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FICTION

My Son's Girlfriend

  • onNovember 14, 2014
  • Vol.15 Spring 2012
  • byJung Mikyung
My Son's Girlfriend
2008
313pp.

Why do I feel the apartment so deserted when I’m left alone?

If I were photographed, standing in the foyer after sending off the last member of my family, a woman’s image would be captured, looking as though she would disappear into cracks of the shoe cabinet like a puff of smoke, the image so faint that it would be hard to make out who she is.

I lock the front door, return to the living room, and press the power button of the stereo. Sliding open the veranda door, I step out. This is not to see off my husband, who has just left. Sparse remaining cherry petals are surrounded by light green leaf buds, which seem greener than yesterday. The landscape of blossomed flowers is more striking on an overcast day like today. Cold symptoms have lingered in me all through the transition weeks between winter and spring. By the way the breeze seeping into my housecoat feels ticklish, I feel my cold is about to depart, finally. As I get older, the tail of winter seems more intolerably persistent. With my hands on the railing, I look down. What is moving in the empty parking lot is a solitary dark figure. Just like a wound-up doll, its two legs move to and fro with mechanical regularity. My husband. He approaches his car, opens the back door, puts down his briefcase, takes his jacket off, and hangs it on a hanger. Even on a bitter cold day or a rainy day, he gets into the driver’s seat only after taking his jacket off and hanging it up. He opens the front door and gets in. He doesn’t look up.

A car drives out of the apartments’ inner section. My husband will wait until it passes. My husband’s car starts blinking the right-turn signal at the exact moment the other car passes it by. Is there any other man who turns on the right-turn signal as he leaves an empty parking lot at ten o’clock in the morning? It may be easier than finding a man who keeps shuffling his car back and forth in a blizzard until his car aligns accurately with the parking lines on the ground. But both are my husband.

With his car out of sight, a long sigh escapes from my mouth. This is a habit that has no special meaning. The moment I no longer see the tail of his car, I feel as if the knot of a rope binding my chest snapped open. A Chopin melody drifts out of the living room windows. Chopin! The notes of the piano disperse into the air, failing to linger in my heart, and bring the face of a boy I knew ages ago. He wielded an unfunny threat that if I didn’t accept his love, he’d give up his second-year attempt to get into college and voluntarily join the army, and announced, “Come to ‘Cho-pin’ tomorrow because I have something to tell you.” I had no intention of going, but I wondered where on earth that Cho-pin was. “Where’s that?” I asked. He said, “Next to Ahyeon Bookstore.” I snickered and said, “You’re supposed to pronounce that as ‘Sho-pang.’”

At the time, my nose was stuck in the air for having made it into the university of my dreams, and I wasn’t thrilled about the guy’s status as a repeating college applicant, the suppurating pimples on his cheeks, and his complete ignorance in how to pronounce Chopin. I didn’t like any of it. How stupid can one get? I scoffed. I naturally didn’t go out to see him. Long afterward, I read somewhere that Chopin could be also pronounced as Cho-pin, but I was too brilliantly youthful to recognize someone’s sincerity, whether Chopin or Cho-pin, just as a searchlight erased the contours of objects in front of it.

Feeling languid, I suddenly feel bothered by the plans I’ve made for the day. I am wondering whether I should call and put them off when I notice a white sedan whizzing in from the complex’s entrance, from which my husband’s car has just disappeared. The car is speeding. I have an impression that it will pass through the parking lot, but it comes to a screeching stop in front of my building and pushes its tail between two parked cars. The space is just barely big enough for that kind of a smooth maneuver in one try. What’s the hurry, I wonder, because the car goes too fast backing in, and no wonder, it nudges the side mirror of the silver sedan parked on the left. I seem to hear a metallic thud but it is probably in my imagination. The car halts briefly before it darts to an empty spot across the way. This time the backing maneuver is gentle and smooth. I can’t read the number on the plate. A woman clad in a light green sweater gets out. Without glancing at the car she has damaged, she comes into the entrance of the row of apartments mine is in. I am not sure whether she’s a resident or a guest. The parking lot is quiet again. I snap out of my languor. I’d better take a shower.


