A Remote Place
- onApril 17, 2020
- Vol.47 Spring 2020
- byJang Eunjin
It was the first night after we moved.
The wind whistled outside, and cold air seeped into the room with every shake of the windowpanes. It was so bitterly cold a bowl of water sitting out would be frozen solid by morning. My younger sister and I turned out the lights and lay down on our mats. We had two comforters apiece, which we layered over our bodies and pulled up over our faces. Her body curled up and her teeth chattering, my sister suddenly screamed out, “It’s fucking cold! Let’s get some bubble wrap and cover the windows tomorrow.”
It didn’t sound like she was swearing, maybe because her voice was buried in the comforters. Preoccupied with getting our boxes and bags in order, I’d neglected to get heating oil for the boiler. This spelled disaster for our tiny room.
“An oil-fired boiler is going to mean high heating costs. Should we just get an electric heating pad and use that?”
“How’d we wind up here? I’ve never seen a door made of paper before.”
“Yeah, that’s one old-fashioned door.”
The room was about the size of our old studio apartment, folded exactly in half. We’d needed to get our deposit quickly, and with only half of the original amount to spend, we “wound up here,” as my sister put it. We were so rushed moving our stuff that I felt dazed. We had to vacate the studio that very day. I’d gotten it wrong and thought we were moving a day later, so we ended up having to clear our things out while the new tenant was moving her things in. We were in the middle of lunch when we had to start moving. A toaster was placed where our rice cooker had been. The shoe closet was stuffed with high heels and boots where just four pairs of sneakers had enjoyed ample space. With nowhere to go, our crates lay exposed on the cement floor for hours. It was the middle of winter, and we were quite literally out on the streets. Passersby looked down their noses at our shabby household items. To make everything worse, it snowed, and we had to cover our belongings with towels and handkerchiefs. We didn’t have enough to require a moving service, so we rented a small delivery truck and called up a buddy from university to drive for us. We hit so many bumpy, unpaved roads that we jostled against each other a few times and rocked around in the vehicle. My sister even drew blood biting the inside of her cheek and lip. By the time we had unloaded everything in a haphazard pile and recouped for a bit, it was already well into the evening. We were in a remote location for ordering delivery food and the address was hard to explain, but with the landlord’s help we managed to order pork lettuce wraps and fried dumplings.
Then, waving her foot as if kicking something, my sister screamed again. “How are we going to catch and kill that son of a bitch who conned us?”
In a muffled voice, I replied, “We have to kill him. We will, one day. And we’ll get all our money back.”
Our conversation did not go on. It was as if even our mouths were frozen solid. We went to sleep slowly, each under our own comforters, slowly warming ourselves with our own breath.
After the first week passed, there was one thing we still couldn’t get used to. Although we’d lived in one-room rentals our whole lives, these rooms had always had bathrooms attached as a common courtesy. Here, however, the bathroom was far removed, in another place altogether. In order to go to the bathroom, we had to first collect the toilet paper, open the door, go outside, sit down on the maru, put our shoes on, and cross the long courtyard. And not only that, because this was a shared bathroom, every time we went we were reminded of the fact that we’d moved. If we used the bathroom six times a day, it meant that six times a day we crouched over the toilet and thought about our poverty and its indignities. Not only that, but it took a great deal of resolve to go to the bathroom with the days being cold. To the best of her ability, my sister tried to hold it, or cut back on drinking water to limit the number of times she went. Even if you told her she’d get sick if she kept on like this, she didn’t listen. When summer came, things would be a little better, but we didn’t want to stay until then. The day we signed the contract, the landlady seemed to acknowledge the poor living environment, saying in low tones lest someone overhear, “Don’t stay long, just a little while and then move on.”
The owners were a couple in their sixties. They called the place the nemojip, “the square house,” because of how the rooms were laid out to form a square. I heard there was a time it wasn’t rented out, when their family of six had occupied the whole space. The landlady, who’d fancied herself an aristocrat in the imposing old hanok, would now look mournfully at the sky and sigh, as if her family’s fortune had fallen. But I couldn’t sympathize with her. From my perspective as a new tenant, she was the owner, and if the rent was even a day late, she’d be knocking on the door. The old couple had been living grandly in the old style, but when their second son lost big on a business gamble, they decided they were wrong to count on their children for help, and they renovated the rooms to provide for their own livelihood. They hastily spent all their money on fixing up the house in case their son came asking for it. They built a communal bathroom and shower stalls, and a laundry room with three coin-operated, front-load washing machines. They connected the water supply lines to the rooms without kitchens and put in separate boilers. There were nine rooms in the nemojip, not counting the one they occupied. Rent was slightly higher for the rooms with kitchens attached. Each door was numbered, and we lived in number nine, in the farthest corner of the house. The landlady also told me she’d be changing the doors the following spring. I somehow got the feeling she’d given the previous tenants the same line.
