- onSeptember 4, 2018
- Vol.41 Autumn 2018
- byLee Jae Ryang
- Literature & art today no. 14 (Winter 2014)
One afternoon a week before Christmas, I got a call. It was from a producer asking me to appear on his show. At first I wanted to say no. I’d learned by now that I wasn’t cut out for going on air. Especially on TV. You see, viewers spewed out nasty comments on forums whenever they saw me. Is he really a lyricist? I thought he was Quasimodo the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. His pits were soaked through his dress shirt, the stink came through my screen. Did somebody stuff a yam down his throat, I can’t stand his voice. He should stick to his main job instead of showing his face on TV . . .
I agree with that last piece of advice. I’m not the sort of celebrity viewers want to see. I’m a lyricist, who writes what people want to hear. In fact, I’ve bagged quite a few awards in recent years since winning my first lyric writing contest. People cried their hearts out over my lyrics. Sometimes they laughed their hearts out too. Basically, my lyrics made them wet. Man or woman, young or old, I bet you anyone who heard my lyrics sang along to them at least once. Some called me “the Pied Piper of South Korea.” Others raved that listening to “HyeonJaewon lyrics” was like falling under a spell, or he’s Winning Our Love in the Center of the World. That is, until they saw me on television.
So if the producer who called didn’t happen to be the judge who chose me as the winner of the lyric writing contest, if he hadn’t pleaded with me saying he’d narrowly managed to land this show amid the winter programming reshuffle, if it hadn’t been a Christmas Special radio show, I’d never have agreed to do thatstupid broadcast.
Christmas Eve at 11:20 p.m., I sat in the corner of the studio chugging cold water. There were still over forty minutes left of the two-hour live broadcast. I inhaled deeply through my nostrils. I took off my glasses, put them on my lap, and wiped the sweat from the bridge of my nose. Thank god for news and commercial breaks. Otherwise I might’ve taken five calls and shriveled up in front of the microphone. I wasn’t even on television but boy, those listeners on the phone sapped me dry like a bunch of vampires.
If the producer’d told me that there’d be a call-in segment, I would’ve refused till hell froze over. “You’ll need to listen to the callers’ stories and give them a heartfelt response”—say what? Here’s the thing: giving advice or coaching isn’t my cup of tea. There’s nothing I hate more than holding the receiver to my ear and yapping for longer than three minutes. I have two rules for phone calls: get straight to the point, meet in person for urgent business. Hence, my less than friendly feelings toward people clutching their phones and spinning yarns about themselves. I feel the same way about writing in a diary.
Most of the so-called “stories” people puke up on the phone or in their diaries are stinky yellow globs of undigested wounds. Emotional wounds? Sure, you might need to vomit them up sometimes. If it makes you feel better and helps you get your life back on track, great. But unless you’re going to elevate those good-for-nothing wounds to art, like I do, it’s best to chew them up, swallow, digest, and flush ’em down the toilet. I’m telling you, folks these days have weak stomachs.
I didn’t realize until I sat at the DJ desk and put on headphones that listeners with poor digestive systems had no interest or enthusiasm whatsoever for my lyrics. Their only concern was love. At first I guessed it might be because the show was titled “A Good Day to Be in Love.” But I didn’t know they’d turn out to be as interesting as Grandma snoring. I couldn’t stop myself from yawning. My head started swimming. Maybe this was how college girls felt listening to the boys bragging about their time in the military.
I confess that in my third year of the thirsty thirties, I still had no dating experience. Chiefly because there weren’t any irresistible, head-over-heels women in my life, but also because life wasn’t too bad without them. If anything, I was more comfortable with being alone the older I got. I seemed to be better suited for holing up in my room (which was furnished with every basic amenity) and working or lounging around.
“Jaewon, everything alright?” the producer asked, staring as I sat in a corner of the studio chewing over the horror of five phone calls.
“I’m alright. What’s the matter?”
I looked up at the producer, putting on my glasses I’d placed on my lap.
