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When a Woman Subways

by Lee Misang March 10, 2022

Lee Misang

Lee Misang debuted in 2018 with the story “Hagin” in the e-zine Biyu for which she received the 2019 Munhak Dongne Young Writer’s Award. Her stories have appeared in the multi-author short-story collections The Heron Club and More than Fiction: Winter 2020.

1


Each day, Sujin draws a line down her face. She begins at the top of her head and pulls the line past her eyebrows, down the mound of her nose, and brushes it vertically across her lips. Then, silence. A slightly cliched one.

Like the predictable calm before a storm.

Lo and behold, Sujin’s head splits in two.

At first it’s painful—the moment of the split. The sort of pain an apple would feel when you first tap the blade of your fruit knife into its head. Her split skins curl, sliding down limp to hang like orchid leaves. The birth of Faces I and II.

Sujin scratches her upper arm. Shall we go? she asks.

“Noo . . . ja . . . mee . . . Noojameeee.” Face I is still newborn and clumsy with words.

Face II blinks.

I think so too, Sujin says with a smile. They are in agreement, the three of them. Yes. Yes. Yes. Three in agreement make a triplet, or maybe a trio. Ha ha ha. Whatever the case, this is a rare occurrence. A good start to the day. La-dee-da lala. One to coax a song from your lips. La-dee-da lala la-dee-la lala lalala . . .


2


“Are you fully masked?” the station employee asks unmasked people. Sujin and the Faces watch the employee.

As the train pulls in, Face I yells, “The trayyyy— trayyyy—”

The Faces this time are unusually slow to speak. How much longer will it take for them to manage, The train is now entering the station? When will they understand how the station employee must feel about asking unmasked citizens, “Are you fully masked?” Will they ever get angry at the words “Good for you, hotshot”?

But Sujin is a good teacher. She has taught stupider heads to speak. Even Face XVI of 16’ learned the difference between the two kinds of “good for you, hotshot” and “good for you, hotshot” and the fact that there was no real difference between the two just before dying. She knows she can do it again. Sujin opens her textbook.


1. The station employee is not visually impaired.

2. The station employee knows that the citizen is not wearing a mask.

3. Then why did the employee ask, “Are you fully masked?”


The faces of Sujin and the Faces turn. A citizen outside the train seems to have spit on the station employee. Sujin shrugs.

Let’s try a practice question, she says.


Fill in the blank with the appropriate word(s).

_____________, are you fully masked?


The subway is deserted on weekday afternoons. Only four people in section 3-1—three (one male, two females) in the seat in front of Sujin and one (a male) in the priority seat—but she chooses to remain standing. Face I plays Hangman on the handle above and Face II plays Red Light, Green Light on the luggage shelf overhead. The train emerges from the underground. The river and bridges and the big dark shadows of the bridges speed past the windows. Then underground again. Full stop. The Faces slide down and cling to the doors, leaving two misty circles on the glass. The doors open. The doors close.

Don’t cry.

When No One boards, the Faces burst into tears.

Sujin tries to console them. There, there. Let’s stop those tears and answer the practice questions. Here, let me solve the first one for you. The blank goes like this:




Whoa there, please don’t get scared, sir. Deep breaths. You’re okay, and I know you’re not actually like this. You don’t even realize it yourself. Imagine the look on your face when you realize! Please stay calm. Breathe. Slow, deep breaths. Now try touching your mouth,
are you fully masked?


See? Just like that. I know you can do it.

The Faces sob on.

Oh, all right. Just one more. Here:



Ordering you around, sir? Oh, absolutely not, please have a listen to the recording again, Do you hear a “Please put on a mask?” No, not even once. I’m not giving orders to people; I’m just looking after them. It is my civic duty to look after citizens, and citizens have the right to be looked after by me. Please don’t refuse your right, remember to be looked after. No sir, it’s not that I dare to look after you, so let me ask you again, are you fully masked?


Sujin runs gentle hands over the tear-swollen Faces and explains, Even if you forget how to read, never forget the first rule of how to speak. She brings her hands together in front of her, one hand over the other palm as though rolling up a little ball of dough. Always make sure you talk round and round and round in circles. Can you tell me why? She asks, preening.

Someone walks past.

Who?

Sujin turns.

A woman.

Sujin scans the car.


PASSENGER STATUS:

Standard seats: (one male, one female)

Priority seats: (one male)


One person is missing.

The Woman sitting next-to-next-to the Man has run away.

She is already at the door to the gangway connection.

She looks back at Sujin with a smile.

Stupid bitch. I’m out.

She disappears into the next car.

Without warning, Sujin’s left cheek turns cold. Who put ice on my face? Her eyes peer slightly to the left and realize the Man is looking at her. Hunched far forward, staring. Times like this, she wonders: how does it feel to be cut at the ankle? Would it feel this cold? Biting, like her blood has drained out the severed ankles to the last drop? With only her head still burning. Slowly, the blood rises again—and suddenly boils.

He is looking at me.

He’s looking at me.

Sujin will bolt.

“Calm down,” says Face I.

“If you go now, you’re dead,” says Face II, winding tight around her legs.





3


How wondrous is the growth of these Faces!

Only seconds ago, Face I was capable of only the sounds “The trayyyy” and “Noojamee.” Now Face I is bombarding her, berating her. “Beware, be where?” It even makes use of puns, to her consternation. She recalls other Faces were much the same—16’, 17’, 18’, and 19’. Not because of Sujin’s exceptional teaching but because danger forced their sudden growth. 16’ Face XVI sayeth: Peril is the greatest teacher. Take a child struggling with her times tables and stand her at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Soon she’ll be reciting the periodic table!

