Too Bright Outside for Love
- onJuly 21, 2017
- Vol.36 Summer 2017
- byKim Keum Hee
- Too Bright Outside for Love
Tr. Sophie Bowman 2016288pp.
Yanghee didn’t show up at the language academy. For a day or two Pilyong thought she must be ill, she must be busy, and then he turned pale. She’s gone. She’s disappeared. Pilyong was in a bad way. He came down with a summer cold, the kind of cold they say even dogs don’t catch, and couldn’t leave the house. He spent feverish days listening to songs like Queen’s “Too Much Love Will Kill You.” His mother went out to open up her snack stall but didn’t get far before coming back to ask, “Can’t I at least get you some medicine?” But Pilyong said he didn’t want any. He wouldn’t take anything. That night his temperature rocketed to 38 degrees. Though he was shuddering with the chill, Pilyong vowed he wouldn’t go to the doctor. His mother came back from her snack stall and, with the smell of tart pickled radish and wheat flour still lingering on her hands, she felt Pilyong’s forehead and worried for him, “What can I do to help? You really should go to the doctor.”
“Mum,” Pilyong managed to call out, feeling his consciousness coming and going like someone pumping bellows.
“Yes, my boy, what is it?”
“How did you get better Mum? When you were suffering even more than this, how were you saved?”
“You mean me?” Plumping up Pilyong’s pillow, his mother said proudly, “God saved me, of course. And I lived to have a son as fine as you.”
A few days later, when his fever had subsided, Pilyong borrowed an old Daewoo Lemans from a friend. The friend said he would be right over but only turned up at nine at night, well past the time they had agreed on. The rain that had been falling all day had thankfully stopped, but the whole city was dripping wet. That wet city landscape had a lot in common with Pilyong’s state of mind.
To go or not to go, Pilyong thought it over once more, seriously. What he’d heard from one of the other juniors in his university department was that Yanghee had gone to her parents’ house in Munsan. They said Yanghee’s family farmed ducks, or maybe it was geese, and she’d gone up there because they’d suffered damage from the flood caused by the summer rains. Whatever the details, it seemed that Pilyong had been pushed aside by poultry. But still, he had to go. He couldn’t not go. In that case, what would it mean to go all the way to Munsan to meet Yanghee? It meant a beginning. The start of dating, the start of love, compassion, restraint, promises, obligation, sex. It wasn’t that something which had once been there was disappearing, but that something which wasn’t would appear. Thinking for the first time in his life about recklessness, Pilyong started the ignition. While he was driving, of course, Queen played on the stereo. Love of my life, you’ve hurt me, you’ve broken my heart and now you leave me, as he listened intently to the lyrics, he put his foot down on the accelerator. You’ve taken my love, bring it back, don’t take it away from me, as he sang along to the song, Pilyong thought. Thought he would try his luck. When I get to Munsan I’ll tell her. Yanghee-ya, I love your husky voice, I love your skinny body, I love your light pockets and lack of appetite, I love your lethargy, I love your futility, I love your no tomorrow.
The rain had stopped up in Munsan too. Frogs croaked in a pealing chorus, and the smells of greenery, water, and mud tangled to create a kind of primeval feeling. Pilyong thought that everything in Munsan bore a likeness to Yanghee. Perhaps the smell that came from Yanghee’s camouflage jacket wasn’t actually the musty smell of basement student digs or dark theatres, but Yanghee’s own natural body odor, imbibed from Munsan. With that, it struck him that perhaps he’d been misreading Yanghee’s lethargic, passive demeanor. He could hardly believe that such futility, such lethargy could come from a place like this, a place where everything was growing so vigorously.
After wandering for a while, when he found Yanghee’s house with the help of a neighbor, Pilyong was dumbfounded, as though he’d taken a blow to the head. Yanghee’s house—if you could call something like that a house—looked more like a cave. It was put together out of plywood and all that distinguished the boundary between the kitchen and the inner room was that the room was raised about four bricks worth higher, with a heated lino floor. The kitchen was covered in mud, without a single tile in sight. By the looks of it, the drain in the floor was blocked, and bits of cooked rice, swollen noddle strands, and other muck was trickling down a slope from the plughole into a small stream. They had ducks. It wasn’t a farm but a wire enclosure set up on one side of the small stream, with a few ducks being raised inside. The ducks were quacking away. They might have all just been ducklings, the noise was so feeble.