Holding the roll of toilet paper in my hand, crouching with my legs apart over the old-fashioned squatter, I was thinking about my poverty for the second time that day. In a communal bathroom, using the old rubber shoe-shaped squatter was more sanitary than having to spread your bottom over a sit-down toilet. The downside was that your legs went numb if you had to squat for a long time. I hurried to finish my business before this happened, disposed of the toilet paper, and pressed the lever with my foot. And thus, the second reminder of my poverty that day was sucked down with the water into the void. Then I heard someone enter the bathroom. I tried my best to avoid run-ins with other tenants, but the structural design of the nemojip—with its shared bathroom and shower room and doors that opened out onto a central courtyard—made this all but impossible. In this way, our living arrangement differed from that of a studio apartment. I emerged from the stall and there was a woman about my age with bobbed hair washing her hands at the sink. She said hello, looking at me in a mirror flecked white with toothpaste and soap. Forgetting my initial resolve, I bowed my head in the direction of the speckled mirror without even being conscious of doing so. The fact that someone was a tenant here meant she was in the same predicament; I knew without asking that she’d been pushed out here from somewhere else. No matter the source of one’s power, without it, one is pushed out to a remote place. Out from the center to the suburbs, and from there to the dark, stinking middle of nowhere.
“You moved into Room Nine last week, didn’t you?”
“I’m in Room Three.”
“Room Nine may be drafty, but it’s a lucky room.”
“All the people staying there did well and got out.”
“You seem to have been here for a while.”
“For two years. It’s a little inconvenient, but the rent is cheap.”
I nodded as if in agreement. After washing her hands and wiping them on her clothes, she asked for some toilet paper. I wondered if she’d had designs on the toilet paper all along, and that’s why she’d greeted me and made conversation. Hesitating, I held it out. She wound it around her hand about ten times and went into the stall. The roll was reduced by about half. How wasteful, I thought. Her voice came brightly from the direction of the bathroom stall behind me.
“Can you ride a bike? If so, feel free to take the one by the front door when you need it. It’s a long way to go to even get cup ramyeon. And try not to go out alone at night.”
She may have been wasteful, but she wasn’t out to get something for nothing.
I rode Room 3’s bicycle and picked up cup ramyeon and hamburgers from the convenience store. Just to give an idea of how secluded the area was, we were one stop from the end of the bus line. Anyone who’s been to the end of a bus line knows this, but at some point, the landscape becomes dominated by old, dilapidated buildings spread farther and farther apart from each other. Night comes early, and the streets are empty of people. Given the location, there was no way a convenience store would be nearby. Nevertheless, I pedaled hard, and water had just started to boil above the feeble burner by the time I got back. My sister and I could pour it directly over our cup ramyeon. While enjoying my ramyeon and pickled radishes, I told my sister what the woman from Room 3 had said about Lucky Room 9.
She smiled brighter than she had in a long time, and said, “Then we’ll be able to catch that pyramid scammer, too.”
“Yes, she said everything will turn out well and we’ll get out.”
Not normally superstitious, we found ourselves pinning our hopes on her words.
“Maybe it’s the effect of what you said, but the room doesn’t seem cold at all.” Dipping cold rice in her soup, my sister stared at the dull gray windows covered in bubble wrap. Since the entire wall was covered in plastic, we couldn’t open the windows or see the ashen outdoor landscape until spring. We didn’t have clear, thick glass for that.
“Oh, did you ask at the convenience store?” my sister said suddenly, as if she’d forgotten, swallowing a mouthful of soup and setting her dish down on the table.
“They’re not hiring.”
“Even for the sunrise shift?”
