By Im Sol-A
Translated by Ji Won Park
The white sneakers came into view. The left shoe was worn down around the outer edges but the right shoe was clean. She speculated that the owner must have back issues, maybe scoliosis. A piece of gum was stuck to the one sole – the owner probably didn’t know. These were details that only Jinyoung was privy to, given her viewing angle. When a pair of flats appeared in the previously empty spot, the legs wearing the sneakers uncrossed themselves and, with both sides of the sneakers touching the ground, the gum was no more.
She surveyed the space. Her gaze lifted from the passengers’ shoes to their faces. Some had their eyes closed in an attempt to sleep. Some were blankly staring up at the electronic signs displaying the upcoming station. A man sitting across from her looked at Jinyoung out of the corner of his eyes. He blinked a few times and returned to his phone. Soon enough, several passengers were staring at her. She studied the faces of the ones seated alongside her from the reflection on the window on the other side. They too had been staring at her through the reflection, but looked away when their gazes met hers.
People wanted information. They searched for answers in this woman lying down across three seats on the subway. Did she require urgent care or was she feeling only slightly under the weather? Was she just another drunkard? Should they pretend not to notice or offer to help?
She didn’t look like she couldn’t manage on her own. She appeared tired but in control. Her face looked unperturbed, if a bit scared, for whatever reason. Nor was she explicitly asking for help. The truth was, Jinyoung herself could not determine if this situation was one she could handle. She didn’t have symptoms of nausea, lightheadedness, rapid breathing, low blood pressure, or dizziness. She had simply collapsed on her side all of a sudden and found herself unable to get back up.
The subway train was traversing the Han River, past the Yongsan Station stop. Gangbyeon Expressway during evening commute hours filled up with cars with red brake lights. The 63 Square skyscraper loomed up in the distance. The passengers looked up from their seats and stared at the river through the windows across from them. This happened every time at this segment of the subway line. The eyes that had been seeing or not seeing focused on what lay beyond the windows, as if keeping a collective promise. Another subway train speeding past in the opposite direction momentarily stole their gazes from the river. The same would have happened to passengers in the reverse train.
An announcement for Noryangjin Station came on. People retracted their focus from the windows. Some stood up from their seats. A woman wearing a baby wrap sat down facing Jinyoung. The baby stared down at her intently.
“Why didn’t I think of rushing her to the ER?”
As her aunt had finished recounting the old incident, she’d made an odd face that exuded a sense of pride – as if to proclaim that years of experience has provided her with the wisdom to name an appropriate real-life example for any theoretical circumstance.
When the subway doors slid open, Jinyoung read the signs. She had already passed her stop. She lifted herself up by pressing her palms against the seat. It wasn’t until the train reached Kwangmyeong Station, the last stop, that she stepped out onto the platform. She struggled to find a bench. The platform was dark although she could see the individual light rays penetrating the arched glass ceiling up above. The ceiling vault was mounted so high that the entire station felt like a void. An alarm sounded, signaling the arrival of another train.
Jinyoung had long forgotten the features of her aunt’s face. But indelible were her facial expressions – in particular, a scary one she liked to make, with her eyes wide open. She often tried to teach through fear. Right before Jinyoung was to go swimming, she spoke of a kid that had drowned. Pending a field trip to an amusement park, she went on and on about a ride malfunction that had killed someone. The same went for that day, when Jinyoung had hit her head falling backwards on the bus on the way to school. The bus had come to a sudden halt and she had let go of her handle. Looking at the tiny bump on her head, her aunt said she might have a concussion. To the young Jinyoung, she looked like she couldn’t wait to see a kid scared out of her wits. She had naturally concluded that her aunt was exaggerating for fun.
The train entered the platform. The door opened, letting out a crowd of people. They looked left and right, made quick decisions, and marched in their respective directions. Jinyoung felt instantly cured from whatever had ailed her. People no longer stared at her; she had returned to the zone of indifference. She got up from the bench and turned her head left and right, as the others had done. She spotted a store in the middle of the platform. She bought a granola bar and, two bites in, realized that she was late for work. She called up the admin at the cram school, explained what had happened, and asked if another instructor could sub in. Have you gone to the doctor’s? he asked. He also requested, with apologies, a doctor’s note, as parents have filed complaints about her absences.
