Here’s a question we all ask ourselves at least once when we’re young: Where does that starlight come from? It’s been there before I was born, and before my grandmother, and her grandmother were born. So just how far is that star from Earth? The curiosity of children is insatiable. They’ll grab a flashlight and aim it at the stars and think, This light will get there someday, won’t it? When I’m dead, and my grandchildren are gone, and their grandchildren as well. Whimsical thoughts, of course. Not a chance that light so faint will still be sparkling thousands of light-years from now. That’s our universe: a place where light much stronger than this vanishes without a trace.
And another childish question: Does a bird in mid-flight have a shadow? How can such a small, light thing be burdened by something as clumsy as a shadow? But birds certainly do have a shadow. Sometimes, just sometimes, when I watch a flock fly by I have a feeling that something dark and black is flitting past. It’s subtle enough that you’ll miss it if you’re not fully concentrating on it. When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that? As usual I haven’t the faintest idea. Just wanted to make the point that bird shadows can cover the sun.
Look down from a helicopter and see for yourself that flying objects have shadows. The shadow surges and swells under you; it’s like a black carpet and it doesn’t go away. Shadows latch onto that space between you and the source of light and they never let go. Block out the light, and you end up with a shadow. And I’m always standing between the two.
That timid child, so scared of his own shadow, grew up to become a writer. I write for a living. I get up in the morning, read the paper, prepare breakfast for one, open the window to freshen up the room, play some oldies music. Recently, the old man who moved in next door showed me how to eat green tea over rice. Just pour the boiled tea over a bowl of white rice and eat it with pickled cucumbers or some other mild side-dishes. For spring days when you have no appetite and you’re alone, it’s the perfect meal. Once I’m done with this simple meal, I pour some more hot water into the tea bowl and have another cup. A clean, neat meal, like the offerings of Zen monks to the Buddha. But even on such mornings, things can unsettle me. Like when my college girlfriend was quoted in the paper as saying that her college years were lonely and depressing.
The azaleas lining the courtyard wall have withered, groaning under the weight of a late chill. Even the fragments of glass embedded along the top of the wall to discourage burglars seem to have lost their luster. A flat tire, empty flowerpots and styrofoam containers filled with snow are scattered between the house and the surrounding wall. This place needs a serious cleanup, but not now – it will have to wait for spring. Over to the side, a second-hand bicycle stands under the awning, looking as bitter as an old maid trying to keep out of the rain. I stand it up, dust off the seat and walk it to the front gate. As I start peddling, a frosty wind slaps against my cheeks. A late February day – too early to call it spring . . .
I pushed open the door of the distribution office, piled with knots of scattered string that they use to tie up stacks of newspapers and fliers. Another sliding door opened inside and a middle-aged woman peered out at me. She was half wrapped in a blanket and looked like she had just dozed off.
“I’d like to cancel my subscription.”
I felt bad about waking her up, but I’d made this decision long ago. I wanted to tear myself away from the daily disasters of the world. Writers have a problem – if they get distracted first thing in the morning, their day is shot. And all the newspapers have become morning editions. Papers in the morning, network news at night – that’s life these days.
Her indifference surprised me.
“Apartment thirty-four-two. The brownstone next to Happy Supermarket.”
She flipped through her register and found I was signed up for the basic subscription – no special services. I produced 12,000 wôn from my wallet, gave it to her and got a receipt. Before I was out the door, she had slid the door shut and was back under the covers. I couldn’t believe it. If I’d known it was that easy! Everyone kept telling me how complicated it would be, which is why it took me so long to get around to it. I jumped back on my bike and pedaled over to the store. I threw some onions, curry powder, potatoes and chicken breast into the front basket, and headed home. I noticed an acrid fish smell. I got off my bike and sniffed. The smell wasn’t coming from me . . . and then I heard a rustle behind me. I turned and found myself staring at a filthy, shaggy mutt, eyes flashing, lurking near a pile of trash bags. Off I pedaled.
At home I sliced up the chicken breast, chopped an onion, and boiled a pot of water. I moistened the curry to soften it and poured the paste into the boiling water, then stir-fried the onions and carrots. A sweet, full fragrance began to waft through the house. I poured the thick curry paste over the steaming rice and dug in. The chicken breast was tender, and the carrots had just the right crunch. I had taken to reminiscing about everyone I’d ever eaten with. Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. And terribly dizzy. The serving dishes on the table seemed to rattle and the house shook as if it were in a passing train in the subway. I put down my spoon and closed my eyes. What’s wrong with me, I’ve been eating alone for ages! What a baby! I felt a little better. I picked up my spoon and silently returned to my curried rice loaded with chicken and vegetables cooked to perfection.