I nodded. My sister had loved Japanese animation and TV dramas since middle school, and she’d majored in Japanese at university. After graduation, she’d been hired at a travel agency and worked as a travel guide for Japanese tourists. One day, unable to stand her boss’s tyranny and abuse of authority, she’d flipped over her desk and run out of the office. Now she was working at a convenience store, but the owner there was also hard to please. She tried to study by watching Japanese videos on her smartphone when no customers were around, but he’d always catch her on the CCTV and call her up and tell her off. Moving to the nemojip, the rent was lower, but transportation fees had gone up accordingly, so my sister wanted to find work at a convenience store nearby. She liked a daytime schedule more than anything, so the fact she would accept a sunrise shift meant she was really dissatisfied with her current boss.
“What day next week did you say you’ll find out your scores?”
“Just think how awesome it will be if you pass.”
“The interview will also be hard. Many of my seonbae have failed the interview.”
I’d taken the middle school teacher certification test, and the results would be announced next Friday. This was my second attempt at it, after majoring in history education at university. Now I was working as a teaching assistant at a daycare owned by a friend’s relative. The salary wasn’t bad for part-time work, and since I only worked four hours a day, I had time to prepare for my exam, so the job was all right. But like my sister, I was having a hard time since we moved, as my commute time had lengthened by one and a half hours in each direction.
My sister finished the ramyeon, but skipped the usual cup of water to wash it down. After cursing the convenience store owner to her full satisfaction, she watched a Japanese drama on her phone. I logged into an online library, borrowed a novel I hadn’t been able to read while preparing for my exam, and started reading. We lay on our stomachs with our comforters pulled over our heads. Then the wind picked up, rattling the windows and the door covered in thin mulberry paper. It sounded like they’d fall out of their frames. The bubble wrap over the window rustled, remaining attached at the top but billowing out from below like a curtain in the wind. Inside the room, we had the feeling we’d been hit by a landslide. Well, everything seemed like a threat to us, because we had nothing. Through the thin walls and paper screen came the sound of the wind rattling the doors of the other rooms in sequence, at different times and angles. I wondered why I found myself caring about the doors to the other rooms. Then I had a premonition that we weren’t going to do well and get out. Granted, things couldn’t get any worse. My sister’s eyes met mine, and I could see she was having the same thoughts. That night, the wind didn’t die down until we went to bed. Determined to forget its howling, I raised the temperature on my electric heat pad.
I picked up some groceries on the way home from work, and then made a rolled omelet, stir-fried fish cakes, and seaweed soup with clams. I also grilled a piece of laver and cut it into six pieces. While the rice was cooking, I got the landlady to teach me how to use the washing machine and loaded in the pile of laundry that had built up over the week. The noise of the machine rocked the quiet nemojip. Even though the structure of the house made it impossible for us to avoid meeting other tenants, I’d still only met the woman in Room 3. It had seemed like the three of us, this woman, my sister, and I, were the only tenants around, but the night before when I went through the courtyard to the bathroom, I’d noticed lights glowing in all nine rooms. Light shone gently through the old paper doors, illuminating the courtyard, and for some reason, I relaxed and felt at peace. The sound of a chest cough came from one room, and the strains of the radio playing came from another. Strangely, seeing every room lit up like this, I felt acquainted with the residents. They had the same address as me. At the thought that they’d all finished work and were safe at home, I momentarily forgot about going to the bathroom. I stood in the middle of the courtyard and turned around once, taking in the view of the house’s interior. Although I already knew there were nine rooms, I counted them out, pointing in turn to each door awash with light. It seemed like the tenants only signaled their existence through lights and sounds—through the lights that limned the doors and the sound of them opening and closing. Through the sound of shoes being pulled out, and of paper-thin sighs. The tenants here wouldn’t stay long. They’d move straight away once their situations improved. So, they thought, what would be the point of developing a relationship if I’m just going to leave? I wondered if they’d even acknowledge me if I met them in the bathroom or the laundry room, or out in the courtyard or by the front gate. Perhaps greetings were a bother, so they carefully sidestepped each other when they were out, or listened to find out the times when others were active and deliberately avoided making the rounds then. Maybe they considered this to be polite. That’s why I, too, wondered whether I should greet them if we met.
