By Yi Nam-hui
Translation by Gabriel Sylvian
“Do you know a Yi Chorogi? I heard you two used to play together in the early days. I want to see her. Do you know where she is?”
Eunmyeong chose her words carefully. Heuiwan gave Eunmyeong a once-over with her eyes, head to toe. Slowly, a smile came to her face.
“Oh, I get it.”
Eunmyeong felt an unpleasantness, not knowing the reason for the shine of recognition in Heuiwan’s eyes or for her smile.
“You are one of the older ladies running after Chorogi.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Just what I said. The older ladies running after Chorogi. I saw lots of them before so I know what I’m talking about. What do you call that? Wrong to call them homos. So you were Chorogi’s lover and suddenly Chorogi just took off. Is that right? There’s no use looking for her.
What’s done with is done with. Nothing stops her. That’s the way she is.”
Heuiwan spoke simply.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Eunmyeong’s face reddened but she tried hard to give an appearance of not being flustered. It was her first experience with such an outspoken person. Maybe it was because of the girl’s young age. Heuiwan smiled happily and looked at her as though she knew the whole story. She tapped the table with one hand as though it were a drum. The table, made of a sheet of metal, made a rhythmical sound. She did not appear to have a malicious intent. It was just her young age—she did not know how to show consideration for others’ feelings.
“It’s not the kind of situation you suppose it is. I have to see her because of my computer.”
“Well, you can beat around the bush that way if you want. But all the older ladies each have their own excuse like that for looking for her. They all miss Greenie and they want to help her to get by in life. They want to take care of her as if she were a little girl.”
Heuiwan’s voice rose as though she were growing angry.
“What a laugh! Isn’t it atrocious? Take care of her! Is Greenie a little kid or something? She was already grown-up by junior high school. Even at that age, she was the type of girl who knew how she wanted to live and she did it. But she kept falling in love and whatever, and taking lot of flack, so she had to fight back. Just give it up. You can’t pin her down. You can try to seduce her with a stack of money but it’s no use. Greenie’s parents are famous for their money. She’s the only daughter of a rich family– not a big Hyundai or Samseong company family, but she never wanted for anything growing up. She hates all of that and she’s fought against it. It’s impossible to pin her down. You just have to say ‘What’s gone is gone.’ It’s the only way to keep from embarrassing yourself.”
“You misunderstand me. I’m not looking for her because of the kind of relation you talked about. I have something to ask Chorogi and it’s a very serious problem. I have to see her on a business matter, so there’s no reason I need to hear that from you.”
Instinctively, Eunmyeong took the defensive. She took the girl’s comments quite seriously. Heuiwan did not seem to believe her. She slurped down her cola as though she were nervous, and muttered on as though she were talking to herself.
“Adults are so funny. Why do they get all ‘hush-hush’ about things, get so embarrassed about them? Like they’re gonna be eaten up for it! What’s the crime? Hypocrisy is the thing we can’t stand. There’s no reason to delve into trivial things like man or woman when two people like each other. It’s bad to fool yourself, isn’t it? Trying to adapt to what other people think? That’s what is so fresh and charming about Greenie– her frankness! She’s hasn’t got a hypocritical bone in her body. From the start she felt romantic feelings for other women. Because she didn’t hide her interest, she was rejected at school. But she’s wasn’t the screwed-up kid the adults thought she was. She didn’t care what other people thought, but she was always frank with herself. If she had compromised a little she wouldn’t have had to leave home. When she got a nose ring, her mom shut her up in her room for a week with no food. Her mom’s like a university professor and a real diehard. She opened her room door after a week and do you know what Greenie said? ‘Fuck this! Where is the world do they shut up a kid in a room and starve her for a week for getting her nose pierced?’ And then she left home and never once looked back. She’s never gotten a penny from her folks. It’s so strange. Maybe that’s why Greenie always picks way older women, because she misses her mom. Well, her mom is really skinny, and all of Greenie’s partners are fat. You’re the first one who looks thirty-ish, though. She’s changed!”
