Fiction Spring 2018

“A Relatively Peaceful Day of Yours” – An Boyun

A Relatively Peaceful Day of Yours

by An Boyun
Translated by Janine Kruger

The name was born one step ahead of Yoo Jin.

At that time Yoo Jin was a gourd shape, suspended in her mother’s uterus. Her nest in the ultrasound picture was like a hollow eye, a coal-black cavity. “You see this spot in the picture? This is the heart.” The obstetrician said this while pointing at a black scribble that appeared as nothing more than a misprint, no matter how much you looked at it.

Yoo Jin’s dad opened his mouth wide and laughed. “The heartno way. It’s his penis. A penis. That guy’s going to be our family’s fifth-generation only son.”  

Yoo Jin was still closer to being a tangled malformation of blood vessels than to being a person. The infinitely transparent capillaries were far from clearly being the eyeballs, let alone a penis. Even before Yoo Jin did, her heart responded to her mother’s feelings, burbling along, pumping out a sound like the hacking of phlegm. On the way home from the obstetrician, Yoo Jin’s dad went into a boiled pork wrap place and ordered three servings of lean meat. “Yongsoo or Yongshik are too out of fashion. Yongjin will be good, right?”

Yoo Jin’s mom, nibbling at the yellow inside of a cabbage heart, nodded her head indifferently. Yoo Yongjin. Yoo Jin’s name was thus born, with the name Yong bravely stuck in the middle like the other male members of his family.*  

Yoo Jin, born one step behind, did not even weigh three kilograms. Hands were reaching from here and there with suction tubing and rubbing cream for around her eyes, counting the number of fingers and toes, and tugging on the umbilicus. Through all the fuss going on, Yoo Jin remained as she was, puzzled. The doctor slapped her buttocks to signal the end of the delivery, and her swollen face crumpled up as she burst into tears. It was the second time in Yoo Jin’s life that she cried. The first disappeared without a trace when it was sucked into the suction tubing.

“You’ve delivered a girl at 4:27 a.m.”

“Is it really, truly a baby girl?” Her mother asked urgently. The blood vessel, which had popped out on her forehead from exertion, was stiff as ever.

“She’s a beautiful princess.”

Yoo Jin’s mother went limp at the nurse’s words.

“But doctor, what is this?”

The nurse whispered while pointing at the gap between Yoo Jin’s legs.

“That’s exactly what it looks like when you poke a rice cake with a chopstick.”

There was no maternity specialty hospital in the area, and the doctor, who had had to deliver seven babies alone over the past three days, stood up with a tired, careworn face. Dripping wet rubber gloves fell to the ground with a dull thump.

The line of the umbilical cord was pressed from down below to the buttocks very gradually. The problem was a small mound that was drawn inwards like a tightly gripped fist. There were two holes formed in the flat crotch. The one creased with many fine wrinkles was the anus for sure; the remaining one had ambiguous identity. “Well, it’s not altogether blocked, and if urine and stool properly come out, it doesn’t matter.” The doctor, alone in accepting this, donned new gloves and began to sew up the mother’s perineum. There were two more mothers complaining of labor pains in the waiting room. Among these, one had a fetus of only 28 weeks, so they had an incubator with a ventilator on standby. For a hole that was already formed, there wasn’t enough extra energy to quibble about whether it was normal or not. “If you have time to stare at that kind of thing, at least go and grab the legs of a mother in the waiting room and hang them upside down so her labor won’t progress.”

The nurses started to move busily again after the doctor’s reprimand. Yoo Jin was already delivered, and they had too much work to do. The youngest nurse ran out of the delivery room like she had completely forgotten something. She was determined to let the mother’s guardian know the baby had been born safely and hint at the rice-cake hole.

There being an incomplete, perforated gap and not a penis, when Yoo Jin’s dad looked at the baby, the first thing he did was to take away the middle character from the name. Yoo Jin’s name became just Jin. Yoo Jin.

“Yoo Jin, what is your family name?” “It’s Yoo.” “So then, it’s Yoo Yoojin?” “No, it’s just Yoo, Jin.” “Oh, so it’s a single character name. Well then Jinno, Jinny. Um, would it be okay to just call you by your full name?” “Please do whatever you’d like.” Of course this kind of Q & A session happened over and over during self-introductions, and even when filling out trivial application forms. Yoo Jin got accustomed to the long excuses more so than to her name. Though several years had passed, what Yoo Jin hadn’t gotten used to was the drilled black path between Yoo and Jin, the sharp narrow gap where the ripped-out spot could be seen clearly.

Yoo Jin somehow grew up, and after she entered high school her parents even somehow had grounds for divorce. Her father, who used to mention the family’s fifth generation only son, fathered a son outside. He sent divorce papers to Yoo Jin’s mother, leaving her the apartment and a significant amount of alimony. Although Yoo Jin belonged to her father on paper, she gained independence from her father before the stepmother and new baby entered the house.

The reason was that the baby’s crying would hinder her studying. The boarding house she contracted was near school, and there was an older grandma there who took care of meals with more affection than Yoo Jin’s parents.  At least at the boarding house, Yoo Jin was not an inarticulate, gloomy, and so-called “incomplete” child. Rather, she was treated like a polite and mild-mannered student. There were two other students living there, but the only one the house grandma would fix yogurt for or open a crab shell for was Yoo Jin. Somehow Yoo Jin was happy.

During the summer after freshman year, her first love began. It neither progressed nor was discouraged. The person was a senior from the volunteer service corps, with stiff black hair and a bronzed face. He was as rigid as he looked. Unlike other kids, he never took it easy while fulfilling his volunteer service. When he went out to do repair work in a flood damage zone, he went at the shoveling so frantically that his face was muddied all the way to his teeth.  

“Ah, ah, ah!” he called out at the muddy water as it rapidly evacuated into the sewer that was finally unclogged. The exclamation seemed to be full of joy but, somehow, also desperate. The drooping nose dangled over the wide-open mouth like it was on the verge of collapse. As the muddy water swirled, Yoo Jin felt like she was sucked into the rapids up to her neck. She felt sick to her stomach, as if her insides were entirely filled with rainwater.

