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FICTION

One Night

  • onOctober 5, 2021
  • Vol.53 Autumn 2021
  • byYoon Sung-hee
Every Day is April Fools
Tr. Hedgie Choi
2021

1

A week ago, I stole a scooter from the apartment playground. It was a pink scooter, with a turtle sticker on the handle. A name—Jang Min-ji—was written in blue across the deck. Earlier that day we’d gone to Sangju to visit my husband’s uncle. His uncle had slipped on a persimmon on his way to the village hall for some janchi noodles. Nothing’s broken, but ever since he’s come home from the overnight ER stay, his mind’s been fading. Come see him before it’s gone altogether. That’s what the uncle’s daughter had said on the phone. Hanging up, I thought it was such a strange turn of phrase—fading, gone. As if people are a bit of dyed fabric. The uncle was only five years older than my husband—a son my husband’s grandfather had from a second marriage, well into his fifties. I thought that was embarrassing, so I used to lie and say he was my cousin, my husband told me. The two went to elementary school together. At our wedding, the uncle said to me: I know how the men of this family are, so I’ll apologize to you in advance, niece-in-law. Maybe it was that, or maybe it was that I heard the uncle’s brothers had given him nothing of his inheritance because he was born of a different mother—either way, this uncle was the only member of my husband’s family I didn’t hate. The uncle recognized his niece-in-law but could not remember his own nephew by blood. The uncle’s son-in-law had prepared a dakbaeksuk. The chicken in this was raised on feed made from persimmon peels, he said. We were having plum tea after the meal when the uncle turned to me and asked, Why are you here alone? My nephew—is he dead? My husband took his uncle’s hand. Uncle, I’m right here. It’s me, Minyong. The uncle stared blankly at my husband’s face and then shook his head. No, no you’re not. He began to cry. Then he told the story of how my husband, when he was a child, almost shot out the eye of the kid next door with a slingshot. Before that, Minyong had already gotten into big trouble with his dad for shooting at a feeding cow. Minyong had a real mean streak back then. Knowing my older brother, I figured he’d really tear into the boy if he caught him at it again. So I said I did it. The neighbor slapped me across the face, saying I’d nearly made a cripple out of his son. Not just any son—he was the only son of the only son of the only son of the only son. Why’d you do it? I asked the uncle. Why’d I take the blame? Because he called me hyung instead of uncle. Like a brother. And now that nephew of mine is dead. Having finished his story, the uncle began to weep again. The uncle’s daughter got up from the table—unable, it seemed, to bear watching him behave this way—and offered to show me the drying persimmons. I followed her out. The persimmons hung down on ropes like huge beads. Wow, it’s so orange out here. So many shades of orange. That made the uncle’s daughter laugh. Unni, it’s so persimmon out here, she said, it’s all the shades of persimmon. When we returned from our little persimmon break, the uncle was taking a nap. I slipped an envelope with a hundred dollars in it under his pillow. On our way home there was a little fender bender—a bus hit the back of a truck that was switching lanes. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the drivers got in a screaming match, so it took a while to clear the road. By the time we got home, it was past 9 p.m. I said I didn’t feel like making dinner—Let’s just have a porridge of crispy rice and call it a day. Then my husband suggested we try those convenience store takeout boxes. I lived in Apartment 102, and to get to the convenience store on street level, I had to go through the playground in the middle of the apartment complex. On the way home, takeout boxes in hand, I saw the scooter. It was next to the swing. The swing was swaying back and forth like someone had just been sitting on it. I put the takeout boxes on the swing and tried out the scooter. With my left foot on the deck, I pushed carefully with my right. The wheels glimmered, the light inside them turning on. I rode the scooter all the way around the playground. Then I went home with the takeout and had a late dinner with my husband. My husband fell asleep soon after, but I couldn’t sleep, even when it got really late. I sat on the sofa and stared dumbly at the TV. Faded, gone. Faded, gone. I kept thinking of what the uncle’s daughter had said. Now I felt those were the right words after all. I went outside, where the full moon was bright. The moonlight felt nice, so I took a walk within the apartment complex. I saw the parked cars, row after row. It was an old apartment complex, so there weren’t nearly enough parking spaces. Last year, there was an argument over a parking spot, which then escalated—someone got stabbed and died. It was on the news. The apartment security guard that was interviewed for the news segment, he quit. He found a drunk resident peeing in his office, cursed him out, and then quit. When I got to the playground, the scooter was still there. How old are you, little Min-ji? I muttered, looking at the scooter. I didn’t move it, but the lights in the wheels lit up on their own and, after a beat, turned off. That felt like a sign. Like it was saying, Take me with you. So I did.

