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FICTION

[Excerpt] No Knocking in This House

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byKim Ae-ran
Run, Daddy, Run
Tr. Rachel Min Park
2005

In this house, there lived five girls who were complete strangers. Some of them were university students and some office workers. All the girls appeared to be in their early twenties. Though I didn’t know what they did for a living, or what their faces looked like, one thing was certain: this house was not a home. 

Every morning, these five strangers used the same bathroom. Sometimes, I would see the traces of the last person who used the toilet without flushing. Or I would see their laundry, smell their food. 

When one girl was using the bathroom, the other four would wait even after it was clear that she had exited the bathroom until they heard the door shut, signaling she had returned to her room. Unless that distinct sound was heard, the remaining girls did not dare open their doors. As if we had all taken a vow, the five girls’ movements were orchestrated around the sounds of closing doors. Occasionally, we missed our timing and caught a glimpse of each other’s faces, becoming strangely startled and immediately shutting our respective doors. The faces that we saw in those moments were fragmented halves, sometimes thirds. 

But of course, even in a place like this, faceless incidents occurred. There were the crying sounds of a girl drifting in from one room, the sock always left behind in the washing machine by a girl in another room, the frequent male visitor invited over by a girl in yet another. 

Once, the stench of alcohol wafted in from the hallways for three days straight. There had been a huge commotion all night, with a man kicking the front door and the girl in the last room in the hallway bawling. The girls in the other four rooms seemed to be enduring the racket well, or maybe they were simply uninterested. Based on the sounds of her frequently popping in and out of the bathroom, it seemed like the girl had gone on a bender. The sour stink of vomit permeated the other rooms, and the man called out the girl’s name. When things had finally settled down, I ventured outside to use the bathroom. Spotting the vomit-filled plastic bag in front of her door, I suddenly recalled her name, which I now knew thanks to that guy. 

The next morning, the upstairs landlady came down to our floor. Standing near the front door and facing the five rooms, she loudly screeched, “Who was it?!” She spoke informally, without any honorifics. Burrowing myself into the depths of my blanket, I tried to hide as much as I possibly could. She had the habit of ending all of her sentences with a “Huh?” as in “So you think that’s okay? Huh?” For ten whole minutes, she stood in the hallway and clamored on before finally returning upstairs. However, the five, tightly shut rooms remained as silent as graves. 

I wasn’t sure when any of the girls started living in their respective rooms. I moved here about three months ago. Back then, I’d taken a leave of absence from school and was working part-time at a convenience store for 2,500 won an hour. When I first arrived, I anticipated introducing myself to everyone and possibly arranging a regular get-together, similar to a monthly neighborhood association meeting where we would effectively discuss any communal problems. But it seemed like this place had been running along just fine for a long time without such things, and it didn’t seem like the previous tenants would appreciate a newcomer interfering, so I soon gave up. 

 

 

The house was located in a residential area near a university, with a semi-basement and two half-stories—floors 1.5 and 2.5. Given the awkward height, the floors weren’t low enough to count as the ground floor or the basement, but also weren’t high enough to be considered a second story. When I first came to see the house, I was struck by the feeling that I was staring at a huge disfigured beast. The tenants lived on floors 1.5 and .5 (that is, the semi-basement), while the landlady lived alone on floor 2.5. In her late fifties, the landlady possessed a round physique with prominent double eyelids. When I first met her to inquire about renting a room, she handed me a cup of citron tea and bragged about her son who had already become a university lecturer. She had a fast-speaking, high-pitched voice that stood in stark contrast to her slow-witted appearance. At times, I couldn’t make out what she was saying. 

Floor 1.5, where I was living, was shaped like the Korean letter giyeok, or ㄱ, turned upside-down. The vertical axis of the giyeok faced the bathroom and three of the rooms, with another room located at the corner, and the last room on the horizontal one. I lived in the first room opposite the bathroom, right in front of the entrance. The landlady called me “Ms. Room One.”

Three months since my arrival passed, and I had yet to see any of the girls that lived in the other four rooms. At first, I thought that it was because most of them left the house in the morning, while I left in the afternoon for my part-time job. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that none of the girls in this place had ever seen the others’ faces. Sometimes, I came across a pair of baggy cotton panties that had been set out to dry by the heavy-set girl living in the room in front of mine, or the trash bag dropped in front of the room by the girl next door who left for work at seven in the morning, or the slippers placed in front of each person’s door after midnight. A few days after my initial arrival, I discovered that the girl in the last room used acupuncture slippers with special inner soles, that the girl in room three washed her sheets excessively, and that the girl in room five would frequently do her laundry and forget it in the machine. 

