By Yi Nam-hui
Translation by Gabriel Sylvian
Editor’s note: This is the second of several parts of Yi’s short story. Read the translator’s overview of the author here.
With ..11:00.. just minutes away and with the column still unfinished, she began to mentally flounder. She placed her feverish hand on the back of her neck. Her hand was hot and sticky with perspiration. The kid had just gotten up. When she got up, Eunmyeong’s frustration escalated. Eunnmyeong shuddered. She was at her wit’s end.
“I’m busy. Take your hand off of me.”
“What, Eunmyeong, you have a bone to pick with me this morning?”
“No, it’s because I haven’t time. I have to finish this by ..noon…”
Eunmyeong spoke quietly, just managing to keep her nerves down.
“Say what’s on your mind. You’re afraid of what others think. That they’ll say you’re different………”
Chorogi let out a laugh. She spoke in a sing-song voice.
Eunmyeong clenched her teeth in a rage. She exploded in anger as though a bomb went off in her head.
“That’s not what it is! Please don’t interrupt me when I’m busy. I have to finish this!”
Suddenly, Chorogi hit Eunmyeong’s back hard. It was no joke. She hit her with a closed fist, and the blow smarted as though she had been hit by a rock. When Eunmyeong turned around, Chorogi was in a huff, her face as red as an apple.
“You’re no different from all the rest of them. You always have this or that thing to do. ‘I have to finish this.’ Take away your call to duty and you’re nothing at all. You think you’re so great. You have no courage, so you want to escape by making excuses. You’re not being honest!”
“What excuses am I making? I’m telling you the truth!”
Eunmyeong was extremely irritated and about to lose her temper, but she tried to reason with Chorogi calmly.
“Please don’t get so fired up. Aren’t you and I both adults? Adults have to take responsibility for their life. To you, my writing may seem like a funny game, but for me, this is the way I take responsibility. There’s over ten years difference in our ages. So there are limits to our “play schedule.” I can’t always take a break when you want me to.”
But Chorogi did not listen to Eunmyeong’s words.
“All right, you’re an expert talker. You’re just afraid to be frank. You’re always going to worry about what other people think and end up not knowing who you are! I’m just a peanut you want to play with to pass the time. You’ve treated me like a side show attraction since day one!”
“Drop the foolish talk. We’ll talk about this later. And where in the world is there such a big peanut? Would anyone buy a peanut weighing 110 pounds? Just go on over there. Leave me alone for now.”
Speaking evasively as though joking, Eunmyeong gave Chorogi a light kiss and sat back down. Chorogi was fuming, but there was no time for Eunmyeong to get upset. She hurriedly finished her column and sent in off by the internet. It was ..11:30… She got ready to leave. Chorogi lay back down on the bed, motionless, with the sheet pulled over her head. She let out a sigh. A heavy, sunken feeling weighed down on them. Eunmyeong was not sure of herself. She could not decide definitely one way or the other. Perhaps Chorogi was right to say she was a coward. Anyway, it would take some time to calm her down. When she came back that evening, things would be more settled and they would laugh about the events of that morning. Eunmyeong left the apartment hoping that would be the case.
When she came back that night, Chorogi was gone. Also gone was Eunmyeong’s laptop computer and the draft of “Colony and Mother” on the laptop’s C-drive.
The apartment did not seem any different from its usual state. It was a mess like always. Although it was raining, the veranda door was wide open and all the lights were turned off. A CD was playing over and over on the audio system. It looked as though Chorogi had left on an impulse, as the result of some sudden thought. Had she gone out to buy more cigarettes? Eunmyeong’s chest trembled strangely. She wearily put her shopping bags down on the dining table and turned on the light. The room seemed so empty. Rewinding the answering machine, she noticed for the first time that the computer that had been on her desk was missing.
She’ll never come back. She’s really picked up and left. The thought abruptly rose in Eunmyeong’s mind. There was no proof, but she had a feeling that Chorogi was gone for good. The rhythm of the song booming from the stereo struck Eunmyeong’s heart.
“…..Shut up shut up shut up shut up and listen to what I say
gonna fight my way to the top, gonna win, gonna show my stuff
I don’t wanna be a nobody, I can do it if I win….”
The song kept screaming in the empty room as though it were a message left by Chorogi. Eunmyeong turned off the stereo. The rain falling outside only added to the gloom. She hugged one of her thighs and curled up in a fetal position. The last few months had been a long time in passing, and yet had also passed much like a flash, with no time to collect her senses. Chorogi was gone for good. There was a feeling of relief but also of loneliness. Eunmyeong was not surprised. Somehow, in one corner of her heart, she had known that Chorogi would be leaving soon.
Time Out was as different from Heaven Dust as the dirty back streets of Seoul Station are from the ritzy Apgujeong District. If Heaven Dust was a café atmosphere with natural wood flooring and plastered walls, Time Out was absolutely filthy from the first step down its front stairs. The walls of the stairwell were covered with a dizzying array of spray-painted graffiti and a mesmerizing criss-cross of slogans that recalled Rimbeau or the Surrealists: “Just gotta be modern!” “I’m an anarchist at heart!” “Kick out the zombies!” Inside, it was like walking on moon craters—your feet never completely touched the floor and every step made a rustling sound. A young man with yellow hair gelled up into large spikes was seated on the landing collecting entry fees.