If only she could turn back time.

Sujin looks at the gangway corridor. It is empty. The Woman is gone. She is going.

How far? To 3-2? 3-3? 4-6?

Or maybe 10-2?

Maybe she will have done her a favor and gotten herself attacked by an old man on her way from 4-5 to 4-6.

Shut that door proper, you slut!

Full stop. Misty breaths. Open. No One.

Don’t cry, Sujin consoles the Faces. The Faces bite Sujin. (“In this world, there are people who send out ‘beware, be where’ warnings and people who run asking ‘beware, be where?’ Why did we have to be born to a loser?”)

Sujin travels back in time. In the past, she does what she had to do. But that happy thought soon turns into regret, a cruel list of things she should have done but didn’t.

What she should have done: bring up the facts. Use the facts to scan the space behind her and make a Passenger Danger Rating list. But she failed to take even that basic measure. That was all it would have taken for her not to be taken by surprise by the Woman.


PASSENGER DANGER RATING:


1. Man 1: Head down. Rating – Unknown, continued observation recommended. (Note: Ratings based on objects in possession: acid – 10; bladed weapon – 9; none – 5; pigeons – 4)

2. Woman 1: Next to Man 1. Knitting. Rating – 0.5

3. Woman 2: Next to next to Man 1. In motion. Rating – 4


For the Old Man 1 (as there is a different scale for those aged seventy plus), Sujin must fill out a checklist.


1. Varicose veins? Y

2. Possesses a cane? N

3. Capable of walking? Y

4. Capable of running? Maybe

5. In case of acid possession? Solve for the difference between your escape speed and the old man’s sprinting speed. Is the result positive or negative?


“Not forgetting anything?” asks Face I.

Sujin does not understand. Face I rolls her one eye loudly. “Dis—cretion!”

“Oh!” Sujin finally remembers.

She goes back to the beginning. That was what she should have done. Bring out the facts, open the facts, turn slightly away, scan behind her with the facts, and discreetly—indiscreetly—roll her eye, and by doing so send the following message to Man 1: Look, I’m rolling my eye. My contact lens is slipping. I’m not the kind of woman who fixes her makeup in the subway. You saw, right? Please put that on the record . . . 

Ugh, seriously?

Why not just run?

Why not just take off?

Faster than anyone, different from everyone.

Whenever some immature blockhead says that, Sujin wants to tell an old story. Once upon a time, there was a cat named Pani. “Pani” means “water” in Nepali. Pani was my ex’s cat. Pani would crawl out from under the bed and stare stupidly at us having sex.

Then one day my ex said, “Sorry, babe.” Pani got angry, because she pressed the back of his head with her thumb. Pani leapt clear away and rolled around a piece of bloody tissue. “I’m not playing favorites with him,” my ex said. “And, like, it’s not all his fault,” she said, and swatted my bangs, tied up with a hairband. They shook. And Pani lost it again! My ex said to me, applying ointment on my face, “That is simply the way of felines, drawn instinctively to moving objects. Then they pounce. He lunged and scratched your brow because he witnessed your bangs bob up and down. Is it not wondrous? He has been domesticated with manmade feed, but his hunting instincts remain.” Then it’s playtime again with the mouse wand! Look at Pani go, bolting boldly after the fake feather! What is that noise?

Stop running. Some types in the world only eat live fish. Not raw, live. They go gaga for the moving stuff. Turn their heads without a second thought. Ever heard the acronym DBFP? Dogs! Bite! Fleeing! People! You have to creep away, always. Creep.

Woman 2 crept away, running her backside across multiple seats before rising, walking away. How scared she must have been! Sujin could not help but admit she was brave. Woman 2 had just put her life on the line. (One subway poet wrote: The back of her head in departure / Will ever enrapture / Like a target for an archer.)

If only we could turn back time.

Sujin can feel her heart squeezing. She would risk her life too, if only she could. She would overtake Woman 2. Pull ahead! To 3-2. To the safe zone. To the car of dreams. Never running, remember DBFP. She would crane her head just a little, like someone looking for something.

THIS CAR IS FOR PASSENGERS WHO PREFER LESS AIR CONDITIONING. Sujin would fan herself. That is how she will say, This car is too hot for me. I’m sorry, but I need to move to the next one. I am most definitely not trying to avoid you!

What if there is no THIS CAR IS FOR PASSENGERS WHO PREFER LESS AIR CONDITIONING? Sujin will rummage through her bag and rub her arms to say, This car is too cold for me. I’m sorry, but I need to move to the next one. I am most definitely not trying to avoid you, the man will think: She must be a careless woman to not bring along a cardigan. You cold? Go on, then. Leave. Sujin goes. Quieckly. Quietly and quickly. Eyes always forward. To 3-2. To paradise.


Keen awareness will save us.

Us?

Us. We, who know the two facts.


“But what did you do?” Face I interrogates.



4


Sujin knows very well how a woman must subway. But whenever she gets onto the train, she ends up doing something else, and always regrets it. (I should have just done it . . .) What prevents her from putting knowledge to practice? Where is the break in the bridge between awareness and action? These are the thoughts of Face I, watching Sujin beg pitifully.

“Is it humiliating?”

Face II drops a newspaper in shock.

“Don’t get angry. I’m fighting tooth and nail to try and understand here.”

Hey, don’t talk like that. Sujin looks up. Do I look like a person who’d kill us all just to avoid humiliation?

