillim, but I gave up the thought, seeing as that this was my first trip to the area. I figured it’d be best to buy it at the discount store near my place rather than wandering the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood in frigid weather. The pillow will soon be handed over to my sister.
She actually had her own pillow. In the several times she packed and unpacked since she moved out of our parent’s house, she never forgot to take that pillow with her. It was just an ordinary pillow with cotton stuffing, but according to her it was the most comfortable pillow in the world. She sincerely loved the pillow the way people love music or art. She apparently left it behind this time. Mom sounded disturbed as she explained over the phone. Mom seemed to believe that she left without the pillow because Mom all but kicked her out of the house. She was taking her time, and Mom got impatient. It was partly Uncle’s fault for arriving too soon, but Mom evidently started to follow her already panicked daughter around the house, pestering her about this and that until Mom finally lost it and yelled at her. My sister stood sulking in front of the car and Mom clumsily shoved 100,000 won into her hand. They exchanged awkward goodbyes. Perhaps they both ended up looking angry for lack of a better expression under the circumstances. The more they felt sorry, the more they felt this wasn’t a good way to part, the more rigid their faces grew. The car, its backseat full of civil service exam practice test books, pulled out of town, and Mom discovered the pillow after several minutes of sitting on the sleeping mat. The pillow had an indent the size and shape of my sister’s head, and it seemed it might still be warm from cradling her head. Mom called in the morning and spent the entire conversation grumbling about her until she finally muttered, “She left her pillow. Buy her a new one.”
The phone vibrates. I open it up to see if it’s her. It’s someone else.
Miss Suh In-yeong, this is a confirmation for the meeting this evening. I’ll see you at Hoegidong at seven.
Yes, I reply. I’m still reluctant, but I’ve already put it off three times. I only agreed to take the annoying survey because of the Cultural Gift Certificates they promised. A few days ago, I got a call from a woman who said the Ministry of Labor was doing research on “college graduate employment.” I treated her with the same weariness and indifference I showed all telemarketers. She kindly detailed the purpose of the survey and mentioned that their researcher could visit me at my residence, and I would be compensated with three Cultural Gift Certificates. I thought that three gift certificates for a survey was a pretty good deal, but I didn’t want her to think I was desperate and unemployed by sounding too eager.
Trying to sound as cultured and indifferent toward money as possible I asked, “When would be a good time?”
The question was tossed back, “When would be a good time for you?”
I knew that the “culture” I would enjoy with three gift certificates would be silly and trifling, but they would be enough to numb the guilt of an unemployed girl for a day.
The train stops at Ichon Station. People follow the color-coded bands that lead to different subway lines. They look like blind people from the Middle Ages, the way they used ropes to get around. The Sadang train pulls into the platform. Warm air rushes out as the doors open. I dash for an empty seat and settle in. My body makes a crumpling sound. I am very conscious of the volume and sound of this pillow despite the fact it will soon be passed on to my sister. I draw myself in so as to not touch the person sitting next to me.
She says she’s already started unpacking. I jump every time the phone vibrates. It feels as though she has shrunk to the size of a cell phone and is crying away in my pocket. I worry that she’s struggling alone with all her stuff. When I first heard that she found a room near the mountain I said, “Well, you like mountains!” like it was no big deal.
She was dumbstruck for a second before she hit me upside the head with a roar of laughter. When Dad was at the detention center, where beans are mixed into the rice they serve, I had said, “Well, Daddy likes beans!” Mom had hit me on the head just like that.
“Yeah, they say you have to snowboard down the hill when it snows.”
My sister did like mountains. It was also true that Mom cooked rice with all kinds of beans for Dad, and the cop who recognized my Dad often let him off the hook when Dad was caught drunk driving. Dad did his time at the detention center in town, curled up in a corner like a model prisoner. During the time he was detained for his petty offense, he did not repent or worry about his family but rather spent his time seething with anger as he wrote up a list of “people from the village who never came to visit him.” Since then, every time he gets plastered, he cries, “I know who you are!” Of course, he never confronts anyone about it. The day Dad was released we sat around the table for a painfully awkward meal of tofu soup. Since the detainment, every time a prison scene comes on TV we laugh in unison and change the channel.