Jinyoung walked over to a nearby medical center. She wouldn’t have bothered if she wasn’t required to submit a note. The physician examined her eyes and the inside of her mouth and leveled her with questions. When was the last time she’d eaten? Was she standing for too long on the subway? Did she hear ringing in her ears? A tentative diagnosis pointed to vasovagal syncope, a fainting attack in response to a stressful trigger. She was to get an IV drip and visit the local university hospital with a referral.
“Is it that serious?” she asked.
“I would say it’s more of a symptom than a disease. We need to do more tests to be sure. You did well earlier, though. You can pass out if you don’t lie down and may end up hitting yourself on a hard surface in your fall. Some people get seriously injured that way,” the doctor said, eyes fixed on the computer screen.
Lying on the hospital bed, Jinyoung stared at the ceiling. The slippers from the nurses made tapping noises from time to time as they walked past. The IV fluid fell in droplets.
“I was playing Mahjong with my friends in my studio room. Insuk joined a bit late. ‘You’re finally here,’ we said. ‘Come sit and play.’ We’d been playing for a while when Insuk said, out of nowhere, that she drank poison. Something about gulping down some weed killers in water. But she looked so normal, so alert when she matched the tiles. Besides, she’d said all that while giggling. So we said nothing and kept playing, believing she was fine. No one would have taken her seriously; I mean, she was playing so well. We had a blast. Come dinnertime, though, Insuk said, ‘What do I do? I think I might be dying.’ Her smile had faded and she looked a bit down. She sat on the floor looking like a kid who’s just had a scolding and complained of thirst. All I did was get her water, because she still didn’t look sick. I thought herbicide poisoning killed immediately. Never would I have imagined a person could walk around normally for hours. She bolted to the bathroom and threw up the water. I patted her back, told her to go home and sleep. She died the next day. Why didn’t I think of rushing her to the ER?”
Jinyoung opened her eyes to the sound of her cubicle’s curtain being drawn back.
“You’re all set.”
The nurse closed the clamp on the IV drip and removed the needles from Jinyoung’s wrist. Applying pressure on her wrist with a cotton pad to stop the bleeding, Jinyoung got up from the bed and walked out of the IV room, a doctor’s note and a referral form in hand. On the ground floor of the hospital building was a porridge restaurant. She ordered an abalone porridge. A big plateful was served. She buried her face in the steam and dug in, scraping the cooled surface of the porridge with a spoon.
Why had Insuk visited her aunt’s studio apartment? Maybe she had decided to spend the last of her living hours with her beloved friends. Having fun with friends playing Mahjong together—that could have been her definition of a perfect end. What remained an unforgettable source of regret for her aunt could have been a carefully executed plan on her part.
It then occurred to Jinyoung that the emotion underlying her aunt’s facial expression may have been guilt rather than pride. Even the smallest accidents like tumbling over inside a bus reminded her aunt of Insuk. She probably didn’t have the slightest clue when she said bye to Insuk that day. Only when she heard the news the next morning, did she begin scolding herself for her inaction. The guilt must have intensified when she sat facing Insuk’s family at the funeral and described to them her last moments. It was then that she realized that she was the only person that could have saved her friend. Or maybe the guilt began creeping up much later? Just as her aunt observed Insuk’s behavior that day, Insuk may have observed her aunt’s. She’s having fun as if nothing happened, she could have thought. I told her I drank poison but she’s carrying on with the game. She’s having a jolly time. She could have been dumbfounded at her friends’ lack of reaction.
Around the station were new commercial buildings with most of the units unoccupied. Jinyoung cut through a nearby condominium complex, which was also lit sparsely and seemed devoid of people. Most of the units probably hadn’t been sold yet. At the end of the complex lay a park. Judging from the small, skinny trees, the park was also just done. What was supposed to be a pond was just a huge, waterless pit. She buttoned her coat to guard against the cold and proceeded to walk along the pond until she came across a tennis court. The court was lit bright as day, in stark contrast to the night surrounding it. The tennis balls stretched out into long, pointy shadows, with sharp edges that appeared to be cut out of paper. The artificial beauty of the scene was enough to keep Jinyoung standing there for hours.
