[Excerpt] The Best Life
- onJune 11, 2020
- Vol.48 Summer 2020
- byLim Solah
- The Best Life
Tr. Stella Kim 2015
The ajeossis sometimes took us to unmanned love hotels, or motels as they were called, telling us they’d find us a place to sleep. We would then all sit in a circle and drink. Everything was different from the time we’d gone to one with friends. These men our father’s age drank hoping we’d get drunk; we drank hoping to cut the night short. The ajeossis and the three of us were like the black and white pieces on a chess board. We picked up our glasses as if making a careful move. We applied strategies to defeat one another. Some ajeossis tried a conciliatory approach, promising to take us to the department store or enroll us at a beauty school. Others outright tried touching us, asking to see how big our hands were against theirs or telling us that the shape of our earlobes suggested good fortune. Then there were ajeossis who put a wad of cash in the middle of the room and suggested that we play a game. One man who’d put down the cash said he’d give us a bill every time we won. If we lost, one of the three of us had to take off a piece of clothing, he said. Sometimes, telling them that they reminded us of our fathers worked to fend them off. At other times, an explicit display of contempt did the trick. And during the stripping games, the fact that I wore layer after layer of clothes after the shopping bag I’d been carrying my clothes in had ripped worked beautifully.
The ajeossis weren’t people to us. They were just men. But there was one ajeossi who appeared to be a person for a short while. The bakery clerk was putting away the few pastries that were left in the display case. The owner of the clothes shop had turned off the store lights and was balancing the accounts at the counter in the dark. All the stores that were open during the day were closing up, while the unlit pubs and drinking joints were getting ready to turn on their signs. We sat hunkered down on the steps of a store that had closed early. We hugged our knees and tried guessing the color of lights that would soon light up the streets. One ajeossi was pulling down the shutter of a store across the street. It was a photo sticker shop. A cart passed along the street between him and us. Two women who had been selling jewelry on the street were pulling the cart that was now covered with a sheet. The shutter was down, and the ajeossi secured it to the ground with a lock. After pocketing the key, he was picking up his small bag when he turned around and spotted us. He flinched in surprise. Then he hugged his bag to his chest. Hesitating a moment, he walked on by, trying to avoid our eyes just like all the other people.
“The fuck is he startled for?”
We each spat on the ground. And we rubbed our spit into the ground with our feet and watched it stick to the bottom of our shoes and stretch long. When we looked up, there was a 10,000-won bill in front of our eyes. It was trembling.
“Buy yourselves something to eat.”
The photo sticker shop ajeossi was standing in front of us. Beads of sweat coated his eyelids. He smiled. That was the first time I saw someone draw a long line with the corners of their mouths into a smile.
He told us about ways to take unique and funny-looking photos for the photo stickers. Every time we said, “Click,” pretending to press the camera shutter button, he struck a weird pose. Sweat kept pouring down his forehead, past his eyebrows, onto his eyelids, and into his eyes. But instead of wiping it away, he kept on blinking and posing. He was sweating like a pig to make us laugh. He told us about his plan to go to the beach and sell shaved ice for a month. He took out his smartphone and showed us a picture of the ice shaver machine he’d already bought.
“I’ll provide all the supplies, and you can sell shaved ice. People will buy more if pretty girls sell them, don’t you think? And you won’t even have to work all day. Just five hours when it’s the hottest. The three of you can sell about twenty bowls. We can sit under the parasol, watch the ocean, eat shaved ice. You can go do whatever you want after work. I’ll even get you girls a place to stay. You don’t have to live on the streets like this. Come work with me.”
I pictured the ocean dotted with colorful floats. And the multicolored gummies that go on shaved ice and the sparkling sugar crystal coating on those gummies. Then I thought of the money that the customers would hand to me. And the fireworks that we would light up on the night beach. I felt like we’d run into a great business partner. I told him my real name and age. I didn’t really think that either of it meant anything, but I didn’t want to lie to him. I wanted to go with him. I wanted to listen to the stories of the person who would sweat buckets to try and make me laugh every day. He thanked me for telling him my real name. He took out a notebook from his bag and wrote down my name and age.
