- onAugust 3, 2016
- Vol.32 Summer 2016
- byEun Heekyung
- Life Unperturbed
On a spring day long ago, Liu’s father saw the most beautiful woman in the world.
She was talking on the phone, leaning against the glass of a phone booth. Slight of frame, she was wearing a pale green polka dot dress with a white sweater. She was holding the receiver to her ear with one hand, and her face, fair and transparent, was tilted to one side. She was carrying books and notebooks under her arm. Her long-lashed eyes looked into the distance as if dreaming, and her lips were lustrous as rose petals. Her chin, which looked as if it had been chiseled out of ivory, was lifted slightly, rendering her neckline even more graceful. Her cheeks were flushed peach, and whenever she spoke, her black bob bounced slightly over them. Liu’s father could not take his eyes off the movements of those eyes and cheeks and lips. Listening to the person on the other end, she raised the toe of her brown shoe and tapped the floor lightly with the heel. Her hair spilled over her bent face, revealing the small, round bones at the back of her neck. Suddenly, her movements stopped. The next moment, her expression stiffened—then when she smiled quietly, and when the smile spread out and the phone booth suddenly lit up as if spring sunshine had shone through, a high-voltage shiver shot through his heart. The powerful light which emanated from her reached him in a flash and gripped his feet.
This took place at a bus stop in front of a university. Liu’s father, of course, got on the bus after her, regardless of the direction of his home. That was the day Liu’s parents first met.
The two were attending the same university. Liu’s mother was a senior and her father was a year behind. That didn’t matter so much. What mattered was that her mother had a boyfriend. Her mother was a romantic who wouldn’t easily have a change of heart. That only added fuel to the fierce flame with which her father was seized. His desire flared up like a forest fire. Immediately he began his persistent efforts to win her heart, armed with all his romantic temperament and reckless action. The entire school was able to witness her father chasing after her mother, and he was always laughing and reeling as if drunk. He was possessed like a sleepwalker, and blind like a sightless man. The results were gratifying. He was accepted not only by Liu’s mother but by her parents as well, and the two became engaged. Liu’s father, however, failed to find a job even a year after her mother had graduated and was hired as a secretary at a foreign-affiliated firm. He couldn’t ask his family for help, either. Liu’s mother made persistent efforts to persuade her parents to let them go study abroad together, and was finally granted permission. Flying for the first time in her life in an airplane several days after the wedding, she looked down through the window at the clouds beneath her feet, and felt that she was at the pinnacle of her life. The two encouraged each other, wishing the other success in their future days as a poor couple studying abroad, and felt intoxicated by the fulfillment of their love. That was when they decided to name their future child Liu. And that was the end of the lyrical epoch allowed to Liu’s parents. Many things changed after that.
She asked her mother later on why they had named her Liu. Her mother replied by asking what could be a better name to come up with inside an airplane than one that meant “flow?” She told her about the relationship between the airflow and the force that made an airplane rise. When the airflow above is fast, the wings grow light, and the force below lifts them up. When young Liu had difficulty understanding, her mother said: What flows fast becomes light. If you want to fly, Liu, you have to be fast. If you run with all your strength, you soar all of a sudden. You can go anywhere from that point. But when you stop, you drop right down. Around that time, her mother had already become cynical about life. And always somewhat unequivocal, as far as she remembered.
Her father’s answer was different. He said that her name came from an operatic aria titled “Don’t Cry, Liu!” Liu is the name of a slave girl who is swept off her feet by a smile she catches from a prince on the one and only beautiful spring day of her life. The prince, in love with an icy princess of a foreign land, is about to plunge into danger to pursue his love. Unable to dissuade him, Liu stabs her own heart with a dagger to save the one she loves. Moved by Liu’s devotion, the princess of the foreign land accepts the prince at last. Liu gifts her life to the man she loves so that he can be with another woman. Why did Liu’s father name his daughter after such a tragically fated slave? Was it because it was easy for him to empathize with the dramatic sentiment of fate?
It didn’t matter who was telling the truth, her mother or her father. Perhaps both answers were true in part. Everyone remembers the past with their own revisions. They each have their grounds, and often, even witnesses with their own versions would appear. In any case, the different explanations of her mother and father as to the origin of her name came to Liu as images of two different things. An airplane and an opera. If one was that of grey duralumin wings, attempting to find balance in a vast expanse of air, the other was that of a tearful operatic aria calling for death. If what her mother taught her was the organized logic of the world which scientists and philosophers had sought to reveal, what her father taught her was fascination. And fascination, as was her father’s temperament, was inherently irresponsible and selfish.
