- onSeptember 25, 2020
- Vol.49 Autumn 2020
- bySon Bo Mi
- Bringing Them the Lindy Hop
Tr. Janet Hong 2015
Her husband worked as a salesperson at an electronics store when one day, while wandering through the empty aisles, he suddenly fell. Because he was always clowning around and rather enjoyed the spotlight, his co-workers assumed he was pulling one of his pranks again. For this reason, there was a brief delay in getting him to the hospital for proper treatment—though the delay couldn’t have been more than a minute or two—a detail she found so upsetting that she burst into tears.
Fortunately, he was diagnosed with nothing more than a minor concussion, and the doctor said he should be fine after a few additional tests and a week’s rest at the hospital. Her husband looked unusually relaxed during his stay. In fact, he went so far as to say he’d never felt better. She was a receptionist at a small trading company, and each day after work she headed straight to the hospital to make sure he had all that he needed.
Several days later, her husband wished to be discharged, and on the evening of the fifth day, she brought him home. As she watched him leave for work the next morning, cheerfully cracking jokes as he’d always done, she sensed certain emotions come alive again. After leaving work early that day to prepare a special dinner, she looked back on their married life and sank into regret. Even so, she couldn’t help feeling a glimmer of hope that things would be different from now on. They had some money saved up. Maybe her husband could enroll at a community college. With a college degree, he would be able to find a better job than what he had now. Maybe they could have a child. She wanted a boy . . .
All evening she was in high spirits, but from time to time, a sense of foreboding would hit her without warning. Still, she thought nothing of it. That’s why she didn’t see (or chose not to see) the many signs—he knocked over the decorative scented candle several times at least, he neglected to use his chopsticks, he dropped his spoon, and his cup slipped from his hand more than twice—each detail an essential element to the construction of our story.
From that day on, she felt simultaneously happy and anxious, and couldn’t shake the sensation that she was floating in space. It wasn’t until four days later in the morning, when her husband said tearfully, “Honey, I can’t see anything,” that she finally returned to solid ground.
When they went back to the hospital, one doctor started by saying, “No abnormalities could be detected in the eyes,” and delivered the rest of the diagnosis in cold, precise language, while another doctor opted for a more figurative expression: “If we just flick on the correct switch, I’m sure his sight will return.” Both statements filled the couple with hope, and it was this hope that spurred them on to undergo three surgeries in the next two years. In order to come up with the money for the final surgery, they had no choice but to move to a smaller, shabbier apartment, as well as take on debt.
The day her husband received his third—and final—surgery, she sat tensely in the waiting room, looking as if she were expecting an important guest. She wiped her nose repeatedly with the sleeve of her worn sweater and began to leaf through the magazines strewn about the room, as if the very act of reading would somehow hide her pilling sweater. But unfortunately, almost nothing she read interested her, and in one magazine, not even a single word was able to hold her attention. Her mental state may have been to blame, or possibly the fact that the selection of magazines in the waiting room—they were about golf or tennis, or had to do with classical music, ballet, or lifestyle—was too sophisticated for her crude taste, but such judgments would be unfair. The truth was, the magazines were old. The director of the hospital believed buying magazines was a waste of money, and so had cancelled all his subscriptions years earlier. The only one there that she found somewhat interesting was a blues music magazine called Blue Shoe. (First published in the US in the 1990s, Blue Shoe ran for a total of eight issues in Korea from 1994 to 1995 until it was cancelled due to insufficient revenue. What she read was the Summer 1995 issue.) She had no idea that blues was a genre of music, and had believed it to be nothing more than a seductive, sultry dance, but for years to come, she would remember the song lyrics she read in the magazine that day.
Please don’t leave me here. Won’t you help me fight gravity and rise up? I’m not that kind of woman.
Soon after, a resident let her know the surgery was finished and asked her to come with him to receive a full report from the surgeon. She shoved the magazine she’d been reading into her bag, and slowly followed the resident down the narrow corridor.
