- onNovember 3, 2017
- byHa Seong-nan
- The Woman Next Door
- Tr. Janet Hong
The foul stench was coming from the dumpsters. Uncollected garbage piled up like pyramids around the apartment complex. At night, rats came out to gnaw at the garbage. Liquid leaked from the bags, flowed down the asphalt, and hardened in chunks. The man leapt over the stains like an athlete competing in the triple jump event. Dressed in pointy dress shoes, snug jeans, and a white dress shirt with the top two buttons undone, he looked like an amateur cowboy who had just stepped out of a Western movie. He shaded his face with one hand and with the other, clutched a cell phone instead of a pistol. He didn’t run into a single person as he walked to the parking lot. Even the playground was deserted. It was because of the stench and the unbearable heat.
He stopped in front of a car parked neatly in its spot. The car was like a pan on high heat. He flung open the door, started the engine, and put the air-conditioning on full blast. He sought some shade as he waited for the car to cool down. On one side of the lot was a heap of oversized junk—everything from an old refrigerator, stereo, and mattress to even an electric rice cooker. A full-length mirror also stood between the scraps. As though the mirror had been left out in the rain, the varnish was peeling off its frame like scabs. He went right up to the mirror and gazed at his reflection. He puffed out his cheeks, stroked his chin, and opened his mouth wide to check between his teeth. He then curled back his lips, exposed his teeth, and brayed silently like a donkey.
Fifteen minutes later, his car slipped smoothly out of the complex’s gates. The old security guard sat dozing in his booth, unable to fight off the after-lunch drowsiness. No one saw him leave.
To get onto the main road, he had to pass through a 400-meter school zone. Children dismissed for the day began to pour out of the school gates. Street venders who had come in time for dismissal sat on the ground, leaning against the stone fence in front of the school. The children ran across the street and swarmed around stalls filled with helium balloons, baby chicks, and candy. They stood in the middle of the road, not bothering to move out of the way. The car inched forward, only to lurch repeatedly to a stop. Suddenly, a soccer ball sailed over the stone fence, bounced off his windshield, and rolled under the car. It was followed by a tanned boy in a tracksuit who crawled under the car to retrieve it. Another child cut across the street to go after a chick that had escaped, and a herd of children ran toward the ice cream store. He hit his horn again and again. The kids didn’t budge at all. He rolled down the window, stuck his head out, and yelled. The children slowly squirmed out of the way, but as soon as his car moved forward into the small opening, other kids blocked the way, playing a game of slap-match cards in the middle of the road. They were so absorbed in showing their cards and collecting one another’s that they didn’t hear him shout.
Each child was a bolt of lightning. With lightning, there are no warnings. There are only two ways to avoid being struck: lie flat on the ground or put up a lightning rod. He drove with his foot on the brake pedal, wary of lightning bolts that could strike any time from alleyways with openings like the entrance of a maze.
By the time he finally came onto the main road, twenty minutes had passed. He glanced in the rearview mirror. His curly hair, freshly washed and straightened with a hair dryer for half an hour, was still stuck nicely to his head the way he’d combed it, and every time he shifted gears, he caught a musky whiff of cologne from his armpits. A large shopping center was located three blocks away. Should he get his date perfume or earrings? The rest of the afternoon would fly by as he sauntered around the mall, peering into glittering display cases that looked like jewelry boxes. It would then take half an hour to get to Athens, the cafe where they were supposed to meet. He still had enough time to think up a funny joke while he decided on her gift.
Every time they met, she asked for a joke. In the six months they’d been seeing each other, his stock of jokes had run dry. In the “Sparrow Series,” even the last sparrow had met its end from a hunter’s bullet and in the “Big Mouth Frog Series,” the curtain had lowered when the big mouth frog arrived at the public bathhouse that was closed for the holidays. But not once had she laughed. She didn’t even crack a smile, just like the comedian judge on the TV show Make Me Laugh.
He stepped on the accelerator. It was her birthday that day, and he needed to come up with an unforgettable joke. Just as he finally gained some speed, lightning struck again. He slammed on his brakes and watched a motorcycle weave in and out between cars and disappear up ahead. He caught the white letters stamped on the rear trunk that was the size of a ramen box. Man on a Bullet.