The phone rang just as I was depositing the dishes in the sink. I rolled up my apron, tossed it aside and reached for the phone.
“Well, it’s been a while . . . ”
“Are you okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t hear about the earthquake? The epicenter was about thirty kilometers from the Ungjin peninsula.”
So that was it. That rattling. “How strong was it?”
“Don’t know. Two-point something? Three-point something?”
“Are you all right?”
“The cat took off. Right before it started. I was running after it when I lost my balance – thought I was getting anemic or something.”
“How’ve you been?”
“Fine . . . ”
Silence for a moment, then she asked, “You free today?”
I looked up at the calendar. The deadline was staring me in the face. And I had the strangest feeling that seeing her was going to make things very, very complicated.
“Well . . . to be honest . . . ”
“What is it? You’re busy?”
“It’s just . . . I’ve a deadline coming up. Is something going on with you?”
“No, everything’s fine. Just a bit bored, that’s all.”
“I’ll call you after the deadline.”
She hung up. I felt bad – that was no way to treat an old friend I hadn’t heard from in two years. But we’d always had a mutual understanding about keeping our personal space. Still, it’s not like her to call like that. The earthquake must have given her a bit of a jolt. I tied the apron back on, washed the curry-stained dishes and piled them on the drying rack. But her call kept nagging at me. The earthquake might have been an excuse, for all I knew. Did she want me to help her look for her cat? God, how I hate cats! And going after them is the pits! I pulled off the rubber gloves, slung them over the sink and returned to my desk. I switched on the 14-inch television perched on the desk. I saw people playing paduk, people tasting salted mackerel, and people on treadmills – but there wasn’t a word about the earthquake. Even the news channel showed nothing but sports. I switched the TV off. The phone rang again. I picked up.
“Paulo, is that you?”
“Who else? Everything okay?”
“Oh, fine. A little shaking, that’s all.”
“Aren’t you calling about the earthquake?”
“Isn’t that what you’re calling about?”
“No, nothing special. Just a friendly call.”
“What about mass?”
“I’m done. The boss is taking over starting tonight.”
“And how are you, otherwise?”
“Nothing’s new. What are you up to tonight?”
“I have a deadline. I’ve to finish a story by the day after tomorrow.”
“Have you started?”
“It’s almost done. But it needs some revision.” Actually, it was in miserable shape.
“Can’t we get together anyway? You know what happens when you don’t listen to the good father.”
It wasn’t much of a threat, but I agreed. “All right, why don’t you come over to my place.”
“Sounds good. Drinks are on me.”
I was sorry as soon as invited him, but it was too late. I couldn’t turn a cold shoulder to two friends in a row. If they’d called in reverse, I’d probably be seeing Migyong instead. Whatever. I switched off the computer. The story will get done, one way or another. I caught my reflection in the computer’s blank screen and shut my eyes tight for a moment. Someone was playing the piano. The girl next door, a middle-school student, was working on a Mozart sonata. She must have a strict teacher, I thought – she kept stopping and repeating the same bars. My old teacher used to slap the backs of my hands with a bamboo ruler. She was overweight, had a most unpleasant chin and was perpetually short-tempered. One day, she started slapping a student who kept getting the beat wrong. The other students started bawling; they were terrified. The boy’s mother stormed in but the teacher refused to apologize and instead got even more worked up, until finally she collapsed. The boy bent down over her and wailed; he was convinced she had died. His lamentations seemed to work because she soon came to. The boy’s mother, pale as a ghost, collected the two-week fee that the teacher had thrown back to her and left. Six months later the piano teacher married a Japanese man and moved to Okinawa. The gossiping moms who met in the apartment complex hallways had it that she’d sold her soul to some shady religious cult.
Paulo showed up before the sun had set, a bottle of Ballantine Scotch in his right hand. With his thick, bushy eyebrows and his stern chin, he looked like a five-star general. His flushed cheeks, however, softened his look. The double-faced appearance must have been what made him popular with the girls. They’d write him letters, and plant themselves in front of his house, crying and wailing about what a cruel man he was. For a simple crush, they made a huge fuss. But then he signed up for the seminary and all the teenage fuss and commotion came to a sudden end. The news was so shocking that the entire parish knew about it within hours. The girls wept, the guys snorted. “So, he’s going to be everybody’s lover, is that it?” they asked each other, kicking scattered stones in frustration.
But even Paulo, man that he was, started to lose his Adonis-like charm once he hit thirty-five. He developed a belly, and his chin slowly got soft around the edges. His eyes lost some of their sparkle, and his long, slender hands grew pudgy. The sapphire ring was now digging into his finger.
“Make yourself at home. Entertain yourself for a few minutes while I make us some spaghetti.”
