The Loneliness of Others
- onJune 19, 2018
- Vol.40 Summer 2018
- byJeong Yi Hyun
- Today’s Lie
Tr. Sophie Bowman 2008328pp.
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.