Close
FICTION

"Sampoong Department Store"

  • onNovember 14, 2014
  • Vol.8 Summer 2010
  • byJeong Yi Hyun
Sampoong Department Store and Other Stories
2005
276pp.

On June 29, 1995, Thursday at 5:55 in the afternoon, Sampoong Department Store in the 1675-3 district collapsed. It took less than a second for each floor to fall. 

That spring I had many things. I had comparatively genial,moderately conservative parents, a clean full-size bed, asemi-transparent, green Motorola pager, and four handbags.

And at night, with my boyfriend recently employed at an investment firm company, we dated according to The Ideal Couple’s Dating Manual (although I didn’t actually check to see if the book actually exists.) Those nights were responsible, boring dates. Because I believed that if I only tried I could become whatever I wanted, naturally I didn’t want to be anything. The fact that 1990 was barely half over was intolerably confusing. I’d start to say, “It was a really wonderful year,” then after thinking, would feel irresponsible like a real estate telemarketer who presses any phone number and pressures you to invest.

The first chapter of my organized education 20 years before 1995: my mother, who had optimistic expectations about the reality of South Korea’s preschool education, held her daughter’s hand, who wasn’t yet even four-years old, and visited the local day care center. It was the most renowned school in the area. The director, with plastic butterfly-shaped glasses perched at the end of her nose, carefully studied my face. She still looks likes a baby. My mother’s feelings were hurt. Is that so? But she’s a much more competent character than she looks. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, so I kept my mouth firmly shut like a clam and looked as fierce as I could. Even now, when I want to protect myself while meeting new people, I occasionally still do this. After the director gave me permission to attend, she left me the following curse. Now it’s time for you to slowly learn order in a group environment. The grand order of a group environment: waking up from the same dream to carry the same bag to attend school at the same time and sing the same songs and dance to the same rhythmic dance, then eat the same snack off the menu.

Four years old. Tardiness was inevitable. Why every morning someone forced me to wake up from a sweet morning sleep, I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t even accept it. Each morning my mother had to throw me on her back and run through the side streets. Our housekeeper Sukja who at the time worshipped the top star Nam Jin, ran with her while hefting up my butt with her hands. The supervising teacher began to wonder about the cause of my repeated tardiness. That…Teacher, it isn’t my fault. When the round sun rises, I get up. The way you taught us to, Teacher. After I get out of bed first I brush my teeth, the top then the bottom teeth, then I wash my face and brush my hair and dress, then next in order I try to eat. But, oh no! Wouldn’t you know that my mother and my Sukja were still sound asleep? There wasn’t a single person getting my breakfast ready. Teacher, as you must know I’m only four, too young to make breakfast on my own. So I woke up my mother, waited for breakfast to be ready, then thoroughly chewed my food and ate, so I was late. The side dishes were black beans in soy sauce and pan-fried anchovies, and seaweed soup, all things I like. As the guardian of a habitually tardy student, my mother was immediately summoned. Though it probably felt unfair, she couldn’t let her daughter be branded a compulsive liar so she promised that even if there was a catastrophe, she would get up earlier than her child and have breakfast readily prepared. It was a period when, as if I were possessed by some god, lies flowed smoothly out each time I opened my mouth.

Unfortunately, my parents didn’t seem to take seriously the laziness or habit of lying, all signs of people unfit for society. Instead, it’s probable that they were proud that their child’s language skills excelled in comparison to other children of the same age. Thirty-five. It was especially the case with my parents who’d had their first child very late for the times. There was an anecdote of how my father had compared his little girl to an Olympic marathon medalist for gripping the table on her first birthday and barely managing to stand, and surprised the relatives who had gathered for my first birthday celebration. Before I started school, my father would call me out to the living room for visitors and have me read the newspaper in a loud voice. Goodness, you mean she mastered Korean this quickly? The visitor politely faked surprise and my father would modestly return with another question. Aren’t all children like this these days? As if I were a wunderkind, I covered my mouth and laughed. And because the visitor might ask me what time it was, my heart pounded furiously. I could read everything but the Chinese characters in the morning paper’s editorials in a clear voice, but I was a kid who still couldn’t read a clock. If numbers intruded, like an iron-deficient anemia patient I suddenly became dizzy and the world began to turn round and round.

After 1, I couldn’t understand why not 5 or 8 but 2 had to come. Likewise, for the longest time I couldn’t tell my left hand from my right, but when I was eight-years-old my left wrist was cut on a glass door, and that problem was naturally solved.