I forked the noodles out of the pot and placed them in a more convenient deep bowl, and took out a can of tomato sauce. Then I produced the bottle of Majuang Special that I’d bought on sale at the supermarket. A professional wine-drinker, Paulo looked at the bottle and chuckled.
“What’s so funny?”
“Majuang – the official Catholic drink . . . ”
“Is it? What does it taste like?”
“It’s . . . well . . . different.”
I was twisting the noodles around my fork when I suddenly looked up and caught him staring at me.
“This is really nice,” he said.
“Eating spaghetti, with a friend.”
“What’s gotten into you?”
He stuffed a mouthful of spaghetti in his mouth. Red sauce squirted onto the neck of his beige cardigan.
“You’re seeing someone, aren’t you?” I took a dig at him as I passed him a napkin.
Paulo grinned but said nothing.
“You’re a priest by profession, don’t forget. If you quit, how are you going to make a living?”
“I have no idea. I’ve turned into a sorry act.”
“Religious men are all a bit like that, no? Wherever you go.”
“Maybe I should be a writer.”
“You think writing is easy?”
“Writers are just about as useless as priests.”
“Not every useless guy can write, though.”
“No, I guess not.” He took a gulp of Majuang.
“So who is she?”
“A college student.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not like that.”
“So what am I thinking?”
“Whatever it is, it’s not like that.”
“Okay – what is it, then?”
“Just . . . At my mass, she comes up and sits in the front row. She’s been doing that since high school.”
“Is that all?”
“Does she show up for confession?”
“Yes. And says nothing. When I press her, she just asks forgiveness for the sins she’s committed unawares.”
“Is she pretty?”
“Very. You know how priest counselors get to go on youth-group outings? We went out to Ch’ôngp’yông one time. It was so cold the lake was frozen solid. The kids were sledding and having all sorts of fun and they ran over wanting to drag me in. All I could see was her. You must know what I’m talking about? When she walked by, she was like a flash of light. And when she was flirting with the boys, I couldn’t bear to look. Another time we were playing volleyball, and she was right in front of me. She’s pretty tall for a girl. Every time she went up to block – I must be crazy – all I could see in her jeans was that small, firm behind, tensing on the way up and giving a little jiggle when she landed. I could feel it, you know? As if my hands were on her. But then this one time, she fell when she landed. The guys didn’t waste any time helping her up. Giggling, she – listen to this – she patted herself on the behind, shaking off the sand . . . off those two, jiggling cheeks . . .”
“Enough. You’re in a bad way.”
“I know that.”
“But are you sure she likes you?”
“Why else would she show up for mass every day? And sit right up front?”
“Actually, she emails me too.”
“What does she email? Nude shots of herself? Oh-save-me-Father photos?”
He smiled bitterly. His thick eyebrows contracted for a moment, like an insect sensing danger. He forked away at his cooling, half-full plate of spaghetti. “You don’t seem to be in the best of humor, Stefano.”
“So what do her emails say?”
“A little of this, a little of that. Love letters in disguise.”
“So you’ve said. Anything else?”
“We went out drinking, just once.”
“Hang on a second.” I cleared the table and relocated the drinks to the living-room sofa. Paulo stared vacantly toward my desk. I opened the bottle of Scotch he’d brought. There was no way I was going to be able to listen to the rest of this conversation sober. If that’s how I felt, how badly must he be needing a drink?
“I feel like the priest here,” I said.
“You almost were, remember?”
“Nah. I would have quit right off. How can they expect you to live without romance?”
“Well, I have to confess that there are times after mass when I feel absolutely hollow. There I am, me and the grannies, going through the motions with the gospels and Holy Communion, going in and out with the altar boys . . . and when I get back to the parish house I find myself thinking I can’t take it anymore and I get all choked up. I spent my twenties buried in Thomas Aquinas, never knowing what youth was all about. I was feeling that suffocation again, and so I changed out of my clericals and headed for the pub. I’d just sat down and opened a bottle when someone sat down next to me. It was her. Her perfume was so strong . . . I’ve never been so dizzy.”
“Habitual starvation seems to have sharpened your senses. So what happened?”
“She must have seen me go past the church. Or maybe she was following me, who knows? Anyway, we sat there quietly and drank. After we’d had a few, she started speaking in a low, hushed voice. Those small cheeks carrying her soft breath, breath into words, words gliding past my ear . . . ”
“And you slept with her.”
Paulo stared straight into my eyes. I didn’t shy away, of course. He didn’t look like he was contemplating whether to lie. Finally he shook his head.
“Of course – it wouldn’t be right for a priest to sleep with a parishioner, would it? You’ve got Jesus on the cross looking over your shoulder. Kind of like a halo.”
“I know that.”
“That’s good to hear.”
He stood and went to my bookcase. I heard him running his fingers absentmindedly down the spines of some books.