Later, as I lock the front door and turn around, the door of the apartment facing mine clicks open. I catch a glimpse of a light green sweater in the foyer. She’s probably close to my neighbor, because my neighbor doesn’t come out of her apartment to see her off. Instead, she goes right back in after saying goodbye in the foyer. I don’t look at the woman’s face as I stand side by side with her, waiting for the elevator. The tips of her beige shoes are pretty worn. After the elevator descends to the first floor, she bolts out before the doors fully open. No manners, I grumble to myself. The woman’s light green sweater, cheerfully shimmering in the haze, as if seen through a translucent glass, imparts fresh brightness, like a harbinger of spring. My car, covered with a thick layer of the yellow dust blown across from China, has lost its color, looking a dullish brown. If the weather forecast says there will be no rain tomorrow, I’d better stop by at the carwash on my way home. 1949. The number on the plate of the car that slips out of the complex before my car. Of all numbers, it is the birth year of my husband.

What is the most pleasant temperature when you are unrobed? I will know the answer if I ask what the temperature is now, but I don’t bother, as I lie on my stomach, eyes closed. The same is true with lighting. The accurately calculated luminousness; when you close and then open your eyes, they are comfortable, not blinded. The sound of the footsteps of the therapist who patters around is absorbed by the thick carpet. The music is flowing so cautiously that it is hard to make out the melody if you don’t concentrate on it. Just as cautiously as the fingers that caress my body.

Along my spine, warm stones are placed, one by one. They seem slightly hot at first, but they have been toasted so perfectly that the temperature is pleasant after you let out one long breath. I feel as though I were lying on the beach on a summer evening, on a bed of stones heated by the sun all day. The warmth gradually translates into a sense of relief, reaching deep into my skin. Umm. A moan escapes from my throat.

The therapist pushes a sheet of paper before my face and gently shakes it. “It’s ylang ylang,” she says, “This will soothe your mind and body that are fatigued by the strong spring light.” The sweet, languid scent of the tropical flower floods into my nostrils. Waiting for me to exhale, she touches my face with another sheet. “This is eucalyptus,” she says, “It is a fragrance that combs straight your spirits disturbed by stress. It also soothes your breathing organs exhausted by the yellow dust.” I feel as if a thick green leaf were torn off and placed under my nostrils. “Which scent would you like?” These girls know how to put their customers at ease. If she’d offered three scents and asked me to choose one, I would have hesitated, though momentarily, but it is easy to make a choice between the two. I know that whichever one I choose, it will not be a bad choice. “Give me the first one,” I say. The ylang ylang scent travels through the tranquil chamber. The massage table next to me is empty. My daughter is always late, though she has nothing pressing in her life.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that a choice is simpler just because there is only one option.

Do-ran.

The girl’s face on my son’s computer screen floats up. I’d seen her face on his computer earlier, but I didn’t ask any questions until Hyeon brought her up. My son would talk about the girls who appeared on his computer, even if I didn’t say a thing. After a while, I’d ask, “What’s going on?” And he would answer, his face without a tinge of hurt, “we’ve broken up,” or “she wasn’t anyone special to me, anyway.” That would be that. What proclivity is it to put someone who’s not special to you on your desktop? I would ask myself.

I studied Do-ran’s face when I noticed on his desktop a picture of the two of them, cheek to cheek, beaming brightly. My first impression? Well, her face was not one that I could warm up to immediately. I don’t like that the girls at that age have the faces of kindergarteners with overgrown bodies, but this girl in particular looked -- how should I put it? -- as though she were cold. Of course, there are people who cherish a desolate landscape, ignoring flower-blooming May, the month when everything seems to float up. There are people who prefer to be holed up in their rooms rather than being part of a gathering where laughter ricochets like corn being popped. There are also men who are drawn to women who look ill, even if a bunch of bright, gorgeous young women bustle around them. You can’t do much when it comes to what one likes. Still, I had no idea that my son had that kind of preference. Whatever the case, Hyeon’s eyes were glazed over, mesmerized by her. For some time, he dropped the name Do-ran at the end of every sentence. “Mom, do you know what Do-ran did? . . . Mom, yesterday Do-ran . . . Do-ran said. . .” I interjected, “Hey, will you stop talking about Do-ran?” “Mom, you know what? Do-ran hears me out, no matter what I say.” “Do-ran? That’s one bucolic name!” “What’s wrong with the name Do-ran? Doesn’t it have a nice ring to it?” “Yeah, what about her wouldn’t be nice to you?”