“What’s the matter? I told you, the news is over so can you please get back into the booth. We have to get ready for part four.”
Sure enough, I heard a commercial playing in the studio. Break time had gone by in a flash. I felt nauseated again. My shoulders drooped, and I got to my feet. The producer gently massaged my back.
“We’re grabbing a late-night snack after the show, so think about what you wanna get. Tonight, I’m treating you to a hell of a meal.”
Shamefully, my ears perked up at the mention of late-night snacks. I’d made do with delivery jjajangmyeonfor lunch and skipped dinner to “prepare” for the show. I decided to hang tight a little longer. Yes, everything tasted better at night. Food, and love too. Wasn’t that why one-night stands happened?
“Now let’s take the next connected call. Hello?”
The DJ’s terrible announcement was my cue to put on the headphones hooked to the microphone. I tried hard to focus on late-night snacks, but the word “connect” made me shiver. Surprisingly, so many people had no manners. Who the hell calls at midnight?
The sixth caller had a snooty voice, a woman.
“Can you tell us a little about yourself?”
“Umm . . . about that . . . I’d rather not say.”
The woman’s voice sank like gray clouds.
“Ah . . . then maybe just your age or where you live, what you do . . .” the DJ replied tactfully but the woman stopped talking.
“Hello? Is the line dead? Hello?”
The studio fell silent. It was the sort of quiet that stirred tension, like the seconds before disaster struck.
“I just called to ask the lyricist a question.”
Phew—or that’s what I wanted to think but something about her answer put me on edge. Anyway, the woman started to speak after a brief pause. I hunched up and looked at the DJ’s face, then out the booth. The producer shrugged and made an OK sign with his thumb and index finger.
“Ah, then we’ll call you Ms. No Name, shall we? So, Ms. No Name, what would you like to ask lyricist HyeonJaewon?” The DJ kept the call going with an awkward laugh.
“Your lyrics, Mr. Hyeon. I heard them on the radio recently. I was very impressed.”
It was like relief walked into the room through a delicate lace curtain of peace. Right away the intense pressure in my shoulder muscles eased away. Why, even giggles burst inside my mouth like bubbles. Finally, a listener who would talk about my oeuvre. I was connected to someone who actually knew the radio guest was a lyricist. I was glad and grateful for the injection of friendly vibes.
“I’m honored you thought well of my lyrics, Ms. No Name,” I offered. But—
“No, I didn’t think well of them. I just meant I was impressed,” the woman repeated. Her tone was adamant. I had a feeling this woman was not to be messed with. One wrong move against someone like her and I’d get flamed to hell and back. My face burned and I was lost for words but I resolved to respect her opinion. I didn’t want to spoil the friendly vibe we’d established for the first time.
“Well . . . yes, you’re right. Being impressed with something doesn’t necessarily mean you liked it. Just like loving someone doesn’t mean you’ll marry them. Which lyrics were you referring to by the way?”
“One of your early works, Mr. Hyeon. I’ll read them to you.”
The woman’s impassioned voice became calmer but I didn’t let my guard down. I heard the rustling of paper being pulled out and smoothed on the other end.
“Here, it’s this part. Let holes riddle my body, let it tear up into rags, for you I’ll toss this body. For you I won’t regret dying. Love you to the point of dying. Ooh-ooh-hoo. I’ll take the bullets of your love. Shoot me. Shoot me.”
The woman’s voice was soft and uninflected. The DJ’s breathing on the other hand was ragged. He’d shoved his fist into his mouth to stop himself from laughing, air puffing out of his nostrils. The producer and writer, who sat in front of the console, were more or less in the same state. I gotta admit I was embarrassed somewhat, or maybe I was angry, maybe even a bit touched.
I rummaged through my memories of “Bullets of Love” and realized that I wrote those lyrics for K-pop trot singer “K.” I wrote them before I became famous, like the woman said. I was full of piss and vinegar then, and most of my lyrics were aggressive, blunt, gung-ho. Back when I was struggling, whenever I was hurt and lonely and hungry, I would lay on my stomach on the cold, cold floor and pour my heart out onto the page. My lyrics didn’t smell like roses or lavender, they stank of weeds. But was that something to guffaw about?