They made their way through the heavy rain and arrived at Gourmet Restaurant. They hadn’t cancelled their reservation; they had run a little late, that’s all. The couple liked to dine there on the last Tuesday of every month.
“It’s really pouring out there!” said Mister Jang, the restaurant owner, as he passed them each a towel. “I heard a typhoon’s headed this way.”
Soon after, he brought over a bowl of olives and a bottle of wine. The couple was in the middle of discussing the same topic yet again—whether they should bring their son home from junior boarding school—but they stopped talking as soon as Mister Jang approached their table. Mister Jang was in his late forties and a bachelor, or so they presumed. His regulars had been the ones who’d given him the nickname “Mister Jang.”
“I take it that your child lives far away?” he said in a friendly but polite manner as he poured the wine.
“We’ve never mentioned it before?” said the wife. “Our son is at a private boarding school—one of the best middle schools in the country. They only accept students with the top scores. He’s in his second year.”
“You must miss him.”
“Oh, yes. Very much. He’ll be coming home this summer break.”
Everyone thought they made a very nice couple. The man was in his early forties, and though he had a tired appearance and didn’t look exactly young for his age, he had a trustworthy face with clean-cut features. His wife was five years younger, and while she wasn’t a typical beauty, her face called to mind a bookcase made of a rich dark-colored wood and filled with books, brass hinges polished to a high shine, and perhaps a small, but elegant tea table. Mister Jang’s intuition and years of experience told him at once the meaning behind her words “this summer break,” but he was shrewd enough to refrain from probing any further.
Long after the restaurant closed for the night, the couple was still engrossed in conversation. This sort of thing happened often. The man gestured angrily once in a while, and the woman wrung her napkin with both hands. After sending the staff home, Mister Jang went to the couple’s table to refill their water glasses. Only then did they realize there were no other customers in the restaurant.
“We didn’t realize it was so late! Sorry about that. We’ll be off soon.”
“No, that’s quite all right. Can I get you anything else?” Mister Jang smiled as he waited for them to respond.
“We’re the only ones here,” the man said. “Why don’t you have a drink with us?”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on the drink,” Mister Jang said at last. “But since business hours are over, I’ll join you for a bit, if you don’t mind.”
He took a seat at their table.
“I was up last night, watching a show by myself,” the woman said. “You see, he was out late drinking with his fellow professors.” Then lowering her voice, as if spilling an important secret, she added, “He recently received tenure.”
The man let out an embarrassed laugh.
“A famous actress was on the show—now what was her name? She starred in that movie recently . . . you know, the one where a thief breaks into the post office to steal the mail. Honey, do you remember it?”
Her husband shrugged.
“Anyhow, she’s divorced and has a son who has trouble focusing. He has ADHD. And he’s only eight years old.”
“So many kids have the same issue these days,” the man said.
“Does it worry you to hear stories like that?” Mister Jang asked.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, don’t you wonder what you’d do if that were your child?”
“Hmm, not really. Our son has never caused us any trouble. He does well in school. You could say he’s a model son, actually,” the man said, looking toward his wife.
However, the wife ignored his words and turned toward Mister Jang, saying in tongue-in-cheek fashion, “Shouldn’t you marry first before you start worrying about those things?”
“I guess I’m just a worrier,” Mister Jang said.
The woman laughed. “Oh, you’ll be fine. You’re a clever man. If you get married and have a baby, I’m sure your baby will be clever, too.”
“And how do you know if I’m clever or not?” he asked a little sarcastically.
“I can tell just by looking at someone. I learned a bit of physiognomy back when I was in college. Believe it or not, the reason I married this man was because he had a good face.”
The man laughed. Mister Jang laughed along.
