Sweet Escape (Full Text with Audio)
- onDecember 21, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byYun Ko Eun
- Table for One (Collection of Short Stories)
After the coffeemaker was delivered, he brewed coffee every morning. The aroma would slowly travel from the kitchen to the den and from there to every other room in the house. He had decided to try Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Indonesian Mandela first. One day, he would drink Yirgacheffe, another day, Mandela. He wasn’t yet able to distinguish the subtle differences between types of coffee, but he soon wanted to taste beans from other countries.
The coffeemaker was the first purchase he’d made with his severance pay. He had lost his job, which he’d had for seven years. He hadn’t started looking for another one immediately, declaring the next six months work-free. He wanted to rest for a little bit while his unemployment benefits were coming in. His second purchase was a DSLR. He joined a photography club but didn’t regularly attend meetings. Still, he did learn how to use the camera from books and the internet. He bought two memory cards, as well as an external hard drive and a netbook. He also bought plane tickets. Two of them. He wanted to leave immediately after his wife, a teacher, began her summer break. They would be heading off on a two-week trip to Europe.
He prepared for those two weeks for two months. After becoming more or less familiar with the camera, he joined a travel club. He bought a guidebook, learned phrases from the languages of the cities they would visit, and read books and watched movies about those cities. Even without work, he had a regular routine. After his wife left for school he would eat breakfast, brew coffee, and carry a mug over to the computer and sit down. When he turned on the computer, a different world opened up in front of him. Thanks to the travel club, he gathered all kinds of information that didn’t show up in the guides. He would jot this information down in his notebook, type it up on the computer, and print it out. He was surprised to realize at one point that bedbugs were mentioned quite often in his printouts.
“Bedbugs, in the twenty-first century? In Europe?” his wife asked. He’d had the same reaction at first. It had been a long time since bedbugs were a part of his daily life. He hadn’t seen a real one even once. When he was in the military, there had been momentary bedbug scares, but even then he hadn’t actually seen a bedbug or been harmed by one in any way.
“Honey, have you maybe been reading too much? You might keep yourself busy enough just looking up the things we need to know.”
His wife smiled as she spoke. She was worried about her husband being unemployed, but at the same time she was quite excited about going to Europe. After three years of marriage, it was their first international vacation since their honeymoon. She was tired, but because of that she was even more excited about the trip.
A week passed and the information he’d collected had been condensed to articles and notes about just a few topics. One of those topics was bedbugs. Information about bedbugs consisted for the most part of personal accounts. He read stories about multiple people. The newlywed couple bitten on a plane, the traveler bitten on a night train—he also read the story of someone who couldn’t tell if it was a bedbug or a mosquito that had bitten her but was pestered by an itch that wouldn’t go away. There was someone else who, after encountering a bedbug at the end of a trip, returned home and suffered from scars that persisted for over six months. Most people saw bedbugs as something unfamiliar, but if you really thought about it, the chance of encountering bedbugs while traveling was very high. Even if you stayed in a clean place, you couldn’t be at ease. Sometimes people at five-star hotels were bitten, too.
Sleep in a place that gets some sunlight. Look at the corners of the bed and the back of the headboard, the seams of the mattress, underneath the baseboard. Look behind frames or calendars or clocks hanging on the wall. Use anti-bedbug tools. This was the strategy he’d worked out. He made a file for things related to bedbugs, and as time went on, that file gradually became thicker. A few days later, anti-bedbug supplies began to arrive at his house, one by one. Lemon, eucalyptus, and mint aroma oils and shower products, cinnamon air freshners, a few sticks of real cinnamon, and even sprays like Tyra-X and Bio Kill.
“You could just smoke instead of doing all this,” his wife said. He’d quit smoking a long time ago, but if it could effectively remove bedbugs, he would have gladly started up again.
“Shall we bring mosquito repellant, too? We could bring the kind with replaceable pads,” his wife suggested. He shook his head. Mosquitoes and bedbugs were undeniably different. You couldn’t put bedbugs in the same category as mosquitoes, lice, or fleas. Bedbugs weren’t just creepy-crawlies. They belonged to the order of Hemiptera insects.
“Bedbugs? They’re insects?”
“Well, yeah. There aren’t many blood-sucking insects, but they’re a special case.”
Bedbugs were complicated. Little by little, he was learning more about them. Unlike most blood-sucking insects, bedbugs were not directly parasitic to their hosts. Instead, they lived in the vicinity of their hosts and crawled out at night to bite them. So if you wanted to get rid of bedbugs, you first had to defend your territory.
“But are those fragrances effective? Are they fragrances that bedbugs like?”
“What do you mean? Bedbugs hate them. We have to cover our bodies with things that bedbugs avoid.”
His wife, who had been looking intently at the inside of her suitcase, yawned. He was tired, too. He hadn’t stepped out all day, but he was overcome with exhaustion just from packing and looking up travel information. As he started to feel sleepy, he realized that he hadn’t brewed any coffee this morning. Recently he’d spent more days like this, without coffee. Close to midnight, he brewed some Brazilian Santos.
