- onNovember 10, 2014
- Vol.14 Winter 2011
- byKIm Insuk
- Bye, Elena
I got the first email about two weeks after my friend left the country. The subject line read, “Whoa. Internet access!” There were three photos attached. File names: elena1, elena2, and elena3. I read the rest of the email before opening them. The message was brief.
Man, this place is lousy with Elenas. Here an Elena, there an Elena.
The short email ended with an LOL. I thought he was messing with me, and I opened the files. Elena1 was a picture he took with some white girl he met while traveling, and Elena2 was a picture of an old photo of the same white girl sitting next to a middle-aged white woman. Most likely he’d taken a picture of a photo the girl kept in her wallet. Elena3 was a shot of a kiosk—a woman selling newspapers was smiling broadly at the camera. I pulled up all three photos on the computer screen side-by-side and stared at them for a while. My friend’s message was so short that there was pretty much no way for me to figure out what the photos meant.
Before he left on his trip, I asked my friend to find my sister for me. I didn’t blurt it out while drunk or anything—I meant it as a joke. At least I think I did. A long time ago, my dad used to work on a deep sea fishing boat. Since it was before I can remember, that too could have been just another of my father’s jokes. But even long after I was grown up, whenever my dad drank, he would launch into his fishing stories, and those stories of a young sailor catching squid in the Antarctic Ocean for half a year or even a full year at a time always sounded romantic to my young ears. Even before setting eyes on the ocean myself, I knew the sea from my dad’s memories. The ocean in my imagination was always bobbing with ice. Schools of ruddy squid swam between the floes. Lonely, so lonely. My father ended each chapter of his story with those words, like a chorus. Of course, there was nothing romantic about those sea voyages that took him away—not from morning to evening—and required him to be at sea for several months in a row. New crew members couldn’t take the seasickness and the loneliness and the fights that broke out at the drop of a hat, and would throw themselves overboard, but my father laughed as he told me how they would just fish them out with nets, their stomachs bursting from all the water they’d swallowed.
The first time I saw the ocean, I was well into my teens, long after the other kids my age had seen it. In that iceless sea, there were no swimming squid, no lonely sailors aboard fishing vessels. But there were nets. Women with towels knotted around their heads sat in rows on the wharf mending fishing nets. Not one of them was pretty. Considering that my memory of those sunblackened and wrinkled faces of women patching fishing nets is so much clearer than my memory of seeing the ocean for the first time in my life, it’s no wonder that the story that impressed me the most of all of my father’s drunken ramblings was his Elena story.
I left a kid named Elena behind in every port. Poor things… I sowed my wild oats, and they raised themselves.
He was still living with Mom at the time. Each time he told that story, she snorted. I would listen to her snort with laughter, sounding just like someone blowing their nose, and I’d think to myself, gee, Mom likes that story too. My memory may be blurry, but I’m sure she did.
Every night I dreamt I had a sister with a different skin color than me. We would talk in an indecipherable language. Since they were kid dreams, we were always in a castle with pointy spires or a meadow in the Alps, like something you would see in a cartoon. But do they have meadows in the Alps? Anyway, they did in my dreams. I would wake up feeling like there was a heavy weight on my chest. If I dreamt of running away in my younger years, that was probably in order to find my sister who was said to be on the other side of the world.
It’s not all ocean there. They got meadows, too. And wide, so very wide! It’s just horizon all around, and cows as far as the eye can see. They look scattered since the land is so wide, but there are still thousands, tens of thousands, of cows. That country’s got more cows than people. While we were anchored in the port, I went to a friend’s ranch, and there I named one of the cows Elena as well. I don’t know how that damn cow got so fat all by itself, but Oof! each time her udder swayed, it was like the earth wobbled on its axis! But the swaying’s a good thing. If you’ve ever been on a boat, then you know what I’m talking about. You know that when the rocking stops, that’s when it’s unbearable. You step off the boat and onto the dock and, Whoa Nelly! the nausea hits you. Your legs are still moving up and down, but the ground’s not, so of course you can’t take it. That’s why sailors stagger when they walk. Cracks everyone up to see it. But Elena—wait, was she a cow, or a person? My memory’s a mess. Anyway, she was ginormous, that woman. Each time I rode her, I was a-rockin’ and a-rollin’. It was fantastic. A hell of a woman. She let me ride her as much as I liked. If I’d wanted to, she probably would’ve let me ride her for the rest of my life. Her name was also Elena, and her daughter was named Elena, too. That’s how they do things in that country. They name you after your mama, after your grand mama. So there are Elenas all over the place. But what can you do? If I couldn’t take the kid home myself, then of course she gets to name it. Nothing I could do about it. I had to come back. I may be a sailor and a scoundrel, but I know that much. Had to come back. Had to come home and take care of my wife and kids, through thick and thin. I know at least that much, I tell you. Of course I was sorry. How could I not be? The thing about ports is, they’re full of people out of their minds from feeling sorry, people so sorry that they can’t stand it when the rocking stops. They grab little kids and hug them, no matter if they’re theirs or someone else’s, and pour their boozy breath into those little ones’ ears and sob. It’s a rotten sight. Sobbing and crying, I’m sorry, I’m sorry… I’m sorry for being human… Is that funny? You think I’m being funny? I guess I do know my way around a joke. But I’m telling you, every living thing feels sorry towards some other living thing. That’s a first-rate joke, yeah? The thing about jokes, there’s no gag to be had in wordplay. Your eyes have to well up with tears for it to be funny, no?