I thought I’d just wait and see. A few nights ago, my son’s expression was dark as he sat down next to me at the kitchen table, where I was reading the paper.

“Mom.”

“What?”

“It’s about Do-ran.”

“Do-ran again?”

“Mom, her family is poor. Not poor by your standards, but really poor. They live in a shipping container. Where illegal shacks are clustered.”

I detected a catch in his voice. It stung. Was he declaring war?

I retorted, “Did I say anything? Did I say I’d go out and check on how her family lives?”

“I don’t mean to get married right away. I am ready to say goodbye to her tomorrow if I fall out of love. But I will never break up with her because she’s poor.”

“Then live in affectionate whispers, doran-doran, by yourselves.”

“See, Mom? You’re irritated.”

“Why are you making such a fuss at this late hour over a girl I’ve never met?”

Looking at his flushed face, I thought I’d meet her one of these days. I don’t think this way because he’s my son, but he is affectionate and considerate of others, a good kid. He was reddening and then blanching of his own accord at the mere thought of his girlfriend’s discomfort in case she met me. But a shipping container? I was rattled, to be sure.


The door bursts open and Myeong enters. “Hi, Mom, I’m here,” she says, and carelessly whisks away her gown, exposing herself, and hangs it up. Then she lies on her stomach and turns her face toward me. The therapist carefully pours the oil, heated to body temperature, on my daughter’s back. What is she thinking about while massaging the body of a girl who is approximately her own age? Om, om, my daughter lets out moans like a satiated cat when the therapist’s moving hands press the massage points.

“Mom, I think I’m getting old. I miss the therapist’s hands more than I do my husband’s.”

“Is that the kind of thing to say to your mom?”

“So I hear that your son has finally found someone he’d like to marry.”

“I’m going to meet her near here this afternoon.”

That fast? Her eyes are wide. I say, “I thought it would be a good idea to meet her.” She says, “Whatever the case, she doesn’t know her social station.” “What’s your station, may I ask?” She glares at me, the whites of her eyes strikingly prominent. Although she’s my daughter, rather, because she’s my daughter, I wish she’d live differently. She goes out to department stores every day and drops by the spa, complaining that her legs hurt, and she relies on a housekeeper for all her household chores, but still she complains about everything, none of which is important. If she comes off like that to her own mother, who will ever find her pleasant? Right before the now-cooled stones on my back feel like foreign objects, the therapist removes them one by one. Even after they are taken off, their warmth lingers. It’s almost time to go out to meet Do-ran.

I search for a relatively quiet spot in the coffee shop and take a seat in a corner, but my ears hurt with the chatter of the women who fill the shop. Thinking that the girl entering the shop is Do-ran, I raise my hand. As I lower it, I spot my daughter, sitting by herself near the entrance, blatantly staring up at the newcomer. I didn’t notice it when my daughter was right next to me, but from a distance she looks more and more like me in her facial features as the years go by. Before coming here, I asked my daughter to join us, now that she was in the neighborhood anyway, but she shook her head, saying she found it burdensome, for there was no telling what would happen between her brother and Do-ran. That was why she decided to sit near the entrance, saying that she’d just check out Do-ran. Now here she is, brandishing a finger behind the girl’s back, demanding my confirmation that she is the right one. A pity that my daughter behaves the way she does . . .