Yanghee, who had been watching TV with her family, came out to meet Pilyong. Both of Yanghee’s parents were inside the room, and although her father was very tall, he looked infirm and judging by his appearance he must have been around seventy. Yanghee᾽s mother had a dumpy body and round face. Her black hair was tied up on top of her head in a bun. The neighbors who had led Pilyong to the house didn’t leave and instead rolled out compliments for the family, while getting a good look at the young man who had shown up late at night, looking for their neighbor’s daughter.
“Yanghee was good at school, so good that a scholarship came down from the provincial authorities. As for Yanghee’s father, although he may be living like this, he’s a real gentleman. One of the noble poor. When he does have money he pays it all to campaigns for helping the needy and gives donations to collections for repairing flood damage. He was even generous with Yanghee’s scholarship money, giving some to help those more in need, such a gentleman. Although he might not be in great shape now, he’s been a real patriot since the day he was born.”
On the wall hung colorful thank you certificates, with words of admiration and gratitude across them. But, people more hard up than Yanghee? It looked as though theirs was the most squalid and ramshackle house, actually it looked nothing like a house, in the village. A bowl filled with tinned syrupy peaches was brought in, with ice bobbing among the slices. Why did you come here? Where are you from? Who are you? What’s your relationship to Yanghee? Yanghee’s parents didn’t ask Pilyong any such thing. Although it was Pilyong who had come all this way, he didn’t say a word. They all sat there and watched a comedy program together. She’d never laughed even once when she was with Pilyong but Yanghee laughed along with all of it. Somehow the two comedians who had come on stage in tracksuits and started slapping each other’s foreheads must have been pretty funny.
Turning towards Yanghee her father asked, “Yanghee-ya, how much have you got in your bank account?”
“About 380,000 won,” Yanghee responded without taking her eyes off the TV.
“How on earth have you got that much?”
“I just do I guess.”
“How much d’ya think it’d cost to fix the duck cage?”
“Wouldn’t 100,000 do it?” Yanghee’s mother responded.
“In that case, Yanghee-ya, there’s something for you to spend your leftovers on.”
“Alright, sure, Dad.”
“Get it all out . . .”
“Okay, whatever you say Dad.”
Every time her father spoke Yanghee nodded away in agreement. It was a tranquil expression, without even a trace of emotion. 380,000 won! What a huge sum of money 380,000 won is. Pilyong grimaced. No way, how could he tell her to hand it all over. Not knowing how his daughter lives, at that age, now twenty-one years old, wearing only scruffy, worn out clothes on the streets of Seoul, along Jongno. Not knowing how feebly she walks those decorated streets that glow like flowers. Not knowing that expression, the face of one with no time to accumulate as everything keeps being snatched away, lethargic and bashful, having gotten used to that repetitive misfortune, just putting up with it all. 380,000 won! Pilyong wanted to shout, but he couldn’t do it for real. He merely kept his gaze fixed to one side.
On the way back, Yanghee accompanied him to the entrance of the village. He’d come to Munsan to be together, just the two of them, like this, but Pilyong had nothing to say. As though the thought had just occurred to her, Yanghee asked, “Pilyong, why did you come by?” and he evaded the question with something vague about having been passing through the area.
“You’re embarrassed?” Yanghee asked.
Until now Yanghee had never posed him a question, but here it was. Pilyong and Yanghee faced each other. The night had scrubbed out her face, but here they were, Yanghee’s eyes.
“I’m sorry. I spoke rashly,” Pilyong brought up his earlier outburst.
“Pilyong, don’t apologize or anything, just look at something like this tree.”
Yanghee turned away and pointed to a tree at the entrance to the village. A huge zelkova. The kind of zelkova that made one marvel at how its bark could be peeled off, and peel off some more, and still have more underneath to peel.
“When faced with a tree, no one can ever be embarrassed, never sneer at others, so just look at the tree or something.”
Pilyong stood behind Yanghee and held his arms out towards her. They didn’t reach. If he took just one step forward his hands might have touched her, but Pilyong didn’t. Because the only thing he couldn’t see was himself; his face contorted with earnest desperation, with a tangle of emotions, compassion, and the desire to be loved. Eventually Pilyong got into the Lemans without a word. The love that had made him tremble all the way to Munsan had disappeared. As though broken wide open, it was just gone. Pilyong cried. As he cried he understood utterly, how, without being replaced or transformed into something different, something can completely disappear. At least, he thought, such was the case in that moment.
