[Excerpt] Love at the Harbor
- onMarch 14, 2020
- Vol.47 Spring 2020
- byKim Sehee
- Love at the Harbor
Tr. Hedgie Choi 2019
By the time Inhee and I met again, a certain change had occurred in the girls of Mokpo city. How can I describe it? It was, at first, like a piercing. A piercing that goes through the pebble-shaped cartilage between the cheek and the curve of the ear—shocking at first, but once you’d seen it a few times, you would, at some point, recognize it as something pretty and unique.
I heard that Jiyeon from Class Four saw Eunhye walking hand in hand with some girl from Joongang High School. Really? Eunhye, too? She wasn’t like that before, though, right? God, it’s like half the school is queer. Eunhye used to hate queers. Imagine a kind of shyness that comes over a girl as she flips her hair bashfully over her ear and admits that she—late to hop on the bandwagon—finally got her ears pierced last Sunday at an accessory shop. That was the same shyness that surfaced in a girl’s face as she confessed she’d been dating another girl in the next class over, for about a week now.
How did it begin?
There were famous queer communities with tens of thousands of members on an online forum called SayClub. There were also closed-off private communities that were more regional. The girls would start logging on after school. From PC-bangs, or at home behind closed doors, they would write earnest and plaintive posts asking for dating advice. From reading these posts, you’d have thought they were all movie protagonists on the brink of death. They formed a large, extended family—mother, father, uncle, sons and daughters—and arranged in-person meet-ups. They went around in groups with their sharp A-line bobs and metal-studded boots. And in each school, there was one celebrity couple.
In my middle school, Jinyoung and Sumi were the famous pair. When school let out, we’d see kids in uniforms from different schools hanging out near the front gates. They were the kids who had come to see—if only from a distance—Jinyoung and Sumi in the flesh. Once we even had high schoolers from Daegu show up.
I can still remember the two of them clearly. Jinyoung was tall, built like an athlete, with an angular jaw. In the first semester of middle school, she was just a nice kid with a bob. But the semester after that, there was a stunning transformation. Instead of trying to hide her angular jaw with a stifling bob that covered her up, she got a bold boy’s cut, short enough to reveal her ears. That haircut changed everything. It was a style that was made for her. When she had worn her hair longer to hide her jaw, there was something about it that made her seem like a man dressed as a woman, but when she gave up on femininity entirely, she looked like a cool senior on the school sports team. Jinyoung even started acting more masculine. She was suddenly the center of attention, receiving piles of gifts. Jinyoung was like the nice, sweet version of a cool senior on the school sports team. That semester, she and Sumi began dating.
Sumi had the perfectly-proportioned physique of a young boy beloved by ancient Greek philosophers, with a remarkably milky complexion and full, smooth red lips that always had a luster to them. When Sumi ran down the hall, her soft bob tossed this way and that way, she brought to mind the image of a fairy in leather boots with a quiver of bows over his shoulder.
Jiyoung and Sumi were always surrounded by the junior students, who talked about them as though they were characters in a TV drama. Their jealousies and their fights, the subtle currents of their love. I heard Sumi tried to break up with Jinyoung. She said it was too hard. That she loved her, but it was too hard. And you know what Jinyoung did then? Oh, my god. The girl who told this story, Lee Hyejeong, was a close friend of Sumi’s—the other girls called her Sumi’s maid. At this point, overwhelmed by the thrill of the story, Hyejeong clasped her hands together as though in prayer. Jinyoung took Sumi’s shoulders in both of her hands like this, and she said, “Look into my eyes and tell me that.” Soon after, Hyejeong also began dating a high school girl.
On the afternoon of our graduation, I was sitting in the schoolyard with a friend. We were on the highest row of the bleachers, and we could see a group of students moving as one amorphous unit in the distance, coming out from near the water fountain. They were huddled around each other in layers and moving toward the schoolyard. As they got closer, we saw that Jinyoung and Sumi were at the center of the group. The students surrounding them were from the grade below us.
“What are they up to?” my friend asked flatly.