I was hanging up the laundry on the drying rack in the courtyard outside our room when my sister came home from work. She looked exhausted, and her expression was troubled. I didn’t ask any questions. After hanging the rest of the laundry, I hurried to serve the food while my sister changed clothes. I’d bought groceries and we hadn’t enjoyed so many side dishes in a while, but my sister didn’t say a word throughout dinner. It was in her character to confide every detail of her day to someone in order to release her stress. When she didn’t speak, it seemed like my efforts had been wasted. She only picked at her meal, and then poured herself a cup of instant coffee and began drinking it. It was only after that she calmly made her announcement. “I quit the store.”
I didn’t ask why. I just listened.
“I gave him the finger on the surveillance camera. I’d put up with his crap for so long and finally couldn’t take it anymore. Of course, he called right away and began cursing me out. So I just let him have it. He was left speechless. A lot of the words I used he’d never even heard before. No one swears like me. I’ll look into what there is for convenience stores around here. They’re everywhere. One of them’s got to be hiring.”
My sister was in the habit of swearing whenever she felt like crying. She’d used every bad word she could think of that day, and it showed just how much she wanted to cry.
“Good for you.”
This seemed to be what she wanted to hear. “Good for you.” Looking relieved, she finished her coffee and did the dishes while I swept and washed the floor.
After cleaning up, while we were brushing our teeth and rubbing on hand lotion, we heard two men open the door to the next room and haul luggage out. It seemed like our neighbor was moving. Here, this seemed to happen suddenly or be decided without any advance notice. I didn’t know where he was going, only that I hoped it was a little more central. I’d never seen the man in Room 8, but my sister had seen him from behind a couple of times smoking a cigarette and sighing. He was in his fifties living alone, and according to the Room 3 woman, he worked as a plasterer. It seemed like people were only here provisionally, crouched forward with their rear end sticking out. Like sprinters at the starting line, they were ready to spring forth at any moment.
After a few frenzied raids, it was all over. The room next door was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Maybe they’d left the door wide open to draw attention to their leaving. My sister removed a black pore strip she’d placed over the bridge of her nose. Cautious lest her voice break the stillness or send vibrations into the empty room, she whispered, “This place is like a motel, isn’t it? Somewhere to stay for a while and then move on.”
“Have you ever been to a motel?” I, too, spoke in a hushed voice for some reason.
“Do you have to have been to one to know? You see them all the time on TV dramas. And if I have, then so what?”
“If you’re going to do it, go someplace nice. Like a hotel, not a motel.”
“Eonni, have you ever done it in a hotel?”
“Are you kidding me? If someone’d taken me to a hotel, I’d have married the bastard.”
Maybe you’re renting by the month or putting down key money. Whatever the case, if you don’t own your place then it’s no different than a motel. You’re just a long-term guest. That night, no light would filter through the door of Room 8 and it would lie empty. Our room felt colder because of this, as if it were taking on its chill. Somehow, I felt betrayed that the man had left.
I thought my sister would take a day off, but the next morning she went around to find other convenience stores to work at. She rode the bicycle from Room 3 and visited all the convenience stores within biking distance, but no one was hiring. She hit an ice patch on the way back and the bike went down, but luckily she wasn’t hurt too badly. While returning the bike, she befriended the woman in Room 3. She stayed for hours talking and snacking, and it wasn’t until I came home from work that she crossed back to our room. She told me about the Room 3 woman, who was a nursing assistant. Fed up with getting lower wages and worse treatment than the nurses, she was prepping to go to nursing college. My sister went on to tell me about all the tenants in order of room number, but I wasn’t really listening, maybe because they’d just be here for a while and then leave anyway, and we didn’t plan to be here long either. Or maybe it was because I felt like the stories were all too familiar. I didn’t think my sister was really injured, but after finishing dinner she frowned and said her knee hurt. She rolled up her pant leg, revealing deep bruises. We didn’t have a first aid kit, so she went and got a medicated patch from the woman in Room 3.
My sister had had an exhausting day, and with the effect of the medicine, she fell asleep at once. I left quietly and went to the laundry room. I thought I’d wash our underwear that day. I liked to launder it separately from the other clothes.
