Go Hyunjin graduated from college, took a job as a team secretary at an insurance firm, and got married. The man she married was an actuary. Hyunjin wasn’t responsible for his division, but they worked on the same floor, so he was someone she ran into often. Her parents had never heard of an insurance actuary. If the word “insurance” hadn’t been at the front of his job title, they would have guessed he was an “eggs-uary,” whose work had something to do with chickens.
Her first-ever job ended with her starring in a big, officewide scandal. When she quit work ahead of her wedding, she’d gotten serious side-eye from the people around her. Looks that said she’d gotten lucky, or that it wouldn’t last long. Hyunjin was twenty-six at the time.
“Well, I’ll either make it or get divorced, right?” she’d cackle, leaning to one side. “I’ll be fine as long as I get a lot of alimony.” She said this to friends and strangers alike in an effort not to feel too slighted. But in the course of repeating the words, she began to believe them herself.
Her marriage came to an end sooner than she’d expected. That ninth-floor apartment in Jamsil, the multicolored tiles patterning the floor at the entrance, the air freshener smell that had seeped into the car seats. She remembered it all vividly, she said, but still found it hard to believe she had been there, too.
She moved out of the apartment and back into her parents’ home in Gyeonggi-do. Even when she and her family butted heads, she toughed it out. After she’d taken a year or so off, an acquaintance set her up with a job at an art hagwon. While teaching art to the kids, she began drawing comics here and there and publishing them for free. Three days a week, she taught her classes, and it was unclear what she did outside of that time, but she was always busy. Calls from her family came often, and it seemed like she was seeing a new guy.
I knew next to nothing about Hyunjin’s life—whom she spent her weekends with, whether she had close friends—besides the bits and pieces she told me herself. Through the spring, summer, and fall of that year, I saw her once a month, and each time, we met up somewhere different to talk. We sought out unfamiliar spots in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Places devoid of familiar things, where even the view outside the window was alien. Places without a crushed pillow to conjure thoughts of last night’s sleep, or a wax candle, hollow in the middle, that brought to mind the time you’d spent with someone who once gave you one just like it as a gift. In places with familiar objects arranged in familiar ways, our conversation might also travel a familiar route, along a groove that seemed to have been carved out for it. Almost nothing we said was for the sake of growing closer. Our bodies, too, never touched. Come to think of it, the whole world is full of useless words and gestures! When we talked, there were times I felt like I was sitting in front of a camcorder, a primary witness delivering my statement. Once I began and my focus shifted toward the story I was telling, my posture loosened up slowly, but all the while, my sense of awareness was as tense as when I walked down a vacant road alone on a very cold night.
The farthest place we went was Ganghwa-do. We took Hyunjin’s mother’s old Hyundai Avante. The light that flooded my vision as we crossed Ganghwa Bridge was bright enough to momentarily blind me. When that moment passed, we came to an island on the other side. The old, deserted condo Hyunjin had booked for us had balcony windows all facing the sea.
Before we went in, we took a walk along the beach. It was mid-September, the worst of the summer heat gone. The sand still held its warmth, and the wind was cool. Three old people wearing bucket hats floated side by side on the horizon, joined at the elbows in a chain. The one in the middle had slightly sagging breasts, so I couldn’t tell whether they were a grandma or grandpa. The sky was a dreary gray, but bright enough that it hurt to look at the sea for more than a few seconds.
“Them over there—are they grannies?” I asked Hyunjin, squinting to see the three old people. It was hard to find a focal point among all the glimmers of light reflecting off the water as the waves tossed nonstop. I directed Hyunjin’s attention toward them with my eyes. “That one in the middle,” I said. “It looks like she’s taking off her top.”
Hyunjin lifted her sunglasses for a moment to look. “That’s a grandpa. They’re one hundred percent grandpas! You have your contacts in and you can’t see that?”
