The first thing I learned in piano class was how to press Do. Since it’s the first note, you use your first finger. When I pressed the key, Do let out a weak doooooh. I pressed it again so I wouldn’t forget the same Do. Caught off guard, Do stammered out another doooooh and watched the trajectory of its name as it floated by. I sat in that spot where a single note had disappeared so neatly, my pinky finger sticking up. The afternoon sunlight trickled faintly through the cracks in the green contact sheet that covered the window. Silence spread between the piano and the girl making her acquaintance with it for the first time. As if uttering a word that had been chosen carefully, I muttered, very quietly, doooh . . .
Resting my fingers on the keys was harder than it looked. The teacher told me to relax my hands and pretend I was cradling something with my fingers, but the idea that I could hold onto something without grabbing hard at it—or even the very idea that there is such a thing in the world that you can hold without grabbing hard at it—seemed impossible to me. I practiced do-re do-re all day long using two fingers. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered if you press two notes at the same time, the lower note rings for longer.
The keys all looked the same. If they weren’t black, they were white. They were all the same size and texture. I often forgot where Do was. I was never sure if the key was Do, and not Re or Fa or Mi, until my fingers were on the key. The Do I was looking for was the twenty-fourth key from the left. Every time I got lost, I had to count the twenty-four keys over to the correct Do. Of course, I would go to all that trouble just to hit Do again. I liked the sound this bulky, introverted instrument made—the resolute, comforting ring of doooooh. Lucky for me, once I found Do, Re was easy to find. Re came right after Do. Next was Mi and then Fa, so all I had to do was find Do first.
The practice rooms were named after dead composers. I sat in the Beethoven Salon and practiced my scales: do-re do-re. I played do-re-mi in the Liszt Room and do-re-mi-fa-so in the Handel Room. When I started off using only two fingers, I thought, This is manageable. Three fingers were an insult to my talent, and when I moved up to five, I threw my hands in the air and said, I give up! This is too hard! There was only one music school in our village. The school also offered violin, flute, and public speaking, but the programs weren’t very good. Fortunately, no one signed up for flute or violin. The school would have discouraged anyone from signing up anyway. The only kid in town who could play the violin was the head teacher’s daughter. She would make an appearance at school recitals in her recital gown—complete with wings made of wire and lace, and play music even elementary school audiences found grating. Listening to her terrible performance, I felt for the first time in my life the overpowering urge to hit someone.
And who knows why they taught public speaking at a music school. Public speaking was not music. Nonetheless, some kids signed up for it—mostly those who had to prepare for a speech contest and shy kids who were dragged there by their parents. Once, as I sat in the practice room enjoying the sound of my last note fading neatly, I was interrupted by the sound of someone shrieking, “I hate communists!” Lucky deaf Beethoven. For the second time in my life, I felt the overwhelming urge to hit someone. So the kid in the Handel Room was no Handel, and the Liszt Room never produced any Liszts. I had no idea who those composers were anyway.
Whenever I got bored in the practice room, I pictured what the notes would look like if they had faces. Re was prone to leering, and So was always on tiptoe. Mi was often coy, and Fa seemed cheery, despite being one key lower than So. I grew accustomed to the five of them. I also figured out that when I “hit” a key, the sound came from inside the piano, and not from the key itself. High notes disappeared faster, and each note had its own length of time. So when many notes came together to create music, the result was perhaps the confluence of many different timelines.
The trouble began with La. I was wary of La before I got to know it. Playing five notes with five fingers was manageable and sensible. But how do you play six notes with five fingers? It’s like a man who has only ever known the quinary numeral system stumbling across the duodenary system for the first time in his life. I wanted to get to know La. But I was afraid there would be no end of trouble. I don’t like difficult. A lot of songs are made up of just the five-note scale. I’d be perfectly happy playing only five notes for the rest of my life.
The day I learned how to play La, I held my breath as I watched my teacher’s hand. The teacher played Do. She played Do the same way I did. She played Re. That was the same, too. She played Mi exactly as predicted. The suspense was unbearable. When she got to Fa, something flashed before my eyes. Instead of using the fourth finger to play Fa, she curled her thumb inward and hit Fa with her thumb and So with her second finger. All the other fingers fell into place—La, Ti, Do. Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, the perfect seven-note scale. Blown away by her performance, I whispered, Now I know what music is.