He couldn’t let down his guard for even a second. With the rise of these new “quick delivery” businesses, the road was filled with numerous lightning bolts. These motorcycles that could pop out any second were able to race from downtown Seoul to Incheon in a mere fifty minutes. For this reason, he could no longer speed.
The sun beat down. Heat rose from the asphalt. He needed to turn right in order to get to the shopping center. But as he turned on his blinker and sped up to change lanes, something squeezed in ahead. He wrenched the steering wheel, but he felt a thud. A second later, the motorcycle rider landed on the windshield, arms outstretched, instantly thrown off. The car veered onto the sidewalk and crashed into the stone wall of a barbecue restaurant. Struck by lightning at last. The steering wheel slammed into his chest and his head snapped back.
The windshield was marked with blood, saliva stains, and grease imprints from the rider’s gloves. The door didn’t open easily because the hood had crumpled when the car crashed into the wall. After he kicked open his door, the first thing he saw was the crushed motorcycle that had been tossed all the way to the median. Gasoline gushed from the cracked fuel tank. He noticed the writing on the trunk: Lightning Delivery. 675-1234.
The restaurant customers came running outside. They gawked at the car and the motorcycle in turns while still chewing on pieces of meat. Some had rushed out in such a hurry that they didn’t even have their shoes on. He was lucky there hadn’t been anyone on the sidewalk. The cars behind had to screech to a stop to avoid running over the rider who had been thrown into the middle of the road. Drivers stepped out of their cars and stared. The rider was lying on his back. His red helmet was also emblazoned with the words Lightning Delivery and the phone number. A crowd of people had already gathered. Someone flipped up the plastic face shield of the rider’s helmet to reveal a youthful face. He looked like a senior high school student at most. He had a hint of fuzz on his chin and cheeks. As soon as the sunlight hit his face, his closed eyelids flinched.
“Do you think you can move?”
Lightning nodded slowly. Blood was flowing from a deep gash on his elbow. He must have scraped it along the asphalt as he fell. He helped Lightning sit up, taking care not to move his neck. A bystander ran over and draped Lightning’s other arm around his shoulders. Lightning stood up with their help, but as soon as he tried to take a step, he cried out and sank back down. His thighs felt rigid; they were swelling rapidly under his jeans. He looked around for his motorcycle. It had been dragged from the road and was now leaning against a tree guard on the sidewalk. It was crushed so badly that its front wheel was suspended in the air.
Lightning’s face turned pale.
An ambulance arrived. The restaurant must have made the call.
Lightning had broken his left shinbone and fractured his right ankle. His face and arms were scratched up. Because of his swollen leg, the nurses couldn’t remove his jeans and had to cut through them with scissors. His skin had swelled like an inflatable tube, practically splitting open the fabric the instant it was cut. Lightning got an X-ray and waited to go into surgery. They were the only ones left in the hallway.
“Do you have a smoke?”
They were sitting in a non-smoking area, but Lightning didn’t care. He smoked the cigarette right down to the filter.
“What would have happened if I wasn’t wearing a helmet?” He mumbled. Then he started to snicker. “Me, break my leg? Imagine that. I never thought this would happen to me. I thought this kind of thing only happened to special people. But I’ve got to say, it’s been a real interesting experience. Have you ever broken your leg?”
Instead of waiting for him to respond, Lightning kept mumbling. “It’s strange. I can’t feel anything below my legs. My brain tells my toes to wiggle, but they don’t listen. It’s really frustrating. So how do you think my mother felt when she told me to study, but I didn’t even budge?” He started to sniffle. “I miss her. I think it’d be good for people to go through this. They should break their legs at least once.”
He listened with half an ear and kept glancing at the clock in the hallway.
“Don’t worry.” Lightning continued to talk while gazing blankly at a spot on the wall. “It’s not your fault. I might be stupid, but at least I have a conscience.” Lightning chuckled again. “Let’s face it. Today’s just not our day.”
