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FICTION

Nowhere to Be Found

  • onDecember 16, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byBae Suah
Nowhere to Be Found
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell
2015
108pp.

“We have this!”

I shuddered in horror.

“I hate chicken. Besides, that’s for you.”

“Says who?”

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

“It’s over there.”

Cheolsu pointed to the soldiers’ latrines at the end of the parade ground. I went inside and squatted down awkwardly, trying to keep my body from touching the latrine door, and peed for a long time. My thighs and bottom were ice cold. When I came out, Cheolsu was pouring a can of Coke into two paper cups. He was sitting on a bench beneath a tree overlooking the snowy parade ground. Cheolsu’s friends and their girlfriends, mothers, and little sisters were staring at us from across the way. They looked like they were waiting to see how much I would enjoy eating his chicken.

“Here, dig in.”

He tried to hand me some Coke. I shook my head.

“Eat! I bet you haven’t eaten anything all day,” he said, tearing up the chicken.

“Cheolsu, are there two Kim Cheolsus here?”

“Huh?”

He put down the chicken and looked at me.

“Tell me. Is there another officer-in-training named Kim Cheolsu besides you?”

“I told you there isn’t. Someone made a mistake. Either you misheard them or some idiot private misunderstood you. Besides, what does it matter? You’re here now, and the Kim Cheolsu you were looking for is right in front of you. So who cares? Have some chicken.”

“It’s your chicken.” I pushed away his hand as he held out the carcass. “Cheolsu is a very common name. You know that.”

“What the hell are you getting at?”

“I know I said your name clearly, both here and at the other base. Kim Cheolsu. I said I was here to meet Kim Cheolsu. Just like that. But the soldier at the drill field told me, ‘The Kim Cheolsu who was supposed to be on this training exercise isn’t here. I’m not sure which one you’re looking for, but you should go back to the base where you first checked in. The Kim Cheolsu who’s there is probably the one you’re looking for.’ That’s what he said.”

“You’re tired.” Cheolsu gazed into my eyes as if to soothe me. “That’s why your nerves are frazzled. Have some chicken. You’ll get your strength back, and you’ll feel better. Do what I say.”

My eyes started to well up with tears. Up until that moment I’d never really understood sadness. The fierce, mob-like sadness that would come over me, clear and strong. Where did it come from? Was it real? This sadness that crept up and cut through all of my routines and my boredom and my repetition and my drama, like a sliver of glass piercing my flesh and sticking in the soles of my feet?

“I went to see your mother,” I said. “She called me.”

I ignored Cheolsu’s chicken and kept talking. He must have seen my tears, but he wouldn’t move his hand away, which was still holding the carcass.

“I really don’t belong with you. If it was like the old days, when all we did was bump into each other at the bus stop on the way home from school and say hello, that would be one thing, but this isn’t it.”

“What are you saying?”

“I hate the formulaic lives you and your mother lead.”

Finally, I’d said it.

“Don’t say that. Eat some chicken.”

It seemed like Cheolsu was suppressing his anger, or his wounded pride. His voice was high and peevish. I took the chicken, placed it back in the container, and put it in the torn paper bag. Cheolsu watched wordlessly. I carried the bag over to the latrines. The snow was falling prettily on the paper bag that held the chicken carcass, on my footprints, on my sweater, and on the soldiers’ latrines, like a drawing of a landscape at midnight. The weather was frighteningly dark, and the world was filled with shadows that made it impossible to tell the time. I tossed Cheolsu’s chicken into the latrine and turned around. Cheolsu was standing right behind me. I ignored him and walked away. His friends, and their girlfriends, mothers, and little sisters were still staring at us.

“I’ll never forgive you for this. Ever,” Cheolsu hissed at me as I brushed past him. “All you do is put up walls and make excuses that I can’t understand. I’ve always hated people who go through life as if they don’t care, making everyone else pander to their moods. I tried to feel a sense of duty toward you.”