I’m not sure how it occurred to my mother, who ran a dumpling store, to make me learn piano. She didn’t force me to play or expect me to become a concert pianist. Mom hadn’t had much schooling herself, so she was never sure when it came to making decisions regarding her daughters’ education. She was probably following what was considered the norm. You know, the things everyone thought you had to do by a certain age, like going to an amusement park or such-and-such an expo. Looking back on it now, going to expos and museums weren’t all that fun. But I feel grateful to my mother for sending me to those places and taking me to the amusement parks. Though they were just one part of an ordinary childhood experience, no different from anyone else’s, I see in them my exhausted mother, a uninformed woman nodding in agreement with the general opinion of the times, rolling kimbap and climbing on tour buses holding her daughter’s hand. I can still picture her lying on a bench, shielding her face from the sunlight with one arm, while I sat shrieking with glee on the merry-go-round pony. The look on her face when she kicked off her shoes and took a short nap may or may not have been as low and quiet as dooooh. My music teacher may or may not have been as surprised as laaaah when she found me lying on the piano bench like my mother. Back then, the most important question of the day was “Mommy, can I have 100 won?” I made music in the Handel Room that never produced any Handels, and mother made dumplings like a deaf person, her short perm the spitting image of Beethoven’s hairdo. Maybe this was possible only because her dumplings were the hottest dish in town right when the music school happened to open.
Mom bought me a piano. I remember her delight when the blue truck reached our house after braving the dusty, unpaved roads all the way from the city. A piano—not a fridge, not a washing machine—was delivered to our house! I felt our family became a notch more sophisticated. The piano was made of light-colored wood, much more stylish than any piano they had at the music school. Vines carved onto the case, steel pedal with a matte finish, and the scintillating red of the keyboard cover! That piano was in a league all its own compared to the rest of the stuff in our house. The only problem was that it was not in the “living room” of a house but rather a dumpling store. We lived and made our living in the same house. In the rooms where customers ate dumplings by day, our family rolled out our mats to sleep at night. We put the piano in the small room my older sister and I shared. My parents’ room was across from the kitchen, and our room looked out into the store.
I spent my afternoons playing the piano. I played The Maiden’s Prayer and Ballade Pour Adeline with my foot on the right pedal for the dramatic reverberation. Clouds of vapor rose from the dumpling steamers. Farmers and vendors in muddy boots munched on dumplings by the mouthful as I played the kind of music that could make anyone burst into tears mid-swallow. The pieces were easy and sweet yet so dramatic that anyone who overheard may have turned red from embarrassment, while someone more honest would have flung a dumpling plate at me, crying, “You call that music?!” Once, after playing a piece, I heard someone at one of the tables clap. I looked out my bedroom door and saw a white man clapping.
“Wonderful!” he shouted in English.
We awkwardly stared at each other in silence. I was embarrassed but managed to squeak out a “Thank you.” Specks of flour hung in the air, shimmering in the sunlight that poured into the house, and the balls of my fingertips were white where they’d touched the piano keys.
I took piano lessons for two years. I went through two Bayer books and started Czerny and Hanon études. “Czerny” reminded me of a breeze from a foreign country; it had a different ring to it than words like “pork fat” or “pickled radish.” I wanted to own the word “Czerny” rather than learn the études credited to the name.
At the end of the day, Mom would close the restaurant and come lie down in our room and request songs. I played folk tunes like “Ttaogi” or “Older Brother” as Mom waved her foot in the air to the tune. The toes of her socks were always soaked with dirty dishwater. Her foot seemed like a wet piece of my mother’s heart hanging in the air. Dad was the singer in the family, but it was always Mom who made requests. Dad handled the dumpling deliveries. Dad delivered fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, and boiled dumplings all over the village, cracking dumb jokes and sticking his nose into everyone’s business. He often took off during the busiest time of the day, usually distracted by a game of cards or the plush toy claw arcade game outside the mom-and-pop store. Mom got furious one time when Dad disappeared for a whole day. All deliveries were canceled. Mom had to run back and forth between the steamer and the phone all day. Around dusk, Dad quietly peered in through the door. He snuck into the restaurant and loitered there, unable to work up the nerve to go into the main room that he shared with Mom. Then, for some reason, he called my sister and me out of our room instead and offered to teach us a song. Delighted that he was being affectionate for once, we crawled out of our room. Dad started to sing, the sliding door of the dumpling store half open. He sang a phrase, and we repeated it after him. Dad’s deep voice carried through the quiet of the small village.
How far is my home from here?
Blue skies down yonder—
Lies there my home so dear?
It was strange. Our village was the only home Dad had ever known, but his face was wistful, as if he had had a home elsewhere.
When the acacia petals dance in the wind . . .
As the chorus of the three serenading heads continued, not a sound came from Mom’s room. She may have been thinking to herself that her misfortune began long ago when she developed a crush on a troubadour like our father.