“You name is like a gift. So I’m going to keep it safe.”
He placed the notebook in his breast pocket and patted it.
“I lived like that, in the past.”
I tilted my head sideways in curiosity. But his face cracked in a smile without a word.
The business partner ajeossi said he’d just sleep for a few hours in the corner of the room. We climbed up onto the double bed and tried to sleep. But I couldn’t really fall asleep. Every time I opened my eyes, all my senses were focused on the ajeossi lying in the corner. He was balled up like a cocoon stuck to the underside of a leaf. I heard the second hand ticking away. And the sound of the cars driving by. Headlights swept across the room. When the room lit up for a second, I noticed the ajeossi lying stretched on his stomach like a lizard, looking at us. Slowly, like the ticking second hand, he crawled toward us over a long period of time. He even stopped moving for a while and faked snoring. I felt sorry for him as he tried his best to pretend to be asleep. He finally got close to our bed when it started to get light outside. I got a sniff of his stench and wondered how much he sweated overnight. I imagined the trail of sweat he must have left on the linoleum. He reached his hand up to the bed. So-yeong, who had been sleeping on the edge of the bed, sat up.
“There was a bug on my stomach.”
She stroked her stomach and looked down at the ajeossi, lying on the floor below with his eyes closed tight. She moved to the other side of the bed and took the farthest spot away from him. Pushed to the side closest to him, I cracked my eyes open and watched him. When he reached his hand into the bed, pretending to be asleep, I brushed it away like I was doing it in my sleep.
“Let’s get outta here.”
I shook A-ram awake. We came up with a lie about having to go get some sanitary pads and ran away from the motel. On our way out, we stole his bag. He chased us. The three of us spread out in different directions, but he followed me. He caught up to me and jerked me by the hair.
“You fucking bitch.”
With my hair caught in his grip, I showed him my hands. I didn’t have the bag. He put his hands in my pockets. They were empty. He started crying. His jaw was trembling. He was spewing curses with a pleading look on his face.
“Please don’t kill me,” I started crying as well. He let go of my hair. The ajeossi and I stood face to face, crying. I started backing away. His head sank to his chest. I saw his tears hit the concrete. He turned around. That was the last I saw of the ajeossi, who had been human for a little while. Both he and I felt sorry for each other, but we couldn’t help each other. The ajeossi was still an ajeossi, and a runaway teen was still a runaway teen.
Every time an ajeossi pulled me by the hair, I pleaded with them to not kill me. Sometimes, they slapped me on the streets. I noticed how weak I was every time a big strong hand met with my cheek, sending my head to one side with nearly enough force to snap my neck. I remembered something from when I was ten. I’d walked all the way to a neighborhood I didn’t recognize. I was holding a stiff dead chick in my hands. I went all the way up to the rooftop of a tall apartment building. Chanting a spell I’d learned from a comic book, I tossed the dead chick into the sky. But instead of flying away, it plummeted to the ground. It flattened onto the flowerbed without even making a sound. Holding tight onto the railing, I looked down at it for a little while. Then I took everything out of my backpack and started throwing them down the building one by one. I hurled my marbles and textbooks into the air, and I opened my pencil case and chucked away the colored pencils and a mechanical pencil. I even took out the mechanical pencil leads from its case and tossed them down the building as well. Then I walked all the way down and out of the building. The things I’d thrown down were scattered about on the flowerbed, broken, crumpled, or bent out of shape. I stood there until everything inside my head turned white. When the contour lines of all the objects disappeared into the whiteness, I saw a black line that stood out, like a ringing in my ears, except this was in my eyes. I picked it up. It snapped in half. That was the first time I realized that only the mechanical pencil leads flew lightly into the air and landed without breaking.
A runaway teen was weak like a mechanical pencil lead. Because she could easily break, she didn’t. Once, twice, I counted the number of times the ground zoomed by in a blur every time an ajeossi held up his hand and my head snapped to the side. Around the time the ground started spinning below me, someone always came to rescue us. And those who rescued us from the ajeossi who hit us were some other ajeossi on the streets.
