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The Extremely High-Spec Machine That Only Works in This Room

by Bak Solmay December 08, 2021

Bak Solmay

Bak Solmay embarked on her literary career in 2009 with her debut novel Eul, which won Jaeum & Moeum’s inaugural New Writer’s Award. She has since authored the novels I Want to Write a Hundred Lines, Time in the City, Slowly Head First, and the short story collections Then What Shall We Sing?, Winter’s Gaze, Beloved Dog, and International Night. Her latest novel is Future Walking Rehearsals. She has received the Moonji Literary Award, Kim Seungok Literary Award, and Kim Hyeon Prize.

Tae-sik first met Si-on in winter three years ago, when he had just finished university and moved in temporarily with his older brother, Tae-in, in Seoul. Eight years Tae-sik’s senior, Tae-in had steadily saved up his earnings and bought the old condo unit at a relatively young age and lived there alone for several years. Or maybe not always alone. The possibility never occurred to Tae-sik (not because he assumed it never happened, but because he had little interest in his brother) until Si-on entered the passcode to the door and walked in like it was the most normal thing in the world. He was shocked that a stranger knew the code and had let herself in but when he saw her face and the way she carried herself, part of him understood. She didn’t seem the type to hang out with him so much as the type Tae-in probably had a weakness for. Before moving in, Tae-sik had lived apart from Tae-in for a long time and their age difference also meant that when he was in elementary school, Tae-in was in high school, so it wasn’t mutual dislike so much as disinterest. But one look at Si-on told Tae-sik that she was someone his brother loved and also someone he was weak against.

In any event, Tae-sik was not alone in facing an unexpected situation but whereas his shock was mild, the nature of Si-on’s response was and still is hard to discern. Was she also mildly surprised or scared or nervous that she might be seen as a creep? He didn’t know, but Tae-sik’s memory told him it was probably the latter. She looked around anxiously and once she was convinced that she had not walked into the wrong unit she took a deep breath and explained herself. There was little in the way of resemblance between they ways Tae-sik and Tae-in carried themselves so most people never recognized that they were brothers but Tae-in must have told Si-on at some point that he had a brother nearly a decade his junior. Then she asked:

– By any chance, are you . . . his brother?

– That’s right. But who are you?

– My name is Kim Si-on.

– So you’re . . .

Silently imploring for Tae-sik to understand, she added that she was Tae-in’s friend. She brought her clasped hands up to her chest and then released her fingers as though saying friend didn’t really mean friend. She claimed that in any case she was a friend of Tae-sik’s brother, that they were close, and that she had to see him again. The oatmeal-colored curtain behind Si-on who stood by the table caught Tae-sik’s eye like a backdrop that reminded him of his first impression of this unit and how everything was so appropriate and un-excessive as though selected with care and thought.

– Actually, he’s off traveling right now.

– When did he leave?

– Monday.

– When will he be back?

– Soon. Uh . . . next week.

Si-on gave an understanding nod and pointed at Tae-in’s room with a look saying she needed to pick up something and wanted permission and then allowed herself in. Tae-sik seated himself at the table and focused on the sounds from Tae-in’s room. Si-on must be lying on the bed. He heard the frumpling of blankets and something weighty shifting on the mattress. She did not come outside, so Tae-sik began to count the minutes. Twenty minutes later, she was still inside. Lying in a familiar bed with nothing but one door between herself and a stranger, were her eyes open or closed? She couldn’t have fallen asleep. Not actually looking for anything, just lying in another person’s bed with a stranger outside the door. Tae-sik didn’t even feel like drinking tea but he found himself putting the kettle on and placing bags of black tea in a pair of mugs and pouring the hot water into the mugs. The shuffling must have roused Si-on who finally left the room and took the mug Tae-sik held out for her.

– Anyway, I know this sounds crazy.

Tae-sik didn’t know what she was trying to say but when he gazed into her face, he somehow understood at that moment. That, just like his brother, he would have a weakness for her too. Si-on explained that she would leave for Canada at the end of winter. That she had to see Tae-in because she would live there for some time. She said she would come visit again next week but when she stood, she froze briefly in thought and sat right back down.

– It’s not that I have to see him. But I want to.

– Sure. That’s fine.

At the time Tae-sik should have told her that Tae-in was going to go into cold sleep straight after the trip, and even when he caught Si-on’s pleading gaze asking when exactly he was coming back next week, he did not give her a specific date and looked away. Probably at his phone or the tabletop as he gave vague responses, until he picked up their mugs and put them in the sink. Si-on said little but her thoughts were written in her eyes and on her face so even when she was silent it was like she wasn’t silent but very clear about the things she wanted. He would remember this for a long time, Tae-sik knew: her pensive face as she sat at the table, her head almost imperceptibly bowed and lips pursed in defiance, her face as she suddenly looked up, exhaled, and gave him a clear, demanding look that said she could not accept this situation.