“Is this true?” the woman asked.
“Sorry?” I replied, I wasn’t sure what she meant.
“Are you really not going to regret it if your body’s torn up into rags?”
For a moment I thought I’d misheard her. Of all the questions she could’ve asked, she wanted to know if I was okay with being shredded to bits. What kind of messed up person would ask such a shitty, juvenile question? But who could I blame. I’d written those lyrics, and my lyrics always spoke the truth. Mind you, that was the only love song I ever wrote. Although I don’t normally write love songs, as a newbie lyricist I couldn’t turn down my agency’s roundabout proposal for one. And I’d figured I might as well write that when I found love someday, I’d give it everything I had. I didn’t mean I’d give my life.
I had a headache. I cocked my head at the producer. He just gave me a blank look. So did the DJ. Their faces seemed to say, Go on, give her your answer. I took a deep breath. It was like strong, sticky spider webs had shot out from all directions and wrapped themselves around my neck. But I had to speak my answer into the microphone—I wanted to end the call as soon as possible.
The producer gave me a thumbs up. The writer whooped, the DJ clapped into the microphone next to me. In one fell swoop I’d become the romantic of the century.
The woman’s rudeness knew no bounds.
“Oh, our Mr. Hyeon can’t lie. He probably writes the most genuine lyrics in Korea. Isn’t that right, Mr. Hyeon?”
He really didn’t need to, but the DJ had stepped in. I mumbled, increasingly feeling like I was being driven into a corner. I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants.
“Well . . . yeah . . . I guess . . .”
“I hope the day comes when that really happens. Until then, take care. Merry Christmas.”
And with that, she hung up on me. The startled producer hastily played some music and the DJ signed off. My skin had flushed red before, but now it broke out in goosebumps. A chill started in my legs and devoured my body heat in an instant. Love, love, love . . . not love again. Not another spiel about love. Isn’t there anything else? I must be living in a world gone nuts for love. Is love really that great? Is it that important? When I was in college my professor claimed the following:
“Love is savage.”
I didn’t completely agree but took it to mean that love must be important one way or another. But thinking back, the professor never said love was important, simply that it was savage. There’s no doubt love is a universal feeling. The fact that something is universal doesn’t mean it’s important. Actually no, universal things are important. Just in a different way.
I think of love as an instinct. It’s not unlike the desire to eat, poop, or sleep, y’know? Of course it’s most similar to lust. These instincts are universal to humans, to all animals. But the difference between them and love is that love has been glorified. By “glorified,” I mean beautifully dressed up and convincingly packaged. The instinct to mate is glorified into romantic love, the instinct to protect offspring is glorified into parental love, and the instinct to survive is glorified into filial love. The instinct to love is great in absolute terms, but compared to other instincts, there’s nothing particularly great about it. When I say instinct is absolutely great, I mean that it’s vital. That we can’t live without it.
That’s the sense in which love is savage. That’s the sense and the only sense in which love is important. No one denies eating and shitting and sleeping are important. But no one thinks and talks only about eating and shitting and sleeping, or says these things are their life’s meaning or goals, right? People who think and talk only about love aren’t any better than people who think and talk only about eating food or taking a dump. No, they aren’t any better than animals.
Put simply, the oh-so-great love we humans have, all animals have too. You see, neither romantic love nor our supposedly great parental love are unique to humans. Aren’t spiders or snakes said to feed their own bodies to their young?
In fact, humans are worse than animals that just eat and shit. Animals don’t boast the greatness or importance or beauty of their “love.” They just live and love in silence. Since love is an instinct, then for animals, to live is to love. Humans do the opposite. They boast about love as soon as they open their mouths, but if you look closely, not many of them love savagely. They go about their daily lives buying stocks and checking real estate prices, looking up good restaurants and partying, but when you ask them what’s important, they boast about love. They seek affirmation of love whenever they get bored.