In the morning, we headed up to the top of the apartment building where we kept our belongings. We were always sleepy. We never slept deeply. The sensor lights came on. They weren’t noticeable because it was already light outside. Yawning, A-ram said, “None of the men we met were really bad. They were just all pathetic . . .”
“Pathetic men are all would-be offenders,” So-yeong cut her short. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re good or bad.”
“To fifteen-year-olds?” I asked.
We crouched down and huddled together to get some sleep. Even as we were sleeping, the sensor lights kept turning on and off.
There were times when oppas—young men and boys older than us—told us they’d buy us a drink. After the night passed and right before the sun came up, the white collars, women, and the pimps were almost gone, and only some ajeossis and oppas wandered the streets, their eyes roving the surroundings. We realized that they’d failed to pick up girls all night. The loser boys talked to us. They were a pair, kind of like a comic duo of a fatso and a bean pole. We went from one twenty-four-hour drinking joint to another. Every time we headed to a different place to drink, A-ram fell for one of the oppas, while one of the oppas came to like So-yeong. Fixing her makeup in the bathroom, So-yeong said, “As if.”
One night, A-ram disappeared. We were pub-hopping, and when I looked behind me, she was gone. And so was the oppa who was walking with her. So-yeong and I went around looking for her until office workers with company ID cards around their necks poured out of buildings for lunch. We went to the pubs we’d been to during the night and checked the areas packed with seedy love hotels. But A-ram was nowhere to be found. Around the time children in school uniforms were heading home, we gave up. We returned to the top floor of the apartment building. There, we found A-ram sleeping on her side on the landing between the steps. We shook her awake. A-ram sat up, wiping the saliva that seeped from the corner of her mouth.
“You’re back,” she said.
The neck of her t-shirt had been stretched out, and the sleeves were frayed. One of her eyes was so swollen that it was closed shut. Her lower lip was torn. A-ram touched the neck of her t-shirt and spoke as though she were sleep talking.
“He hit me until I took my clothes off.”
Then she lay back on the step and fell asleep again, smacking her lips. So-yeong and I stood before her for a long while.
When night came, A-ram took off her old t-shirt and put on a new one. She said she’d promised to meet the oppa again. She put pink eyeshadow on the lid of her swollen eye. Every time the sensor light turned off, she waved the light on.
“You said he forced himself on you.”
“Right,” A-ram nodded, her eyes still glued to the mirror.
“So why are you seeing him again?”
She put down her mirror and stared at me. She touched her lower lips with her fingers. The sensor light went off. She waved her hand again.
“Because I like him. He likes me too.”
I gave a snort of disbelief. A-ram snorted back at me.
“You little thing. People fight when they’re in love.”
Every day for the next several days, A-ram went to meet him. Then he stopped coming to meet her at the appointed time. A-ram clutched the phone in the phone booth, leaving tearful voice messages, but the next day she met another oppa. She started hanging out with any oppa. She disappeared with them. She was raped by them. On the floor of a public bathroom, on the bench in a karaoke room, on the staircase of a building full of stores, next to a tree in a park. All the oppas who raped her told her that they loved her, and when they said that, A-ram came to love them. Over time, A-ram started spending time with ajeossis as well. They also raped her, and she came to love them too.
“You like ajeossis?”
A-ram was putting on makeup to cover up the bruise on her cheek.
“Boys grow older and become men. If you talk to them, they’re the same.”
“But they beat you.” I snatched away the mirror A-ram was using.
“They need me.”
Gripping the mirror, I closed my eyes. A-ram took my hand. Then she patted me on the back. I relaxed my grasp. A-ram took the mirror from my hand and went back to painting her face again.
Lim Solah is a poet-cum-novelist. She has published the poetry collection Strange Weather and Good People, the short story collection Snow, Person, and Snowperson, and the novel The Best Life. She has received the JoongAng New Writer’s Award for Poetry, Munhakdongne College Fiction Prize, and Sin Dong-yup Prize for Literature. She received the Arts Council Korea’s Young Art Frontier Grant in 2014.