Anyway, I was nine, and I had more time for mischief than practicing the piano. Every time she heard shattering glass or my sister screaming, my mother would put down the dumpling skins, bolt out of the kitchen, spank us, and quickly disappear back into the kitchen. Mom was very busy. She had to spank us quickly so we would grow up sooner, and in the meantime had to steam dumplings even faster. Every time Mom’s rolling pin landed on my bottom, clouds of flour mushroomed around it. I knew a little something about music, but when it came to Mom and her rolling pin, I always cried waaaah with my mouth wide open. Once, when the music rack broke off the piano, Mom spanked me with that instead of the rolling pin. Too embarrassed to cry like a baby, I snuffled instead of crying, waaaah. That was the first time I got scared by a musical instrument.
There were a good number of kids who could play the piano well, and an even greater number of kids who could not play at all. The untuned pianos sounded congested. Mozart and Beethoven sat in their portraits looking bored to tears as children polluted the air around them all day. The children ran wild and the teachers taught like robots, but I enjoyed myself. I liked the notes quickening beneath my fingertips and the melancholy I felt from the waves rising and falling inside me. The odd thing is that despite my fondness for the piano, I never felt the need to play it well. I wanted to be a good-enough pianist. It may or may not be a coincidence that I quit taking lessons as soon as Mom made the final payment on the piano. It was not that I’d lost interest—I just felt I’d learned enough. My low bar was probably a good indication that I had no talent anyway.
My breasts, nourished on dumplings, were filling out prettily and sending strange messages to all corners of my body. I entered middle school wearing a size 34A bra. I did not play the piano as often as I used to. I maintained my piano skills, which were neither above nor below average, by buying the sheet music for popular songs and playing them for fun. Some were theme songs from popular TV shows and others were songs that ranked number one on some chart from pop music programs on TV. When I played, I never forgot to dramatize the notes by keeping my foot on the right pedal. In that roaring reverberation was a sadness that felt somehow fantastical, tinged with a longing and a lingering desire for something beyond the world of Czerny, a place that I would never know. I entered high school with no other form of private, extracurricular education. When I asked my parents about my future, Mom and Dad gazed blankly at each other and looked as if they’d done something wrong. We had no choice but to rely on what everyone else said: Science majors land great jobs. Teaching is a good profession for women. A national university outside Seoul is better than a third-rate university in Seoul. Every time I heard something like that, I made a serious face as though it was vital information, only to forget all about it moments later. My grades went up and down, but my bra size increased steadily. The piano sat neglected in the corner of the restaurant, accumulating coat after coat of dust. Many years later, long after I had left my parents’ house with my bedding in tow, a thought came to me as I was navigating through a sea of people with my hands in my pockets: In this room, on this street, in this factory and that, in this alley, in that hallway, in the shadows, behind closed windows, or when no one’s looking, people in this world sometimes cry dooooh, dooooh. Without even realizing it, everyone is born with a note or two that they can make. Since I have a name for that cry thanks to a little music I picked up when I was young, perhaps I also owe a small part of who I am to the general opinion of the times.
Dried radish was part of the dumpling mix. Mom would soak dried radish in water, wrap it in cheesecloth, and put it in the Jjalsuni for a whirl. The Jjalsuni was a slim Geumsung-brand washing machine with just a spin cycle. The hose ran from where the machine sat in the storeroom all the way to the drain in the kitchen. Mom went into the storeroom every two to three days to give the Jjalsuni a spin. Each time she went in there, water spewed out of the house. Because of that, I used to think the storeroom was the crying room when I was younger. Years after I found out what the storeroom was really for, I found Mom in there with her head buried in her lap. It was the winter vacation of my senior year, right before I was leaving for college. Mom was spinning soaked radish in the Jjalsuni when the phone rang and she ran out into the kitchen. On my way to the bathroom, I saw Mom on the phone. She sounded like she was pleading with someone and trying to explain something. It was after the lunch rush, and all I could hear besides Mom on the phone was the quiet humming of the Jjalsuni. Mom went back into the storeroom. She squatted next to the Jjalsuni and cried to the sound of the spinning machine, rat-a-tatta-tatta. Dad was out at Seorak Mountain to see the autumn foliage and my sister was taking a semester off from college. I was watching the water trickle out of the hose connected to the darkness on the other side when it dawned on me that our family was done for.
Around the time I saw Mom crying in the storeroom, I was accepted to a college near Seoul. I was going to study computer science at a four-year university. All I knew about computers was the keyboard, but I applied to the program with the groundless optimism that a computer science degree would land me a decent job. That’s how all of my friends chose majors. We blindly signed up for Korean literature, blindly chose teachers college, and went to school with a groundless sense of inferiority or superiority. Many of us applied for programs based more on our grades than our goals. We weren’t familiar with the concept of carefully laid-out life plans, and we certainly did not know what we wanted to do with our lives. My sister, two years my senior, was studying to be a “dental technician” at a community college in Seoul. Her work had to do with making dental prostheses. She said she had no idea what she was signing up for—that choosing such a major would mean making molds of people’s teeth for the rest of her life. For quite some time, I could not tell my parents that I got into college and instead practiced the songs I planned to sing at the freshman welcome party.
