- onOctober 5, 2021
- Vol.53 Autumn 2021
- byBaek Ohn-yu
The man seemed determined to feed me something. I tried telling him that I was full, but he ignored me; he pointed to a franchise bunsik restaurant nearby and grabbed me by the wrist as he said, “Let’s eat tteokbokki and sundae.” I usually allowed him to lead me places, but the last thing I wanted today was to sit across from this man while smelling food. The thought also crossed my mind that sundae might weaken my resolve. I pointed to a nearby café. The bright, clean, neat café that smelled of fragrant coffee, as well as the café’s plush couch, seemed foreign to this man.
I didn’t have anything urgent to do today, so why, I wondered, had I left school in such an anxious hurry, as though I were being chased? Why did I come out into the hallway and stare at Class 5, which hadn’t yet been dismissed, and at Soohyun, who was from Class 5 and sitting near the window of the classroom? How was it that I had bumped into this man who was loitering in front of the school’s front gate? The only way I could explain these impossible coincidences was to attribute it to a superpower I had gained from many years of being tormented by this man. Regardless of how or why, what was important was that I had found the man before Soohyun had.
It was unbearably awkward sitting by myself, face to face with this man. I sat close to the entrance, where I was able to divert my eyes to the ankles of the people entering and exiting the café. The man asked a café worker if they had jujube tea. But the café sold neither that nor black herbal tea. I ordered hot chocolate and placed the man’s jasmine tea in front of him. The man drank hot tea in both the summer and the winter. He said that he didn’t touch coffee for his health, but if that was the case, how, I wondered, would he explain his smoking? After all, he was a nicotine junkie who smoked at least two packs a day.
The angriest I had ever been at him was the time I caught him secretly smoking a cigarette on our balcony. As he smoked, he would unconsciously fiddle with the plants, bending their stems. Father watered those flower pots in the morning and at night. How could this man dare to smoke at our house?
I was self-conscious about how this man and I would appear to others: me in my school uniform, and him in a worn-out windbreaker that was way out of season. A couple sitting across from each other and talking, their fingers interlocked; a middle-aged woman reading a thick book; friends sitting side by side watching movies on their computers. Everyone seemed like they were immersed in their own world, but it was clear that they were glancing over at the man and me with suspicion. I wanted to finish our conversation and leave as soon as possible.
In some respects, I probably knew more about this man than Soohyun did: that he had no wallet; that he always kept a wad of fresh bills folded in half and stashed in the inner pocket of his parka, which he wore year-round; that he liked raw oysters and raw beef; that he never allowed his hair to grow longer than a buzz cut; that he never talked about his family.
The man kept talking without taking a break—but it was impossible to tell if he was doing this because lulls in a conversation made him feel awkward, or because he actually had a lot to say. What he was talking about was something he had never mentioned until now.
“My old boss once introduced me to an unmarried woman because of my status as an old bachelor. That woman was Soohyun’s mother. Soohyun was a sickly child when she was younger. And she has no manners now because she was spoiled.”
What did you come here to tell Soohyun? Have you already forgotten that she told you to stay out of it? I scratched at my palm with my keys as I painfully swallowed these words. How could I be sitting across from a person with the same body temperature as me, yet feel such cold emotions toward him? How could my mood be so dreary?
“Yuwon, your mom told you, didn’t she? About the shoot?”
“I thought about it, and while creating a natural image would be good, I think it would be better to insert at least one scene that delivers a strong message, since it’s a TV program. An emotional scene that really resonates with people. How about we go on a hike up a mountain together? You can help me up the steep slopes, and I’ll show you a deep trail that leads up to a tall mountain. You know, people who overcome hardship and continue to courageously live their lives. Something hopeful like that.”
I avoided the man’s gaze and turned my head to look out the window. I met the eyes of a girl who was sitting diagonally to me. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but I could feel that her gaze had been pointed in my direction for quite some time now. The girl, who looked like a college student, was trying to ask me something with her eyes. Something like Do you need help? She pointed to the man, whose back was the only thing she could see, and kept sending me signs. Are you sure you’re okay? Are you sure you don’t need help? In my mind, she was already my friend. I was thankful that this stranger cared. I blinked twice to tell her I was okay. The girl then nodded her head with a look of relief and went back to her laptop.
As I continued to scratch at my palm with my keys, I unlocked a memory that had been locked away deep inside my palm. The view of the sky from the school rooftop, which Soohyun had unlocked for me. The wind I would never have known were it not for Soohyun. A shed filled with dust. A sunset, an advertising balloon, and a long wait. And voices which gave me the courage to hate him as much as I wanted.
“We’ll work our way to a high summit and yell out ‘Hurray!’ At the top, we’ll say what we want to say to each other. We’ll make plans for the new year. Isn’t that a beautiful image?”
But what would I need to do, I wondered, to not hate this man? Whenever I met him, something inside my heart smoldered, the way skin burns when it meets the sun. I needed to escape.
“I don’t think I can do your TV shoot.”