I entered the laundry room to find a thin, spare man using one of the machines. He was sitting hunched over with his chin in his hands, gazing into the washing machine through the window on the door. He was watching the bubbles smash and fall against the window; it was like watching a tempest through a porthole. Perhaps he was looking ahead to summer, when he’d miss going to the seaside again. He turned at the sound of my approach, and our eyes met. I hadn’t seen him before. I was confused and almost greeted him, and it seemed like he hesitated too, but we both chose not to speak. Once having said hello, you have to keep doing it, and sometimes this can mean stress and inconvenience. If you forget once, people might misunderstand and think you have a gripe with them or that you’re rude. In other words, if I broke protocol and said hi in the confusion of the moment, it could make our relations more awkward.
The man moved shyly to let me pass. I was at a loss because of the underwear. Not only would the items be visible in the window of the machine, but several of them had menstrual stains. I wondered if I should come back in the evening, and then thought, to heck with it, and put my coins in the machine and threw the laundry in. We wouldn’t be seeing each other long. When I got up to look for detergent, forgetting that soap and fabric softener were added automatically, the man was gone. He was giving me space. I felt touched by his consideration, and almost regretted not listening to what my sister had said about him earlier. I didn’t know what it was that had pushed him out here, or what he did, or when he’d started living here, but the item he was washing so intently was a thin comforter.
I couldn’t fall asleep, plagued by my thoughts. My sister beside me was oblivious, snoring soundly as I thrashed around. I put on warm clothes and went outside. Snow was piled high in the courtyard, as it had been falling since morning. The snow was pristine, without tracks, and I felt like the first astronaut to walk on the moon when I stepped out on it. I was startled when my foot sank deeper than expected; I could feel the depth from the crunch of the snow. I stood in the middle of the courtyard, and as had become my habit at some point, counted the number of rooms with lights on. A low number made me feel somehow desolate whereas a high number brought a smile to my face. If all nine rooms were lit, I gave a little cry of wonderment, as if all nine rooms had given the same answer to a question. On this day, there were two rooms lit. With an empty feeling, I picked up some snow in my bare hands and formed it into a hard ball. I bent down and rolled the snowball in the snow until it gradually got bigger. With the snow so thick on the ground, I hadn’t rolled it many times before the fist-sized lump was as big as a basketball. At that moment, I heard a door open behind me. I turned around to see the man from the laundry room coming out of Room 5. Maybe he was confused to see someone alone in the courtyard rolling a snowball at night, or maybe he had his own reasons, but he ducked back inside and shut the door. He seemed to be following the unwritten rule that we avoid direct meetings. I’d feel bad if I was preventing him from going to the bathroom, but I didn’t stop rolling the snowball. Then it happened. The door to Room 5 unexpectedly swung back open, and the man came out and formed a snowball and rolled it in the snow, just as I was doing. He was wearing gloves. We finished rolling our balls in silence. Since my ball was a little larger, it went on the bottom, and the man lifted his on top. And then he went back to his room. Without him, my bare hands would have been even colder.
Our snowman was in the courtyard a long time. No one poked at it or knocked it down, and it melted and dissolved quite naturally. Perhaps it was because we lived in the nemojip that we didn’t do it any harm.
Around the time the snowman melted back into a handful of shapeless snow, a new tenant entered Room 8, my sister lost her limp, and the results of the teacher certification test were announced.
I told my sister how I’d done, to which she responded, “We’re still young.”
Was it because we were still young and pliant that we were so often crushed by failure and frustration? If the antidote to despair was a youthful spirit, then how would we overcome setbacks and failure when we got older? What could give us hope for the future? I felt a sudden dread at the thought of how I’d cope with the innumerable defeats waiting in store for me.
My sister listened quietly to my concerns and responded after a while. “By then, won’t we have experience? Growth rings from the lives we’ve lived?”
She stared into space for a minute and then continued. “Patterns are carved into your life as you age, and they appear like the growth rings on a tree.”
At times like this, I thought my sister seemed two years older even though she was two years younger. Patterns absent in my life seemed to already be carved into my twenty-four-year-old sister’s. An inerasable pattern was formed during the course of some forgotten life event, and it appeared in bold whenever you were in difficulty. That night I learned it’s the people close to you and their words of comfort that help you to overcome life’s trials. You can’t salvage your youth as you age, but you can seek out wise words. The patterns in your life that are invisible to others can be known through words. And these patterns then benefit others as well as yourself.