She burst into her oh ho ho laugh. It was a peculiar laugh, abrupt and actressy. Laughing like that with a cigarette in her hand, she struck me as an enterprising madam-type character in a movie, so crass. By then, I had known her for half a year, but hearing her mood-souring laugh on that otherwise tranquil beach, I tensed up. It was a laugh that made me realize we were strangers with no real affiliation—just two people who’d somehow ended up sitting side by side on this beach, yes, that and nothing more.
Some of the old people sitting in the shade of the spindly pine trees turned to look at us. Stackable lunch boxes spread out around them, a colorful array of fruits. A lone bottle of makgeolli rolled over the rugged ground. There was hardly anyone on the entire beach, and the people there aside from me and Hyunjin were all old. Was this a well-known picnic spot for seniors, or was that just a coincidence?
Two old men doused their arms and chests with water and went into the sea. They didn’t have on swimming trunks, just loose boxer shorts.
Hyunjin’s eyes widened. “Let’s go,” she said firmly, “before they come back out.”
Before I met Go Hyunjin, I already knew her by name. And that wasn’t the only thing I knew about her. I’d been invited to some get-together back in April, and H, having heard Hyunjin would be there, asked me to tell her how much he loved her comics.
I entered the name “Go Hyunjin” into a Google search bar. Image boxes, big and small, flooded my monitor. After scrolling through rows of unrelated image results and pictures of people with the same name, I found a single photo of her. Her face was wholly unremarkable—that was my first impression. I sighed with relief, then sat up straight and examined the picture more carefully. It had been taken from quite close up. Thick eyebrows, sharp features, and there was something ineffable about the taut line of her mouth. She looked as rough as a farm girl.
The get-together was held at a place near Nonhyeon Station. It was on the first floor of the building, the whole interior of which was visible through the glass. I was having a surprisingly nice chat with the man sitting next to me. Every word he said was streamlined for efficiency, and he had deeply practical values. He’d won a webtoon showcase competition and was now working several part-time jobs as he mapped out his next project. When you threw away your useless pride, he said, you found ways to keep at your work. Between jobs, he worked as an assistant or part-timer on various gigs. And he believed, in the grand scheme of things, all of this would be helpful for his art.
It was awkward at first, but I slowly began making conversation, too. The man brought up Hyunjin—she would be there soon, he said, and the two of us seemed like we would hit it off. He thought she was quite unique.
“She’s got character.” He beamed as though he were talking about his own younger sister. “You’ll see what I mean.”
“You think so?”
“I do. She’s an interesting one.”
His attitude irked me. Was this woman a star or something? Why was everyone talking about her?
The man told me Hyunjin’s comics were getting a lot of attention, and he’d heard positive reviews from the people in his circles. I tilted my head. From what I could tell, hers was a simple, slice-of-life webtoon unable to shed its amateur coat. Reading it was like watching someone calmly unravel the yarn of her own life.
“A lot of first-person comics have been coming out lately,” the man said. “I think they’re having quite a moment, what with so many good ones coming out at once.” He topped off my glass. “Are you interested in that genre, Junhee? I really envy women writers for it.”
“Why? If that’s what interests you, why not give it a try?”
“Well, everyone’s different, but I couldn’t do it. Having to have your own story to tell, having to be so sensitive to every little thing in order to tell it—I couldn’t pull it off.”
That was when she appeared. My back was to the entrance, so I only realized she’d arrived once she was already at the table. I felt a piece of something slip out from the bottom of my chest the moment I looked up. As one must in the face of the completely unexpected, I tried my best to maintain my composure. Hyunjin had a mature look to her that her photo had not done any justice. Her features were exactly as they’d been depicted, but the effect was totally different. Her long dark hair and eyes gleamed, and she wore a bold red lipstick. The thin cardigan that hung to her knees allowed for a glimpse of the ample curves underneath.
