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FICTION

The Loneliness of Others

  • onJune 19, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byJeong Yi Hyun
Today’s Lie
Tr. Sophie Bowman
2008
328pp.

 

According to the remarriage agency’s analytics report, I’m a B+.

 

I’m thirty-four. I live in a two-room apartment. I have a double bed and a computer desk in the big room and I use the small room as a walk-in closet. I take my white work shirts to a nearby dry cleaners once a week to be ironed and I don’t cook. I have a car that’s only two years old, but I commute by subway. I never put on a tie at weekends. This everyday life of mine is peaceful enough. Every now and then I feel a bit bewildered, like when I wake up from a long nap on a weekend afternoon to find the night is already deep in darkness; but that much loneliness is something every modern man must feel, so I think I should be able to bear it too. I’ve already realised that life has no peak, no prime.

When I eat alone I usually get takeout. The thing I buy most regularly is gimbap. My favourite is the tuna gimbap, filled with tinned tuna mixed up into a paste with mayonnaise, but I don’t want to get tired of eating it, so I order vegetable gimbap, beef gimbap, and cheese gimbap in turns. On days when I want hot soup, I stop by a restaurant that sells portions of seolleongtang in sealed tubs. I take it home and pour the soup into a big bowl, heat it in the microwave and then have it with instant microwave rice. If I feel like having something special I phone up the nearby steakhouse and order a salad with grilled prawns and chicken breast, then go there half an hour later to collect it. They give discounts if you have loyalty points from a phone provider or credit card points.

Whatever the meal, the first criteria for my menu choice is that it be finished up in one sitting. Every time I put something in the fridge for another meal I forget about it. Since the local authorities started to crack down on food waste being mixed in and thrown out with the regular rubbish, and since I went through the ordeal of having my toilet block up after flushing leftover ramyeon soup down it, I’ve even given up on boiling instant ramyeon when I feel hungry late at night. Things like the leaf mustard kimchi and radish-top kimchi my mother packs for me get left in the fridge forever in their opaque, sealed containers. Six months or a year down the line, a moment comes when even the thought of opening the lid is terrifying. The only thing to do when that time comes is to throw out the whole container as it is, under cover of darkness.

In the early 1980s, back when I used to watch Tiger Teacher on TV, I would often imagine the future. When the year AD 2000 comes we’ll ride spaceships instead of buses; instead of bean paste soup and rice with green peas for dinner we’ll have colourful little capsules. When that happens, how am I going to choose between black bean sauce flavour capsules and rotisserie chicken flavour capsules? I was at an age when I didn’t know that no matter what the future held, in the end, it would pass by without anyone realising it. Twenty years on, I’ve grown into an adult who trembles in fear at the thought of discovering an egg in some corner of the fridge long past its expiration date. If I crack the egg and a half-grown chick curled up inside jumps out and I make eye contact with that feeble young creature, I’ll have no choice but to call emergency services. I really don’t know any other way.

I married the woman I met at twenty-one when I was twenty-eight, and we separated by the time I was twenty-nine. We lived together for seven months, but for Juhui and me that was plenty. We ended up in a “not-so-close friend" relationship. How else would you define a relationship in which you call on each other on birthdays or around New Years and exchange text messages once or twice a season? There were no real squabbles over money during the divorce, and it’s not as though there were any children to be divided up between us, so from the perspective of others our separation may have looked quite smooth. Juhui took the Maltese puppy with her. I was a little taken aback when she said she’d take the dog. We had chosen it together, at a pet centre in Chungmuro, to commemorate our wedding. But it was Juhui who had paid for the puppy at the time, so it wasn’t really a matter I could argue about. Occasionally, when we spoke on the phone, she’d tell me all the details about how the dog was getting on. “Last week he had his enteritis prevention vaccine. The vet said I have to get it done every year.” At such times she came across like a classy ex-wife in a Hollywood movie, reporting to her son’s father on how he was growing up.

Two summers ago when we ran into each other in front of a cinema in Gangnam, she was wearing a white sleeveless dress. I’d never seen the outfit before. “We should go for a meal one of these days.” “Yeah, let’s have dinner sometime.” And then we each went back to the people we were with. My date for the evening asked in a serious tone who she was, and I responded with “an old friend.” That was the last time I saw Juhui face to face. Sometimes I think that if we’d split up before we became tied together by the institution of marriage, say some time back in the 1990s, at the very least we would have remained with each other in the hazy memory of a first love. I don’t know what would have been better, to be honest. But it’s not that I have any complaints about the way things are now. It’s the twenty-first century now. Anyway, it’s all in the past.