 

©Ozak

 

I hid the scooter in the bike storage next to Apartment 125, which was the one furthest away from the playground. By leaving the scooter in the bike storage, I felt like I was just keeping it safe rather than stealing it, so I had nothing to be sorry for. The next day, on my walk to the neighborhood community center, I went out of my way to drop by Apartment 125. Someone had parked a tricycle next to the scooter. I’d been taking magic classes at the community center for three months. Every Tuesday and Thursday. The classes were geared toward the elderly, so they taught easy tricks like moving a coin or guessing a card correctly. At the beginning of each class, the teacher showed a video clip of a famous magician, and that day, we saw a clip of someone swallowing a goldfish and then spitting it back out. After class, I went to the nearby five-dollar buffet for lunch with a few other students around my age. While we ate, everyone talked about how annoying it was to get in three square meals a day—sick of it, they said. At night, my husband suggested we have pork belly, so I pan-fried some. My husband usually slept at nine, but that night, he watched pro baseball till it was late. They were tied at the end of the ninth inning, so the game was extended. I asked my husband which team he was rooting for. He said he wasn’t rooting for anyone. At the top of the tenth inning, the bases were loaded, but they failed to score. Idiots, my husband said. Suddenly, I felt sick. The pork belly from earlier wasn’t sitting right with me. At the bottom of the eleventh inning, a hit finished off the game. It was 10:50 p.m. My husband retired to the bedroom, and I sat on the sofa, flipping through TV shows by myself. Then, bored, I turned off the TV and stared at my reflection in the dark screen. Past midnight, I went out. I got the scooter and went to the bike lane that had been paved along the outer perimeter of the apartment complex. Ever since we’d moved here, I had taken to walking around the bike lane a few times each morning. I told my husband I was exercising to strengthen an achy knee, but that was just an excuse—I just didn’t want to eat breakfast with him. I rode the scooter around the bike lane twice: slowly the first lap, trying to get used to it, and a little faster the second time. I burped a loud, clearing burp, and the nausea went away. The next day, my husband and I attended a funeral. It was for the treasurer of the hiking club. His son said he wasn’t picking up his calls, so he dropped in, and found the man collapsed in the bathroom. My husband drank soju and spilled a bit of yukgyejang on his shirt. On the taxi ride home, my husband said, It’s a shame. He was a good man. I didn’t answer. I guess my husband forgot about the time the treasurer embezzled a thousand dollars from the club’s funds. A fight broke out when the other members found out—grabbing each other’s collars and all that. That night, I went around the bike lane thrice on the scooter. During the second lap, I sang as I went. Tie together shells to place around her neck . . .
Singing made me wish that it was summer instead of fall. I changed the lyrics to The autumn night deepens and I can’t fall asleep. I snorted—if someone saw me now, they’d think I was crazy. On Thursday I felt a cold coming on, so I skipped my magic class. I made myself a kimchi porridge and napped the whole day. But I didn’t stop riding the scooter. I put on a scarf and boiled some ginger tea, which I poured into a thermos. After one lap around the bike lane, I sat at the bus station and drank the hot tea. On Friday, it rained. We were watching TV as we ate dinner, and my husband said, Fucking loonies. The comedians on TV were wearing funny face paint and playing a game. I watched my husband cursing at them and wondered, What happened to him? How did he get this way? The rain didn’t let up, and in the middle of the night, I cleaned the fridge. As I cleaned, I tried hard to remember something nice about my husband. Like the time he came home clutching a bunch of roasted sweet potatoes to his chest on a winter’s night, for example. There were other times like that, too, but the image that kept popping into my head was my husband saying, Fucking loonies, fucking idiots. I threw out a jar of pickled garlic that I’d made three years ago. Five cloves of garlic a day keeps the doctor away, my husband would say. He always said that—the same thing, every time—when he ate pickled garlic. On Saturday, I spent a whole hour riding the scooter around. When I got out of breath, I sat on the bus station bench. This time I sang a song that started with Ring-a-ding. The one about getting out of the way of a bike. Don’t hesitate, or else. I liked that last line, so I sang it again and again. It quelled the hate I felt toward my husband. I don’t know when it started, but randomly, out of the blue, I would find myself thinking: I wish he would die. It was painful to imagine, but the pain did nothing to stop the thought from occurring over and over again. Earlier in the evening, I’d gotten into a fight with my husband. I grumbled about how he hadn’t flushed the toilet, and then he yelled at me—God, your nagging, give it a break. I wanted to age gracefully. Sometimes I missed our old place. That one had two bathrooms. I poured almost half a bottle of bleach into the toilet. I felt like I’d gotten the hang of the scooter now. Maybe that’s why I was tempted to stray farther away. I went to the apartment complex that had recently started moving people in. It was brand new, with many pedestrian walking routes within the complex. Those paths were great for scootering too. That’s why I was going fast. I didn’t stop, even when the path sloped downhill. As I was falling, I understood why there was a turtle sticker on the handle. Slow, like a turtle. Ah yes, a warning.

