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FICTION

Here, We Are Face to Face

  • onMarch 25, 2021
  • Vol.51 Spring 2021
  • byChoi Eunmi
2021 Hyundae Munhak Award Anthology
Tr. Sean Lin Halbert
2020

I had thought it would end soon. I had thought it was almost over. We had endured so well. I had thought this time, finally this time, we would be able to return to our former lives, even if only partially. Even though I had already penciled in the beginning of school four times now, we had made it somehow. We had made it through days of breakfast / dishes / online classes / lunch / dishes / cram school online classes / dinner / dishes—things no one ever mentioned when talking about the coronavirus. And on May 4, 2020, the Department of Education had even announced they intended to gradually reopen schools starting on May 13. We could finally send our children’s textbooks back to school. And the mothers no longer had to be bothered by eleven unanswered messages or thirty-nine unread notifications. We no longer needed to order food delivery for our child when they were left at home alone. Finally, at long last, our children could go to school again.

“If only you people hadn’t gone clubbing.”

“You people. You people!”

All the online forums for mothers, or “Mom Cafes” as they were called, exploded in outrage. A man—confirmed case number thirty-four to be exact—had returned to Gijeong City after partying until 6 in the morning at a gay club in Itaewon. The mothers screamed and scolded the man throughout the night: “They say he lives at D Officetel, but where exactly is that? And what about the K Convenience Store he visited before showing symptoms? Is this the only information City Hall is going to disclose about his movements?”

I guess they didn’t know. D Officetel referred to Dongwon Officetel, which was right across from Saegyeong Plaza and my workshop. I stared down at Rodeo Avenue for a while before closing the blinds. Everyone on the street looked on edge. My workshop might really go out of business this time.

One afternoon after I taught a class on making soap, Sumi came to the workshop an hour early. In addition to her mask, she was wearing that visor again, the one she hadn’t worn in a long time. Her shoulders looked tense, and her face was completely covered by the visor; she looked like someone who had come to rob me. Even her clothes were unusually comfortable.

Sumi walked over to the window and opened the blinds. She then peered out the window. Like someone hiding from a hitman.

“Nari,” she said to me.

Or perhaps she was just getting some sunlight.

“Yes, Sumi!” I said as I brought out a bag of molds from behind the cloth curtains.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about that time,” Sumi said as she leaned against the windowsill.

“What time was that?”

“I think it was a few years ago. I’d stopped by your house for a little while in the late afternoon; I remember two kids playing with plaster in the living room and something boiling in the kitchen. It was something like marinated pollack or hairtail. Some kind of fish marinated in soy sauce and hot pepper.”

I knew the time she was referring to.

“You watched the kids paint in the living room as you hustled over to the kitchen to remove the lid from the wok. The smell was amazing. I thought to myself, So, this is what Eunchae and Nari’s husband eat every night.

Why was Sumi thinking about that time?

“I hope I looked good,” I said, not knowing what else to say. But it seemed Sumi took my comment seriously.

“You were beautiful.”

Sumi closed the blinds again. Several rows of sunlight resting on the workshop floor disappeared. The room became slightly darker, and the sound from outside the building became distant. Sumi and I stood there for a moment. Masks on. More concentrated than ever before.

Sumi asked what we were going to do.

I couldn’t close the workshop. Just thinking about last March was enough to plunge me into darkness again, and I was truly afraid of being infected, but there was no way I could close the workshop. But when Chu, Eun, and Seon arrived and sat round the table, it crossed my mind that perhaps that wasn’t what Sumi was referring to.

Originally, my plans for the day were to make pressed flower candles from flower petals I had been drying since early spring, but no one could concentrate. All we wanted to talk about were the various things we had heard on the news. Eventually, someone said, “But at least we won’t be criticized if this workshop shows up on one of those government notices for contact tracing.” This made Sumi laugh. “If this workshop becomes identified as a confirmed site, I mean, if this place where we practice our hobby becomes a hot spot . . . we’ll be executed by firing squad.”

No one had anything to say. Perhaps everyone was suddenly made to think about which category we would fall under. After all, we were guilty of meeting throughout the entire spring. Were we a group that would be criticized for the slightest mistake? Or were we a group that would never be criticized, no matter what we did?

Was it in spite of this? Or rather precisely because of it?

Was this the suggestion Sumi and the others had been making to me? Since March, Sumi, Chu, Eun, and Seon had already been notifying one another of the places they had visited via group chat. The status of their children’s cram schools and the schools from which their private tutors came; where they went for lunch on the weekend; even the destinations of their husbands’ business trips. Each and every day, they checked on one another to know if it was okay to meet, if it was okay to let one another into their homes, if they weren’t at risk.

And now they wanted to invite me to their chat room.

I looked at Sumi who was sitting across the table from me. Sumi. Sumi, who used to walk around with a child’s beach towel in her old LeSportsac diaper bag. Sumi, who used to be so young. Sumi, a mother who had entered her forties looking the same as ever. Sumi, who persuaded other women who probably didn’t need to come to this workshop, to become regulars of mine.