The radio broadcast ended in the early hours and I was beat. I gorged on the late-night snack the producer bought for me and was heading back home drunk, everything a blur. The December wind cut like bitch-slaps across my face with a broomstick, but the deadliest enemy wasn’t the cold. It was pessimism. How much farther I had to walk through a city with no running trains or buses, down streets with no passing taxis; how many more whirlwinds I had to brave on the way; whether I wouldn’t freeze to death before I reached where I meant to go, no, where exactly it was that I meant to go; whether reaching it really meant I reached it—everything was uncertain and suspicious as hell.
What’s success, would you say? Is it having total strangers walk all over me, feeling sick to the stomach by food and drink that magically replenished itself without end, getting pins and needles in my knees because my belly’s too heavy? Is this the life I dreamed of? I assure you it’s not. I never dreamed of a life so meaningless. Though I didn’t know what success was, I thought I could reasonably say I’d achieved something in life, yet I kept getting the uneasy feeling that there was something I wasn’t doing. Whenever I opened my eyes, I was plainly knocking myself out with work, yet here I was feeling nervous and uneasy like a student who’d forgotten tomorrow’s test.
See, maybe I was despairing at the fact that I no longer had a reason to explore my inner self. Because no one wanted to see the inner me. Not just at today’s live broadcast but from way before. At some point I’d started to turn into a machine. Instead of pulling out what was deeper inside me, I filled the sheet music composers sent me with slick vowels and consonants that fit the tune and beat. Empty, futile, and meaningless.
Abruptly, I stopped in my tracks and looked around. Drunks waving down taxis that weren’t coming, men crouching by the mouths of alleys or next to telephone poles, lone women staggering past while humming carols, teenagers ripping down the street on delivery motorbikes . . . A lonely Christmas tree stood in front of lightless buildings, vomit and garbage spilling over at its feet, colorful fairy lights and neon winking to no one . . .
To me, Christmas Day meant loitering at the bookstore from morning. Just as I’d done every other day when I was unknown. Shouldn’t I read this, shouldn’t I study that, I’d wander around an endless forest of books, before I took out the 120,000 won I’d worked so hard to save throughout the year and bought that much worth of books, no more, no less. Then I took the bus home when couples started gathering downtown in droves. I spent all night listening to carols as I read my books and wrote my lyrics. By myself, obviously.
In my twenties, I despised the ordinary life everybody talked about. The life where you went to work rubbing your sleepy eyes, slacked off at work trying not to get caught, ate grilled pork belly with a swig of soju, chugged beer at the bar sneaking glances at women. Yammering about love when you didn’t know what it was, celebrating such and such anniversaries out of obligation . . . But that night, standing in the crowd, I had no clue what ordinary life was supposed to be. Watching a city in ruins made me feel like the crowd and I, we were all a bunch of wrecks and idiots. Christmas was just beginning, but it seemed likethe party was already over.
Was Jesus born in a cold filthy manger just to see this mess? How many more times does he have to be resurrected for this world of pandemonium? Is bearing all that burden really an act of love for humanity? I don’t think so. If you ask me, salvation is an endless refrain of pain and despair, like the story of Sisyphus. This great love is nothing but a thorough glorification of suffering. “Acts of humanity” are actually acts of vanity. Besides, think of how easy it is. If I could save the world by dying, believe me, I’d die smiling too. If death is all it takes to realize greatness beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, can anything be more convenient and wonderful? Dying for meaning is actually easy. What’s hard is fighting against a meaningless death. Living through meaninglessness.
I wasn’t sure I was up to it. A life of fighting myself, a life of enduring the lack of meaning. My helplessness hit its peak, and I ran howling madly into the middle of the four-lane road. A motorbike sped toward me like a lizard darting across the water but I cut in front of it, shut my eyes, and spread out my arms. I would free myself from this state between meaning and meaninglessness. Just then—
Someone shouted and hurled me aside. I rolled across the pavement like a circus bear and banged my head against the pedestrian guardrail with an audible thud. I thought my eyeballs were going to pop out. Maybe they did and popped back in. At any rate, I couldn’t open my eyes. Luckily, I didn’t feel any pain, perhaps because I was drunk.