Yoo Jin was standing stock-still in water up to her knees. Staring at the senior who was scrambling ashore, she didn’t realize that a broken piece of wood was bashing her calf. As the water drained, her injury came into view grinning wide. Her lower calf was a mess of mud and blood clotted together. There was no pain. Rather, her heart galloped because her injury, having bitten a handful of mud, exactly resembled the senior’s mouth.

The senior student graduated soon after. Yoo Jin thought that first loves fall through mostly because people miss the right time to confess. He went off to an unfamiliar university far away from Seoul, so she expected they wouldn’t ever meet again. Yoo Jin stroked the scar that ran widthwise across her calf. Every time that senior came to mind, her emotions swirled like the muddy water that was swept away into the sewer that summer. Something thick and sinking pooled and settled in her lower abdomen. She thought that was why her groin was itchy and oddly stiff.

After the senior left Seoul, the grandma at the boarding house died. She had collapsed on the roof around three months before and never once regained consciousness while she was hospitalized. After the death and the funeral, her only daughter delivered an obituary to the boarding house tenants — this, along with a unilateral notice to empty out one’s room by the last day of the month, because the house was being sold.

While the tenants protested, Yoo Jin stepped onto the staircase made from roughly mixed cement and went up to the roof. The lids on the grandma’s pots were standing open, and when she peered into them, rainwater and half-frozen leaves congealed with the soybean paste that was giving off a rotten, fermented odor. A slick-backed bug endlessly scraped and caused little ripples. Yoo Jin crouched down next to the pots and cried. Like something had planted a stone there, her lower belly throbbed and the sobbing eventually continued as vomiting. Pieces of stone seemed to be rolling clickity-clack along a blood vessel. Yoo Jin, engulfed by a fierce sadness and sense of loss, closed the jar lid. The pointed wings split the smooth back of the bug as it came out, and for some reason this lingered clearly before her eyes.

Yoo Jin went into the bathroom to take off her dirty clothes, and then discovered it. The sadness that had poked its way out of the gap between her legs. Affection and lingering attachment, excitement, and desire were lumped together in one mound, and their crystallized contour was covered with sadness like a skin. Yoo Jin’s sadness was very small and appeared like a tender bamboo shoot.

“So, these are the genitals.”

The urologist pulled at the sadness’ edge with a gloved hand. As if a fingernail were scratching a sensitive abscess with the pus rising to the tip, a thrilling sense of pleasure and pain shot through Yoo Jin. The doctor, who had at first turned pale with surprise at seeing her, now candidly exhibited curiosity and fiddled with Yoo Jin’s sadness.

“It is unusual, but this kind of case isn’t something that never happens. It’s a type of genital malformation, where the part that is supposed to protrude on the outside gets trapped on the inside and then as it grows, works its way outside. This stick here is the only thing that came out, so the scrotum has to be still inside. If we do a surgery after the examination, it can have the proper appearance. Since it had been compressed, it will be a bit small, but if the treatment is done properly there won’t be a problem functionally.”

It seemed like he would never remove his hand if she left him alone, so Yoo Jin forcefully pulled up her panties. Only after she adjusted her clothes and covered her knees with the checkered skirt of her school uniform did the doctor sheepishly draw back.  

“By the way, the family register will need to be sorted out.”

“Why the family register?”

“Aren’t you listed as female on your birth report? It should be changed to male.”

“You’re saying I’m male?”

“Of course. Right there is the proof.”

“But I’m a girl.”

“It seemed that way before, but now it isn’t the case. If that thing is hanging, you’re a boy. If not, you’re a girl. It’s the simplest logic in the world. It’s a good thing that your identification card hasn’t come out yet. Since a register office employee can sometimes make a mistake with someone’s gender marker, it will be as good as new if you just make a correction report. Once you graduate and finish the military service, you’ll become a man for sure. That’s the natural course of things.”

*

Seokmun came back home two years after he left. He talked big about getting ready again to enter college, but he didn’t know where to start. He had been preparing for six full years since middle school, yet his grades were in bad shape. So with only half a year remaining until the college entrance exam, there was no way a miracle would happen now. He idly left home, returning at dawn day after day. There weren’t many places to go. He would either sleep in the library reading room, go to an Internet cafe, or kill time at the billiards hall.

The days he went to the library decreased, and the time he spent playing games in the Internet cafe grew. It was expected. At the library, Seokmun sat with people of a different race: those with clear goals, those who were staking their lives on this allocation of time. On the other hand, the Internet cafe was full of a race of people like Seokmun, whose lives were suspended via endless hesitation and postponing. They were so-called “surplus people,” as useless as the smudges left by stubbing out a cigarette on a keyboard. Seokmun would hide himself in the innermost part of the cafe and move his hands with abnormally developed speed. That was the place where he could be king, if only he was determined to do so. Albeit king all by himself.

The problem wasn’t that he couldn’t make it to a university in Seoul. The school dormitory was clean, and everything was lined upthe lake and the basketball court, the tennis court and grassy hills, every valley like the shadow of a building. It was fairly distant from downtown, but not so far that you couldn’t go back and forth. The problem was not the school, but his major. When he submitted his grades and matching application form, the only department that gave him a pass was the Chinese language department. Seokmun had absolutely no interest in the Chinese languageon the contrary, the tonal quality alone was impossible. For him intonation did not exist, which was one of the reasons why he was reluctant to talk with other people. And he knew best that his speech sounded like a tedious recitation of words. In English conversation, the tip of his tongue easily loosened, and he would change “excellent” into “ekseoront” and “orange” into “orinji.” Whether it was a flowing pitch or a tenacious vibration peculiar to Chinese, for Seokmun, it might as well be torture.