Observing the overcast sky with heavy portents of rain, I congratulate myself for not stopping by the carwash. As I get out of my car, I notice that the new leaves on the cherry trees seem to be longer than they were in the morning. Squinting, I focus on those young leaves. The light green of the woman’s sweater in the morning was the exact same color. The peeking buds, spearheaded from moist bases, look likes exits from a hazy world; if you poked a finger into a bud and tore it off, an entrance to another world might reveal itself.

The guard, talking with a man as they stand in the stairway, makes way for me, nodding his head politely. I brush by them and as I approach the elevator, the voice of the interlocutor with short cropped hair reaches my ears.

“Heck, what can I do? I should pay for it if I want to keep my job. Shit. It’s not small change of money. I have no idea how to raise that kind of money. “

It doesn’t seem to be a situation that should elicit a laugh, but the ever-optimistic guard bursts into merry laughter. “Can’t believe a side mirror costs as much as a small car. Hahaha.”

“Exactly. I don’t understand why I should be punished out of the blue like this. All I did was step away from the car just long enough to nibble on a few slices of stale beef. When I think about it, I’m going crazy.”

The elevator doors close. I have no choice but to look at the profile of the woman in the mirrors wrapping around the elevator, and even at the back of her head. Right there is a face that looks impoverished, lacking any yearning, a face that does not look tired but is far from lively, prompting me to avert my eyes.

Why is my own face getting more unfamiliar as I age?


I broach the subject as I set a plate of strawberries down next to my husband, who is watching the nine o’clock evening news.

“What should we do about the kids?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re still so indifferent to our family’s affairs, not a bit different from when you were younger. He is our only son and inviting a new family member into our midst is a very important matter. How can you speak as if you were discussing a second marriage of our in-law’s distant relative or something?”

“Indifferent? I’ve formed an opinion in my own way. She graduated from the same university as Hyeon’s. That won’t be embarrassing to put forth to anyone, very good academic achievements, actually, and she must be smart, and she must look pretty by the way our nit-picking kid chases after her, and by the way she tolerates his whims, she must be much more easygoing than you are. By the tone of your voice, your first impression of her didn’t seem to be too bad.”

Listening to my husband’s slow utterance, pausing here and there—he didn’t even bother to turn down the volume of the television—I have to agree. I’ve got to give it to him: It’s not everyone who can run a big business. I have to agree that he always views a situation from a broader perspective.

“True. I think it won’t be easy to find someone as good as she is these days. I can’t claim I’m a good judge after meeting her just once, but she seems upright, she’s personable, and yes, frankly, a mother who has a marriageable child tends to have higher standards for his spouse, but . . .”

“But?”

“She’s from a very poor family.”

I don’t tell him that Do-ran lives in a shipping container.

“We’re not so bad off that we have to drool over our in-laws’ money, are we? She’s got to be better than the kids in this neighborhood who spend money as easily as yanking a Kleenex to blow their noses with.”

He’s not completely wrong. What troubles me—how can I put it?—is not money itself.

“I don’t know how to describe it. How should I put it? She looks as though she were cold . . .”

“Cold? You mean she has a look of poverty and misery written all over her?”

“That’s not it, exactly.”

If I had met Do-ran on a different occasion, I would have thought she was neat and upright. As we left together after drinking tea, I had a feeling that she wasn’t at ease. I thought she didn’t feel that way toward me; it had to be the coffee shop. I couldn’t pinpoint which aspects of her didn’t please me, but she seemed to be out of place there. It is possible that I reacted too sensitively; I could have been unaware of it if I hadn’t heard the word “shipping container” from Hyeon.

My husband says, “Why worry? Nobody was born with a talent to spend money. Look at Myeong. You didn’t teach her since she was in your womb, but she practically lives in department stores. What does Hyeon say? Does he want to marry her?”

“He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to set a wedding date at this point.”

“Then wait and see. He isn’t at an age when getting married is urgent.”

I leave it at that. After cleaning up in the kitchen, I go down with a garbage bag in hand. The guard is smoking under the cherry trees. Petals strewn on the ground shine white in the dark. Dumping the garbage and turning around, I ask him, “Did something happen today?”

The man unwraps his story bundle, as if he’d been waiting for this chance, bored out of his wits.