If you lacked youth, and the benefit of anyone close by or their words, then you just had to endure. Each day, something chipped away at you. You lived in turmoil, searching for ways of coping without letting on that your problems even existed, be they internal struggles, worries, or the consequences of what you did. If all these issues were on view, if they could be seen through clear glass, then your life would appear unbearably noisy and chaotic. The tenants of the nemojip seemed peaceful because they endured failure and adversity, not because it didn’t exist in their lives. Maybe people here lived with more despair than anywhere else, but they held on.
Even still, every so often, your struggles became apparent. This was due to sound, not visibility through glass. Like, the sound coming from outside right at that moment. The owner’s second son had come over late after drinking and was threatening his parents. He hurled abuse at the old couple and threw things. The son’s grievance with the couple, and the couple’s wish for their son to live an upright life were carried directly over to us without any filter. Even as we sat in our rooms, we came to know all about their problems. But none of us opened our doors and went to quiet them or stop them. We were familiar with these problems, but they were not our problems. With our lights on, or maybe off, we’d nod in sympathy and think about the seasons of our own lives. We were reminded of past trials, ones we’d endured privately. I thought the son was like my little sister—he swore when he felt like crying. How he wanted to cry. The old couple didn’t curse their son; they cried instead. “We can’t do any more for you than we’ve already done,” they protested.
It was Christmas Eve.
In other years, we’d get together with friends or lovers and carouse around downtown, eating and drinking. This year, though, the weather was cold, we couldn’t shake the prevailing mood of failure and frustration, and downtown was just too far away, so my sister and I decided to spend the day in our room, just the two of us. Come to think of it, it was the first time I’d spent Christmas Eve with a family member since my elementary school days. We clinked our beer cans together, observing that there’s a short phase in everyone’s life when their perspective is warped and they prefer spending special days with friends and lovers over family members. To create a more festive mood, perhaps, my sister rummaged through boxes of knick-knacks and took out a scented candle. It looked like a gift, but I didn’t know when we’d received it or from whom, or when we had last used it and put it into storage. Inside its discolored glass holder, the candle was covered in dust. Although it seemed to have hardened to the point that it wouldn’t light or give off a scent, once we placed it in the middle of the room, it filled the space with incandescent light and a pleasing aroma. It was only a single candle, but it lent our pitiful space a bit of Christmas cheer, and when our hands got cold holding our beer cans, we moved them near the candle to warm them.
As we were discussing what came to mind when we thought of Christmas, we heard a group of people coming into the courtyard all at once. My sister and I held our breath and listened for what would come next. In a moment, we heard someone announce, “A blessed Christmas to all,” followed shortly by the sound of a group singing “Silent Night.” It appeared they were young carolers from a local church going from house to house. On a night that couldn’t be any more silent, we listened to this song with great solemnity. The space grew cozy and we felt at peace. Christmas can come here, I mused. Perhaps somehow there were people who hadn’t known it was Christmas tomorrow, and the carolers were informing them. Even if you had no one to meet and no events to attend, Christmas would exist for you through knowing that it did. Right when the song ended and I was feeling sorry for myself, wishing they would stay, they continued with another song. A quiet song, of course. They usually abided by a rule of one song per house. I wondered if they sang two because they knew more than one family lived here. At any rate, these were songs you could hear at home without having to go downtown, songs for the people left behind.
The carolers left and we had almost finished the beer. I had to go to the bathroom anyway, so I stopped in the courtyard. It was snowing, and to my surprise, lights were ablaze in all nine rooms. I let out an involuntary cry of delight. Why aren’t you downtown this evening? We all have different reasons, but we all prefer to be home. I felt like I’d heard them give the same answer to my question. Lit rooms. They looked like a string of bulbs around an old tree—a Christmas tree.
Around midnight, however, there was an incident and one of the bulbs went out. It was time to go to bed, so I’d gotten up to clear away the scattered dishes and beer cans. Suddenly our door swung upon and someone came running in. The woman from Room 3. Wearing pajamas, her wet hair wrapped in a towel, she looked at us in terror and implored us to hide her. We didn’t have any hiding space in our tiny shoe box sized room, but she found somewhere sufficient. Opening the cover of a cheap plastic wardrobe, she climbed inside and my sister zipped it up. We quietly sat back down and pretended to drink as if nothing had happened. We heard someone opening each room door in turn, beginning at Room 1. Finally, the last door opened. Ours. A mountain of a man, reeking of booze, cast his bloodshot eyes over the room as if looking for someone.