Thus, Seokmun avoided his department and immersed himself in outside activities. He showed up at the acoustic guitar and commando martial arts clubs, at a documentary film-making club, and a mysterious drinking club called “The Alcohol God Descends.” He peeked into various places, but he never went near the volunteer service corps like the group he was involved with in high school. The high school service corps only gave students credit for dirty and toilsome work. No matter how hard he tried, he only got laughed at and looked down on in return. Moreover, he couldn’t understand a system where he worked hard, yet got the same score as the kids who were just kind-of killing time. What was even more unbearable was the existence of the girl with the flat face.

The girl came out to all the volunteer service corps activities without missing any. She was occasionally in the same team as Seokmun, but she didn’t do things like the other kids. Instead, she stubbornly followed after Seokmun. The flat forehead, crescent moon-shaped eyebrows, and nearly hueless lips gave her a very indistinct appearance. But strangely, the indistinct thing remained in his memory as it was. To this day the girl was stuck there, like a faded stick-on tattoo.

Looking back on it, the girl was already out of her right mind back then.

At that time, the whole area was submerged in water from the biggest downpour in one hundred twenty years. The service corps flocked to the flood-damaged area and divided up the duties. Because of the large-scale damage, other kids also had to carry rain-soaked household items and gather up broken tree branches. Seokmun volunteered and took charge of unclogging the drainage system. It was difficult work that ought to have been done by adult men, but it was a solo job that didn’t need to be done with others. The muck was sticky like black taffy and hardly diminished. Seokmun kept shoveling with all his might. The hole opened with a cracking sound, and in that moment he was almost swept away by the strong current with his foot nearly stuck in the sewer drain. When he screamed and got out of the way, the girl standing behind him drew his attention. She was fixing him with a piercing gaze. That facial expression was eerie to the extent that he thought she might actually be looking forward to him getting sucked into the sewer.

Seokmun hastily climbed up on the side of the street. The shadow of the girl standing in the water wavered, and then was sucked into the sewer. Repeatedly, the light red shadow popped up near her and then scattered. As the knee-high water roughly drained out,her mud-congealed leg was exposed. Seokmun saw her calf was torn wide open and covered his mouth. Blood spurted endlessly from the wound covered in mud, turning the surrounding water and mud all crimson. She looked down at her own calf and grinned. Seokmun seized the shovel lying at his feet. If the girl came even one step closer, he was going to ruthlessly smash her head.

Seokmun’s body trembled. Whenever this girl came to mind, an unusual murderous intent suddenly arose. She had never ridiculed or cursed to Seokmun’s face like some other kids, so it was strange that he felt like this. In truth, not only could he not remember the names of people who had spoken harshly to him, he couldn’t recall their faces either. He remembered only that one girl’s face, which looked like something half-rubbed out by an eraser.

School life was troublesome but not boring. Whether it was good fortune or a misfortune, there were plenty of students at school who felt out of place just like Seokmun. He fit in with them, and they went downtown to play games or work at part-time jobs. He also went on blind dates, frequently drinking and hanging out out with girls all night.

He didn’t earn much money working, and it wasn’t long before his living expenses ran out doing this. Sometimes he stammered and stumbled on his words when he was out with girls, and he would get criticized for being boring. If he got up and paid the whole bill without a word, however, he knew his likability level with the girls climbed. He could also date them longer when he bought a girl a pair of shoes or a handbag that had held her attention for a while.

When he was set up by a certain person to meet older women, it was strictly for the money. You drink together and go to a karaoke room, and that’s all. Because they can’t stand dating or whatnot. They have fun playing with the young chicks for a day, pay the fee, and that’s it. OK? As this person had promised, the women played hard, left, and did not look back. They took Seokmun’s group to a high-end bar and gave watches and bags so expensive that it would make your eyes bug out. One day the certain someone called Seokmun outside the door and tapped at the watch hanging on his wrist. “Give and Take. OK?”

A baby who must have resembled the ‘Yong’ character. Yoo Jin quietly picked up the name ‘Yong’ that the baby had dropped, and stuck it to her own name. Yoo Yongjin. It felt like a name that used to be loose was now tightly fastened.

The more the meetings happened, the more they were changed to further-away, more decadent places. From a bar or a karaoke room to a live-music cafe outside the city, a suburban membership club without a sign, or a motel. There would be no one specific person to really call his partner. If he said “sweetheart,” his arm was quickly grabbed from this direction, and if he said “Hyeonok,” his thigh was suddenly clutched from that direction. He didn’t even care which one was Hyeonok. The ladies’ carefully managed skin was smooth and firm. Even so, they refused to show their bare necks and stomachs.

It was Seokmun’s group that removed their clothes. Seokmun, who at first also hesitated when it came to lowering his underwear, started to guess what might be stuffed inside the pants besides his own rear end. The women strictly adhered to Give and Take. They demanded as much as was given, and gave out again as much as they demanded. Seokmun thought the women’s behavior was graceful and sophisticated.

Sometimes, when he went to school and saw a classmate earning 3,300 won per hour at a part-time job, he found himself laughing. Even washing greasy, dirty dishes for twelve hours straight earned you just fifty bucks. Seokmun could earn a few hundred with just one butt cheek. When he observed their stupid self-torture he felt perversely glad, as though it served them right. For the first time he thought he understood the feelings of those kids in the high school volunteer corps who used to ridicule him as he stuck to shoveling. That behavior was truly ignorant of him, and lagged behind the times.

There was no real generation gap when it came to dirty stories. There are only a finite number of words that titillate the nerve endings, and it seemed like there would be no change in at least a hundred years. Seokmun searched the internet to collect dirty stories and took the lead in making dates with the older women. It started as a way to earn money for dates with girls, but then it started to not matter. Except for their hips being heavy when having sex, the older women were the best. Seokmun whole-heartedly fell into a new world. It was different and pleasant, and best of all the meetings were productive. However, too fascinated by these meetings, he could not have predict how it would end.

The police received a few different types of reports and made a raid on the motel. They had already received a report about a housewives’ gambling group, and were in the middle of mobilizing, when they received the report about underage prostitution. Following that, a report came in about psychedelic drugs and an orgy involving runaway teens. What in heaven’s name was going on there for such reports to be made?