Summoned to see the HR director, Pilyong was given a document printed with his office entry time log. With twelve and one as the standard, recorded on the sheet was how many minutes early or late he had clocked out and back in each lunch time. They were all the times when Pilyong had run to see Yanghee. 11:56, four minutes early on the twelve o’clock standard. One-o-four, five past one, a few minutes each past the one o’clock standard. Pilyong added up all those minutes in his head. However he estimated, it didn’t look like it would make up a whole work day. Half a day at most? But it weighed down on him. The weight of those minutes the HR director took issue with was so heavy it sunk Pilyong’s head into a bow. Clocking in late was one of the key areas in the employee evaluation system and Pilyong had received the worst possible score.
“You’d better watch yourself. Make sure you don’t get even another speck on this time sheet. Don’t let a single feather fall on your shoulder. I understand. It’s not easy to keep yourself together and I understand your intent on hanging on here, but anyhow, don’t forget that the company has you under close watch.”
Pilyong came to his senses right away. Who else could he blame? It was he who had spent all that time wallowing in the past. He’d sold out every bit of himself and left with nothing more to sell, he’d been selling out his sweetest memories. And for what? It was embarrassing. Wasn’t it time to get back up, back to his rightful place? To do that he would have to forget the small, dark theatre, the chairs and office workers, the faces facing each other and that boring time, the clap, clap clapping sound of applause, and he would have to forget Yanghee.
Pilyong wasn’t pleased with his situation, but after that he tried to do his part for the well-being of the company which hadn’t thrown him out completely. Spending summer and autumn this way, all of the bubbling energy and urge for resistance of the times when he had rushed to Jongno escaped his body. The tension had disappeared from all his muscles and Pilyong became pliable, like cheese. Lightly, as though barely there, in some ways as though he had a screw loose, but, anyway, he went to work each day stable.
Then, as the season turned to winter, Pilyong came down with a cold. Having carried on, hoping to get through it, Pilyong realized he was now of an age where he couldn’t get over a cold without using medicine, and so he decided to go to the doctor’s. Intending to be back at his desk by 1 p.m., this time of course he indicated where he would be using the electronic approval system, and left the office before the start of his lunch hour. The sun was beaming down warm rays, but he was cold, it was cold weather. Pilyong walked thinking that he had a fever and he walked thinking of his mother. With that he felt a chill in shoulders. He remembered how, while boiling plain wheat noodles, his mother would suddenly grab her wrist, saying, “I’ve got a chill. Dear me, what a chill,” and with that his chill grew worse and worse. That mother of his passed away before Pilyong turned forty. Perhaps it was already so from that point onwards, he had become unable to ask anyone at all about being saved. Before he knew it Pilyong was headed not toward the doctor᾽s but to Jongno.
Pilyong thought that his walking this way was not something done of his own will. He wasn’t going because he wanted to, it just so happened that he ended up going. Drawing a circle around Seoul, round and round, having passed three seasons, his feet returned there of their own accord. At last, Pilyong stood in front of the theatre. Being well past twelve, he was too late to be able to buy a ticket. But wasn’t that actually better? Didn’t that make it alright to try opening the door to the theatre? Without any anticipation or hope, Pilyong merely opened the door like a person who needed some kind of rejection or pushback. The young woman at the box office stood wearing a blue scarf, rolling up posters. Pilyong looked at the closed door to the auditorium and wondered who might be up on stage enduring that time. That time of at first enduring, then accepting, then gazing. He turned around and was about to leave when the woman said, “You can go in.”
“But it’s past twelve thirty.”
“There isn’t a single person in the audience, so go on in. The run is only until the end of the year. This is your last chance to see it.”
Pilyong considered what to do. If there wasn’t a single person in the audience that meant it would be Pilyong who would be taken to sit on stage. Pilyong scrubbed the cold sweat from his forehead. If he just left like this he wouldn’t have to sit on the chair opposite Yanghee, but if he didn’t sit there like that, well what would happen then?