Once Go Hyunjin joined us at the table, I hardly said another word. I tried to speak up, but I couldn’t stop staring. I didn’t know a single woman who went around wearing lipstick in such an absolute shade of red. But it suited her. On top of that, I couldn’t get a clear read on her or determine the type of person she was. She was merciless in calling people on their bluffs, but she wasn’t snide.
“You’re fully aware that you’re weird, right?” she’d say. “Seriously. You’re not normal.” Then she’d throw her head back and oh ho ho laugh.
She could be a bit off balance at times, but I saw even that as attractive. Had H been there, he would have found her so captivating. I was certain he wouldn’t have been able to take his eyes off her or stop the praise and laughter from pouring out of his stupid mouth.
The more I looked at her, the more it hurt to look. There I was, alone under the lights at this huge and noisy table. In the midst of this bustle of glowing faces, a lifeless smile hung suspended on mine. My heart festered. I looked at her through H’s eyes, torturing myself and being endlessly tortured by the thought that I had become him. As though H were there, I could imagine his face watching her, his expressions in reaction to what she was saying. I felt an emotion that was not unfamiliar, but that hadn’t been to visit me in a long time. H, the model-student type who yearned for a taste of deviance, couldn’t have helped falling in love with that sort of woman. How could anyone not fall for her when she was candid, daring, and, most importantly, gorgeous? At her young age, she’d already been divorced. Nothing about H was nearly as interesting.
I kept watching Hyunjin. She didn’t seem like a woman who would have an ounce of interest in a boring teacher’s pet like H. Still, knowing this did nothing to console me. It only brought more pain. The one thing I took comfort in was the fact that he wasn’t there. In my mind, he’d already confessed his love to her. Rather than have to watch the scene play out in front of me, I decided I would stop seeing him altogether.
There was a man at the table who kept getting shut out of the conversation. Realizing he wasn’t going to get a response to anything he said, he resigned himself to just sitting and observing us all with a wistful look in his eyes. Before I knew it, his seat was empty again. Some people had seen him leave but didn’t seem to care whether he’d stepped out briefly for a call or just gone home. Once he left, the table stirred with talk of him. His string of failures and oversensitive personality, the victim mentality that had grown steadily over time and now seemed to be a serious disorder.
Hyunjin took his side. “Still, I’ve never heard him badmouth anyone. He has the warmest heart. He’ll hear you had a death in the family and will be the first one to come by and pay his respects.”
“Maybe that’s because he has nowhere else to be.”
I had no idea why those words suddenly left my mouth. I’d murmured them as a joke, expecting other people to laugh.
I looked up and found Hyunjin’s expressionless face watching me.
“What did you just say?”
Ah, come on, the people next to her were saying.
“Who is she?” Hyunjin demanded. She turned to the other people at the table and told them I’d taken it too far. “He doesn’t deserve to be spoken about like that.”
We kept hearing banging sounds overhead from the jokbal restaurant on the second floor of the building, so we moved down to the bar in the basement. There was a no-smoking booth, but the air all around us was dense with smog. Everyone at our table had cigarettes in their hands. She sat down next to me and suddenly asked, “We can drop the formalities, right?” She sounded friendly and slightly terrifying at the same time.
“Later, when we’re all leaving, let’s head out together, us ladies,” she said.
We all split into two cabs. I didn’t know where we were headed. The driver lowered the window halfway and took off. I didn’t feel the least bit drunk, but each time I tried to speak and wound up panting the words a bit, I realized that wasn’t true. You’re drunk, and this is dangerous. You’d better watch it, I thought. I was exhausted and restless being so far from home. I should go, I thought, but my body was in the backseat of that taxi, headed somewhere else. I could see her at a skewed angle where she sat in the passenger seat, face pale. Her eyes were closed. I kept staring at her. Like a woman who can’t take her eyes off her husband’s lover.
