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FICTION

World’s End Girlfriend

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byKim Yeonsu
World’s End Girlfriend
2009
318pp.

Some things tell of what is to come. A moon halo seen out the window after packing for a mountain trek the next day, heart brimming with anticipation; an interviewer you wait two hours to meet, but who just sits with a constipated expression without asking a single question; an empty classroom you wake up to after sleeping for a full hour when you were just planning to briefly rest your head down on the desk, exhausted from working through the night but finally completing the project you were given only a week to finish. Be it the round moon halo, the constipated expression, or the hour that just slipped by, it is through these things you discover a reason why you should not call life a mystery. Memory being what it is, you lose sight of many of the wheels in between, but life is like a set of cogwheels turning and meshing with each other. All events leave some kind of mark, and after a while this makes it possible for us to realize what the first cogwheel was.

It was the busy work of a volunteer at the library that served as the first cogwheel leading up to my story of love. Noticing an empty spot on the bulletin board where new acquisitions and announcements were posted, the volunteer had gained permission to print out and tack a new poem every week. Then it took three seasons—fall, winter, and spring—to pass before the next cogwheel began to turn. Early May, the worker had to quit work to follow her husband out of town, and for a while it was a poem by Ra Heeduk that remained on the board. Then someone, most likely some soul who was concerned about the Poem of the Week being mistaken for the Poem of the Weak or whatnot, or perhaps a library user who wanted to demonstrate what it really means to volunteer, started posting poems by Shin Kyeong-nim.

Thereafter followed a number of people eagerly contributing their own papers and tacks to attest to the wealth of the superb poets the country was blessed with, and as their efforts soon began cluttering up the bulletin board, someone came up with the idea to hold a weekly meeting at which interested parties could gather and select the next poem to be posted. And thus the Poetry Reading Club, or the PRC for short, was born. As for myself, I was the third person to post a favorite poem (one by Choi Ha-rim) on the board. Starting with “When I was six or seven years old seagulls flew on the sea,” the poemended with the words “Thus it will likely be when we grow old. There will lay an evening shadow quietly casting a shade like the sorrows of men.” However, while I had contributed my poem, it never occurred to me to join the newly-formed group of people who had begun to gather each Wednesday to read their selections and decide upon the next poem to go up on the board.

Then one day—after the heavy summer rains had ended for good, and the hot and hot, oh so hot summer began in earnest—I was at the library to borrow a book when I came upon the poem “World’s End Girlfriend” posted on the bulletin board. According to the poet, there is a Metasequoia tree at the end of the path he is walking, and this is the very end of the world where he and his girlfriend will someday sit together, leaning with their backs against the rough trunk of the tree, “as fire and tears seep into each other, or as the moon and a rainbow would.” Meanwhile, the poet says, love will “belatedly fade away / at a touch, a very touch / without a trace, not a mark // just as snow in March.” As I stood pondering the poem and the poet’s name for a long while, the line about “a Metasequoia standing facing the lake” struck a chord in me and I searched on the library computer, eventually finding a book called Metasequoia, the Living Fossil. In a way it was no wonder I decided to borrow the book, which had been shelved in the seldom-visited Botany section and looked as if it had never been checked out before.

 

Early evening, among falling leaves, I pass through a mountain with many graves. Before I know it, I am walking with a lowered head. A part of the sky flows in clear and is swept into the inhabited mountain. Into the inhabited mountain, water flows and flows to join me on the tranquil floor. I feel myself warming up. I wish for a chance encounter with a familiar face.