Contrary to what the young woman in the box office had said, among the rows of chairs sat the man who was always in the audience, and clapped loudly at the end of each performance. Wondering whether the man wasn’t a real audience member, Pilyong hid his face in his thick scarf. The chimes which marked the start of the performance rang out and Yanghee, in spite of the cold, took to the stage still only wearing a spandex bodysuit. Pilyong felt even colder just looking at her. Yanghee came down to the seats and held out a hand. Pilyong looked down at it. That hand which, with the words “Whatever you can manage with this,” had moved from her pocket through the air to him, made Pilyong feel the urge to untie his scarf and show his face, but he couldn’t find the courage.
Just as she had with other people, Yanghee sat Pilyong in the chair. And with that it was time to look at each other. A long time ago in that Jongno McDonalds, Yanghee had always endured the time she spent with Pilyong avoiding his gaze, but now, as there was no talking, as there was absolutely nothing between them, there was no need for them to endure each other. She had endured him, the fact of it made Pilyong sad and embarrassed, so much so that after making eye contact for a short while he dropped his head. A moment later the man in the audience stood up and made a resounding clap clap clap. Returning to his seat Pilyong collected his bag and Yanghee and the young woman from the box office bowed. And that was it. Pilyong felt a sting, but as he did with almost everything these days, he accepted it with resignation. He thought it inevitable. There was nothing to distinguish him from the office workers who used their lunch hour to sit in the theatre in the hope of gaining solace and healing while munching on sandwiches. Yanghee didn’t treat him any differently, and he had become someone no different.
About to leave, Pilyong saw Yanghee lingering on the stage, even though the bows were over. He stopped in his tracks, thinking something was odd. Yanghee was just standing there looking down at Pilyong from up on the stage. The only other man in the audience stood up again and shouted Bravo! and whistled, but Yanghee didn’t return to the dressing room. Then she lifted her arms and spread them wide at the height of her shoulders. Like that zelkova tree one night long ago. And as though trembling in a breeze, she shook her arms ever so slightly.
As he walked back to work Pilyong cried. Out on the street of Jongno with no MP3 player and no Queen, Pilyong thought this was the end of everything. Whatever he may do, with no way to try making a change in his life, he would no longer be able to see Yanghee anywhere, no matter where he might go. But though what tomorrow might bring was left unseen, for now, for today, this was an unbearable suffering, and so Pilyong turned back on himself and ran towards the theatre. When he thundered down the stairs the young woman from the box office stopped her sweeping and asked, “Did you forget something?” Still catching his breath, Pilyong caught sight of the clapping man from the audience coming out of the restroom with a metal bucket. As their eyes met a smile spread across the man’s face.
“Bring that over here, Assistant PD,” the young woman addressed the man pointing to a mop, “Right, let’s get started, shall we?”
The man wet the mop in the bucket and Pilyong wiped his tear-covered face with a handkerchief. Pilyong stepped out into the street again. Before getting very far he turned back toward the theatre, then turned himself around again, and got further and further from Jongno. He got further and further away, just managing to suppress his desire to go back. Yanghee-ya, Yanghee-ya, McDonald’s doesn’t sell fish burgers anymore. Yanghee-ya, Yanghee-ya, you’ve become really impressive. Yanghee-ya, Yanghee-ya, you, you achieved your dream. Such lines came to him and then he scrubbed them out. The words “Goodbye” and “Did you ever love me?” and “Save me” were all scrubbed out as well. And having been erased like that, just like the script of the play Yanghee had always been writing, there was nothing left. But it wasn’t a complete absence. He had the thought that even with the passing of time there were things that did not become completely absent but were instead simply submerged in a state of indeterminate lack. But was that real? Standing beneath one of the trees lining the road, Pilyong blew his nose. If he’d made a different choice would anything have changed? If it did change, how much could it really have changed? Having shed all its leaves the tree stood enduring the winter. With the far-off expression of someone who has just emerged after crying for a long time, Pilyong looked about at his surroundings. Thinking, these aren’t the kind of questions to be asking here, out in broad daylight. The afternoon was so light, so dazzling, it was utterly unbearably bright.
Translated by Sophie Bowman
The format of the play in this story was based on Marina Abramović’s work The Artist Is Present, performed at MoMA, New York, in 2010.
Kim Keum Hee has published two short story collections and is currently serializing her first novel. Her first short story collection, Sentimentality Works Only for a Day or Two, won the Sin Dong-yup Prize for Literature. She won the Munhakdongne Young Writers’ Award from 2015 to 2017. Her short story “Everything about Chess” won the Hyundae Literary Award in 2017, and was published in English by Asia Publishers.