- onMarch 25, 2019
- Vol.43 Spring 2019
- byChoi Eunyoung
- Someone Harmless to Me
Tr. Jamie Chang 2018325pp.
When she was with Suyi, it was as if she had been reborn in a new body. The scenery she took in, the breathing through her nose, the temperature of the air on her skin all felt different. A layer had been peeled off all her sensory organs. The life she had lived before Suyi felt deprived.
Suyi said they had to “be careful.” She told Yi-gyeong not to walk so close to her, and that she had to sit apart from her on the bleachers. But Yi-gyeong’s body kept gravitating toward Suyi, who looked back at her coldly. “Get off me,” she would say, as she walked ahead of her, leaving Yi-gyeong tearful and feeling abandoned. Several times, Yi-gyeong turned around and went home without saying a word to Suyi. The two often fought over this. When Yi-gyeong said she wanted to tell a close friend that she was seeing a girl, Suyi became angry.
“I’m not going to tell her it’s you.”
“You don’t think they’re going to figure it out-that it’s me?”
Suyi turned red with anger and did not speak to Yi-gyeong for some time. But Suyi would always apologize first.
Suyi said she often had dreams in which her identity was revealed and everyone rejected her. She said she had known what she was since she was young—long before she knew there were women who liked women.
“I was afraid of myself.”
For the first time, Suyi had revealed her inner-most thoughts to Yi-gyeong.
About three months into their relationship, they were leaning against the railing on the bridge and chatting, when a tall woman approached them. She came right up to them, and an eerie smile emerged on her face as she looked at Suyi. It was the kind of smile that stabbed hard.
“Is this your girlfriend?” she asked Suyi, knocking into her shoulder as she passed. Suyi lost her balance and fell toward Yi-gyeong. The two clutched the railing with both hands and did not say anything until the woman was far away. Her ears and neck went red, Suyi looked at Yi-gyeong and smiled bitterly.
“Who was that?”
“We went to middle school together,” Suyi said quietly. Afterward, they acted as if the incident had never happened. But they were deeply hurt by it. The woman had pushed Suyi as if she wasn’t a real person. Yi-gyeong realized Suyi was right: they couldn’t be too cautious in this small town.
Before the end of the summer, they started going for rides on a scooter. Suyi frowned as she watched Yi-gyeong pull the scooter out of the garage.
“You’re a hooligan, riding around on a scooter.”
“How am I a hooligan?”
“You do all the bad things.”
“I learned them from you.”
“Real bad. You’re a bad girl.”
Yi-gyeong liked being called “bad.” She felt she could be as bad as she wanted around Suyi, and she wanted to. Yi-gyeong gave Suyi a ride to her dorm, taking the longest possible route.
Later, whenever Yi-gyeong felt helpless, she would think about those rides. The smell of water and grass along the meandering road next to the river, the sound of the old scooter’ engine, the sensation of warm arms wrapped around her waist, stopping near Suyi’s dorm, where, unwilling to part, Suyi would get on and off the scooter, the silly face Suyi would then make, and how Suyi would grow smaller in the side mirror as Yi-gyeong rode away.
In love, Yi-gyeong was able to understand many things. The recipient of Suyi’s steadfast love, Yi-gyeong was no longer as afraid of other people’ eyes or remarks.
Yi-gyeong had to dye her hair black all through high school. Her hair was thin and brown, against school rules. When the brown roots started coming in, the prefects stopped her at the school gate in the morning to scold her, and she had to dye it black again. “Your eyes are brown, too.” Yi-gyeong no longer cowered before the prefect’s scowl. You aren’t loved enough. Why would anyone love you? Yi-gyeong was able to secretly laugh at the scowling face.
Over the short autumn and long winter, Yi-gyeong and Suyi talked about a lot of things. They discussed plans to leave the town after high school and live in the same city. Suyi had plans to make a lot of money when she grew up. She would join a university team and then become a professional athlete upon graduation, and then get into a sports-related business when she retired.
In Yi-gyeong’s eyes, Suyi was struggling too hard. She did muscle training regimens alone at the school gym when she wasn’t at practice, and even weekends reserved for dates with Yi-gyeong were now devoted to training.