Half out of a sense of responsibility and half out of curiosity, the police opened the door. They were greeted by some boys swaying limply, doused from head to toe in Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch. They didn’t even have the sense to put on pants over their bite-marked rear ends. The ladies huddled in a corner, covered up their heads with a blanket, and moaned. Compared to the women, who were fully clothed up to and including jackets, the boys were all totally drunk and half-naked. When they picked the lock on the bathroom door and went in, the toilet was clogged with 50,000 won bills and gambling cards and was disgorging water.

“You didn’t receive anything. There were no money deals and everything was all consensual. OK?” After the certain person had made a few promises, Seokmun got slapped in the face multiple times by the ladies’ older brothers and husbands. Even when he fell flat on his face from being kicked hard in the thigh from behind, nobody stopped a thing.

“Don’t go overboard.” Said perfunctorily, this was the only thing from the police officer making up the report. The women were busy kneeling, begging at their husbands’ feet. At any rate, Seokmun was an adult, and adultery was no longer a crime. Whether the prostitution was applicable was equivocal. The problem was that the money was discovered at the scene, but the certain someone was insisting it was the gambling stakes. It was advantageous to drive the situation more toward gambling rather than prostitution. “Anyway,” he whispered, “the ladies are going to clean up after.”

As for Seokmun, he was beaten by the women’s husbands until his lower belly was black and blue. “From what you see you think the world is like candy, right? You think if you decide to you can flip the candy sign over and live so, so easy, huh? Stupid idiot.” The woman’s husband took out his wallet and smacked Seokmun’s nose. “On your way out, take this money and get an STD test, you jerk. Because last month she went to Thailand to do the same thing. Who knows what kind of diseases she brought back.”

Seokmun crouched down in the bathroom, trembling all over. He had no idea if the chill that was descending on him came from being covered in cold water or from an unknown virus. He examined his buttocks and lower back reflected in the mirror, carefully surveying every inch from the edges to the inside. Oddly, a spot where he had been bitten by a bug the month before was still swollen. A dark scab on his elbow as well as a spot below his armpit were both subjects of terror. He wasn’t exactly sure of the symptoms that went along with AIDS or an STD, but once this awareness started, it didn’t stop. As soon as it was daylight he ran to the hospital. Awaiting his turn for treatment in the waiting room and thinking over how to explain his symptoms to the doctor, Seokmun realized that his twenty years of age was facing the most miserable type of end. He felt like a dried fish fillet whose stench grew stronger the drier it became. Fillets with clear, reckless bite marks.

The university expelled Seokmun’s group, stating reasons of the corruption of public morals and loss of honor, and so on. During this process, Seokmun learned that the certain someone they and the women had liaised with was not a student of the school, but a specialty broker. After getting kicked out of the dorm, he moved from one tiny rental room to another and lingered for half a year. The good thing was that rumors didn’t reach his actual home because the school was far from Seoul. Seokmun didn’t know the written notice of expulsion had gone home, and when he went to get tuition money for the next school term he got beaten so bad that he got a concussion. In his lightheaded state and after mouthing off the reasons of corruption of public morals, loss of honor, and whatnot, he ended up getting a broken tooth too.

After returning home, Seokmun passed the time lying flat on his face like a dead man. His younger sister treated him like he was a bug, and their parents didn’t treat him like a person, either.

“A parasite must be sucking your brain, you creep.” His dad, who kicked him every time he saw him, was the lesser of two evils. The really uncomfortable person to be with was his mom. The women Seokmun used to meet were the same age as his mom, but they were different in every way. Seokmun’s mother went around avoiding him, and every time he saw her he let out a heavy sigh. His sighs got heavier when he looked at her ugly rear end, her wrinkled neck, and her nose covered with crater-like pores. If his feelings toward his dad and sister were guilt and shame, toward his mom they were a sense of sympathy and pity.

Would there be anyone who’d call my mom by her name? Seokmun shook his head. If one thought that time and aging were honest, that’s wrong; that they were equal to everyone, that’s even more wrong. They were precise, but they were neither honest nor equal. Time was the same as a cancer cell. Unless one throws money on it and blocks it, it runs like a wild dog and leaves the whole body in tatters. This was as clear a fact as the skin in front of your eyes was wrinkled from the whole-body assault.

*

Yoo Jin’s dad didn’t come on the day she moved to the rooftop room. There was nothing much to do for the move. She had a desk and a few boxes of books, a small cabinet and a suitcase of clothes, and that was all. The move was in the same neighborhood as her boarding house, so going back and forth in a car a few times would have been enough, but since her father didn’t show up, Yoo Jin called a moving service. Hugging her laptop as she climbed the stairs, she thought about the things she needed to buy. About trivial but essential items like toilet paper and a mirror, insecticide and a garbage can.

The room was large and clean. Besides the stuffy layer of air that was developed from the sunlight heating the roof, and besides the cruel roar of the wind, it wasn’t bad. Yoo Jin meticulously cleaned her room and the bathroom, and afterwards she even swept the rooftop before she had time to pant in uneven breaths. Maybe because the sun had set, the wind felt even more brutal. The dish from the black bean noodles she had ordered today had gotten pushed to the end of the stairs by the wind and was stuck there. The crooked circular black bean spots made an untouched, enduring trace of the dish’s whereabouts as it was pushed around, and she erased the spots one by one with the tip of a broom. She gazed down below from the bannister at the the neighborhood dotted with lights. Square white grains, like the grains of salt that she had sprinkled on her dad’s black suit one day when he had come back from the funeral home. Yoo Jin stood and stared at the lights until the snot was running from her nose.

