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Shoko’s Smile

  • onDecember 24, 2018
  • byChoi Eunyoung
Shoko’s Smile
Tr. Sung Ryu

In the summer of my senior year of college, I went looking for Shoko’s house. I took an overnight bus from Tokyo and asked my way to her town. I unpacked my luggage at a small inn where I meant to stay for at least a week. I figured that even if Shoko wasn’t at home, she wouldn’t be away for more than two days. Let’s just see how she’s doing, I told myself.

Only when I landed in Japan did my body understand why Shoko hated the country’s humidity. The moisture in the air felt like sweat. As if sweat were airborne and were gathering on my skin before trickling down, instead of coming out of my pores.

Shoko’s house was in an alley that branched off a road next to the beach. It was a quiet alley lined with small houses. A pair of middle-aged men sat fishing on the dock. Hardly any young people were in sight, let alone children. The only sound came from the odd car or scooter driving by.

I walked to Shoko’s address. The front gate was cobalt blue. No nameplate.

 

Now that I actually stood before the gate, I felt a courage I didn’t have before. I was sure that at the very least, Shoko wouldn’t turn me away. If I returned to Korea without getting to see her, that was fine too. I think, at that moment, I was listing all the possibilities of my trip coming to nothing and trying to brace myself for each possibility.

The gate opened faster than I expected. A tall, white-haired old man was smiling at me. His swarthy skin had a reddish tinge. I tried to recall the conversational Japanese I’d learned from a first-year elective course, but all I could stammer out were words like Shoko . . . friend of Shoko . . . Korea . . . letter.

Smiling, the old man said something in Japanese and beckoned me inside. I was greeted by a small garden planted with four-o’clock flowers and a glossy wooden deck. The old man gestured for me to sit on the deck. Taking off my shoes, I stepped onto it and sat down.

The old man sat a little way off and timidly continued to speak. I had no clue what he was saying, but most of his sentences contained the proper noun, “Shoko.” I remembered Shoko telling me that her grandfather thought she was the prettiest and smartest girl in the world, and how that suffocated her.

The old man brought me a glass of ice water.

“Shoko, Shoko.”

His voice was tentative.

Then he said what I guessed meant something like Soyu is here, Soyu from Korea is here. Not the slightest noise came from the room. He tried turning the doorknob, but motioned to me that the door was locked from the inside. It was a hot, humid day but I felt a sudden chill. Shoko did not want to see me anymore. All I was to Shoko was a virtual friend or a diary, one she’d simply stopped writing in, so how dare this diary butt into her life?

The old man repeatedly assured me it was alright, and putting on his hat, gestured that he would step out for a bit. The moment he pushed through the front gate, Shoko’s door slid open.

 

 

Shoko was wearing a sleeveless, yellow print dress, her long hair pulled up in a high ponytail.

She gazed impassively down at me as I sat on the deck sipping ice water. Then she trudged over and sat some distance away from me. She smelled of fabric softener. We sat in silence and just stared ahead. Shoko spoke slowly, still facing forward.

“I thought I’d be the one to visit you in Korea.”

I said to the side of her face:

“You’re disappointed I beat you to it.”

A pause, then Shoko opened her mouth ever so slightly to say, “I’ve missed you,” the words coming out like a sigh.

As I was a little mad at her, I didn’t tell her I’d missed her too. Yet hearing her say she’d missed me made me tear up.

Some lovers are like friends, while some friends are like lovers. Whenever I thought of Shoko, I was scared she would stop liking me.

But in fact, Shoko was nobody. My everyday life wouldn’t change if I lost her right now. She wasn’t an employer or a school friend I shared my day with, or even a friend who lived nearby. Shoko was not one of the simple cogs running the machine of my daily life.

In all honesty,

Shoko was nothing.

At the same time, I hoped that I meant something to Shoko. The strange emptiness I’d felt since her letters stopped coming. The emotional vanity of not wanting to be forgotten by her.

