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FICTION

[Excerpt] Visitors that Come in the Night

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byJang Ryujin
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
Tr. Sophie Bowman
2019

Her eyes were looking for a motel. She was looking for the word “motel.” Or else “sex.” “One night” or “haru pam.” If not that, then “mo*tel” or “se/x.” Motel or sex, or any word, sentence, and context that hinted at them. She moved the cursor of her mouse over the “remove” button and clicked. A pop-up window appeared. From the categories of “abusive language,” “multiple identical postings,” “promotion of commercial services,” “breach of personal information,” and “obscene adult advertisement,” she checked the last box and clicked “submit.” In the time she spent deleting one “sex,” dozens more instances of “one night” and “haru pam” and “motel” and “college girls” and “unforgettable night” appeared.

Employed by an affiliate company of a web portal, the woman had recently been assigned to comment monitoring duty. Her task was to find comments that went against the posting regulations or to confirm those that had already been reported by users and remove them from the site. There were abundant online places where people could post. No matter where it was, as long as there was an input box, and regardless of who they were, anyone could splatter out comments, like diarrhea. In any box you could click on and get a flashing cursor, people could type randomly and press the enter key, and then just like that, letters became words became sentences and were left plastered all over a site that tens of thousands of people could pass through each second. Until they deleted it themselves or someone else did, that writing, whatever its form or content, would be embedded somewhere on a server, intact like a fossil. The woman had to forcibly root out problem comments and remove every last trace of them.

100 percent college girls guaranteed. Se*x beyond your wildest dreams! We take responsibility for your full satisfaction. Get them sent right to your home or mo/tel. We provide the very best service at the very best price. 50,000 won for 3 hours, 100,000 won for a long night, as many times as you like! We only stock grade A, take your pick of the finest. A baby face you wouldn’t expect on such a voluptuous body, the type any man can take the lead with . . . Although she was working in the so-called “clean center,” having to read stuff like that all day long, she ended up feeling anything but “clean.”

With only a limited staff and the number of inappropriate comments growing constantly, there was a limit to how many could be deleted manually. At the head office too, they prepared schemes for reducing inappropriate comments. They developed software to suspend input for five minutes from IP addresses that had posted more than ten times within a certain period, saved previously flagged web addresses to automatically block comments that linked to them, and constantly added to the list of blacklisted words. But the adult ads constantly evolved along with their efforts, constantly changing web addresses and cutting up prohibited words with special characters to go undetected. The developers were doing their very best to create spam prevention logic, the spammers were doing their very best to post, the woman was doing her very best to delete, and the business owners too, pledged to “provide the very best service.” Since all sides were doing their very best, nothing changed.

 

The woman lingered around the first-floor lobby of the officetel building instead of going straight to the elevator. She slowly browsed the delivery boxes piled up by the security guard’s desk. She was looking for a box marked with the number 1204. She had always been unhappy with the way the guard wrote the unit numbers, big and bold with a permanent marker, on all the deliveries. It had the advantage of making them easy to find, so it was convenient, but she was uncomfortable having her address announced in such bold numbers, easily exposed to strangers. The woman got into the elevator holding her box upside down so that the side with numbers on it was facing the floor. 

The woman opened her front door with the delivery box still in her arms and stamped her feet. The pumps she removed one by one were each flung off in a different direction. She pressed the light switch with her elbow. Before the light turned on completely, she could sense the cockroaches that had been wandering carefree in the darkness disappearing. The fluorescent bulb in the room didn’t light up straightaway but flickered three or four times before turning on completely. The first flicker of light, the room was filled with cockroaches as though everything was covered with spotted wallpaper. When the light flashed a second time, there were thousands of them, all over the floor as though someone had spilled sesame seeds. The third time there were a hundred, the next ten, and then finally, when the light came on in full, they were gone. 