It was a woman. She must’ve been a tank if she could knock down a man my size. With just as much strength, she shook the living daylights out of my spread-eagled body. Right on cue, something warm oozed out of my nose. My first thought: what if it’s snot? What if this woman laughs at me too? I can’t let her take a photo and post it on the internet . . .
I didn’t have the energy or the balls to open my eyes. I just lay on the icy road like I was dead. The woman pressed her face to my chest. She seemed to be checking if I was breathing. My heart beat faster at the faint smell of shampoo from the crown of her head. At this point I couldn’t stay shamelessly sprawled on my back. I mean, she did save my life. I managed to open my mouth and say, I’m alright, thank you. Maybe she didn’t hear, because she began to slap me hard across the face.
“Don’t close your eyes. I’ll call an ambulance.”
I lifted my eyelids as best I could. Numb as I was, I didn’t want to get clobbered. I saw the woman through my blurry vision. I might’ve caught a glimpse of a silver headband. A red circle the size of a fingernail, spreading in all directions like a paint drop, was stamped on the middle of her headband. It looked like a star. The stuff that came out of my nose must’ve been blood, not snot. It probably smeared onto her when she pressed her ear against my chest. I struggled to stay awake like the woman told me to but sleep overcame me.
The last thing I remember is listening to the wail of an ambulance in the darkness. Then I dreamed of Wonder Woman. She wore the same headband as my rescuer. When I opened my eyes, I found Wonder Woman staring down at me. Wearing a headband with a red star. Next to her, a nurse was placing three syringes on a tray. I closed my eyes again but they immediately flew open. A sharp pain had shot up the back of my head. Then the rest of my body ached, starting with the back of my neck and shoulders.
“Are you awake? We’ve just finished putting three stitches in the back of your head to close up a tear and ten stitches on your scalp.”
I freaked out. No kidding, I saw bandages wrapped around my head.
“Sir, I’ll need to give you a shot in the buttocks, so if you can pull down your pants please. It’s an antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, tetanus shot. It’ll sting a bit.”
I hesitated, too embarrassed to bare my bottom in front of Wonder Woman,but the nurse pushed away my protesting hands, yanked down my pants herself and slapped my butt. It must be my lot to be slapped by women, eyes open or closed.
“You’ll be dizzy so lie still for a minute, then you can head over to the radiology department to get your x-ray and CT scan taken. And ma’am?” the nurse called Wonder Woman as she picked up her chart. “You forgot to put down your relationship with the patient on the registration form.”
It was only then that I got to take a proper look at Wonder Woman. She wore a cape over a black dress coming to her ankles. She gazed down at me, brushing a loose strand of hair behind her ears. She didn’t answer the nurse and kept her mouth shut like a doll with dead batteries. Her expression was indifferent, but you might also say it was a look of concentration.
“Ma’am? Your name and relationship?” the nurse asked again with irritation. I saw Wonder Woman’s black, dewy eyes flicker slightly. She seemed to have come to some decision and broke her silence. Her eyes were still on me.
“My name is Yoon Jeong-ae, and I’m . . . an acquaintance.”
I left the hospital near daybreak. With my acquaintance, Yoon Jeong-ae. She’d waited in the ER hallway, insisting she’d drive me back to my apartment in her car. I was a teeny bit uncomfortable but happy nonetheless. Imagine that, a person in this day and age who was beautiful inside and out. And so near me too. Yoon Jeong-ae was a rookie writer at the radio station I appeared on. She worked as a scripter for the show right before mine, and was apparently sitting next to my table when I went to grab a beer with the producer. Her team was getting drinks at the same time as us. A coincidence, maybe, but it felt like destiny. Why? It was Christmas.