If she had been pierced a fingernail more to the side, it would have damaged her arteries, she’s a very lucky child. From gynecology, internal medicine, pediatrics, ENT, to orthopedics, the all-in-one neighborhood physician who diagnosed me made disorderly stitches to sew the broken skin back up. On my left arm I had a long and coarse scar running down. What will we do with that scar on a woman’s body, my mother cried, but I was as happy as if the heavens were flying. At the words, “Everyone raise your left hand,” I would no longer falter and have to sneak glances at the kid next to me. Now I just had to quickly raise the hand with the scar! It was a scar stitched up so clumsily that in the distant future, the indignation of my friend S’s husband, the head of a national plastic surgery association, wouldn’t subside, but for some odd reason, there wasn’t a single time I was ashamed of that scar. One day in 1990 when I couldn’t have been more bored, I measured it with a ruler and found it was a total of eight centimeters long. The shoes that a trendy group at the time was wearing was about that same height. When I ran into a girl wearing heels about that height, I was overwhelmed with a faint intimacy and an unexpected sadness at the same time.

June 29, 1995. The weather was hot enough to suf focate you. 5:03 in the af ternoon. I entered Sampoong Department Store. Valued customer, we apologize, said the elevator girl. The air-conditioner throughout the entire department store is out of order.

It will most certainly be repaired by tomorrow, she said with a pleasing smile.

That spring I had on the intranet myself, 24 friends who were either college students, college students taking time off from school, or college graduates, Seo Taiji’s first, second, and third albums, and a LeMot 3 model word processor. In my desk drawers were Min Byeong Cheol and Jeong Cheol’s language books, and scattered i.d. cards with Pagoda Academy’s seal printed on them. In the early 90s, I was definitely spending more time at the language institutes around Gangnam Station than at the Seongbuk-gu campus.

If time were relative and not absolute this was even more true. I gave myself the nickname “Sally.” Classmates in my conversation class asked me if I’d gotten it from the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” but actually, I’d adapted it from the Japanese anime “Sally the Witch.” As long as I didn’t have to go by my real name, I felt like Sally, Candy, Eliza, or even Pippi was fine with me. Because it was of the generation when Jeong Hyeon-cheol became Seo Taiji.

My formal education came to an end in 1995. The fact that I was the same age as Seo Taiji was for me, both then and now, a source of pride and inferiority. In March 1992, the single “I Know” and in August 1994, “Dreaming about When can we see our people in this divided land? As we hesitate, we lose ourselves. When I came to my senses, it was late fall in my final semester at university. We’re finally really turning into old women, my friend S said with a sigh.

I’d been staring at S’s shiny lips for a while. I wondered what lipstick brand she used. A girl who’s got a job in one hand and a boyfriend in the other is a potential gold medalist, but a girl who doesn’t have either is a candidate for the noose.

Another friend W made this chilly joke. According to W’s laws of classification, she herself was a gold medalist with her internship at a prestigious investment firm and a boyfriend at a public university that senior year of our second semester.

At night I couldn’t sleep. For over 20 years I had filled in blanks for profession with the word student without hesitating. I’d never imagined that other paths existed after graduating from high school besides becoming a college student or studying at an institute to retake the college entrance exam. Graduating from college was no different.

I dug through intranet message boards and tracked down the studio known to take the best i.d. photos in all of Seoul trying to look docile, reliable, and amiable, I said “whiskey” in front of the camera, and smiled. A friend who’d recently passed the national airline exam had given me this tip. The me in the resume photo with her teeth half-exposed and the edges of her lips lifted was difficult to insist was not me.

I wrote over 10 cover letters with my LeMot 3. I am a solid person. The cover letter that I sent a brick-producing company began like that. To a stationary and office supplies manufacturer, I began: At this very moment a pen with your logo on it rests beside me. I wrote, I will be the kind of person whose body is a ball pen sacrificing all its ink for the company. For companies whose purpose I just couldn’t grasp, I wrote this. I was born and raised by benevolent parents in an ordinary environment. I would like to sacrifice my youthful dreams and passions for your company. Please just give me a chance. I received a page from one company. It was a film company. I couldn’t remember what I’d written on that cover letter. Only at the interview did I realize why I’d passed the document screening.

The film company was at the top of a fifth f loor building with no elevators. Like a local real estate office, after passing an office with a worn-out leather sofa, steel cabinet, and cheap office desks crowded together, I reached the unexpected luxuriousness of the president office. The president was a small, skinny man in his 40s. He stared into my face. You’ve got a mole under your eye. You’ll have to get rid of it in order to get married. Ah, yes. If he asked me between marriage and work, what would I choose, I was resolved to say, I don’t think choosing between marriage and work is an issue for the modern woman, but he didn’t ask. You wrote that you’re skilled in English. Yes. If you have to put a circle around “advanced,” “intermediate,” and “basic,” everyone would put down “advanced.” In any case, I had completed an intensive course at the Pagoda Language Institute. But then the president suddenly began speaking informally to me: You can write some, can’t you? I didn’t immediately understand what he meant by writing some.

I put on an idiotic expression. This is frustrating. I mean when you were young did you go out to writing competitions and things like that. English and a good sentence writer.

We’re looking for someone uniting these two talents. Well, I was on the liberal arts track in high school, and I once won a prize for writing a poem. I’d gotten this far when I somehow began to feel myself being very hard up.