Suyi’s team sometimes had practice games with the boys’ middle school team because there weren’t many girls’ high school teams around. This depressed Suyi more than anything. Yi-gyeong did not know at first, but soon came to realize that the the meaning of that word “harmless.”
“I think it’s a nasty word,” Suyi said. “It’s turning a blind eye. It’s giving them the right to bully people who’re weaker. They’re just being boys!”
Yi-gyeong did not know what to say. She was so angry she could cry. She wanted to find the coach and boys and kick them in their shins. She thought about how Suyi must have chewed over those words after going through it alone. Was soccer so important to her that it was worth putting up with all that? And was it also worth having the coach cane her in the thighs and insult her in the guise of training?
“You can quit if it’s too hard, Suyi. I don’t want you putting up with all this,” Yi-gyeong would often say.
Yi-gyeong went to one of Suyi’s games once. In the deserted soccer stadium with very few people in the stands, Yi-gyeong watched Suyi run around on the field. The players had tense looks on their faces. No one scored any goals, until the other team scored a goal in overtime. Watching the game from the back row on Suyi’s side of the stadium was painful for Yi-gyeong. It was hard to watch Suyi running on fumes in overtime, and unpleasant to hear the coach bark out, “Suyi Lee!”
A midfielder, Suyi had to stay focused for the entire game. Still, the ball was intercepted and the offensive failed, and the hole in the defense left them unable to block a winning shot. The two teams performed at about the same level, but Suyi appeared to be the least competent player on the field. The coach did not send in a substitute, for some reason, so Suyi had to play all the way through to the end of overtime, as if she was being punished. Yi-gyeong also imagined that her watching the game made it much more agonizing for Suyi.
After that game, Suyi threw herself more fiercely into training. It was hard for Yi-gyeong, who had never been so determined, to understand Suyi’s ambition. She thought: if a dream is something that can only be attained through this much suffering, giving it up is the better choice. It was better than having to practice every day in a tense atmosphere, playing in matches, and being judged according to results she had little control over.
“If it’s so hard, why don’t you just quit?”
“What are you saying?” Suyi asked. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“But . . .”
“You don’t understand anything.”
Suyi went home angry, and did not see Yi-gyeong.
Yi-gyeong understood now: for Suyi, soccer was not a matter of choice. And even if it was, it was one choice out of very few options. For Suyi, soccer was the tie that connected her to the world. Unable to see this, Yi-gyeong had spoken to Suyi about choice, without realizing that she had many more options than Suyi.
Suyi had an ACL injury from freshman year. Although she was doing physical therapy and being careful, she reinjured it in the summer of her senior year. It happened during a practice game with the middle school boys. The boys’ monkeying around led to an injury from which she couldn’t recover. Suyi moved out of the dorm and back into her parents’ house. The doctor had made it clear: she had to avoid strenuous physical activities.
Yi-gyeong did not fully understand what the loss meant to Suyi. Frustrated and tormented by her lack of insight, Yi-gyeong took Suyi on rides around town. They would sometimes stop on the bridge for a while and watch the river flow.
The surface of the water at night looked like metal, and the tree leaves on the riverbanks looked like black feathers blowing in the wind.
“If you keep staring at it, it looks so weird,” said Suyi.
“The river. It’s such a big body of water.”
“Uh-huh . . .”
“It feels weird to keep looking at it.”
“You must be scared.”
Suyi quietly shook her head and grabbed the railing hard with both hands. Her eyes were on the river, but they looked empty. She was focused on the act of looking, but she didn’t seem to be seeing anything; she appeared to be scared and fascinated at the same time. She was so consumed that she wouldn’t even look at Yi-gyeong.
(Excerpt from The Summer (Asia Publishers, 2017), pp. 25-41.)
Choi Eunyoung has authored the short story collections Shoko’s Smile and Someone Harmless to Me. She has received the Writer’s World New Writer Award, the Heo Gyun Literary Award, the Kim Jun-sung Literary Award, and the Young Writers’ Award.