Alone, her dreams were long and persistent. She was troubled by a dream of being shut inside a drum, floating on a stormy sea. The storm’s huge teeth snapped and bit at the lid of the drum, and even after she woke up the sound of it did not fade away. I wonder what would have happened to that bug. Yoo Jin lay down in a daze and thought of the grandma’s pots. She expected the rooftop would still be the same, since she had been the first among the students to leave the boarding house. This place being a rooftop as well, she suddenly regretted that she hadn’t brought at least one of the pots along.

If she couldn’t fall asleep late at night, she sometimes would put her hand inside her pants and check the sadness there. It was getting harder day by day, yet neither growing nor disappearing. She sat on the toilet to pee as usual, but when she showered she had to carefully pull at and wipe the thin skin clean. Her identification card was issued as scheduled with a number “2” printed on it.* It was just too frivolous that this idle, dangling two inches of sadness would determine her identity. She needed time — time to remove the sadness from the genitals, or to consider just removing the unnecessary lump. Time to determine what it was if it was not a sadness. Yoo Jin thought her own hesitancy was all because as a newborn baby she was robbed of the middle character of her name. Things like determination, will, and courage had all ended up softly slipping out through the black path in her name. So it wasn’t anything that she did wrong.  

In her senior year of high school, she fell in love with someone new. It was a girl with a petite build and bobbed hair, which suited her well. Her deep eyes and pillowy cheeks were lovely. The girl had a habit of grabbing her hair and tying it up when she was focusing on something. The flesh of her left wrist had a wrinkled red line because of the rubber band she always wore there. Yoo Jin was tormented by an urge to retrace that line with her fingertip. When the girl tied up her hair, the light vermillion ear that was revealed and the triangular shadow cast below her lifted upper arm were also objects of longing.

Every time Yoo Jin passed down the aisle, she saw the girl nodding off, hanging from the windowsill. Her cheeks covered with soft, fine hair looked as tender as the bottom of a kitten’s paws. “Why do you sleep so uncomfortably?” Yoo Jin asked, hesitating inwardly, and the girl drew a small circle in the air. “You can see kids’ heads best from here.” Yoo Jin was somewhat taken aback by the bandaid-covered fingers reaching out in front of her. “That hair is flat in back so I’d set some curls there. And that hair doesn’t have much thickness, so I would need to do a baby perm. And that hair over there is the best right now, so I wouldn’t do anything to it.” Yoo Jin realized for the first time that the girl had given up on the college entrance exam and was learning hairdressing.

“What would suit me?” The hand that had drawn the circle in the air touched the back of Yoo Jin’s head, and she heard the awakening sound of the muddy water that had sunk deep in her stomach. A boiling, thick, red whirlpool.

After the girl learned that Yoo Jin lived alone, she sometimes came to visit the rooftop room. “I came to a regular high school for no reason, so I don’t have anyone to hang out with.” For this grumbling girl’s sake, Yoo Jin quit studying and also dropped out of her college prep cram school where she used to go three times a week. When she heard the clanging of the girl’s footsteps climbing the iron stairs, her body automatically stiffened. The girl came in, putting to the side a mannequin with only a head and torso, and when Yoo Jin made eye contact every pore of her body felt like a sprouting mushroom. Mushrooms small and inky black, unmoving and indestructible, despite sweeping muddy water. Yoo Jin always left the door open to the rooftop room for the girl’s sake. She became a mannequin for her sake as well. The girl sat in the space between Yoo Jin’s legs and would either cut her bangs or dye her hair brown. The cool sound of the scissors and the hair falling on the bridge of the nose. So that these wouldn’t fly away the girl would carefully puff out some air. As she endured this, Yoo Jin’s sadness fully sprouted.

So the sadness was like that, and it had Yoo Jin flummoxed.

The sadness was the biological qualification that justified the whirlpool. At the same time, it was also the cause of this always pushed-out, two-inch sense of distance from the girl. “Speaking of these scissors, actually they were a gift from our teacher. Even though we call him ‘teacher,’ there’s not even a 5-year age difference between us. They’re awfully expensive! He secretly gave them just to me and told me to pass the qualification exam.” The girl yammered on, rubbing her forehead against Yoo Jin’s back. It was a habit of hers that came out when she was embarrassed. “But you know, I slept with that teacher. Well, not because of the scissors. He was cute when he was teaching and made eye contact with me, and then got all flustered and forgot what he was saying.” Yoo Jin pulled away from the girl and poured water into a cup of ramen. The girl, who was oddly excited, pulled the lid off the ramen cup and tore it into little pieces. While Yoo Jin chewed on the crunchy, undercooked noodles, she thought about her sadness.

If I show this to her, will she think I’m a boy or a girl? If not a this or a that, won’t the only thing left be a ‘something?’ “If that thing is hanging you’re a boy. If not, you’re a girl. It’s the simplest logic in the world.” The urologist’s face who said this came to mind. Yoo Jin couldn’t understand why that was a simple thing. So then, where did this confusion and pain get started? Is it selfishness and arrogance guessing which side’s position is more advantageous? Is it hypocrisy? Yoo Jin pressed hard with her fingers into the sadness. One night she plucked at it to the point that the skin was torn off. The sadness obstinately kept its mouth closed and endured Yoo Jin’s confusion.

All the news that veered away from Yoo Jin was forced to return. It was a deep and gloomy bend, as if a magnetic field had been formed beneath her feet. Yoo Jin sent a gift home of some yellow baby clothes with finely embroidered fingernail-sized teddy bears, and then learned that the baby had died. The baby clothes that were returned had been burned at the end of the sleeve. “The baby’s mother was so shocked, so…” Yoo Jin’s father, who came to see her for the first time in months, said this as he tore off the coal-black lump of fibers. “She seemed to think you were making fun of her.”

The baby clothes were as adorable as ever, though its shape was distorted from being burned. “You should have just thrown them away.”

“Yeah. But I still needed to tell you the news. He was your baby brother after all, no matter what they say. All through the week he ran a high fever. On that day he got some fever reducing medicine and his temp came down a bit, so we thought he was improving. Because he was still unable to sleep, his mom and I were both worn out. We thought he had gotten better, so we didn’t know that his temperature was continuously falling throughout the night. By the time we got up in the morning, he was already cold. There was nothing to do for a funeral, so we just cremated him. It seems like no matter what, I have no relation to a son.” Yoo Jin’s father lamented with a desolate face. His face was so desolate that Yoo Jin wanted to pull down her underwear and show him the sadness.

