By Yi Nam-hui
Translation by Gabriel Sylvian
This is the final installment of this story.
Read part 1 , part 2 and part 3.
Eunmyeong brushed her teeth and put on pajamas. She buttoned the buttons properly up to the neck and turned off the light. Both had drunk alcohol, but they could not say they were drunk. Just as she was on the thresh-hold of sleep, Eunmyeong felt Chorogi silently reach her arms out and put them around her. She did not feel particularly threatened by this. It was not something she usually did with someone she was sleeping next to, but Eunmyeong enjoyed touching and patting, and she had always exchanged light cuddles with her same-sex friends. But when the cuddles gradually turned into sexual gestures, Eunmyeong was thrown into confusion. She hesitated, not knowing what to do, but she ended up not saying anything at all. On the one hand, she felt embarrassed as she gave her passion to those outstretched arms, and on the other hand, Chorogi also said nothing.
Eunmyeong found out later that Chorogi enjoyed sexual encounters in which she could break some new taboo. It was as though she derived sexual pleasure from making new rules to the game or making the rules more complex. Not speaking was one such example, as was telling her partner about her sexual fantasies, doing it only with her mouth, or only in this or that position; in other words, drawing a line and trying not to cross it. Her experiments reminded one of the experiments of the punk rockers in the late 1970s who tried to see if they could make music using only three chords. Just as those experiments gave new emotions– sometimes destructive, sometimes sublime–to the people listening to the punk music made in that way, so she enjoyed setting up taboos to erase embarrassment and to bring a novel beauty to sex. Transgressing taboos was great fun. Maybe at the core of it all was the idea of “sex as play.” Although they drew the lines themselves, once they crossed them, which it was easy to do in the throes of great excitement, they sometimes got so excited they forgot about their self-consciousness coldly observing them in the back of their heads. That was how interesting it was.
Thinking quietly alone, Eunmyeong was surprised to realize the fact that this kind of sex was fun and did not make her feel in the least awkward. There were many advantages to having sex this way. Perhaps because they were both women, they were both sensitive to each other’s desires and often experienced the same emotions. And even if they did not express themselves in words, they really understood each other well and showed mutual consideration for each other. The unsatisfied feeling she experienced when having relations with a man, the humiliating feeling she sometimes felt, was not present in this kind of sex. The humiliating expression that ‘so-and-so violated so-and-so,’ at least, did not apply. “It’s wonderful for that point alone.” Eunmyeong thought, admiringly.
But all the same Eunmyeong felt strange. It was not often that the camera in the back of her mind, observing her every little motion, was turned off. Eunmyeong thought back on her past experiences several times, each time with fresh surprise, often comparing them with her prior experiences, trying hard to understand them. She even went so far as to analyze whether or not there had been some problem in her own growth process or that of Chorogi. And so Eunmyeong, who used words for a living, could not refrain from asking her,
“Don’t you feel a little bit strange?”
After sex, Chorogi gave her back a good stretch like a cat, and idled about as though she had nothing but time. Her white, taut body was attractive even to Eunmyeong as a woman. Eunmyeong found herself passing her hand over Chorogi’s body. It was a tranquil time yet one full of energy. Her skin was smooth. Perhaps because of Chorogi’s small face and high-bridged nose, her body seemed thin; but with her clothes off, she was the very picture of an abundant, fully matured woman. If she had a little more weight, she could have been a Rembrandt model.
“Is it unnatural?…I mean, you could say it’s awkward, right? I mean, don’t you have a certain feeling? I mean, no one would call this normal, or average.”
Chorogi’s lips opened wide in a yawn.
“Is that the way you feel? I’m comfortable and feel fine.”
“But..I mean…I’ve always been attracted to men before now.”
“That’s right. Yeah, that happens. But if you like it, it’s fine, right? Why the need to talk about it?”
“But I’m not comfortable with it. Something keeps bothering me.”
Having difficulty explaining what was weighing on her mind, Eunmyeong became fretful.
Chorogi yawned again and laughed, grinning.
“That’s not what you said before. That’s not what you said at the cultural fest. When I heard your comments, I thought you were a really sensible person, coming right out and talking about sex as play, as a thing apart from procreation! I was so impressed with your bravery! It’s play, so what’s with ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’? Between women, between men, or between a man and a woman, or even two women and a man. Of course the opposite is also possible. Anyway, it doesn’t make any difference, does it? Hm? Were you just talking out of the corner of your mouth? I guess I can’t expect you to be different from other people. What I hate most is people who don’t put their money where their mouth is. Speaking so rationally, saying ‘I am who I am, and my life is my own to live as I please’, but then living half-assedly in real life, worrying about what other people think. You have to wake up a little. Why negate what you’re feeling? I sense that you want to do it, like doing it, enjoy doing it. It was my first time wanting to touch another person so much. Liking someone and wanting to touch them, but stopping yourself from doing it because it’s a woman. Isn’t that more unnatural? Isn’t expressing yourself a beautiful thing?”