The women crammed around the table on the floor had drunk three bottles of red wine among the five of us. The lights were off and little candles had been set out all around us, casting a red glow on the walls. The place was a work studio for women in their forties, and they had proper wine glasses, big and round. Drinking from them, we could distinguish the point at which a sweetness began to emerge from the bitterness. And the point at which the alcohol got stronger. We weren’t full yet, and the drinks kept coming. I sat with my legs crossed, my back against the cool wall. I straightened up and cleared my throat for no reason.
“Did you two make up?”
A middle-aged woman set down a dish full of plump strawberries and looked at Hyunjin and me.
“Who?” asked the oldest woman there. “When did the two of them fight?”
“Eh, you call that a fight?”
“Give her a little kiss, as a sign that you made up.”
Everyone had something to say.
“What are they talking about?” Hyunjin said. “These ladies are a trip, I swear.”
“Why? Can’t do it? What was that?”
“Ah, seriously. They must be insane.” Hyunjin oh ho ho laughed. “Sure, all right—how about I give you a kiss?” She turned to the older woman next to her and planted a smooch on her. It wasn’t clear whether their lips had really touched. Everyone laughed like it was nothing—a joke.
In that moment, a certain feeling came over me. A pulse that began somewhere at the bottom of my stomach and spread out to fill me completely. It was a feeling different from jealousy. It pierced me so deeply I couldn’t move. I closed my eyes in the midst of the chaos. It was a strong attraction. A powerful desire. Like a magnet, my entire body was drawn toward her. I realized then that I wanted Hyunjin to kiss me. I could have stood up right then and kissed her, too. As a joke. With that same big smooching sound. But I wasn’t close enough to her to joke around like that. Maybe I was the only one who felt the uneasy current flowing between us. I sat there like I’d been nailed to that spot. Once I had broken free of the spell, I could smile a little and offer some replies to what other people were saying. But I still couldn’t shake that feeling I’d had of being pinned in place.
After a while, Hyunjin climbed onto the bunk in the corner and fell asleep facing the wall. The one time I glanced up from where I sat on the floor, still drinking, I could see her shoulders and back. It was 4:40 am. In two hours, she had to be up early and heading out. She’d said she had classes all day. I could clearly picture her—sitting on a small chair, face pale, frock mottled with paint—as though I had seen her there before. She would joke around with the kids to mask her exhaustion. Then she’d go to the bathroom to wash her hands and quietly study herself in the mirror. She might skip lunch in exchange for a nap on the sofa.
If H were here picturing her like this, he’d be so sad. Because as big a playboy as he was, he could be absurdly earnest when it came to a woman he liked. After Hyunjin went to bed, I put my head down on the table, not wanting to talk anymore. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. I couldn’t tell who was slowly starting to worry for her—me or the H in my imagination.
After that, I sought out Hyunjin’s comics again. Usually, writers used pseudonyms when they were telling stories based on their real lives, but Hyunjin published hers under her real name. The artwork was rudimentary. She either didn’t know how to draw anything but simple lines, or else it was her style to forgo precision and elegance. That much hadn’t changed. But now, behind each panel, things I hadn’t seen before emerged like shadows. A deep sense of melancholy contoured even the simplest line.
The strangest thing about the comics was her own inferiority complex. After her divorce, Hyunjin had returned to her parents’ home in Gyeonggi-do where she’d grown up and was living with her extended family, including her grandparents. She rendered that way of life in such detail. The edged conversations, the hurtful words they’d exchanged. In several lines of dialogue, she casually and incessantly described herself as useless, fat, unlovable. She said she’d been that way since she was a child. How could she believe that? There wasn’t a single line about her boldness, her enticing charm. Had no one told her she possessed these traits? Had there not been even one person who’d said those words to her?
I’d thought Hyunjin was a woman any man would fall for. But I couldn’t tell whether the things I saw as attractive appeared that way to other people. When I told her this, Hyunjin tipped her head back and oh ho ho laughed out loud.