—My father’s name is Bak Minsu, born 1961, my grandfather’s name is Bak Dori, from the southernmost sea…
Another attachment, a note written in broken Korean, photographed again with a digital camera, arrived in an email from my friend. I did not laugh when I opened the file. If only I could turn back the clock, could I take back what I had told him? He didn’t have a girlfriend. He was a good person, but he wasn’t that welcome in our circle of friends. He asked too many questions, he liked to talk, and he was friendly to the point of making other people uncomfortable. If he got up for a moment, someone would always start complaining about him. What’s that guy’s problem? When I brought up the story of Elena before he went on his trip, I didn’t do so because I expected him to help me. I sat there listening to all of the countries he planned to visit and suddenly felt the need to say something of my own about those places as well. It didn’t occur to me that because he had no girlfriend, he had no one else to email. I just got a little jealous that night. Not only had he poured his entire severance pay into that trip, he had dreamt it up in the first place. My friend had something he wanted to do… and as for me, it wasn’t that there was nothing I could do, but maybe there was nothing I wanted to do. I have no idea what comes first, not being able to do something or not wanting to do anything, but at any rate both were true of me.
Bak Minsu was not my father. My father was not born in 1961, and though I don’t remember my grandfather’s name, I know he wasn’t from the south. And the woman who wrote me the note was not named Elena. She said her name was Soony. She wrote her name in English, but it probably should have been spelled Sun-hui. Why did my friend send me a photograph of a letter from a woman who’s not an Elena? That night, we went out for karaoke after drinking draft beer and eating thin-crust pizza in front of Hongik University, because he’d brought his car and needed time to sober up. My friend, who was used to hearing people saying, What’s that guy’s problem? all the time, was being overly friendly that night as well. Hey, there’s a song here called Elena. Sure enough, he showed me the song book and there it was. Since we didn’t know the melody, we just watched the lyrics go by on the screen. Suni, rumored to be in front of the theater that night, in front of the Turnaround Cabaret... That’s how the song started, and it ended with Suni, Suni, who changed even her name to Elena. Suni, up all night winding thread, Suni and her crimson skirt, Suni who changed even her name to Elena, Suni… The song’s exact title was “Sun-hui Became Elena.”
The snapshot of the note written by “Soony”—not Elena— did not have a file name with Elena and a number. I know he’s clueless, but there’s no way he’s come this far without having thought at least once about what’s inappropriate. The file name was “untitled.”
On his deathbed, my father did not say a word. The last thing he did, while he was still conscious, was hand me the deed to the house and his bankbook. The balance left in the account was so paltry that it would barely cover my basic living expenses for a month. But the deed, even for a house that small, was a fortune. Since most people my age can’t hope to pocket such a good “severance,” my friends were sure to all envy me.
I printed out the photo my friend had emailed me from abroad, the photo of the note from the girl looking for her father Bak Minsu, and taped it to my wall with the others. I looked at the photo and pondered whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that my father was not Bak Minsu. It was a pointless thought. I no longer dreamed of castles with pointy spires, or of meadows in the Alps that may or may not really be there. Is that why I’m lonely… It’s a useless question. After a while, I went into the living room, grabbed my father’s funeral portrait, and taped it to the wall next to the letter. Seeing it on the wall like that, it really did look like a joke. Wasn’t he laughing like he was just one more Elena out of all of the Elenas in the world? Of all of those photos, leaving out the ones where it wasn’t clear whether the person was male or female, my father was the only man. But my father, who’d named a cow Elena, might have given himself the same name. After all, he was a father who thought he knew his way around a joke.
It had been a long time since I called my father Daddy. I felt like I was going to burst into tears. But I could hold it. Just five minutes… If I could hold it for just five minutes, I’d be fine. It’s okay, Daddy. I said the words out loud. I wanted to forgive my father for dying without apologizing to me. If he had, I would have said it again as well. I’m sorry… It’s not that I was sorry I didn’t get the chance to say sorry… so sorry I could die… I could have said it about my father, and about my own life as well. I’m sorry, My Dear Shabby Life… Good thing I have the deed to the house. For five minutes I gritted my teeth and felt like apologizing to the deed as well. The second hand on the clock that hung on the wall ticked busily past the countless Elenas. Those five minutes were as short as my own short life, and as long as my father’s not-so-short life. Those five minutes of my life, just maybe, were my father’s final farewell to me.
* Translated by Sora Kim-Russell.