Shoko’s skin was so thin and pale that even the tiniest veins showed through. I asked if she didn’t go out much, and she said she only left the house to take her grandfather to the hospital. When she did she wore a wide-brimmed hat to avoid the sun.

I asked why she didn’t go to Tokyo, at which she looked me straight in the eye and smiled, shaking her head. Then she went into her room and brought out a sketchbook. She flipped open the octavo sketchbook to reveal a series of simple crayon drawings. Some looked like slashes of color, some were tiny doodles in the corner of the page. I noticed squiggly letters scribbled in crayon below every picture. Shoko pointed at the letters and read them aloud first in Japanese then in English:

“Half-burnt sole of a foot.”

“Extinguished streetlight on a highway.”

“Rotten, but only rotten, seed.”

“Soldier marching out of step.”

“Dictator with no zeal.”

“Antonym of typical.”

“But . . . typical.”

“The strange echo of the phrase: I knew this would happen.”

“Pigeons pecking the ground to their last frozen breath.”

 

When Shoko finished presenting all her drawings and their titles, she pointed at herself and said:

“Me. Shoko.”

Shoko seemed to have burnt a fuse. Hiding my heavy heart, I lied and said she drew very well. Shoko said maybe she should become an artist, no, perhaps try her hand at writing? She gave me a polite, that ever so polite smile.

It was the same smile she’d given me as a teenager. Yet in that smile, which had struck me as so cold and mature when I was young, I detected a vulnerable and defensive attitude. I used to think she was stronger than me. But Shoko was weak.

She must have felt it too. That I’d become mentally stronger, tougher than her. I was watching someone who’d had a piece of her mind shattered and found myself basking in an odd sense of superiority.

I told Shoko about my college life. About going to Canada as an exchange student, the occasional backpacking trips, the foreigners I’d befriended. I also told her about running into Hana in New York. “Hana tells me you got accepted into Waseda University but didn’t go. I heard it was because of your grandfather’s dialysis treatment,” I babbled on without thinking. Even as I talked I sensed I was crossing the line, and flushed with that terrifying yet exhilarating feeling, I crossed many more lines.

“I didn’t think you’d stay in your hometown all these years. Especially to look after your grandfather? It’s not like you. I hear you need to take him to the hospital once every three days? Dialysis is really tough, huh? Not just for the patient but for the caregiver too. I had no idea you were so fond of your grandfather.”

If Shoko had lashed out at me right then, or at least defended herself somehow, the things I said would not have come back to wound me so much.

Shoko smiled. “You’re right. I’m a coward.”

She closed the sketchbook and took it back to her room. She never showed me anything like that again. She came back to the deck and sat down.

“But the more you hate,” she added, “the harder it is to escape.”

I was perched awkwardly on the edge of the deck. I tried to remember why I’d bothered to come all this way to meet Shoko. She was neither someone I knew nor someone I didn’t know. She was too much of a stranger to call a friend. She hadn’t been one or the other from the outset, but neither was she shallow enough to make pointless small talk to someone she hadn’t seen in a while.

“But I’m glad you’re here.”

Pressing down on the deck for support, Shoko shifted closer to me. I didn’t look at her, fixing my gaze instead on the four-o’clock flowers abloom in the yard. From the sound of her dress sweeping the deck I sensed in Shoko a peculiar loneliness distinct to old people. I didn’t have to see her face to know.

Shoko was ancient.

She hooked her arm around mine, her cold, smooth arm touching my hot, sweaty one. It made my hair stand on end. Shoko rested her head on my shoulder. I could feel the soft, thin wisps of her hair. She laced her fingers with mine and kicked her legs in the air like she was splashing around in water.

“Stay with me. Don’t go back to Korea, let’s live here together,” she said brightly, as if the suggestion were perfectly feasible. I resolved never to see her again. It would’ve been better to remember Shoko only as the seventeen-year-old and feel sorry for losing touch with her, slowly letting myself forget her.

If I hadn’t bumped into Hana in front of the public library in New York, and consequently hadn’t felt a mix of pity and curiosity toward Shoko, I could have erased her from my memory. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, to behold the naked face of someone who could neither go anywhere nor love her pinned-down life.