The baby died in the night of the day that Yoo Jin had moved to the rooftop room. While she had been looking down at the turned-on lights dotting the neighborhood and cleaning up the black bean stains, the baby had chosen to run away, stepping on the scattered lights that were turned off. Yoo Jin thought of the baby whose face she had never once seen properly. A baby who must have resembled the ‘Yong’ character. Yoo Jin quietly picked up the name ‘Yong’ that the baby had dropped, and stuck it to her own name. Yoo Yongjin. It felt like a name that used to be loose was now tightly fastened.

Maybe, there might not have been a need to worry from the beginning. Like dad had declared when he saw the ultrasound picture, Yoo Jin was a man with a dangling penis, and he had received the name Yoo Yongjin as the fifth-generation only son of the family. That was all. The time she wore a school uniform skirt and worried why her period never came and why her chest was this flat and so onYoo Jin could dismiss all this time as a simple mistake since he was a boy from the beginning. It wasn’t that Yoo Jin the girl had to become a boy, but that Yoo Yongjin, who originally was a boy, was just finding his place.

“Dad, I’m Yongjin,” Yoo Jin said while sharing a bottle of soju with him.

Yoo Jin’s dad, drinking broth of the potato soup that had been delivered, laughed faintly. “Yeah, you’re my son, right.”

“No dad, I’m really Yoo Yongjin.”

“This dad of yours has a lot of sins. Having a son isn’t all that great, but I kicked out your kind mother and made you live by yourself in a place like this. It looks like I am getting my punishment now.”

“No dad, it’s not that.”

“I’m sorry, Jin. All that matters is that you’re healthy, but I didn’t know that. I’m really sorry.”

“No, really. I’m not Jin, I’m Yongjin. I have a penis too.”

Yoo Jin put her hand on her waistband. As she released the zipper, her white underwear came into view. Her dad abruptly sprang up. His eyes rolled back from shock until the whites were visible, like those of a dead fish. “Are you crazy?” The spoon he held in his hand was dripping with the greasy soup broth. It was fine for Yoo Yongjin to take his pants off in front of his dad, but for Yoo Jin to do it was an offense, a circus sideshow, a kind of crime. Yoo Jin’s dad dashed away from the rooftop like a shot, leaving her standing awkwardly. Afterwards, her dad didn’t come to visit her again, only texting messages that money had been sent. Yoo Jin had to realize much later that that had been her first and last chance to become Yoo Yongjin. In the end, the newborn baby was dead while embracing the ‘Yong’ character.

*

Seokmun managed to leave the house. Not exactly managed, but that was the eventual outcome. The, “I don’t know what kind of trouble you’re going to cause again so I’ll have to monitor you right next to me” lasted only for a moment. His college entrance exam scores were horrible. “I see it’s not that you have a parasite sucking your brain, but you yourself are one!” Seokmun’s dad leapt up and kicked him out. Only in the middle of the night did Seokmun secretly sneak back into the house and pack his things. Carrying his suitcase, he went through his closet and rolled up his sleeping bag. Even so, the house was nothing but quiet. Seokmun realized in passing that the noise of their breathing was excessively low. He realized it, but that was all.

If only it weren’t for the idea of saving money, there were a number of jobs for room and board. Seokmun found a job at an arcade in a place fairly distant from his house. He made 4,300 won an hour cleaning floors and taking chips from the machines and organizing them. The hectic days went flowing by with spit and foul cigarette smoke and harassing words. The lodging provided by the arcade was on the third floor of a good-sized restaurant that sold snow crab. He laid out his sleeping bag and just slept in the corner of a storage room that held old machines and free giveaway items. There were always families swarming around the entrance of the restaurant, so Seokmun used the emergency staircase in the back to go up to the third floor. A large model of a snow crab was stuck to the window of his lodgings. With the red and white body of the crab blocking it, it was impossible to ventilate the room or bask in the warmth of the sunlight. The room was always dank and had a sour and stagnant smell. When he lay down to sleep, the shadow of large pincers fell just below his neck.

Not long afterwards, he moved jobs from the arcade to a secretly operating money exchange booth. The money exchange was at a cigarette store three blocks away from the arcade, and it wasn’t easy to find. On top of it being just one phone booth, it was all blocked up with the exception of a palm-sized opening, so in passing it looked merely like a rusty iron gate. Seokmun spent the day sitting in a blue plastic chair, completely tense. If a police car or just a guy with a suspicious bearing passed by, he had to quickly block the hole. Marlboro Reds, someone would say, and when they stuck out their hand with the gilded card he would hand over the cash. In the box under his feet, there were bundles of 50,000 won notes. Because of that, Seokmun couldn’t even go to the bathroom as he pleased.

After working at the money exchange for three months, he got kicked out. The reason was that a bundle of bills had disappeared. When he was dragged out from the money exchange booth he had the appearance of a mole. His eyes had gotten pushed to the center from glaring out through a narrow hole, and his hands and back, numb from the cold, were bad off. “How about, s-s-salary?” Seokmun cringed at the sound of his own deeply hoarse voice.

“Salary? Bullcrap, you thieving bastard. Bring out the money you swiped right now!” Seokmun couldn’t stand much of this and coughed up the money he had so far earned in salary. As he was getting kicked in the head, rear, thighs, and flanks, Seokmun became certain that the bundle of bills that had disappeared didn’t exist from the beginning. Nevertheless, he had a vague sense of relief that he wouldn’t have to go back to the dirty storage room where his neck got strangled by crab legs.