Jinyoung awoke to Rohee’s gentle taps on her shoulder. She found herself leaning against her friend, who gestured at the electronic sign above. Their station was next.
When they got off at Hwagok Station, Rohee asked, “Are you better now?”
She tapped her metrocard on the pay sensor at the exit.
“Probably?” replied Jinyoung.
“What did the doc say?”
“Keep hydrated, take plenty of electrolytes. Avoid stressful situations, especially small, crowded places.”
This cracked up Rohee. “So, basically, quit your job and turn into a recluse?”
Jinyoung shrugged. They stopped by the convenience store, at Rohee’s suggestion.
“For hydration,” she said, passing Jinyoung a bottle of water.
Jinyoung uncapped it and took a few sips.
“Take care of yourself, granny,” said Rohee, jokingly.
Her comment reminded Jinyoung of the admin manager. When she dropped by to submit her documents, he had raised his eyebrows and said, “You should take care of yourself. Are you sure you can handle the classes?” He phrased the question like one born of genuine concern, but Jinyoung took it as a nudge to resign, as a final warning that no lecture shall be skipped again. She had felt the need to explain that vasovagal syncope was not a chronic illness, rather a series of rare, isolated episodes.
Guided by GPS navigation, the two women walked along Shinwol-dong. The sun shone warmly through the frigid air at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Rays of light fell at an angle, revealing sparkles of dust. On their route was a rice cake mill, where there was a wash basin filled with dried chili; an old-school barbershop with garish signs; and an electronics shop displaying Goldstar TVs and old tires. The elderly were gathered around small benches in alleyways.
A deafening sound came from up above, to which Jinyoung looked up. A plane that must’ve taken off from Gimpo Airport lugged its giant body across the sky. She closely followed the wheels disappearing into the body. And then the body, too, became smaller and smaller until it was but a white mole in the sky. Only the contrail gave away its location.
“What are we going to see?” asked Jinyoung.
“Just to make sure, what with your condition… you do remember where we’re headed, right?”
Jinyoung let out a weak smile. “Of course. I meant, what are we supposed to see there?”
“Ah. That’s a good question. I guess that counts as a white mole.”
This year, Rohee had titled her art exhibit, “The Blind Spot.” As she pitched the idea to her corporate partners, she explained that the blind spot is a white mole located on the retina with a high concentration of optic nerve fibers. Due to the lack of photoreceptors in this pinhole-sized spot, we are blind in the associated area in our field of vision. When both eyes are open, each eye makes up for the blind spot in the other, so we don’t normally notice this phenomenon. We can probe it indirectly, by closing one eye and attempting to focus on an object at a specific angle. Yet this method of surveying the boundaries of the blind spot was approximate at best; we are only privy to the point at which the brain begins interpolating, based on information from the surrounding objects. Rohee wished to investigate artificial boundaries of all kinds. For instance, city borders denoted as dotted lines on the map could not be witnessed in real life. She sought to transfer the act of surveying the invisible to her art. She said that, standing on the border between two cities, she sometimes felt as though she lay between two people and other times between nightmare and reality.
“How do you show people the invisible?” asked Jinyoung.
Rohee pulled out her phone and took a picture of the sky.
“Like this,” she said, showing her the phone. It had captured the contrail.
Waiting for them at the end of the alley was a vast forest. Trees and shrubs grew indiscriminately. The two ventured deep into the thick of the forest, where it was pitch dark. The cold emanated from the ground and their route became steeper as they entered the mountain. On the other side of the mountain was Gyeonggi Province. The border between Seoul and Gyeonggi lay somewhere in the mountain.
A hula hoop hung from a tree branch, probably left forgotten by someone. Rohee lowered it, ripped off the spider webs, and began swinging it around her waist. Jinyoung snapped a picture of her. When she lay down on a nearby exercise bench, Rohee approached her while hula hooping.
“Let’s see how long you can keep it up,” Jinyoung challenged.
Rohee advanced a few cautious steps toward her but sped up when she found her friend struggling.
“Is this vasovagal syncope?”