She hadn’t confirmed it with her own eyes, but she knew by intuition: there would be cockroaches beneath the sink, under the shoe cupboard, behind the wardrobe, all loitering calmly. And the small room lied, feigning ignorance to the fact that there were cockroaches at all. Two cockroaches that hadn’t made it back into hiding stood in the middle of the entranceway, slowly moving their feelers. They were little tiny baby roaches. After putting down the delivery box, the woman picked up a slipper, and slapped the floor with it, squashing both of them dead in one swoop. She felt a slight feeling of contagion running up from the tips of her fingers and it made her forearm tingle with goose bumps. The thought occurred to her that among all the cockroaches inhabiting this room with her, those two crushed cockroaches represented the same amount of adult ads she’d deleted during her workday. And they were the smallest and feeblest ones at that.

It hadn’t yet been a month since she had moved into this studio in Double Tower. It was a shabby officetel building, already thirty years old, with two fifteen-story towers. If you looked at it from the other side of the road, there was a big sign that read “DOUBLE” at the top of tower A and another one with “TOWER” on top of tower B. The signs were in hangeul and in an outdated brushstroke-style font at that. The officetel seemed to have been built from the outset more for commercial than residential use. Perhaps that was why there were so many things about the woman’s unit that weren’t to her liking. They had put down a linoleum floor with a parquet pattern as a gesture to those who would move in and use the space as a residence, but looking at the plasterboard tile ceiling and the long fluorescent light overhead, you could tell it was always supposed to be more “office” than “hotel.” Lying on her bed and looking up at the ceiling with its repeating worm-like pattern, the woman couldn’t feel any sort of homey comfort. She ordered a floor lamp that gave off a soft light. She thought that if she kept the fluorescent light off and just had the yellow glow of the floor lamp, the plasterboard ceiling would bother her less. What was even worse than the ceiling was the door to the bathroom. There were long-encrusted watermarks at the bottom of the old door, and like the door of a public toilet stall, there was a huge gap at the top and bottom, so it felt as though the whole place was an extension of the toilet.

The woman had moved in a hurry. The contract had run out on the place she lived in before and she didn’t manage to renew it. The landlord wanted to increase her deposit by an amount she couldn’t afford, and she thought a change might help speed up her working through the memories of the relationship she had ended with a man she’d almost married. The man, Kim, had worked at the headquarters of a top corporation. Aside from being old enough to think that the woman, who was approaching thirty, was still rather young, in many ways he had been all right. He’d grown up in a well-off home, had no particular character flaws, and his sense of humor was neither lacking nor excessive. His appearance wasn’t exactly exceptional, but there was nothing particularly wrong with his body and he had a tolerable face. As the years passed, the woman was learning by experience how paradoxically precious and scarce this kind of “tolerably average” was. Her friends were jealous of her for having been introduced to Kim, so unexceptional and secure in every way. Of course, she liked him too. Not only when he talked about how if they got married they would live together in the 1,000-square-foot apartment his parents had invested in under his name for his marriage, or when he waited for her to finish work on a Friday evening in the nicest car in her office parking lot. When they met at a wine bar they often went to after work and he listened with kind eyes as she talked about the trivial things going on in her office, and when she happened to mention on the phone that she felt like eating ice cream and he turned up at her building a while later with a big tub of it, she was certain that she loved him. 

But what had made her put off marriage, avoiding it any way she could, and finally end their relationship, was a reason that couldn’t be explained by Kim’s merits, a reason that was unconvincing to her even now. She couldn’t properly articulate it, but she didn’t feel the need for anyone to understand what she did anyway. If she had to attempt an explanation, it was because when she was with Kim she ended up feeling constricted, as though she were wearing clothes that didn’t fit right somewhere. People around her said she must have been crazy to give up on marrying Kim for such a vague reason. They said she was kicking away the good fortune that had fallen at her feet. She’d even heard them say: “In your state . . .” The woman wasn’t self-assured enough to let comments like that go. She couldn’t even understand it herself, why she had to make that decision, and when people told her she must be crazy, she would fret and think, What if I really have done something crazy? But however she might feel now, it was all over. She had broken up with Kim completely. It hadn’t been a very long relationship anyway. 