“Well, the actress talked about how her son grew extremely close to the old woman who lived alone next door. He’d go play there almost every day, even when the actress was home, and wouldn’t come back for hours. The actress obviously didn’t have time to get to know the neighbor—I mean, you can imagine how busy she gets. They barely talked, but just from what she saw or heard, it seems she didn’t have a good impression of the old woman. She probably thought it was strange that her boy was spending all his time next door. So do you know what she did? She asked the old woman to stop seeing her son. Now don’t you think that was going a bit too far?”
Mister Jang nodded. But her husband asked, “You mean the actress said all that on the show?”
“That’s right,” she said flippantly, as if the question annoyed her.
Soon after, the couple stood up to pay the bill. The rain had stopped at some point and the late summer breeze that smelled of rain drifted in through the open door. Mister Jang thought the couple’s faces looked drawn and angry and somewhat sad. For a long time, he stood watching after them as they walked toward their car.
After her husband lost his sight, she played the role of the good wife without a single complaint. When she returned from work, she put dinner on the cramped table, and when dinner was finished, she painstakingly calculated their expenses. She wanted to pay off their debt quickly, but it was impossible with what little she made, even with all of her husband’s severance pay. While she wrestled with the calculator, he read a Braille book or listened to the radio. He enjoyed one program in particular where multiple guests came on to read funny anecdotes sent in by listeners. He asked her to add Braille stickers to the computer keyboard, and while she was at work, he typed up his own funny stories. When she returned from work, he asked her to print them out and mail them to the radio station. She never read his stories—not even one—and though she sent about half to the station, she lost the other half. In any case, not once did any of her husband’s stories make it on air. One day, tired of listening to the same station all the time, he started fiddling with the dial when he happened to catch the words of a public relations representative from their district.
“We wish to cultivate an appreciation for arts and culture among our residents, so as part of this plan, we will be offering unparalleled classes at affordable tuition fees.”
The district rolled out its most ambitious programming yet, holding courses with titles like “The History of the Library,” “Italian Cuisine,” and “Flaubert and Dickens” taught by experts on the subjects, who received generous remuneration for their services. The district’s efforts became publicized in local news as “Humanities for Citizens” or “A High-Quality Cultural Tour for Residents,” and received widespread praise.
He told his wife about these classes, and suggested that she attend one once a week. In the end, the class she chose was “American Popular Music.” It was a subject she was somewhat knowledgeable about, since she had a good impression of the United States and enjoyed listening to the radio, especially after her husband lost his sight.
Every Wednesday evening, she put on the only coat she owned and pushed her way through the chilly wind to the district office building, located two bus stops from her home. She loved the evening walk to her class, the smell of the lecture hall, her perfectly square desk, and the professor who always came dressed in an expensive cashmere coat. He had attended college and graduate school in America, and fittingly, he possessed extensive knowledge of not only American popular music, but also American film, fiction, poetry, and drama. She took copious notes, cramming her notebook with text, and when she returned home, she told her husband all that she had learned. With his eyes closed, he sat in his chair and listened. She always wondered why he felt the need to close his eyes when he couldn’t see a thing, but she never asked.
About three months into the class, the district chief suddenly summoned the department heads and over a long meeting, made the decision to cancel all classes. One Wednesday evening, the professor of “American Popular Music” informed his students that his class would no longer be running and that “Everyday Yoga” would take its place the following week at the same time. He was kind enough to add that those who were interested should take the course, but if not, they should request a refund. There wasn’t a hint of disappointment or regret on his face. In fact, he looked relieved, as if a weight had come off his shoulders.
After class, the woman sat alone in the empty classroom. She felt as if she’d been abandoned, even humiliated. About twenty minutes later, she put on her coat and walked slowly out of the building. She always walked through the parking lot and back gate since she got home much faster this way, but when she stepped out of the building that day, the professor of “American Popular Music” was standing in the middle of the parking lot. Dressed in his camel cashmere coat, he was talking on the phone, shaking his clenched fist in the air, as if the person on the other end of the line were standing in front of him. He was so agitated he dropped the car keys he’d been holding, and though he picked them up right away, he would shake his fist, drop his keys, and be forced to stop every few steps. She watched him repeat this comical routine several times. She waited until he finished his phone call to approach him.