Now that she sat before me under the mid-day sun, I had frozen up. I didn’t know how to lead the conversation. I began to regret having called her. I’d hesitated for a few days, wondering whether I should reach out or wait for these feelings to fade, scatter, evaporate. In the end, the desire to see her one more time won out. The moment I pressed the Call button, shifting my decision into action, I felt my world slipping through my fingers like sand. My heart pounded.
When she realized who I was, she seemed taken aback. Keeping my voice light as though it didn’t matter to me either way, I asked if she wanted to meet up again. I called her Unni—a term of endearment.
“You’re scaring me,” she said. “You sure you’re not gonna beat me up?”
I was dumbstruck. My hands were clammy with sweat. “Why would I beat you up?”
“Didn’t we almost get into it last time? God, I drank so much that day.”
And now, here she was, sitting before me, live and in motion—Go Hyunjin, completely unaware of how I felt, laughing her heart out with an incredulous look on her face.
“I really thought you were gonna hit me,” she said. “I thought you were seriously crazy.”
I felt intimidated. “I’m just being honest. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
I still couldn’t believe it. Had no one told her that before? Anyone? Even her ex-husband?
After a long moment of silence, she said, “But I can’t tell if you mean that.”
I looked at her, unsure what she was saying.
“I heard H told you to tell me,” she said, “that he liked my comics.”
My stomach sank. Her red lips moved cruelly around the words.
“If I’m remembering correctly, H came up a lot that day. There were so many chances. Why didn’t you say anything?” She looked right at me, as if mocking me.
“Well,” she continued, “I’m sure you had your reasons.”
I realized I would never see Hyunjin again. Of course—this was the kind of person she was. She had this side to her. I’d met her exactly once and then rewritten her to fit my desires. Despite all my misreadings and mysticizing, she was simply who she was.
She narrowed her eyes at me. “What? Are you interested in him?” And again, she oh ho ho laughed. “Isn’t he a married man?”
On my way home, I stopped by a café to be alone with my thoughts. I exist in the world, and I make contact with it. With my eyes, my body. But there were other things that slipped in gently, shimmering in the space between me and the world. They clearly situated themselves on the divide like another layer of skin. Sometimes, I felt like they were all inside me. Their voices clamored in my head like ghosts trapped in a sack, fighting and shouting over one another. Like I wasn’t just one person, but many.
Lush green leaves swayed outside the second-floor window. A four-lane road stretched out below. I looked out for a long while at the street brimming with life. But even when I believe I’m looking at something, just how much of it am I really seeing with my own eyes?
That incident somehow led to the start of an inexplicable relationship. Slowly, we started talking. We took turns deciding on the place. Once a month, we met up and talked about the interesting people you meet in life, those eccentric characters, our travels. We swapped stories we never got the chance to tell anyone else, disjointed ramblings that mattered only to us.
We went to an inn in the heart of Namdaemun Market that had been there since 1980 and to a pension near Uidong Valley. We went on strolls along the peaceful banks of the Han River in the early summer evenings and even tried out the multi-rooms mostly frequented by teens. The places were just empty backgrounds that shouldn’t have mattered, but they did. Hyunjin and I never got close. We didn’t try to. There was a side to her that scared me. Was it a fear born of ignorance, of all the unknowns? We’d had completely different upbringings, which were reflected in the sorts of people we knew. Whenever I think back on some memory of the two of us, I always recall her doing something I couldn’t stand. Asking me for favors I couldn’t possibly do, trying to manipulate me in front of people who mattered to me. These situations were all that ever came to mind. Even so, I believed I knew her then. For a long time, that’s what I thought.
Thinking back on it now, I’m surprised by how deep we went when making conversation. The idea of “making love” comes to mind, turning our “making conversation” into a covert, erotic act. We swapped memories the way people swap saliva, and . . . Just what was it I wanted to do with Hyunjin?