He saw her back and shoulders as she left the door. They were wide and erect, with no hint of a slouch. Tae-sik went back to the kitchen and looked cautiously at the seat she left vacant as though she were still sitting there—sitting there and watching him. He would look back into her face. Refusing to turn away from the steepled hands and unflinching gaze, he met her eyes.

The day Tae-sik met Kim Si-on was not the first time it occurred to him that he had no idea what kind of life his brother led or what he thought about. In late summer of the same year Tae-in had asked him to be his cold sleep guide. When Tae-sik asked why, Tae-in had replied that it was because he wanted to stay asleep for a long time. He said no more. It had been about two months since Tae-sik had gotten his license. Tae-sik had never been serious about the job and the license was just a fallback for a part-time job he might have to do at some point so the proposal surprised him but at the same time he noticed the exhaustion on his brother’s profiled face. Everything he knew about cold sleep came rushing back and automatically applied themselves to the circumstances of his own brother. But Tae-sik didn’t know how similar or different—or both—his brother was to other people who chose cold sleep.

A significant number of people had cold sleep experience by now, with last year’s statistics showing that the number of participants who treated it like a sort of Christmas vacation had increased significantly, now accounting for 5 percent of all participants. Researchers claimed that the majority of this group was composed of people subject to extreme stress at work, such as corporate executives or lawyers, and that regular cold sleep was a way for them to take a brief but restful break. Cold sleep was not a mechanism for escape or an antisocial phenomenon. But admittedly it was not easy to think of an action or choice that was entirely without the purpose of escape or antisocial intent, perhaps with the exception of greeting the server at a restaurant before being greeted, but in any case, Tae-sik was taught that cold sleep was an acceptable way for people to spend their spare time, like travel and exercise, and the steadily-increasing amount of data concerning the procedure supported this perspective, betraying the pessimistic predictions from the past. In spite of this, Tae-sik still thought of it more as a treatment for people who had experienced trauma or suffered from severe fatigue. The 5 percent, he thought, were people who experienced trauma or were fatigued because their work was considered socially important and especially burdensome. It wasn’t possible for heavy workloads to not exhaust someone. In fact, they were precisely the cause of exhaustion. What then did Tae-sik think of the 95 percent? The people who enjoyed novelty, the people who took their friends’ suggestions, and the people who, like the 5 percent, were just as tired and weary?

– I have a license, sure, but I’ve never actually done it before.

– I have.

– What? When?

Tae-in didn’t go into the details and instead explained that he had an especially long vacation coming up to celebrate ten years of working at his company and that he would go on a trip and then go into cold sleep afterwards.

– So you’ve done it before, but how does that help me? You’re going to be asleep the whole time.

– What I mean is that I know I won’t have any side effects, so you don’t have to worry too much. I’m a veteran, and all you have to do is follow the procedures. I’m helping by eliminating variables.

Glancing sidelong at Tae-in’s face, Tae-sik decided he did not want to look at his brother’s sleeping face every day. It was an act of such intense closeness that just thinking about it made him want to run. The fact that they were family, the fact that each was someone’s child and sibling and some were even parents on top of that was like a metal spoon with a hefty chunk of overpowering food being shoved between his lips. But in the end he chose to accept Tae-in’s request. Tae-sik didn’t remember clearly how he felt when he agreed, but it might have been because, since his teens, they had been so disinterested in each other and he had known so little about him so he thought he might be up for the task after all. But he knew he should not consider this further because the more he considered it he would find himself thinking it didn’t have to be that way, and that it didn’t not have to be that way, either. That he’d convince himself his first instinct that he’d never want to be a cold sleep guide for family wasn’t so strong an opinion as he’d thought and he would end up taking what seemed like the path of least resistance at the time. And the fact was, Tae-in was right when he said Tae-sik needed the money. Tae-sik had thought in response that he wanted to make money. And in that moment, he ended up considering again.

Tae-in went into cold sleep three days after returning from his trip. He said he’d come back from Hawaii but the souvenir he brought could have been from any old airport or even a local department store because it was a box of macadamia chocolates that you didn’t have to have gone to Hawaii for, but Tae-sik quickly told himself he didn’t need to think about that. He told himself to not think. He tidied up Tae-in’s room to dedicate it fully to the cold sleep and moved his own things which he’d left there temporarily into the smaller room. Tae-sik had always slept in the small room but decided to sleep in the living room during the cold sleep so he would hear immediately if something went wrong. At night he laid out a mat and a futon by the table. The day before the procedure Tae-in went to a local cold sleep clinic to register his plans and got another health exam. His company health exam had only been two months ago and it had detected no serious issues but Tae-in chose to get the unnecessary examination anyway since he was there. The thorough exam revealed that he still had no serious health issues or problems that might prevent him from going safely into cold sleep. Tae-sik looked at the chair across the table where Si-on had sat. In the next seat over sat Tae-in. For some reason he hadn’t wanted to say that Si-on had come to visit but he didn’t even want to consider the fact that he didn’t want to say so. Tae-sik wanted to think of her in a different way.