Face I studies Man 1. Now he is outright looking at her. He has gone from the Man With His Head Down to the Man With His Head Turned. (Note: Danger Rating based on head angles: slightly bowed – 10; turned – 7; bowed deeply – 6)

“I thought you’d really changed,” Face I says, despondent. “But you haven’t. You still resist. You know as well as I do what you have to do on the subway. But you won’t do it. Not can’t. Won’t. Something within is stopping you, but what? I think it must be pride. The creature hurt your pride. It makes you sick to have to please it.”

Sujin swallows a sob. From the depths of her memories, she hears a voice. The three Fs of fear. Fight. Flight. Freeze. Jab! Jab! One-two. Her head is about to explode.

“You’re making a mistake,” Face I says icily. “If you try to please a man, you lose. Not just you, but all of you. Like crawling between his legs.”

“No. I—”

Face I tut-tuts with a wag of the finger. “That’s how you always put yourself in danger. Even a woman worse off than you slipped away, but you keep on hellishly struggling. I’ve watched and pondered for so long, and I learned that it’s impossible for people to let go of their pride. But you don’t have to. You never even lost it in the first place. Take a look at him.”

Sujin allows her gaze to ever so slightly drift to the side.

“Remember Protocol Groundward Ocular Angle,” Face I instructs.

Sujin’s gaze drops to the floor. She cannot see the man, only his shoes.

“What is that man thinking? That’s not the question you want to ask. The right question is: ‘What thoughts have been implanted in his mind?’”

The train races along the aboveground tracks. Droplets of rain splatter and sparkle on the windows. Sujin thinks that it is a moderate sort of beauty. Not the imposing grandeur of auroras or arctic icebergs, but the slight kind that brings a smile to her face.

Maybe I’ll take pictures . . . Sujin looks out the window, ignoring Face I’s question. Maybe I’ll just take pictures . . . Like someone who takes pictures of sunsets if that is what the windows show, or pink clouds if that is what the windows show . . . Just some pictures . . . All of them . . . Crush their skulls into pulp.

Jab! Jab! One-two.

Sujin falls back in shock.

Sujin trembles again.

“There, there.”

The Faces draw near to gently pat her head.

Face I continues, “How that man feels is up to you. You have to toy with his emotions. Look at the Fact Mirror and roll your eyes, and the creature will sympathize with you. Oh, that woman’s lens is sliding. She’s trying so hard to avoid wearing glasses. Must have worn one set of daily lenses all week, trying to save money. Good on her. Doing her best to live with red, inflamed eyes. Good luck to you, missy, go on living, he’ll say. But suppose you don’t roll your eyes. The creature’s opinion will do a 180. Sluts these days have the nerve to fix their makeup in public. Won’t learn their lesson unless you teach it to them.”

Face I casts an uncaring gaze down upon him.

“A rat.”

Face I wears a look of utter conceit.

“A lab rat running in circles through a maze you’ve made. Send an electric jolt into its paws, and it goes, Ouch! Give it food, and it goes, Yay! It’s all up to you. You shape their thoughts. You push your fingers in there and toy with their brains. Like a god. So why do you feel humiliated? Leave them to play forever in your maze.”

“Squeak squeak.”

Sujin scratches her cheek.

Faces fly in from afar and cling to the windows. These half-faces hang off the slowing train and stare into the car with their single eyes. As though examining snails crawling across a pane of glass, Sujin examines the Faces out scouting. The Faces are always serious, which makes them all the more comical. Their owners—the discerning women who send in swarms of scouts before boarding—will head to other cars. 3-2 or 6-4. Full stop. Misty breaths. Open. No One. Don’t cry.

The passage fills with new Faces. They have already heard the news and laugh at Sujin. Not once do they stop measuring the distance between themselves and Sujin and Man 1. When the balance is broken, they will instantly depart with a chorus of “Beware, be where!” (Face II is currently measuring the Sujin / Knitting Woman / Man 1 distances.)

“Maybe you’re uncomfortable with surviving alone,” says Face I. “Running alongside a panicked crowd would make you feel better than slipping out quickly on your own. In your vast imagination, you’re the one who’d rather be the one getting shoved than the other way around. There’s a secret part of you that rejects reaching for the exit in favor of being trampled by the people reaching for the exit themselves. It’s altruistic. I don’t believe survival is the most important thing in the world. Some things are worth risking your life for. That’s right, do it. Put your life on the line, like you did back then. We’re leaving.”

Jab! Jab! One-two.

I’m sorry, Sujin begs. Please forgive me.

“Squeak squeak.”

Sujin scratches her cheek.

A Face the size of a whitehead threatens to emerge from her cheek. It quickly grows to the size of a thimble—a Face with much to say, for the mouth is the first gap to form.

“Men are women . . .”

The eyes open—

“. . . ’s playthings.”

Mimics a dead person—

“A variation on. Enemy of . . .”

Hiccup.

“. . . half-baked . . .”

Hiccup.

“. . . solidarity. Eliminate. Hee hee.”

The newborn baby Face does cutesy things. Face I and II dote as the baby Face grows bigger and bigger—Look at the little baby go, the Faces cheer—and the moment the baby Face fully emerges—triumph brushes past—Face II bites. Crunches. A bloody chunk falls to the floor. The poor miscarried baby Face.





A History Lesson for the Baby Face that Never Became Face III


The Battle of SE was sparked by the words “Everyone is welcome” at the top of the community homepage. This took place in the year twenty-sixteen.

Victory went to Team E, but it was close to a pyrrhic one. Team S, which made up half the membership, was driven out of the community (Team S breathed sighs of relief at their defeat), and what the remaining half—the victorious Team E—did was not show up to the meeting. The only difference was the fee. Team S no longer paid membership fees, for they were no longer members. Team E paid membership fees, as they were still members. And neither side showed up to the meeting.