“Your head, does it hurt a lot?” Yoon Jeong-ae asked. Instead of answering, I looked down and fiddled with my bandages. If only I could go back to the hospital and just pass out again. Now that I’d come to my senses, my actions last night seemed so revolting that I couldn’t bear to look at her. But she, bless her, didn’t ask me anything else. She didn’t offer any lame advice either.
We walked to the outdoor parking lot in silence. My legs kind of hurt but holding onto her hand was weird and linking arms out of the question, so I hobbled awkwardly along. So many thoughts went through my mind and I wanted to have a deeper conversation with her, but I locked away my feelings. I had to simmer down from last night’s feverish outburst first, you see. I would wait until my wound healed completely.
But just then, it began to snow. White, bright, miraculous. It was the first white Christmas in a decade. A drab city transformed into a scene from a Christmas movie. We watched snow pile up on the street as if we’d gotten early-morning tickets to a movie playing on Christmas. Even as we watched the miraculous scene before us, we remained silent. We simply crunched across the snowy street for some time.
It was still snowing by the time we arrived in front of my house. But I had to get out of the car, and say goodbye to this woman named Yoon Jeong-ae. I couldn’t bring myself to open the passenger door. I just gazed out the window at the large snowflakes until I blurted out, “Ms. Yoon Jeong-ae, are you interested in me?”
Color rushed to my face and my stitches hurt. Thanks to this blithering idiot of a mouth. I should’ve had my mouth stitched up at the hospital, not the back of my head. I pushed open the car door without looking around at Yoon Jeong-ae. I was going to skedaddle into the apartment as fast as my legs could carry me. That was when she replied, “Yes, perhaps.” That was the starting pistol for our relationship. Yoon Jeong-ae and I began to have meaningful exchanges from that day on. The miracle of Christmas had come to Quasimodo.
Text messages occasionally popped up saying, Merry Christmas. I texted back,Merry Christmas to you too, quite a few times in the middle of scrubbing my armpits clean, taking out a pair of designer boxers, and putting on a suit. Some of the messages were from spammers or unknown numbers or people I’d rather not hear from, but none of that mattered. I had Jeong-ae.
I got the stitches in the back of my head removed, the scabs fell off and new flesh and hair grew, and during that whole time and after, I read books, listened to music, and wrote lyrics like I’d always done. Except this time I wasn’t alone. Jeong-ae was my Esmeralda. She was my Wonder Woman, my muse. Meeting her gave me a reason to look inside myself again. Through her I could express the things inside me more deeply, more passionately into lyrics. It was a different feeling from when I’d risen to fame as a lyricist. Gone was my unease about having forgotten to do something important. Day and night for a year, I cranked out lyrics about love.
It was five minutes to 8 p.m. I finished primping my hair and scanned my reflection in the mirror. The bow tie choked me a little but I could handle that much. A special day called for special attire, didn’t it? In a few minutes my love would walk into this apartment. It was our first Christmas Eve as a couple and Jeong-ae’s first visit.
Snow fell like last year as if to celebrate our first anniversary. On a day like this I’d wanted us to have steak at a fabulous restaurant, go for a drive down secluded lanes, drop by a hotel to sip cocktails, watch the city nightscape savoring the sweetness in the air, but Jeong-ae refused. She asked me to invite her to my apartment. She said there was something we had to do in private. I got the hint. I was stupid to make a lady wait that long.
Standing in front of the mirror, I reached into my pants pocket and took out my present for Jeong-ae. A small red box, containing a platinum ring with a fat diamond. A limited Christmas edition from a famous luxury brand, it had cost an arm and a leg. I opened the box and checked the gift I was going to put on her ring finger. The diamond glinted like the eyes of a hawk locked on its prey. I stared in the mirror and dissolved into a fit of silent, wide-mouthed laughter. Today, we just might spend our first night together. If we did then tomorrow, on Christmas, I would propose to her. How would she react? My heart was pounding. The doorbell rang. I stuffed the box back in my pocket and ran to the front door to greet Jeong-ae.