“Hello,” she said.
It took him a while to place her.
“I’m in your ‘American Popular Music’ class. I have to say, I respect you so much, Professor.”
She was anxious that he might not recognize her, so when he said at last, “Ah, of course, hello there,” she felt enormously relieved.
Inside the car on their way home, they argued again about their son. As soon as they pulled into the parking lot of their apartment building, his wife slammed the driver’s side door shut and went up to their suite. He stayed in the car, staring blankly at the silhouettes created by the row of shrubs by the entrance, at the puddles gleaming in the streetlight, and at the end of the wet sidewalk, until his gaze fell on the fire lane.
A few years ago, there had been a fire in their apartment. When he’d rushed home after receiving the news, he’d found several fire trucks in the fire lane preparing to leave. “Are you the father?” someone asked. His son, then twelve years old, stood clasping the hand of their elderly next-door neighbor, looking unhurt. At the time, the old woman had been living alone; her husband had passed away from a heart attack several years earlier and all her children had married and moved out. Whenever the couple needed last-minute child care, they left their child with this neighbor, but on the day of the fire, his wife should have been home.
“Thank God it wasn’t a big fire,” said the old woman, as if she were making an excuse.
His son’s room was the most damaged by the fire. To be exact, apart from his room, the rest of the apartment was fine. “The fire started in your son’s room,” the firefighter had said. The boy’s photo albums, clothes, journals, awards, and report cards all disappeared.
“He kept saying he wanted to go home, said he wasn’t a little kid anymore, so I just gave him some dinner and sent him home, but who knew something like this would happen?” the old woman said.
“Where did your mom go?” he asked his son, but the boy merely shook his head from side to side, staring at the ground with his lips pressed tightly together.
Twelve years old. For the first time, the man realized the boy was growing up. He couldn’t bring himself to embrace the boy or hold his hand. The old woman said with a smile, “He’s very mature for his age.” The year before, she had passed away from lung cancer. After she’d received the diagnosis, she hadn’t lasted a month. Now her youngest son and his wife lived in her apartment, but the two families barely talked.
After the incident, he and his wife—no, their entire family—spoke not a word about the fire. He tried, however, to spend more time with his family. A few months later, the boy said he wished to transfer to a prestigious junior boarding school just outside the city. The tuition was high and only top students were accepted into the school. Because his family had lived in the US until he was seven years old, the boy’s English was better than his peers’. The couple fully supported their son’s desire to transfer schools. If he were admitted, he could go on to the senior high school endowed by the same foundation, and if that were to happen, he was pretty much guaranteed a spot at one of the elite universities in the country. Their son passed the middle school entrance exam, and the couple became the envy of everyone they knew. But when did it all start to go wrong? His wife started believing it had been a mistake to send their child away, insisting at every chance that they bring him home and transfer him to a middle school nearby. Then he would calm her down by saying that keeping their son at the boarding school was the best thing they could do for “his future,” and somehow manage to persuade her. But at times, they would argue fiercely. Each time they fought, she would get up and leave, slamming the door behind her. If they fought in the living room, she would disappear into the bedroom and slam the door shut, and if they fought in one room, she’d go into another room and slam the door shut, and if they happened to be fighting inside the car, she’d slam the car door shut and go up to their apartment. He believed that her closing the door this way meant she saw the situation in an entirely different light. In other words, she wasn’t merely expressing her anger; there was a deeper significance to her action. Even so, in the end he always opened the door, making it so that they—that is, he and his wife—stayed trapped inside together.
He went up to their apartment and found his wife sitting vacantly at her vanity table in the bedroom, still dressed in her outside clothes. When he saw her, a scene from a certain American book came to mind. It was about a man, who, at the end of failure, has the realization that his greatest treasure in life is his wife. A strange emotion came over him, but it didn’t take long for him to grasp that what he was feeling was desire.