The president looked doubtfully at me and asked again.

That’s fine. Then what’s an erotic movie that made the biggest impression on you? What? You don’t know what erotic movies are? No, well…Nine 1/2 Weeks and Red Shoe Diaries. A smile spread across his face. There, there’s a lineage there somewhere. He gave a lengthy explanation of what kind of work I would be in charge of, which reflected that he intended to hire me. You’ve heard of rice cake films, right? When it came to words beginning with rice cakes I didn’t know anything but rice cakes and rice cakes with ramen, but I couldn’t boldly shake my head and say no. Ultimately what our company intends to do is bring in unknown third-world art movies and introduce them to Korean audiences. We’re waiting for the right time but very soon theaters exclusively showing art movies will open.

Then what do you think will be most urgent? That’s right, stable funding. This thing called a life in society, you can’t live just doing what you want. To achieve your dreams, there are times you have to lower yourself. At the end of heroically discussing his thoughts as an importer of erotic movies with a mere first-time job-seeker, he told me that my work would actually be to edit and smoothly embellish the rough translations of foreign films—mainly age 18 and over adult movies—that had never been released in theaters but had gone straight to video. Since moaning’s the bulk of it, it won’t be too difficult. You can start next week, right?
Well, why aren’t you answering? If I could have some time to think… The president’s eyes widened. He’d received my timid voice like a count whose proposal had been rejected by a girl from the countryside. Tsk, tsk, you’re still young.

Still not hungry enough. I confusedly accepted the white envelope that accounting managers usually take care of, and left the film company. “Interview Fee” was written on the envelope in thick lettering. Inside, there were two crisp 10 thousand won bills. Is it always done this way? I thought.

It was my first interview so I had no way of knowing, but I was surprised. While I walked down the five flights of stairs, I felt overwhelmed with regret for throwing away a chance to work at this excellent, conscientious company. Then and now I was a typical, capricious human being.

The Q brand was located on the right at the end of the women’s clothing floor. I passed by the Q store but I didn’t see R. There was only another pink-uniformed employee tapping leisurely at the cash register. R might have gone out for a snack. R liked spicy buckwheat noodles with half a boiled egg. She was always complaining that the spicy noodles sold as a snack in the department store cafeteria for employees was missing the egg.

My new friend.

My new friend I’d gotten that spring, no one knew her.

R and I were classmates at Z girl’s high school. While we attended school, we had hardly ever spoken to each other. There wasn’t any special reason for this. R was a quiet girl who you never noticed was there or not. Though we were in the same class our freshman year, our student numbers weren’t close, our height or our grades weren’t similar, we didn’t have any good friends in common, and even our route to school was different. At Z girl’s school near the north end of the Han River, there were five buses operating for nearly 40 percent of the students coming in from the Gangnam area. After only moving into the famous eighth school district for less than 30 months, the school’s parents couldn’t accept that their kids had been forced to transfer to another school; there was an organized movement to retransfer as a group, and the school had to do their best to appease them. We will make sure that your child has a safe commute. Isn’t the return trip more of an issue than the arrival? So they don’t leak out in the wrong direction, delivered for certain to your front door. As soon as evening study hall ended, I ran like there was a fire in order not to miss the school bus. Though I found this out later, R’s house was about 20 steps away from the school’s back entrance. As soon as our eyes met, R and I recognized each other. This was in February 1995.

It was less than a week before my college graduation ceremony. My friend S called me. I’m in trouble. They say my company’s suits only. W’s at a financial firm where it’s all uniforms, so clothes won’t cost her anything, isn’t she lucky? I couldn’t think of the right thing to say. Hmm, well, I think it’s still better to wear your own clothes than all wear the same outfit. Yeah, that’s true, isn’t it? Say, what are you wearing for graduation? Um, anyways whatever we wear will be covered by the black gown, so will anyone even see what we’ve got on? Still, that’s not right. Let’s go shopping. I’ll head out to Sampoong. The department store I’d agreed to met S at was five minutes away from my house. The entire time I was slowly walking out of the apartment complex, I kept fingering the beeper in my coat pocket. It didn’t vibrate. At the time I was waiting to hear from a cosmetic magazine and a custom design furniture company. No one was giving me money for showing up at interviews, so I found myself longing again for the film company. A few nights later after I’d had a few beers, instead of calling my first love, who was also my ex, I called the film company office, but I only got the dial tone for five minutes. It was definitely a good company where you didn’t have to work late hours. I couldn’t believe that within a week I would become a person without an affiliation.