Sujin showed up alone. She went alone to open the regular meeting at the office in the gracefully aging alley, where disposable plastic bowls of feed left out for cats would be taken, with cat food spilled all over the ground.

“Team S” referred to “Team Safety,” which demanded that the phrase “Everyone is welcome” be deleted from the homepage. “Team E” referred to “Team Equality,” which insisted that the phrase be left as is. As long as the welcome sign remained on the homepage, anyone could join their meetings, whether “dangerous people” (Team S’s words) or people who had “not managed to prove their harmlessness to people” (Team E’s words). Anyone could walk right in. They had the right to be welcomed.

But after the incident, some people decided that was no longer acceptable, marking the start of the grueling Battle of SE.

The alley with the office where it happened merits a paragraphs-long description. Gentrification had stopped at the alley just across the way, leaving local housing prices in limbo, and this area was the sort of decrepit place that might have expected to host young artists. Where expectations became manifest. The people in that alley preferred to live in the area rather than trying to make it live.

There was a little supermarket surrounded by clusters of squat little flowerpots. A tattoo shop owned by an old artist. A railway crossing that was home to a pork rind restaurant and the twenty-year-old publishing house, Danmyeong. A place remembered fondly by Team S and E alike, but not one interesting enough for the dead baby Face to stifle a yawn. On both knees the Face scrambles up three paragraphs and angrily berates the eyes that slid down with the scroll bar without bothering to linger, hesitate, doubt.

“‘Dangerous’ people?” asked a member of Team Equality, drawing quote marks in the air. “Dangerous” was jailed inside the invisible hand-drawn quotation marks.

“That is not a label you throw around casually, damn it. Not something you just stick wherever the hell you feel like. You act like it’s something we all agreed on, like everybody already agrees with you and it’s an immutable universal law. I call bullshit. What exactly is a ‘dangerous’ person? If you’re going to use the word like that, start by telling us your definition!”

Someone on Team S gave an easy nod. “All right, here’s the definition! A ‘dangerous’ person is . . .”—the Team S member was face-to-face with the Team E member—“The person you don’t want to sit next to. Simple, right?”

“Anything but.”

The Team S member gave a roll of the eyes. “All right, imagine somebody asks you to think of a dangerous person. You’d think of a politician, or some corporate chairman. But those answers are missing something: targets. The politician’s a danger to society, but he’s not a dangerous person. You can sit next to the politician you hate. If you met him at a publication party, you’d be half-dragging the guy into the seat next to yours. But what happened when POE showed up? Take a good, honest moment and think. I still remember, and so should you. Because you and me, we were all tripping over each other to sit as far from him as possible. That is the definition of ‘danger.’ The kind of person who makes you want to make a U-turn. The starting point of your escape route.”

Without warning, Sujin rose and went to the bathroom. Not because she had to pee. People were staring too much.

“That bullshit again?” asked a member of Team E. “So it’s just a gut feeling? You treat that stuff like science? Well, it actually is, according to Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. But the point is,” said the Team E member, engines revving, when a member of Team S gave a shake of the head and interrupted, “Some people plucked up their courage when POE first showed up. The day after, they spoke up in the group chat, saying, ‘You know, wasn’t that guy the other day a little strange?’”

Courage?

“Courage. The courage to say what everyone was too scared to say.”

“Don’t lump me in with that ‘everyone.’”

“You’re acting like everyone else did back then. You all went, ‘Strange? I didn’t think so. And really, you can’t categorize people into groups like “strange” and “not strange.” Can you really say you’re not strange yourself? We’re all abnormal in our own ways, so enough of that talk!’ But I saw how it was when POE showed up. Everyone was crowding the seats by the door so they had an easy exit.”

“‘Strange!’ There it is! There’s the word!” said someone from Team E, continuing before someone from Team S could cut in. “I was waiting for someone to say it. That is the most cowardly word in existence. Stop using euphemisms, because ‘strange’ means the same thing as ‘dangerous.’ It’s the word you use when you want to say ‘dangerous’ but don’t want to take on the risk of using that word. You’re hiding behind the two possible interpretations of the word—the scary and the alluring—to use the alluring element as an out, just in case.”

“Words, words, words! Stop being pedantic and look at how everyone ended up sitting!”

“All right,” said a man from Team E, raising both hands as though in surrender. Like someone feinting with a white flag before lunging for a surprise strike. “All right, fine. Let’s say you’re right, and there’s danger everywhere. We’re surrounded by danger, any one of us could die any second, and so on and so forth. Then what? Does that make it right to exclude people? Erase that ‘Everyone is welcome’ sign and turn this into an exclusive club? If we’re going to remove those words from the homepage, I’d rather just say it outright and be honest. Hello! We are a highly selective! Exclusive! Discriminating community! Members are safe! Don’t you get it? ‘Everyone is welcome’ encapsulates our values, our conscience, our past. Welcoming POE—let’s be honest. Because to be honest, we didn’t welcome POE, unless you think giving someone a cup of coffee counts as welcoming. Anyway, there’s a world of difference between allowing POE into the community and avoiding him, whether consciously or not. It’s a matter of whether or not we consider people equals before they even take any action. It’s about the pursuit of equality.” The Team E member trembled, prepared to rise to a challenge from the Team S member.

