"Sugar or Salt"
- onNovember 15, 2014
- Vol.24 Summer 2014
- bySeo Hajin
- The Good Family
Tr. Ally Hwang and Amy Smith 2015
We had been at the lakeside that day. It was in K’s neighborhood. K, her husband, and I were each holding a fishing pole, but the lake was just still. The sound of birds and of trees shifting in the breeze shook the forest and dissipated, and we gradually grew tired. K was the first to put down her fishing pole. Fumbling in the basket on the grass, she sighed, “Whew.” We had been planning on catching fish and making spicy Korean fish soup, and all the basket contained was a few pieces of kimchi.
“I’m about to starve to death. I’m going to run home quickly and grab something to eat.” As K’s figure disappeared over the road, I felt that our surroundings had been blanketed with tranquility. Putting down the fishing pole and turning around, he opened the thermos and asked, “Would you like some coffee?” At soon as he asked, he made a strange face.
That morning, I had put salt instead of sugar in his coffee. Salt and sugar were in identical bottles with the same cork lids. Looking at K’s round letters spelling out sugar, salt, I picked up the bottle labeled salt. K, making an omelet, was busy playing with a stray cat who had just walked up, so she didn’t see what I had done. I furtively tasted the coffee. It was salty and bitter, and it tasted unspeakably strange; nevertheless, I silently put the cup in front of him. After taking a sip of the coffee, a peculiar expression appeared on his face.
“The oil probably wasn’t hot enough. Isn’t that omelet a little greasy?” K asked.
“No, it’s fine. The soup is good, too. I thought you might be a terrible cook, but you’re actually quite good at it,” I said with a calm face. The soup, which she had made with frozen vegetables and chicken, tasted metallic. Sipping my soup, I didn’t take my eyes off his face. If he had said, “You must have put salt in the coffee. It tastes weird,” then I only needed to say, “Oh, dear. I guess I was confused because the bottles look the same.” Escaping my eyes, he picked up the newspaper on the table. With an indifferent face, he quietly and slowly sipped the coffee. Cutting up sausages and putting bacon in my mouth, I stared at him fiercely. Every time a sip of coffee traveled down under his Adam’s apple, I felt as though some part of me also was also being swallowed with a gulp.
“He likes Korean food, but he hardly eats the soup I make or things like that when I cook them. I guess it’s because it’s not like his older sister’s cooking.”
K made some more comments on the menu, but he only smiled faintly and kept quiet. Maybe he grew up in an environment with no regard for a sense of taste. I thought of his father, who had been an almond farm worker, the tan-faced old man had never taken a break, working from dawn till the middle of the night until he had set up his own dry-cleaning shop, and his wrinkled sister who was fine with being called his father’s wife. This taciturn man, who supposedly had never slipped below first in his class, who had received a scholarship to complete his studies, and was immediately recruited by Boeing upon graduation. I was afraid of this man who didn’t even blink an eye about coffee with salt. I feared that K was going to become thin and pale with him, that she was going to become just like him.
My back tensed at the sight of him. I knew he was looking at me and that he knew I had done it on purpose. Then something broke the surface of the boundless water. The floating cork was pulled deep down under the water and a heavy feeling reached the tips of my fingers.
Just as he said, “I think you got a bite,” the reel started unraveling at a good speed.
“Loosen it up a little first,” he called out, coming over to me. A carp or a bass or whichever type of fish had taken the bait was running away, further out into the water, with all its strength. On the surface of the water, it created a long stream of waves.
“Now, wind the reel back in slowly,” he said. While reeling it in once or twice, I saw a dark object suddenly jump up on one side. I screamed unwittingly. It was my first time fishing, and I hadn’t known what to expect. The fish nosedived again and the reel took the brunt of it, loosening and making a whistling sound.
Although he shouted, “Slowly, slowly,” the reel wouldn’t budge an inch.
“Is it stuck somewhere?”
Approaching me from behind, he stretched out his arms to hold the fishing pole.
“They drag it into the rocks.” He lifted his arm up high to lift the pole. “It’s heavy, isn’t it? It’s a big one.” He seemed excited. Even his breath became wild. As he came close to me I noticed that his eyebrow was drawn up sharply. The fishing pole suddenly cracked and he, who had been keeping me from falling over onto my back, fell down… All these things happened at once, as if they were predetermined. I tore open his shirt and unbuckled his belt. I plunged my hands in deep.
An unknown ruthlessness possessed me. A cold wind blew in the forest. The sky I looked up at was endlessly blue and gorgeous as I held his slender back. A deer, passing by under a tree, looked at us. Looking down the path where K had disappeared, I waited, hoping both that she showed up and that she didn’t. His wild movements, which seemed angry, stopped, and he looked down at me with helpless eyes. He stretched his hands out over my head and took off a fallen leaf sticking to my hair. It was a blood red maple leaf.
“Do you want to come down with me to the lakeside for a while? I want a smoke.”
I walked along the street, following K. Without the neon bar lights, the street was dark. It was hard to get the lighter to catch because of the strong wind. I stood close to K and opened my coat. Inside my coat, K, lowering her head, lit the cigarette carefully.
“One for me, too,” I said.
K was delighted. “Since when? You used to be repulsed by a woman who smoked.”
When had that changed? I couldn’t remember. I had left the country the day after that afternoon by the lake. K’s husband, who stayed with K for several more years after that, left her in the end.
“Marlboro Lights, I like this cigarette.”
It tasted strong and intense. It was the kind K’s husband used to smoke as well.
“I secretly smoke in the backyard away from my kid. I wear a shower cap on my head and gloves in my hands. Isn’t that pathetic?”
I suddenly missed that boy who was the self-appointed man of the house. Although the rain had stopped, the night air was still humid and damp.
“He… got remarried soon after. I heard that he might even have a child.”
I stared at K’s trembling hand, though her voice was steady and indifferent.
“I still don’t understand why he did that.”
I listened silently to her words…that he seemed like a different person. I heard how he never held fishing pole, his only luxury, anymore. I heard that they still talked to one another, sometimes, because of their child. K’s tone was low, sad, and monotone. It seemed like he wasn’t really an ex-husband at all. It felt like she may not actually have a boyfriend. K would never really know what had happened and why it happened to her.
“I don’t mean that I regret it. Where would I have gotten such a good son if not from him? And if I hadn’t come to this country, would I ever have become interested in the homeless and people like that?” K asked, throwing the cigarette butt far away. The spark bounced and disappeared. K’s husband, his back looking small, thin, and pitiful, flashed across my mind and disappeared.
“Did you say your flight is tomorrow morning? When are we going to see each other again?”
“I’ll probably come back soon,” I said. It was impossible for me to know if I would contact K again, if I would meet with the man who used to call me H again, if I would shut up the memory of K and the man in the attic of my mind. I threw away the cigarette butt, following K. The cold wind blew in from the ocean. K frowned, standing to face the wind. Her distorted face suddenly looked like an old woman’s. A wind blew inside me as well. Agony, sadness, pleasure, and something unknown were sucked into the whirlwind.
“By the way, when did you change your name? The front desk didn’t recognize it.” K asked, turning around and walking.
“A long time ago,” I said.
Seo Hajin is an assistant professor at Kyung Hee University’s Department of Korean Language and Literature. She has published two novels and six short story collections. The English edition of A Good Family came out from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. She has received the Hahn Moo-Sook Literary Prize, Baek Shin-ae Literary Award, and Kim Jun Sung Literary Award.