S wanted to try on all the clothes that the mannequins were wearing in the ladies department. A velvet dress by U brand didn’t flatter S’s plumpish figure, but she insisted on buying it. Q makes good two-piece pants suits, she said. We went to the Q store. Look, and there was R standing in a pink uniform. “Wow,” R first said. “Hi! Oh, how are you?” I said. That was our first conversation ever. “I work here,” she said, though it was obvious without her saying anything. “I see, I didn’t know. I pass here often.” “Yeah,” she said, “I moved from the Myeongdong Lotte store not so long ago.” It was extremely awkward. S’s eyes seemed to ask me who she was, but I pretended not to notice. There was no real appropriate explanation, plus I couldn’t just whisper to her, she went to the same high school as me but you could say we just know each other by face. S picked out a two-piece khaki trouser suit and went into the dressing room. It was only R and I now. Feeling awkward, I laughed. R said, “You haven’t changed a bit. When you laugh you still look pretty the way you used to.” Had R seen me laughing before? I’ve been the city type since I was born. I learned that if someone compliments you, you have to respond with another compliment. So I said, “You’ve gotten much prettier than before.” R gave me an embarrassed smile. “Yeah, I was kind of chubby back in school, wasn’t I?” “Now that I think of it, you have lost weight.” We became silent again. “It’s strange. The design of the pants must have changed. Don’t they make me look shorter?” S stood in front of the full-length mirror turning this way and that to look at herself. “No, customer, it looks good on you.” “Is it because it’s too long, I can’t tell.” S looked completely dissatisfied with herself in the mirror. “Should I adjust the length for you?” R got down to her knees at S’s feet to take up the pants cuff. R’s hair was rolled up into a black hair net, and a few stray hairs were scattered across the back of her neck.

S ultimately didn’t buy the pants. I said slowly, “It was good seeing you today.” “Me too. Have a good day shopping, and next time you’re around here, you have to stop by.” “Yes, let’s meet next time.” “Wait a second,” R called, so I turned. “Give me your pager number. If there’s a sale, I’ll let you know early.” To be polite, I asked R for her pager number too. R jotted down a pager number beginning with 015 and a store number beginning with 5 on a memo pad with the Sampoong Department Store’s round, flat logo on it. A week passed without contact from the cosmetic magazine company or the custom design furniture company. On graduation day I didn’t go to school. Winter break was long but the first day of this non-school break felt different. My parents must have felt a variety of emotions towards their eldest daughter who they had briefly mistaken as a “possible genius” when I was very young and was now an unemployed college graduate, but they didn’t probe deeply. They were well-off enough not to need their daughter’s monthly check to help them get by. Instead of inviting them to the graduation ceremony and getting my head covered with a cap and being nailed into a graduation photo, I tacitly accepted the offer of a blind date, so was able to escape being a completely undutiful daughter.

A man studying at an American dental school had returned in search of a bride. He said his major was the recovery of damaged teeth. He stopped walking down the street and pointed at a 10-story building. If I see just three patients a day, I can put up a building like that in no time. It was the first time I’d actually met someone outside of a drama television series who could say something like that with sincerity. At the same time he earned my contempt, he’d gained my mother’s interest. Mom, are you crazy? How can I live where I can’t even communicate? You always studied English at institutes. I poured all that money into those institutes so why can’t you communicate? Anyways, I can’t. There’s absolutely no way I’m living in another country. Why? Because I’m a person capable of speaking high-level Korean. That’s when I realized I’d learned English not to leave but to stay. March was a blink away.

When I woke up in the morning, noon had already passed. I got my leather backpack and left for the National Library in Seocho-dong. At the library’s entrance, I flashed them my student card, not my national identity card. The man handing out library passes didn’t seem interested in things like student card expiration dates. In the periodical section, the typical magazines published domestically were displayed. As I read magazines like Design House and Working Women, my head felt like it was being emptied out. I tried exactly one time the library cafeteria’s soggy curry consisting of only potatoes and carrots. For a late lunch I’d eat instant noodles with kimchi or drink a Pocari Sweat from the vending machine. Since I still had a coat on, it wasn’t spring yet. Then it was the fifth day. The library was too cold. I poured hot water over instant noodles with kimchi in the library’s store and was pulling the noodles apart with chopsticks when I suddenly felt a coolness up my spine. I tossed the untouched noodles into the trash can and left the library. I took the local bus and headed to Sampoong Department Store.