 

 

2

Close your eyes, open your eyes. Blink. Seven laps around the earth. Close, now open. Blink. That was something my daughter told me when she was young: Mom, light can travel around the earth seven times in the blink of an eye. When things didn’t go her way, my daughter would close her eyes, then open them. The blink of an eye. When she thought about light circling the earth seven times in that tiny span of time, whatever she was worrying about didn’t seem like a big deal anymore, she said. I turned my head to look up at the apartment near me. There was only one unit that had its lights on. I tried to imagine who might be living there. I hoped they were new homeowners in their first home. Maybe they moved in earlier today. They’re so thrilled—too thrilled to turn off the lights. When we bought our first house, I slept with my daughter on the comforters we spread on the living room floor. Mom, it’s so big here, I can’t fall asleep, she said. When you grow up, I said, you’re going to live somewhere even bigger, somewhere with even more space. She did exactly that—she went to study in the US and then settled down there. The cold was seeping into my back. When I get home, I’m going to soak in a steamy tub. Or else I’ll catch a cold. Once or twice a year I would suffer from a bad cold, the kind that made you ache all over. And every time, I would have the same dream, over and over again. In the dream, I run and run and run. Mouth open, going aaaaaaaaaaahhhhh. When I come to a little bridge over a stream, I stop running, and cross it on tiptoes. Tiptoe, tiptoe. Like I’m crossing a bridge that will shatter any second. Once I’m over it, I start running again. Eventually, I notice that something is off. Bare feet. I’ve been running bare feet this whole time, not realizing my shoes have come off. I go back the way I’ve come but I can’t find my shoes. So then, I—young, in the dream—start crying. Because I’ve lost my new shoes. Because my feet hurt. My mom wipes my face off with her sleeves. She says, It’s okay. It’s okay. And she puts ice in my mouth. Not an icicle, a real ice cube. Ice, in the middle of summer. Amazed, I wake up, my clothes damp with sweat. Then, like clockwork, I would come down with a bad cold. When I think of my childhood, the first image that comes to mind is my mom giving me a cool-off rinse. The place we rented back then had a well in the back yard, and when summer was at its hottest, I would get a cool-off rinse there, leaning over with my hands against the well while my mom sloshed the water over my bared back, shoulders, and neck. The landlady once bought me a hairpin at the market that opened every five days, but then her son snatched it from me and threw it down the well. From then on, I stopped taking cool-off rinses. Man-bok, you monster. Every time I thought of the hairpin, I would scream that into the well. Man, as in ten thousand, and bok, as in blessing. Once we named our baby that, my husband’s business started booming, the landlady told my pregnant mom. That’s why you’ve got to pick a name that really means something. Oh, I know, my mom said. In fact, we went and paid a professional to come up with our oldest daughter’s name. But I knew my mom did not like the name my father had paid for. So she was determined to give her second daughter a beautiful name. She decided on Ji-mi—after the name of an actress—but my father stopped by a few bars on his way to register the baby’s name, and by the time he got to the local office, he was, as usual, slurring, his tongue thick with alcohol. And so he said Ji-min instead. My father was illiterate, but nobody knew. How could they—he was always drunk. What are the Chinese characters for the name? the man at the office asked. My father said, Make it up, choose whatever. The man chose ji, as in wisdom, from a character in his sister’s name, and min, as in agile, from a character in his coworker’s name. I’m sure she’s doing fine now, Ji-min, living the life her name promised her. I’ve lied when asked about my name—yes, I’ve said that it’s Ji-min. He was a college student I met on the train. I was eighteen then, I had left home, and I worked at a factory assembling radios. White, long fingers. I’d never seen a man with such fine hands. That’s why I lied, said I was Ji-min. Having lied once, the lies kept coming, one after another. I said I was going to college next year, that I’d be staying at a boarding house in Seoul. That I thought a woman’s college would be boring, but I had no choice, since my parents wouldn’t pay my tuition otherwise. After that, when men asked me my name, I always said it was Ji-min. So what made me want to tell my husband my real name? It was probably his bent thumb. My husband’s left thumb was permanently bent off to the side. The nail there looked crushed too, and I thought it must have been a work accident at a factory. What are you doing tomorrow? my husband asked, and I found myself answering, I’m busy tomorrow, but I’m free the day after. And my name is Duk-seon. That goddamn thumb. Later I learned that he’d hurt it as a kid, driving around a tractor when the adults weren’t watching.