Jeong-ae looked the same as she did a year ago. She wore the same black, ankle-length dress and cape, down to the silver headband. Only one thing was different. The yellowish-brown guitar case she carried over her shoulder. I looked closely up and down the rectangular, hard-shell case. It was definitely the product I thought it was. The electric guitar of every guitarist’s dreams.
“Um, is that a Fender Fullerton American Vintage ’52 Tele you’re carrying?”
Jeong-ae looked around at me as she walked into the living room and nodded. A wild excitement danced inside me like the shadows of flames.
“Ooh, ooh. Ms. Jeong-ae,” I found myself saying, halfway between an exclamation and a moan. I was overcome just by the sight of that rare, legendary guitar, but what’s more, Jeong-ae had brought it. You know why? She was going to play it for me. I’d never seen her play the guitar to be sure, but wasn’t it obvious? Honestly, I was sad sometimes because the woman was a bit aloof and didn’t talk very much, but now I saw that I’d been a fool. Jeong-ae was a woman who knew how to serenade her lover on a day such as this.
“What year was it made? Can I see it now?” I pressed her in my eagerness.
“It’s the 1982 reissue. But I don’t have it with me.”
I could’ve sworn Jeong-ae’s words sounded like guitar strings snapping. I wiped the sweat off my forehead as I breathed heavily out of my nostrils. What was she playing at, bringing an empty case?
“Then where’s the guitar?”
“That’s none of your business. Anyway, I’ve put something else in it fortoday,” Jeong-ae said, her eyes sweeping every corner of the apartment. I smiled, raising my upper lashes as high as they would go so I wouldn’t look hurt, and asked, “What do you have in there?”
“Don’t rush. You’ll see soon enough.”
I saw the corners of her mouth curl up almost imperceptibly. I had no idea what her words and expression meant. I decided not to rush, just as she told me. Today was Christmas Eve, the night was just beginning, we had plenty of days ahead of us, and even if there was no guitar in the case, Jeong-ae would’ve planned a surprise beyond my imagination.
“Would you care for a cup of tea then? Let me take that for you.”
I reached out for the guitar case she was holding. The moment my hand touched the case—
Jeong-ae swatted my hand away. She yanked the case back at the same time and sat on the sofa. I looked at her face in surprise. It’d been a while since I felt this, but Jeong-ae was a strong woman with especially potent hands. She was the Wonder Woman who saved me a year ago, wasn’t she? Today though, Wonder Woman was being a haughty cat.
“Don’t mind me and drink your tea if you’d like. Even death row inmates are fed before they die. I can wait while you make tea.”
Jeong-ae’s voice was soft and courteous. Soft, but lacking inflection in a somewhat unnerving way. I stared at her face again as I massaged the hand that had touched the guitar case. I’d only brushed against it but the coarseness of the tweed surface still lingered on my fingertips. Like that of a hangman’s noose.
“Ms. Jeong-ae, why would you say something so scary? Am I going somewhere to die?” I asked, sitting opposite Jeong-ae. This time I didn’t hide my hurt expression.
I flinched, and withdrew my face from Jeong-ae a fraction of an inch. Jeong-ae’s “Yes, perhaps” signaled that something was about to begin. Just like when we began dating.
“If you’re not having tea then let’s get right to it.”
As I’d expected, Jeong-ae took something out from the inside pocket of her cape. It was a crumpled piece of paper.
“Do you remember what you said last year, Mr. Hyeon?”
Jeong-ae looked carefully at me like she was assessing me.
“What did I say last year?”
She talked and acted like a completely different person. It was as if the cold from the snow storm outside had rushed into the room. The cold wasn’t something the body could feel. It was a more primal, animal sensation. I couldn’t prove it or explain it—the second I thought I felt it, it vanished into thin air like soap bubbles—but my instincts clearly sensed the chill.
“You said ‘yes.’”
Jeong-ae unfolded the paper she was holding and shoved it under my nose. I froze when I saw what was written on the paper. The cold I’d felt a moment ago really did freeze me.
“You remember now?”
I did. I remembered. The paper Jeong-ae held out contained my lyrics.