Mom suggested we sell everything of value for cash before the creditors raided the house with distraint stickers. Dad and I nodded and began searching the house for valuables. All of ten minutes into the search, we were forced to admit there was nothing in our house worth selling other than the piano, which would yield no more than 800,000 won. Mom mulled it over and concluded we shouldn’t sell it. I gestured emphatically, It’s OK, I don’t need it. I hadn’t played the piano in a while, and I honestly was not that attached to it. The plush toys sat on the piano and looked on with their big, shiny eyes. They were Dad’s trophies from the claw machine. Mom mulled over it some more and then said we should hang on to it for now.
After a brief pause, Mom said slowly and deliberately that I should take it to Seoul with me.
“But I’m moving into a semi-basement studio,” I said incredulously.
Mom knew this, of course. I kept urging her to sell the piano. We truly had no use for it now. Things might turn around, she said as if the piano were an heirloom. So in the end, I had to move to Seoul with the piano in tow. I later discovered that the day I left, Dad tore down the highway on his motorbike, tears streaking his face. When the motorcycle reached maximum speed, he popped a wheelie, crying, “Never co-sign a loan!!” He was pulled over next to a greenhouse where he hung his head in shame while the cop wrote him a ticket. Mom was making dumplings when she received the traffic ticket in the mail.
Mi-yeong, my older sister, was horrified when I showed up with the piano. While our uncle took a smoke break, I tried to explain. I thought Mom had warned her, but apparently she hadn’t mentioned a thing.
“We live in a semi-basement,” she said, flustered.
“I know,” I whispered.
We stood in front of the truck and looked up at the piano. It was elegant and proud, like a member of the fallen Russian imperial family. Our uncle’s truck was parked in the middle of the street and holding up traffic, so Mi-yeong and I quickly put on work gloves. Uncle took one side of the piano, and Mi-yeong and I took the other. At his signal, I took a deep breath and lifted it up. The circa-1980s piano rose into the end-of-the-millennium sky. I nearly shouted, it was so beautiful. We slowly inched toward the door. My legs were shaking, and sweat ran down my spine and forehead. People stared. A car honked behind us. The landlord came down from the upstairs unit in his sweatpants. He was a chubby man in his fifties who seemed like the type who never skipped his morning exercise. He looked shocked. Still holding up my corner of the piano, I awkwardly smiled and nodded at him. Mi-yeong managed a short greeting, too. The piano slowly began to head down the steep, narrow flight of stairs—not a refrigerator, not a washing machine, but a piano. The embarrassment I felt for us went up three notches. Suddenly, there was a loud crash. Our uncle’s hands must have slipped. Mi-yeong and I tried to grab the piano legs, but it was too late. Boom! Boom! Crack! The piano tumbled down the stairs. The sound of multiple timelines converging called out—rriiiiing!—from inside the piano. I noticed the grapevine on the front of the piano was bobbing like a spring. It must have come off on impact. I realized then that what I believed for all those years to be a carving was, in fact, a separate piece of wood superglued into place. We called out to our uncle at the bottom of the stairs to see if he was all right. He said he was fine and kept going. I wasn’t worried about Uncle or the piano. I was too embarrassed by the loud bang!—so real and unabashed—echoing across the city where I’d just arrived. The fretful landlord loomed at the top of the stairs. Incredulous and disgruntled, he took a long look at Mi-yeong, me, the piano, our uncle, and back at the piano again.
“Miss!” he called my sister.
Mi-yeong hurried up the stairs. I saw her, surrounded by a door-shaped frame of sunlight, diligently making excuses. Mi-yeong also apologized to the driver stuck behind our uncle’s truck. We were finally able to persuade the landlord by agreeing to pay extra for monthly utilities and to never, under any circumstances, play the piano. As he turned to go, the landlord muttered under his breath, What do you need a piano for if you’re not going to play it?
That evening, we had dumplings for dinner. Mom had packed some in a cooler before I left. Mi-yeong shoveled the dumplings into her mouth and said, Now I feel better. Mi-yeong said that every time she swallowed a dumpling, she felt she was swallowing a piece of Mom. I split a “king dumpling” with my hands. Scallion, tofu, and pork spilled out of the dumpling, steam rushing out. Perhaps Mi-yeong and I were made of the thousands of dumplings Mom had made over twenty years.
“By the way, what happened to Dad?” Mi-yeong asked, taking a swig of soda.
I gave her the abridged version: Dad’s friend was opening a meat buffet and asked him to co-sign the loan. A few years back, factories of various sizes had begun opening up right outside our town, and Dad’s friend said, “If those people have a few company dinners at the restaurant, we’ll turn a profit in no time!” Around that time, an older guy Dad went to school with also opened a karaoke bar. They gotta have drinks after! he said. Dad co-signed for him, too. The factories started to close one by one, the meat buffet went bankrupt, and so did the karaoke bar. In other words, the legal responsibility fell from one person to the next and the next like dominoes, the last domino falling into the dumpling store. The entire town owed each other money, and the sum was so large it was unreal.