On the fifth floor of the department store, the spicy mixed noodles were unbelievably good. I put a dollop of mustard over the deep crimson noodles and mixed them around. It was so spicy, tears oozed out of my eyes. I burned the roof of my mouth drinking a cup of hot beef broth. I took the escalators and went down a floor at a time. The fourth f loor was sporting goods, the third f loor men’s wear, then I looked closely across the second floor women’s clothing department. There still wasn’t a better place to spend an electrifying time for free than a department store. In the right-hand corner store I spotted R helping a customer. She was laughing amicably in front of a large middle-aged woman who looked like she wouldn’t look right in the Q clothes that didn’t come in anything bigger than a size 6. I came up behind R and was about to tap her on the shoulder, but turned away. On the first floor I tried out a new eyeshadow in the display case, and toyed with a pair of Audrey Hepburn-style oversize sunglasses. On the basement floor I went into a stationery store and bought a canvas pencil case with baby Pooh bear drawn on it. At the next door bookstore, I read an entire collection of prizewinning stories whose contents I’ve now forgotten. Much later I raised my head, but I couldn’t tell how much time had passed. Then and now, there were no clocks in department stores. My stomach started growling. I overturned my backpack, looking for R’s note. I went into the phone booth on the first floor lobby made to look like a street in Paris, and called R on the second floor. Hi, it’s you. R said my name correctly. Wait just two hours for me. If I hurry, I can get out by eight. Years after 1995 had passed, I sometimes wondered. Why had R answered my call so calmly? Had she predicted that I would call first? Or, at the time, had R also needed a new friend who didn’t know anything about her? Just after eight, a slew of women poured out towards the outdoor parking lot area. Even in the dark, the onceuniformed women now in everyday wear still had pearlywhite skin and looked full of life. R tapped me on the shoulder first. Were you waiting long? In jeans and a hooded sweater, she looked the same as she had in high school. I’m hungry, let’s go. She took my arm as if it were the most natural thing to do. We walked down towards the Seoul Express Bus Terminal area. After we’d gone into a knifecut noodles eatery and ordered did I remember that I’d also had noodles for lunch. Wow, I’m crazy about noodles. So you are too! Even so, you should eat wheat products only every other meal. If you don’t, you’ll end up ruining your stomach, like me. Everyone in this field eats irregularly so they have messed-up stomachs. I bit into a pickled radish. You’ve worked for a while in department stores? Since I started when I was twenty, it must be five years now. I hadn’t heard a single wisp of news about R since graduating from high school, so I couldn’t have known that she hadn’t gone to college. I see. Do you like the work? It’s all right. Making a living is the same for anyone, really. Say, they’d gone into distribution. Even if they habitually went around saying they’re going to quit since the work’s so hard, they can’t escape. The knife-cut noodles arrived. We silently ate the steaming noodles. R didn’t ask me what kind of work I was doing. She didn’t even ask me if I’d graduated. When we got up to leave the eatery, R took the check. I quickly took four 1,000-won bills out of my wallet. It was my share. By the early 1990s, splitting the bill down to the coin had become a common way of paying between female university students. R forcefully declined and pushed my hand away. I had to put the four bills away. Then I’ll get coffee, I said. R took up my arm again. Truthfully, I find cafes a waste of money. Why don’t we just go to my place? It’s just one bus stop away from here. We got off at the bus stop next to Z Girl’s High School. I followed R down a dark, gloomy labyrinth-like alley and pushed through until I saw a back entrance to Z school. It’s a shortcut, she said. I’d gone to the school for three years but didn’t know this road. My house is really close to the school, isn’t it? I nodded. Out of all the students, I probably had the shortest commute. There were times when the sun came up while I was sitting in a totally empty classroom, R said with a shy smile. To get to R’s house, we had to go through the main gate, and beside a house, go up a long flight of cement stairs. It was dark, and the stairs were spaced out widely so it was a little difficult. R turned on the lights in the living room. The room was simple, but the lights of Seoul from the window were spectacular. Wow, I blurted, and exaggerated my amazement a little. This is a killer view. It may not look like much here, but it’s still Nam mountain, R added as if she were embarrassed. I knew you would like it. There was a purple cloth over a typewriter and low table. R pulled aside the typewriter to the window. The faintly sweet coffee enveloped my tongue.

Before R returned, I took the escalator down to the basement floor. The Sampoong Department Store’s layout was so spacious that you could close your eyes and still get around. I went to the stationery store and got a hardcover diary. I was torn between a water droplet print and a zebra print cover, and finally chose the zebra print. It was so humid I could barely breathe. Three or four employees in uniforms stood near the cash register chatting. Did you hear? The roof over the fifth floor buckwheat noodle store started sagging. What’s this? It’s not collapsing today, right? There’s no way it can happen today. I mean, I wore my new pants. Ha, ha, the girls laughed. It actually was a joke. Customer, it’s 4,900 won. I took the 100 won change and left.

It was early spring. I became rapidly close with my new friend. As if all of my 24 friends were busy, my green Motorola pager was awfully quiet. Aside from R, I didn’t contact my other friends either. As usual, daylight was short in March. I was running out of the i.d. photos where I’d raised the ends of my lips. I had to take the negatives from the studio reputed to take the best photos in Seoul and get 10 more copies printed at the Sampoong Department Store photo booth.