“He was here. He left his laundry behind.”
At some point, their son, if he needed to drop by the apartment, would come home only when he knew his parents would be out. They didn’t know how to interpret his actions. The couple remained silent for some time and then his wife started to dial a number.
“Who are you calling?” he asked, but he knew exactly who.
There had been several incidents like this. Six months ago, she had barged into his office at the university and insisted that they go get the boy. She said she had already let his school know. It was always like this. But not once did they actually succeed in bringing their child home. He gazed at her back, as she held the phone up to her ear.
“No, don’t. The more we act like this, the more he’ll end up hating us.”
But she ignored him, and put down the receiver soon after, saying, “It’s strange. He’s not picking up. We should leave right now.” She then added, “You’re coming, aren’t you?”
All they did that day was stand beside the parking lot steps and have some coffee from the machine. She showed him her lecture notes and he nodded appreciatively several times. All at once, she recited the lyrics she had read in the magazine on the day her husband had received his final surgery. “Please don’t leave me here. Won’t you help me fight gravity and rise up? I’m not that kind of woman.” She talked about Blue Shoe, and asked if he recognized the song. The professor gazed into the bottom of his paper cup and asked if the article had mentioned the song title. She couldn’t remember.
“Sorry, I don’t have a good memory. But there wasn’t any other explanation about the singer or the song. It mentioned only the title and a part of the lyrics. But I forget what the song was called.”
She felt her face grow warm, and for that reason, she grew upset. The professor said the words didn’t ring a bell at the moment, but that the title might come to him sometime later. He asked if she still had the copy of Blue Shoe, and she nodded, saying she could even give it to him if he liked. And then once more, she said earnestly, “Your class was incredibly valuable. I’ve learned so much.”
When it was time to go, she tore out the last page of her notebook and wrote down her phone number. “If you happen to find out about the song, would you mind giving me a call?”
That night, she read her class notes to her husband, and told him how she’d had coffee from the dispenser with the professor.
“He’s such a smart man. Truly. More than we can possibly imagine.”
However, she didn’t mention that the class was cancelled. When the following Wednesday came and her husband asked why she wasn’t leaving for class, she said she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest. They ate supper and listened to the radio together. She then helped him type up a funny story he wanted to send to the radio station. The following Wednesday came, and she remained at home once more, and again the following Wednesday, and again the Wednesday after that. Still she didn’t reveal that the class had been cancelled, and her husband no longer probed her.
One evening during dinner, she asked him, “Do you remember how I look?” He tried to recall her face. Once in a while, she would gaze at her reflection in the mirror. Though she was only thirty-three years old, her hair was already going white in places, her cheeks sagged, and her skin was rough. She sometimes even woke in the middle of the night. She would look around at their cramped, dingy room, the kitchen sink that reeked of food, the bathroom where cockroaches scurried about, and finally at her husband’s sleeping face. Her husband, who didn’t do much except stay at home, had gained a lot of weight, particularly in his belly and back. She often thought about herself on the day of his final surgery, how she’d sat in the waiting room, and though she didn’t know the reason why, she felt a slight pain in her chest.
Toward the end of winter, she received a call that her husband had been in a car accident and was in the hospital. He sometimes went out by himself with a cane. When she arrived at the emergency room, he lay in the hospital bed with his left leg in a cast and his eyes closed like a corpse. She felt her pulse begin to quicken. Her husband’s injuries were minor, and he fully recovered two weeks later. But for a long time after that, she vividly recalled the way her heart had pitched in her chest.
After the accident, he stopped venturing out alone, and always stayed indoors typing, but he no longer asked her to send his stories to the radio station. Whenever she heard the sound of typing, she sensed something inside her shatter, and she couldn’t help but feel as if she were being punished.