One day before the trip, he posted in his club’s online forum. Like many of the members, his comments were imbued with the excitement and fear of someone leaving the next day for an unknown world. Despite the fact that he might have to face pickpockets, contagious diseases, terrorist threats, and bedbugs, he was still excited, he wrote. He also mentioned that he’d invested 100,000 won toward bedbug prevention. The aroma oils, salves, and medicines he’d bought really had cost almost that much. He didn’t forget to add that this was all thanks to what he’d learned from the other club members.
The plane carrying the couple finally left the ground, and their regular life disappeared beneath a window the size of a palm. His wife was filled with excitement and ordered glass after glass of wine. He was excited too, but something he’d read in the airport lounge that morning weighed on his mind. There were twelve responses to his post. Most of the members had praised his preparedness, wished him a good trip, or warned him to be careful. Just one had been different, and that comment alone stayed with him.
“Bedbugs are a crapshoot.”
With each change in accommodation, he sprayed their two soft-shell suitcases with bedbug repellant until they were dripping wet. He showered with body wash in a scent that bedbugs hated, applied lotion in a scent that bedbugs hated, and sprayed the pillows, bed sheets, blankets and more with a scent of aroma oil that bedbugs hated. He didn’t forget to check the mattress seams, cracks in the wallpaper, and the backs of picture frames. Around the midpoint of the vacation, his wife spoke up.
“The theme of this trip really has been bedbugs!”
Her fatigue wasn’t from bedbugs. It was from a husband who couldn’t break free of them. Once they returned to Korea, she would have to go back to work teaching summer school, without much time to rest. He felt sorry that she had to do that.
Thanks to the big fuss he’d made, he didn’t actually encounter any bedbugs. Of course, like that person had said, bedbugs were a crapshoot, so he seemed to have gotten lucky too. If not for the article he saw online before boarding his return flight, he might have at least felt calm on the plane. But he did see it, an article with pictures and text displaying in no uncertain terms what he so vaguely feared. Korea was no longer safe. Since 2006, there had been intermittent cases of people suffering from bedbugs, but now those cases were becoming more common. A dormitory in September 2006, a North Korean labor camp in November 2006, a sports training facility in December 2006, a hotel room in March 2007 . . . The most recent outbreak had been recorded just a few days ago. A woman who’d been living in New York had come back to Korea, and shortly after, her whole body had been bitten by an unknown bug. She’d brought the bug’s body and its larva to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but it wasn’t any ordinary bug. It was an insect, a blood-sucking insect—a bedbug. What had happened was that a few New York super-bedbugs had latched onto her bags and traveled back with her. The article was speckled with dot-like pictures of the bodies of a few bedbugs, presumably from New York.
Once the airplane reached an altitude of a few thousand feet, his heart began to race again. He told his wife that tens of thousands of bedbugs were crossing borders unchecked at this very moment. She glared at him in response, so he kept his mouth shut after that. Crossing between the stars, stuck in the sky like bedbugs, they returned to Korea. A few weeks later, his wife returned to school to teach summer classes. After checking that he was still receiving his unemployment benefits, he returned to his pre-trip life. Thankfully, there weren’t any bedbugs stuck to their suitcases. The floor was always clean because he vacuumed every morning, and the aroma of coffee wafted pleasantly through the den. If only his wife, who didn’t even spend that much time at home, would stop shedding hair all over the house, his life would be peaceful.
He opened up the local newspaper. There, he encountered them again. Bedbugs. He read that the studio apartment of the woman who’d returned from New York was in Sinchon. His house was in Sinchon, too. A few days later, he learned that her apartment was not far from his own.
After the incident, the woman moved. The people who lived on the same floor as her and her bedbugs emptied out too. What if the bedbugs were sniffing out the blood of their next host? They’d already established themselves by driving someone away. Adult bedbugs could live for a year at room temperature, and they could go hungry for sixty days in the spring and up to 175 in the winter without dying. He pulled out the coffee he’d bought on the trip as he continued to read. The sound of the bag tearing seemed particularly heavy. The inside was filled to the brim with shiny, brown coffee beans. He grabbed a handful of them and thought for the first time about how coffee beans resembled bedbugs. Of course, a round, flat bedbug would have to drink a lot of blood to become as plump as these beans. A hungry bedbug is the size of a grain of rice. Fully grown at five to eight millimeters long, with short forewings and rudimentary hind wings, they almost have no wings at all.
Short bristles stick out from the coffee bean, held between thumb and index finger, and it begins to shed its outer layer. Bedbug nymphs must shed their skin five times to become adult bedbugs. The coffee bean sheds five times. The females lay five eggs, one millimeter in diameter, per day, and they hatch about ten days later. A week after that, they can drink blood, and after six to eight more weeks, they are fully grown. When these round, flat vampires drink blood, their whole bodies are dyed crimson and their abdomens distend. They become as plump as this coffee bean. Bedbugs, coffee, bedbugs, coffee. He spilled the coffee. The fat, brown beans clattered as they fell to the floor. He knelt down and began to pick them up.