Momentarily, Eunmyeong’s body trembled. She had not expected to hear about Chorogi’s ex-lovers. A deep sense of betrayal welled up inside her. Heuiwan left off talking and abruptly stood up. Cheers of “encore!” rang out. ‘Thank you” was repeated over and over. Then a poor rendition of Cranberries’ “Dream” started to be played.
“The Yellow Jackets are finished. It’s our turn.”
As though she had been eagerly anticipating the moment, Heuiwan’s face turned a bright red. She seemed happy and excited:
“Don’t worry about it. Her lifestyle is a little more rebellious than regular kids. Hey, listen to our music before you go. Grown-ups don’t know it, but there’s a revolution taking place at the bottom. It’s happening in music and also in sex. People don’t realize it but things are really changing a whole, whole lot. You’ll feel it if you listen to our songs!”
Saying these words quickly, she made her way through the crowd of spectators to the front. The squeal of the amplifiers grated on Eunmyeong’s nerves. She decided to wait and listen. The stage was not visible from where she sat. She stood up on her chair like several kids behind her were doing.
“Crying Peanuts” fans seemed to be pretty heavy into the group. As soon as the band came up to the stage a chorus of voices requesting “Liquid Day! Liquid Day!” shot out from the audience seats. Baseball cap was the bassist, Heuiwan the drummer. Red-hair, with the sour look still on his face, grabbed the microphone and greeted the audience in a hoarse voice.
“All right, by popular demand we’re gonna start with a song called “Fluttery Day.”
They jumped up and down like the audience members and began their performance. It was a punk rock-influenced song, psychedelic in feel but with a monotonous harmony.
The audience went berserk from the song’s opening bar and sang along with the band. They made quite a ruckus.
Eunmyeong pondered her feelings of betrayal. Chorogi had lied. She had said it was her first time.
There are certain lies everyone will tell when they are in love. Perhaps not lies, but expressions that are loyal to the emotion they feel at the moment. The illusion that all my loves before were just practice for this true love that is now beginning. The illusion that this is the only real love I’ve had in my life. And so lovers usually make confessions to each other like, “This is the first time I’ve felt this way,” or “I feel something so special now I just want to thank God,” etc. Chorogi was no different. She had spoken those words while seducing Eunmyeong. Naively, Eunmyeong accepted those words as truth, so she never imagined that there had been any other lover in Chorogi’s life besides herself.
Their formal relationship began when they ran into each other outside the Heaven Dust club. At the end of last year, designated as “Literature Year,” there was a small fracas in publishing circles. A novel had come out with the provocative title, Try to Do as I Do. It got attention because the book was full of sexual descriptions from beginning to end. It was the sort of book rarely seen in the publishing world. The author, who went around repeatedly saying he had intended to write a porno novel, was not in the country then, but the authorities were seeking judicial means to have the book banned. A year-long offensive and defensive battle ensued as to whether the book was smut or art. The issue was taken up in a public debate on the topic of “Sex and Liberation” held at a live performance theater as part of a big cultural fest. The event was really typical of that period. It was a pretty fiery scene. Everyone demanded to have a voice in the debate, and contradictory opinions existed even among those opposed to judicial handling of the case. Some said that because novels are art, it is wrong to apply the vulgar measuring stick of legality, while others expressed the directly opposite opinion that because novels are just another form of reading matter, it is wrong to give them too profound a meaning or accord them the heavy responsibility of serving as a moral compass for society. It left Eunmyeong feeling bewildered. And the old chestnut of Lady Chatterly’s Lover would be brought up each time, which bored her to tears.
As a fellow novelist, it had been arranged for Eunmyeong to say something, and she took her place at the end of the stage. But she was not really given any chance to speak. Getting up in front of people frightened her. She did not really want to say anything.
In fact, Eunmyeong could not cast her vote either in favor of or against. Her mind was not made up. She found herself wondering why the issue of whether the book was “porn” or not really mattered at all.
Now, as always, she would have to live her life without making a decision. But the critical matter of court intervention in regard to the book was repellant to her. She wished to say something about the present situation in which people were reading the novel in the same time period but living in individual time capsules, making it impossible to arrive at any basic terms for agreement. For example, she wanted to say that although she herself was living in the 1990s, she was trying to present or explain the interconnectedness of the lives of herself, her mother, and grandmother, even though the three lives could not be more different from each other. The entire time she sat there, she imagined gently drifting soap bubbles, each person’s life a soap bubble existing in isolation from the other soap bubbles.
