- onMarch 22, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byLee Jimin
- Modern Boy (Modeon boi)
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.”