His car was still blocking the way, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk beside Pyongyang BBQ House. Pedestrians glanced at the crushed car and stone wall as they walked around the car, stepping down onto the road and back up onto the sidewalk. The restaurant owner hadn’t allowed the car to be towed away until he returned. The bumper and headlights were cracked and the hood was badly dented. He tried to shut the car door that had been left open, but it would no longer shut. The motorcycle was still propped up against the tree guard. Just as Lightning had said, there was a thick manila envelope in the trunk.
“Can I ask you for a favor? There should be a package in the back. Do you think you could deliver it for me? Our company’s motto is ‘Speed and reliability you can trust.’ If that package isn’t delivered by today—” Lightning had drawn his thumb across his neck, as though cutting off his head. Then as he was wheeled into the operating room, Lightning sat up and motioned him over. “On the package release form, there’s a space below the recipient’s name. He needs to sign there. Don’t forget!”
A truck towed away the car and the motorcycle. There was a deep indent in the stone wall where the car had rammed into it. The restaurant valet who had been standing outside took him into the restaurant. Behind the counter, a woman in her mid-fifties was counting out some change.
“It’s true what they say—lightning strikes on a clear day. I thought we were having an earthquake!” she jabbered. “Our poor frightened customers tripped and fell as they were rushing outside.” She covered her mouth with its half-faded lipstick and laughed.
She made him look closely at the wall. It had small and large stones embedded into the cement. The impact, however, had cracked the cement and loosened the stones. She claimed she had roamed the riverbanks to gather these stones and everyone knew the trouble she had gone through to find the right pieces. She said she would calculate the cost of repair and call him the next day. As he was leaving, she called out, “You’re lucky money can take care of this, but what about my poor nerves?”
To get to Incheon, he first went to Sindorim Station. He hadn’t once used public transit after he’d gotten a car. Although he’d gotten to know every single one-way street and alley in Seoul in the seven years he’d been driving, he was completely lost in the underground subway station. The station was like a maze and the subway map looked as intricate as a tangled ball of yarn. He followed the arrows to the transfer gate but soon lost track of them and had to stop. Whenever this happened, in the midst of all those who were sure of where they were going, he noticed elderly people who were equally lost, or women from the country who looked as though it was their first time in Seoul. He would follow the orange arrows but would soon lose them and start to follow the green ones instead, winding up back at the platform where he had first gotten off the train. He found himself going in circles. There were things in this world that weren’t marked by arrows. Sometimes, the arrows pointed straight ahead, and then suddenly changed directions. When he saw an arrow that pointed straight up to the ceiling, he stood still. He had no choice but to ask someone.
He still had about two hours left. If everything had gone according to plan, he would be strolling around the air-conditioned shopping mall by now, looking for her gift. But because of a motorcycle called Lightning that had popped out of nowhere, his plan was slowly unraveling.
The Incheon-bound train was practically empty. He sat alone in a three-seater away from other people. At a single glance, he could take in the few passengers scattered around the train. Most were dozing with books open on their laps or looking through the window at the passing scenery outside. He studied the package in his lap. It seemed like a book or manuscript of some sort. The recipient’s address had been written with a permanent marker on a large envelope from Dolmen Publishing: Professor Byeon Yeongseok, 435 Dohwadong, Incheon. The words Urgent Mail were written in red and in parentheses below the name and address.
He had never been to Incheon. He had blindly stepped onto an Incheon-bound train, but he had no idea where to go next. It might have been somewhat easier to find an apartment, but instead, he had to find a house with just the street address. He didn’t even know which stop he needed to get off, so he had no choice but to go all the way to Incheon Station, which was the last stop. A piece of paper was stuck on the other side of the package. It was probably the release form that Lightning had told him to get signed. There were some notes scrawled in the margins. There was even a rough sketch of a map next to seven digits that he assumed was the professor’s phone number. At a glance, the map looked like an anchor or the male gender symbol, and the writing was barely legible: Nasan Shopping Center, Dohwadong three-way street, Civil Defense Educational Center, Donghwa Fish and Tackle, three-forked road, right turn, Prosperity Pharmacy, magnolia tree.
Finding the house by consulting the map and notes wasn’t going to be easy. The notes mentioned a three-way street near the fish and tackle shop, but the map didn’t show it. And a magnolia tree? A magnolia tree blooms in early spring and loses its blossoms so quickly that all that would be left now would be thin, bare branches. He tried to remember what a magnolia tree without its blossoms looked like, but he couldn’t. If he wanted to get to Athens on time, he couldn’t afford to wander aimlessly. He felt annoyed at himself for not having refused Lightning’s request.