Once, we went to the home of a total stranger. It was a studio on the steep hillside of Donggyo-ro. The exterior of the building was coated in white paint, and there were lattice windows in the halls. Nowadays, that street is lined with little shops opened by all the young chefs, florists, and leather craftsmen who’d returned from abroad, but back then, it was a quiet residential area some ways away from the busy Hongdae streets. There was a laundromat with its front sign hanging off and a salon with a devoted clientele of neighborhood ajummas. Recently, I went back to that area and found out the entire building we’d stayed in had been turned into a guesthouse.
It was an impromptu affair. I’d found a flyer taped up by a graduate student at the Hongdae College of Fine Arts. From one pm on Saturday to one pm on Sunday, she would rent out her home. To a single person or a couple. During that time, the house would be completely yours. You could do anything you wanted inside as long as you were considerate of the neighbors. Anything within the law, of course. You could cook, watch tv, use all the appliances that had been left out. There was no fee, but there was one condition: you had to leave a photo. “No need to show your face.” It was up to you. If you wanted, you could take one below the neck, one of only your arm, one from behind. The student might later create something out of these photos, or she might not.
The apartment was on the fourth floor. There was no elevator, and we climbed the low staircase that spiraled along the walls. As we ascended the stairs, I grew worried. The moment I’d seen Hyunjin smoking a cigarette outside the subway station exit, my confidence had vanished. We’d always sought out places that could have been used by anyone, places without an individual owner, that didn’t even smell of other people. This time, I might have made a mistake.
When I pressed in the four-digit code on the keypad, the lock slowly turned. The door opened to reveal a surprisingly spacious studio, long and rectangular. The only thing in the entryway was an old pair of brown house slippers. I couldn’t bring myself to step inside and lingered at the entrance.
“Hello,” Hyunjin called out in greeting, sliding out of her shoes as though the homeowner were inside. Then she set her bag on the floor and began to look around. There was a single window in the center of the wall opposite the entrance and to the right of that was a balcony. Hyunjin opened the window first, then slid open the balcony door.
“There’s a mannequin here,” she said, pointing to the corner. At the end of the narrow balcony, there was a clean, armless mannequin. Standing out there, the roof of the building across the way was near enough to cross over to. Clotheslines loosely traversed the rooftop garden, but for some reason, wet plastic bags hung on the lines instead of laundry. All of them, the same yellow plastic. The yellow bags, neatly bitten by clothespins with their ends pointed up, shook in the wind like a bloom of jellyfish against the backdrop of the blue November sky.
Hyunjin took up her skirt in both hands and fell back into an armchair.
“It’s a nice place. So tidy,” she said, as if to pat me on the back.
“Doesn’t look like there’s a bed.”
“True. Must be why it’s so spacious.”
There was a small table and chair, as well as a dense row of clothes hanging up inside an Ikea wardrobe. A row of silver frames housing photographs sat atop a waist-high bookshelf. The photos all seemed to have been taken in different countries, but the people in them were the same.
“I think I’ve been there.”
Hyunjin went over and picked up one of the frames. In the photo, a woman with a small face wore a dress that hung down to her ankles and smile-frowned against the glaring sun. She was standing beside a stone statue that looked like an ancient relic.
“This is in Istanbul,” Hyunjin said. “I took a photo in front of it, too. There was this older Turkish man who’d asked where I was from. When I told him, he shouted, ‘Korea! What the hell’s going on in Korea?’ All the tourists he’d seen were young Korean women. They were all just pouring in.”
I’d heard something like this before, too. When I was in Hawai‘i. I thought I should mention it then, the Hawai‘i story. I had come prepared to tell her something else, but as soon as we stepped foot in the house, any will I’d had to talk about the other thing had vanished.
When I was taking classes as an exchange student at the University of Hawai‘i, one of my professors had been a Native Hawaiian woman. She taught a class on modern American history. She was petite but muscular, with the arms and legs of a marathon runner. Her skin was the color of chocolate. She had introduced herself as a descendant of the Hawaiian royal family. She taught us that until very recently, only those of royal blood could attend the Kamehameha Schools from which she’d graduated.