On the last Wednesday of March, she received a call. As soon as she heard his voice, she knew who it was. It was the professor of “American Popular Music.” He said he’d been away on a trip, and he’d called because he’d suddenly thought of her. “I know this might be crossing the line, but I was wondering if I could see that issue of Blue Shoe?”
She turned her place upside down, but wasn’t able to find the magazine. Still, she went to see him. They met at a shabby coffee shop near the district building. She told him she would bring the magazine next time. And so, she began to go out every Wednesday evening once more. She told her husband she’d decided to attend the class again. In a way, what she told him was the absolute truth. The next time she and the professor met, they had coffee at a café far from the district office. He told her about music, film, fiction, poetry, and drama, and she diligently took notes. She even told him about her husband. When she told him that her husband was blind, the professor told her about famous blind musicians. That night, she read out her notes to her husband as she had always done, asking him at the very end, “Can you understand everything I’m saying?”
The rain started again, heavier this time. The sound of the rain hitting the car was deafening. The wipers moved incessantly, but the scene outside the windshield kept blurring. Because of the late hour and all the rain, the perimeter highway was deserted, which filled him suddenly with fear. His wife had been driving with her mouth tightly shut the entire time. He felt that what she was doing was madness, but he didn’t dare say anything. All he knew was that they needed to go home.
“He’s not going to come with us,” he said.
“How can you be so sure?” she said.
“Did you forget what happened last time? How he called us and told us to stop humiliating him?”
“We have to bring him home, even if we have to drag him all the way back.”
“Let’s turn around. It’s raining too hard. We might get into an accident. It won’t be too late if we go in the morning.”
“No, we have to get him tonight.”
He gazed at her profile. She looked extremely angry, but she also looked unbearably sad. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps he’d been wrong about the desire he’d felt for her earlier, and that what he’d actually felt was the urge to hit her. He realized a certain emotion was trying to push its way through and drag him to some far-off place.
“He’s not coming back. We need to give it time.”
She pulled over to the side of the highway at once. “Give it time? What do you mean?” she said, her voice shaking.
He didn’t know what he’d meant either. “Turn on the hazard lights,” he said finally, and closed his mouth.
If they wanted to talk about their child, they needed to go back to the night of the fire. He needed to ask her where she had gone that night, why she hadn’t been home with the boy. But he didn’t ask. If she had been home, there wouldn’t have been a fire, and in that case, their son would have never left them, but even if there had been a fire, their son wouldn’t have had to fend for himself. These words threatened to spill from his throat. But he wouldn’t ever bring up any of this with her. He had no desire to blame his wife. The rain was coming down harder. Lightening tore across the sky, followed by a distant crash of thunder. All of a sudden, the thought that their child may have been the one who’d started the fire flashed across his mind, but it was an awful thought, a thought he needed to immediately discard. She had her face buried in the steering wheel. He reached over to turn on the hazard lights, but she stopped him without lifting her face from the steering wheel.
“This is dangerous. The rain’s coming down hard. Please, let’s head back.”
“I don’t care.”
“Honey, please. We might get into a big accident. We might even die.”
“Why didn’t you ever ask me where I was on the night of the fire?” she asked, lifting her face from the steering wheel.
It was dark inside the car, but the light from passing cars created bizarre patterns and then disappeared. He felt numbed by the noise of the rain pummeling the windows.
“It was for you. For your sake,” he said.
“For my sake? How?”
He hesitated, not knowing how to respond.
“To protect me from your cheating?” she asked.
“What?” He looked at her. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking. “What are you talking about?”
“On the night of the fire, do you know where I was?”
“Where were you? If only you’d been home that night, our son would have never left. For the last three years, I’ve tried so hard not to say this to you. So what are you saying now?”
In the darkness, her face crumpled, and she said nothing for a moment. It seemed her eyes were filling with tears.
“What are you saying? Are you saying it’s my fault our son is treating us this way?”
“You left him on his own that night.”