A middle-aged man began reading a poem with a slightly sheepish expression on his face. The summer rains had ended for good and the burning heat of the day still lingered on a Wednesday evening. I sat with about twelve other people in the basement meeting room, carefully looking at everyone’s face and wondering who had been the one to choose “World’s End Girlfriend.” Before coming to the meeting I had thought the PRC would be a group of literature buffs who dreamed of making a late start of their literary careers, and who, together with a teacher who had debuted in some mediocre literary magazine, gathered to read text poems and give group feedback about their practice poems. But after attending the meeting I could see the PRC differed from any ordinary literature programs hosted by the library. As I later learned, the PRC had a total of twenty-one members, among which around fifteen people usually made it to the Wednesday meetings, depending on their schedules. Many were young housewives living in new town communities, but the members hailed from a broad range of professions, including military men, school teachers, lawyers, and nurses, and their ages ranged from middle school students to senior citizens.

The middle-aged man continued. “. . . Dear Nameless / you whom I could never call / in the tongue of my land . . . . ”Then, after finishing, he paused briefly and cleared his throat, “A few days ago, a street vendor committed suicide during a demonstration against the city for clearing away street stalls. So the vendors held another street demonstration yesterday, which caused a traffic jam on the Riverside North Expressway starting from Seongsan Bridge. Everyone hear about this?”

There came a few answers from the seated people. Yes. For three hours. Such a tragedy. As for myself, I hadn’t had an inkling.

“I was heading back from a business meeting with one of my female employees, and after an hour stuck going nowhere we decided to just pull over at a corner store next to a gas station. They were selling coffee. So the two of us sat and had a cup under the store’s awning, looking at the sky hanging over the Han River. Looking back at the jam-packed road, I was suddenly struck by the thought that this must be the most relaxing time of my life. I said to her. ‘Do you know why the road is jammed?’ ‘Yes, it was on the radio that street vendors were holding a demonstration, wasn’t it?’ ‘No, it’s because of tedium,’ I said. I read a piece about the vendor who killed himself. Forty-three years old. Same age as I am. Being forty-three is like this. You’ve passed the halfway-point and are still churning along for a while—like you always have—when it hits you. You’ve already seen this part of the road. And you will have to run the same distance before it all ends. The man probably killed himself because he was sick of that. And there the conversation stopped. The two of us kept still for a moment, and then we both took another drink of our coffee. That was when the poem came to my mind. You see, back when I was a college freshman there was this guy I would often come upon at this bar, and whenever he was drunk he would recite it with tears dropping from his eyes. I thought he must be some kind of mystery man, but turns out he was in the same year, even the same department, as me. What a surprise. . . Well, anyway that was back in the day.”

“You didn’t have any designs on your employee, did you?”

A girl around my age asked him in a teasing voice.

“Designs? What am I, an architect? But anyway, once you pass forty all that’s left is parting with people. I parted with her too.”

“Then you did go out with her?”

This, by an old woman with speckled white hair.

“Well it’s not like you have to go out with someone to part with them. We part with each other every day. Meet in the morning and part in the evening. Meet your wife in the evening, part with her in the morning. . . .”

“That’s so sad.”

I found myself blurting out. I had been louder than I had intended and everyone was looking at me.

“This is your first time here, isn’t it? Did you bring a poem by any chance? You’ve seen us taking turns, so you probably understand what to do, no? Read a poem and just tell us why you chose it. Want to give it a try?”

The elderly woman asked me in her somewhat curt voice.

Well, this was how the story went. It was spring, and upon graduating from college I had spent a month or so holed up at home. Right around when the cherry blossoms began to fall I started part-timing at a downtown mall coffee shop from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. In the evening I jogged around the lake listening to Bae Chul-Soo’s music program on the radio, and I sent inconsequential text messages to a girl named Nan-Ah only about once every three times I thought of her. When she sent back a reply—again not every time but about once every three times I texted her—the name “Nana” would appear on the screen of my cell phone. For example: “just faking sick 2 get ur attention lol JUN 15 10:48am Nana.” She had asked me spell her name that way because she had been unhappy with the original version—a gift from her grandfather who had been a middle school teacher his whole life—all through school. Thus reminded of Emile Zola’s novel more than ten times a day, I went so far as to scout out and flip through a copy at the library, but learned little more than about the promiscuity of the female protagonist Nana, as I did not finish the out-dated translation of the realistic novel to the end. Like this. The second season of my twenty-fifth year passed by like the pages of a nineteenth century Naturalism novel.

