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FICTION

Modern Boy

  • onMarch 22, 2018
  • Vol.39 Spring 2018
  • byLee Jimin
Modern Boy (Modeon boi)
2008
240pp.

An exhibit of works by the famous Japanese western-style painter Oba Yojo was held on the second floor of the Mitsukoshi Department Store. It wasn’t a massive event like the New Military Arms Expo or the Ito Hirobumi Collection that had the Japanese from all corners of the peninsula dragging their geta in a deafening roar all the way to Seoul. But the artist and his modern style, already quite fashionable in Japan, were on the rise and deserving of the enthusiastic attention of cultured society.

It was early in the day, but the wives of the Gyeongseong bigwigs were already there. They were looking at the paintings in twos and threes, holding hands like schoolgirls. They spent more time socializing than looking at the art. But what really made it impossible to enjoy the paintings was not the merry hubbub. It was the hats—hats of all shapes and sizes perched on the women’s heads. Cloche hats that covered the eyebrows (worn by half the female population of Gyeongseong), toque hats with dried or fake flowers, cute little sailor caps for the nautical look, silk turbans for the just-got-out-of-the-shower look, coy school bell-shaped hats, broad-brimmed hats, rimless hats, hats with flowers, hats without flowers, tall hats, squat hats . . . Some hats were larger than the painting, others the same color as the painting, and still others obscured the face of the portrait and didn’t budge. The hats floating about on all levels between the ceiling and the floor made it impossible to even see the paintings. This made me, a hatless patron, feel cheated. I was with Shinsuke that day. We’d made some excuse about looking into affairs concerning the Bank of Chosen and had slipped out of the office that afternoon, not because we were great connoisseurs of art, but because of women—what else? Earlier that morning, a pale Shinsuke came up to me after getting a call at the office.

“Yukiko wants to see me. She sounded serious. Come with me?”

Yukiko and my friend Shinsuke had a relationship as complicated as any other extramarital affair. Shinsuke was trying hard to end things with Yukiko, who was absolutely not done with him. They were planning on discussing the matter in the morning at the art show.

Shinsuke, so proficient in the choreography of such liaisons, coolly pretended to look at the paintings by the exit in case he needed to slip away. I took my position in front of Eve’s Tongue—a round, flat bronze sculpture that looked like an enormous, damaged coin—to watch the gripping secret rendezvous.

Accompanied by a small group of adoring fans in the foyer, Yukiko, wife to Sima the Head of Personnel at the General Affairs Bureau of the Governor-General’s office, mistress to my friend Shinsuke, and perhaps the only Japanese woman whose charm I admitted to falling under, made her entrance.

She was captivating. What most Japanese beauties displayed—the world’s greatest docility and hospitality that sometimes just made you want to go slap them hard on their kimono-clad backs just to get a rise out of them—she had none. She was an infamous seductress who knew how to enjoy her infidelities with grace and mirth. I’d always admired that about her. In a society where everyone was so keen on hiding their schemes and corruption, it couldn’t have been easy to bare her flaws so casually and delicately. That would only be possible for someone both honest and charming, traits that Yukiko and Shinsuke had in common, like siblings. The nature of Shinsuke’s honesty was a little different from hers, but they made such a perfect pair all the same that it was hard to believe they were each married to someone else.

Yukiko, wearing a diamond-shaped silver veludo hat with a black veil, amiably exchanged dull greetings with the wives while signaling at Shinsuke in a code only they understood. I couldn’t tell what was going on, but it appeared something or someone was demonstratively being blamed for something. Shinsuke pretended to be absorbed in the paintings while furtively and quickly exchanging glances with Yukiko. Just then, a voice interrupted.

“Why are you blocking this piece?”

While I was busy playing spectator to someone else’s affair, something had wandered my way.

Her nasal voice, like someone just waking up, traveled through the din of the gallery and landed on my ear like a bug. Her voice was nothing out of the ordinary, but my ears didn’t wish to think of it as so. It was soft and special, like something I would like to pin down and keep forever in a viewing case made of fine paulownia wood.

“Well, it’s nothing special.”

When a man is being rude for no particular reason, he has a good reason for it. I had to use something, anything, to capture that voice, and that something happened to be rudeness.

“I would like to see for myself at any rate.”