“Then what about you? Didn’t you leave him behind? Didn’t you leave me behind, too?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I followed you that night.” She glared at the wipers that were struggling to sweep the rain away and said once more, “I followed you.”
She turned off the wipers, and swiped at her tears with one hand. He couldn’t see a thing. Everything was water.
“God, I never wanted to bring this up,” she said.
He didn’t know what to say.
“You went to her house that night,” she said, choking back her sobs. “I parked in front of the house and was trying to decide if I should go in or not. Then about two hours later, I saw you come out—with her.”
It was her husband who had suggested inviting the professor to their home for dinner. “I’d like to listen to that intelligent professor myself.”
She had no desire to show the professor her impoverished, miserable life. But unfortunately, her husband took the matter into his own hands, taking care of every last detail. He called the professor himself, and was insistent, yet polite, until his invitation was accepted. Knowing her husband was intending to be cruel, she wanted desperately to cancel the dinner, but in the end gave in. She cleaned, sprayed insecticide in every corner of the house, and threw out the food waste. While she did these things, her husband didn’t bother to help, but merely listened to funny anecdotes on the radio, and typed something on the keyboard. She put a few potted geraniums she’d bought from a flower shop on the shelf. She managed to find the copy of Blue Shoe at the back of the shelf, but she crammed it back in the shelf. As she was preparing dinner, she recalled how she had cooked a special meal for her husband the day he was discharged from the hospital, but the sound of his typing put an end to the memory.
That evening, the professor came to their home. Years later, when his wife pressured him to talk about that night, the first thing he recalled was the smell. An unpleasant, peculiar smell. Before they ate, they sat around the cramped table and listened to the few CDs that the professor had brought as gifts. They were the albums of blind musicians, like Stevie Wonder, Diane Schuur, and Ray Charles.
“Honey, all these musicians are blind,” she said to her husband, but he said nothing.
The last song they listened to was called “Defying Gravity.” It wasn’t by a blind musician, but from the musical Wicked. The professor was kind enough to translate the lyrics for them. “The words are lovely,” he said.
I’m through accepting limits
’Cause someone says they’re so
Something I cannot change
But till I try I’ll never know
I’d sooner buy defying gravity
Kiss me goodbye, I’m defying gravity
And you can’t pull me down!
“Aren’t these lyrics very similar to the ones you mentioned before?” the professor asked.
While they listened to the music, her husband kept his eyes shut.
“Honey, what are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m listening. Isn’t that what we’re doing—listening to the music?”
They played “Defying Gravity” once more, and she brought the meal she’d prepared to the table. She noticed that the professor was staring at her husband throughout the whole dinner, but she said nothing.
“Please don’t stare at me like that,” her husband said abruptly. Before she could say anything, he continued, “Professor, tell me this—how are you so smart? How is it that you know everything? Please, you must tell me.”
He set his spoon down on the table, locked his fingers together, and then rested his chin on his clasped hands. It was certain he couldn’t see a thing, but he acted as if he could indeed see. As she watched her husband, she recalled how, after the car accident, he had lain with his eyes closed like a corpse, and she felt the emotions from the hospital that day come alive again.
“I’m not a smart man,” the professor said. “There are many more people who are smarter than I am.”
“I suppose. Just like how I keep sending stories to the radio station, but there are so many stories that are funnier than mine.”
“What kind of stories did you send in?”
“Funny stories, of course.”
“Do you think I could hear one?”
The woman, seated beside her husband, shook her head from side to side.
“If you’d like.”
Her husband started to tell his funny stories, but none of the three people sitting around the small table laughed. Soon after, the professor received a phone call and left. She walked him out and watched him drive away in his car. Watching his taillights disappear into the night, she thought about what the past three years had meant to her. When she went back inside the house, her husband was listening to “Defying Gravity” while typing on the keyboard.
She turned off the music. “How is it that he knows so much about everything?” she asked. “Apparently, his wife is also very educated. They have a son, and he’s very smart.” She added, “Honey, if we have a baby, do you think our baby could be as smart? Do you think it’s possible? I don’t think so. You know why? Because we’re stupid.”