“Let holes riddle my body, let it tear up into rags, for you I’ll toss this body. For you I won’t regret dying. Love you to the point of dying. Ooh-ooh-hoo. I’ll take the bullets of your love. Shoot me. Shoot me.”
Jeong-ae knew the lines by heart down to a T. The lyrics I’d written as a clueless rookie to “Bullets of Love.” Not knowing what to say in response, I forced a smile at her—correction, my lips twitched.
“Last year during a live radio broadcast, you said you wouldn’t regret it if your body’s torn up into rags, right? And I said I hope that day comes.”
Goosebumps covered every inch of my body. Of the many shocks I’d received in my life, Jeong-ae’s words beat them all. Sure I’d thought of Jeong-ae as Wonder Woman or Esmeralda, but never did I imagine she was the listener who’d asked me that rude, shitty question. And this same woman saved my life? Became my girlfriend? Why? There was only one answer. She said it herself, she’d been hoping for “that day” to come.
“I think it’s time.”
Jeong-ae opened the guitar case. After the mother of all shocks, I thought nothing could surprise me now, but when I saw what Jeong-ae took out of the case my breath caught in my throat like a fish hook. I knew what that object with the heavy, black shine was; I even knew the model. It was supposedly only used in the US Special Operations Command: an MK23 pistol, with a suppressor attached.
“You told me countless times that you love me. Now it’s time for you to prove your words, Mr. Hyeon.”
Jeong-ae stood up, pistol in hand, and aimed it at my forehead. She pulled back the hammer. The heavy click rang in my ears. I opened my mouth.
“Ms. Jeong-ae, it’s not April Fool’s Day, what kind of sick joke . . .”
Jeong-ae pulled the trigger before I finished. I felt a sharp pain as my stomach contracted. The MK23 was fired twice in quick succession; the bullets grazed each side of my neck in the blink of an eye and pierced the TV mounted on the living room wall. My ears shook from the aftershock, as if fist-sized mud balls had smashed into it with a dull thud. They seemed to tell me, Look, this ain’t no water gun or slingshot. I stared at my demolished TV, saliva dribbling from my mouth.
“You told me you love me. That you’re fine with being torn up into rags. Were you bullshitting me?”
Jeong-ae pointed the gun at me again. Instead of my forehead, she pressed it to the back of my head. To the spot that was stitched up a year ago. I looked up at her face. Her gaze locked intensely with mine. The whites of her eyes were ablaze but her expression was as cold and immovable as an iceberg. I never knew such extreme heat and cold could show on a person’s face at once.
“Mr. Hyeon, don’t disappoint me.”
Without lowering the blade of her gaze, she said, “I’ll ask you one last time. Will you not regret dying, do you love me to the point of dying?”
I couldn’t find a good line to say in response. Too many emotions and words burned and died inside my heart and head.
This is the perfect moment to save your life. Tell her you never loved her.
No, you never know. Maybe she’ll spare me if I say I love her . . .
But a cruel voice deep inside me pointed out my error.
That’s not true, whether or not you say you love her, she’ll shoot you.
I knew instinctively that the voice was right. Then the pointless self-blame kicked in. I was the one, not anyone else, who had brought on this shit show. It was the product of my choices. Some choices flip your life over like a game of milk caps. All lives and deaths are the product of choices made by you and others. The past year rewound itself like a roll of film. It paused on the day of the live radio broadcast. The words of my professor came back to me.
“Love is savage.”
With trembling hands, I patted down my pants pocket—for the ring I’d planned to propose to Jeong-ae with. I felt so cheated, so tired, so angry. Love may be savage but this was too much. Love couldn’t do this to me. Today of all days . . . after all I’d been through . . . I had the sudden impulse to bite Jeong-ae’s hand gripping the MK23. Words I’d never used in front of anyone tumbled out of my mouth. Like a growling beast baring its fangs.
“Gimme a break. Fuck love.”
Translated by Sung Ryu
Lee Jae Ryang debuted with the short story “Carol” in Literature Today magazine in 2014. She published her first novel, Yellow Submarine, in 2017.