 

Shivers ran through my body. I attempted to lift my right foot, to no avail. The left was as useless. When I tried to lift my torso off the ground, pushing off from my elbows, a groan escaped from my lips. A sharp pain shot down my spine, all the way to my butt. I took slow, deep breaths. At least I could move my hands. But it was no use—I hadn’t brought my phone with me. A half-moon hung between the trees. I liked half-moons better than full moons. My daughter liked half-moons too—I like how you can see them twice a month. Staring at the moon, I thought of the flower known as the moon-greeter. Evening primrose. They shone so brightly that night I walked home carrying my daughter on my back. We had gone to visit my father-in-law at the hospital and missed the last bus home. The flowers shone so bright, I almost forgot my father-in-law was dying. My daughter, who loved to play house, would pick evening primrose and set out a little meal with them. We even fried some once. It was homework over summer break—cook a meal with your mom. We fried acacia flowers too. When she was in middle school, my daughter wrote a story about a child who fries flowers as a treat for her sick mother on her birthday. The story won a prize. She was so clever, even early on. People laughed at us when we sold the house to pay for her education abroad, but she was a child worth investing in. When my daughter started elementary school, my husband quit his job at the factory and started a wallpapering business. I learned to hang wallpaper too, of course, I helped out. We were so busy back then. Sitting on an unrolled ream of wallpaper on the floor, having our meal of rice with nothing but a little smear of gochujang. Everything tasted sweet to us in those days. Five years into the business, we bought our own place for the first time. And a year after that, my brother-in-law lost us the place. It took another four years before we could buy again. By then, my daughter was in high school. I made her study look really nice, and she was the top student of her year. I fell off the ladder while hanging wallpaper. Twice. The first time, I broke my arm, and the second time, I sprained my knee. I put my hand in my pocket. I thought there would be a handkerchief there, but no. There was a piece of gum though. I thought about putting it in my mouth but decided against it. I figured there must be at least one person in the world who died because they choked on a piece of gum. I knew so many stories like that, of people dying in ridiculous ways. In my early twenties, I worked, briefly, at a boutique. The owner there died while feeding his dog—a nail sticking out from the roof of the doghouse went through him. My god! That’s the sort of thing that was in my daughter’s notebook, the one she carried around in middle school. It had all kinds of stories about ridiculous things happening in the world. A person who died because they threw a rock at a beehive, and another that died of constipation. It was in that notebook that I read about a daughter who died of shock during her mother’s funeral, because her mother opened the casket from inside and sat up in it, alive. When the mother found out that her daughter was dead because of her, did it make her want to die? But would she feel grateful, too, to be alive? That story always made me tear up. Because what could that mother do—she couldn’t live, she couldn’t die. When I stood in a room where the wallpaper had been ripped out, exposing the concrete walls, it always felt like I was locked in a coffin. No matter how large the room was, it didn’t make a difference. When bigger interior design companies dried up my husband’s business, he closed it down and started working as a security guard. I didn’t tell my daughter this. She believed my lie, that we moved to a smaller house because I got tired of cleaning a big place. I sneezed. Sneezing hurt, from my neck down to my thighs. I’m sure someone has died from sneezing. I didn’t know of anyone who had, but I knew someone who fractured a rib sneezing: my husband. This was when he was a night security guard at a construction site for a new high-rise. My husband, with his fractured rib, skipped some of his dawn patrols. He was supposed to patrol once every two hours. Because sometimes, teen runaways would sneak in, to drink. And one day, a student—a girl—committed suicide there, at the construction site. Threw herself off. Boys—her age—they’d done awful things to her at night there. The investigation revealed that my husband lied in his logs, that he checked off patrols even when he hadn’t done them. My husband said it wasn’t fair, that he was being wrongly blamed. That it had happened on the roof, which his patrol route didn’t take him through anyway. Even if he had patrolled as often as he’d claimed, he wouldn’t have found the place, he wouldn’t have seen anything. My husband said this again and again during the police investigation. He was fired. From then on, he was different, somehow. He watched the news all day, and he would curse the whole time—Fucking loonies, fucking idiots. Con artists were fucking loonies, as was the person who donated all the money they’d saved up over their lives. Once, I visited the columbarium where the girl’s ashes were. I did this discreetly, so my husband wouldn’t know. Not fair? I couldn’t understand what my husband meant by that. He wasn’t the one that the world had been utterly unfair to. I apologized to the girl on behalf of my husband. I turned my head left and looked up at the apartment again. The light was still on. I started going through the multiplication table in my head. So my mind wouldn’t fade, wouldn’t slip away. I was going through the eight times table when the light turned off.

 