What do you do all day at the library, R asked. Well, I just read and study. R’s eyes grew wide. Don’t you get bored? What is it you keep studying? Sorry about that, but I’ve never ever studied until I’ve gotten bored so I’m feeling guilty. If you don’t have anywhere to go in the day, I should give you my house keys. No friend had ever spoken to me like that before. I merely smiled. It’s empty anyways so you could make ramen, read, and make yourself comfortable. Just wash up after yourself. The contract conditions were really basic for loaning out her house. The moment R took out a silver key, I felt indescribably burdened. I shook my head vigorously. No, it’s fine. What am I going to do in your house without you? Just take it. You never know. If I die of a heart attack in my sleep, use the key to come in and find me. Hey, why’re you being so morbid? Then if I slip and fall in the bath, come and save me, all right? All right. At least I’ll get you dressed before calling 911. Uh, ha, ha! You promise? The key that went from her hand to mine looked small and imperfect.

That key, I don’t ever remember putting it in the keyhole and entering R’s house alone. After the library closed, I would walk to the Sampoong Department Store. I usually took the local bus, and on days the weather was warmer, I walked. Some days I walked to the right and passed the juniper trees around the Seocho-dong intersection. On other days, I crossed the street from the library and crossed through the Gangnam Saint Mary’s Hospital. The two hours or so I waited for R passed quickly. I read, picked through music, looked at clothes, or ate ice-cream. I did everything there. A department store’s essentially that kind of place. If I got bored, I went to the Q store and helped R out. To a customer trying on clothes, comments from another customer like me had more weight than R’s words. Actually, I think pastel tones suit you better than neutrals. The light green trench coat you tried on before looks 10 times prettier on you than the gray jacket you’ve got on now. Even if it’s a little more expensive, if I were you I’d definitely buy that one. After the customer left with a full blue shopping bag in her arm, R and I faced each other and faintly smiled. The way I see it, you’ve got a singular talent in this area. R praised me this way.

As closing time approached, the number of customers dwindled. When it was closing time, “The Sorrow of the Parting” flowed out over the speakers. Even after hearing the fast, lighthearted arrangement “The Sorrow of the Parting” every day, it still felt unfamiliar. My old friend that I care about so much, why do we have to say goodbye? Do you have to go? Even if I go away, how would I forget you? Our deep friendship, let’s sing for the day we’ll meet again. As I quickly hummed the lyrics to myself, I left the department store, I waited for R who was changing into jeans. R and I took turns paying for dinner. But you don’t have any money! R would protest, but I had never even imagined bumming off of another person. In fact, my finances weren’t bad. I didn’t know about pizza, chain restaurants, and steak, but I could afford spicy noodles or sushi rolls every day. I hadn’t told R that I was still getting an allowance from my parents.

After dinner, we’d go to R’s house and watch a video or drink beer. For snacks we had peanuts or onion ring snacks. R would absolutely not buy snacks that smelled like squid. She wouldn’t even eat dried squid. She said she couldn’t bear their twisting bodies as they roasted over the gas range without her eyes closed. You don’t have to look, I said. I’ll roast them. R didn’t even pretend she heard me. They drag these squid from the deep sea to land, then it’s not enough that for days they’re dried to the bone in the hot sun. Isn’t it a little brutal to finally roast them over a fire? She had a point. My desire to dip squid in mayonnaise then gnash it into pieces with my molars disappeared. We always ran out of beer before the onion ring snacks. When we ran out of beer, I got up. R walked me to the bus stop. For the last few days, the unusual evening weather had been becoming unusually mild. One by one, the forsythia trees around Nam mountain’s circular road were shooting buds one by one. With the street lights glimmering, I couldn’t tell just how bright yellow the flowers were. They could have even been azaleas, not forsythias. Come to think of it, I’d never even seen R’s face in plain daylight.

Though R would have told me if I’d asked, I never asked her why she lived alone. That was common courtesy according to my standards. R might have even felt a little hurt that I didn’t ask. Determining the appropriate emotional space between people, both then and now, is extremely difficult for me. I was also curious about the poetry chapbooks on her shelves, but I didn’t ask about those either. The Black Leaf In My Mouth by Ki Hyongdo with a caramel-colored cover, part of the Moonji series of 80 poets, was one I also owned. “For a long time, I could not write. The weather was bad here and I couldn’t endure the weather. Then, too, there was a street and the cars passed.” When I reread the excerpt on the back of the chapbook at R’s house, I knew it wasn’t the weather I couldn’t bear. It was myself.

I went into the first floor phone booth and paged R. R didn’t even have an ordinary message recorded on it. Uh-hum, I cleared my voice and began to leave a message. It’s me. I stopped by on my way through here, but I didn’t see you. Are you off getting a snack? You’re doing okay, right? I’m doing fine, too. Sorry for not keeping in touch. Working life seems to be like that. When I come back home, I’m busy just getting ready for bed. Today I just left in the middle of work. I left, but I don’t have anywhere to go. Take care of yourself. I’ll come again next time. Even now, I’m not sure whether R ever heard my message or not.