 

Just then, the gate opened and the old man came walking into the yard. His face was flushed even redder than it was before. When he found us glued to each other arm in arm, he stood rooted to the spot and looked away in embarrassment. He could have acted like he hadn’t seen us and gone inside the house but he just stood there. As if to say he would give us time to unlink our arms.

I tried to pull my arm free but Shoko clutched onto it with all her might. I jumped to my feet and shook her off as I would a rat stuck to my arm. I stood facing the old man in that small yard. A smile spread across the old man’s stiffened face, which was still turned away. But the smile couldn’t conceal the tiny spasms rippling across his face. Neither of us moved, and we stood there for a moment.

“That man’s obsessed with me.”

Shoko wagged her finger at the old man and added quietly in English:

“Fucking creep.”

Startled at what she said, I glanced over at the old man’s face. He turned his head as if to hide the tears welling up in his eyes, pretending to survey the four-o’clock flowers. My eyes flitted back to Shoko. She sneered, looking amused at the old man’s frail state. I thought of Grandpa back home. I felt as if Shoko had insulted my own grandfather.

“What did you just say?”

“I said he’s a fucking creep. I wish he’d go off and die.”

I was speechless. My body grew hot, but my head cleared. “I won’t be seeing you anymore. Stop acting like a child.”

Shoko laughed. “I don’t even know you. Who are you?”

She looked like a dead fish as she leaned her head against the deck post, her mouth slightly agape, her dull eyes staring at me. I recoiled at the sight and looked away. The old man, his frame slouched, continued to study the four-o’clock flowers as if nothing had happened. The pink plastic bag he carried held a few apples and juice boxes with straws attached.

I bowed my head and apologized to the old man’s back, and left the house. I paid the extra fee to my airline and took the afternoon flight back to Korea the next day.

The plane flew low. It was a clear day. Glancing out the window, I saw the Korea Strait twinkling in the sunlight. Things looked flawlessly beautiful from afar.

 

I lied to Grandpa that I didn’t get to meet Shoko.

“I waited for days but she didn’t come home. Sorry.”

Grandpa forced a smile and said, “All that trouble for nothin’. Ah well, think of your trip as an adventure. Let’s forget about this Shoko girl. She was probably too busy. We oughta make allowances for that.”

The Grandpa I knew as a child was a man who flew off the handle at everything. Even if someone’s mistake was unavoidable, he would say that wasn’t his problem. He insisted on picking fights instead of talking things out. He showed little sympathy or generosity and kept bringing up past grievances in fresh fits of temper.

We oughta make allowances for that, she must’ve had her reasons, let’s forget about it. These were not Grandpa’s words. It seemed Grandpa wanted to avoid discussing Shoko altogether. As if he were trying to protect his feelings by believing Shoko must’ve had her reasons.

How could exchanging some damn letters mean so much to him? Penpalling with a foreigner who was fifty years his junior, no less. Despite having no money or real job since turning fifty, Grandpa had never learned to bend his knee to anyone. Yet here he was, resigning himself to Shoko’s silence. The drawer of the living room coffee table in which he kept all her letters was empty now. He no longer checked the mailbox. From that day on, we never mentioned Shoko again.

Sometimes the image of Shoko, a doll affixed to that small house, would flicker past my eyes like a ghost. I assumed she had become a physical therapist. And was earning money. At the time, I’d thought that Shoko had made a rash decision. That choosing a career at only twenty-three and confining herself in her tiny hometown was a bad idea.

Those were the days when I believed my life would turn out special. I secretly sneered at cowards who compromised with reality. But this silly arrogance of mine is the reason why I’m nothing now. Back then I’d imagined that my life would play out very differently from Shoko’s materialistic and repressed one, that I’d enjoy a life in which every day was free and true.

After I finished my English literature degree, I signed up for a film school run by a TV network. I had to tutor English in the evenings to earn my tuition. I started out humble but determined, writing screenplays for group projects, learning about cameras, attending talks by B-list film directors. I knew I had a long and grueling road ahead, but didn’t doubt I’d become a film director someday.

