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FICTION

To Believe in Love

  • onJune 25, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byKwon Yeo-sun
Red Fruits in My Garden
Tr. Charles La Shure
2010
276pp.

 

Becoming a regular at a bar in your neighborhood might be a disaster as far as everyday life is concerned, but it is a boundless blessing when it comes to memories.

It was late one evening this past February. Even I was surprised that I had dropped by this bar alone. I didn’t enjoy soju or makgeolli, and this didn’t seem like the kind of place to sell wine or beer. Yet I opened the door, went inside, took a seat, and ordered a drink. I was served some kimchi and seasoned greens before the bar food I had ordered came out. I got the feeling that I had come to the right place, or rather that I had been hooked well and good. The kimchi and greens alone were more than enough for me to finish off half a bottle of liquor. From that time on I was a regular at that bar, dropping by two or three times a week.

As I drink alone—mung bean pancakes and makgeolli, or stew and soju, with some seasoned greens and kimchi—the thoughts that come to mind are trivial bygones, such as, That’s right, that’s what she said then, or, I wonder why she did that. The moment I enter that bar I am free of any uncertainty about the future or urgent problems that require my immediate attention. It has become a place that simply whispers to me: Memory . . . memory. As I drink slowly, images from my life flash before me like slides, and within my memories I lead a clueless life, like one who does not know his left from his right. Though it is really night, here I live in the midday of my memories. The one for whom I wait now beneath that scorching sun is a woman, one I adore in secret, like a favorite bar you keep to yourself, but who would now probably think of me only as a friend and has long since forgotten me. It is here I learn that indulging in my memories shows that I am waiting, and the memories themselves are a way of waiting for someone who is not coming.

 

There are times when losing love feels as hopeless as losing everything. Not all human beings experience this. There will be those who get over it easily and those who grow old without ever knowing that there even was such a thing. On rare occasions—though I dread to even imagine such a thing—there will be those who experience nothing but this until the day they die. It’s impossible to say which life is better. What is possible to say, though, is merely that I had such an experience three years ago. At the age of thirty-five, it is nothing to be proud of, or anything to keep secret. I once believed in love, and I suffered as much as I believed. When I think back on it now, it feels absurd to admit that I once believed in love.

Love and believing, they are quite a difficult combination. Even if we set aside hope, it is hard enough to handle just one of these two, faith and love, and yet I have linked them together as predicate and object. It would be as bewilderingly vague and abstract to say that I had once loved faith. Such a timid and cautious person as I, so stingy with my emotions, once believed in something? Isn’t that as pitiful and ridiculous as a teacup puppy daring to take on a dragon?

There are times in life when something that seemed so far out of reach unexpectedly appears to be easily within reach. I was merely caught in one such moment. Even more amazing is that there is no guarantee that these things might not happen again in the future.

Yet that doesn’t mean we can prepare for them as we might pack an umbrella or bring along some medicine. This is because this strange experience of believing in love is a personal experience that does not follow the rule of “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” an experience that charges in on us like a door suddenly swinging open. It is a pain against which we are helpless and must suffer in full.

But there is something even more amazing. And that is that I once swung open the door to someone’s life, left her with this pain, and then quietly slipped out again. At the time I had no idea what I had done. Yet that does not make my sin any less serious. Because I didn’t know, my sin is doubled by the addition of my ignorance. The sin of not knowing her love, a sin for which the soles of my feet should be beaten.

 

As far as I remember, she wasn’t bad-looking but she wasn’t unattractive. This is just the way I talk, so clumsily and stingily. It isn’t easy for me to say that someone is beautiful or attractive. The moment I say that someone is beautiful or attractive, I grow uneasy, worried that some tiny part of my description might not fit that person. So I am more comfortable if, instead of saying that someone is beautiful or attractive, I use a sloppy double negative like a footnote, saying that it isn’t that they are not beautiful or it isn’t that they are unattractive.

But there is one thing I can say for certain about her: that although my first impression of her was plain, the groove running from the tip of her nose to her upper lip is so straight that it looks as if it was carved, and it captures the eye like a target. That people then concentrate on the movements of her upper lip—in other words, on what she says—might have given her numerous advantages that a vaguely pretty face would not have had. She was of medium height and slender build. Like her figure, her personality left no aftertaste at all but was as refreshing as peppermint. She wasn’t dim-witted or lazy. That isn’t to say that she came off as being sharp, only that she was gracefully shrewd and clever, like an antelope ewe.

After thinking this much about her I was momentarily bewildered. I thought maybe the alcohol was making me too generous toward her. That might be true. I knew that she was just as clumsy and timid a person as I. I also knew that hers was a stingy character, one that would choose a shred of pride over the earnestness of overflowing emotions. But what can I say? The way she has existed in my mind since the last time I saw her brings to mind the silhouette of a ceramic jar, always elegant yet lonely no matter where it’s placed, no matter what it holds. That might be because of the curious story she told me back then. It is a story of when J saw her again for the first time in three years, a story of the time when my heart was broken by another woman three years ago. It is also a story that involves a three-story building, so the law of threes seems to hold.