“I saw Cecilia there.”
“Cecilia? You mean Migyong?”
“Yes. She was drinking by herself. She must have recognized me right away, but because I was with the girl she turned her back to me. I ran into her on the way to the bathroom. Very embarrassing.”
“She called me this morning.”
“Really?” Paulo turned toward me.
Suddenly I felt a chill-I found myself thinking I was in the shadow of a bird passing overhead and I shriveled up inside. And then I realized he wasn’t here to talk about the schoolgirl. This was all about Migyong. There’d been an earthquake and she had called. And now Paulo was here. None of this was a coincidence.
“Got any beer?”
I took a can of Cass out of the fridge and handed it to him.
“How about a glass, too.”
He poured the beer into the glass and topped it off with Scotch.
“This is how we do it in the parish house. So, did Migyong have anything to say when she called?”
“She knows I’m busy, so we decided to get together another time.”
It turned out, Paulo said, that the church girl had slipped out of the pub while he was talking to Migyong in front of the bathroom. Migyong apologized for causing Paulo to lose his date, but he said never mind and the two of them sat down for the first time in about ten years and ordered drinks. There was nothing surprising about any of this – nothing suspect about two good high school friends, two people who could hold their drink, having a few rounds together. Besides, Migyong had been a decidedly distinguished fan of Paulo, and one of the many girls who threw themselves at him; she had even been lucky enough to enjoy a certain period as his girlfriend. She might not remember it that way, but back then it certainly was considered a privilege. The other girls spread an assortment of rumors about her, that she’d gotten herself pregnant and abandoned her baby a dozen times. But it was only natural that being gorgeous as well as a top student, Migyong was a good match for the school’s most popular guy.
Back then Paulo, Migyong, and myself spent most of our time together. With Migyong I’d discuss Paulo, and when I was with Paulo we’d talk about Migyong. I had no special status either way, which is probably why I got along with them so well. I’d be lying if I said I was never jealous, but the truth is that I was more jealous of the kind of relationship they had than lustful after a girl like Migyông. I was jealous of that self-conscious frankness that’s possible only when you’re a teenager. Sure, Migyông was pretty: prominent, stubborn nose and big, round eyes. She looked like a Dutch porcelain doll.
“Is Migyôngstill in the same neighborhood?” I asked.
“Yes, near her parents’ place. She said she’d just stopped by on her way home.”
“That’s right. What about her husband?”
I knew her husband well. We were once actually very close. Otherwise I wouldn’t have introduced him to her in the first place. As soon as Paulo announced he was going to the seminary, Migyông stopped hanging out with him. And then she was accepted by an elite university, with grades to spare. Only once after that, on a spring day when the seminary dorm had an open house, did the two of us go to see Paulo. He called her Cecilia back then as well. They’d met and interacted through the church Sunday school, so it was only natural for him to call her that. But I was in college now and was seeing Migyông quite frequently. I set her up once in a while with guys I knew and invited her to drink with my friends, so I could no longer call her by her baptismal name. That spring day, Migyông sat down on Paulo’s bed and brushed off his bed sheet. As if she wanted to take a piece of him with her. There was something quite erotic about it, so Paulo and I deliberately looked away, and went on and on about how lovely the campus was on this beautiful spring day.
“Let’s get out of here. Isn’t this place a bit suffocating?” I ventured.
We went outside and sat down under a cherry tree. With every breezy breath, cherry blossoms fell off their branches and scattered. One landed on her collarbone and then tumbled down her blouse. I said nothing.
“Should we get something to drink?” I volunteered to buy a few cans of soda. They didn’t stop me. As soon as I stood up, they got up as well and started walking among the cherry trees. She probably had things to ask him, and Paulo had things he wanted to tell her. And the seminary campus was the right place for that conversation. I didn’t try to pry into the private talk they had that afternoon. Knowing them for as long as I did, it was easy enough to guess. It was all pretty obvious: a man scared of commitment, over his head in poetic problems, and a woman pretending to understand all that, who considered herself to be in more-than-average control of her life and saw herself as quite the intellect, walking the campus lined with cherry blossoms, reliving the lingering memories of their puppy love and wishing each other happiness in their separate ways. Later, they would run into each other by coincidence, but that was all.
The next time the three of us got together again was at Migyông’s wedding. The ceremony was held in the church in Sôch’o-dong, and there were hundreds of guests. The bride was glowing. She wasn’t as beautiful as she’d been in high school, but she looked adorable dressed in the white wedding gown. Migyông’s husband approached me, saying that he was going to buy me a new suit, a customary gesture to the matchmaker. Don’t worry about it, I told him, and he teased me saying thanks, you saved me some money. As soon as the ceremony was over the music to “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” came on, she put her arm firmly through his, and the two marched down the aisle. They looked happy. The groom, Chôngshik, had just passed the accountant’s examination and was interning for an accounting firm. And it didn’t surprise me that as soon as Migyông graduated she was hired as a producer by a radio station in Yôûido. It was, as they say, a match made in heaven. They came up to us later at the reception. We had sat down to eat the ceremonious kalbi soup. We wished them much happiness.