Without looking at him, I said, “Now that your toilet has eaten your chicken, you’ve done your duty.”

     And then I left.

 

I became very ill after returning home. I had a fever and my body broke out in hives. My room was covered in dust from not having been cleaned in a long time, and at night I heard rats scuttling around. No one opened my door to check whether I was alive or dead. At work they were planning a Christmas party; they called to ask whether I could make it. One of the women who worked in the university office told me that it had been snowing the entire time I was sick, and there was a big commotion because everyone who’d taken a weekend trip to Gangwon Province was stuck there. On the third day, after my fever lifted, I took some bread and butter out of my desk drawer and ate it with barley tea. The cold butter and the lukewarm tea sat in my mouth. My brother’s departure date for Japan was approaching. He told me he was going to take out a loan to cover the rest of the money he needed. He put on a black fur-lined hat, black boots, and black gloves. He looked like an aging thief.

“I’ll send you money,” he promised me. “Mia is starting high school next year, and you’ll need money for your wedding. Stop working nights at that restaurant. I’ll send you money.”

“I’m never getting married.”

“Of course you will. You’ll marry Cheolsu,” he said, grinning.

Don’t say that, brother. You know as well as I do that this is all just theater.

I went with my brother to the bank so that he could take out the loan, and on the way back we had our photograph taken. I combed my hair neatly and reapplied my lipstick in the mirror at the photo studio.

Our family had never taken a picture together in a studio. But there it was, right on the way home, as if we were seeing it for the first time. My brother stroked my hair and said, “Let’s take a picture.” We held hands in front of the camera. His hand was hot, as if he had a fever. Then both of our hands were sweating. If I never saw him again after that day, I would think of him a hundred years from now. That photo of him was the last I would see of his face. His final face in some distant future. My brother and I clasped hands tightly, sweat slicking our palms, as if we’d planned it that way from the start.

Then, just like that, he left for Japan with the other employees of the janitorial company. I did not attend the Christmas party at work. My mother and I made Christmas cards to send to people in prison. It was so cold in our poorly heated house that we had to keep blowing on our hands as we worked. When the new year began, I would have to find a new job. Each morning I opened my frost-covered window and looked down at the dead, bony trees lining the road. A new low-income apartment building was going up across the street. That meant the dye factory next to its polluted stream would shut down, but I did not yet hear the sound of construction.

“If only he could have worked at that construction site instead of going so far away,” I muttered to myself.

My mother paused in the middle of gluing a card and shook her head.

“No, men are supposed to aim high and strike out on their own,” she said, her voice filled with conviction.

“They can’t get by as day laborers forever.”

“Do you really think he’ll come back?”

I stared out the window as I asked. Maybe she did know everything after all. At least on days like today, when she wasn’t drinking.

“Of course. That child came out of my belly. No one knows him better than I do. I have faith.”

She was unshakable. She kept brushing on glue and did not turn to look at me. Perhaps I still had something to learn from her, my poor alcoholic mother. Despite having eaten at the same dinner table with my family long enough to feel ashamed of them and turn red with embarrassment because of them and feel wretched with them and never breathe a word of my own feelings to them, I would in the end encounter that other me in the mirror. Maybe with time Cheolsu and I would become similar people who sit at a similar table and have similar conversations over dinner and then appear in my mirror. The Cheolsu in the mirror hands me the frozen chicken carcass.

There. Have some chicken. You’ll feel better.

Cheolsu, I will eat your chicken when that day comes. I will gladly become your toilet. When I can, for once in my life, for a brief moment, become ardently pure. When that day comes. 

 

 pp. 71 - 80

Author's Profile

Bae Suah made her literary debut in 1993 in the quarterly Fiction and Philosophy with “The Dark Room of Nineteen Eighty-Eight.” She is the author of the short story collection Green Apples Along the Highway (2002), and the novella Nowhere to Be Found (1998), and the novels Sunday Sukiyaki Restaurant (2003), North Living Room (2009), and Untold Nights and a Day (2013).