But the Team S member had completely deflated, eyes on the doorway—and the sliver of the staircase through the ajar door, and the railings that flashed brightly depending on the angle. “You know what? This is no fun at all,” said the member, gaze locked on the exit and twisting around to lean on the desk. “You’re right about everything. Happy? I’m sick of debating what’s right or wrong.” The member tried to stuff the pens on the desk into a pencil case, but kept fumbling and dropping them—eventually just stuffing the pencil case into a pocket. “I’m going to be honest here. I just want to shut that door. That’s all I want, nothing else.” The team S member shuffled, grabbing their bag and walking out of the office. The sound of footsteps descending the stairs grew quieter until they were all gone. The absence of that noise—the remaining void—silently shook those who remained. The member was gone. No longer here. And that was okay.

When the debate passed, the whirlwind of emotion rapidly subsided. The quiet serenity of unquestioned peace was terrifying. They had to do something, or else they would once more be plunged into their earlier hell. Should they shut the door? The open door was the very symbol of their message, Everyone is welcome. Anyone could walk in through that gap.

“Ah-ah-ah. Don’t gloss over gender differences.”

A new batter stepped up to the plate. He grabbed the currents by the corner to give a violent shake. The waves resumed. The people clambered onto the waves to flee the memories rooted in the depths.

(But what was really important was the emotion. People would gladly despise one another and forget the fear that lapped at their conscious minds. They were separate branches of the same river.)

“You argue that equality is an absolute, unquestionable value while devaluing safety—and that’s something you can only do because you’re a man.”

“What?” The man from Team E paused mid-complaint and cast a glance around the room. He wanted backup. “What? What’s being a woman or a man got to do with anything?” asked a woman from Team E, catching his gaze. (At this point we must note the specific ordering of words, “a woman or a man”.)

“You really need me to spell it out for you? All right, here’s the deal,” said the man from Team S to the man from Team E. “You and me, we went on that trip to India last year. Do you not realize what a privilege that is? We men shouldn’t be allowed to talk when it comes to safety issues. And I know what you’re about to say—that we were all there, just thinking about POE scared us all. And that part is right. We were scared. It was terrifying and maddening that you wouldn’t let us shut the door. But the fear that women have to face is qualitatively different from ours.” The Team S man paused and turned to his female comrades, brimming with emotion.

He continued, “For you and me, our fear is limited to this space. The office. When we walk out that door, we leave our fear behind. But for women, fear is like an organ. A liver, or a pancreas. Something they can’t just drop on a whim. Where are they supposed to go? Men just have to leave the office, but for the women, the world outside the office is just a bigger office with thousands of kinds of POEs lying in wait. For women, there’s a history of terror. It’s layered, like sediments of fear. Not some shallow blanket of panic like the ones men can shrug off.”

“Hey,” said a woman from Team S.

But the man was deafened by his own passion.

“Hey!”

Finally, he heard. Turning with the smile of an innocent boy expecting his mother’s praise.

“That’s enough out of you.”

“Huh?”

“You’re right about all that. But don’t say anything even if you are.”

Taken aback, the Team S man nodded quickly. But he failed to completely erase the irritation on his face.

“Yeah, why are you writing our declaration for us?” A woman from Team E joined in the criticism. “And please, don’t stuff us in the Woman Box whenever you feel like it. I’ll step in myself when I want to, all right?” The man’s mood was completely spoiled. POE-ness began to squirm in his mind.

“I hate small houses,” said the Team E woman, pointing outside the door. The invisible line her finger drew enlarged the office. “Even a home half the size of your fingernail can be a mansion as long as there’s a sign at the door saying, ‘Everyone is welcome.’ The possibility of allowing anyone through the door makes the house infinite. It allows us to live in an endlessly large house. This whole debate is about whether we manage to protect this infinite house or lose it. We don’t stand to gain much. We get to keep our pride as inclusive, all-welcoming people, and the newcomers who join us might expand our horizons sometimes. What do we have to lose, though? What is the worst thing we could lose? Our lives. We’ve experienced a slight preview of that in person.” Everyone looked at the gap in the door, gazes tinged with fear.

“But that doesn’t mean I prefer the little house. If someone tries to shove me into Team S just because I’m a woman with ‘sediments of fear’—which shrinks down not only my home but the Woman Box—I won’t stand for it.”

“Let’s go,” a woman from Team S said to her, holding a pack of cigarettes. The debate had gone on so long that they had held in their cravings. Stepping out onto the balcony with cheerful laughter, they smoked and scanned the alley below like sentries.

The woman from Team S said from the balcony, “Who was it, now? I keep forgetting his name, I swear my memory isn’t what it used to be.”

“Give us a hint.”

“He’s foreign, with a moustache. A professor from a country you don’t usually hear about . . .”

The people inside the office also joined the game of twenty questions, murmuring. Sujin remembered the professor’s face too, but the name kept escaping her like the eye of a stubborn needle evading her thread.

The Team S woman continued, “Anyway, this professor saw a man with a sword on the subway. An Arab man, with a sword in his belt. As soon as he stepped into the car, he drew the sword, and one by one, he stared carefully into each passenger’s face. Then for some reason he sheathed the sword and listened to religious music until he was taken away.”

People were already talking about Norway.

“The professor wrote a column about that moment of fear, how that fear is part of ordinary life for Arab immigrants. And then he concludes that even if he’d lost his head on the subway that day, he didn’t have any right to complain. Because his severed head was the price of the privilege he enjoyed and the wrongs he’d done as a well-educated middle-class white man. The execution would be payment for his wrongs. And even if the beheading would be a tragedy on a personal level, from a social perspective it balances out the equation.”

Following the thin stream of smoke as it spread into the office, Sujin quietly listened to the women on the balcony.