It was a strange sight. The circular stage, lit up by stage lights, was entirely surrounded by the darkened audience seats, making the people on stage look like insects in a specimen jar. A creepy tenseness like static electricity flowed over Eunmyeong’s skin. People’s stares were excruciating, like salt sprinkled on a bare skin. It was like a police interrogation. Questions saturated with criticism were pitched left and right, then swept away by combative replies. Suddenly Eunmyeong thought. At the end of the day, wasn’t all of this just talk? If one really saw this problem as something that posed a question about each individual’s own mode of life, would the criticisms and their defenses be dancing around so wildly, with no connection between them? A strange sense of horror overcame her. The other speakers sitting next to her at times would flare up in excitement, or show the composure to make a funny remark. It finally came time for each speaker to make an obligatory final statement, and Eunmyeong chose the words which would best relate what she had been waiting to say. Nervously, she stammered:
“Before deciding whether we agree or disagree, I think we need to stop looking at the concept of sexuality so short-sightedly, and more in the context of the current of the times. Just as developments in technology have changed the concept of society’s standard unit called the family, we are living in an age where progress in science is changing the concept of sex. I want to argue that these birth pangs are a necessary process occurring in this whirlwind of change. Long ago, sex was tied to procreation. A typical example being that long ago, non-procreative sex was defined as perverse, abnormal and morally wrong. If you look at the Christian bible, you can find many examples. But progress in science is now separating procreation and sex. Contraceptive technology has strengthened the concept of sex as “play”, and I think that before too long, artificial insemination and cloning will put an end to the concept of “sex as reproduction,” and will be entirely handed over to the concept of “sex as a form of play.” If we accept the concept of sex as play, the standards we heretofore have used to judge sexuality as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ will become paradoxical and useless. Because sex is, in fact, just another form of play. Whether we like it or not, this change is now in progress. And so, the description of an ‘abnormal sexual act’ will become untenable. Accordingly, it is natural that in today’s world these kinds of sex acts will be talked about publicly.”
Suddenly, she experienced an uneasy feeling that she herself did not know what she was talking about. What had seemed like a pretty good opinion before she took the microphone sounded like gibberish when she expressed it in words. She closed her remarks hurriedly and sat down.
As soon as the forum was over, Eunmyeong decided to leave the theater fast. Because she had been sitting in the glare of the stage lights for so long, it was not easy to find the exit. She had to falteringly feel her way around. In the darkness, a hand tugged on her sleeve.
“Wow, Eunmyeong, that was really you up there! Why the look on your face? Did I scare you?”
It was Chorogi. Eunmyeong laughed at Chorogi’s assumption that she was afraid rather than just surprised. A weight was lifted from her chest and she felt fatigued as though she had just had a long cry. Maybe because in private life Eunmyeong was articulate, everyone thought she was a brave person. No one could see that there was another Eunmyeong hidden behind that facade who was weak, fearful, and who wanted to be protected.
“I felt dirty.”
Eunmyeong mumbled like a child. Chorogi gave a big nod and expressed her sympathy.
“That’s right. I would have felt the same way. Why do those people make wry faces, getting all excited as though the world would collapse if not carried on their shoulders? And then they end up going home like it’s none of their concern. ‘I’m doing fine so to hell with everybody else’.”
Chorogi laughed as she spoke. She put her arm around Eunmyeong’s shoulders naturally, as though she were coming to pick her up after her return from a trip. Eunmyeong heaved a sigh of relief. It was already getting dark. It was Saturday and the downtown area was already emptied of people. It was very windy and the streets were deserted. It was chilly, and the early winter wind cut sharply. Just as the weather forecast had predicted, it felt like the approaching winter would be colder than in past years.
“How about having a drink?”
As they walked down the road crowded with clothing stores, it was not at all clear where they would go. But their feet carried them along until they found a bar.
The bar they entered was called ….Lonesome.. ..City….. Its interior was decked out like a log cabin, its walls and high ceiling all of natural wood, with its rafters exposed for effect. Perhaps because of this, the soft music resounded more fully throughout the whole room.