On days I wished my husband would die, I took extra care with dinner. My husband liked biji and pork backbone stew. He liked pollock stew too, and he liked milt and fish intestines in it, so I would go all the way to the fish market to get those. When I made his favorite dishes, my husband would sit down at the table and say, Looks like it’s my birthday today. On my husband’s sixtieth birthday, our daughter flew back home. She said she was preparing for her doctorate. She said, Let’s travel around the US once I get my degree. She didn’t come for my sixtieth birthday. Instead, she sent a handbag as a gift. On my husband’s seventieth birthday, she sent money. I found a good job, so don’t worry about me, treat yourselves to something nice. Would she fly home next year, for my seventieth birthday? If she does, we should go to Jeju Island or something. Now that I was thinking about it, we’d never once gone on a family trip together. I reached out and groped around—nothing but leaves. I swept them together and piled them on my belly. Even though I knew it wouldn’t do anything. Hey, I shouted toward the lit window. In TV shows, people were always screaming—Save me, help me, I’m dying! But I couldn’t get those words out of my mouth. Hello, is there anyone out there? I tried, a bit louder this time. A wind blew, landing a leaf on my face. I had a craving for some coffee, full of sugar and cream. I hadn’t had coffee in years. I gave it up when I stopped being able to hold my pee. People were always going on about how terrible it would be to go senile, but it was incontinence that I was most afraid of. Forgetting myself was one thing. But washing pee-soaked underwear? That man, he must be old too, by now. The one who picked out the wallpaper with rockets and spaceships on it for his wife. When he chose that one, I figured he must have a little boy at home. But when I saw his wife in her wheelchair, I realized that wasn’t it. It was a gift, for his wife who couldn’t walk. You can’t walk here on earth, but in space, that’s no problem at all, he said to her. Your husband is very sweet, I remarked when I was done hanging the wallpaper. Too sweet—I suppose that makes him sick in his own way, she replied. On the way home, I muttered a poem to myself: Sweetness, too, must be a sickness—it keeps me from sleep. Saying it to myself again and again made me feel warm inside. At the time, I had terrible insomnia—this was when my husband signed on as a guarantor to his brother’s commercial freezer business, which went down and took our house with it. Sweetness, too, must be a sickness—it keeps me from sleep. I said it to myself when I went to bed, and just like that, my insomnia was gone. I was in love with that man. When we had a client who lived in his neighborhood, I would go out of my way to go by his place. They lived on the first floor, so you could see into their living room. I saw the man bringing his wife some water. When the wife laughed at something on the TV, the man laughed with her. I even pressed their doorbell once, pretending I was there to check on the wallpaper. The adhesive we used must have been faulty; all of the wallpaper from our recent projects have been bubbling off the wall, I lied. When I went into their room, I saw their wedding photo hanging by their bed. Pretending I was touching the wallpaper, I brushed against the edge of the frame. The frame tilted off center. Every time I wanted to go back there, I imagined that man elderly and infirm, struggling to pee. That calmed me. The couple lived there for three years. After that, I was called there again, to hang new wallpaper. The middle-aged couple who had bought the house said the previous owner’s wife had died giving birth, so he put the place on the market for quick sale. I tore out the wallpaper with rockets and spaceships and pasted on the new one with a floral pattern. My nose was running. I tugged at the sleeve of my shirt and blew my nose into it. I shouted once more—Hey.

 