“So whose fault is it?” asked Mi-yeong, sucking on her chopsticks.
I said I didn’t know, but that it felt like a very translucent misery, a surreal one. I could not picture who or what was on the other end of the row of dominoes. If I started working tomorrow and felt overwhelmingly tired, I wouldn’t know whose name to curse.
“Why’d you take time off school?”
“Things are tight at home,” Mi-yeong replied, watching the bubbles in her soda rise.
“Besides I didn’t know if I could keep doing what I was doing.”
I felt a little disappointed at her for thinking about what she’d prefer to do rather than what she should do to help out. I wanted someone to buckle down and get something stable going to lift the family burden. Mi-yeong said she regretted choosing a major based on promises of a decent job market. She hadn’t thought about her aptitude or work environment. A recent explosion at the lab had left her terrified of working there, and she had back problems and coughing fits. I felt sorry for her.
“This person who’s a few years ahead of me in the program told me that the true indicator of a person’s status is not where they live or what they drive, but the condition of their teeth and skin.”
“Really?” I asked, and thought it made sense.
“Isn’t it a bit gross, though, that your teeth reflect your class?”
I stared off into space and pictured a cow having its teeth inspected at market.
“So now I can’t stop checking out people’s teeth, although the habit does come with the major. All celebrities have such straight, white teeth that it’s easy to think that’s normal.”
I wondered if there was such a thing as perfect teeth. Mi-yeong started talking about her boyfriend. He was so much older than her that she didn’t even tell our mother about him until it was over. Apparently, he had dropped by a few days ago, completely trashed. They were both still trying to get over each other. And he had apparently collapsed on the floor the moment she opened the door.
“What’d you do?”
“I took his shoes off and tried to drag him inside, but he wouldn’t budge. So I just sat there looking at him for a while. Before I knew it, I was pulling his lips back to look at his teeth.”
“Yes. I felt terrible about what I was doing, but I just really wanted to look at his teeth. We’d been together for over two years, but that was the first time I saw him that close up. He had about a dozen little teeth in there. They were all yellow and crooked, old.”
I peered at Mi-yeong’s face.
“I sat there looking at the teeth he had used to chew his food for over thirty years, and it felt strangely tragic.”
“Were you disappointed?”
“No, that’s not what I mean.” Mi-yeong paused, searching for words. “When I was casting people’s teeth at school, I used to think, ‘Wow, people really are like animals!’ That day, I guess I felt like I wasn’t holding a boyfriend but an animal, one dearest to my heart.”
We rolled out the sleeping mats. There was just enough space in the room for the two of us to lie down. The piano served as a shelf for the blow dryer, the radio, the iron, and other junk. I felt like I was living in a flea market. Outside the window, I saw our street stretch on like an electric line. Every time a pedestrian trotted down the street, it bounced the way a taut electric line does after a bird has flown away. It suddenly occurred to me that my sky was lower than the ceiling of those people out there.
“This place, it doesn’t feel like Seoul,” I whispered as I turned over.
“Seoul’s like this everywhere. The Seoul you’re thinking of only exists in certain places.”
She quickly fell asleep. I was lying perfectly still on my back in the basement of the city. Headlights licked the window, and the shadow of the piano swept over me and disappeared. I ran my tongue over my teeth in the dark as I fell asleep.
When Mi-yeong went away to college, Mom had given her a computer as a present. Mi-yeong followed a friend from her department to Yongsan where she bought a custom-made computer. Her friend had a cryptic exchange with the salesperson and then asked Mi-yeong to pick out a case. Cases were stacked like crates in one corner of the store. Mi-yeong timidly pointed to one. It looked like part of a robot.
“That’s a strange choice for a girl,” said her friend.
“This looks the most twenty-first century,” said Mi-yeong, turning scarlet. So Mi-yeong wound up in a semi-basement apartment with the most twenty-first century-looking computer. It wouldn’t be long before she would discover that the twenty-first century was all about slim and small electronics. That hunk of a machine found its lair in one corner of the studio.
I started temping. I worked for a printer that got most of its business from a test-prep academy, and my job was to type up tests. At first, I considered waiting tables at a coffee shop or a bar. Based on my eighteen years of no experience, I thought temping meant bussing trays. But I hadn’t understood what the want ads really meant when they said “good-looking.” I was borderline “good-looking,” closer to “cute.” I had to give up on my temping fantasy and look for other jobs in the free papers. Among ads that offered a staggeringly large sum and others that paid unbelievably little, I found a place that paid 1500 won per page. I had no way of knowing whether that was too much or too little, but I was certain I could handle the word processor.