 

No One Proposed to Me © Cho Jang Eun

 

My parents are ordinary and virtuous people. It’s not their fault they don’t realise their fiercely sensible way of thinking can occasionally hurt others. As their eldest son, I have absolutely no intention of protesting when my divorce and remarriage comes up for discussion during their marital rows. This is Korea, a place where parents still see their child’s divorce as a stigma and for which they blame themselves. Mum’s position is that of an extremist without a minute to lose.

“He’ll be forty before you know it. How are you not more worried?”

“Ugh. He’ll sort himself out. Don’t you know that a capable man can find himself a beautiful young bride even at forty?”

Dad’s position is closer to that of a moderate conservative, keeping his distance and watching to see how things develop.

“You heartless old man, all I’m asking is for you to give even a quarter of the concern you have for your own hair to your son’s future.”

Mum’s gripe is based in truth: all of Dad’s energy is focused on his hair. These days he’s completely taken with a dark green soap he bought from a home shopping channel. It’s supposedly made with the extract of a special medicinal herb that Native Americans used to eat. He told me how every night before going to bed, he makes a lather with the soap and massages it into his hair, then, following the instructions, waits for three minutes before rinsing it out. Come to think of it, I can vaguely remember seeing an advert on TV with a tagline that said something like: “You’ll never find a bald Native American.” There’s no use, Dad, it all comes down to excess testosterone. I couldn’t bring myself to say that to him.

 

“They said you can just go in for an initial consultation, there’s no obligation to sign up.”

It looked as though Mum had already paid the membership fee in full. The woman at the agency introduced herself as my Couple Manager. She had pale skin and a square jawline. She told me I was in the B, rather than A, class because I’d been docked a few points for occupation and "stature." According to her explanation, being an office worker is no longer a stable occupation, and having the job title of section chief at thirty-four could be seen as a warning sign for forced early retirement. And when it came to my height, although 173 centimetres is the exact average height among the men in their books, women in general these days prefer a height closer to 180. On the other hand, I was given high points in the areas of housing and personal history. The fact that I own my apartment, even though it’s a very small place on the outskirts of the city, and the fact that my previous married life was very short, were both seen favourably, which meant I was able to make it into the B class. I guess my mother had only told them about my apartment and not the hefty bank loan I’m still paying off. Just like when she’d only told them about my seven months of official matrimony without letting on that it had been a seven-year relationship. To be fair, this whole world was probably one in which that kind of thing can be strategically overlooked. The deciding factor in getting me into the B+ class, right below A, was that I didn’t have any children. If I’d had one child I would’ve been docked ten points, and if I’d had two my score would have been reduced by fifteen.

“I’ll raise your class ranking if we get good appraisals after the first couple of matchups.”

The square-jawed lady spoke kindly. The terms “matchups” and “appraisals” were new to me, but I was able to figure out that they meant meetings with prospective marriage partners and their reactions to me. The Couple Manager stressed that if I had a particular type in mind when it came to the opposite sex I had to make it clear in advance.

“Clients who initially claim they don’t care about a woman’s appearance are full of complaints when they actually meet someone.”

I was about to say that I liked women with pale, square faces, but I checked myself. It didn’t seem like the kind of place where I could make such a joke. My mother had already paid the registration fee in full, so that was the end of the consultation. From then on I would be introduced to twelve women in turn, all of whom had been judged to be B-pluses, just like me.

 

If Sony hadn’t invented the PlayStation 2, men all over the world would be coming home much later at night. I was in the middle of a World Cup match against the French national team when the call came. I glanced at the screen on my phone and saw that it was a familiar number. After hesitating a moment, I gave up my chance at a free kick and answered. I guess it’s only right that anyone give that much courtesy to their first love/ex-wife.

“It’s me.”

That was the first thing Juhui said. It must take a great deal of self-conceit to believe that “It’s me” is still an appropriate greeting when calling your first love/ex-husband. Old habits really do die hard.

“Right. It’s been a while.”

That’s what I said, but we’d exchanged text messages only two months before, on the morning of her birthday. “Happy Birthday. Have a great day.” “Thanks. Hope you’re well.” So by the terms of our relationship, it felt too soon to be hearing from her again. I got a bit apprehensive.