Graduation was long over. The school grounds were emptied out. The group moved until they reached the wall of the podium where the principal addressed the assembly. There, the group loosened, unraveling slightly. In the center, Sumi was hunched over, as though trying to protect something from being stolen, and Jinyoung, her face flushed, was behind Sumi, hugging her. The other students came at them from all angles, trying to get at whatever it was Sumi was holding onto. Sumi screamed and twisted away from them but she was smiling. Each time she twisted her shoulders, strands of hair stuck to her face.
“Oh, it’s the button!” my friend said.
“I think they’re after the button on her uniform.”
Then my friend told me what she’d heard about Japanese graduations. In Japan, it was a tradition for juniors to ask a graduating senior for a button on their shirt. It was known among the students that asking for a button was basically a declaration of love.
“But I think it’s supposed to be just the second button,” my friend said, bemused.
I hadn’t heard anything about the button tradition before. Besides, we weren’t in Japan. What did they think they were doing? Most of the buttons on Sumi’s shirt had been torn off. The vest and shirt under her winter coat hung open, and you could see the white tank top she wore as a base layer. The buttons on Jinyoung’s shirt had been stripped away entirely, revealing the T-shirt underneath. The juniors were ruthless. They reached forward, shouting at the top of their lungs as if they were hunting. Jinyoung, red in the face, was shouting, “Guys, don’t hurt Sumi, she’s going to get hurt, don’t hurt her!” and using every last ounce of strength to maintain a protective hold over Sumi as they were pushed this way and that. The sky was darkening at one end. The glass on the buildings gleamed.
“Someone sure thinks she’s a celebrity,” my friend said, her face creased with disdain. “What do they see in her? What’s the appeal?”
“I know, right?” I said.
But even as I agreed, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the scene unfolding in the schoolyard. It was disgusting and yet somehow titillating and erotic. I especially couldn’t take my eyes off of Sumi’s flushed face, the strands of hair that danced on her forehead, her shiny red lips. How was she so effortlessly pretty? Her androgyny set her apart from the cookie-cutter variety of attractiveness. It made her all the more eye-catching.
My friend seemed to be watching Jinyoung.
“Imagine her without the uniform, and her hair done right—her face is totally whatever. We were in the same class in our first year. Back then she was just a nobody with a bob.”
Right then, one of the outreached arms finally succeeded in snatching off the last button on Sumi’s shirt. The girl that had snagged the button shouted in glee. Then they all collapsed onto the ground, exhausted, panting with satisfaction. Jinyoung swept back Sumi’s ruffled hair with both hands and caressed her face. Then she took off her own jacket and put it on Sumi backwards, so that it covered her front. Even in the darkened schoolyard, Sumi’s plump lips glowed with a red sheen.
It was only recently, years after the fact, that I started to look up records, references. There were a significant number of papers on the fandom subcultures and queer subcultures among teenage girls from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Some even linked fanfic and queer culture.
I found out that the things I saw and experienced were not limited to the small port city of Mokpo. They were a part of a larger trend that happened simultaneously in many cities across the nation, unfolding in remarkably similar ways at around the same time. In these papers, the girls were sometimes referred to as the “fanfic queers.” That was the social and cultural name given to them. Though these were academic papers, their sentences following the strict formalities of the genre, they were filled with familiar and mortifying examples from a world I once knew so well. As I read, memories I’d forgotten about sprung up one after another.
I hadn’t previously thought to look up academic papers and references. I’d never thought what I’d experienced back then was worthy of research, of academic exploration, of record. Another thing that surprised me was that the rise of queerness and fanfic were, for me, two separate things. I had never thought about them as connected. The two realms did not influence each other in my mind.
Of course, fanfic did often feature queer couples. But to me, fanfic primarily meant a fictional romance starring a singer I loved. For the entirety of my teens, that singer was Jo Sung-mo. Oh, how I loved him. When I was sixteen, I even wrote a long and convoluted medieval romance where he was the main character.
