Every once in a while, I wonder where Mother’s binyeo could be. The hairpin had been made of low-purity silver with a small amber stone embedded in it. Oxidation had turned the silver black, but Mother had treasured it and intended to give it to me one day. It makes me wish the hairpin had been stolen by someone because the thought of it being buried in some unknown place with Mother makes me want to tear my heart from my breast. I heard that a tech industrial complex was supposed to be built on that land. What will become of this country if the ground where dozens of people are buried can simply get bulldozed over? I have never heard of a community that moves forward without remembering. That is why, at daybreak, when I write petition after petition against the development, I think of Mother’s binyeo.
Now, I even become nostalgic for the women whose names I have forgotten. Those ladies made a living recreating Jinju food, Suncheon food, and Haeju and Anju food in Hawaii. Even though I have forgotten their names, the flavors of their cooking sometimes linger on the tip of my tongue. The food I ate during that time was some of the best Korean food I have ever eaten. How could I forget their hospitality? They who made familiar foods with such different ingredients to strengthen the bodies of those who had just arrived in that place; they who sent money back to their home countries even as they worried about making rent. I’m older than those women now but, since I’ve still remained a woman who cannot cook, even if a young person came stumbling to me with hunger, there would be nothing for them to eat. I always thought I would naturally get better at cooking as I grew older, but no. I realized nothing like that is guaranteed to emerge, but I wanted to find my own way to fulfill my role to a young person. I am like bruised fruit, but if my failures and flounderings were to be considered nourishment so that the next generation stumbles less, then it will have had meaning.
— From What I Lost and What I Gained (1993)
Sangheon was certain there would be no fruit. After all, they were the kind of people who, while in search of things that were unusual and impressive, would forget entirely about the basics. On his way from the airport to the lodgings, he stopped at a shop and loaded up on a variety of fruits. He expected that the chocolate sapodillas, in particular, would elicit a good response.
“It won’t be easy.”
That was what Taeho had said when Sangheon first brought up wanting to marry Hwasu. At the time, Sangheon hadn’t understood what Taeho meant. He thought it was needless intimidation, for Hwasu was the kind of partner anyone would dream of having. Her family left nothing to be desired, either. Sangheon deemed Taeho someone of refined character and had followed in his footsteps for a long time; and while Myeong-hye was a bit scary, she wasn’t a difficult person. Speaking straight from the heart made things simple. Maybe he worried a little bit about Jisu’s Bohemian lifestyle? But he need not have, for Jisu’s shock value was something he found himself welcoming.
Someone who would not fall, that was who Hwasu was. She had a great sense of balance. She was gentle but resolute; mindful of the past but not buried by it. She was the type to have plans for the future while still remaining flexible; she could judge exactly how much distance to maintain with whomever she met; she could sense the right amount of energy to allot to both her work and her life. She was, in other words, like the calm voice from those meditation apps that were in vogue those days. She had the face of someone who focused deeply on the present. I never thought Hwasu could fall. Even if she did, I thought she would get up right away. I didn’t think that she would stay lying prone because of some crazy bastard’s tackle.
“Look, just tell yourself that you were bitten by a crazy dog and move on . . .”
“If you’re going to talk to me that way, I’d rather you didn’t talk to me at all.”
Hwasu buried her head under a large pillow as though she really did not want to converse. Although Sangheon knew it wasn’t the case, he couldn’t help but wonder if her strangely long, drawn out sleep in their bedroom with its blackout curtains always lowered were excuses to deny him. He used to think that sexless marriages were other peoples’ problem; he had never imagined it would become an issue for him. It wasn’t that things were bad and he wanted to have sex. He wanted to become the subject of Hwasu’s desire. The subject of her life. But because he had not found a way to make that request without sounding selfish, he kept pouring salt over a barely healed wound.
“That bastard’s the one who splashed hydrochloric acid on you, so why take it out on me? Why did your love for me have to die?”
He hadn’t meant to whine, but he did.
“Lots of things died inside of me, not just love. Give me time to recover, please.”
He had thought she would tell him her love hadn’t died, but when she acknowledged that it had, he was hurt.
“If I wait, will it live again?”
Hwasu didn’t answer. Sangheon loved her because she wasn’t the kind of person to make empty promises, but now he only wished that she would. He didn’t have unreasonably high expectations of marriage. He knew that everything would eventually change and he thought he would be able to handle the breadth of that change . . . but this wasn’t within a range he could handle. He had thought it was turbulence, but they were in a nosedive. Days in which he felt more dead than a dead man stretched on in a kind of vague despair. He thought he could understand why people of old used to dig up corpses just to mutilate them.
He wondered whether his mother-in-law’s plan to travel to Hawaii was for Hwasu’s sake. It seemed to be a secret plan to inspire some kind of change in her. That’s why, even though he could have adjusted his schedule, Sangheon had decided to arrive rather late on purpose. He supposed that to undergo a change, one required freedom of space and, besides, he wanted to meet Hwasu after that change. But the day before his arrival, he suddenly stopped being able to contact her; it was only after Jisu told him that he found out Hwasu’s cell phone had been stolen. He grew insecure, thinking that someone should have told him that much at least, without him needing to ask. Through Jisu, he could only tell them hastily when he was going to arrive at the lodgings.