 

As soon as we met, she said that we had to walk about fifteen minutes to the bar where she had reserved a table.

“That’s okay, isn’t it?”

I said that of course it was. She had no makeup on, and her complexion was dark and her cheeks were slightly swollen, making her look like she came from Southeast Asia. She wore a hooded jacket and sneakers, and her quick stride fit her outfit. She turned toward me when we stopped briefly at a crosswalk.

“My eldest aunt died last week.”

I said, “Oh, is that so?” but she laughed dryly, a short gust of breath escaping from her closed lips. I thought it was strange that she would say an elder relative had died and then laugh like that. When the light changed, she stepped out into the crosswalk, mumbling as if to herself. I couldn’t hear her clearly but it sounded like she said something was odd, or something like that. I looked around, but there was nothing odd. If anything was odd, it was her. Why would she laugh when her eldest aunt had died? Then again, she often used to do things that I found strange.

The bar she led me to was really narrow and long like a train. I was surprised that we needed to reserve a table at such a shabby, secluded bar. There were only four tables in single file on the left and an open space along the right wall that was just wide enough for a person to pass through. Opposite the entrance, at the head of the train, was the kitchen. In the left wall next to our seats at the third table, there was a small glass window, but it was a window in name only, being only a square piece of glass stuck in the wall that didn’t slide or push open. Outside was a small parking lot. In the dark parking lot beyond the glass, I could see a few hunched-over cars and the faint light of the parking lot office.

“Give us half pork, half seafood, please.”

The young-looking waitress blinked rapidly at her request.

“Half and half? Half and half what?” She seemed to have trouble understanding Korean.

“Half of this and half of that,” my friend said, pointing at each item on the menu posted on the wall. The waitress stared at a corner of the stained ceiling above the menu. The expression on her face was tortured as if she were doing some complex calculation. Just then, a woman who looked like the owner rushed out of the kitchen. In three seconds, my friend reached an agreement with the owner to pay 25,000 won for a combination of pork stir-fry and seafood stir-fry.

“I ordered whatever I wanted . . . that’s okay, isn’t it?”

I said it was fine. To tell the truth, l didn’t really like frozen ingredients stir-fried briefly in a red, spicy sauce, but I didn’t care either way when it came to bar food, so I didn’t object.

She lowered her voice and muttered, “This place is great, but they keep changing the staff. Every time I come here I order this combination, but if I get stuck with a waiter who doesn’t understand me I have to start all over again, so I never feel like I’ve made any progress.”

“You seem to have gained quite a bit of skill in ordering, though.”

“I guess so. It does seem that I spend less time arguing back and forth now.”

“You must come here often.”

“Not really. It’s too expensive.”

She seemed to have changed a little, and she was becoming a little unfamiliar to me. All the side dishes in the bar were 20,000 won. You could say that was on the expensive side compared to the way the place looked, but it was still only 20,000 won. For an extra 5,000 won, she had ordered a combination of two different 20,000 won dishes, just the way she had always done it.

We had spent a lot of time together in our late twenties. We got together as many as two or three times a week, or at least once or twice a month. I don’t remember ever arranging a meeting in advance. We did the same type of work, and so we ran into each other often and became close thanks to our similar tastes and styles. We stopped getting together when she changed jobs. I had just begun seeing someone else at that point, so I never made any attempt to contact her.

The fact that she had developed a sense of economy, the fact that she ordered what she preferred, perhaps these were the parts of her that had changed? I don’t know. Judging by her attire, it was clear that she had become more modest than she used to be. Back then, even if she didn’t wear a necklace or ring, she loved to go around wearing unusual earrings, but on that day she wasn’t wearing a single piece of jewelry.

I didn’t want to fall back on the prejudiced idea that frugality was a result of poverty. But the fact that she ordered what she preferred, that was something to think about. It could mean that she had suddenly become a gourmet, or it could be because her concern for others had diminished. It could also mean, though I didn’t really want to consider this possibility, that she had so little opportunity to eat what she wanted these days that she had to satisfy her appetite when she had the chance.

If that were the case, what could that mean when coupled with her surprising new frugality? Wouldn’t that mean that she had become poor, not only in material things, but in spirit as well? All in the three years that we had not seen each other.

“What has it been, two years?’’ she mumbled as if to herself. I was going to correct her and say that it had been three years, but she gazed out at the parking lot beyond the window and added, “Since I last came here.’’ I just said, “Really?’’ After a short while, she spoke again.

“I found this place, thanks to a friend who had her heart broken.”