I wanted to see her with my own eyes. I turned slowly, trying to still my heart. I was startled by the fact that the woman was looking up at me from an inch away. She must have been examining the back of my head from up close for some time. She wore the satisfied look of someone who had just seen everything from my cowlick to all the contents of my head.

“If I can’t see it, can you at least tell me what it’s called?”

She continued our little game, smiling.

Eve’s Tongue . . . that would be the title,” I offered, pleased with the answer that was sure to puzzle. But she didn’t miss a beat.

“And what’s the message of the piece?”

She smiled playfully, like Eve grinning with both cheeks full from a big bite of the apple.

“Probably . . . Original Sin.”

I couldn’t believe I gave her such a banal, conventional answer at such a crucial moment without so much as a moment’s deliberation. I was usually such a clever man. I could not forgive myself. She caught on, as I’d expected.

She snickered at me and said, “I don’t think I want to see that sculpture anymore. Well then, let’s meet again next time in front of a better piece.”

With that, she turned to go.

She disappeared like the outside scenery flashing by a streetcar window, leaving in her wake only the sensation of a cool breeze on my eyelid. A sea of hats instantly swallowed her up. She was definitely not wearing a hat, but I couldn’t find her. She was a woman who knew how to keep her head inscrutable without the help of a hat.

I stood there for a while, wrapped in a numb, sad feeling that comes when I wake up from a dream. The feeling was incommunicable. The dream I dreamed was the kind that lasts for a brief moment right before you wake up, the kind that leaves you astir with sentiment, but never, ever any memories.

 

 

I left Mitsukoshi and began to walk. I could not have cared less where Shinsuke and Yukiko went. That day may have been very important for them, but not for me. I had to hurry back to the Governor-General’s Office, where a week’s worth of reports were turning into a small hill on my desk, but I didn’t take the rickshaw or the trolley or a cab.

I walked.

Spring. April sun. The trees and street signs had turned so dusty during the recent dry spell that they seemed about to sneeze at any moment, but they were clean and fresh to my eyes. The budding green leaves on the acacia trees that lined the streets were so radiant, and the silvery sunlight trickling down through the leaves looked like flakes of falling snow.

On the street where everyone was hurrying on their way, I was the only one strolling and smiling.

People on rickshaws, trolleys, bicycles, taxis, and in the streets all had the same blank expression on their faces, but I was smiling. Dust kept rushing into my grinning mouth, but I pushed it around in my mouth like granules of sugar and let it melt on the tip of my tongue. When I passed by Gyeongseong City Hall, the guards saw me and whispered amongst themselves suspiciously, but I gave them a big smile because their bowed legs were so cute. I was happy.

Why was I so excited over a brief conversation with a woman whose name I didn’t even know? The male instinct, completely different from a woman’s incomparably convenient instinct that kicks in when, say, she sees a memo of a suspicious meeting place in her lover’s notebook, works only a few times in his lifetime. However, when it does kick in, it is mercilessly spot on. This was it.

That day, with the optimism of a child seeing a rainbow for the first time, I predicted good fortune, love, and above all, a miracle coming my way.

The miracle happened. I met her again a week from that day.

 

The theater was full of lovers reluctant to go home after the last show of the day had ended. They were running their hands all over each other in the hopes of happening upon a hotter, deeper place. The only ones watching the movie with any degree of concentration were a bunch of elderly men and me. I quickly rose and left the theater as soon as the movie ended.

The streets of Jongno were the same as any other day. In every alley, men in a drunken stupor mumbled wistfully up at the night sky. At the bus stops, people craned their necks in heedful watch for the bus, only occasionally looking away to check the time. Girls leaning against inns bounced their purses on their knees for no apparent reason.

On one of the Danseongsa posters, some rogue had made cigarette burns on the eyes and nipples of the buxom Hyeon Bang-nan. I giggled at the image as I searched my pockets for matches. I couldn’t find them. I was looking around to see if there was someone young in the vicinity to borrow a light from.