“If we have children, we’ll come to you for the baptism,” Migyông joked. Paulo, who was still a deacon, smiled; Migyông’s husband didn’t.
“Why would you leave your own parish to go to him?” I asked. “Listen, Chôngshik, take good care of this one. You lucky stiff . . . not bad for a simple accountant!”
That got a smile out of him. His father used to be a high school teacher down in the countryside. But then he quit for some reason or another, and when Chôngshik was in college his father farmed. He was constantly experimenting with new farming techniques, so their economic situation was always unstable. Chôngshik could barely afford to pull through college, which is why he was even more desperate to pass the accountant exam. And pass it he did. He was a bit on the boring side, but somehow we’d become quite close. Back in 1987, when the country was overwhelmed by student demonstrations against the military dictatorship and 70 percent of the student body was gathered at the front gates of the university, Chôngshik was in the library studying. Reading was his one pleasure, and whenever he tired of numbers and financial statements, he’d pick up a volume of award-winning stories or a literary magazine. I never bothered to follow up on his reading suggestions, but years later, when I became a writer, he was the first one to send a note congratulating me.
“I was so happy for you when I heard the news. Write something inspiring, something that will rescue wandering youth like myself.”
I never considered him a “wandering youth,” but it occurred to me that it must not have been easy for him to spend all those hours reading, and this thought saddened me. I was also surprised and moved by the fact that he still believed literature could “rescue poor, wandering youth.” At the end of his note, he added a line from a foreign folk song:
The stars sparkle, our love fades away
Rumors are Death, live happy ere they come your way.
He probably wrote the same lines to Migyông when they were still dating. He was built like a rugby player, but inside he was extremely sensitive. He’d underline different lines in the fiction and poetry he was reading, copy them down, and memorize them on the subway. After he became a certified accountant he tried his hand at fiction, but then one day – right after I became a writer – he lost all interest in literature. When the two of them invited me over, he still talked about books, but by that time they were works that had been out for ages by writers no longer active. “And I read all of yours, you know.” He’d say.
Their apartment was lovely. With two healthy incomes, it wasn’t long before they were able to buy a small apartment in Kangnam, the expensive part of town. In just a few years, Migyông was producing her own program and Chôngshik was busier and busier at work. They were so busy they rarely managed to eat together, even on New Year’s Eve. He started calling me less frequently, and I began to feel estranged from him, and naturally from her as well. I did try and tune in to her show once in a while, but couldn’t find a trace of her anywhere in it. I kept hoping she’d put on one of the songs we used to listen to in high school, but she never did. Then she started producing only the evening broadcast covering the latest teeny-bopper pop stars. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to that kind of program. And so we naturally grew apart. I guess it’s to be expected – it would be stranger to say I was still in touch with a high-school friend I’d met through Sunday school. And I became the type of person who brushed elbows only with people involved in writing and publishing.
Something had fallen over – the bottle of Ballantine had tipped and was spilling all over the table. I placed it back upright and wiped up. Paulo was quite drunk. His eyes were relaxed now, and he looked like he was about to slump over. What did I expect, with him mixing his drinks like that?
“I . . . I slept with Migyông.”
A huge bird spread its wings and passed over my head. I should have expected something like this.
Still I was deflated.
“What? That’s wrong and you know it.”
“I had no choice. She was so sad. Bloody hell, what’s a guy supposed to do? She was so sad.”
“Okay, fine. What’s she so sad about? She widowed or something?”
“You know what? It’s none of your business. In fact, stay out of it altogether.”
He shook his head violently, and then collapsed in a heap on the couch. I poured myself a shot and gulped it down. So that’s what this was all about. That’s where all this was heading. There was never any alternative. It’s what he was going on about all along . . . I dragged myself to the bathroom, peed, and staggered to bed.
The next morning he was gone. The living room table had been cleared. The dirty bottles and glasses were all in the sink. I picked up stuff lying around the floor and threw it in the garbage. He’d shaken up a great many things in his wake, and now he was gone. It would take me a few good days to get back to my writing. There was no way I’d be able to keep the deadline. I called the magazine and apologized profusely, said I was terribly sorry but I just wouldn’t be able to get the story in on time. They whined that I couldn’t do that to them. They could give me a few more days, they said. They told me again I couldn’t do that to them. The issue was in big trouble if they didn’t have a story from me, and so on.