Outside, monotonous scenery went by and ringtones continued to sound throughout the train. They passed motels with unlit neon signs that faced the tracks. The signs were shabby and dusty.
“Mommy, why does that house have so many windows?”
A young woman and her little girl were sitting diagonally across from him. The little girl had been looking out the window the entire time. It seemed she was just learning to talk; she asked her mother question after question. The motels obviously looked different even to the eyes of the child.
“Oh, that? It’s called a motel,” the mother whispered.
“What? I can’t hear you,” the girl persisted, rubbing her cheek against her mother’s.
The mother raised her head and cast a furtive glance at the other passengers. Perhaps she, like him, was picturing that secret act.
“You don’t need to know.”
The child moved away from her mother, and once again, glued her face to the window.
The train rattled along, beating out a regular rhythm. His head that was resting against the window also rattled in time. He tried to think up some funny jokes.
His date knew all kinds of jokes. There wasn’t one she hadn’t heard before. When they first met, he’d thought she was collecting jokes the way some collect folktales. To come up with funny ones, he looked through the five most popular dailies every morning and frequented online humor chat rooms. He even flipped through women’s magazines at the bank. But before he could finish telling the joke, she’d beat him to the punch line. Make me laugh. If you make me laugh, I’ll give myself to you. Whenever she propped up her chin with her hand and watched his moving lips, a feeling of frustration would come over him. Out of habit, he felt for his phone in his back pocket every time a cell phone rang on the train.
Whenever the train went around a bend, the connecting doors slid open and he got a clear view of the other cars. Three high school girls in uniform were walking in single file through the cars, heading toward him. They each flicked the handgrips as they walked, making them swing in semicircles behind them. They chattered ceaselessly. The passengers stared after them. The girls were about five foot six and even though they were dressed in the same school uniform, each girl looked a bit different. There was nothing tidy about their sweaty, wrinkled appearance. The skirts looked as though they had been shortened, stopping well above their knees and clinging to their hips and thighs to end in pleats like fish fins. Each step exposed their thighs through the side slits. All three carried large identical shopping bags.
They passed him, joking and poking one another in the side. They smelled of sweat and perfume, and wore foreign brand-name backpacks that were popular among students, with mascot figures dangling from the backpack zippers. First, a stuffed Donald Duck went by, and then a Hoppangman doll, a moon-faced Japanese cartoon superhero made of hoppang.1 He was trying to think of a funny story when he looked up and happened to make eye contact with the last girl. She had dark round eyes like black beans and smooth, milky skin. What dangled from her bag caught his attention. It was a keychain with a clear plastic cube containing three dice, each of a different color. The dice bounced against one another with her every step.
He couldn’t think of anything funny. It was 4:35. At the bank where his date worked, the automatic gates near the entrance would be coming down now. She was three years older than him and it was her twenty-ninth birthday that day. Until he’d met her, he’d always been surrounded by women with large mouths. Once in kindergarten, he had drawn a picture titled “My Mom.” Whenever he gazed up at his tall mother who constantly nagged him, all he could see was her large mouth that moved ceaselessly. In the picture, his mother’s mouth took up two-thirds of her face. “My Mom” had even received an honorable mention in a nationwide children’s art competition. Before he had first seen her through the bank window, he hadn’t known anyone could have such a small mouth. Her lips had been pursed so tightly while she counted money that her face barely had a hint of a mouth, like that of a Japanese geisha. He loved her small mouth.
The cloying smell of perspiration and perfume wafted by again. The girls who had gone on to the next car were coming back. Though the entire car was nearly empty, the girls chose to sit directly across from him. The three shopping bags went onto the overhead shelf. The thin one sat squeezed between the two larger girls. He didn’t know where to look. He was uncomfortable making eye contact with any of them, so he lowered his head, keeping his gaze fixed on the ground. One reason he didn’t take the subway was because he didn’t know where to look. Once he’d found himself in a bit of a dilemma because he’d kept making eye contact with a stranger who was sitting across from him.