To a poor couple studying abroad, life in a foreign country was like the first winter with a baby wrapped in a flimsy blanket. After a painful year had passed, Liu’s mother came to the conclusion that it was impossible for two people to study together on the money sent from home. She would be able to finish faster and her grades were better, too, but she chose to have Liu’s father study first. She decided that she herself would earn money. While Liu’s father was at the library, she served food at a Korean restaurant, sold things, and mended clothes. She cut down her own expenses as much as possible, but they were always struggling. Fortunately, she found a good job working as a resident maid in a mansion in the suburbs. Having grown up in a well-to-do family, she was familiar with a refined lifestyle and had no difficulty getting hired. Her weekends would be free. A week later, carrying a bag containing several articles of clothing, her identification, and a wedding picture, she left for the home of some strangers. Thus she became completely isolated from the society she had known, the status she had enjoyed—and from Liu’s father—and worked hard for extra pay, anticipating the day she would be set free from the home of the fussy old couple.
Liu’s father went to pick up her mother every weekend, driving for two hours in the secondhand car whose engine often died. Every time, she had a big bundle ready, containing items discarded by the couple who had an abundance of material things. First he put the bundle in the trunk, then sat her down in the passenger seat. Contrary to her worries, his face took on a healthier glow, thanks to the money and the bundles she brought home. Compared to him, she looked more and more tired and anxious. She also developed a habit of studying people’s faces. As time went on, he started to come pick her up once every two weeks. Then once every three weeks, and then once a month, and in the end, a day came when he didn’t come even after a month and a half had passed.
It was a clear summer day. Liu’s mother vividly recalled the intense sunlight and warm breeze. The owners of the home had gone to visit some relatives, and inside the mansion, which had been cleaned up early in the morning, there was nothing but chilly silence. Liu’s mother was sitting in a chair by the kitchen window, with a large bundle tied up neatly. She had been sitting for four hours in that spot, staring out at the long tree-lined driveway where you could watch a car coming through for almost two minutes. Flowers, arranged by height and color, bloomed in the well-manicured garden, and the grass in the wide front yard, cut meticulously along the grain, sparkled green. The sunlight was intense that day. The enormous shadow of a Japanese cedar on the lawn looked delicate and fancy, as if a black lace tablecloth had been spread out. As afternoon came on, the shadow gradually changed in color and shape, and swayed gently whenever a breeze shook the branches. Light began to shine obliquely down on the lawn. The splendor of the moment was gradually waning. Liu’s mother gazed vacantly at everything for a long time. Another thing she saw in the flow of time and the lengthening shadow was the decline of her own life.
Liu’s father showed up the next day at noon, saying that he had gotten the car fixed. He looked unfamiliar, probably because he had a new haircut. Liu’s mother tried not to care whether he was telling the truth. Then she realized that the hardest thing to do was to reject the desire to believe it as the truth, even though her suspicions had been aroused. It was pride, but more than that, it was the determination to preserve her life the way she knew how. She realized vaguely how the foolish optimism and deceptive peace with which people tried to guard the very framework of their life could drive them into a conservative ideology; how unwittingly people play an active role in solidifying this ideology even without trusting it. Her suspicions had been raised. But to keep herself from getting hurt, she had to keep herself from suspecting what was suspicious. The thought made her feel as if something precious she’d been holding in her hand for a long time had crumbled completely. Quietly staring ahead as she sat rocking in the car whose engine might die again at any moment, she suddenly raised a hand and put it on her left chest. She was offering condolences to a world that had grown unfamiliar, and to the loss of love.
Even after that, the two lived together for sixteen years. Liu was sixteen when her father and mother got divorced. On that summer day when her mother inevitably witnessed that her life had become unfamiliar to her, Liu was starting her own life in her mother’s womb. While living together, Liu’s parents were on good terms at times, and not on such good terms at others, but they no longer loved each other. They both loved Liu, however. Liu’s childhood wasn’t especially happy, but it wasn’t unhappy, either. You could say that she lived in peace as most children do, without wondering whether she was happy, until she reached an age when children ask questions about happiness and unhappiness.