How could I not have known how badly Sumi yearned for a safe place? The severity may have varied slightly, but one day all of us at the workshop started showing physical symptoms. Trauma and anger-induced insomnia, inflammation, indigestion, chest pain—that spring, we were always sick, but never any fever. Every time a new batch of confirmed cases was announced, we wanted to turn to our daughters and say, “Don’t show your face. Don’t upload pictures of yourself anywhere. Don’t post anything. Don’t go anywhere. Don’t do anything. It’s dangerous. Everything is off-limits. Please, don’t make me worried. Let me protect you. Let me rest easy at night. I need to have you in my sights. Please, just stay here.”

But how? How could they?

While I could refuse service to people who didn’t wear masks for the safety of my workshop, I couldn’t refuse people for reasons other than that. And neither could I make exceptions for certain people. I didn’t have the confidence to handle the Pandora’s box that would open the moment I believed I could control something. Saegyeong Plaza was where my workshop was.

I couldn’t accept their invitation.

Sumi quietly nodded her head at my decision; she nodded with a disappointed face, as if she knew it couldn’t be helped. After the other women left, I thought all day about how much I resented the customers who refused to cancel their reservations during this time of crisis. Immediately after Sumi left, I missed her so much that I stood at the window where she had stood and glared down at the people outside. My anxiety grew several fold every time I heard the front doorbell ring as I remembered how much safer I had been with just the four of them. I called Eunchae on the home security camera. “Eunchae, did you send your self-diagnosis to the school? Eunchae, don’t take off your mask. Eunchae, I saw that you looked up a dangerous word on your phone two times. What was it?” When Eunchae, who absolutely loathed the home security camera, would put the triangular desk calendar in front of that dinosaur egg, the feed would go dark. One time when two young men came to the shop to make gemstone soap, I asked tenaciously about their girlfriends’ favorite colors. “Bring your girlfriends next time,” I said. “Come together. Don’t just buy them a gift. Come and make it together. Please wear your mask properly. That’s not how you wear your mask.” Watching them make a mess as they mixed base in a paper cup, I was reminded of just how much concentration and skill were required for Sumi and her friends’ classes, and of their liveliness; thinking about this made me as lonely as a gust of wind. And yet, the gemstone soap the men produced was beautiful. After the soap had solidified, I taught them how to cut the soap into the shape of gemstones. Every time they cut off the edges of the rectangular soap with their knives, pieces of soap would sparkle like diamonds falling to the ground. I collected the extra pieces of soap into a carousel-shaped container and placed it at the entrance to the workshop. And atop the soap I sprinkled enough ethanol to make the soap wet.

 

 

Once, Sumi picked up a heat gun at the workshop and said, “I feel safe with this gun in my hand. Nari, you use this gun to make molds. But if I had a gun, Nari, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from killing someone.”

Animosity that couldn’t be completely concealed. Rage that couldn’t be controlled.

There’s a woman standing with one hand covering the nozzle of a hose that’s ready to burst with water. And with her other hand, she’s holding her child’s hand. The woman is faltering. The water loaded in the hose is so heavy that, if she doesn’t pull herself together, if she doesn’t get herself right, the hose will fly out of her hand. The torrent of water will whip back and forth, striking the closest thing, the weakest thing, the thing she loves most. But even if she pours cold water on her head and slaps herself, one day, while trying to direct her rage at a target, one day while trying her utmost to aim, she will accidentally let go of the hose.

 

It was May 19, 2020, four days before I got the call from the health center. That day must have been one of the most painful days of Sumi’s life. A day she wishes she could forget. A day she wishes she could erase from other people’s memories. And yet, it was that day, more than any other, that she was asked and interrogated about. It’s hard for me to imagine how she would have recalled and described the details of that painful day.

I remember seeing Seoha’s back. Seoha, who sat crying in the dark workshop and asked me not to turn on the lights. But because the lights from the lively Rodeo Avenue were pouring into the room, I could still see Seoha shaking with her fists clenched.

I rubbed Seoha on the back. “You did the right thing. You did the right thing, Seoha.”

That night during their English academy virtual class, Eunchae called me into her room. Open on the virtual class’s screen were six camera feeds, on one of which you could hear some audio. “It’s Seoha’s video,” said Eunchae with a frightened look on her face. Usually, Seoha was scolded by the teacher for not turning on her camera, but that day, her camera was on, and she had disabled the mute feature. The camera only showed a door that was slightly open, but the sound from beyond the door could be heard by all the class participants. The sound must have been Sumi. The sound was so loud you might have thought a wall collapsed. The sound of something breaking beyond the point of repair. The unmistakable sound of something fragile breaking. That video was a direct message sent to the outside world by Seoha.

If it weren’t for the Zoom video, I would never have been able to bring Seoha to the workshop that night, and that was because Seoha’s cellphone was among one of the many things Sumi had broken. Once Seoha had calmed down, I asked for her father’s cellphone number and called him at the office party, which was being held at Gangnam B Adult Room Salon, to tell him about the situation.