“You see, in the morning, someone shattered the side mirror of the Mercedes of Unit 107. Haha. The lady of the apartment just said, What were you doing, not keeping an eye on the car? But that’s more frightening to the driver than the outright demand to pay for it, you know? Normally when the gentleman of the house doesn’t go out, the driver stays in the car or waits for him sitting outside my guard post. As it happened, the family who had a pre-wedding party last night sent down a food tray for me. We drank just a cup of soju each and he was away from his car for just ten minutes or so, and that’s when it happened. Now, Driver Choe isn’t completely innocent, you see, because he drank while on duty, but the repair cost is bigger than his salary. Just one side mirror costs two million won. That’s pretty shocking.”

He seems to imply, Don’t you think the owners have gone too far? I vaguely answer, “Oh, I see,” and turn around. If I let him chatter on, I will hear an endless, predictable story, something like Driver Choe’s mother is showing symptoms of early dementia, his young daughter begs him to give her piano lessons, and his wife is whining about how they can raise money to meet an increase in rental deposit demanded by their landlord. More than that, I am afraid that a longer conversation will prompt me to burst out, Actually, this morning I happened to . . . But two million won? Should I speak up?

My husband is still watching the news. The news seems to give more pleasure to the viewers the more shocking it is and the greater distance it is from their lives. He is watching with a bored expression the segment on a regional city where a big fire erupted but fortunately no life was taken. I am tempted to tell him about the side-mirror incident, but decide against it and head for the bedroom. Who was it that said that after a phase of boredom in marriage comes a phase of disenchantment? Our topic of conversation is limited to what is going on in our children’s lives. After Hyeon’s marriage, this place will likely turn into a home for a mute couple. Until my husband made it in the world by his sheer effort, he was a skinflint. It looks like he’s getting mellow by the way he remains calm after hearing that his son’s prospective in-laws are poor.

Hyeon, who comes home late, vents his fury as soon as he sees me.

“Mom, did you meet Do-ran?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Why didn’t you tell me first? Why do you act as you please?”

“Do I have to get your permission before I meet someone?”

“You’re stressing everyone out.”

“I didn’t make her stressed.”

“I mean you stress me.”

“Why are you stressed?”

“I have lots to think about.”

“I don’t understand. It didn’t feel like I met her for the first time. You’ve talked about her all the time, you know. What’s there to think about?”

“I want to see her without thinking about complicated matters yet.”

“At your age, shouldn’t you?”

“Mom, it’s not like that.”

“You kept talking about Do-ran all the time, so I met her. I didn’t talk about anything much with her.”

Seeing him go into his room, slamming the door behind him, my blood begins to boil. This is exactly why people say that the son is equally to blame when a conflict arises between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. It’s easier to talk to your daughter what’s on your mind than to your husband. I call Myeong and she offers, “Actually, you’ve gone too far, Mom. Wait and see. Kids these days, you know for sure only when they enter the wedding hall together.”

“She looks okay, don’t you think?”

“Do you think she’s perky, Mom? I think she’s terrible. It’s more frightening when a person is busy calculating behind the mask of innocence.”

I find it detestable that my daughter is crunching on an apple while speaking to her elder on the phone. I take the receiver away from my ear. The crunching noise doesn’t diminish.

My daughter says, “She doesn’t know a thing about her social station. There are limits even to social mobility, you know.”

“What’s your own station, may I ask?”

Though she’s my daughter, I don’t care for her at a time like this. All the more so because people say that she’s exactly like me.

“Mom, it’s not an issue of whether she has money or not. You will see. I think there’s an issue of class between the two, and they cannot overcome it. I majored in sociology, remember? I don’t think it matters that she lives in a shipping container. If it’s just a matter of residency, you can offer one of the apartments Dad owns, but that’s not the central issue. Why didn’t you marry that guy, Cho-pin or what’s his name? And why did you marry Dad instead? Mom, you read your future from that guy Cho-pin, like you looked into a mirror. Let’s be frank. Mom, you have been a successful investor in a venture called marriage. Don’t you agree?”