Work was not as easy as I’d imagined. My shoulders ached, my eyes hurt, and I had to type, look for typos, insert graphs, and type in English and classical Chinese without making mistakes. The printer said they couldn’t pay me if I made a typo. The workload they gave me was impossible to handle in the allotted time, but they asked me to bring the pages back in three days like it was nothing. Estimating by the size of the pile how much money I could make if I were to take it, I quickly brought it home and stayed up all night staring at the computer screen with bloodshot eyes. My efficiency was compromised by Mi-yeong’s malfunctioning D. My fingers would fly all over the keyboard until they stumbled on the D. Like a deer in headlights, I froze every time I saw a word with a D in it, and through this painful experience I discovered just how many words in this world are spelled with a D.
“Black and white are the hardest colors on your eyes,” said Mi-yeong, concerned. Sitting before a machine so advanced that it could never have been imagined by those who lived a hundred years ago, I hunched like a Neanderthal.
Mi-yeong was preparing for her college re-admission test. She was going to give college another shot, enroll in a four-year college, major in English, go abroad for language study, and land a decent job. Unlike repeating a year or transferring, the word “re-admission” weirdly smacked of poverty.
“You don’t know the kinds of opportunities that open up if you can speak English,” Mi-yeong lectured me. I found it odd that it took her more than twenty years to figure that out. Mi-yeong came home with an armful of English-language books and started to memorize words and listen to tapes. While I typed like a crazy person, she mumbled in a foreign language with her grammar book open on the music rack of the piano. Each night, the dim lamplight and interminable sound of typing and vocabulary words being memorized leaked out of our tiny semi-basement apartment.
One day, Mi-yeong threw down her pen and yelled, “What do you mean future perfect? How do you know the future is perfect when it hasn’t happened yet?”
I lost the image of the cross-section of the earth’s crust while dragging it onto the Word document, and banged my head against the keyboard in agony. “Argh! Science is the worst!”
It was early summer. The rain came and went and came again. Outside our window, hundreds of raindrops fell into puddles above my head and drew pretty circles. It seemed as though the raindrops were emerging from the ground, not falling from the sky. I looked out the window as I tossed a handful of raisins in my mouth. Raisins were my favorite snack. Chewing on raisins made me feel like I was chewing on shriveled bits of California sun. Mi-yeong was working as a cashier at a chain restaurant in the commercial area nearby. She headed over to the language institute every morning with a large sack of sleepiness draped over her shoulders, and slept like a log on weekends, hugging that sack between her arms. She talked to her ex sometimes. He apparently showed up from time to time, blubbing at her door. The rain came and went and came again. I sat in front of the TV and paid close attention to the weather forecast. When Mi-yeong was out, I cleaned the house, made food, and did laundry, using a detergent that was advertised as having beads of sunlight in it. The weatherman on TV announced that the monsoon season was approaching. I bought dehumidifying chemicals that came in plastic containers and put one under the sink, another in the closet, and another in the shoe cabinet. I had some money saved up; I could take on a minor natural disaster.
I was anxious to get back to school. I had saved up enough money for a semester, and I longed to feel the anxiety and exhaustion of human relationships. I wanted to wear clothes that made me feel anxious, make anxious faces, be conscious of other people’s opinions of me, love, suck up, joke, talk trash, and be calculating or diplomatic. I had the potential to be good or bad to someone, but at the moment I could not be anything to anyone because all I had around me were household appliances. I refused to suck up to the refrigerator or talk trash about the electric rice cooker. My first paycheck came with an unnerving lack of interesting ways to spend it and people to spend it with. I was determined not to die as someone no one had ever heard of, who had devoted her life to temp jobs that no one ever knew existed. I was determined to find a place for myself in the world outside the profession of temping. I sometimes dreamed that my fingers grew very long, like branches. In this dream, I was a human being with highly evolved fingers, endlessly typing the sentence, “Choose the correct answer,” and when I took the huge stack of completed test sheets to the printer, he made me solve all the questions.
I chewed on raisins and assured myself that fall was on its way. I should go clothes shopping at Dongdaemun Market in August. Mi-yeong will teach me how to put on makeup, and I will find myself a temp job that will keep me out of the house for several hours a day. Although it felt like fall would follow on the heels of summer as surely as Re comes after Do, summer dragged on and our youth shone so brightly that it turned pale.