My mom gave birth to me alone. My father travelled in those days, looking for work at construction sites in rural areas, and he was working at a dam construction when I was born. The postal carrier read him the news that a daughter was born to him, and the other construction workers around him clapped. The dam took three years to build. My father was planning to take all the money he made there and start an on-site eatery for construction sites. He would brag, now and then, about what an excellent cook his wife was. But then his left leg was crushed by a pile of rocks, crippling him. He was such a good man. That’s what my mom would say, holding me in her arms while we hid from my drunk father in the landlord’s shed. Orphaned by the war, my mom had been a live-in nanny for a while, and my father once promised her that he would hire her nannies of her own one day. A nanny to watch the child, a nanny to cook, a nanny to do the laundry—all the nannies she could want. My father was a good singer. He had a sad voice, a voice that made even happy songs sound sad. That’s where my sister gets her voice. When she was young, my sister sang at a town festival, and came home with a big rubber basin as her prize. In the winter, we would fill it with hot water and bathe there. My sister first, then me, then my mom. After the bath, the three of us would always have some sweet potatoes that had roasted to perfection while we washed. I heard a dog barking. I felt glad. Yes, yes, keep barking. What time was it? My husband had a habit of getting up at night to use the bathroom—would he have noticed, by now, that I’m not home? On our first date, we had red bean porridge at a teahouse. I think it would taste even better if it was snowing outside, I said, and he said, Let’s do that then. Let’s come back here when it’s snowing. And then he said he was sorry, sorry for asking me out and making me date a man who didn’t even have the money to buy a tiny shack. Maybe it was because the red bean soup had warmed me through—I confessed to my husband that I was an orphan. I hadn’t had any contact with my mom or my sister in a long time, so it wasn’t entirely a lie. Don’t you ever come back, my mom had said to me. If I hadn’t done it, you would’ve. Those words rushed up to my throat but I swallowed them. I didn’t tell my mom I’d seen her pour poison into the bottle of alcohol. She cried, clutching that bottle. Mom, I’m hungry, I said. I said it on purpose, knowing she was crying. Mom, my tummy hurts, I said. Knowing she was crying, I cried on purpose next to her. That was why. It wasn’t that I hated my father for not allowing me to go to high school. No, it was because my mom never threw out the poison she hid in the back of the cupboard, because she said, I’m sick of it, I’m just so sick and tired of it, over and over like a broken record. That was the reason, though my mom would never know. When I said I was an orphan, my husband took my hands in his. He said, I’ve got a big family, enough to go around. I’ll share them with you, you can have half of them. I can’t believe I was moved by that. If I could go back to those days, I’d date someone else, someone who would take my hands in his and say, You must have been so lonely. But now—now, you don’t have to worry. My father drowned in a well. That’s what the people in town believe. My father always had some water at the well when he got drunk, and he’d had several close calls at that well before, his balance compromised by his drunkenness. That’s the testimony the landlady made for us when the police asked questions. After my daughter was born, I went back there, with my daughter on my back. The old house was gone. There was a two-story house in its place. A man smoked a cigarette at the gate. He looked a lot like Man-bok. A million blessings to you, I said under my breath. My mom had gotten swept up in some cult, had disappeared with my sister. I heard a rumor that the cult had a commune deep in the mountains, so I went and found her. That’s when she said it—You monster. Not fair, I thought. Wrongly blamed. I was a girl who cried at every little thing. I was a girl who pressed an autumn leaf between the pages of a book. I was a girl who liked to recite poems. A drop of rain fell on my forehead. The rain made me laugh. That’s what you get. That’s what you deserve. Go on, I thought to the rain. Go on, then, and don’t let up.