He grabbed his mug and went to the computer, but the amount of coffee in the cup didn’t decrease even a drop. For the first time, the scent filling the house seemed rancid. He opened the window and poured the cold coffee down the drain. He felt like bedbugs were taking over his mind. He opened up the local newspaper once again. After a short while, he began to search online for other local newspaper articles. The world was being contaminated by bedbugs. A few years earlier, New York had declared war on them, at a time when bedbug numbers were the highest they’d been since World War II. New York wasn’t the only city to declare a war on bedbugs, or at least take note of them. There had been city-wide extermination campaigns, and even whole towns shut down by bedbugs. Every continent was crawling with them.
It only takes one week before a newborn bedbug can drink human blood. As the human birth rate decreases more and more, the number of bedbugs is increasing exponentially each year. Their fecundity makes our own low birth rate all the more unsettling. Bedbugs are no longer just in the barracks of war zones or the shabby accommodations of some unfamiliar travel destination. Clothing, socks, beds, sofas—they’ll latch on and take a ride anywhere. Stuck to bits of clothing, they even ride on trains and planes. They go to five-star hotels, and dorms, too. And now, they’d come here.
The twenty-four-inch soft-shell suitcase made an appearance once again. He took out the travel supplies he’d placed inside, the bedbug repellants like Tyra-X and Bio Kill and the lemon and eucalyptus aroma oils. As he busily moved around in front of the suitcase laid out on the floor, he didn’t look much different from when he’d been preparing for travel. But this time, there was no trip. This time was real life.
After his wife left for work, he made breakfast, washed the dishes, and cleaned every corner of the house. It was a schedule similar to before the trip, but now it took a lot more time. What had been possible in two hours before now took twice as long. When he finished cleaning, he was peckish again. He ate lunch and did the dishes, and by then it was almost two in the afternoon. He spent the rest of the day on the internet and reading books and newspapers to learn more about bedbugs. The more he knew about them, the longer it took to clean. Bedbugs were nothing other than a medium by which he could learn about the world. Thanks to bedbugs, he’d learned how to clean. Thanks to bedbugs, he’d learned how to cook. Thanks to bedbugs, he’d learned about real estate. And thanks to bedbugs, he’d gotten to know his neighbors.
The apartment he lived in was within a one-kilometer radius of the studio where the incident had occurred. Most of the ten households in his building, from the basement to the fourth floor, knew about the incident. Well, maybe not most, but the senior who lived in B102, who distributed the free local newspaper to the building mailboxes each morning—certainly he knew. There was also a good chance that the woman in 102 who dug through the newspaper looking for coupons knew as well. Same for the college student in 202. Considering how enthusiastic he’d been back when a disinfection company had been called to sterilize the whole apartment, it didn’t seem that he’d be insensitive to this issue. The chances that the man next door in 302 also knew were high. They ran into each other quite often. The man in 302 was also a bum.
The weekly local paper recounted in detail the neighborhood bedbug stories that were left out or abbreviated in national papers. It relayed the bedbugs’ movement. They were closing in, from more than a kilometer away, now down to 900 or even 800 meters. Someone from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in an interview that an early response was important. That is to say, if you discovered a bedbug in your house, you were to report it to the Center rather than just rashly getting rid of it yourself.
He bought paper weather stripping at the grocery store. It may have been weather stripping, but he was going to use it as a bug blocker rather than a wind blocker. He decided to call it “bedbug guard.” As he exited the store and walked home, bedbugs, too, were moving toward his house. As he neared home, step by step, the bedbugs were also getting centimeter by centimeter closer to their new destination. When he turned his head toward the apartment, the building he’d lived in for three years somehow felt unfamiliar. A strange and awkward energy, unimaginable even two hours earlier when he’d gone out, emanated from the crimson building. War was in the air.
He applied bedbug guard to the windows, bedroom doors, and entryway. He even installed it in the cracks of the windows that looked out onto the third floor hallway. Just having applied it comforted him. But the day after the next heavy rain, the weather stripping—no, the bedbug guard—had fallen right off.
“It doesn’t work like that.”
That’s what the man in 302, the man he saw so often, said when they ran into each other. He and the man in 302 were sitting side by side on a bench that overlooked the apartment, biting into popsicles.
“What I’m saying is, just because you lock your doors tight doesn’t mean it’ll solve the problem. If you read the paper, you’ll know that those bastards don’t distinguish between houses. As long as we’re sharing the same walls, this is a problem for the whole apartment building. It could go on to become a neighborhood problem, maybe even a national problem, but hopefully there won’t be too many other people who get involved.”
“Maybe . . .”
“What I’m saying is that we have a common enemy,” said 302 while biting into his popsicle with a snap, as if he were breaking something.
The man took a large bite out of his own popsicle and looked at his neighbor from 302. He thought about asking whether he’d seen the newspaper.
“Hey, a few days ago, did you maybe . . .?”
“Yeah, it was me.”
“What . . . what do you mean?”
“You applied weather stripping to stop the bedbugs, right? The stuff they sell at King Mart. It was me who pulled it off.”
He took another large bite to hide his confusion. 302 continued to speak in a low, scratchy voice.