Because she had grown up in a family that neither concealed nor exaggerated unhappiness, Liu learned about pain and solitude early on. On the other hand, she also learned that the discord between her parents bore no connection to her own unhappiness. Through a family life that resembled work life with colleagues you’re not too fond of, Liu’s parents taught her that there’s no reason to band together with other unhappy people because you’re unhappy, just as you don’t want to be friends with someone cowardly because they’re as cowardly as yourself. Liu had a happy relationship with both her father and mother. One of the many things that shocked her when she came to Korea was that everyone put on an awkward expression when she mentioned that her parents were divorced.
Just once, Liu’s mother referred to being a residential maid as being a servant. Then she said, Liu, people who love each other must be equal. In a relationship where one person is in debt to another, you can’t share love, no matter how much of it you have. When one of you is in debt, love can’t be restored. What if the debt is repaid? Liu asked, and her mother smiled. I suppose you can start over when the debt is repaid. Recalling those words later, Liu thought that perhaps her mother had wanted her father to repay the debt. But he didn’t. Fascination wouldn’t be fascination without shamelessness, irrationality, and imbalance. No reckoning was made, of course.
What impressed Liu the most about her parents’ story was their first encounter. Her mother, was in love with another man, an office worker, at the time. Spotting a pay phone, she suddenly missed her boyfriend and went into the booth. She felt a little nervous because she had never called him on the phone before. But her face brightened as soon as she heard his voice. It’s me. Her cheeks flushed, and her lips formed a flirtatious smile as she spoke. I just thought I’d call and say hi. Where are you? Her boyfriend asked, and she casually glanced outside the phone booth, but nothing came into her sight. She was in love, and there were only the two of them, she and her boyfriend, in the world. Can I see you today? She asked cautiously, and he said he had to work overtime. There was a momentary pause. She bit her lip, and tapped the floor with her heel without realizing it. And then she heard him say, I love you, over the telephone. She was startled, and then her face broke out into a bright smile, like a flower blossoming, unable to bear the joy that rose from deep within her body and began to fill it entirely.
Liu had lived longer with her mother. As planned, her mother became a professor at the foreign university where she had studied, and after retirement, divided her time between her country of residence and Korea, where Liu lived. Liu grew up hearing countless times that she took after her mother, and trusted in her mother with mixed feelings of love and hatred. But often, she searched for her identity in the world of fascination handed down from her father. She was able to make her way through the hatred, contempt, fatigue, and desire that distressed her frequently in her life by entrusting her body to her mother’s flow, but what helped her endure her solitude was the fascination life still held for her.
A woman in love glows, at her most beautiful in life. What Liu’s father had seized upon and shivered at was that beauty. Such beauty generally takes the form of an image. That is why so many lyrical tales end in a lovers’ embrace or a wedding, and why such an ending is called a happy ending. The world of narratives, of the life that unfolds thereafter, and of ideology, is a different realm that bears no connection to the world of images. An image is like a momentary beam of light and is complete in itself, so there’s no need to examine its authenticity. So for Liu’s father, there was neither doubt nor pain. There was no debt for him to pay, either. But what guided the life of Liu’s mother, which belonged to the world of narratives, was a pattern, not an image, and it had to continue like a knitting pattern; so the wound where the cut was made was deep. It required a cost. You could say that Liu’s father, who wasn’t of the world of narratives, was a solitary man. Solitude couldn’t be avoided. On the contrary, Liu’s mother chose the world of narratives, and had to, as a necessity, accept pain.
Liu wondered at times: Why does Father think that my name comes from “Don’t Cry, Liu?” In the opera, the prince sings two songs. “Don’t cry, Liu. Leave me to fulfill my love. And take care of my father, who may, tomorrow morning, be all alone in the world” and “Sleepless princess, guess my name. Solve the riddle and let everyone sleep.” At last, the song of the princess resounds. “I know the name now. His name is Love.” Was Liu’s role in this narrative to be responsible for the ideology of the world called Father, and offer her destined love at someone else’s feet, then die bleeding there? Is solitude more fatal than pain?
Translated by Jung Yewon
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Eun Heekyung has won several literary awards such as the Munhakdongne Novel Award, the Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Dongin Literary Award. The French edition of My Wife’s Boxes (Les Boîtes de ma femme) was published by Zulma. Her works have appeared in German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. She also participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.