“The funny thing is,” said the woman on Team S, gaze running carefully down the alleyway, “sometimes I think about that professor when I’m on the subway. I put myself in his seat. And I wonder if I could think of something that deep if I were the one getting beheaded. Then I shake my head. Could I really think, ‘Oh, I’m going to die. It’s going to be tragic and messy. But I won’t complain about it because I’ve done stuff in my past and it’s about time for my just  deserts’? Could I really be that calm? Dignified? Then I look around the car and I realize that my death would be different. I wouldn’t be a tragic martyr in a terrorist attack. I would die a cheap death to some petty crook. Suddenly, I can’t see myself objectively.”

Someone raised their voice from inside the office. “A cheap death? That’s insulting!”

“A death that’s packaged as cheap by society,” the Team S woman corrected herself, and added, “At least, the potential terrorist the professor met—yes, that’s the phrase he used, ‘potential terrorist(?)’ as if the mitigation of the word ‘potential’ wasn’t enough and he had to add the question mark in the brackets that could be either self-doubt or criticism. Anyway, the terrorist with the sword was almost transcendent in how serious he was, like he was on a real crusade. That wouldn’t exactly be comforting when he’s killing you, but still. My killer would be standing in a police lineup without the conviction or madness of a terrorist—nothing even approaching that determination—without even clear intention or premeditation—without that visual spectacle of a show—mumble a couple of words he picked up here and there until the cops hauled him off, flip-flops dragging across the floor. Those flip-flops are what bug me. The cheap flip-flops with his long, filthy toenails sticking out. Those fetid, disgusting flip-flops cheapen my death. It’s so stupid—stupid that people would feel embarrassed to mourn me. That’s why—”

“Here,” said the woman from Team E, retrieving a piece of tissue from the office and handing it to the woman from Team S. The woman from Team S had almost literally flown herself into a frenzy.

“It was a shroud. Burial clothes. I don’t want that snapshot of those ragged flip-flops to be the snapshot of my death. That’s why we wove her that shroud. The biggest, most beautiful and noble neon shroud in the world, fluttering into the heavens. That’s why. We put. Those post-its. On the walls. That’s what being a woman is like. So don’t you dare. Talk about equality—”

“I just,” said the woman from Team E, who had until that point been a silent listener to her friend. “I’m just being emotional, okay? I’m being stubborn.” But inside, she was saying to herself, Don’t cry, my friend. Don’t cry. That wasn’t your death. That wasn’t your killer. What you’re doing now is . . . a sort of theft. But she could not say so out loud, for fear of the morality that coldly distanced itself from her rationality. Instead, she raised a fearless voice into the office:

“There’s one thing we have to be clear on: Sujin is the bravest of us all. She always sat down beside POE.”



5


Crunch. Crunch. Whoosh.

Crunch. Crunch. Whoosh.

A black plastic bag. Yarn. Elbows jousting in the air.

“Oh, so close!” The Faces sigh. “She almost got him there!”

They are the audience of a fencing match. Once more, the yarn crunch-crunches up the black plastic bag, and whoosh! Her arms spread wide as if in a bunny dance.

Another miss. Yet again, the Knitting Woman’s elbow fails to pierce the Man.

If only she could get a good stab in. Then he would stab back, and we would go 3-2. Once again, the Man lowers his head—Danger Rating – 6 –and Sujin and the Faces are still 3-1 and every stop is a No One and Sujin is the Thinking Window.

“Did you do a lot of reflecting?”

Yes.

“Now ending Thinking Window Mode.”

Sujin stretches her neck. She makes sure to really roll her eyes, which had gone stiff from chasing the ads playing on the walls of the tunnel.

Still splattered on the floor is the bloodstain from the baby Face.

“Do you feel bad?” asks Face I. “Do you miss the baby Face?”

No.

The Faces cast piteous gazes at the (courageous) Knitting Woman sitting next to Man 1.

“All things considered, I’m grateful that she hasn’t disembarked all this time,” says Face I, blowing a kiss.

The Knitting Woman, who has a Danger Rating of 0.5, is the Decoy Woman. If the Man pulls out his blade, she will be the first to be stabbed. If the Man sprays acid, she will be the first to be burned. If the Knitting Woman disembarks, Sujin becomes the Decoy Woman. The chunk of meat tossed out by others to buy them time.

Crunch. Crunch. Whoosh! Crunch. Crunch. Whoosh!

Sujin is grateful for the distracting nature of the Knitting Woman. There is nothing more valuable than noisy bait. DBFP. Dogs! Bite! Fleeing! People! Crunch. Crunch. Whoosh! Crunch. Crunch. La-dee-da. Crunch. Crunch. La-dee-da la-dee-da lalala. Just two more stops. Sujin tries to turn to the scenery outside, but gives up. C’mon, keep up that focus! La-dee-da la-dee-da lalala.

Sujin raises her head.

The crunch crunch is gone.

“Oh dear, where is my head at?”

Suddenly, the Woman is behind Sujin.

“Did I miss it?”

The woman cranes her neck, muttering station names with eyes on the wall-mounted map.

Sujin hears a distant Jab! Jab! One-two.

Crunch.

“Oh, not yet. Thank goodness!”

The Knitting Woman turns. Stops. Where will she sit? The Knitting woman steps forward. And returns. To the Decoy’s seat.

Who poured honey on my head? Relief trickles down from head to toe like sweet sweet honey. Honk honk honk. The train pulls into the station. Just one stop left. The Knitting Woman stops mid-step and turns. She casts Sujin a single glance. An impish look. Full stop. Misty breaths. Open. No One. Don’t cry. The Knitting Woman disembarks. Close. Departure. Outside the window, the Knitting Woman waves. 3-1. The Man and Sujin.