In the center of the long and narrow hallway, there was a drying rack for laundry that we all shared. The rack was perched in front of room two, and in order for the girls in rooms four and five to go to the bathroom in front of room one—my room—they had to turn sideways and shuffle along to squeeze through the tiny space left between the hallway and laundry rack. And in order for me to go to the utility room next to room five, I had to cross the hallway in the same manner. Taking turns, we all hung our laundry there. Though we hadn’t made any special promise or arrangements for the laundry rack, we tended to be fair and used it without any particular difficulties. This was probably because we each moved with extreme care, crouched in our rooms and holding our breaths as we waited for the sounds of the washing machine spinning, the laundry being shaken out, or the sight of the laundry rack as we passed the hallway—the signals that guided our movements. On weekends, our laundry times would occasionally overlap, forcing us to hang our laundry inside our own room as someone else’s clothes occupied the rack. In those moments, my room became cramped and unbearable. 

One time, my turn to use the laundry rack did not come for so long that I was starting to run out of clean clothes. At every spare moment, I carefully scanned the laundry rack to see if it was empty yet, but days passed and the thought of taking down the laundry had apparently never crossed its owner’s mind. Wondering if I should wait a little longer, I suddenly spotted a large red plastic tub in the bathroom; I folded the laundry and placed it there. Four pairs of slippers were messily strewn across the front of the entrance, indicating that I was alone in the house. The clothes on the laundry rack were mostly ordinary, ready-to-wear clothes. They were unusually large, their probable owner the girl in the room across from mine. None of the clothes looked stiff or uncomfortable, so she probably didn’t work in an office. Wearily slung over the laundry rack, the oversized clothes were covered in lint. A large yellowish stain marked the front of a pair of worn-out panties. I abruptly thought to myself, “She definitely doesn’t have a boyfriend.” The majority of the clothes were bone-dry, but a single corset hanging heavily from the end of the rack was dripping water onto the floor. Except for this corset, I gently put all the clothes into the plastic tub and gingerly placed them in front of room number two. Maybe she’ll be happy to see her laundry so nicely folded after returning from a long day at work, I thought. 

That night, I saw a Post-it note stuck to the bottom of the empty plastic tub. 

Please don’t touch my clothes

 

As far as I knew, I was the only smoker in the house. For the first few weeks after I moved here, I suppressed my urges, worried about what others might think or that I might bother them. However, at a certain point, I naturally started smoking cigarettes in the bathroom or in my own room. Standing on my tiptoes near a window, I took anxious drags from my cigarette. The sheer possibility of the landlady coming downstairs and spotting the smoke filled me with worry. Without smoking even half the cigarette, I hastily stubbed it out, cracked open the window, sprayed fabric softener on the floor, and waited. And waited. Finally, realizing that it would be awkward for me to continue occupying the bathroom, I left. As soon as I did, I heard the sounds of someone barging into the bathroom, as if they had been praying for me to hurry up and leave, clutching the door handle and silently blaming me for their stomach pain. For some reason, that sound—that speed—grated on my nerves. 

That night, I went to the bathroom to take a shower. Stuck to the bathroom door was a Post-it note that hadn’t been there before. 

Whoever has been using a flame in their room, please be careful. For all our sakes. 

Although I had no reason to, I felt ashamed. I thought of the awkwardly formal voices of the girls, imagining their whole faces from the halves or thirds that I had glimpsed as they ran off to hide in their rooms. I imagined that one pupil, that one tense eye on the remaining shard of their faces, hidden behind the door, shrinking away as if burrowing underneath the skin. Maybe all the girls’ faces had been burned on one side? Maybe four girls, all with the same half-burned face, had somehow ended up living together in this house with five rooms and I was the only who didn’t know. Or were they the ones that didn’t know? Perhaps there had once been a fire in this house and those girls, at the same time and place . . . something like that? 

But I knew there had never been anything like a fire in this house. Moreover, I was fairly certain that one of the girls had an extremely adorable and pretty face. Something to celebrate, that. 

The bathroom in this house was slightly larger than one pyeong and didn’t have a bathtub or sink basin—just a showerhead and a toilet. Two shelves were attached to the wall. On the shelves, five shower caddies, five soaps, five toothbrushes, five towels. There was a single tube of toothpaste that looked like it hadn’t been used in a while. Someone had likely left it out and another girl had also started using it, but after seeing how quickly it emptied out within a single week, they had both become embarrassed at the mistake and now, nobody touched it. When mine is gone, I’ll use yoursI have mine, but I’ll still use yours—all five girls seemed to be guilty of this. 

The toilet was a water-saving model, and placed next to the toilet was a trash can that you could open by pressing a pedal with the tip of your foot. Once a week, the landlady took out the bathroom trash and cleaned the bathroom. While the latter tended to be fairly clean, the trash can was constantly overflowing. Though the trash bag was only big enough to contain four days’ worth of our trash, the landlady forced us to use it for an entire week. Since I loathed the sight of pads sticking out from the trash can lid, I would habitually stomp the trash farther down after using the bathroom. 