That was a few years back. Even then, my sister was making her daily pilgrimage, backpack and all, to the local library up in the mountain. That was when libraries suddenly became fashionable all over the country, and a brand new library was built in our village. This being the boondocks, the patrons of the library were mostly adolescents who used too much hair gel. Giggling and shuffling hung over the “Quiet Room” where notes and soda were passed over the partitions. The only ones who studied were my sister and a young man who was preparing for civil service exams. The young man sat in the quiet room and suffered the din. Every once in a while he would break down and cry, “Be quiet, people!” The room would fall silent for a second before the junior high kids changed their topic of conversation to what a loser he was. Every day, the only thing he said was, “Be quiet.” One day, he stopped her on her way down the mountain, backpack and all. He rolled down the window and poked his head out the red Tico.
“May I offer you a ride?”
She said that was the first time she saw him smile. She did not get in the car. She moved to a study room in town.
Rain or shine, cramps or colds, she took the first bus into town and the last one back. Once, when she was suffering from coughing fits, an anonymous note made its way to her desk. It read: Why do you bother coming to the study room when you’re so sick? Stay home or go see a doctor. Wondering who it was from, she’d looked around to find nothing but dozens of heads lodged in their respective cubicles. She kept moving in search of a better studying environment. She was at that study room in town the year before last until she moved to Sangdo near Noryangjin last year. This year, for the last time, she moved to Sillim. No one had said it in so many words, but everyone assumed this would be her final year of trying for the exam. We hoped she would believe so, anyway.
Unlike my sister, who studied math at a local college, I’d been living in Seoul for a few years. Despite the distance between my place and her new place, my presence in Seoul was a deciding factor in her move up to Seoul. She wanted to escape from the constant quarrels with Mom and the stares of the villagers. When she ran into friends at the library, their shared dejection had made her feel awkward and uneasy. She ran into a few more friends from school even after moving all the way up to Noryangjin. For her, the unuttered small-town judgment she had to face every day was more unbearable than spending her twenties in a library cubbyhole or running into bubbly acquaintances around town. The unwelcome curiosity was at once persistent and indifferent. There was one man who would make a point of stopping by our house, without fail, every time the civil service exam results were posted to ask how she had done. Knowing she’d failed, he would ask, “So, how’d it go?” He would then go on and on about his successful children before leaving. Her face convulsed like unsettled dough with politeness, humiliation, despair, and something like a smile. I’ve seen her make a similar face at family gatherings and weddings.
I was living in a small studio with our youngest sibling. Sister couldn’t ask if she could move in with us because we were already cramped for space. She came to visit us once or twice a month. She would travel over from Noryangjin, show up unannounced at our door in the middle of the night, face ashen, to collapse on the floor and into copious sleep. It was as though she came to our place expressly for the purpose of deep sleep. As if this was just what she craved, she slept for a long time without moving a single muscle. When she came to visit, we slept sideways on the sleeping mat, our ankles and heads sticking out from underneath the covers.
A few years ago, I worked for a cosmetics company making pamphlets and company bulletins and sending samples and invitations to the press. When I got the job, Mom was more excited than I was. The second she found out I got in, she dragged me out to the town center to buy me a 400,000 won suit. We went through every single boutique in the area where Mom proudly told and retold the story that started with, “See, my daughter just got a job . . .” She paraded around as if anyone unwilling to listen to her story didn’t deserve her money. This was when we left Dad in the detention center because we couldn’t come up with a few million won for a lawyer. I went up to Seoul with a large shopping bag and wore the suit to work the next morning. The day after that, I hesitated before wearing the same suit to work again, but I couldn’t bring myself to wear the same thing three days in a row. I liked wearing Mom’s self-esteem on my shoulders but the possibility of the suit appearing tawdry made me cringe. A few days after that, I sent Mom a box of Green Tea Facial Cleansers. They were individually wrapped like shampoo samples. Mom toured the village brandishing the sample at her friends. To her, the Green Tea Facial Cleanser was a symbol of status and even power in a time when our family was in desperate need of tangible evidence and affirmation of success, even in the form of free samples. I quit a year later. My drawn-out job search and the need to “show ’em” had forced me to take that job anyway. Rumors of everyone else’s success made me self-conscious. The possibility that they really were doing well was unsettling and I was anxious at the thought of their healthy faces searching mine for signs of despair. My harmless bellyaching at a magazine reporter made its way into an article, and I was half forced to quit. I was terrified when the word “lawsuit” came up. It’s been three years since I quit, and Mom still hangs onto that Green Tea Facial Cleanser. She says her heart breaks every night as she opens the packet with a pair of scissors.
“You shouldn’t be using old cosmetics. You should throw them out,” I say.
“But you were the smartest among your siblings,” she trails off.