As soon as he lowered his gaze to the floor, he saw the girls’ legs. Now that they were sitting down, their short plaid skirts rode up their thighs and became even shorter. Their legs exposed below their skirts were as fresh as turnips just pulled up from the field. Their calves were round and firm. The girls hugged their backpacks and started to whisper back and forth. The keychains that dangled from their bags each resembled its owner. Like ordinary teenage girls, Donald Duck, Dice, and Hoppangman laughed for no particular reason. Donald Duck couldn’t close her knees because of her chubby thighs. He saw between her knees the pudgy inner thighs that were glued together. As for Dice, even though her knees were clamped together, her thin thighs formed a triangular gap at the top of her skirt. His gaze kept being drawn to that spot. It was quiet inside the train, and he could hear every word they were saying. Maybe he’d get lucky and pick up a funny joke.
Below their dusky knees were scratches, scabs, bruises, and even insect bites. He learned that they were juniors at an arts high school. Seventeen. It was an age when scrapes and falls were still common. They laughed hysterically at things that weren’t funny. They were things that he already knew. Maybe she, too, had laughed just as easily when she was seventeen.
“Seriously. I think I only got half of them right.”
At Dice’s words, the other girls’ faces stiffened. They didn’t say anything for a second. Then the girl whose face was as round as Hoppangman’s nudged Dice with her shoulder. “Yeah, right.”
Donald Duck ate a chocolate-covered pretzel stick, breaking off the end little by little with her front teeth. Sticking out her thick lips, she said, “That’s what you said last time and you ended up getting the highest score.”
Dice let out a big sigh. “I’m serious this time. I guessed on half.”
They took out their exams from their backpacks and started going over the answers. They groaned each time they discovered a wrong answer. He kept glancing at their legs the entire time. Suddenly, Dice’s knees that had been clamped shut relaxed and spread open a little. He didn’t miss the tip of the triangular gap widen. He coughed and turned toward the side, but then Donald Duck’s fleshy thighs came into view. Unless he moved to another seat or closed his eyes, he would not be able to escape their legs.
“At this rate, I won’t get into a university in Seoul.”
Dice stretched her arms above her head, and her knees relaxed even more. Just then sunlight shone into the gap. Deep inside the crevice was a dark mole as large as a coat button. He was a young, healthy man of twenty-six. His thoughts immediately rushed to that secret spot where the two legs intersected. His white shirt, which he’d worn without an undershirt, grew damp with sweat and clung to his back. Sweat dripped from his forehead. He wiped repeatedly at his forehead with his sleeve. Her thighs made him picture her round, firm butt cheeks and the dimples above.
The girls’ reckless behavior continued. So engrossed were they in their conversation about university entrance exams and how they’d bombed their final exams that they didn’t seem to notice anything else. It was their fault for wearing such short skirts with slits on the side. If an older woman had been present, she most certainly would have scolded them, but the entire car was now empty. The girls continued to twist and fidget in their seats. They crossed their legs and even spread them apart a few times. Then it would be he who would close his legs in alarm. His curly hair, which he had straightened with a hair dryer for half an hour, grew damp with perspiration and began to curl again. He seemed to be invisible to the girls. Bupyeong Station was announced. The girls lazily got to their feet and retrieved their shopping bags from the overhead compartment. They stood with their backs to him. As they bent to put on their backpacks, their short skirts flipped up and they flashed their rear ends at him, as though they were doing the can-can. Then they went and stood by the doors beside him. The smell of sour sweat wafted over to him.
The train slowly approached the platform. The girls suddenly burst into laughter.
“I won, didn’t I?” Dice said.
Donald Duck and Hoppangman each took out a 5,000-won bill and placed them in Dice’s palm. Dice rolled up the bills and stuck them in her front shirt pocket.
“Men,” Donald Duck said, still eating her pretzel sticks.
Hoppangman kicked the train doors. “They’re worse than Pavlov’s dogs. They start drooling as soon as the bell rings. Not a decent one left.” She slammed her fist into the doors. “Jesus died a long time ago.”
Dice snatched away Donald Duck’s snack and popped it into her own mouth. “You don’t think Jesus was a man?”