It was then that she realized the reason for her husband’s blindness, the reason they couldn’t afford to have a baby, the reason for their entire unhappiness—it was all due to their stupidity. It was simply a part of them, and it would continue to be a part of them for the rest of their lives. But her husband couldn’t care less what she said, and kept tapping away at the keyboard.
He thought back to that night. While they were eating, the blind man’s hands had struck him as remarkable, but the wife seemed to accept her husband’s behavior as perfectly natural. In fact, it was hard to believe he was blind.
“Why didn’t you just ask me where I was going? Do you mean you left our son at home every Wednesday evening to follow me?”
“I guess it’s all my fault then.”
“Let’s go back. We need to go home.”
But they stayed on the side of the highway, without turning on the hazard lights or wipers. The rain kept pouring down.
“Honey, it’s madness to stay like this. We could even die.”
“I don’t care.”
“It isn’t what you think. The woman told me about a song I’d never heard before, that’s all. Plus, she mentioned Blue Shoe. You know how rare that magazine is. I wanted to see it for myself, and I wanted to know what song she was talking about. That’s the only reason I saw her. I’m telling you, it isn’t what you think.”
His wife said nothing.
“When I went inside the house, I noticed a bad smell—a strange, bad smell. I just wanted to come home. That’s what it was like for me. I swear it isn’t what you think. A sad, miserable couple lives there, that’s all.”
“I know. She has a blind husband.”
“How do you know that?”
“Did you sleep with her?”
She bit her lip. He observed in the darkness her forehead, the sharp line of her nose, and slender neck.
“You must have seen her. She’s an ugly, poor woman. She doesn’t suit me at all.”
Her eyes glinted in the darkness. At last she opened her mouth. “How can you say that?”
She collapsed onto the steering wheel again. He thought about the downpour, the distant thunder, and their motionless car. Because their car was occupying a very small space in this world, it seemed they could very well disappear.
“That was the last time I saw her. In the middle of dinner, I received the call that there had been a fire in our apartment, so I rushed home. I swear that was it.”
“You didn’t call her again?” his wife asked, without lifting her face from the steering wheel.
That, however, was a lie. He’d called the woman a few days later, but she hadn’t picked up. And then he’d gone to her house a few months after that, except he hadn’t been able to ring the doorbell.
“Fine, let’s go get him. Let’s go get him right this minute.”
All he wanted was to get away, to flee, to go back to the beginning. But his wife didn’t start the car. He thought maybe now was the time he needed to hit her.
“He isn’t coming back,” she said. “We both know it. We’ve lost him forever.”
Their car stayed this way for a long time, hidden temporarily from the world.
After the couple left, Mister Jang began to clear the table. First, he took the dirty dessert plates, wine glasses, and forks and spoons to the kitchen and put them in the sink. Next, he removed the tablecloth and spread a fresh one over the table, spraying some water on the linen to smooth out the wrinkles. Napkins folded into triangles were set at each place, and the chairs were pushed in. After flicking off all the lights in the dining room, he headed back into the kitchen to wash the dishes. When he finished, he turned off the rest of the kitchen lights except the halogen lamp and made himself an instant coffee. He dragged a patio chair over to the sink and sat down. The rain was pouring down; lightning flashed and thunder crashed. Mister Jang thought about the world’s unhappiness—so much unhappiness, which had nothing to do with him. He thought about those swept away by torrential waters or wounded by broken signs and trees, those who lost homes and cars from flooding. He thought about all the crimes happening somewhere in the world at that very moment, about parents who lost their children and children who lost their parents, about people lonely and dying from sickness, about women giving birth to children they did not want. And he thought about all those caught in the downpour, stopped by sorrow and rage.
Mister Jang took a sip of his coffee and was deeply grateful for the peaceful life he had.