The room was humid. When I glanced around in between typing up tests, I could almost see the sticky, seaweed-like humidity flapping in the air. Colonies of mold blossomed on the wallpaper. The wall behind the piano was in much worse condition. I was convinced that if I pressed one of the keys, the vibration would shake the spores off the wall and scatter them across the room. I was worried the piano would rot. I tried wiping the back of it with a dry rag, but the mold kept coming back. I was ripping a few pages off the giant calendar and taping it to the back of the piano as a quick fix when I was suddenly struck with the urge to test out the piano to make sure it was fine. It would be such a shame to drag it all the way to Seoul from the countryside only to let it be devoured by mold. I sat on the piano bench and lifted the wooden cover with both hands. A familiar weight traveled up my arms. It was a weight I knew quite well. Eighty-eight clean keys appeared. The instrument was calm, as an instrument should be. I placed my fingers on the keys. I relaxed my wrists and curled my fingers as though to cradle something in my hands. The keys felt smooth and cool. I could produce the desired note if I pressed down just a little harder. I heard construction going on outside. The landlord had been renovating his place for the past few days. Suddenly, I wanted to play the piano. I had not felt this way since I had moved to this studio. Once I felt I wanted to play, I was consumed by the desire. One note would be OK. Sounds don’t stick around, and no one would even know it was there. I summoned up the courage to press the key.
Do drew a long line around the room, like a trapped moth. It was beautiful. I felt gentle waves form and disappear inside me. Do cried out dooooh for a little longer than I had expected. I closed my eyes to savor the sound of the fading note. Whamwhamwhamwham! Someone banged on the door. I hurriedly shut the piano. More banging. I opened the door to find the landlord and his family. The man in sweatpants, his wife, and his two children stood in a row. The boy looked exactly like his father, and the girl looked exactly like her mother. They each had a toothpick hanging off their lips, as if they had just returned from dining out.
“Hey, did you just play the piano?” the man asked.
“No,” I said slowly.
He cocked his head and said, “I think you did . . .”
I denied it again. He looked at me suspiciously until I mentioned the mold in the basement. He quickly retreated upstairs with his wife and kids saying, “That’s just how it is in basement apartments.” I came back in and leaned against the piano. I checked my cell phone for no particular reason. Each of the buttons had its own note. I could play a simple tune if I wanted. 1 was do, 2 was re, and to play a note an octave higher, you pressed * or 0 and the number key at the same time. I began to stumble through a melody on my cell phone. Mi so-mi re-do-ti-do fa, mi so-mi re-do-ti-do re-re-re mi . . . I thought to myself, That’s just how it is. What an awful thing to say.
The rain started pouring down hard in the evening. Mi-yeong called to say she had to work late. She should have been on her way home, but she had screwed up an account at work and had to stay up all night going through the receipts and recalculating them until the numbers came out right. I was at home watching a TV soap and eating ramen with dumplings. I couldn’t hear the TV very well although the volume was turned up pretty high. I reached for the remote. It was wet. I had to stare at my hand for a long time before I realized it was rainwater. I jumped. Water was seeping in through the front door. It was black and murky with dirt. Water came in through the window as well, drawing streaks of black tears down the wall. I panicked and called Mi-yeong. Mi-yeong picked up the phone after many rings and was surprisingly calm when I told her what was going on. She said it had happened before and that I should just mop up. She hung up, apparently busy. I felt disappointed and relieved at the same time. I stood there dumbstruck for some time, and then took off my socks and rolled up my pants. I put all the shoes by the door in the shoe cabinet and unplugged the computer, TV, and all of the household appliances. I put extra dry rags around the piano. All I had left to do was mop up the water. I ran a rag over the floor, wrung it out in a basin, and wiped the floor again. I repeated this over and over, and then dumped the water in the bathroom drain and wiped the floor again with a dry rag. Mi-yeong was right. It was nothing. I felt like a grown-up. I put things back in their places and stretched my back. I looked around the room with a sense of accomplishment. But more water had pooled where I’d just mopped the floor. There was more water than before. Turning pale, I called my sister.
“What?” Mi-yeong answered quietly as though there were people around.
“It’s raining,” I answered, fighting back tears.
Mi-yeong sighed and said, “Yes, you said that last time you called.”
“I know,” I sniffled like a child. “But it just keeps coming.”
Mi-yeong quietly tried to console me, “I’ll be home soon. Keep it together.”
“When are you coming home?”
She said she didn’t know, but assured me she would be back soon. I got off the phone and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. Water had risen to the top of my feet and had the pungent and fishy smell of the city. I thought about asking the landlord for help, but it was too late at night. I just had to work at it again. I gathered up all of the computer cords and put them on top of the dresser. I used the dustpan to scoop out the water. It kept flowing down the stairs and in through the window. I tossed the dustpan aside and started using the basin instead. I moved mechanically. Something was streaming down my body, but I couldn’t tell if it was rainwater or sweat. Thunder rumbled. A sense of futility washed over me as I realized my mechanical scooping wasn’t making the slightest difference, but I couldn’t just let the apartment flood. The cell phone rang somewhere in the room. I quickly answered it.