Without taking off her jacket, the woman threw her body on the bed. She closed her eyes. Every time regret made her uneasy, she deliberately remembered having sex with Kim. And with that her anxiety would settle and she was able to affirm her decision. Kim had failed to make an impression. He was the type who left absolutely no pleasurable sensation; so much so that it put to shame all the earnest and pathetic praise he would give for every last bit of her body right up to penetration. If she brought to mind how she had endured the dull tedium of sex with Kim, she could somewhat bury the remaining scraps of self-reproach. 

She slowly opened her eyes. The dark stain on the ceiling came into view. It was something she had only noticed after she’d moved in. She’d found the cheapest place not far from work and had hastily signed the contract. She had been staring at it for ages, wondering whether she should stick a sheet of paper over the stain. And then:

Ding dong.

Out of the blue, the doorbell rang. The woman jumped up, like someone who had done something wrong. It was strange to realize that she even had a doorbell. Since she lived alone, leaving early every morning and coming back late at night, there was no reason for her to ever hear her doorbell ring. And this was the first time since she moved in. It seemed she only learned then what the doorbell in this place sounded like. The stand lamp she had ordered from an internet shopping mall was due to arrive. There were occasionally delivery drivers back at her previous place too who would come to the door and ring the doorbell, even though she always added a note to her orders asking them to leave the packages at the security guard’s office.

The doorbell kept ringing at steady intervals. The woman switched the phone she was clutching to silent mode. She lifted herself up slightly on the balls of her feet and looked around the room. There was nowhere to hide in the not-quite-300-square-foot studio. She lay back down on her bed. This time she covered herself with the quilt, pulling it over her head. She buried herself in the quilt so that not even a single toe stuck out. Ding dong. Ding dong. The doorbell rang a few more times, then stopped. Not moving a muscle, the woman trained her ears on the sound of the delivery driver’s feet moving further away from unit 1204 and the sound of the elevator coming up and taking them back down with it. The screen of the phone she was still clutching lit up. It was a message to say that they were leaving the package at the guard’s office because no one was home. She realized then that she had been holding her breath. Throwing back the quilt and standing up, she let out a big sigh. This was a habit she’d picked up while living alone. No good could come of people knowing that hers was a home where a woman lived alone. She didn’t want to let anyone know that there was a woman in her late twenties living alone in unit 1204. She looked out through the spy hole in the front door. There was no one there. It was only then that the woman could carry on as usual.

She decided that she couldn’t put off sorting out her wardrobe any longer, having left it completely as it was since she’d moved in. The weather had been getting progressively colder, but in her wardrobe there were sleeveless tops and woolen coats knocking around together, and a stack of boxes carelessly stuffed by the moving company workers she’d hired. The woman emptied the wardrobe and piled all her clothes on the floor. She began sorting through the heap, picking up one item of clothing at a time. Clothes that were out of style and that she didn’t think she would wear again went in a box, summer clothes went into the drawers, coats and jackets she wore all the time went on the upper rod, and clothes she didn’t reach for as often she hung on the lower one. Once she had finished sorting everything it was already well past three in the morning. It was then:

Ding dong.

The doorbell rang again. The woman doubted her ears. She was bewildered, unable to tell if the sound was real or not. Ding dong. Only when it rang again did a chill skim across her heart. There was no one who would come to see her, and no one who even knew she had moved. There were no more packages to be delivered either. More than anything, it was three in the morning. There was no reason for the doorbell to ring at this time of night. The woman was engulfed in the panic that comes from being placed in a situation where you can’t predict anything at all. Dread swept over her, giving her goose bumps, the same dread she felt when she imagined her room filled with cockroaches right before the light turned on. 

The woman crept to the front door and looked through the spy hole. In the red-tinged lighting of the corridor, there was a young man she had never seen before, standing in the dim dark. Contrary to expectation, he was decently dressed. He was wearing a grey suit with a blue necktie. Over the suit jacket he had on a trench coat that came down to his knees. He had a bag hanging on a thick strap from one shoulder, and she could vaguely make out the logo of a laptop brand written on it. Anyone would recognize this as the ordinary appearance of an office worker. And such a man had rung a stranger’s doorbell at three in the morning. And then again, two more times, over and over. Each time the man reached out his hand to press the bell, he took a step back and looked this way and that along the corridor in both directions. Later he even pivoted slightly on his heels.