Now, she has gone too far. She must have finished her whole apple by now. Her voice is clear as she wraps up her argument.

“We children are not like you, Mom, no matter how I look at it.”


* * *

“What do you think of Hyeon?”

Swallowing the black bean noodles she was chewing, Do-ran smiles faintly.

How adorable she would look if only she beamed brightly.

When I called her, offering to treat her to a nice meal, I promised myself that I wouldn’t get hurt even if she declined with the excuse that she was busy. Do-ran didn’t ask, “Why do you want to see me again?” She simply said yes. I asked her what she would like to eat and she answered, “Black bean noodles.” I reserved a table at the Chinese restaurant, but she insisted on ordering just the noodles, saying that she didn’t eat much for lunch.

“Hyeon, he’s a narcissist.”

A laugh slips out of my mouth.

“Do you mean that he’s full of himself despite the way he looks?”

“I don’t mean that. His self-love is extraordinary, but that doesn’t come off as offensive. How can I put it? It looks like he was raised that way.”

She is right, quite observant for her age. He goes into a shabby restaurant and eats there, but his appetite flees at the sight of a roll of toilet paper lying on the table in lieu of napkins. A bourgeois youth through and through -- that’s my son. I look at Do-ran, and the way she eats is adorable. She scrapes up the sauce from the bowl and eats it to the last drop. She sips the jasmine tea and then hands over a shopping bag to me, politely with both hands.

“What is this?”

“I heard your birthday was a few days ago.”

I unwrap the package and find a knit mohair scarf in Indian-pink. Bright in color and narrow and long, it would be okay to wrap it around my neck even now, well past winter. I’m moved by the unexpected gift. When was the last time I received such a sincere handmade gift?

“Did you knit it yourself?”

“The season for scarves is over, but there isn’t much else I can do.”

“You must be busy, though.”

“Yes, but . . . it didn’t take long. The loops are uneven. Some are big and some are small.”

I wind it around my neck, saying, “Hand-made items are in vogue these days, aren’t they?” I feel the warmth not only on my neck, but down to the depths of my stomach, as though warm bubbles were rising there.

“That color looks great on you,” Do-ran says.

As I take out a credit card at the cashier, Do-ran, glancing at the bill, asks the girl at the counter, “Wasn’t black bean noodles 9,000 won?” The girl answers kindly, “The VAT and a service charge are added to that.” Do-ran exclaims, her face dark with displeasure, “Charging for service on a bowl of black bean noodles?” I take Do-ran to my car, sit her in the passenger seat, and drive her to a department store nearby. Is it because I was provoked by the attitude of the cashier, who was wearing an inscrutable expression as she looked at Do-ran, when she expressed disbelief about a service charge on black bean noodles? Saying, “It doesn’t feel right to receive a gift from a young person and not give anything back,” I get out of the elevator on the women’s apparel floor, and suggest that I buy her an outfit. Wearing the same expression that she wore at the restaurant counter, she says, “I don’t buy clothes in places like this.” I say, “When an elder wants to give you a gift, you’re supposed to say thank you and take it,” and I start walking ahead of her.

People say that to go to a department store to buy clothes, you should be carefully made up and dressed up, just like when you attend a gathering of your old school friends, but the atmosphere of this particular department store is way over the top. I realize it afresh after I take Do-ran to a young casual brand boutique and see her stand there. If two women with no makeup were to stand side by side, the complexion of the one from this neighborhood would be different from the one from a different area. If people came out dragging slippers on their bare feet, you could easily tell those from this neighborhood from the rest. I am aware that this doesn’t come from what they are wearing. Can I put it this way, that the difference exudes from deep down, from the bones? Do-ran is of an age that she looks pretty and radiant even when she wears something she picked up from a vendor at Namdaemun Market, but it is not the case here, at this place. Do-ran stands awkwardly, suddenly giving off the impression of a girl who is not well cared for, who fails to dress fashionably. I pick several outfits for her.