The road was pitch black. Seokmun was surprised at the fact that it was still winter outside. Only three months had passed since the college entrance exam, but it already felt like three years had gone by. Should I return home? He thought of his mother’s face, filled with wrinkles, and the faces of his father and younger sister, filled with disgust and disillusionment. Seokmun wandered here and there, swept this way and that by people, until he lifted his head at the sight of a familiar stone wall. This was the stone wall he had looked at to the point of boredom in high school, and even though the shriveled vines and paint were newly done, it still appeared dowdy in his eyes. He stood in front of the school door he had gone in and out of thousands of times. The days of the volunteer corps that were nothing but dirty, difficult, and hard, and the gaze of the girl that was nothing but terriblehe longed for them again, so much that he couldn’t stand it.

*

“I’m not getting mad even though you’re acting this way. Ain’t that right, huh?” The bottoms of her feet were already chock full of cut hair. Yoo Jin was perplexed and didn’t know when to say stop. The girl asked Yoo Jin things non-stop, but it didn’t seem like she wanted a reply. Even if Yoo Jin replied, she doubted the girl would hear it. The girl had been in this state ever since she failed the beautician’s qualification exam. She also caused some problem at the salon where she had her apprenticeship, and was soon dismissed. “Yesterday I washed about two hundred towels, and was it about fifty times I washed hair? But those heads, however hard I pressed, didn’t burst. And because of my eczema, it’s hard to grab the scissors now.” The girl didn’t lean on the rooftop bannister and try to guess at people’s head shapes anymore. “Head, head, those boring heads!” The girl screamed like she was having a fit as she took out the scissors and sprang at Yoo Jin. Her hair, melting down from innumerably repeated perms and color treatments, fell to pieces even before the scissors touched it.

“You’re going to stay still even if I do it this way. Because you like me. Right?” The girl asked again as she wound Yoo Jin’s hair round and round the hot curling iron. “You’re going to stay still whether I make your hair crimson red or bright yellow or shave it into a sports cut. Because you like me. I’m right, ain’t I?” Yoo Jin nodded her head. Because the girl’s voice, in asking again several times, was too desperate. The feelings she had for the girl now were pity and sympathy for the most part. Yoo Jin knew so many things about her. The reason the girl had broken down, what she was afraid of, how the teacher who gave her the scissors had cut off ties with her on that terrible day, why the girl had collapsed with bloody vaginal discharge during the beautician’s qualification testYoo Jin knew all of it. Even the reason there was an unsightly mark left by stitches instead of the red line of a rubber band mark on the girl’s wrist. Yoo Jin plastered her legs tightly together to hide her sadness, which had stiffened out of fear.

“Guys need to all just die. I’ll kill them all. The very first one I need to kill is that jerk, Mr. Oh. With the very scissors he gave me. But you’re going to stay by me. Because you’re my friend. Besides, you love me. Right? That dirty lot is different from you.”

Yoo Jin vaguely nodded her head. Since Yoo Jin would stay by her side if she had asked. Since Yoo Jin was her friend. Yoo Jin still loved the girl. No matter how it had changed, it was love. But about whether she was different from the other lot…

The girl touched her forehead to Yoo Jin’s back. It wasn’t like the fussy rubbing she used to do before, but the body heat flowing into that small spot where they touched was warm. It was something that had been decided this way from the beginning. From the time the girl leaned not on Yoo Jin’s shoulder or chest, but on her back. From the time she made the point of contact in a position where Yoo Jin couldn’t reach out her two arms to embrace the girl no matter how hard she tried. Already, Yoo Jin was standing two inches away from the girl. It wasn’t what she intended, but it was enough distance that you could never call it meaningless.

You need to decide now. Yoo Jin thought this as she stroked the girl, who had fallen asleep in a mess of tangled hair. Whatever the coming new season was, winter was already over.

A whole day went by, and even the next day had already started to get dark by the time the girl woke up. She moved her hands like a capricious child, repeatedly tying and untying Yoo Jin’s hair.

“You really never say anything.”

The dry hairs dropped one by one as they were cut, and every color jumbled together and piled up on the floor. The girl snatched up the scissors and lay the blade close against Yoo Jin’s head. “You’re always like that.” As the scissor blades closed, they made a clear sound. The hairs started to pile up on the floor with a speed that didn’t compare to even just a little while before. Dented and faded, like sad and gloomy bits of an accidental death. Yoo Jin clenched her teeth, enduring the scissor blades that sometimes cut her scalp.

“You’re always that way. You don’t comfort me or stop me, you just watch me from a faraway place.” The girl couldn’t beat her own speed, and alternately cut Yoo Jin’s hair and the air.

“Why don’t you tell me to stop? Is getting mad and telling me to stop acting crazy too much of a pain? What about telling me to get myself together, forget that guy, and get ready to take a new test? ‘Since you’re still young, so many great people will still come your way. Until then I’ll stay by your side.’ Why don’t you comfort me like that? Why do you look at me from so far, far away? When you don’t comfort me, give me advice, or warn me, how is that love? In the end, you don’t love or cherish me. You aren’t a friend, or a lover, or anything.”

Yoo Jin was startled that what was causing the girl’s despair wasn’t the teacher’s betrayal or the failed beautician’s certificate exam, but Yoo Jin herself. The girl had suffered countless injuries and anguished like Yoo Jin herself, and, in the end, Yoo Jin, for the girl, was mere “nothing.”  Realizing this fact made her breath stop.

“I’m going to kill that jerk. And you, too.”

The girl flung the scissors and stood up. Yoo Jin watched her as she ran out. She also heard the clanging of the the iron stairs ringing out, as though they were screaming. There had been a day when the girl’s footsteps were unbearably lovely. There had been a day when the  girl’s voice was infinitely lively and tender. There had been a time when the girl’s body heat was right on this back, on this hand. All those things were escaping now along the black path in the space between Yoo and Jin.