I visited Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on American soil. Out of pure curiosity, I’d wanted to know what the Hawaiian royals had worn long ago, how they’d decorated their rooms and how they’d lived, but to my surprise, Iolani Palace was a completely Western-style building.
I crossed the manicured lawn and went around to the palace rear to see the White Window. It wasn’t hard to find, seeing as tourists were crowded around it, all their heads looking up at the same thing. The White Window was just like a work of art in a frame. The only difference was that it was hung up in a rather high spot. After attempting to incite a revolt, the last queen, Lili‘uokalani, had been imprisoned in her bedroom. To ensure that she couldn’t see her own land or people, white businessmen had coated her window in white paint. The day before in lecture, our professor had claimed that the falls of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the Korean Empire were quite analogous. Indeed, their queen and our empress had lived similar lives and met similarly tragic ends. The professor knew a lot about Korea. At the end of World War II, she said, Korea had been able to reclaim its sovereignty, while Hawai‘i had not.
As soon as you entered the palace, there were photos of the queen inside a glass display. In the noble face of the middle-aged Lili‘uokalani, I saw the familiar faces of Korean ajummas. Her skin was dark, her hair fluffed with curls, and she wore a sleeveless dress that revealed her thick forearms. The table and dinnerware she’d used had been placed on display inside a Versailles cabinet, but each item seemed indistinguishable from the next. Then there were the enormous jewels she’d purchased on a trip to England. Those beautifully crafted stones that would never fade, that continue to shine brilliantly to this day.
She’d sought to rebel against the white men and take back her palace, but had decorated the palace interior in the Western style and adorned herself in Western dresses and jewels. Even more than her dynasty, collapsed and lost to history, what saddened me was her tastes. Why were those things seen as more beautiful? Why were their features and proportions seen as refined, their cities and roads and buildings so heartbreakingly stunning, their homes and clothes and even their dinnerware so grand? Why couldn’t anyone help but envy them?
At that moment, Hyunjin uncrossed and lowered her legs from the sofa. “What was that noise?”
“That—oh, there it was again. Did you hear it?”
It was a dull sound, like someone beating a heavy rug or carpet. I’d heard it a few times while I’d been telling the story, but it had only barely registered in my mind. I’d thought it was just something or other happening outside.
Then came the sound again. And again.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore—not even a consistent noise, at that. So annoying.” Hyunjin slid open the mosquito screen and poked her head outside. “Ah! It was there!”
Hyunjin pointed to the building next door. A thick black line hung slack around the rooftop wall. It might have been a cable wire or something similar. The sound we heard at the exact moment the line swayed in the wind and hit the wall matched the sound we’d been hearing before.
“So this was what was making all that noise,” Hyunjin said admiringly. I was embarrassed about having been cut off so abruptly, but I went over to where she stood. The building next door loomed ahead. The side we were facing was a huge, bright red wall without a single window. It was so tall that even with my head tipped all the way back, I could barely see the top. Had there really been a building like that next door when we were coming in? I didn’t remember seeing it.
The wind wasn’t blowing that hard, but the line wobbled violently and slapped the wall again. For a while, Hyunjin watched through the window. Suddenly, something H had said about Hyunjin came to mind. Funnily enough, H hadn’t shown any interest in her. He’d said she was rude and made him uncomfortable. “Doesn’t she have such a distinct laugh?” I’d asked him, and he’d said, “Her laugh? I mean, it is what it is,” as though he really didn’t know much about it.
We went back to our seats. I thought I must have had Lili‘uokalani’s autobiography somewhere. I’d have to look for it again when I got home. It was a paperback with a tiny picture of the queen on the cover. I’d come across it when I’d stopped by a used bookstore near the university. There was a section for tourists on one wall of the store with a dozen or so copies of Lili‘uokalani’s autobiography in stock. It was a book that had likely been passed down many times, each copy stained by someone else’s hands. I picked out the cleanest-looking one and brought it up to the counter.
