Close
FICTION

[Excerpt] Room

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byKang Hwa Gil
A Good Person
Tr. Emily Yae Won
2016

We came to this city together.

Today I ate a tin of peaches by myself. Outside my window, the distant sound of sirens is drawing nearer. This sound is always accompanied by light. Crimson light settles like fog over the gloomy rooftop room. The floor pulses red. I draw my knees up. As my back touches the cold surface of the wall, a sharp pain shoots through the middle finger of my right hand. 

I wrap my hands over my face. Breath warms my palms. I inhale the smell of peach coming from my hands. The pain intensifies. I’d extend my arm to Sooyeon when my wrist throbbed. She never shirked away, never seemed the slightest bit annoyed, but would tend to my wrist with gentle strokes. We always fell asleep with our hands clasped together. Sirens below pass outside the window now, accompanied by the trundling of car wheels. A metallic noise scrapes my ears and the pain in my finger recedes. I haven’t set foot outside this room in a month.

If it weren’t for this room, the room’s previous tenant had said, I’d never have lasted two months.

As she spoke I’d ducked my head and hidden behind Sooyeon. The woman’s neck was elongated on one side. The line from left neck to shoulder drooped like an over-extended elastic band. The woman told us she meant to visit a hospital first thing once she was out of the city, as she stroked the side of her neck with her hand. She didn’t so much as glance in my direction. Her words were only addressed to Sooyeon.

You’ll suffocate living in one of those semi-basements, she said. This here’s perfect for two women looking to live together.

There was a black stain, possibly from a leak in the roof, in one corner of the room. Peering at the stain, I murmured to myself, What if it’s catching? 

Sooyeon pulled on my wrist. Come stand next to me, she said. What are you doing? Sooyeon was never one to lower her voice. I felt my face flush. I went and stood beside her, but couldn’t help stealing another look at the woman’s neck. But is it safe though, I kept thinking. 

I heard a voice. Sooyeon was saying something. 

How long before that happened? she asked, eyeing the woman’s neck. I pulled on her sleeve. Ignoring me, Sooyeon tapped the nape of her own neck. That there, she said.

The woman pursed her lips. I tugged a little more insistently on Sooyeon’s sleeve. The woman knitted her brows, then forced a laugh. But she did give an answer. She said it had started about a month back. Her neck wouldn’t stay upright, and by now it seemed to be messing up the rest of her body. Sooyeon nodded earnestly, like a captivated student in a lecture hall. So you better be careful, the woman added. Earn all you can then get out as quick as you can. 

I turned my gaze to the window. Black smoke, not clouds, blanketed the sky. It was three in the afternoon, but the city seemed mired in night. 

I heard a voice again. This time it was the woman. That’s in pretty good condition, I can sell it to you if you want. The woman gestured at the fridge. Sooyeon opened its door, then glumly remarked that it was obviously used, not to mention smelly. The woman’s neck sagged further to the right.

I’d just leave it. Or you could always take it with you.

The woman grimaced. She couldn’t do that, she said, it had been a big investment, buying that fridge when she first got here.

Better take it with you then, Sooyeon shot back.

 

 

We embarked on our life in the city in that room which, in the end, came with the fridge. Sooyeon was pleased we’d gotten a decent working fridge at no extra cost. The woman had to travel seven hours by bus to get where she was going; taking the fridge had been out of the question. As she left the room she’d glared at the back of Sooyeon’s head. But it had looked like a benign joke, playful even, because of the angle of her neck. Then, possibly because she’d felt my eyes on her, the woman had swiveled her angry eyes at me. I’d looked out the window, feigning indifference. 

Outside it was still murky. The cloud’s closing in on the ground, I thought. It hung so low, I could imagine reaching out to touch it. I had steeled myself long before stepping foot here, but hadn’t anticipated this obliterating darkness. I’d heard the rumors, sure, but the darkness I’d pictured was closer to fading twilight or the murkiness of misty mornings. It wasn’t until we were stepping over the border into the city that I realized this was not the sort of darkness that was relative to light. The light simply vanished. It was like entering an interminably long tunnel, and the bus rushed ahead, headlights blazing, for a very long time. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark I could make out vague forms, but nothing definite. Five other applicants were on the bus with us that day.

I turned away from the window. Sooyeon was calling my name. Are you bothered about the woman? she asked.

I suppose you had your reasons, I said.

I meant it. I’d probably have paid extra for the fridge, even if unwittingly. What bothered me was Sooyeon. She kept talking about the woman: her sagging neck, the dark spot on the side of her face, her irritable voice. Not to mention the grubbiness of the room. The toilet was particularly gruesome, she said. Why’s that? I asked, but Sooyeon merely shook her head. I walked over and opened the toilet door. I turned on the light. The ceiling was covered in black mold. Small circular growths studded its surface like constellations. My mouth fell open. Sooyeon started to laugh. I frowned and sat down. Sooyeon said that considering the state of the room, of course the fridge should have been thrown in for free. She stopped laughing then and cocked her head to the right.