Eunmyeong took out money from the back pocket of her blue jeans and handed it to him. He gave her back her change and a book of matches. Inside it was not dark. Naked light bulbs were hung here and there on wire netting, creating the illusion of a mine shaft. The club’s walls were also covered with spray-paint graffiti and pictures torn from magazines. Pictures showing The Clash smashing up their guitars were taped up in a slap-dash manner on the plainly-lit wall behind the counter. They were particularly eye-catching. Added below were the words “Glory or Death”, with a caption that said the scenes were from a New York Palladium concert held on ..Sept. 21, 1979… The club featured live band performances but the stage and audience seats were on the same level, separated only by a line of thick steel pipe. Young girls who looked to be of junior high and high school age were packed in the audience area like sardines, desperately jumping up and down in time to the music. Stuck on a post was a piece of exam paper, on which was written “Today’s Performances,” with band names underneath: Below-the Belt Band, Yellow Jackets, Crying Peanuts.
The audience members crowded around the stage area moved their bodies wildly to the beat, smoked cigarettes, and drank from cola or beer cans. Eunmyeong pushed her way through them and went up to the counter. Drinks were all in cans and sold cash in advance.
“Will The Crying Peanuts play today?”
“Sure, but you’ll have to wait. They go on at ..8:30…”
The young man standing below a giant poster of The Clash was smiling, seemingly unable to keep from grinning as though something great had happened. His long hair was dyed brown and he wore a black T-shirt printed with Curt Cobain’s profile and “Nirvana” in white letters. It was too late in the spring for indoor heating, but too early in the year for short sleeves; yet streams of sweat were pouring down his neck as though it were the middle of summer. The corners of his mouth were pierced with tiny sliver rings. When he opened his mouth, the rings jingled against each other. Suddenly, Eunmyeong was struck by the fact that she was twice the boy’s age. Suddenly she felt her spirit wilt, as though she had grown very old.
“That drummer over there, is that Gim Heui-wan? Is it okay of I go up and say hi?”
“Are you a fan? Look over there. You see the three guys standing in the corner? Red hair, no hair, and lime-green baseball cap? They’re the Crying Peanuts.”
He pointed to three young men in a corner, each with a different hair color. One, with fire-red hair, kept his eyes closed and wore a sour expression on his face. He was jumping up and down to the music as though in spasms. He was a full meter in height. The one with no hair, leaning at a slant against the wall, had a plump body. The one wearing the fluorescent lime-green baseball cap was nodding his head in time to the music and talking to a girl with long hair. The girl, who seemed to be of high-school age, held a whiskey bottle which she passed around to the guys from time to time. They each took a drink straight from the bottle with no cup. When Eunmyeong approached them, she could hear clearly what they were saying through the boisterous music.
“Anyway, lots of drummers are stupid. You know that joke? At drummer auditions, a drummer goes to the toilet. While he’s away, the bassist takes away one of his drumsticks. The drummer comes back and sees only one stick. You know what he says?”
The young man in the baseball cap cracked up as he told the joke.
“What did he say? I wanna know!”
“Okay, he said: Oh thank you, god! I’ve finally become a conductor!”
When the capped boy raised his voice, the long-haired girl let out a series of gasping laughs. The boy with no hair hit the capped boy hard with his fist and yelled.
“What’s that shit about? All you gotta do is pluck a fuckin’ bass!”
Eunmyeong was surprised. The voice ringing out belonged to a girl.
“Are you Gim Heuiwan?”
Eunmyeong tried to get their attention as she approached them. Red-hair was still jumping up and down, intoxicated with the music. No-hair reacted by straightening her posture. She wore faded Bermuda shorts and yellow T-shirt with ripped seams that made her body look even plumper. She wore bulky tennis shoes and had deep, dark eyes like an old-timey well. Looking right at her, her eyes gleamed so brightly you might wish for sunglasses. They seemed to shine even more intensely because her head was almost bald.
“I’m she. Who are you? We haven’t met before, have we?”
“Might I speak with you for a moment?”
“Well, not that you can’t…but we’re waiting our turn.”
“Just for a moment. How about a can of beer over at the counter?”
Heuiwan followed with a stern expression. She said she would rather have a Diet Coke because her weight problem. Her sweaty face was round like a newborn baby and looked simple and innocent.
They retreated to a corner and took a seat at one of the tables. The tables were mostly unoccupied because everyone was watching the concert. There were only school bags piled up in heaps on top of them. Overlapping stacks of high school English reference books jutted out from some of the bags.
“My name is Eunmyeong. I’m a little surprised. I never think of drummers as being female. Or concerned about their weight.”
Eunmyeong spoke so as to broach the topic lightly.
Heuiwan screwed up her face and lit a cigarette. Her fingernails were painted with stripes of assorted colors.
“Of course a man would never care. It doesn’t matter how fat they are. You’ve probably heard they play well because they have strong arms. But there have to be women drummers, too. I’m stuck at the back of the stage and never get the spotlight. If you’re a woman the first condition is your looks. Isn’t that funny? This is the so-called ‘underground.’ So much for busting convention and glorifying freedom! Don’t you think this country is way too sexist? It doesn’t matter where or when: If you’re a woman, the first thing people consider is your looks. I took a taxi some time ago and while I was sitting in the cab the driver started talking about female actresses and he said I wasn’t a “looker.” I argued with him all the way to the Mok district. But these days it’s about unisex and men are gradually growing indistinguishable from the women. Now there’s heavy pressure on the men to be good-looking, too. Just look at that band over there. The girls scream about how great they are. It’s as if they’ve gone and lost their minds. That band’s popular because the lead singer is handsome, not because they play well. They’ll eventually get on TV because they’ve got looks to back them up. It’s all messed up. My dream was to be in an all-girl band recognized for its actual talent……So what is it you wanted to talk about?”
Heuiwan grumbled, absorbed in her own thoughts. Only belatedly did she become aware of Eunmyeong’s presence and look at her in the face. Unlike her body, her piercing eyes were refreshing to look at.
To be continued…