“Why? Because of school?”
The man said this with an obvious look of disappointment on his face.
“No, it’s not because of school. Mister, I want to become confident, too. I want this weight off my shoulders.”
I continued talking, not caring about what face the man made. He wasn’t cutting me off, but he was making a look of dismay. He looked like he couldn’t understand what was happening.
“Soohyun taught me this way of living.”
The man furrowed his brow at my mention of Soohyun’s name.
“I was so heavy that day,” I said. “Your legs broke because you couldn’t support my weight. I’m sorry. Sorry for being so heavy, for injuring you, for making you unhappy.”
“You . . .”
“But right now, that’s how you feel to me. You’re too heavy for me to handle.”
I didn’t avoid his eyes. I didn’t know this was how his eyes looked. They weren’t as wide and threatening as his voice. They looked yellow and glazed over. Like someone who hadn’t slept in a long time.
“. . . I see.”
Only after several moments did the man say this, and with great pain, as though he were trying to collect himself. But his voice was so quiet that I wondered if I had heard only what I wanted to hear.
Rain started to fall outside the window. Autumn rains had come and gone for the past few days. My mother had told me to take an umbrella. But because there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky when I left the house for school this morning, I didn’t take one. I should have listened to my mother.
The problem of guilt was that it never ended with just feeling sorry; it always led to further complications. Shame, self-blame, depression. In order to protect me, my subconscious diverted the anger directed at myself to others. And every time I faltered from this heavy weight, Soohyun would appear to support me.
The man and I just sat there drowning in the café’s jazz music as the seconds passed by slowly.
“It’s really started to pour,” the man said. “Did you bring an umbrella?”
The man’s tone sounded as though he was pretending he hadn’t heard a word I had just said. As though he had completely forgotten the conversation we had only five minutes ago.
“No. I can buy one at the convenience store.”
“Wait until the rain lets up a bit.”
I knew that the rain was going to continue through the night. But I wouldn’t dare tell him that.
I got a message from Junghyun.
—Hey, where are you?
The man said he was going for a smoke and headed to the smoking room.
—Yuwon, you don’t have an umbrella, do you? Are you at school? Should I come get you soon?
—I’m not at school.
—At Sleep. The café at the four-way intersection.
—Just myself. Can you come get me in thirty minutes?
When the man returned from the smoking room, he finally realized, it seemed, that this rain wasn’t going to stop any time soon.
Once outside, the man unfurled the folding umbrella that was in his paper bag and offered it to me. One of the ribs was broken, causing one side of the umbrella to droop. And the handle was rusty.
“No, it’s fine.”
The man took a step closer and tried to put his umbrella over me.
“It’s acid rain.”
“It’s fine. My friend said he’ll come get me.”
I ducked out from under the umbrella, afraid that the rusty water dripping from the ribs would get on my clothes.
The man stared at me for a second before finally saying, “All right, I understand.” Today, he seemed more willing to accept what I was saying than usual.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“The subway station.”
“A bus that goes all the way to my home stops just in front of here. So, I’ll take that.”
“It’s dark out. Be careful.”
The man started walking away then stopped suddenly and turned back to face me.
The man seemed to be thinking about what to say next. I waited for him as I listened to the rain.
“You . . . weren’t that heavy. It’s just that . . . people’s bodies are weak. Forget everything.”
After saying this, the man continued walking away, as though nothing had happened.
What does he mean “forget everything”? Forget about the TV shoot? Or everything he did while hanging around me? Surely, he didn’t mean everything that had happened since that fateful day?
I decided to wait for Junghyun under the café awning. I watched as the man limped away. With one hand he held his umbrella, and with the other he held the paper bag. The paper bag was filled with magazines, but why he had these, I didn’t know. I was a little worried it would get wet from the rain and rip. Should I have held his things and walked him to the bus stop? I could still run and catch up to him. But despite thinking these things, all I could do was stare at the man’s back, which was already soaked.
The man ran with his lame leg across the crosswalk, which only had five seconds left on its signal. No matter how fast he tried to run, however, he wasn’t going to be able to cross the street in only five seconds with that limp. Although the cars waited for the man for a second after the crosswalk light turned red, they eventually lost their patience and started honking threateningly. For just that one moment, it felt like those drivers hated the man more than I did. He ignored the honking and crossed the street; once he reached the sidewalk, the trucks and buses took off, hiding the man from my view. My heart ached thinking about how the man was probably used to people resenting him.
“Yuwon, what are you doing here?”
Junghyun appeared out of nowhere and blocked my view.
I couldn’t tell him the truth.
“Why are you crying, Yuwon?”
Junghyun was carrying an umbrella large enough to be a beach parasol. The two of us walked home together. But even though we had a parasol-sized umbrella, my sneakers were immediately soaked straight through to my socks. Because the rain was coming down at an oblique angle, we couldn’t avoid it. I was crying, but thankfully, no one could tell the difference now.
Translated by Sean Lin Halbert