Jinyoung barely managed a nod to her friend’s surprised face.
“How can I help?” Rohee asked.
She helped Jinyoung on her side and draped her with her own jacket. She then began massaging her arms and legs. Just the fact that her friend knew the medical term came as a huge relief to Jinyoung. She felt grateful to be with someone who was willing to help. Neither knew exactly what the term meant, but it had a soothing effect on them both.
Why had Insuk decided to die? Jinyoung realized that she had never been curious about her motive, only about the reason behind her aunt’s apparent guilt. Did her aunt know why she drank poison?
“So basically, you’re done pretending,” Minchae had said with an odd face. She spoke as if she was talking to herself but her eyes held contempt. I see right through you, they seemed to say. The penetrating stare made Jinyoung feel as though it was she who saw right through Minchae.
Supported by Rohee, Jinyoung got up from the bench. She drank some water from the bottle she had left nearby and returned the jacket.
“Sorry for asking you to come along. Did the hula hooping make you dizzy?” she asked, concerned she may have pushed Jinyoung beyond her limit.
“No, not at all. You massaged my fatigue away. I feel much better,” she said.
Rohee lit up, like Minchae used to when Jinyoung made a joke. That kind of response touched her in a special way. As a teacher, she felt grateful for the trust Minchae gave her and wanted to reciprocate. That was her first mistake.
The tests ran for two whole days. They drew her blood, took her EKG for 24 hours, and measured her blood pressure as she ran on the treadmill for half an hour.
The last test was to be done in the neurophysiological examination room. There, the doctor explained that the purpose is to trigger fainting. The doctor attached a blood pressure monitor to her wrist and tied her to the bed, only to raise the bed very quickly. With the bed slanted at a 70° angle, she was administered drugs sublingually. Headaches and nausea hit. Jinyoung felt as if the entire balance in her body was off and had trouble getting her eyes to focus. She could hear her own rapid heartbeat.
“I’m going to throw up,” she said.
“You are still conscious. Please hold on for a bit longer.”
The doctor injected another dose of the drug. Gravity pushed her body down. Jinyoung waited for the lightheaded feeling to arrive. Her vision went blurry.
“Hang in there just a bit more.”
Please let me explain, Principal Kim. I had summoned Minchae to the faculty office because she hadn’t submitted her assignment. As we talked, I discovered cuts on her wrist. Lying that they were paper cuts, she begged me not to tell anyone else. The cuts themselves were nothing to worry about. Some Neosporin and band-aids would have made them go away without scarring. I determined that an incident this minor did not merit your attention.
I got some cotton balls and bandages from the nurse’s office and dressed her wound. I also gave her some of the chocolates I’d kept in my desk drawer. Minchae smiled and thanked me profusely. I hugged her before she left—maybe that was my first mistake? A few days later, Minchae came by my desk. She wouldn’t say what her problem was, just kept picking at her nails. I asked if her wrist had healed. There were new cuts where I’d dressed her before. Visits like that continued. She emailed on Sundays and called during the night. The problem was that my kindness only led to deeper cuts. It seemed that she was hurting herself to seek my attention.
I do not deny that I made mistakes. But distancing myself from her was not one. I simply should not have been nice to her in the first place.
“Open your eyes, Ms. Lee!”
She opened her eyes to find her bed level again. Pulling off the Velcro straps that had fixed her to the bed, the doctor reassured her that fainting was normal.
Jinyoung sat in the hospital lobby waiting to pay. In the middle of the hall was a giant Christmas tree, with gift-wrapped boxes scattered all around. The green boxes with red ribbons were probably for show and contained nothing. She reveled in the atmosphere created by a fake plastic tree and empty boxes masquerading as gifts.
Guests who frequented this place were varied in the sources of ailment, but all wished to get better. Jinyoung felt a sense of camaraderie now that she was one of them. Patients paced back and forth wheeling around IV drips. Although they must all suffer from different diseases, they walked in a similar manner—knees slightly bent, steps slow and deliberate. It occurred to Jinyoung that Insuk may have resisted the apparent likeness of the sick. There must have been something she wanted to protect via the act of defiance.