The girls spoke loudly on purpose so that he would hear. They were no longer the same girls who had been comparing test answers and worrying about university admissions. The doors slid open and they stepped off, laughing.
His face was flushed with all the fantasies that were still swirling in his head. He wiped his face with his sleeve. Dark smudges appeared on his white shirt. Just as the train was starting to move again, someone tapped the window. When he turned around, the three girls were peering at him, their faces right up against the glass. They laughed maliciously. Dice brought her hand up to his face and then slowly raised her middle finger. Her lips moved deliberately. He couldn’t hear what she was saying, but he read her lips. Fuck you.
There was a long line of taxis in front of Incheon Station. The drivers stood outside their vehicles, having a smoke while waiting to pick up fares. Someone ran by, bumping into his arm. He blindly got into a taxi.
“Where to, mister?” the driver asked, hurriedly putting out his cigarette and climbing inside.
He had no idea where to go. The driver looked at him through the rearview mirror. “The Civil Defense Educational Center. No, I mean Nasan Shopping Center.”
When he couldn’t decide on the destination, the driver snapped, “Hurry up and pick a place.”
The driver let him off at the wrong spot and drove away. When he had walked over two blocks, a building with the sign Nasan Shopping Center appeared. His sweat-soaked jeans were plastered to his legs. Each time he took a step, his skin chafed from rubbing against the fabric. He wanted to take a shower. His cologne had evaporated long ago and there were now yellowish half-moon stains under his arms.
Lightning’s notes were all mixed up. After he passed the shopping center, he turned right and saw a Chinese restaurant instead of a fishing store. His date would have changed out of her work uniform by now and was probably catching a taxi to go to Athens. He hadn’t thought of a funny joke, let alone bought her a gift. He saw the phone number written on the package.
Professor Byeon Yeongseok politely gave him the directions to his house. It was an awkward distance to go by either foot or car, so he simply started heading in the direction the professor had said. It was a sweltering day. He scratched the tips of his leather dress shoes on the cracked, uneven pavement. Far ahead, he saw the fish and tackle store. When he turned right after passing the store, a long alley appeared.
Similar-looking houses lined the alley. He had to slow down to spot the magnolia tree amidst the other trees that rose past the stone fences. A school girl was plodding along about fifty meters ahead. Her backpack seemed full of books. Weighed down by her heavy bag, she kept lagging. An electrical pole appeared. Byeon had said that if he came to an electrical power pole, he was almost there. The girl stopped and unrolled the waistline of her skirt. The skirt that had been much too short now stopped below her knees. In that time, he had caught up to her. She glanced back and in that second, he noticed the keychain that dangled from her backpack. Inside a clear plastic cube were three dice of different colors.
Dice’s sleepy-looking eyes that were as dark as black beans glinted. Her gaze darted around the alley to make sure there was no one nearby. She spat on the ground. She then approached slowly and faced him. They were nearly the same height. He could smell sweat, soap, and perfume on her. The large shopping bag she had been carrying was gone and her green nametag flashed from her front shirt pocket: Byeon Myeongju. Right then, everything clicked. Byeon was not a common last name.
Dice whispered quickly, as though to herself. “So you managed to follow me all the way here, sick bastard.”
People have more courage when they’re in a group. But now, Dice was alone.
“All I did was follow the ringing of your bell.” He curled back his lips and laughed silently.
“What do you want? A slap or a date?” she snapped.
“Please. Don’t flatter yourself. I’m not here because of you. I’m here to meet Professor Byeon Yeongseok.”
He didn’t miss the way her pupils trembled.
She spat again. This time, the wad of saliva hit his dress shoe. “You cheap jerk. Didn’t you enjoy yourself enough already? What more do you want?”
When he took a step forward, she spread out her arms and tried to block him. “So you’re going to go tattle on me? It looks like you have no idea, but I’ve been the top of the class for eleven years straight. Why would my father who’s never even met you believe anything you have to say about me?”
“Let me worry about that. The dark mole on your inner thigh right by your groin will be proof enough.” He strode forward and started examining the nameplates on the front gates.
Dice ran to him and tugged at his sleeve. “What do you want?” Her voice was composed again. While she tried to strike a bargain with him, he only smiled at her. “If you keep going after you get back on the main road, you’ll see Nasan Shopping Center. Wait for me there. I’ll be going to the library soon.”