And then the summer rains began, and as the weather prevented me from running I read books borrowed from the library and waited for the rainy season to pass. It was because of the rains that I ended up calling her, if not I would have perhaps just sent another text message to Nana. We talked for a while about the weather. About how it would at least be more satisfying if it poured instead of just drizzling without end, about the uniform blanket of grey that filled the sky, about the instinctive longing for the hot and hot, oh so hot summer sun. I told her how the rains prevented me from running, and she replied that she had never imagined me to be a runner. And then she said to me. “Yes, it was good. We were really good together. But even so, we can never go back to those times.” These words made me happy, and also made me sad. First because of the word “Yes,” and then because of the “but even so.” Yes. But even so. Yes. But even so. After hanging up I repeated the words to myself from time to time, for instance as I lined up pieces of bread on the kitchen table to make a sandwich, or while smoking a cigarette in the library lounge, looking out to scenery that seemed unsure and grey as my own future.

Then a few days later, as the rains began to dry up, I thought to myself, “Yes, these rains may last forever. But even so, I will start running.” I put on yellow shorts and a t-shirt and, after a look up at the drizzling sky, I began to run. In my neighborhood of detached houses in the new town community, the rainy season was passing through its last few days. Through the narrow alleys where cars were parked 24 hours a day, the rainwater flowed toward the sewer like a crowd of grade schoolers bustling home, between the uniform rows of multi-unit houses and modest villas. Days passed without a single bird flying over the cherry and zelkova trees in the small park that had once been a paper mulberry field, as a notice informed visitors; in a corner, a lone swing and slide set was rapidly going to rust. In the morning news, a weather forecaster had been wearing a yellow rain slicker as she pointed out a low pressure trough passing through the peninsula and predicted the heat to start the next day—it was a Friday, it was the evening, and I ran toward the lake. Exactly as much as the rain seeped into my clothes, as much as rust collected on the swings and slides, just as the low pressure trough passed through the peninsula, so did my twenty-fifth year fly by. The trouble with being twenty-five is that your troubles only amount to so much. No matter what you may think, things matter only so much and not a bit more.

After perhaps thirty minutes of running I was halfway around the lake, my body soaked through and water seeping into my shoes, but the rain had begun to taper off. Turning my head toward the west, from where a breeze was blowing in, I noticed the sky was getting brighter. Towards the west the sky was black, then blue in some ways, and then again white in others, which impressed me so much I stopped to stand looking at the sight for a while, panting to catch my breath. The clouds covering the sky were quickly becoming bright, and puffy clouds sprouted just off from the horizon and said that the day was clearing up. First it was the rain clouds, then the wind, then the evening, the season—just like that, a whole era was passing by. Any emotion I could imagine was already visible in front of me in the passing scenery, so instead of moving on I just stood still and let my breathing return to normal. The wind chilled my wet body and raindrops grew fatter and splattered off the leaves, and then a blue-hued sky finally poked through the clouds. I could see this was the last day of the rainy season. It was clear to me as I looked at the west sky, the puffy clouds, and the tall Metasequoia which stood alone with its uneven trunk and drops of water clinging to its leaves. 

 

 Translated by Cho Yoonna

 


1 Choi Ha-rim, "Evening Shadow."
2 Shin Dae-Chul, "Missing Anyone Today 1."

Author's Profile

Kim Yeonsu is a novelist. Kim debuted in 1993 by publishing a poem in Writer’s World. He published the novels Walking While Pointing to the MaskGoodbye Mr. Yi Sang, Route 7The Night Is Singing, and Wonderboy and the short story collections I Am a Ghost WriterTwenty, and World's End Girlfriend. Kim has received a number of literary awards, including the Daesan Literary Award and Yi Sang Literary Award.