It is incomprehensible. Standing next to the mannequin dressed in unrealistic clothes, just like a big doll, Do-ran looks out of place, like a child who doesn’t have any appealing qualities, a child who doesn’t look good in whatever clothes she’s decked out in. When Do-ran, who expresses neither likes nor dislikes, suddenly puts on a look of resignation, when I read the salesgirl’s stuck-up expression, though she is nothing but a salesperson in the shop, unyielding spirits fire me. I rifle through the clothes on the hangers, select this and that, and make Do-ran try them on. She changes several times, but nothing seems to suit her. I choose a yellowish jacket -- but not too eye-catching -- and ask her to try it on, and Do-ran takes it, looking almost exhausted. In the jeans and the cotton jacket selected this way, she doesn’t look half bad. We go down to the basement parking lot, get into my car, and I drive her to the nearest subway station. She sits silently all along, and as she gets out, she says softly, “Thank you,” and shuts the door. In the side mirror, I see her standing there until she is no longer visible. A sigh escapes from my lips. I remember Hyeon’s voice: It’s not only because of the shipping container.

That’s right, but . . .


As I enter the elevator, my eyes wander toward the wall, where Driver Choe pasted a poster several days ago. It was a computer printout, suggesting that he had put it in the other elevators as well. The poster began with, If you witnessed a collision that occurred at a certain hour on a certain day of a certain month. The font was so big that he ran out of space to detail how difficult it was for him to come up with the money. The poster disappeared the very next day. The guard, guffawing as usual, told me that he had been the one who received a severe reprimand, accompanied by a brandishing finger: How dare he treat residents as criminals?

At night, I confide in my husband, who is eating a melon at the table, about the side mirror. Without a word, he tilts his head toward me and stares at me with a stupefied expression. From his eyes, I get what he is thinking: You’re not going to speak up after all these days, are you? One is able to read this after living together for a long time. He has been always right, in hindsight. I didn’t bring up the subject expecting an answer. Just like the barber in the old tale, I needed a field of reeds in which I could confide about the king’s donkey-like ears.

Chomping on the melon, he says flatly, “Forget it.”

My husband is the type of person who makes sure that no water glass is placed too close to the edge of our table. A long time ago I watched a movie starring Julia Roberts. I don’t remember the title. Julia’s husband can’t stand it when the towels aren’t hanging in perfect folds on the bathroom rack and the groceries in the kitchen cabinets aren’t in perfect array. On a stormy night, she stages her own death and disappears from the face of earth. I had read a movie review in the newspaper and gone to see it by myself, though I wasn’t the type who went to see a movie alone. While watching the film, I found myself weeping. So the details did not stay with me. At the scene in which Julia starts crying, I cried along with her. It is probably common to be in a relationship in which you have to choose between the two: disappearing after staging your own death or killing your true self inside you. I don’t know whether it’s my husband or me that has changed in all our years together. Sometimes I feel my son, whom I raised, resembles me, as if we were wheels of the same bicycle. If someone looks at me and my husband and feels the same way, he may not be wrong, either. This thought makes me blurt out something unplanned.

“Should I just tell our next-door neighbor? That if she’s too embarrassed to come forward now, she can anonymously hand over the money?”

“Do you think she has no eyes to read the poster with? If you feel so sorry, you can put your own money in an envelope and slip it to him anonymously.”

He sounds sure that I will never do that. He lifts his hand to adjust the checkered tablecloth that is slightly askew with the corner of the table, corrects the irregular folds at the corner, and transfers my glass I have put down too close to the edge of the table toward the center. If he hadn’t done that, I know I’d have been the one to do it. 

 

* Translated by Yu Young-nan.

Author's Profile

Jung Mikyung made her literary debut in 1987 as the winner in the drama category of the JoongAng New Writer’s Award, then went on hiatus before publishing a short story in the quarterly World Literature in 2001. She is the author of the short story collections Bloodstained LoverThey Gave Me Balkan RosesMy Son’s Girlfriend, and The French Laundry; the novels La Vie en RoseThe Strange Sorrow of Wonderland, and Stars of Africa. She is the winner of the 2006 Yi Sang Literary Award.