 

3

The young man who found me was on his way home from the study room. He had planned to pull an all-nighter there, but he heard it raining outside, and the sound reminded him of his ex-girlfriend. They’d been teased by their friends for setting unrealistic standards as a couple—five years together without a single argument. Turns out you don’t need to argue to break up, he said to me. True, true. And then there are those who live together their whole lives even when there’s no love, I replied. The young man took off his jacket and put it over me. Then he made a tiny umbrella of his hands and put them over my face to protect it from rain. Sorry. I don’t have an umbrella on me. The young man usually stayed at the study room all night and went home around 7 a.m., where his brother, a senior in high school, would be gulping down breakfast. His mother would already be at work. After his brother left for school, the young man had a meal with the leftovers. Then he did the dishes and vacuumed and slept in his brother’s bed. This had been his life for the last three years. When the sound of rain spurred him to pack his bag and leave the study room on a whim, he tugged the hood of his jacket over his head and started walking. If he went home right away, he would wake his brother. He liked his brother, but sometimes he would think about how he could’ve had the room to himself if he didn’t have a brother. Instead of going home, he came here, to this apartment. He remembered there was a covered pagoda at the end of the walking route here. A few days ago, on the way to the study room, he had seen moving trucks at the pedestrian crossing. Five of them, in a neat little row. What kind of place has so much stuff that they need five moving trucks, he wondered. Curious, he followed them to this apartment complex. At the front entrance hung a big sign that said Welcome Residents. It dawned on him that the five trucks were for five different houses. He watched the moving trucks unload. As his gaze followed the furniture and pallets of boxes being lifted into the air and deposited through the windows, his eyes welled up, strangely enough. Building 101, Unit 1601. That place had a piano, he said. It reminded me of my sister, who took piano lessons when she was little. She died in a car accident. A hit-and-run. I lifted my right hand and held the young man’s hand. It was cold. It must have been painful, I said. I don’t know, he said. But something disappeared that day. Like the determination to succeed, something like that. I’ve been telling people that I’m studying for this exam to become a public officer, but actually, I’m not doing anything at all. I wanted to tell him that was okay. That doing nothing was its own kind of challenge. This was back when my daughter was in elementary school. I got home from work and found her crying in the corner of a room. What’s wrong? I asked, and she said, Nobody unfroze me. We were playing freeze tag, but nobody came to unfreeze me. So I was frozen, I was ice, all by myself. After that, I played freeze tag with my daughter often. In the morning, for instance, when I woke her. She would say, Freeze, and I would say, Unfreeze, giving her a playful knock on the forehead. Once, I fell off a ladder and broke my arm, I said to the young man. Then my daughter said, Mom, say Freeze! So I said, Freeze, and I became ice. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour, but still, my daughter didn’t say Unfreeze. I sat on the sofa all day, waiting for her to say Unfreeze. At night, finally, my daughter took my hand and said, Unfreeze. I got up and went to the bathroom and peed—what a relief. It made me realize something. Sometimes we have to freeze. You’re frozen now, I said to the young man, you’re frozen so you can escape the one who is “it,” the one who is coming after you. But don’t worry. Someone will unfreeze you soon. That’s how the game works. That made him laugh. Heu heu heu—that’s what his laugh sounded like. The ambulance will be here soon, he said, and when it gets here, I’ll tell you to unfreeze. On the first day of magic class, the teacher said the most important thing for magic tricks was not technique, but humor. I didn’t get it then. But I felt like I understood, a bit, just now. The rain let up. The young man told me he watched a truck unload for Apartment 113, Unit 303 earlier today. Ever since that day he followed the five moving trucks here, he came by daily on his way to the study room to watch the move-ins. Unit 303 had six dining table chairs. They had three refrigerators, too. Apartment 109, Unit 1004 had loads of shoes. He overheard the movers talking among themselves: I’ve never seen a place with so many shoes. Apartment 111, Unit 2003 had lots of planters. Big ones. They looked like they could fill up not just the balcony but the living room too. He found himself speculating about it—Maybe they’ve got roof access since it’s the top floor unit. He said, I’ve seen some really weird move-ins too. Units where they go to all the trouble of bringing stuff in, only to throw it all out. They threw out the closet, the sofa, the table… I thought, at first, they were moving out. Because they were the only unit that sent stuff back down. But then the movers took all of it and stacked it at the dump. I was curious, so I went and asked what was going on. And they said it’s trash, they’re throwing it out. Because it doesn’t suit the new apartment. When the moving truck left, the young man sat at the table by the dumpster. There was a yellow ring on the table where a hot pan had left a mark. He rubbed it with his palm. He just sat there for a while, and then he ordered a jjajangmyeon. Pretty crazy of me, huh, he said. But what can I say—I really wanted to eat a jjajangmyeon there. I closed my eyes and imagined him, sitting there at the table by the dumpster, eating a jjajangmyeon. If security had seen him, they would’ve yelled at him. They would’ve said, Are you nuts? I heard sirens in the distance. I heard the dog barking again. You’re not crazy, I said to the young man. You know who’s a real lunatic? My mom. Getting sucked into a cult and cutting off your own daughter, now that’s crazy. When my mom told me never to come back, I replied it was better to be a monster than a lunatic. So I’ll do just fine, I said. Now the sirens were very close. I asked the young man to bring me the pink scooter. He brought it over. I spun its wheels. They lit up and twinkled. Fortunately, it didn’t seem broken. Jang Min-ji. The young man read the name on the scooter out loud and asked if she was my granddaughter. I said yes. I asked a favor of him. Could you please return it to where it was, so my granddaughter won’t be worried? Next to the swings, on the playground. That’s where she left it. He promised he would. I told him which apartment complex I lived in. He said he lived in that one too and seemed happy about having this in common. I promised him that I’d buy him a beer sometime if I ran into him. He said, I’d like fried chicken to go with the beer, if you please. I nodded. The paramedics ran toward me. The young man took my hand. He said, Unfreeze. So I said it back to him: Unfreeze. Now you can go home.

 

Translated by Hedgie Choi

 

Author's Profile

Yoon Sung-hee has authored the novels Spectators and First Sentence and the short story collections A House Made of LEGOs, Over There Is It You?, Cold, While They Laughed, and Resting on a Pillow. She has received the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Today’s Young Artists Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, and Hwang Sun-Won Literary Award. Spectators was published in Spanish as Espectadores (2017).