One by one, my old classmates from college went off to work for banks, airlines, and publishers. I judged them for chasing money and security instead of figuring out their true ambitions. A life like theirs seemed meaningless. What I only cared about at the time was meaning, and I comforted myself thinking that by following my dream, I was living a meaningful life. But I was scared. The odds of becoming a film director and making a movie backed by investors seemed next to impossible.

I graduated and sent my work to an independent short film festival. My submission was rejected with no comments. I rallied and spent a year writing a screenplay for a contest, but that was rejected too. The people I had studied film with slammed my screenplay for being trite and boring and unoriginal. They read aloud lines that I’d personally thought were quite original and ripped them apart. Looks like you need more training, you need to watch more movies, I was told year after year.

So how long have you been writing screenplays? I was about to turn thirty by the time I started hesitating when answering this question. I’d been writing for five years and worked on some small films as part of the crew, but I was more talented at going to after-parties for various movies and listening to or spreading gossip.

I had believed that writing would give me freedom, liberate me from myself, shatter the limits of the world I inhabited, but reality proved to be the opposite. I was always pressed for cash, struggled to land tutoring gigs or jobs at cram schools, and grew touchy about money.

My spending habits became drastically different from those of my friends who were already managers at their companies. They never let me get the bill. It was out of consideration, but every such moment dented my pride. Friends with stable office jobs spent their weekends watching movies or performances and still found the time to read, whereas the amount of reading I got done was embarrassingly less compared to theirs.

When I met with my filmmaker friends, I always compared their talent with mine and wallowed in feelings of inferiority. My inspiration ran dry and only my monstrous ego fattened with each day. Watching aspiring directors whose failures had turned them into alcoholics and the screenwriter hopefuls who worked alongside middle or high schoolers without even getting paid for overtime, I told myself that at least I was better than them.

So my dream was a sin. No, it wasn’t even a dream.

If filmmaking was my dream, if that’s why I pursued it, at least some part of it would’ve made me feel rewarded and happy. But I was writing scripts and making movies I didn’t care about, just to keep the promise I made to myself that I’d become a director. I deluded myself into hoping that my movies would stir another person’s heart when I myself was unmoved by them.

My creative vision had died in me long ago. I just wanted to be someone important in the industry. I was writing, but my stories were contrived as they didn’t flow from within me. I wrote not because I wanted to, but because I had to.

Dreams. They were a mirage, blotched with ugly feelings like vanity, ambition, need for recognition, spite. People who told me in a drunken slur that they “couldn’t live without film” or were “desperate to make movies” reeked of thwarted desires. My desires were just as strong, if not stronger, but I acted like I wasn’t desperate.

Pure dreams were meant for talented filmmakers who could afford to enjoy their jobs. Glory was meant for them too. Film, art in general, only revealed its true face to hard-working geniuses, not hard-working average Joes. I covered my face with my hands and sobbed. It was difficult to accept that fact. The moment untalented people clutch at the mirage of dreams, it slowly eats away their lives.

I lost most of the people I’d called friends before I got into filmmaking. Some remained loyal yet they too were judged by my ego, which had amassed itself feeding on shadows. A friend who married a man with a high salary was obviously a gold digger; another friend who confided to me about her soul-sucking job made me gloat inside while I put on a sympathetic face. I was shocked by the nastiness of my own thoughts but even that didn’t last long.

I spent longer hours at home alone. Oftentimes I didn’t want to see anyone, and didn’t bother visiting or calling Mom and Grandpa. While distancing myself from the few people who loved me, I thought my films would portray some deep layer of the human psyche. Little did I know then how lonely this arrogance of mine made them feel.

(Excerpt from pp. 22-35.)

Translated by Sung Ryu

Author's Profile

Choi Eunyoung has authored the short story collections Shoko’s Smile and Someone Harmless to Me. She has received the Writer’s World New Writer Award, the Heo Gyun Literary Award, the Kim Jun-sung Literary Award, and the Young Writers’ Award.