“Mi-yeong?” The voice was low and quiet.
“No, it’s me.”
I was taken aback. He rarely called us.
“Oh, hi . . .” I said, wiping sweat off my forehead.
Dad asked if I was “doing well.” I thought about it for a while before answering, “Yes.” Not very good with words, Dad always asked the same questions when we spoke on the phone. I predicted his next question would be “Have you eaten?” or something to that effect.
“Have you eaten?”
I said I had eaten.
Father was silent for a while before asking, “What’d you have?”
I gave him an uninteresting answer and fell silent again. Dad asked how my job was going, how Mi-yeong was doing, and when I would come home to see them. I answered stiffly but politely. We fell silent again. One of us needed to either end the call quickly or change the subject. He spoke first. It was about money. He didn’t come right out and say he needed our help, but he was trying to tell me he needed our help. The amount he needed was equivalent to what I had saved up for college. I rubbed my drenched and wrinkled foot on the floor.
“I’ll think of something,” I said, and hung up. The world was overflowing with the sound of raindrops hitting things. I was spacing out in the room with the basin still in my hand when I heard someone at the door. I ran to the door and shouted happily, “Mi-yeong, is that you?”
There was a shadow on the other side of the door. It was a man with a menacing face. I fell on my butt. Water splashed the back of my hand. The man looked at me, his eyes unfocused.
“Who are you?” I asked, trembling.
First the flood, then the debt, and now an attack? I was about to curse my cruel fate when the guy doubled over next to the shoe closet after staring intently at me. He rubbed his face against the shoe closet and mumbled, “Mi-yeong.”
It dawned on me that this man was Mi-yeong’s ex-boyfriend. He had a small frame and a mild face. He might have been considered cute if you looked closely. I approached him cautiously. I poked his shoulder with the tip of my finger. Instead of crying, dooooh, he turned over with a snort.
The guy did not even stir. I shook him.
The guy opened his eyes very wide and stared at me idiotically. He didn’t seem to know where he was or who I was.
“You can’t lie here like this. Get up.”
He was soaked through and through. He nodded and closed his eyes again. I wanted to move him somewhere, but everything was wet.
Should I just leave him here?
But I couldn’t bail any more water with him blocking the door. I thought about calling Mi-yeong, but her hushed voice had implied that her boss was standing over her. Anyway, she said she’d be back soon. I figured she would take care of him when she returned, so I decided to just get him out of the way. I looked around and spotted the piano bench. It would be high enough above the floor that he wouldn’t get too wet unless the water started to rise at a much faster rate. I helped him up. The man had about as much control of his body as a dead octopus. I slung his arm over my shoulders and dragged him. He slipped, fell, and collapsed.
He shuddered when he hit the cold rainwater but instantly started snoring again.
He snorted and turned over. I was angry, but I couldn’t just leave him there. The water was up to my shins. The books on the bottom shelf were soaking up water and swelling. Among them were English workbooks that Mi-yeong had not even opened yet. I finally succeeded in getting the man up onto the piano bench. He looked peaceful. His body was bent at a ninety-degree angle, and his ankles were underwater. I sighed and looked at him. The rosy-cheeked man seemed a little soft in the head. Staring at his face for a while, I was reminded of what Mi-yeong had said about teeth. I wanted to see his teeth, too. Just a quick peek should be OK, I thought. I carefully reached for his lips. He turned. He was probably uncomfortable, sleeping with his body folded at a right angle. I jumped back and reproached myself. Our room was flooded, and this was no time to be distracted. The water was up to my knees now. I noticed that the piano was drowning. It was clear the piano would be ruined unless I did something right away. I felt as though a motorbike were tearing through my heart, leaving skid marks behind. Thousands of dumplings rose like air bubbles and popped in the wake of the motorbike. Mi-yeong’s English workbooks, the D on the keyboard, the phone call from Dad, and our summer all floated up into the sky and burst in the air. I opened the piano cover. The clean keys came into view. I calmly placed my hands on the piano. My thumb was on Do, index finger on Re, and middle and ring fingers on Mi and Fa. I didn’t press anything, but I heard a long note. Entranced, I pressed the key.
Do took a long flight around the room. I pressed Re.
The man turned onto his other side. I relaxed. Soggy notes rose one after the other from my fingertips.
“So mi do-re mi-fa-so-la-so . . .”
The pedal gurgled under water. The notes rose slowly, danced with one another, and faded.
“Mi-mi so do-ra so...”
The man steamed like a hot dumpling. As the rain continued to fall, sometimes hard, sometimes not, I played the piano in our semi-basement apartment, accompanied by the gentle slosh of black rainwater. Ankle-deep in the flood and deep in his dreams, the man grinned.
“도도한 생활” © Ae-ran Kim. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 Jamie Chang. All rights reserved.
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