That neck though, she said, didn’t look likely to get better.

Silence fell between us. Sooyeon got up, walked to the sink and turned on the faucet. Water shot out and drummed against the sink. Sooyeon filled a glass with that water and slowly drank it all down. My brows furrowed. Sooyeon wasn’t wary enough about tap water. I rummaged around in a box and found the kettle.

We’re okay, Sooyeon said.

She was the one who’d persuaded me to come to the city, despite my fears. Infection, decay, corrosion, pollution: these were the sorts of words that described the city. There’s no danger. Evidence to this effect was put forth and new findings were reported every day, but few believed the evidence. Everyone had seen the video of the explosion.

 

The city exploded like a balloon. The deafening roar reached us from the depths of the ground. Buildings collapsed and factories caved. Bridges turned to rubble while rivers overflowed. Pitch-black fluid snaked over sunken earth. Steam from this fluid wafted up and created a dense cloud in the sky. They said the cloud was gradually descending to the ground. The city was wrecked.

Sooyeon and I saw it happen from the street. Every television screen in the electronics shop showed looping news footage of the explosion. We watched as buildings toppled like toy blocks and the ground folded like paper, and clasped each other’s hands. When the soil retched up the black sap, I buried my face against Sooyeon’s shoulder. Sooyeon stroked my head. By the time I lifted my head, the whole city had been smeared black.

That night I tried desperately to erase the images that kept replaying in my head. There were no windows in my semi-basement gosiwon room. I lay in the stale funk and drew the blanket over my head. Pandemonium, littered streets, splintered utility poles, totaled buildings. Death. Bodies. Darkness. I longed for the smell of skin. I wanted to hold Sooyeon, bury my nose in her shoulder, entangle myself in her as we rolled around on the floor. I called Sooyeon on my phone.

Hi Jaein, Sooyeon answered, her voice tiny. I had to muffle my own breath to hear her speak. Sooyeon shared a room with three of her factory coworkers. She couldn’t make noise in the hallways either because of the people in the neighboring rooms. So we whispered, words like scared, tomorrow, weekend. Then I heard someone in the next room rap on my wall. I stopped mid-speech.

Later the city announced that they were looking for extra workers. This was about four months ago. Let’s go, Sooyeon said. And then what? I asked. She handed me a sheet of paper that was densely scribbled over, and said: Then we’ll make money. And we’ll live together.

The government was offering remuneration that amounted to five times what I was then making in a month. The residential neighborhoods were far from the affected area and safe, they claimed. On the sheet of paper Sooyeon had detailed a plan for our life in the city. I was reading over what she’d written when she showed me a photo. This was the room we’d move into once we reached our savings goal, she said. She emphasized the word room. A lump-sum deposit would get us a longer-term jeonse lease on a room with several large windows, something we couldn’t even dream of, not with the meager savings we had then. I worked at a dosirak shop, mostly taking orders and working behind the counter, but when they were pressed for extra hands I pitched in to cook, assemble, or deliver the boxed meals. I didn’t get off work until well after ten each night. Sooyeon, trying to convince me, said the work was hard either way.

We’ll live together. I turned Sooyeon’s words over in my mouth. Here it would take another two years to move into a room with a window. We limited our calls to five minutes a day because of the phone bill, and we only ever had two hours in a motel. It was not the first time we’d considered cohabitation. But our savings prevented it. We could have managed a crappy semi-basement without much to recommend it. Sooyeon vetoed that. She wanted us to start from a decent place.

That day Sooyeon was wearing a thin turtleneck under her old parka. We’d spent all our cash and couldn’t afford to go to the cinema or to a motel. We walked about aimlessly for a couple of hours, then stopped at a street stall where we each ate a fishcake skewer. Outside the gosiwon Sooyeon briefly held my hand before letting go. She looked like a snowperson in her parka. I watched her as she walked away. She turned to look back several times, waving at me to go in. I watched her back grow small and distant, until all I could make out was a smudge on the horizon. I took a couple of steps forward. The white parka swam into view again, before fading back to a blur. Sooyeon was vanishing right in front of my eyes. Each time her back threatened to dissolve into obscurity, I took another few steps in the direction she was headed. Sooyeon crossed a street then disappeared into a dark alley. It was cold. I looked around. If it weren’t for the cars and streetlights, this place would also be steeped in darkness. I returned to the gosiwon and spent a long time looking at the photograph of the room with its many windows. The room looked warm. The next day I told Sooyeon, Yes, I’ll come, let’s go to the city.

 

The heat in the city usually reached over forty degrees. My job was to clear away debris and knock down the remnants of ruined buildings. A half-hour of work and my mask and hat would be soaked in sweat. The soles of my shoes would melt, which made walking difficult. But after about a week I got used to the discomfort. I had to. Another three days, and I got used to the work. Clear and box and bind and bin. I started to pick up my pace, learned to figure things out for myself.