I flinched at the mention of heartbreak, as if I’d been suddenly attacked. I was reminded once again of the simple fact that a woman I’d been engaged to had left me, and I felt as if a bitter shoot of pain was sprouting in the bottom of my heart like a poisonous plant.

“A heartbroken friend?”

“Yeah.”

From what she told me, her friend had been bitterly betrayed by a man and had come to her for advice and comfort. The moment I began to show some interest in her words she shot up from her seat. She walked along the narrow passage toward the kitchen and gestured to the waitress, pointing to the refrigerator and the cabinets. She seemed to be ordering something to drink. It was indeed the kind of story that required a drink. Especially for me.

 

I sometimes think about the bond of heartbreak. There are some people in this world that I just don’t get along with, the kind where I wish I or the other person would just leave for another planet—it didn’t matter which one of us had to do the leaving. But let’s say that by chance I found out that one of these people had had their heart cruelly broken. Though only a few seconds ago I hadn’t even wanted to live under the same sky as this person, I could take them home, give them a drink, and sleep under the same roof as them. I would even be prepared to give them a goodnight kiss on the lips, though they still reeked of alcohol, so they wouldn’t dream sad dreams. There are bonds such as the bond of hunger or the bond of poverty, as well as the bond between those under the strain of taking a test, the bond between vegetarians, and the bond between parents of missing children. Maybe I’m strange, but I can’t imagine a bond so hopelessly drenched, so beautifully without judgment, as the bond of heartbreak. Perhaps that was why, as I watched her order the drinks in that train-like bar, I felt very close to this friend of hers though I had never even seen her face. My heart was restless with the mere expectation of the bond of heartbreak that would form between her friend and me. Of course, we needed my friend as a mediator.

She came back to her seat and said, “Since you didn’t bring your car, you can have a drink or two, right?”

Of course I told her that would be fine.

“I ordered beer and soju, okay?”

“Oh, really?” I didn’t like soju, but I didn’t object. I could just drink beer. And with the train-like mood, I might want a glass or two of soju while listening to a story about heartbreak.

“Let’s mix the beer and soju. That’s okay, right?”

It was a frightening thing to mix beer and soju, but I told her it was okay before I even realized it. She only asked my opinion as an afterthought, after she had already made up her mind. I thought this might be another part of her that had changed. I felt as if all I had done since we’d met was repeat the phrases, “Oh, really?” and “That’s okay.”

“So, did you say anything that helped your friend?”

“My friend? Ah.”

She smiled, turning up a corner of her mouth.

“I didn’t need to help her.”

“Why not?”

She said that her friend had reserved a place at this bar the day before, while still swept up in despair.

‘‘Isn’t that evidence that she had enough hope?”

“Hope? What hope?”

“As long as we have the will to live, we have hope. All I had to do was pretend to subtly interfere with that hope.”

I had no idea what she meant by interfering with hope. She explained simply.

“Only then do you realize that you have hope. Just like you have to scatter things about to realize you have space.”

This was again another of her odd qualities, in which I felt even more confused after she explained something. Only by interfering with hope do you realize that there is hope? Only by scattering things about do you realize that you have space? What kind of explanations were these?

The waitress brought out a tray. I glanced at it, and my gaze came to rest on the liquor bottle. Only then did I understand what she meant when she said that she couldn’t come here often because it was expensive. She hadn’t been talking about the side dishes but about the drinks. Next to the soup bowls and side dishes were two bottles of beer and a long­necked ceramic bottle of the high-quality Andong soju. So she had been talking about mixing beer and Andong soju. This was also very odd.

 

She told me that her friend, the one who had first brought her here, had taken pains to emphasize that the side dishes here were not prepared elsewhere and delivered, but that the owner went to the market every day for the ingredients and made them herself. At this, her friend poured her a beer and then mixed in Andong soju without even asking. Pain will win forgiveness for an offense. Her friend tossed back her drink first while my friend sipped her soup. Like a creditor who barges in, downs a glass of cold water, and cuts straight to the chase, her friend put down her glass and asked urgently,

“What was it like for you then? What are you supposed to do to keep breathing and living at times like this?”

(Excerpt from pp. 45–64.)

Translated by Charles La Shure

Author's Profile

Kwon Yeo-sun (b. 1965) is the author of four novels: The Blue Opening, House of Clay Figurines, Legato, and, most recently, Lemon; five short story collections: The Virgin Skirt, Pink Ribbon Days, Red Fruits in My Garden, The Nutmeg Forest, and Hello, Drunkard; and a book of essays: What Do We Eat Today? She has received the Sangsang Literary Award, Oh Yeongsu Literature Award, Yi Sang Literary Prize, Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Tong-ni Literature Prize, and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. The Japanese translation of Hello, Drunkard was published by Shinkansha in 2018.