“Korean?” a young Black man asked me smoothly as he handed back my change. When I nodded, he crinkled his eyes.
“Oahu’s a beautiful island, no?” he said. “Lots and lots of Koreans here.”
We spent the night in the house. On a whim, Hyunjin decided she wanted to sleep there. She liked the house and, knowing she would never be able to return, wanted to stay a while longer. It was a little past seven pm. The sky above the rooftop had gone dark. The plastic bags fluttered in the dusk.
“I could sleep here, too?” I said. “Unless you want to be alone.”
She didn’t seem to care either way.
I had plans that night, but I canceled them while Hyunjin was in the bathroom. After we’d ordered in bad Chinese food and set out the empty bowls, the mood grew awkward. Hyunjin turned on the television. All the entertainment programs had ended for the night, leaving only documentaries and news broadcasts on the air.
Hyunjin sat on the floor and kept changing the channels, but all we saw were commercials. I sat in the armchair behind her, playing games on my phone.
“Seriously,” Hyunjin muttered. “There’s no way Jun Jihyun uses a skin lotion that costs just ten thousand won a bottle. Are they kidding me?”
I looked up. It was a commercial for Roadshop Cosmetics.
“It’s just a commercial,” I said.
“Isn’t it strange, though? That they market things that way, and that we watch these ads like it’s nothing. It would be one thing if they didn’t say anything in the commercials at all. But what I hate the most is when they say ‘this is my beauty secret’ or whatever and try to play it off like they’re for real.”
I wondered why she was acting as if she’d never seen something like this before when I couldn’t go a day or two without seeing countless such commercials. Right after, there was one featuring an idol group of stick-thin and seemingly malnourished girls running around, each with an entire pizza to herself, shouting, “One more pie, please!” I burst out laughing at that one.
We turned off the lights and lay down before midnight. It seemed like she was having trouble falling asleep. Like the day I’d first met her, she lay facing the wall. There was an arm’s length between us. Across that span, I watched her shoulders quietly rise and fall.
“Junhee, are you seeing H?”
I opened my eyes in the dark. I couldn’t tell whether she was speculating, or whether she’d heard something about me and him. I was proud and, at the same time, embarrassed. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know if I should.
“So that’s what it was.”
“What do you mean?”
Hyunjin didn’t answer. Outside, I could hear the faint sound of the line hitting the wall. That dull, heavy sound, like a whip hitting water. I listened to that sound in the silence. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink, but in the end, sleep somehow came.
In the morning when I woke up, it was raining. The homeowner seemed to be the type who often went out without checking the weather forecast—on the bottom shelf of the shoe rack were several of the cheap plastic umbrellas they sold at convenience stores. We picked out two of them and left a ten thousand won bill on the table as payment, as well as a note. I wrote the note. Hyunjin took a photo of me as I did.
We went outside, each of us opening our umbrellas. When we came to the end of the side street, we would have to split up and go our separate ways. Hyunjin drew closer to me, and I let out a small sound as our lips met. Bye. I waved at her with the hand that wasn’t holding the umbrella, and in that moment, I thought she was so beautiful. That was the last I saw of her. I stood for a while, turning around and around in that spot. Then I started down the road alone, into the humid air suffused with exhaust fumes, into the early morning rain. In front of the minimart at the intersection, two men in blue vests were preparing to open up. As I stood at the crosswalk and waited for the light to change, I realized I’d meant to get a look at the building next door on my way out, but I forgot. Not long ago, when I went back there to visit, I looked up at the windows of the guesthouse and then turned to leave, having forgotten again.
From Still Days, by Kim Sehee. Copyright © 2019 Kim Sehee. Used by permission of Minumsa Publishing Co., Ltd. All rights reserved.