On the last day of our first month in the city, I woke up before Sooyeon. She had her face buried in her pillow. I quietly got up and went to the toilet. I turned the faucet on only partially, hoping to muffle the sound of water. Laying my hands out flat on the bottom of the washbowl, I waited for the water to rise up to my wrists. The water was milky from the lime. I crouched down and splashed the water over my body. Faint white streaks appeared on my skin.

Sooyeon still wasn’t up when I came out of the toilet. I leaned over and put my head close to her face. I could hear faint breathing. I lightly shook her shoulder.

Time to get up, I said.

Sooyeon moaned as she rolled onto her back. I feel so heavy, she said, then laughed. She said she was embarrassed she’d woken up later than me. Her voice sounded frail. Alarmed, I switched on the lamp. Sooyeon, raising herself on her elbows, scrunched up her eyes at the light. I felt her forehead with my hand. She didn’t have a fever. Sooyeon gently pushed aside my hand. She stretched out her arms. I’m fine, she said.

My eyes were on her lips. Something wasn’t right. Sooyeon lightly shoved my shoulder. It looked like she was about to crack a joke again. Before she could speak, I said, You look completely wiped out. Your lips are way too dark.

Sooyeon dropped her chin to her chest and rolled her head in a neck circle. I could hear her joints crack. I placed my hands on her shoulders. Sooyeon seemed about to speak again, but I cut in before she could. Stop saying you’re okay, I snapped, and began massaging her shoulders. Her shoulders were stiff as lead, the muscles completely knotted. I rubbed and kneaded as hard as I could, trying to erase the stiffness through sheer force. But the knots weren’t easy to remove. Sooyeon barely seemed to feel my hands though, let alone any pain. Facing the blank wall she asked if I was sure I was doing it properly, or would very occasionally mutter, That feels a bit better. I couldn’t fathom how I’d let things get so bad, how I’d failed to notice anything until now. I moved my fingers down along her spine. I pressed and rubbed, trying to get her to straighten her posture. Each time my hands traveled down her spine, Sooyeon let out a low moan. Slowly I felt warmth returning to her back and the skin begin to soften. I told her to lie down on her belly.

What for? she asked.

I’ll do your legs now, I said.

Sooyeon glanced at the clock and hesitated before saying, Guess I’ll have to run then, and got back down on the ground. I moved the blanket aside to uncover her waist and legs. I looked at her calves.

Oh, I said.

What is it, Sooyeon lifted her head to ask. 

I didn’t answer.

Aren’t you going to start? she asked.

I nodded and grabbed her calves with both hands. Sooyeon’s calves were a lot more swollen than usual, almost as if some foreign substance were balled up just below the skin. I started kneading her legs. I used quite a bit of force, but Sooyeon didn’t complain. Instead she asked if I was sure I was doing it correctly. I laughed as I put more elbow grease into it, and said, Of course, I’m doing my very best. But I could feel her swollen black-blue vein throbbing beneath my hands, and horrified that it might rupture, I relaxed my grip. I went on gingerly massaging her legs until eventually the terrible scenarios in my head subsided. Sooyeon’s legs started to soften under my palms as her tense shoulders had done earlier. I’ll give you a massage every night from now on, I thought of saying but didn’t, turning the words over in my mouth until they disappeared. I was too embarrassed to say it. Sooyeon laughed into her pillow, saying my hands were tickling her.

Oof, I’m parched, she said suddenly. Picking herself up off the floor, she walked over to the fridge. It seemed we were out of boiled water because Sooyeon picked up a glass and filled it with tap water after checking the fridge. I could hear her gulping down the water. I went and grabbed the glass out of her hand.

We said we’d boil it first, remember?

Instead of answering, Sooyeon pointed at the clock. It was almost time to leave for work. We got dressed and looked for our gloves and masks. Once we’d pulled on the boots our movements quickened. Sooyeon leaped down the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. I ran close behind her, and we rushed down the alley that seemed perpetually sunk in night. A hot breeze clung to our foreheads. We headed straight into the wind. A little up ahead a faint light glimmered. That was where the alley ended. We ran a little faster. The alley fell away and we were at the crossroads. Steam rose up from the ground beneath our feet, shimmering like heat haze. The devastated city opened up before us. Three trucks drove past us; several more were parked along the street. A truck parked on the other side of the road blared its horn in one long blast. Sooyeon started towards it. I looked around in search of the truck I was meant to get on, and spotted a familiar vehicle rattling towards me on my right. I turned my head again to find Sooyeon, and saw that she had jumped on the truck. She was waving at me.

Author's Profile

Kang Hwa Gil has authored the short story collection An Okay Person and the novel Other People. She has received the Hankyoreh Literary Award, Ku Sang Young Writers’ Award, and Munhakdongne Young Writers’ Award. Her works in translation include Demons (Strangers Press, 2019). The story excerpted here, “Room,” is her debut work for which she received the 2012 Kyunghyang Daily New Writer’s Award.