Face I screams.

The Knitting Woman set off a Routing Smokescreen. Pretending to examine the map, clearly saying out loud, Where is my head at, discreetly making a fool of the Man. This is the second time the Man has been foiled. Does he believe in third time’s the charm? Or does he believe in fool me twice, shame on me?

“What do we do, what do we do?!” Face I bursts into terrified tears.

Sujin is strangely calm. In a daze, she watches the curious pathway of her heart. Like a swimmer turning at the end of the pool, her fear has reached the point where it turns into anger. Maddening irritation draws near, cutting through roaring rapids.

She grabs her bag. She can feel the glass bottle inside. My precious acid.

“No,” Face I sobs.

“I’ll get him before he gets me,” Sujin says, agitated.

“Die,” Face II commands. “Die!” Face II turns into a giant hand and slaps Sujin. “Die!”

Trembling, Sujin recites a magic spell. I am a tree. Sujin takes a seat. I am a deep, deep-rooted tree.

She closes her eyes. Lowers her head. Lets her arms hang slack. Relaxes. Relaxes. Relaxes. Relaxes more. Like roots digging into the earth, she grounds her body deeper and deeper. Further and further down . . . Down and down like a corpse with cement shoes, sucked into the ocean depths.

The Faces, too, shrink like pumpkin flowers at night. Going limp, like deflated balloons. Sujin and the Faces flatten and flatten until they are but wisps. Finally, a quiet prayer hums through the car. May whoever is listening up there take pity on my playing dead . . . 





The Eye-Closing Game


“The next day, the people of France came out to the parks to take advantage of the sunny weather. Business as usual. That was how they stood up to terrorism.”

The Norwegian professor’s column had been written in the context of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting. Team E delivered another argument. “I think about the people who went to the parks the day after the attack. I think about their resistance. All they did was refuse to shrink. Terrorism turns us into pill bugs. It makes us curl up inward. It disrupts our lives and makes us smaller. It holds up a bloody fist and offers two choices. Live closed lives in an open world or open lives in a closed world. I’m going to dare to say that we should live open lives in an open world. To be courageous, no matter how terrifying the situation. Courageous, like Sujin.”

Then one day, Team E invited an instructor. The self-defense teacher said, “I’ve been told you had an incident. It’s only natural to be overcome by fear at first. But it will pass. Slowly but surely. Now, most people think there are two responses to fear, but there are actually three: the three Fs. Fight, flight, and freeze. Right now, you’re in the Freeze state. You’re frozen. So we’re going to slowly move up from there. Thaw out your frozen bodies, get to your feet, fly, and fight. We’re going to become fighters. Jab! Jab! One-two. Imagine your opponent in front of you. Jab! Jab! One-two.”

Fist after tearful fist was driven in the direction of the open door. Then and now, they had no idea how they felt.

In the office where principle had emerged victorious, Everyone is Welcome remained, but those who would do the welcoming were gone. Team S refused to show, and Team E said they would come but never did. Sujin sat alone in the office, bombarded by texts from people who suddenly had other business to take care of. She was the dumping ground for welcoming tasks. Just like with the 16’ POE.

Whoever sat next to a newcomer became a mother bird. Sujin sat next to POE and became POE’s mother bird. She was always the one looking after newcomers. A veteran mother.

The people who leaned out towards Sujin and POE eventually turned inward into cliques. Laughter erupted from the group. It was a funny story, and Sujin knew that one too. But she did not laugh. POE’s polite laughter had already given way to a sulk. You see, we’re laughing because—the mother bird could never let her attention flag, lest she miss hints from her baby. Like a mother bird feeding her young, Sujin talked to POE. You see, this is what happened. She would interpret the histories between friends in solitary conversations that saved POE from exclusion.

It was like imprinting. POE had no one else to follow.

POE would show up, and the first thing she would do was make coffee and ask, “How many shots?” and when POE looked up stiffly at the bookshelves, she would rush forward and prepare a gentle landing ground, “Everyone here’s from really good schools, don’t you think? They can’t go without displaying their PhD dissertations here. It’s kind of childish. I’m the only one who’s from a no-name university!” She was the one reading the room, casting discreet glances, apologizing (“I’m sorry, but you have to take off your shoes when you come in. It’s annoying, I know . . .”), and always readier than anyone to spring, voice one octave higher, “Oh! The bathroom is that way!”

The important thing is, Sujin did not become a mother bird because she was special. Anyone can be a mother bird. It’s simple. Take a deep breath in, deep breath out. Shake out your hands, warm up your mouth. Breathe in to separate you from yourself, breathe out to layer yourself on top of the other. Now you can see through his eyes. You can feel his emotions. Almost there. Now you imagine what he wants to say and ask intricately crafted questions to draw them out. The baby bird chirrups in excitement. The mother bird nods diligently like a bobblehead. There is no reason for Sujin becoming the go-to person for this role other than her own will. No one forced the role upon her. That was why she had no other choice.

This has to do with Article 2 of Community Bylaw 3: “Those who do no work may only be fed.” Unemployed members (and employed members whose incomes were below the national average) were exempt from paying membership and afterparty fees. It was thanks to this lauded rule that even those who couldn’t afford membership fees could participate (Team E’s words), and all sorts of POEs infested the community (Team S’s words).