Perhaps because she was in a bad mood, Chorogi said more than she usually did.
“But…but…let’s just suppose you had lived twenty years ago, before the word ‘homosexual’ was popularized. Could you have thought that your feelings for me were anything more than the feelings of a good friend?”
“That’s why history progresses! I don’t know if its progress or deterioration, but not deceiving yourself about what you feel and being able to attach a proper name to it…I’d say today is much better than long ago. But why talk about twenty years ago? Now is not then, so it’s a moot point. Hey, why are you always so down in the mouth? Is it that, just like everyone else, you can’t get out of the loop of hypocrisy and convention? Shall we just say progress and change are just words? Shall we just sit back and rely on the old customs to make us feel relief? That’s shameful and out-dated. God, let’s stop talking. The more we talk the more we misunderstand each other. I really want to touch you and sleep with you. That’s the only reason I would ever do it.”
Chorogi spoke as though she were mocking Eunmyeong. Perhaps she was right. It was difficult for Eunmyeong to break free from the prison of language. She was the type to think first and act later. Her “observation function” always overpowered her “living function.” Even when sleeping together, except for the moment of climax, she had so many deliberations in the back of her mind. They ranged from silly questions like “Is this the right thing to do?” “Is this normal or not?” “Do others live this way?”, to a sense of wonder at the many advantages this kind of sex had over sex with men, to the awareness that this was exactly what “communication without explanation” was, or, then again, the coarse feeling that this kind of sex was just another form of masturbation. Maybe because they were both the same sex, it was difficult for Eunmyeong to keep those feelings to herself and away from Chorogi. Because they were sensitive even to fleeting whisps of emotion, they could not communicate lies to one another. It was similar to how close female friends have difficulty lying to one another. Chorogi could sense, to some extent, the many complex thoughts going in and out of Eunmyeong’s head.
The final number performed by the Crying Peanuts was a cover version of the song “Zombie.” Making the sound of scraping iron, the song said that there were many dead bodies living in the world but that we would not live like that. After playing the number a second time as an encore–it was 9:30–Heuiwan, her face drenched with sweat, came off the stage. Their eyes met. She smiled brightly.
“You’re still here! How were we?”
“Your performance was good! But the vocals seemed a bit weak.”
Eunmyeong replied with no real interest.
“You’re right. Even to my ears, the shouts were not intense enough. For that song, impact is more important than musicality itself.”
The screeching of the amplifiers disappeared and recorded music began spilling out from the speakers. The kids who had been roaring like madmen had scattered in order to put on coats and search for bags. Several kids who seemed to plan on hanging around until closing time went to tables and sat down. The rest began to exit like waters at low tide. It was like a marketplace closing up. Everyone was flushed and glowing with sweat, their faces bright, as though they had just had a real exciting time. Their faces showed they had gotten a lot of stress out of their system.
Heuiwan went into the back room behind the counter, put on her hat, and found her jacket and knapsack. She then asked Eunmyeong,
“Aren’t you going to leave?”
Eunmyeong, not replying, followed after her.
“Hey, how about an after-performance drink?”
“I don’t feel like it. I’m gonna go now.”
Heuiwan tossed off a goodbye and left. She took long strides, the same walk as Chorogi. She looked like a young girl. Maybe because she wore sneakers, her footsteps were practically inaudible. Eunmyeong had to walk with hurriedly so as not to lose her. On the empty night street, Eunmyeong’s footsteps produced solitary echoes.
“Can you tell me what I want to know?”
“God, you are a tough one. Do you have to see Greenie? If you do, you’ll only embarrass yourself.”
Heuiwan spoke sarcastically, but kept walking straight ahead without turning her head.
Eunmyeong made a decision.
“I told you several times it’s not that kind of matter. I didn’t want to say this, but when Chorogi left my apartment, she took my computer. I don’t care about losing the computer. The problem is the manuscript of my novel inside it. It’s still in its early stages, so I didn’t print it out or copy it to another disk. If I don’t find it, it’s lost for good….”