Dice walked up to a gate and pressed the doorbell.
“Who is it?” said a dignified voice from the speakerphone.
“Dad, it’s me.” Her voice that had been shrill until even a second ago was now transformed into the tired voice of a high school student.
He added quickly, “Lightning Delivery!”
Dice, who figured out the situation just then, glared at him and muttered, “Jesus, what shitty luck.”
The automatic gate opened to reveal the house hidden behind the high stone fence. Grass stretched all the way to the front door, and above that were placed wide stone slabs in one-step intervals. Dice, who had been leading the way, tripped on one of the slabs. The magnolia tree that had lost its blossoms was hidden behind a large chestnut tree. A middle-aged man came out to the front door and took Dice’s backpack from her.
“Dad, I’m so tired I’m going to collapse.” She had suddenly become a pampered child.
“That certainly was a lightning delivery,” the professor laughed as he signed the release form. Dice stood behind her father, glowering.
He sauntered out of the gate. The voices of father and daughter drifted over the fence. “How did you do on your exam?” the professor asked. Dice’s peevish voice soon followed.
He stood in front of the pole and smoked a cigarette. The number of cars had multiplied noticeably as it got closer to rush hour. All of a sudden, he remembered his date. He glanced at his watch and realized it was ten to six. There was no way he could get to Seoul in ten minutes. Plus, he was so hot and tired that his brain felt like a used-up tube of toothpaste. No matter how hard he tried to squeeze out a funny joke, he couldn’t think of one. He took out the cell phone that had been pressing against his butt all day in his back pocket. He turned it off.
When he had lit his fifth cigarette, Dice finally appeared. The strands of hair stuck to her forehead were wet as though she had just washed her face. She was now wearing a T-shirt and a pair of short shorts with flip-flops. She dragged her feet past him and shot under her breath, “Don’t talk to me and you’d better keep far back.” He followed her, maintaining a wide gap between them. The lower part of her legs that would have been exposed below her school uniform was tanned. They were also covered with scars.
Not once did she look back. She glanced at the bestseller list on the window of a book rental shop and she disappeared inside a supermarket for a long time. She eventually stopped at the steps of a worn-down building. A sign that read “Quiet Study Hall, Air-Conditioned” was stuck on the windows of the second floor, and names of students who had been admitted into prestigious universities were listed on the grimy banner that hung across the top of the building. Dice skipped up the stairs, dropped off her bag, and came back down.
“I was born and raised here, so everyone knows me. On top of that, I’m a model student, so I’m pretty much the talk of the town. Next year, my name will be going up on that banner.” She ran ahead and caught a taxi.
The taxi driver glanced at her and then at him through the rearview mirror. “You two are a couple? Sir, you’re a lucky man.”
Every time the driver made a joke, Dice answered with a witty comment. She exclaimed out loud when they were passing a movie theater. Drawn on the big sign was the enormous Godzilla, the product of a failed nuclear experiment. People formed a long queue in front of the box office. Dice craned her neck, watching until the theater grew small. She mumbled to him, “Have you seen that movie?”
The taxi driver chimed in again. “You like movies? I like watching videos on my days off. Do you know how many movies a person can watch in a day? I watched five once, but by the end the storylines got all mixed up.”
Dice told the driver to stop in front of New York Bakery. The brightly lit interior could be seen through the shop window. As soon as Dice climbed out, she spat on the back of a token stand. “Asshole. He was ogling my legs through the rearview mirror the whole time.”
He followed Dice down into the underground passage in front of the bakery. The passage was connected to Bupyeong Station. He was anxious about losing her in the crowd that surged out of the exit. Dice went and stood in front of a locker. Blue storage lockers covered an entire wall. She fished out an identification card from her pocket and shook it in his face. “It’s my older sister’s. It comes in very handy sometimes. She thought she lost it and got a new one.”
While Dice took out her key, people continued to insert coins, open locker doors, store or remove objects, and then quickly disappear. What could be inside all those boxes? As soon as Dice turned her key in the lock, the door swung open. As she was taking out the shopping bag that was stuffed inside, it caught on the hinge and a corner ripped. It was the same shopping bag that each girl had been carrying on the train. Some clothes showed through the tear.