Queer couples were a feature of the genre. If there were five members in a boy band, they were all given their fair share of “screen time” in the story so that a romantic diagram could be established between them. We liked fanfics that were explicitly pornographic with a tinge of romance, and it certainly would not have been enjoyable to imagine the man we loved having a relationship with another woman.
Jo being a solo artist rather than a member in a boy band complicated things. His fans had to rope in other celebrities that Jo was close to (in real life). But none of those celebrities had the right look to be cast as either a top or a bottom. If they had a nice body, they had an ugly face, and if their face was passable, they had a horrible reputation.
The fanfic I wrote and uploaded was set in the medieval court, but all the medieval details I included—castles and carriages, titles and classes, et cetera—were things I borrowed from other fanfics. None of that really mattered. No one took issue with the accuracy and realism of such details. That wasn’t what was important to us. We read—or, at least, I read—for emotional satisfaction. Similar stories in each genre filled dozens of fanfic forums daily, so aside from the few famous pieces, there was no point in even differentiating between authors. When I wrote, it was more like rewriting an existing prototype of a story to fit my tastes. Still, I was ecstatic when someone commented, demanding that I publish the next part of my story. I still remember that feeling. I would take note of their screen name and read everything they ever posted.
But to be honest, my favorite genre was something separate: I liked stories with a love triangle, where A confines B, who is in love with C, in their house and has sex with them. This was an entire genre. A loves B (this was the reason for confining B and having sex with B). B loves C, but B slowly becomes responsive to sex with A, and feels confused. Then, finally, B ends up feeling affection for A.
How did I enjoy this kind of writing without guilt? The parts of the story that described sex were, despite their frequency and length, more conceptual and lacking in detail. Looking back, this was one of the factors that dampened any aversion. The blanks were there to be filled with my imagination, in whatever way that pleased me. Actually, I think I did not even recognize that there was anything missing. The writer and the reader were well-matched in that they were both teenage girls with limited knowledge of sex. We thought we knew exactly what an orgasm was, or how a penis reached ejaculation, but we didn’t know much then—even as we nonchalantly said things about our male teachers like “I think the homeroom teacher in Class One has the bigger dick, but the teacher in Class Two has better technique” and put it to a vote.
I did not watch porn until I was twenty. I did watch adult movies like Blondie, but those movies didn’t graphically depict the sexual organs coming together. The first time I saw male sex organs, I was puzzled. There was something strange about it. I hesitated, but eventually I couldn’t hold back my curiosity. He and I were lying on the bed together. I reached out and lightly grabbed his scrotum and, as casually as I could, asked, “Is it normal to have just one?”
“I mean, aren’t there usually two?”
“Nope, just one.”
He looked at me like he didn’t know what I was talking about. I was flustered.
“Weird. People say ‘balls,’ plural. And there’s the expression, ‘grow a pair.’ I thought . . .”
For a few beats he looked bewildered, and then he realized what I was saying and laughed so much his forehead turned red. I still wanted to sort out my confusion.
“I read that in a book. Or maybe heard it on a TV show.”
“Feel it. There are two in there.”
I did and I felt, as he had said, two squishy lumps in there. I felt relieved—I had been worried that he had a deformity and I was asking an irreparably rude question—and at the same time I thought of all the things I thought I knew but could be wrong about.
“A pair . . . the phrase tricked me . . .”
I asked him other things too. Like whether boys in an all-boys school ever confessed their love to each other or dated. He chuckled loudly and said, with total certainty, “Babe, men aren’t like that.”
He could’ve been wrong. It was possible that that was true of just him and his friends. He said that teenage boys beat each other up, try to assert dominance, sweat and spit trying to act tough. Even among friends? Yes, even among friends, there’s a kind of hierarchy. That’s pitiful, I feel bad for them. Oh, really?
Kim Sehee is the author of the novel Love at the Harbor and the short story collection Unremarkable Days. She debuted in 2015 when her story “Shallow Sleep” won World Literature’s New Writer’s Award. She received the Munhakdonge Young Writer’s Award in 2018 and the Shin Dong-yup Prize for Literature in 2019.