That night, Sumi came to the front of Saegyeong Plaza and looked up at our third-floor window as she cried nonstop. Chu, Eun, and Seon, whom I called over, tried to pick Sumi up and calm her down. The people coming from the lamb kebob restaurant and food trucks stared at Sumi as she cried before finally going on their way. I knew that the person Sumi wanted to see more than anything at that moment was Seoha, but I told her to just go home. Seoha and Eunchae slept together in Eunchae’s room that night as I made a phone call to a Buddhist monk in Chungcheong Province. I asked if they could look after two twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls for about a week.

Sumi was sick the following two days.

I drove the two girls down to Chungcheong Province by myself. Because of this, I watched by myself the two girls, who had grown so tall, enter the forest trail, each with a backpack.

I came home late that night and opened the door to a dark house. It was the first time I had been at home alone since I opened the workshop. Strewn about the living room were the traces of Eunchae’s time during the spring when school was closed. One after another, I picked up items off the ground before stopping to stand up and look at the home security camera on top of the living room dresser—that white dinosaur egg with its fingernail-sized camera embedded in its center.

There were days when Eunchae would sit with her back against the corner of the sofa as she stared vacantly at the camera. Physically, she was staring at that dinosaur egg, but to me as I sat at the workshop and watched the live video from the home security camera app on my phone, it felt more like she was looking directly at me. And perhaps she really was. Perhaps that was Eunchae’s way of sending me a message.

I went to Eunchae’s room and swept the snack bags and eraser bits on her desk into the dustbin. As I cleaned her room, I remembered the written self-introduction Eunchae had once uploaded to an online movie making community. At the end, after writing about a few of her interests, she added this:

“Don’t say bad things about me, please. Be nice.”

I still think about those words sometimes—words written by a young twelve-year-old girl as she put herself out into the world. “I know I filmed this poorly, but please don’t be mean. I’m sorry for having so few followers. If it seemed that way, I’ll try better next time.” Insecure apology after insecure apology.

As I emptied the dustbin from Eunchae’s room, I brought out the box we used to sort trash and threw away the dinosaur egg from the living room. I opened the window to air out the room and shook out Eunchae’s sheets to make her bed. When I was done, I lay sideways across the head of Eunchae’s bed. Just as Sumi would do when she came over to take a quick twenty-to-thirty-minute nap. I was just planning on lying down for a moment, but I must have fallen asleep for longer than that because when I woke up, I remembered hearing Sumi’s voice in my head.

“Nari.”

Sumi was lying sideways with her arm beneath her head as she looked at me.

“Yes?”

I put my arm beneath my head and looked back at Sumi.

“Seoha was my baby,” she said.

“I know. They both were once our babies.”

“Nari,” Sumi called me again.

“Yes?”

“What’s the temperature outside? It’s freezing.”

The moment I propped myself up to feel Sumi’s head for a fever, I awoke from my dream by a call from the health center.

 

I went to the testing center twenty-two hours after Sumi had gone. The phone call I had received from the health center came after Sumi’s test results came back.

The general hospital where the testing center was located was the same one where I had received my first health check after turning forty. It was also the place where they held the funeral for the mother of one of my students at the workshop, as well as the hospital where Sumi had stayed for a couple days after she broke her arm. At the entrance to the emergency room was the emergency help center for battered women, and next to that was a hyperbaric oxygen therapy clinic. The testing center was somewhere in between those three clinics.

Between the walls of the building was a dark patch of ground not much larger than a parking space, in the middle of which was placed, as I remember, a single folding chair. After I honestly answered all the questions at the self-serve kiosk, I was printed an entrance ticket with the designation “High Risk” on it. With a plexiglass mirror separating me and the nurses, I answered a few more questions before being directed to the chair.

Before having my sample collected, I sat on that chair by myself for the shortest of moments. I could see someone at the main entrance bending over and writing something down. A line of taxis, and a bus that had just arrived. Traffic cones. Pedestrians passing by on the phone. People hanging around the entrance to the hospital. As I sat there, I thought about how Sumi must have sat in this chair twenty-two hours ago and seen these same sights. As I was wishing that this chair could be, for just ten seconds, somewhere far away from those sights and sounds, a nurse dressed in a white protective gown approached me.

“This will only take 10 seconds. Please take off your mask and tilt your head back.”

As the cotton swab passed my nostrils and touched the nasopharynx, my eyes began to tear up despite my best efforts.

 

Eighteen hours later, I received my negative test result for COVID-19 and went into self-quarantine.

As for Sumi, she became Gijeong City’s sixty-seventh confirmed case.

Author's Profile

Choi Eunmi debuted in the journal Hyundae Munhak. Her books include the novel The Ninth Wave, the novella Yesterday’s Spring, and the short-story collections Such a Beautiful Dream and The Story of Mongnyeon. The Ninth Wave has been translated and published in Japanese. She has received the Daesan Literature Award and the Young Writer Award. “Here, We Are Face to Face,” the story excerpted here, won the 2021 Hyundae Munhak Literary Award.