– Friend of yours dropped by the other day. She knew the passcode and let herself in.

– Yeah? Guess it’s time to change it.

As Tae-in got up to change the passcode, Tae-sik stared at his back. Tae-sik was the one who worked out regularly but Tae-in was taller and although he did work out in his own way Tae-in’s work had nothing to do with exercise and he didn’t do it regularly. They were similar in that neither were talkative and if they happened to sit down together, they would either watch TV in silence or do their own things. Tae-in disappeared into his room. It was almost the end of the week Tae-sik had told Si-on about. Tae-sik explained the cold sleep procedure to Tae-in yet again and Tae-in listened with the indifferent nods of a veteran. Tae-sik thought Tae-in might complain that he knew all this but Tae-in listened to the end and took the medication as Tae-sik directed and performed a few final diagnosis tests before he went to sleep exactly on schedule. Tae-sik went over the procedure once more in his head and made a list of things to confirm at the next scheduled check. This was the first time he was putting his license to use. He looked down at his brother’s sleeping face and thought that the face was all too familiar but not from the front, even though they lived in the same house. But the more he stared, the more it seemed like the face of a stranger, the face of some man in his mid- to late-thirties with wrinkles growing on his face, and by the time he found himself saying, But this guy is actually . . .  he’s actually . . ., Tae-sik recognized him again as someone he knew intimately. He stood with gaze locked there for a long time before he went back to the living room to set his alarm to go off every hour. It was the first day and that came with risks so he wanted to check in often. Although Tae-sik was worried he might sleep through the alarm, he found himself falling asleep and waking up on time with mechanical ease. It wasn’t until nine in the morning that he finished his checks and let himself have a normal schedule. No more alarms to turn off. Just waking up and living life. He changed and ran for half an hour and went to a nearby hilltop. He warmed up again and ran to the top. Maybe because it was around lunchtime, it was surprisingly deserted. He would keep doing this. Make this climb at the same time each day, then come home for lunch and do work and watch TV in the afternoon and then check in on Tae-in occasionally and have dinner and do another lap around the neighborhood, then wash up and go to bed. For the first little while, he would get up once an hour to check on Tae-in, and in the following week he would check once every two hours. He remembered Tae-in calling himself a cold sleep veteran and considered the word. Veteran. On the way home, Tae-sik picked up eggs, cereal, milk, and meat. Each time he remembered that he was a cold sleep guide, a wave of anxiety crashed over his back. He picked up his groceries a little faster than usual and rushed home and showered and checked on his brother. When he sat down for lunch, he thought of Si-on again, but found that her face was now a blur. But the look of demanding something and her short stature against her unusually wide and angular shoulders seemed to flash with terrifying clarity before his eyes.

The second time he met Si-on was a week into Tae-in’s cold sleep. He was on his way back from working out and she stood at the bus stop by the condo, facing his direction. In that moment, Tae-sik felt like something he’d expected and waited for was really happening. With looks of recognition that didn’t need spoken greetings, they walked together to the condo. Tae-sik stopped partway through asking her to wait because he realized it would take him half an hour to wash and change and check on Tae-sik. He almost asked her to come into the unit until he remembered Tae-in changing the passcode as soon as he told him about her. Si-on turned and pointed towards the bus stop and told him she would be at the café across the alley.

– It might take a while. I’d like some coffee.

– Right. Sure thing.

Si-on seemed like a different person outside than when she was inside. In the shower, Tae-sik thought about the strange sense of relief and uncanny tension he felt when he saw her. He hadn’t consciously waited for that meeting, but he did have the thought that what he’d expected had really come true. He went to check on Tae-in before heading to the café. Tae-sik ordered coffee and took a seat across from Si-on and wondered if the things they would talk about could really ever be properly explained, but quickly stopped that line of thought.

– I don’t think you’ll be able to see him right now.

– He did come back from his trip, right?

– Yes.

– Is he home?

– No. No, he isn’t.