Sujin was one of these exceptions. Sometimes she could afford to pay, but in principle she had to be fed. She begged and almost wrestled in the kitchen, trying to keep her hold on the dishcloth. She wanted desperately to do the dishes. She knew that otherwise, something else—something no one wanted to do—would someday be foisted upon her shoulders. (But Article 1 of Community Bylaw 4 stated that the rotation of dishwashing duties would fall on those named on a list posted at the beginning of each month.)

Sujin sat dipping plain crackers into truffle oil with the other exempt outlined in Article 2, Community Bylaw 3—who were unable to pay or do the dishes—and thought to herself. Nothing in this world is free. She looked at the person on dishwashing duty that day, who collected wineglasses and carried them into the kitchen as though flaunting the sight. Nothing in this world is free, and I’m all right. Then came the bright clatter of dishes in the sink. Because I’m doing my part. I’m doing status labor. Existence labor. My presence lets them savor their relative power. They can afford to give. People on the giving side are always better off than the ones on the receiving side. Someone opened another bottle of wine—wine that Sujin did not buy. I’m not going to be grateful. Ever. I won’t be grateful for anyone or anything. Someone took out a melon, another artisanal ham, and another humbly offered cherry tomatoes. Sujin consumed the wine and the melon and the ham and resolved once more to never be grateful, because doing that would mean she could no longer show up. But gratitude was an emotion, and emotions were not so easily held in check. Sujin ended up grateful. It happened over the course of many days and many instances. And gratitude—and shame—could make a person take on the most difficult and dangerous tasks.


Sujin sits facing the open door. She sees the hallway. She sees the stairs. She sees the absence. Gone are the days when absence meant nothing more than absence, because today to her it is an omen of sudden arrival. Five minutes before the meeting, they arrive—the texts, filling her inbox with word of an emergency at home, at work, at the parents’ house.

She rises. It is time for training. Throw yourself at the enemy! Jab! Jab! One-two. Wait, everyone, that’s not going to work, echoes the voice of the self-defense instructor. You can’t actually throw yourself at the opponent, remember, you’re not actually fighters. I mean, you’re fighters in spirit, but not actual fist-fighters. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s a mess. Anyway, let’s take it from the top! Jab! Jab! One-two! Go for the one-two punch! And one at full power!

Sujin thrusts her fists forward and sings the training song. Ring. I got all the way across Seongsan Bridge, I swear, but then suddenly I got a call from the daycare . . .
The training song is a set of custom lyrics on Yoon Hyung-joo’s “Dearly Despised.” Step-one-breathe, step-two-breathe, step-three-breathe and one, two, three, four! If you don’t got the cash, make up for it with manual labor. Oh, dearly despised. Jab! Jab! If you can’t do the labor, make up for it with your feelings. Oh, dearly despised. One! Two! Dearly despised. Oh, dearly despised. All my dearly despised.

Sujin could have turned the Battle of SE upside down. She could have stood between the people fighting for Safety and the people fighting for Equality and said, But why won’t you people let me do the dishes? Why do you have a roster for dishwashing duty and not one for mother bird duty? Do you not realize what you’re doing? Spending money is easier than manual labor, which is easier than emotional labor. Do you not realize that emotional labor—actually making your heart do the work—sometimes takes the most effort? Did you really not know, or did you just not want to know? Why didn’t you sit beside POE? Stop laughing. I’m right, aren’t I? Admit it, you were all scared. Don’t give me your pity, and don’t get all excited.

Then the people would have responded in their staccato voices:

(Staccato) renounce our ignorance of systemic injustice in the form of an insidious class system buried in the cost of welcome delegation

(Another staccato) sincerely reflect on the failure to incorporate intersectionality into praxis

(Chorus) and thank our friend Sujin for delivering us unto enlightenment . . . 

She would have become a living case study. A function, not a being. And—and this not just for her, but everyone—it was better to become an example you aspired to than made an example of. Sujin did not want to be remembered as the person who had to sit beside POE because she was not only a woman but also poor. She wanted to be remembered as someone courageous. She dared to want to be a hero. That was why she showed up alone and thrust her fists at the open door.


Once more, she takes a seat. Now is the time for real courage. She will set a timer and close her eyes. She will close her eyes and endure that darkness for one minute. And the fear chugging towards her in the dark. The POEs of the past and the future. She will look those Prices Of Equality in the eye. As though in a reverse staring contest, she will keep her eyes shut.


But why do her eyelids bounce right back open? Why do they snap apart like a baby doll with functioning eyes? She blinked at the open door, watching the afterimages of her lashes flutter before her, seated as though bound to her chair.





6


“We made it!”

“We made it!”

Overjoyed, Sujin and the Faces bound up the station stairs. With each leap, the Faces flop like rabbit ears. The meaty red cross-sections clap loudly in the air, bouncing again and again off every part of her!

The clouds clear to reveal the sun, casting a halo against Sujin and the Faces. They indulge in the joy of living. Face I sniffles, “Didn’t somebody say something? Like, today is a tomorrow that the people who died yesterday would have given anything to see?” Nobody chides Face I for being melodramatic. Sujin stands briefly on the pedestrian overpass and gazes at a closed-up-building—the sharpened nail sticking out of a piece of lumber in a drum canister in the building—and considers the weight of the old saying.

Sujin and the Faces skip down the stairs and run to the office. Then walk. Then slow. All three are exhausted. The Faces drag behind her like sacks. They leave lengthy trails of water. The office is always endlessly far. Sujin cannot believe it. All she has done since leaving the house today was ride the subway for twenty minutes. She cannot believe it.


*Ref. “Meditations on ‘Extremism’” by Pak Noja



Translated by Slin Jung

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