And as usual, I gave in and said all right, I’d do my best, but inside I didn’t feel right about it. A hangover, a promise I had no chance of keeping, and a terrible secret – it was all unbearably tiresome.
I went outside. My stomach was upset, but it felt good to get some fresh air. I followed the footpath along the creek. Bicyclers and rollerbladers whizzed by me. A robust Siberian husky was half-dragging its owner along. It stopped to sniff at my feet but immediately lost interest and went back to walking its owner. My shoulders started to feel the cold. Here on the walking path, people looked much more animated, alive. They were rushing off somewhere or another. Just till the bridge, then I’ll turn back. I stepped up my pace. As I approached the bridge, I noticed a tent. Orange-colored, big enough for four or five people, lit up from the inside. I heard voices. Those people are brave, I told myself – it must get nasty cold at night. I buried my hands in my pockets and stood there for the longest time, staring at the tent. Suddenly the front was unzipped, and a man stuck his head out.
“What’s your problem?” he asked, openly hostile.
I was taken aback, and gestured apologetically.
“I wasn’t . . . I was just passing by . . . ”
I caught the face of a woman through the unzipped tent door. She couldn’t be more than twenty. She had a youthful face but her eyes looked drugged and lifeless, as if she couldn’t care less about anything. She stuck her head out of the tent, stared at me for a moment with the same indifference, took no notice of the cold, and retreated back inside. A few kids passed in front of me on bicycles, blocking my view. I took the opportunity to turn and start off home.
“Asshole,” the man called after me.
A dog was peeing against the base of a sign that read, “Han River, 4.5 km.”
At home, I filled the tub with hot water and climbed in. Wonderful – cussed at first thing in the morning.
I was thoroughly annoyed at no one in particular. I kicked the bathwater, splashing it all over. Soapy water dripped down the mirror, the toilet, the medicine cabinet, the towel hanger. My hands thrashed at what was left in the tub, and then I took a deep breath and shouted as loud and long as I could.
I stepped out of the bathroom, dried off and grabbed something quick for breakfast. Then I picked some towels from the closet and the rag drying on the heater and headed back to the bathroom to clean up. This is the story of my life: I’m incapable of getting angry good and proper and I end up quietly cleaning up after my own mess. Who knows, maybe everyone else is the same – I mean, how many people really live their lives the way they want? That’s what my mother always used to say. But then again, she lived her life more or less the way she wanted. She had three husbands, traveled and shopped her life away. And she didn’t meet her end, strangely enough, in any critically serious way. She managed to get her ex-husbands to pay for her travels and her shopping. “If I’m happy,” she’d say, “then so is everybody else – right?”
Mother had the world wrapped around her little finger. Men were weak at the knees when faced with a woman who knew no guilt. A woman who shops for men like she shops for clothes – what can you do?
After all, marriage is a marketplace, and mother was a prime consumer. Her chin jutting out ten feet ahead, she demanded her rights wherever she went. She lived her life with a few phrases, like “Out of my way!” or “You made the mess – clean it up!” And she treated me the same way. Which suited me fine. For example, she never pressured me to get married. She’d say, “Do what you want. Marriage? – it’s a man’s loss.”
Mother was always afraid I’d turn to her for money for a new place if I ever got married. I can’t really say it’s her fault I never tied the knot, but she’s not completely blameless. She was my feminine model: a voracious spender, who could never get enough. When I called her to tell her I’d decided to become a writer, she mobilized all the English at her disposal to congratulate me: “Brabo, goot! You’a my leally leally great son!” And she followed up with some advice:
“Write for women, and you’ll lead a charmed life. Paint your women elegant, your men scoundrels. That way no one will ever hate you.”
When I recall her strange words I grow moody. Write for women? Is that possible? If mother were alive . . . she’d probably survive two more husbands. She was unsparingly abusive toward other women, all of whom she saw as her competitors, and that included Migyông. Back when I was in college, Mother once walked into a café where the two of us were having a drink. She sat herself down beside us and as soon as Migyông left for the bathroom she took in my pouting face and told me off: “There’s no future in that one. She’s smart but she’ll never meet the right guy. She’ll eat herself up from the inside and be old and wrinkled before she hits forty-you’ll see. Tell me later if your mother was right.”
Before I had a chance to tell her she wasn’t even my girlfriend, Mother walked off with her date. And of course she left us to pick up her tab. Migyông was indirectly critical, of course. Wow, your mother’s really cool! But, is she really your mother? She acts like your aunt, not your mother! I blushed, said nothing, and drank more. I never had any designs on Migyông, but somehow I felt offended by Mother’s comments.