It was Saturday. I woke up late and washed my face, then saw the Q store’s phone number flash on my pager. Can you work for just one day? Our manager’s grandmother suddenly passed away, so she has to go down to the provinces right away. They say we’re getting support from the head office tomorrow, and since it’s the sales season, there’s lots of customers. Help me out just one day. I answered, sure. I opened my closet. Since it seemed best to wear the Q brand clothing, I looked for a white Q brand blouse I’d bought last spring and put it on. Underneath, I wore a black skirt I’d bought at a store selling bonded goods around the Ewha Womans University area that R was always mistakenly saying, It’s one of our pieces.

R was in the Q store with a man I’d seen for the first time. Manager, this is our help for today, she said as she introduced me. He took my national identity card and jotted down a few things elsewhere. Then he said, Please change into a uniform. R was even more confounded than me. But she’s only helping for one day. Why a uniform? Those are the original rules. But we didn’t do that way before. Well, the people who didn’t wear it made a mistake. But she’s a student and my friend, and she’s only helping us for today. Please just let it go this once, she said. I flinched because I wasn’t a student. R was resolute. If people passing had seen, they would have thought it wasn’t the department store uniform he wanted me to wear, but a prison uniform. I dissuaded R. I’m fine. I’ll just wear it. R looked at me. Her eyes were like a young calf’s soft eyes. You sure it’s fine? I sniffed, Of course. It’s not a big deal. Manager, please get a name tag on her that says part-time worker. The uniform fit me perfectly. I was part of the generation free of uniforms. Outside of my Girl’s Scout outfit in elementary school, this was the first uniform I’d worn in a long time. The uniform was heavier than I’d thought. Strangely enough, that’s how it felt to me.

Everything was different from when I used to stand by and help R while wearing whatever and saying anything I wanted. At noon, customers came swarming in. There was so much to do but I was sluggish and unused to the work. Far from picking out clothes that flattered customers, I was dripping sweat just trying to find the sizes they asked for. R covered for me as best she could, but if she was looking for leftover stock in storage or dealing with another customer, I didn’t know what to do. If I was pinning up the sleeves of one customer, it was typical for a customer who’d come in later to suddenly get peevish. How much is 30 percent off this blouse? It was too much for me to know what was 30 percent off not 150,000 won, but 148,500 won. On top of that, wasn’t I the kind of person who got dizzy merely at the sight of Arabic numbers? I looked at R. On the other side of the store, she was busy picking out a top to go with the white pants a customer liked. The cashier at the register also looked madly busy. Miss, what are you doing? Quickly total that for me. I’ll take these four suits, so take 30 percent off them. I carefully tapped the calculator. The problem was, the busy cashier didn’t check my careless arithmetic.

It wasn’t long before the customer who’d given me a 100,000 won cashier’s check and received her change came back. Which bitch did the math? Bitch, she pronounced the word with her unblinking eyes fixed straight ahead. I didn’t realize yet that the object of her curse was me. What is the problem? R stepped forward and blocked me. It wasn’t you a little while ago. She rang up the total, over there. She’s our temporary staff. You can speak with me. What, why are you using temporary staff that doesn’t even know the basics? Did she even graduate from junior high? She can’t even add? Anyhow, I was undoubtedly temporary staff that didn’t even know the basics, so I kept my head completely bowed. I apologize, R said. I’ll ring you up again immediately. She bowed low several times. There was no way for me to know how I’d managed to add around 40,000 won extra to the total. After the customer who got her money back glared at me, she pulled a scarf off a mannequin. I’m so angry, I can’t just leave like this. I’ve wasted so much time here because of that idiot, I’ll take this as compensation. Take it out of her day’s wage or something. R snatched away the scarf from her. Customer, she said. That’s difficult because this is a regular store item. We will give you another complimentary gift. The customer snatched the scarf back and raised her voice. Who wants to receive your cheap complimentary gift? I like this so I want to take this, so what’s the problem?

The uproar came to an end when the manager rushed over. In the end the customer left with the scarf shoved into her shopping bag and squarely left. As R listened to the manager’s stinging reprimands, she kept her lips shut tight. I, I just wanted to run away from there. After the manager left, R said to me, It’s all my fault. Sorry. Now thinking back, I should have said those words first. I just managed to speak. Are you all right? Her eyes shifted. Of course. This doesn’t even come close to the worst. R brushed the dust off the shoulders of my uniform. Good work today. The worst is about over so you can go now. I couldn’t say anything. I’ll settle your payment later for your work today. You should change. Will you be all right alone? Yeah, I’m fine alone. I’ll hurry up and get changed. R thrust me into the changing room used by customers. In the dressing room, I took off the department store uniform and changed back into my clothes. The white blouse and black skirt. Though they weren’t a uniform, they felt heavy. It felt like iron was pressing down on my shoulders. It was merely four hours since I’d arrived at the Q store. I left R and quickly left the department store. I felt like the pink Sampoong Department Store building, thud, thud, was following me.