“There isn’t . . . something else, is there?”

“No. Nothing in particular, just . . .”

The way she let her words trail off was so unlike her. I sat up from my half-reclined position.

“To tell you the truth . . . there’s something I wanted to ask.”

A short silence flowed from the other end. It was the first time since we’d separated that this kind of tension hung in the air between us.

“It’s Mongi. Would you be able to take him?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Mongi. Her Maltese dog. “How about Mongi? It means ‘dream’ as well.” “It’s childish.” “That’s how dogs should be named. Easy, light, and childish. Mongi, Mongi—it sounds pretty good.” “But mong sounds just like a dog barking. What are people going to think when you call out Here mongi, mong mong at the park?” That snow white fluffy lump was probably middle-aged by now. I felt a strong urge to pee.

“Huh? Are you going off to live abroad or something?”

“Oh no, no. It’s nothing like that. To be honest it’s kinda complicated.”

Juhui let out a deep sigh.

“The guy I’m seeing at the moment . . . he’s uncomfortable around Mongi. Oh, he’s not a cold-hearted person or anything like that. It’s just that he was bitten by one of the dogs in his neighbourhood when he was young. There’s still a scar on his arm.”

That’s when everything became clear. When a man passes thirty, there are some things he learns without being taught: rainy Sunday nights are a blind spot for drunk driving patrols; eight or nine times out of ten, old classmates who get in touch out of the blue are trying to get you to join a pyramid scheme, so you should keep your wits about you; and there is nothing more foolish than getting involved in an ex’s love life. These trivial, mundane nuggets of wisdom block unforeseen calamity ahead of time. Following my rule of thumb, I chose to keep quiet.

“Hello? Hello? Did you hear what I just said?”

“Yeah, sorry but I’m waiting on an important phone call just now. I’ll call you back in a bit.”

I made an effort to sound natural, to speak like a gentleman. Despite not being particularly quick on the uptake, would Juhui have realized what my silence meant?

I hoped so. It was a method that could be misinterpreted as being underhanded, so I felt a little uneasy as I did it, but I turned my phone off and carried on with my football match against the French.

 

From the Gimhae line of Kims. Thirty-one years old. University graduate. Pharmacist employed by a large pharmacy chain. Previous marriage: four months. Economic situation: medium-high. No children.

This was the first profile match sent to me by the agency.

“If that young lady hadn’t made that one mistake, she’d be far too good a catch for the likes of us.”

Mum’s sense of anticipation was tinged with great excitement. She seemed to particularly like that the woman had her own specialized occupation. I suspected that Mum might have slipped the square-jawed Couple Manager some money on the sly, maybe just a couple of notes to buy snacks for the office. But I didn’t say anything.

“You can hardly call her a young lady. She’s already been married once. One mistake isn’t the same as another, you know. The situation is completely different for women than it is for men.”

Dad expressed his blatant dissatisfaction with the fact that my match was a divorcee. Recently, he’d given up on the Native American soap and shelled out more money for a new liquid hair growth solution from a renowned Swiss pharmaceutical company that developed it after more than a decade of research. At one time Dad had had such robust and stiff hair, and so much of it, that he actually looked like a country bumpkin. Then, within a year after he retired from his position as a head teacher at a boys’ middle school in Gyeonggi Province, his hair began falling out at a frightening speed. Mum claims with great seriousness that the year he had to witness his eldest son’s divorce, 1.5 times more hairs deserted his follicles than in previous years. Seen from the front it doesn’t look too bad yet, but his hair loss is progressing rapidly around the top of his head. There are only some sparse strands left on his crown. It’s safe to assume that if he hadn’t been a man with so much hair to begin with, he definitely wouldn’t have felt such despair, nor would he have obsessed so much over every single strand. I promised Dad that when I met the thirty-one-year-old pharmacist I’d ask her about the efficacy of the new Swiss hair loss drug.

(Excerpt from pp. 9–18)

 

Translated by Sophie Bowman

Author's Profile

Jeong Yi Hyun has authored four novels, four short story collections, and three essay collections. Her first novel, Sweet City of Mine (2006) was adapted into the TV series My Sweet Seoul. Her novel Foundation of Love: A Couple’s Story (2013) was part of a two-volume series exploring issues of love, marriage, and family, with Alain de Botton writing the second part.