The bathroom was clean. I sat in front of the television and surfed the channels. My unfinished story was doing somersaults in my head but revealing nothing in the way of concrete characterization. Night fell, turned to morning, then became night again. Besides the publishers, who called twice, no one else looked for me. I picked up the phone and dialed Migyông’s number.
“Well, calling after all. I thought you wouldn’t.”
“Shall we meet?”
Migyông was waiting when I arrived. We sat down over coffee, and talked about the new show she was producing and about my story. She said she’d moved from radio to television. She was working for a cultural station now and was quite busy. It had been ages since I’d seen her, and the change was shocking. I couldn’t help recalling my mother’s prediction. She was supposed to have a thirty-five-year-old face, but she easily looked ten years older. Anyone who saw her – saw those well-defined wrinkles, droopy cheeks, hollow eyes and lackluster, frizzy hair – would agree. She was talking cheerfully enough, but the way her leg was constantly shaking indicated that something else, something serious was going on. I put my hand up and interrupted her.
“Migyông . . . ”
“This isn’t what you called me about, is it?”
“I don’t know why I called you.”
“How about if we go somewhere else?”
We got into my car and I drove to the riverbank. She seemed much more at ease now that she wasn’t facing me. I turned on the radio. The announcer was talking about Brazilian music. Brazil is known as the land of the samba. Let’s discover that country together, shall we?
“Migyông, why you haven’t said anything about Chôngshik?”
She turned and stared at me in utter disbelief. Loathing, fury, incredulity, pity, and resignation danced across her face, then disappeared.
“You mean . . . you didn’t know?”
“Oh my God, you really had no idea. Of course not. What an idiot I am. What made me so sure you knew?” she said, knocking her head lightly against the windowpane. “I had no idea . . . and I thought you were just being cruel. Such a jerk, I thought, talking to me about deadlines. Deadlines, he tells me! And I’ve been so furious . . .”
I turned the radio off. Loneliness replaced the samba. Déjà vu – I’d been here once before. Migyông coming to see me, weeping; talking about Paulo again. There were times when Paulo came crying as well, and wanted to talk about Migyông. The two of them had something to unburden themselves of. I envied them both. I’d never felt anything that could inflict such darkness on another person’s soul.
“Have you heard what I’m working on these days?” she asked, going off on a tangent and avoiding the heart of the conversation.
“You said it’s some kind of documentary.”
“What’s it about? Not about birds in flight, by any chance?”
“In 1994 the police found a car that had crashed into a tree off to the side of the national highway around Yonggwang County. The driver died instantly and the car was a charred wreck. The driver was a businessman, a trader in marine products.”
“The police ruled it a case of driver negligence. And then in 1997 a rental car was discovered on the perimeter highway on Cheju Island; it had caught fire too. The occupants were newlyweds; he died in the fire and she survived third-degree burns and was committed to a psychiatric ward.”
I had no idea where all this was coming from. I’ve always hated these kinds of stories. Migyông blew her cigarette smoke out the window.
“Oh, by the way, our cat came back.”
“But he’s limping. He must have fallen, silly thing. Life is so full of mysteries . . . ”
“So, are you working on . . . ‘The X Files’ or something?”
“Do you like that show?”
“No, I like romantic comedies. People bicker and fight, but in the end all is forgiven.”
“Look, I’m sorry for talking about stuff like this”
“2001, Kangwn Province, P’yôngch’ang County. A farmer tending his cows in a grazing area was found burned to death. Some workers saw what happened, but what they say is hard to believe. They first noticed that the cows were acting peculiar and running over. Then they saw the man in flames and heard him screaming. But the police found nothing in his pockets that could have started a fire; gasoline, paint thinner – nothing. Suddenly he was engulfed in flames, as if he’d doused himself with a gallon of fuel. Only his arms and legs were left untouched.”
“How horrible.” I took a breath and shook my head. Migyông lowered her window and breathed fresh air, parting and closing her lips like a fish in an aquarium.
“In the fall of 2002 an accountant who’d just finished a night shift was backing out of an underground parking lot when a fire broke out inside the vehicle and burned him to death.”
A group of kids crossed our path. They were flying a kite. It wasn’t very far up in the air and it was flapping in the breeze. Once the children and kite had passed, the riverside turned quiet again. I felt like this was all part of a soap opera.
“You and I both know that accountant very well.”
I took Migyông’s hand. It seemed like the right thing to do. Her tears had soaked the cigarette she was smoking, and it started to droop. Soon the back of my hand was soaked as well.
“How did it happen?!”
“They’re still investigating. But here’s the strange thing – the source of the fire was his heart, or so they say. Of course, that’s impossible. It started inside, they say, and then spread throughout his body and then to the car. In a matter of moments.”