The conversations are redundant, and so are the hopes. Every year, we say, “We’ll have better luck next year” as if we haven’t been saying so for years. When I didn’t get that job at the public corporation, when my sister failed the civil service exam, we dug up all sorts of evidence to support our optimism. Wouldn’t they create more jobs since it’s election year? They’re lowering the additional points awarded to the children of patriots and veterans, so that would definitely help. You started going to preparatory programs this year, so you’ll improve. You’ve put in this much effort, so isn’t it bound to happen any year now?
I did odd jobs here and there, mostly translating and tutoring, so I had a little money to help me get by even after I quit. I hung out with some friends who were living like I did and joked about how we’d all be screwed if the private education sector in Korea collapsed.
I hear the subway announcement. I transfer to line number two at Sadang Station. It is two stops to Seoul National University Station—a five-minute ride.
“Sillim,” I say to myself. I can almost see the landscape through the bobbing green leaves.
My sister and I were walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood. This was the year she changed her plan from public school teacher to educational administrator. She insisted on coming up all the way to Seoul to buy her books. The books are pretty expensive, so wouldn’t it be nice to save money by getting used ones? she said. She came armed with directions she found on the Internet. There were plenty of second-hand bookstores near Cheonggyecheon or Seoul Station, but we decided to search the Sillim and Sadang area, which was closer to the bus terminal where she got off. We figured they’d have more books since they’re in university areas. We squinted at the maps to find these bookstores. We searched one store after another puzzled by the curious, exclusive absence of the books she was looking for. After about half a day of searching in vain we came to the embarrassing realization that used bookstores around universities in Seoul did not carry Level 9 Civil Service Exam books. In the Civil Service Exam sections, there were scores of books for the Judicial and Diplomatic Exam, as well as Level 5 and Level 7 Civil Service Exams, but very rarely did we find a Level 9 book. Not knowing what to do with the awkwardness of our ignorance and empty hands, we quickly left the store with our hands stuffed deep in our pockets. We stood on the sidewalk for a moment, disoriented. Her face glistened with beads of sweat as she stood under the blazing sun. She looked very ugly. She was three years older than me and had always known more about the world than I did. Growing up, I always thought her things were better than mine. Witnessing her sad introduction to the capital was a strange experience for me. With an embarrassed look on her face, she suggested we eat. To make up for whatever it was we lost that day, we found ourselves an Italian bistro and ordered spaghetti. After a long squabble over who would pick up the bill, she managed to swipe her debit card. That day, she spent much more on meals and tickets than she’d intended to save before heading back home.
Where are you?
I say I’m almost there. I take bus 5515 as she instructed. It isn’t too crowded on the bus. The passengers are mostly young people. It feels as though they’re all Seoul National University students. I shouldn’t feel awed by their presence, but I do. The Sillim outside the window isn’t as green as I’d imagined. The trees that were supposed to be green like Line Two are standing naked. The bus drops me off in front of the bank where I stand looking around. The street looks like a quilt made of a few rural town centers—run down, disorganized, and unruly like a tabloid magazine. Time seems to have formed a puddle here. It’s not just Sillim. All the streets in Seoul are the same way. They look like collages. A man is handing out discount coupons to a “Sexy Bar.” The streets are full of men, mostly late twenties to mid-thirties. I make generalizations about their lives, their meals, their families, and their sex lives. The stories my sister told about this area plays a part in making the whole town feel like an urban myth. I see her running toward me. Her love handles catch my eye.
She lights up. I say I’m sorry I’m late. She says that’s okay. Neither of us knows what we are forgiving or apologizing for, but we say it every time we meet. The second she sees me she says,
“I like your vest.”
I pull at the hems of my mustard colored vest and say, “This old thing. I got it online for cheap. It wasn’t even ten thousand won.”
I thrust the bundle toward her.
“Mom said you left your pillow. She told me to buy you a new one.”
Her face falls.
I’m not sure if it’s the pillow that was left behind or the quarrel with Mom that’s creating a whirl in her heart. We set out for a meat place as though it is the most appropriate thing to do. Neither of us is familiar with the neighborhood, so we pick the one right in front of us. There is a sign that says, “Pigs raised on Injin wormwood approved by the Seoul National University Research Team” in big letters. I can’t see the connection between pigs and Seoul National University, but the place has an erudite atmosphere. I order shabu shabu, remembering my sister’s enthusiasm for beef.
“Feels very different from Noryangjin.”
“Yeah, it’s probably because people here are a bit older. It feels calmer around here,” she adds.
“There was a church at Noryangjin that offered free breakfast to their congregation. Some students used to eat there.”
The man who appears to be the owner brings out the side dishes. I look at the rolled up meat, puzzled. The meat is too pale.
“Um, isn’t this beef?”