A full bob casting a gentle shadow below the earlobes, a white blouse hugging her breasts and waist, the hem of a navy skirt tickling her white, round kneecaps as it fluttered in the wind, creamy silk stockings wrapped tight around her full calves, and a black pair of heels with toes as sharp as pen nibs. She was standing adorably and helplessly in those heels like a child begging for candy. She must have said something to herself, for a white cloud of breath rushed out from her lips. But it was a warm spring night. I wonder what tricks my eyes were playing on me that I saw her breath. There was a garish advertisement for a Japanese Ford behind her, and it seemed like the lighting fixtures in the shape of golden eggs were set up there explicitly for her—to let her shine. Shrouded in light, she was an apparition. All lights were shining forth through her. The neon lights, streetlamps, headlights on the trolleys and cars, the cigarette on a man passing by, and even the starlight couldn’t get anywhere without passing through her. No, she was the destination for all the light in the world. Light had survived and traveled from everywhere and for millions of years for the sole purpose of meeting her. I, too, turned into light and traveled toward her. I must have been especially radiant, for she turned toward me.

 

We walked in the direction of Hwashin Department Store and went into the Pagoda Café, right behind Tower Music Hall. We sat across from each other and exchanged extremely business-like questions, as is customary. Between the lines, of course, we exchanged nervous glances to decipher each other’s intentions.

“I work at the Governor-General’s Office.”

Her eyes widened as she tucked her hand under her chin.

“What do you do there?”

“It’s a secret.”

I knew that all women were drawn to anything labeled a secret. She was no exception.

“I’m intrigued.”

She leaned in as though she were dying of curiosity.

“I work for the Greater Gyeongseong City Planning Committee in the Investigation Division of the Governor-General’s Office. After the Japanese failed in its first attempt at city planning—that was Najin—they organized our committee under special regulations in the hopes of taking a more systematic and educated approach to city planning. You could think of it as a later version of the Temporary Land Survey Bureau. The Japanese are no longer interested in the land itself. They want to know what’s happening on the land. Especially here in Gyeongseong. It goes without saying that I’m doing this because I’m interested in what’s happening in the city, too. My job is to conduct research on the everyday happenings of Gyeongseong, to calculate the numbers, and to underline things.”

She seemed a little disappointed. So I quickly sent the next batter to the mound.

“I once read in a magazine about a poet who said that everyone who works at the Governor-General’s Office is frankly involved in some form of treachery.”

I knew that women liked big, relatively uncirculated words like “treachery.” She tapped the table three times with the palm of her hand and beamed.

“How interesting! Stories of treachery are always fun.”

That was the first time I saw her face up close. There, under the light amber stand at the Pagoda Café. My impression of her then was not that she was pretty or ugly, but that she somehow looked a little different each time I saw her. Exactly how can one explain this subtlety? If I had to compare it to something, I would have likened it to the way you feel differently in different outfits. Seeing her for the first time at the gallery was like trying on a new winter coat for the first time, wrapped in the weighty embrace of a luxurious thrill. Looking at her unusually shiny hair, I felt lukewarm sweat trickling down my body. Seeing her in front of the theater was like spotting a black dinner jacket that would be perfect for me. Something I had to have, whatever the price. And looking at her under the dim light of the Pagoda Café, I felt I was wearing a pink silk shirt with a satin trim, the kind I’d have to submit a formal explanation for if I ever wore it to work. She could arouse all these sentiments with just her face, but the one sentiment running through them all was that every time I looked at her, I felt like stripping down to nothing.

Maegungno?1 I’m not doing anything to liberate Korea, but I’m not doing anything to stop it, either.”

She softly rubbed her eyes like a sleepy child. “Not many young men these days do what you’re doing. They’re all either aeguk or maeguk,2 but you—”

“Well, look who’s talking! Women these days are all preoccupied with passionate relationships and bloody revolutions, but you—you don’t care about that stuff, do you?”

She gave a shy shrug. “Well, I look like your average modern girl on the outside, but honestly I’m just an old-fashioned girl . . . who can hardly handle romance.”

Before we parted that night, I asked her out in the modern fashion. She accepted after much contemplation, the old-fashioned way. 

 

1. maegungno: “country seller,” or derogatory term for pro-Japanese collaborators.

2. aeguk: literarily “love country,” or patriot; maeguk: “sell country,” or traitor.

 

(Excerpt from pp. 17–27)

Translated by Jamie Chang

Author's Profile

Lee Jimin made her literary debut by winning the Munhakdongne New Writer Award in 2000 for her novel Modern Boy. The novel was adapted into a movie of the same name in 2008. Her notable works include the novels Despair is Taboo, Marilyn and I, and Youthful Extremes, and the short story collection He Asks Me to See Him Off.