“With burn victims it’s usually the skin that’s damaged most. In his case it was his internal organs. You don’t believe me, do you? I didn’t believe it either, at first. They call this kind of incident ‘natural fire’: no flammable substance involved. Just one man’s insides burning up and consuming everything around him.”
“Migyông, look at me.”
She did so, teary-eyed. “Are you . . . working these days?” I asked carefully.
She nodded, forcing a smile.
“Look, I’m fine. I guess you’re right to think I’m not. But they’ve made a documentary about this kind of thing in the U.S. They say a cowboy caught fire and burned to death with people looking on. They tried to smother it with blankets but the fire was too much for them. But like the others I told you about, his hands and arms and head were scarcely touched. Apparently there are a lot of incidents like that – we call them fires, but some of them are clearly different. A guy drives along humming a tune and is suddenly engulfed in flames. So wham, he slams into a tree on the side of the road. Of course, the insurance company and the police call it an accident caused by reckless driving. But in the case of the marine products businessman, his car was practically out of gas. The woman in the psychiatric ward still claims the fire had no visible cause. The flames just sprung out of her husband’s body like he was a gas stove or something.
“What about Chôngshik?”
“Same thing – the gas tank was almost empty. He’d been working nights for a while, and hadn’t had time to fill up. And you know he didn’t smoke. The parking-lot closed-circuit video shows nothing that could have caused a fire. Chôngshik had stepped into the car, bag in hand, and started the engine. He let the car warm up, started to pull out, and suddenly stopped. A moment later the car was in flames. He was trapped inside . . .”
She stopped. I held her in my arms and wept with her. It was too much to bear – her husband, who’d done no wrong and worked so diligently, died of a fire that ate him up from the inside. As I held her I thought of the cover of the Pink Floyd album “Wish You Were Here”: two men shaking hands in the middle of a deserted street, one man perfectly normal, the other going up in flames. We’d loved the band, and that album.
“Listen, I think it’s outrageous that the broadcasting company would assign you of all people to cover these stories.”
“You’re right. Actually, I was lying about making the documentary. Just thinking about it makes me shudder. How could I ever make such a thing? It’s too dismal a subject anyway – even if I were to suggest it, the company would never go ahead with it.”
“So they’re not as evil as I thought.”
“I’m doing my own research, that’s all. And I’m not alone – there are lots of people out there. We meet and exchange information, and talk to people who knew the victims. All these people involved, we’re all driven. But all we ever talk about it fire, fire, fire. It’s a bit too much sometimes.”
“That’s all you’ve talked about tonight, too.”
Migyông smiled. I decided not to bring up Paulo. I understood now that he did what he felt was right.
There are lots of things in this world that are beyond explanation, and lots of things that are better left unspoken. Suddenly, the stars started popping out in the sky. The Yôûido lights swallowed much of the starlight, but there were still a few shining planets and suns out there that were shooting off light from long, long ago.
“After he died, it suddenly occurred to me that I knew very little about him. I know he was sweet. That he wanted children, but we never got around to it. That he adored his father. That he was nuts about baseball. That’s it. I feel like I was living with a ghost.”
“Where’s the grave?”
“In the Napkoltang memorial garden towards P’aju.”
“We should go there sometime.”
Migyông squeezed my hand. Her palms were damp, the back of her hand coarse.
“No, we shouldn’t.”
“Because then you’d have to marry me.” She smiled widely for the first time.
“You really are crazy.”
“See? I told you. You’ll have to go on your own.”
Another déjà vu. The same thing had happened a long time ago. But Chôngshik’s death – that’s a first.
And the last. So it couldn’t have happened before. But I still felt like I’d been through this before. I shook my head, and silently looked up beyond the buildings at the sparkling stars. I smiled, and started the car. Somehow, I felt alive again.
I dropped Migyông off and was heading home when it occurred to me that it might not be such a bad idea to try and live with her. After all, living together is no big deal. Grab breakfast together in the morning, send her off to work, drink some green tea, write, listen to music, have dinner together when she gets home from work. She’ll ask, did you write much today? And I’ll show her what I’d done. The two of us might be able to pull it off, live a stable life, undisturbed and unshaken. Who knows? Maybe if I try that kind of nitty-gritty, in-your-face living, I might develop a shadow of my own. And once I get a dignified shadow, I’ll run over to the presbytery, smack the back of repulsively handsome Paulo’s head, and ask him to baptize our child. Give us a good name, will you? I’ll say. Not like “Paulo.” And of course, I’ll pay respects to Chôngshik every year on the anniversary of his death. He did pass away childless. At that very moment, a large bird-shadow passed over my head. I looked up. Strange – a bird’s shadow on a moonless night? I flinched again. Thanks to you, my fanciful daydreaming has come to an end.
Listlessly, I peeled my clothes off and crawled into bed.
And I wept.