“Ajeosshi, who the hell do you think you are? You can’t just go around opening people’s doors!”
My sister cursed the man, but rather than say sorry or give an apologetic look, he glared at us for a while and then shut the door. When he was gone, my sister unzipped the plastic cover to find the woman crouched down shivering like someone who’d been out in a snowstorm. Even though we assured her it was all right, she wasn’t ready to leave the wardrobe. Only when we stuck a spoon through the rings on the door to lock it did she come out and relax a little.
“My ex-boyfriend. He says he’ll never let me go. He’ll die first.”
She’d been tracked down by her ex on Christmas Eve, one of the days when you’re supposed to go out with your partner on a fancy date. Her eyes wild as if she was having a nightmare, she feared for the future. How had someone she’d loved and depended on change into an apparition from whom she wanted only to escape? We asked if she would like police assistance, but she shook her head as if for some sad reason this was impossible. She said she expected him back, so she slept with us in our room that night. The room was so small our shoulders touched, sleeping three abreast in an area that had formerly slept two. The woman started if the window rattled even slightly, but my sister and I took turns making conversation and she soon felt calmer.
Then in the dark, as if to herself, she said, “As long as I was here, I didn’t think he’d be able to find me . . .”
So that was why she’d stayed here for two years. Not just because the rent was cheap.
“Even this place is a home to some.”
“Was it because Christmas could come here?”
The day after Christmas, she moved somewhere else in the middle of the night, as if she were running away. Maybe she’d found somewhere even more remote—a place where Christmas didn’t come. We no longer had the bicycle available to ride.
The man from Room 5 did his laundry often, perhaps because he wanted to watch the soap suds. Was it that he wanted to watch the waves crash in the ocean? The laundry room was the one place we always bumped into each other, but we didn’t say hi. We just attended to our laundry. Somehow it felt natural, perhaps because we’d done it from the outset, and not acknowledging each other became a manner of greeting. I found out that simply seeing a person and thinking, “There he is” was a way of sharing space with someone that minimized awkwardness. Well, it was because we hadn’t needed words yet. After someone first spoke, maybe unintentionally, the time we’d spent not acknowledging each other would be erased. Maybe I was also betting as to who would break the silence first.
After her knee healed, my sister had gone out every day seeking work, but for the past few days she’d been lying idly on the heat pad, not moving. She was furiously exchanging text messages with someone.
A problem arose at my daycare that day. A child abuse complaint was filed, and the police came to our facility to secure CCTV footage. They said that pinch marks had been discovered in multiple places on a boy’s thighs and forearms. The supervising teacher was under suspicion. She jumped up and down insisting it had nothing to do with her—the marks had come about when the children had been fighting over a toy. The daycare was in chaos. The panicked director was barely hanging on after fielding dozens of calls from concerned parents. Amid the turmoil, the teachers were delayed leaving by two hours or more.
I got home to find my sister waiting for me. After shaking off her lethargy, she’d gotten up and hung the laundry, and set the dinner dishes out and covered them with a cloth.
I had quite an appetite after coming home so late, and I helped myself to a second serving. I was just savoring my first bite of it when my sister said, “Eonni” in a low voice. She had something to tell me.
“You know Fumiko, right?”
Fumiko was a Japanese exchange student who’d attended university with my sister. Wanting to speed up the language learning process, my sister addressed Fumiko often in Japanese. And Fumiko, too, took every chance to address my sister in Korean. Foreign languages brought them together. Even though Fumiko returned to Japan after graduation, they were close enough to still exchange greetings over email. I bit off a piece of soft rolled omelet made with milk.
“Fumiko says the economy is booming. They have a shortage of workers there, not a shortage of employment. Shops have to close because they can’t find staff. She even says they’d like to have Korean university students trained and sent over.”
I quietly set my spoon down on the table.
“Fumiko says lots of young people work hourly jobs, and they do as well as salaried employees because the wages are so high. I’d be much better off doing the same thing in Japan. I’d improve my Japanese working there, and I could look into the prospect of salary work, too. If things were really hard, then I could fall back on teaching Korean.”