When I first came to this house, I hated feeling my slippers dampen every time I had to use the bathroom, so I started leaning them against the doorway. Soon afterwards, it seemed like a few of the other girls, though not all of them, started doing this as well. There came a moment when I started to make judgments as to who did, and who did not, put up their shoes. Even without ever having seen their faces, I had my own grounds for these determinations. Through careful observation, it was clear that those who cleaned up their stray hairs after showering always did so, and those that didn’t never would. The person who entered the bathroom only when everyone else left for work was always the same, just as the person who always got the toilet seat wet during their shower, making it uncomfortable for everyone else, was always the same. I classified them according to the slippers. 

Of course, that person was not just one person. That these kinds of incidents kept repeating, despite the numerous, incorrectly-spelled warnings the landlady had posted on the bathroom wall, was likely due to the “habits” of these five girls who had all grown up separately until now, into their twenties. Something that was fine to the girl in room one could be absolutely intolerable to the girl in room three; something unthinkable to the girl in room four could be entirely trivial to the girl in room two. It took me, someone who had only ever lived alone before coming here, over one month to understand this. 

Yet being able to understand something and being able to tolerate it are entirely different matters. When my tolerance finally reached its breaking point, I would become furious. The racket from Room Four every night, as if she was hosting a new student orientation there. The selfishness of Room Three, who raised the heater as soon as I lowered it, as if we were in a silent argument. The laziness of Room Two who, even though she hated me touching her laundry, would not put it away herself. The carelessness of Room Five, who constantly startled me with her door slamming. But even so, nobody complained or attempted to make excuses. In reality, all of us—Rooms One, Two, Three, Four, and Five—constantly had our eyes and ears wide open, and were living too closely together and thus, too far apart. 

There were many houses like this one in the surrounding area, and more popped up every day. Most recently, a three-story building was quickly being constructed behind this house. Every morning, I covered my ears with my pillow in an attempt to block out the construction noises and tossed and turned; every morning, the landlady went outside and fought with the workers. She started with “Our poor students can’t even sleep in on the weekends, what is this?”; then moved on to “The cement is spilling over here, won’t it plug up the drains?”; “Who’s the owner?”; and then finally escalated to wailing, “I have to protect my assets too!” Afterwards, she would climb the stairs to our floor, catch sight of the trash bags littering the hallway, and immediately start yelling, “Do these kids think that this place is a dump?!” The girls wanted to protest, saying that if they left the trash in their rooms, it would quickly get smelly, but the landlady followed up her fury with “How can you leave the lights on during the day?!” We wanted to rebut that it was too dark if we didn’t turn on the lights, but the landlady would then complain about whoever left the hot water on and in this manner, conducted a full-blown interrogation. Without stirring an inch from my blankets, I mumbled to myself, “But I didn’t do it . . .” The landlady, the same woman who had kindly offered me citron tea and boasted about her son when I first came to visit, stood alone in the empty hallway for some time, panting and gasping until she finally left. A few minutes later, I heard the sound of someone flushing the toilet. 

 

I took care of tidying the shoes in the house. The landlady organized and cleaned the communal spaces of the inn-style rooms, but she couldn’t very well organize the shoes as well, and doing so would have been strange. My role in straightening up the shoes in this house was purely voluntary. 

Whenever I saw the scattered shoes at the entrance, I always became irritated. I was fixated on organizing the shoes because I hated seeing the mess, infuriated by the reality that at dinner time, all five rooms were occupied. Everyone had their own room, their proper spots, but I felt like I was suffocating. During the afternoons and weekends, only about two people were home at any given time. In those moments, I napped with a carefree heart, or listened to music, idly lounging about my room. Even when I went to the bathroom, even when I hung my laundry, my heart was at peace. But things were different at night. Everyone left in the morning but at night, they would return. And at night, those shoes would return and with them, their owners. 

The girls’ shoes varied, ranging from the ragged to the sleek, the common to the sophisticated. They were all different sizes, with a single pair of unusually large sneakers. They likely belonged to the girl in room two. One by one, I would pick up the shoes and place them on the shoe rack. With the shoes hidden away, the entrance neatly emptied out and I felt a strange sense of relief. 

One day, I found the third Post-it note stuck to the front door. 

When you leave, please make sure you lock the door. Somebody here had their shoes stolen. 

I guessed that the person who wrote the note was also the owner of these stolen shoes. The disappearing shoes. It seemed she suspected they had been stolen by someone inside the house. Then, the note—was it a quiet complaint directed towards the other four girls, one of us?

Author's Profile

Kim Ae-ran has authored four short story collections, most recently Summer Outside (2017), and one essay collection, A Good Name to Forget (2019). Her first novel, My Palpitating Life (2011), was adapted into the movie My Brilliant Life (2014). Kim received the 2014 Prix de Linapercu award for the story “I Go to the Convenience Store.” Her debut work “No Knocking in This House,” excerpted here, won the 2003 Daesan Literary Award.