The bar mostly played rock music. Taking their seat in a corner, Eunmyeong remarked about Chorogi’s unexpected appearance at the Cultural Fest. Chorogi explained. Three of her friends were scheduled to give a concert later in the evening and she had come to watch them play. But after she had met Eunmyeong there she decided not to hang around.
“I showed up because I was bored. My friends play outdated stuff.”
“Outdated” meant the music you heard everywhere, in other words, music that was boring and unexciting. The opposite was so-called “killer” music, which meant little-heard, obscure and interesting. Chorogi and her friends seemed to classify everything into either “killer” or “outdated.”
Eunmyeong tried to break the ice with Chorogi. Chorogi’s being there seemed both a matter for wonder and also of gratitude, like a present left at her doorstep. If she were alone in her current mental state, she would have walked over half of ….Seoul…. in a daze. Eunmyeong made a sour face and took a drink. For some reason, she could not shed her feeling of depression. Chorogi, who had been moving her body in time to the music, suddenly straightened her posture, and just as though they were at Heaven Dust, started to play around, pretending she was introducing people to Eunmyeong who weren’t really there, imitating their voices and gestures. It was quite witty stuff, and when Eunmyeong started playing along, gradually it became pretty interesting. At the critical point of imitating the bartender Jeolsu, Eunmyeong let out an uncontrollable laugh. The ice was broken.
As soon as the alcohol took effect, Eunmyeong latched on to Chorogi and began bibble-babbling about novels, life, love, and loneliness…Things everyone talks about, but which for Eunmyeong were inexhaustible themes engendering a strong passion in her.
“Is there really anyone who can define love?”
“You mean love, or sex?”
Chorogi retorted on the spur of the moment, half-drunk on the Cranberries song “Dream” that was playing. The unique soprano quality of the lead singer Dolores’ voice seemed as though it were piercing through fog and rolling through a marshland. How refreshing!
“I read a piece somewhere that really made me feel the times are changing. A girl slept with a guy and afterwards she defended herself by saying, ‘Oh, it wasn’t love, it was a mistake.’ A long time ago, a girl would have gone out of her way to insist it was love.”
“Really! That’s the difference between your generation and ours.”
“But can love and sex be separated so distinctly? At my age, I’ve had lots of love affairs, but to this day I’ve never had a partner that was a complete match for me. For love to work, you’ve got to feel like you’re at one with the person, right? And it’s exactly the same with sex. Do I expect too much? I really don’t know. The only thing I can say with any confidence is this. There is no such thing as a perfect unity between people. That’s true no matter how well they get along. There’s always a little something somewhere inside that feels misunderstood, or that feels it’s being slighted in some way. Just like sediment when it settles. You just don’t feel like you’re communicating honestly. Maybe men and women are like parallel lines. Even though something may start out as some insignificant difference, it sometimes can become a really huge gap like a river, forming a barrier that never narrows. So even though you’re in a love affair, you feel lonely all the same. That’s my conclusion after living for over thirty years….
Eunmyeong, imagining soap bubbles drifting in the air, kept up the commotion. Chorogi gave a faint smile, just as though she were the adult and Eunmyeong the child, as though she were deeply versed in the inconsequential question of life.
“You want to define love as two people feeling they are in complete communication? A state of complete openness? Is that possible in your generation?”
Chorogi spit out the words, an inadvertent smile on her lips. It was not clear whether she was smiling at Eunmyeong challengingly or sarcastically.
That evening Chorogi followed Eunmyeong to her home as though it were the most natural thing in the world. And she stayed there, as unaffectedly as if it were her own place. Eunmyeong made up a bed on the sofa with a blanket and cushions. Seeing this, Chorogi insisted on sleeping on the bed.
“But that’s where I sleep.”
“What a scaredy-cat! What’s the problem? It’s big enough for two people!”
Without permission, Chorogi cast off her clothes, spreading them all over the room, and leapt into the bed. She said she did not need any clothes to sleep in. She said it was her habit to sleep that way.
“Don’t be such a dummy and come to bed.”
Chorogi spoke to Eunmyeong, who was watching the scene dumbfounded.