His in-laws were not the kind of people to stay behind at the lodgings because their son-in-law was coming, so only Hwasu was waiting for him when he arrived. She opened the door and, for a moment, her lips parted and then shut, and her unspoken questions could almost be heard. Was the plane trip exhausting? Aren’t you tired? Was it hard finding the place? The old Hwasu would have asked those questions.
“Do you want to go on the cruise?”
“It’s not humpback whale season but it might still be nice to get on a ship, don’t you think? We could watch the sunset, too.”
If Hwasu wasn’t interested, he had planned to blow off the cruise reservation he’d already paid for. But, unexpectedly, Hwasu willingly followed him and Sangheon was careful not to overinterpret this to be a sign of her recovery.
The ships weren’t left to idle because there were no whales; instead, they were set up with a seafood buffet and an open bar. An unexpectedly large number of people wanted to watch the sunset from the ship’s deck, although it wouldn’t have looked much different from the coast. The wine glasses looked slightly larger than the ones in Korea. The ship had sailed far enough from the shore, and its passengers from all over the world had, without any pretensions of self-control, drunk heavily and then stretched out in their cabins or on benches outside their cabins here and there. Many people had also fallen asleep to the gentle swaying of the ship. He wondered what the point of getting on a ship was if they were just going to fall asleep snoring, and wouldn’t they burn under the last remaining rays of the late afternoon sun?; He had many thoughts but it wasn’t something he could interfere in. Hwasu and Sangheon walked the deck holding plastic cups that looked like glass.
“Are you okay not postponing your return to work?”
The answer came faster than he expected. Hwasu leaned comfortably against the railing. The railings in Korea had always felt too short for Hwasu, who was on the taller side, but the ones in Hawaii were just right.
“I don’t want to be remembered as someone who quit because of that incident. I want to belong with the people who go back, and if I’m sitting there, it’ll be a reality check for everyone. Our company needs a reality check.”
Hwasu began to explain, methodically, the cause and effect that needed to be remembered; Sangheon felt he could understand and not understand at the same time.
“So you’re going to keep working there?”
“While I’m working there, I might quit simply for a different reason. But for now, I don’t know. No matter how hard you hold onto something you don’t know, you’ll keep not knowing it.”
“Was that written in your grandmother’s book?”
“It’s not that. It’s more like, I learned that I can’t have this amazing field of sight all at once. That all I can do in the dark is keep searching while fumbling around and falling down.”
Sangheon was embarrassed that his quiet question came out so childishly.
Hwasu pretended that she hadn’t noticed. “With you, I think I can answer with a line that my grandmother quoted, that I’ll quote too. ‘Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.’1 Do you want to continue doing that?”
“Why would you answer a question with a question?”
“I do want to continue but . . . I think the things you want in life change over time. I think I might want to make bread with a different shape, not the shape I had planned. Would you still want to make bread with me even if that’s the case?”
“Why does it have to be different from before? Why does our life have to change because of that bastard?”
Hwasu nodded crookedly, as if she agreed with only half of his words.
“I don’t like it either, but what life isn’t affected by external shocks? Still, my brooding after that day isn’t because of my unhappiness or my injury. It isn’t because I think I’m pathetic or pitiful. It’s that I can’t go back to the time before I saw up close such a twisted and corrupt side of this world. Until I find a language to describe it. Does that make sense? Do you still want to be by my side until I find what I need to find? Can you do that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”
Sangheon sank onto a bench. Hwasu came and sat down next to him. Among all the sleeping people, the two of them spoke to each other in hushed voices.
“It’s okay if you don’t know.”
“How is that okay?”
“Tell me when you do. It’s all right.”
Why won’t you fight for me? Sangheon wanted to ask, but he held it in. Nothing is all right! He wanted to shout, but lost to his quiet voice. Hwasu stroked his wrist slowly and he grew calm. He shouldn’t have married a girl from a family that believed marriage was a contract to be renewed every moment. He knew and still he dove in. He was stupid, he grumbled to himself.
Still, there was brilliant sunset.
“Don’t you love the word sunset? The letter s is in it twice,” said Hwasu.
Her side profile looked nice for the first time in a long time and Sangheon softened. He already knew his answer, but he decided to drag it out for some time. After all, the word sulkiest also has the letter s twice.
At some point, I started talking like Aebang, laughing like Aebang, arguing like Aebang. But above all, I started loving people like Aebang, so I constantly brought them together, formed connections, set things up. I wonder when it was that I started wearing my friend’s ghost like a suit of armor. Even when I felt like I was wandering through the streets in the chill of winter, not wearing anything, I was wearing ghosts. The ghosts became a soft scarf for me. Sometimes, they turned into a transparent membrane that kept my tears and laughter from mixing. My tears stayed tears, my laughter stayed laughter. Nothing grew blurry or tarnished. Even when other people thought I was a naked lady with no shame, I paid them no attention for that reason.
1 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin, translated into Korean by Choi Jun-young, Golden Bough Co., 2010.
Translated by Archana Madhavan