Suddenly, Heuiwan let out a long, loud laugh. The sound rolled over the dark streets. As time passed, the sound seemed to just grow bigger and bigger, like a rolling snowball. It was only 10:00. But perhaps because it was a week-day, Picasso Street was dead empty. Only a red street lamp flashed on and off periodically, casting long shadows across the shutters of the closed shops. Among the long, dark line of shops an occasional coffee shop could be seen, its lights turned up brightly like an oasis in a dreary night desert. The night wind caressed her face. The wind was getting softer with each passing day. It was spring. Heuiwan did not stop laughing for quite a while. Other people passed by as unconcernedly as the shadows flickering on the walls.
“Don’t laugh. This is a very serious problem.”
The anger Eunmyeong had been suppressing exploded. But Heuiwan did not stop laughing.
“I’m sorry. It’s not a laughing matter. Greenie’s not that kind of kid…. I guess from what you say there was something on the computer that hurt her feelings. I have a vivid recollection of seeing her glare at a computer and complaining. She has a habit of treating inanimate objects like they were human beings…So just how far are you going to follow me?”
“Heuiwan, I believe you know where Chorogi is.”
“I really don’t know. It’s been a long time since I saw Greenie. If I happen to meet her, I can give her your message. That you’re having a hard time without your computer. I’m on my way home now. Are you going to chase me all the way there?”
“I’ll stick it out. Because this is a very big problem for me.”
Eunmyeong pretended to take Heuiwan’s words lightly. They came to the entrance of the Seogyo Hotel. Buses lit up like cherry trees raced down the wide street. Standing at the bus stop, Heuiwan stood thinking for a while.
“O.K. I’ll take you to a place you’ll find it worth your while to visit. Perhaps Greenie will be there. I’m not really sure. But it’s a different sort of place. You have to promise me you won’t act surprised or uncool. And don’t act like you’re there to gawk or just wander around. The people there hate onlookers the most. It’s true their personal tastes are not average, but that’s no reason to make spectacles of them. And it’s no reason to hurt them. Come with me.”
Eunmyeong ducked into a taxi with Heuiwan. Heuiwan told the driver to go to the Apgujeong District. Passing the Hapjeong rotary, they saw brightly-lit electric signs reporting the advancing front of cherry blossoms across the country. Ten days earlier than previous years! Slowly making their way northward! The electric signs were carpeted with twinkling cherry blossoms.
“Seems Spring is here at last…”
Heuiwan spoke with indifference.
Eunmyeong hesitated for a time, worrying the driver might overhear her, but then asked:
“Uh..well, how about your partner?”
“Me? I like men. I have a male lover. I like there to be a small difference. But what does it matter? What’s so important about the externals of a relationship that you would show an interest in another person’s sex life? Isn’t that uncool? As the times change, sex is less about external appearances than its content: feeling the right way, or whether you tell the truth or lie about what’s in your heart. Aren’t those things more important? That’s the way things are gonna be before long. Probably when you were our age you spent your youth longing for change. It was probably different from what we long for. Politics and society and democratization. The times are different now. What we need now is small changes in our daily life. Even for sex, we need structural changes in our day to day life, rather than ideas. Changes in our one-to-one relationships.”
Heuiwan spoke in a definite manner and without any concern for time and place. Her tone was full of certainty. The driver’s ears perked up every time she said the word “sex.” It seemed that the volume of the radio had been lowered. Really. Eunmyeong felt awkward.
“You sure are a good theorist for an art student. I’m no match for you.”
Awed by Heuiwan’s words, she decided to keep silent. Eunmyeong could not help but have regard for time and place. She did not want to go around asking for negative attention. She felt she was too old to withstand the unnecessary exhaustion. If that was hypocrisy, then so be it. She had herself at one time criticized such an attitude, but…Eunmyeong became lost in thought and looked out the cab window. Anyway, soon she would be able to see Chorogi. At that thought alone, her body stiffened and became tense. She felt gooseflesh popping up all over her body. She felt irritation. She wanted to see her more than ever. The taxi crossed a bridge. It turned at different streets several times.
She repeatedly rubbed her forearms, all gooseflesh with anticipation, and mumbled that it was not necessarily the draft of “Mother and Colony” she was looking for. She was not so ashamed of that fact. The car stopped at the entryway of a dark alley. The word SAPPHO shone on a yellow acrylic signboard.
“There it is!”
Heuiwan walked with sweeping strides as though she were on familiar territory. She opened the door below the sign. The interior was very dark. Nothing could be seen. Suddenly something like a camera’s flash flashed on and then off before her eyes. She winced, as though she were witnessing the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb. It felt as though soap bubbles, drifting in the sunlight, had all burst at once.
(Silcheon munhak, Summer, 1997)
Read a series of interviews with the translator here.
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