My sister had an enterprising spirit; she was more fearless than me and less anxious about the future. She thought you could worry about obstacles once you came to them; for her, there was no point in dreading the future. Her plan wouldn’t work for me, but it would work for her. She already seemed excited. Was it that she was just happy to be out of here?
“And living arrangements?”
“Fumiko said I could stay at her house for a while.”
I thought, Was this all because of the bathroom? Was it simply because she wanted to drink water more freely? But, Japan . . . For some reason, it seemed even more remote than where we were.
“There are lots of earthquakes, and then there’s the radiation problem to consider. Won’t your health suffer? Don’t you think it’s dangerous to go there?”
“Fumiko lives in Osaka. It’s a ways from Fukushima. It’ll be okay.”
“If you’re calculating it that way, then Korea isn’t far from Japan, either.”
It looked like she’d already decided.
“Is Fumiko a good friend?” I asked out of concern for possible anti-Korean sentiment.
“She’s fair-minded, and she likes Korean people.”
I was quiet.
“Are you worried for me?”
“Just think of it as me going abroad for language training.”
“Yeah, language training.”
“It sounds much better when you put it like that.”
“I really wanted to go when I was in university. I was the only one of my friends who couldn’t.”
“It’s also weird that someone who makes their living speaking Japanese has never been to Japan.”
“But you said there aren’t many swear words in Japanese. How will you get by?”
“If there’s something to swear about, then Korean it is. I have to use Korean to feel like I’m really swearing.”
“It’s great for the Japanese that there are so many jobs. But it’s not so great to be exposed to radiation.”
“Won’t Korea be entering this economic phase soon, too? We aren’t just going to stay at the bottom forever. And when more jobs open up, I’ll be back.”
My sister was younger than me, but she was bold and mature. She was going to live in a country fraught with misfortune and disaster and come back alive.
In a roundabout way, she showed she was worried about leaving me. “Will you come, too?” she asked.
“How can I go? I don’t know Japanese.”
“Even if you don’t know the language, there’ll still be more job opportunities there than here. The economy is booming, you know.”
For a minute, I was lost in thought. I was concerned about the daycare situation, but I didn’t bring it up. I understood full well what she was saying. She knew I wouldn’t come, but she asked me along anyway. She asked because she was sorry to leave me here alone.
“Are you feeling uneasy about the radiation?”
I didn’t reply.
“Eonni, you want to live a long life, don’t you? I don’t.”
I knew her reason for going to Japan. Even if she didn’t want to live long, she had to live for the time being.
“My dreams are here,” I said.
If you were where your dreams were, wherever that was, you could endure. My sister could, and I could too.
The daycare would cease operations the following day, and it was to be formally shut down. The supervising teacher had been going through depression, and her guilt had been confirmed. Two more victims had been discovered among the children. Actually, it didn’t matter that the school was going to be shut down; parents weren’t sending their children there anyway after hearing of the police involvement. Most of the children were absent that day. Because I was just an assistant teacher without a lot of belongings stored there, I came out of the school relatively unburdened. On the way home, I could stop at the market and fill my arms with groceries.
I walked fast, worried the food I bought would get cold. I was breathing hard, puffing clouds of white breath between the fluttering snowflakes. Thinking it’d be great to have a bike, I recalled the face of the woman in Room 3. The lights grew sparse, and the darkness deepened as I got closer to home. The north wind was cold and harsh. But here, too, there were houses, people living, and streaks of light. I had the feeling that a pattern had formed on my body after I’d moved out here. It would be manifest in my words at some unknown future point. I walked more quickly with the conviction that the pattern would be of help to someone.
I was almost home. Thank goodness the food was still hot. The dishes were all things my sister liked and would miss. Since this was the last night before she left for Japan, she’d be packing her bags excitedly. Soon she’d be able to drink all the water she wanted. I decided not to dampen her spirits by telling her about the daycare.
I passed through the rusty open gate and stood in the center of the courtyard for a minute to catch my breath. When I was breathing calmly, I counted the number of lit rooms. There were five. After my sister left, I’d spend more time counting the lights on in the nemojip. Then I heard someone call me from behind. The sound, low and quiet like someone talking to himself, skimmed past me.
“You’re a little later than usual.”
It was the man from Room 5. He went into his room and flipped on the light switch, suffusing his door with yellow light. Now the tally had come to six. Calling my sister’s name, I opened the door to Room 9.