Jinyoung got her results back the next day. All normal, including brain and heart functions. Patient is diagnosed with vasovagal syncope. As it turned out, the tests were aimed at ruling out vasovagal syncope, not to find the conditions that caused the fainting. There was no cure because vasovagal syncope was diagnosed negatively, in the absence of a definite cause for which a treatment regimen existed.
Initially, Jinyoung thought she could help Minchae find a solution. The repeated self-injury appeared to be a signal for help. If she were a victim of domestic abuse or bullying, she could report her case to the relevant authorities and get her the protection she needed. Minchae spoke of an accident that happened seven years ago. There was a fender-bender, which was not terrible in itself. The reverse traffic past the median strip made things much worse. A large-scale chain collision resulted from cars changing lanes to distance themselves from the scene of the accident and those that strayed behind to observe. It was total chaos. Minchae was on a toppled intercity bus with the highest casualties. Her injuries were minor, thanks to the person squeezed under her acting as a cushion. The poor soul kept moaning, you’re heavy, you’re heavy, but Minchae couldn’t budge from her supine position. It wasn’t as if a bone was broken or she was unconscious; she simply could not bring herself up. The person became quiet after a while. Minchae stared into her eyes as she passed.
Jinyoung suggested scheduling an appointment at the school counseling center and seeing a psychiatrist in parallel, as necessary. She judged those measures would help her recover from the pain and move on with her life, but Minchae resisted them fiercely. It seemed as if she was deliberately regurgitating and replaying the incident so she could show Jinyoung the extent of her suffering. When Minchae returned once again with a slit wrist, Jinyoung sent her to the nurse’s office and announced that she would request specialist treatment.
“So basically, you’re done pretending,” she replied.
After leaving a resentful will on Jinyoung’s desk, Minchae slit her wrist again—this time, not in the classroom but in the bathroom of her own house. She ended up slicing the tendons in her wrist and underwent rounds of reconstructive surgery.
For this outcome, Jinyoung was referred to the school’s disciplinary committee. Some evaluators labeled her as negligent; others said she involved herself too deeply. They chose not to penalize her in any particular way other than to refuse to extend her teaching contract. Jinyoung had long believed she would be promoted to a full-time teacher as soon as they got headcount. After staying on as a contract teacher in the private school for five years, the longest on record, Jinyoung decided she should leave.
“I commute on the subway to teach at a cram school twice a week. Avoiding crowded places is simply impossible for me. Is there any way to reduce these episodes?” she asked the doctor. Hence the antidepressants, which served as a reminder that her tenth cranial nerve, the vagus nerve, was out of whack. The doctor most likely prescribed the drug hoping for a placebo effect rather than any obvious clinical benefit. Given that the cause of the episodes could not be determined, it didn’t make sense to prescribe anything from a medical standpoint, but doing nothing would have seemed irresponsible on the doctor’s part. Jinyoung took the doctor’s grudging favor, desperate as she was for a semblance of a cause. The more she pondered on the concept of causality, though, the more elusive it became. A cause could have its own cause, and so the chain continued forever.
Jinyoung then began to understand. Minchae might have been desperate for recovery. She had singled out self-punishment as the cure. Since no one would punish her, she took it upon herself. But the pain accumulated to the point where she needed somebody else to shoulder her guilt and she ended up fabricating a punishable figure.
Once every two weeks or so, Jinyoung accompanied Rohee in surveying the city boundaries. There wasn’t much to do during these trips, so they felt a lot like casual walks. The two drank beer on the hiking trail between Geoyeo-dong and Hakam-dong and rented bikes from a store in the World Cup Park, located between Sangam-dong and Daedeok-dong. The cold air froze their ears within half an hour of biking.
On this particular trip, they were to visit the famed Ginkgo tree at the border between Siheung-dong and Seoksu-dong. Rohee showed Jinyoung a Google Street View of the tree, whose branches extended up to the third story of a nearby apartment building. She had heard the tree was sick from an infection and wanted to go see if it was still around.
The neighboring building was there but the tree was no more. Standing on the spot where it had once been, Rohee stared up at the roof of the building.
“Remember the ginkgo tree on the way to the grocery store, back in high school?” she asked, eyes still fixed on the building.