“Wait here.” She left him standing outside the women’s bathroom and disappeared inside.
She didn’t come out for a long time. Women glanced at him as they went in and out of the bathroom. The smell of urine wafted out of the entrance. As he waited for her, he pictured the large dark mole on her inner thigh. His face burned. He kept his head lowered just in case other people would guess what he was thinking. Just then, a tall woman walked out of the bathroom and stepped on his foot. She had on baby blue high heels. The heels were pointy like ice picks. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said with a polite nod and quickly walked past him. Her hair came down to her waist with a short baby-blue halter dress and matching baby-blue heels. He glimpsed baby-blue eye shadow on her lids as well. Her heels that clicked on the tiled floor sounded cheerful. Even after the echo of her heels had disappeared, he could still smell the tropical scent she’d left behind.
He waited in front of the bathroom for an hour. Now that the evening rush hour was over, there were fewer people using the bathroom on their way home. The janitor came out of the bathroom, dragging a wet mop behind her. When she crouched in the corridor to remove some gum from the tiles, he said to her, “Excuse me, but did you see a high school student inside?”
The janitor’s eyes drooped with drowsiness. She disappeared inside for a moment, then stuck out her head while rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “There’s no one here. I checked the stalls too, but they’re all empty.”
His big toe started to throb. Only then did he recall the woman who had quickly disappeared after stepping on his toe. He vaguely recalled seeing cuts and scrapes on her calves.
The shopping bag must have held clothes, makeup, and a wig. Dice must have changed in the bathroom and made herself up. He hadn’t recognized her, even when she had walked right past him. She could be hiding anywhere, watching and laughing at him.
He rushed up the steps into the station square. The neon signs of pizza parlors, cosmetics, and clothing stores lit up the streets as if it were broad daylight. He ran after several tall girls, but they weren’t her. Women with similar clothes, similar hairstyles, and similar perfumes strode endlessly down the streets.
He ran all the way to the movie theater they had passed earlier in the taxi. There was a long lineup in front of the ticket booth. He tried to buy a ticket, but the two remaining showtimes were both sold out. He hadn’t recognized her even when she was right in front of him. So how would he ever recognize her in the dark with her face made up, even if she were staring him in the face?
The security guard had dozed off with the television on and both his feet propped up on his desk. No one saw him come in. As soon as he stepped into the apartment complex, the stench assaulted him. The garbage bags seemed to have multiplied. As he walked under the security light, he saw what he thought was a person out of the corner of his eye. But it was just the full-length mirror. Someone had hurled a rock at it and cracks radiated from the center like a spider web. His face showed up in pieces in the shattered mirror like a mosaic. His curls that had come alive from the perspiration were matted like a steel-wool pad and his shirt that had come untucked from his pants was hanging over his thighs. He looked as though he’d been struck by lightning. It was only then that he remembered the “quick delivery” rider in the hospital, his own crushed car in the shop, and the barbecue restaurant with the caved-in stone wall. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day. He took out his cell phone from his back pocket. As soon as he turned it on, a clamorous tune rang out. He had chosen a folk melody so that it would be easier to distinguish his own amidst countless similar ringtones, but the digitalized tune that was supposed to sound merry only sounded obnoxious. It was his date. She said that in all of her twenty-nine years, she had never been so insulted, that he had better not call her again. After yelling at him non-stop, she hung up.
He had to stop often because of the garbage that kept sticking to the bottom of his shoes. Across the way, there was a pointy object on the roof of the darkened apartment building he hadn’t noticed until now. It was a lightning rod.
1 Hoppang is a round steamed bun filled with red bean paste. In Japan, Hoppangman is called Anpanman after the Japanese sweet roll anpan.
Translated by Janet Hong
Printed by permission of Open Letter Books, New York, US.
Ha Seong-nan has published five short story collections, four novels, and two essay collections. Her short story collection The Woman Next Door is forthcoming from Open Letter Books. She has won the Dongin Literary Award, the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, the Isu Literary Award, the Hyundae Literary Award, and the Hwang Sun-won Literary Award.