Jin went down along the iron stairs to the ground. From the beginning she had no thought of catching up to the girl. Her slowly connected footsteps stopped only when she reached the school. Things like the girl’s body languidly resting in the aisle, the bandaged fingers retracing heads round and round in the air, her setting down the mannequin with the asymmetrical haircut in the playing field, and her narrow back as she gasped for breath all came to mind in turn. The stone wall covered with dry ivy was dreary, different from her memory. She almost doubted whether there had even been a warm day inside the closed-up school building as its outer doors were likewise closed. Yoo Jin slowly walked along the stone wall. If memory served, the graduation ceremony was last week. Due to a whim of the girl, Yoo Jin hadn’t been able to attend the ceremony. The girl had bleached her hair pure white, and on the morning of the graduation day, by mixing blue and pink, a strangely-colored striped pattern appeared on her hair.

Yoo Jin stood in front of the school gate with her scalp showing here and there. She had only realized just now that winter had ended. What the coming season would be, if there indeed is something called “the next season,” was all unclear. Yoo Jin counted the floors of the dark and gloomy building, and then realized that she was bare-legged. When she was getting her haircut, she naturally wore shorts. As her footsteps took her back toward the rooftop room, Yoo Jin searched her memory to see if the girl had worn her jacket when she went out. She had dashed out saying she was going to kill that teacher, but in the end nothing would happen. The girl would come back, being hurt for some other reason, and seeing the scissors she had put down when she left, she would burn again with revengeful thoughts. And then after springing at Yoo Jin to take her anger out on her, she would fall asleep sobbing.

Yoo Jin often stopped in her tracks, feeling at a loss. When you don’t comfort me, or give me advice or warn me, how is that love? In the end, you don’t love or cherish me. You aren’t a friend or a lover or anything. The girl’s voice hovered around her ear. Now that Yoo Jin wasn’t “anything” at all, what she needed to do now was choose. Yoo Jin would sure be left alone if she missed the moment to choose, like the day she lost her first love because she missed the chance to confess.

*

Seokmun recognized her at a glance. Her appearance was not in the least bit surprising, standing in front of the school gate wearing shorts, hair dyed a strange color and cut every which way. Inside Seokmun’s head, she was already a crazy person. He would have been rather shocked if her hair was neatly combed and done up, but her appearance now was exactly the same as he had subconsciously imagined it to be.

She was generally longer and leaner than before. It looked like she had gotten taller or had lost weight. Because the face that was exposed under the streetlight was as flat and blurry as before, Seokmun found he was walking after her in spite of himself. The long cross-wise scar on her calf was especially distinct. He remembered the mud that was sticky like black taffy and the whirling waterway, and for a moment he got dizzy. However, right now the girl’s and Seokmun’s positions were completely reversed. He was the one staring, and the girl was the one being observed and stared at and conjectured about.

Did she do that to hurt herself? Looking at her from the back, her hair wasn’t simply messy. The red line carved in a zigzag looked like it was drawn there, but it was an injury for sure. Since she laughed as she looked into her leg when it was torn open, it wasn’t all that strange that she had those scars. But that kid, did she look like a corpse this much? Like a clay doll without a drop of moisture or a shadow standing the wrong way, she was endlessly fragile and tottering along.

A narrow alley and a low wall stacked full with garbage bags. She walked and walked again, going up a clanging iron staircase. Wondering how she had changed as such, Seokmun peered at his blackened, worn-out fingertips and sneered at himself. Of course, things would have changed. Hadn’t he changed himself, so filthily, scruffily, and miserably? He quietly climbed the metal stairs. He had no other thoughts. He just wanted to stop her and ask her once. Why she was so intently watching him that day. If the person he was that that day was someone with value that was worth watching.

The rooftop was deserted. There were two delivery bowls stacked side by side next to the steps. She wouldn’t have gotten married in the meantime, and living in a rooftop room with her parents didn’t quite match. It looked like she lived apart from her family with a friend. Seokmun headed in the direction of a window with the light on. The dark, winding neighborhood spread out endlessly below the rooftop bannister. Buildings were high and low, narrow and wide, and he didn’t like seeing such irregularity. They looked like an enormous bug with dozens of eyes, if there was such a bug. The kind of bug born on an abandoned platform of pots, and no matter how its body was fattened up, it would never have wings.

The window was shut tight in layers of vinyl insulation. He tried turning the doorknob just in case. With a smooth sound, the door pushed inwards. I’m going in to ask one thing, just one thing. Seokmun poked his head through the open door. Inside the room, it was just her all alone. But,

he saw shorts and underwear lowered down to the thighs. And above that was certainly a penis. Small as a finger and unattractive, but there no way to denyit was a penis. The girl was about to take a pair of sharp scissors to it. The silver blade was lying close against the skin, and her elbow and shoulder were stiffly raised.  Her gaze was determined but also stark with terror. Seokmun thought of the storage room that was always damp. The crimson and white crab’s huge pincers always cast a shadow on his neck.

Their eyes met. In that moment, two pairs of eyes met with strangeness and urgency, fear and a little bit of delight mixed together.

END
Originally published in A Relatively Peaceful Day of Yours. March 2014
〈비교적 안녕한 당신의 하루〉  –《비교적 안녕한 당신의 하루》 中

*Note

1. Most given names in Korean are made up of two syllables, with one- or three-syllable given names being less common. It was traditional for the first syllable of the given name to be shared by siblings or cousins, with the last syllable being unique to the individual. However, if the syllable indicates the generation within the faction of the surname (e.g., 70th generation of Kim of Gimhae), the syllable was shared exclusively by the male members of the family.

2. Number 2 on an identification card refers to female born before 2000.

 


 

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An Boyun [안보윤] debuted in 2005 when her novel A Herd of Crocodiles Came Out won the Munhakdongne Writer Award. She has published novels Oz’s Doctor, Trivial Matters, Stopping for Now, Pretending Not to Know, and Alma’s Forest and short story collections A Relatively Peaceful Day of Yours and The Boy 7’s Confession (forthcoming). An has also won the Jaeum Gwa Moeum Literary Award and the Yi Sang Literary Award.

 

 

 

Featured image “_IMG_1508” by Hanwool Kim is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

 

 

 

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