“Yeah. The smell around the season when the gingkos would fall was really something. We used to take the long way around the tree to get to the store,” Jinyoung said.
“One day, I saw a pigeon under that tree. Kids were stabbing at it with a tree branch. The wings were all twisted and it looked dead. I thought I should give it a proper burial, so I dug a hole near the tree and put the pigeon inside. Just as I was about to cover it with dirt, I saw it squirming.”
“So what did you do?”
“I don’t remember,” said Rohee, turning to look at Jinyoung. “I have absolutely no memory of what I did next. What do you think I did?”
Jinyoung didn’t answer. Rohee rubbed her shoes against the concrete ground. It seemed that she’d been replaying the memory in her head, in its incomplete form, throughout her life. They sat on a bench on the platform of Seoksu Station, looking up at the sky. People stood with hunched backs and hands in their pockets.
“It’s snowing,” said Rohee, pointing at midair.
Jinyoung looked around but saw nothing.
“Take a good look.”
Rohee squinted and focused on empty space in front of her. When Jinyoung mimicked her friend, a couple of snowflakes came into view. They then held their hands at arm’s length and crossed them into a triangle with their thumbs pulled apart, so that the thumbs overlapped in a line. Through the tiny hole that formed above the thumbs, they spotted a snowflake.
“You said you were right-eyed, right? The snowflake disappeared just now, for me,” said Rohee with her left eye shut. She was left-eyed, it turned out. The snowflake reappeared when she switched to closing her right eye instead.
A few snowflakes, too small to be seen or felt, melted away while sailing through the air.
“A bit lame, but this will mark the first snow of the year,” said Jinyoung as the train entered the platform.
During the snowstorm two winters ago, the buses stopped running and schools closed nationwide. Jinyoung was at her aunt’s funeral right about the time the snow began. Guests were few and far between. Those who did manage to come were on their phones the whole time, fretting about their way back in the weather. When midnight struck and most of the guests had left, Minchae showed up.
“Aigoo, you’ve become a snowman,” said Jinyoung’s mother as she brushed off the thick snow from Minchae’s jacket. “How in the world did you travel in this weather?” She was clearly happy to finally see a guest at her sister’s service.
Minchae asked Jinyoung, in a whisper, to teach her how to pay respects to the deceased. She had never been to a funeral before. Though she was told a moment of silence would suffice, she bent down in a full bow in front of the altar. She was the only one of Jinyoung’s many students that had made it to the funeral parlor through the heavy snow. Jinyoung’s mom never forgot this, and thought of Minchae fondly.
Recalling the events at her aunt’s funeral made Jinyoung rethink her absence. Her aunt was now but a collection of fragmented memories, merely a relative that had become more and more distant to the point of being forgotten. She had never genuinely mourned her, let alone paid attention to the fact that she was dead.
The subway had passed Noryangjin Station and was headed for Yongsan Station. As always, the Han River presented itself, lifting the gazes of passengers. What was her cause of death? Jinyoung wondered at last. She would have been told. Perhaps she forgot.
Jinyoung got off at Shinseol-dong Station. She marched straight ahead, out of the subway exit, past the street vendors, toward home. She texted Rohee asking if she’d arrived safely and was returned the same question.
What do you think you’d done with the bird? texted Jinyoung.
I think that, if I’d tried to save it, I’d remember, replied Rohee.
Jinyoung stood still on the street for a while, phone in her hand. When she got home, she collapsed on the floor with her shoes on. She was alone so there was nobody around to stare. There was nobody around to give help, not that there was anything anybody could do for her in the first place. Why did Minchae decide to attend the funeral in the middle of the night? she asked herself. Did she turn back right after, through the heavy snow? Or did she stay with me for a few hours? She waited for the missing memories to come back. She alone was looking at herself. She alone was looking for herself.
Im Sol-A was born in Deajeon, 1987. She started her career as a writer by publishing the poem “Scratching the side” in 2013 and the full-length novel The Best Life in 2015. She has authored the short story collection Snow, Man and Snowman, and the poetry collection Gloomy Weather and Kind People and Get Packing. She received Munhak Dongne University Fiction Award, Sin Dong-yup Prize for Literature and Munji Prize for Literature.