It’s not uncommon to grow apart from someone you were once close to. It’s especially common as an adult. Not long after the incident, I got a job. It was a company that imported animal feed. It was surprising to learn how many kinds of animals there were in the world. I was part of the marketing department and sold feed for laboratory test animals. Hamsters required 10-14 grams, and rats required 15-20 grams. Rabbits required at least 120 grams. Neither R nor I paged the other. The vending machine coffee in the company’s hallway was awful compared to R’s coffee. I was busy introducing myself to hospitals and university research labs that used our products, that I didn’t even notice spring passing. We had to wear suits on the weekdays, but on Saturdays, jeans were permitted. I was pleased with at least that. I picked up the phone several times then put it down again.

I also got a boyfriend. When I met the guy, a man newly employed at an investment firm, we usually talked about work. He said he liked me because I was cute. What do you mean by cute? It’s just what it means. You’re not pretty, but you look cute. You’ve got white skin, and there’re three wrinkles at the corners of your eyes when you smile.

There was no doubt that he would think Ki Hyongdo was the name of an isolated island off of Hallyeo Maritime National Park. But he wasn’t bad because he was kindhearted and an optimist. That spring I had many things. I had comparatively genial, moderately conservative parents, a clean full-size bed, a semi-transparent, green Motorola pager and four handbags. Everything was the same again. Spring passed languidly, and then summer came.

The Sampoong Department Store that opened its doors on December 1989 was a modern five floor, four basement floor building. On June 29th, 1995, that day the air-conditioner wasn’t working and it was extremely hot inside. Sweat ran like rain. When did it suddenly become summer, I muttered at 5:40 while walking across the first floor lobby. At 5:43, I left through the front door. At 5:53, I opened up my zebra print diary. While I was writing, Today I… I heard Boom! It was 5:55. Sampoong Department Store had collapsed. It took less than one second for each floor to fall.

Then a lot of things happened. My semi-transparent green Motorola pager message box was full. The woman who lived the f loor below us left to buy tofu at the Sampoong Department Store while making dinner and didn’t return. They say there was a half-shredded stalk of green onion left on her cutting board. The rainy season began. A few days later a list of the deceased and missing was printed in the morning paper. I didn’t read it. In the next column, a celebrity had penned a special editorial. The content was about how perhaps the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store rumored for its decadence was a warning from heaven to a country steeped in extravagance and pleasure-seeking. I called the newspaper’s customer service to complain. The paper said that they couldn’t release the writer’s phone number. I couldn’t help but scream at the customer service representative. Did that woman say she’d ever been there? I would have been breathing heavily while laughing. I felt bad but I couldn’t help it. I still feel grateful to the person who held the phone waiting until I stopped weeping.

From the concrete ruins, I saw the rescue of a girl who had survived in there for over 230 hours. There was even a girl who’d survived for over 285 hours. I did nothing but watch television. My boyfriend worried about me. Being born means we’re all going to die someday. When I was serving as a medic in the army, I saw several deaths. My maternal uncle was an army general so we could have greased some palms, but my father deliberately had me sent there. I can’t say it was precisely because of everything that had happened, but soon after, we broke up. He promptly started dating a college student four years younger than me who looked like a cute Japanese doll. By registered mail I received notice that I was fired by the company I hadn’t shown up since June 29th. The reason given was absence without notice. That was an appropriate expression. Threehundred seventy-seven hours after the collapse a 19-year-old girl was discovered. Her first words were, What day is it today? The casualties of the Sampoong Department Store’s collapse on June 29th were a final tally of 501 deaths and 938 injured. What if you’d left ten minutes later? People told me that I’d been very lucky.

The small, imperfect silver key stayed in the last compartment of my desk drawer for 10 years. When I was hurriedly looking for something like Scotch tape or a heating pad I would open this drawer. R didn’t contact me once. R and my pager numbers had already disappeared from the face of this earth. From pagers to cell phones and “I Love School” sites to blogs, people frequently changed their toys.

As I began writing this, I used the “find people” function on Cyworld to track down R’s blog. There were a total of 12 women born in 1972 with R’s name. I clicked on each of these names. As if most of the 12 with R’s name were busy, their sites were not elaborate. Thirty-three. We must have been in the very middle of going through the realities of life. When I went into the 11th blog, on the front page there was a photo of a young girl. The kid looked about three to four years old. I enlarged the photo and looked at it for a long time. Her eyes were large and good-natured. As I looked closely, her round chin also seemed to resemble R’s. I wanted to look at some clearer photos, but there was only the one photo. I earnestly desired that child to be R’s daughter. Many things had changed and stayed the same. For a time the Sampoong Department Store lot remained vacant until 2004 when a high-rise apartment complex took its place. A few years before that apartment complex was completed, I moved far away. Even now occasionally I pass that spot. Sometimes a part of my heart feels stiff and numb, and sometimes it doesn’t. A hometown isn’t always a place that you earnestly yearn for. Only after I had left that place, was I able to write. 

 

* Translated by Krys Lee.

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.