It seemed as though it wasn’t only the woman who was petrified. The man was flustered, as though something he’d anticipated wasn’t going to plan. He didn’t look suspicious, but she had never seen his face before, and since it was three in the morning there was no way he could have come because he had business with her. The woman judged that this man must merely be someone out late who had come to the wrong place by mistake. She hoped he would soon leave for his home or original destination. She wanted this late-night uninvited guest to leave, and for the still silence to return: to go back to normal, where her existence was lost and forgotten among the hundreds of tiny rooms. The man stopped pushing the doorbell and this time lifted the flap of the milk delivery bag that was hung from the doorknob outside and started looking for something. The light went out. The light in the hallway was automatic, turning off after a set time and coming on when there was movement. She couldn’t see a thing. The woman gulped. That moment the reddish light came on again. 

Bbik. Bbi bbi bbi bbik . . . bbik. Bbi bbi bbi bbik. Bbik . . . 

The man started frantically pressing away at the digital lock keypad. The woman felt a sensation in her head like something snapping. Bbi bbi bbik . . . bbik . . . Please . . . bbik . . . Don’t do this . . . Bbi bbi bbik . . . For the love of . . . bbik . . . bbik . . . Why are you doing this to me? . . . on the edge of tears, the woman pleaded without making a sound. All manner of crimes she had seen in the news swept before her eyes. As the man outside the door moved his hands faster and faster, pressing the keypad, she felt a sudden, extreme urge to pee. Looking through the spy hole in the front door that was too low for her, she was leaning forward with her butt sticking out, holding onto the doorknob. She had only locked the digital lock and not turned the latch in the doorknob. It wouldn’t be easy to get the keycode right, but the man kept frantically moving his fingers, so she was seized by the fear that he would soon throw the door open. Why didn’t I turn the extra lock? She regretted her carelessness. The woman held the latch in the doorknob hard between her thumb and forefinger, as though pinching it. Holding it with all her strength, she began to turn it as slowly and softly as possible. The man kept pressing away at the keypad. Bbi bbi bbi bbik . . . bbik. Bbik bbik . . . Keep calm . . . Slowly . . . Slowly . . . bbik bbik bbik . . . Slowly . . . bbi bbi bbi bbik.

Clack!

As the latch slid into place, the cold metal sound of the door locking rang out in the hallway. The man lifted his head. The sound of him pushing the keypad stopped. The woman locked eyes with him. Her hair stood on end. It was as though the man was staring right at her. No, there’s no way he can see me. No matter how she repeated those words, it was no use. It was as if the tiny spy hole lens, smaller than an iris, had become a huge glass door. As if the man outside the door were staring at her. He inched forward, closer and closer, as though he had made a discovery. The man’s upper body, then his head and shoulders, then his face filled the round field of her vision . . . and finally all she could see in the circle was his black pupil. The man was looking right into the spy hole.

The two of them were face to face, separated by a single door. The woman itched as though the man’s eyelashes were brushing against her eyeball. She was sure she could feel the breath the man outside the door must be exhaling from his nose blowing warm on her philtrum. She could clearly hear her heart pounding so fast it seemed to have lost its beat. Afraid the sound might reach the man on the other side of the door, she bit her bottom lip. The doorknob the woman was gripping was soaked with sweat, and it seemed it would rust away to nothing if she held it any longer. The man rolled his eye around here and there, blinked a few times, and then took his face away from the door. Then he took out his phone and fiddled with it. He didn’t make a call and soon disappeared outside the woman’s field of vision. She heard his footsteps gradually grow distant and then the sound of the elevator descending. As if hypnotized, the sound relaxed every cell in her body that had been contracted by fear. As the tension subsided, a strangely intense drowsiness washed over her.

Author's Profile

Jang Ryujin studied sociology at Yonsei University and Korean literature at Dongguk University. She debuted in 2018 with the story “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” which won the Changbi Prize for New Figures in Literature. Based on her experience of working in the IT sector, the story was widely read and shared on social media by office workers. She published The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and Other Stories in 2019.