Technically, he wasn’t not home, but he also was and Tae-sik wondered who his brother would be all right knowing about his cold sleep. In principle, going into cold sleep was a private matter unless there was an emergency, but Tae-sik just didn’t know enough about Tae-in. Tae-in had claimed he’d told everyone who was supposed to know, but Tae-sik couldn’t even begin to be sure that Tae-in ever talked to anybody and didn’t know if he would ever be able to bring himself to ask. The demanding look from before was gone from Si-on’s face and she looked a little sad but also resigned. Or maybe that was what Tae-sik needed in order to feel better. At the same time, he didn’t want to feel better. He wanted to be uncomfortable and ill at ease. Maybe he even wanted Si-on to interrogate him and berate him. So Tae-sik kept finding himself coming up with reasons for Si-on to enter and scenarios where they went into the room together. Si-on rose, saying she wanted to get some air and Tae-sik finished his coffee and followed her out. They walked down the alley and found a bench at the entrance to the trail up the hill. Sitting there, Si-on silently focused on the condo buildings beyond the trees ahead.

– Sometimes I feel so sleepy or exhausted. It’s just like that.

– Oh. Even now?

– It’s a lot better than before, now.

It wasn’t cold yet but the walk up the steep path must have left Si-on breathless because each time she spoke, her breath rose into the air like midwinter.

– Do you sleep all right?

– Yes, on the whole. On the whole I sleep well.

– Me too, but I don’t think Tae-in did.

– He did say you were really different, come to think of it. Have you ever gone into cold sleep?

Si-on explained that she’d been Tae-in’s cold sleep guide this time last year, and the year before that. Their workplaces were near and someone had introduced them when Tae-in had to go into cold sleep and then they had gotten close and met on occasion even afterwards, she explained. Si-on explained that she had been his guide at the condo where Tae-sik lived now. As though explaining how she allowed herself in without hesitation the other day. That was not good enough of a reason to bring her back to the unit and Tae-sik knew that as well. He knew other things well, too. Strange things and strange feelings. The desire to be interrogated by Si-on and the desire to exchange uncomfortable questions. He was certain he felt the desire for Si-on to make him uncomfortable and outright anxious, and it was like walking a narrow line suspended high up in the air. With the hill and the trees behind them, Si-on and Tae-sik slowly made their way down the slope. He’d already told her he was Tae-in’s guide so Tae-sik said that she couldn’t see Tae-in. The autumn leaves clutching desperately to the trees were beautiful and their feet crunched over the newly-fallen leaves as they reached the condo. At the door Tae-sik said once more that he couldn’t let her into Tae-in’s room.

– Can’t I at least see his face?

– No, I’m sorry.

– Please tell me why. Or just tell me about the past. If you really don’t have a choice.

Si-on took a seat in the same chair that Tae-sik saw her in on the day they first met, and for some reason it was only in this house that she wore the face of demanding something from him, her face changing into that look. Tae-sik boiled water and poured it into the mugs with the bags of black tea already inside. Their bare hands were red with cold so they wrapped them around their mugs for warmth. Tae-sik got up to check on Tae-in again and Tae-in was all right so he walked out and shut the door behind him and told Si-on that he was doing fine the night before and the night before that as well.

– He’ll probably always be all right. And later—even later—please tell me more. Tell me anything. About what he saw, or if he says he saw anything.

– What would he see? You mean, when he’s in cold sleep?

– He just might.

Tae-sik had heard about it. Past cases came up in the materials he read while studying for his license. People believing they experienced something they didn’t or gaining new memories of places they hadn’t been to. Tae-in hadn’t shown any unusual symptoms or side effects according to Si-on. But it’s common. A lot of people have mixed-up dreams or see things. Tae-in said he saw me living my life. Si-on said that these things weren’t premonitions. They’re just daily life, the way I stand and sit and want things and think, that kind of thing. She said she wanted to think and hear about these things. She wanted to hear from someone who saw her, the story of someone who saw her when she was out of sight. A look of calm serenity came over her face when she talked about this and Tae-sik thought that if his brother could see anything in his sleep, this would be the moment. Tae-sik washed his hands and changed into home wear and went to his brother’s room. If he saw something in the past, there was no reason he wouldn’t see something now, he thought, and laid himself down on the floor parallel to Tae-in. If I look at his face, he looks back at mine. He lay in the room whose only purpose was sleep and maybe it was for that reason he briefly felt as though he would fall asleep so he forced himself back up. He looked down at his brother’s face again and the fact that they had no choice but to look each other in the eye and the anxiety and the pressure of now being unable to look away wasn’t so bad. Responsibly shouldering the burdens they had to bear and not looking away. Tae-sik had no idea what his brother actually saw in cold sleep and he had no way of knowing if Tae-in even saw anything at all but when he looked at him, Tae-sik thought, Maybe he could see something. He leaned in close, scrutinizing his brother’s slow breathing. Finally, he broke off the stare and left the room.

Si-on was no longer at the table but leaning back on the sofa. She explained that she’d usually slept there when she was a guide. Tae-sik joined her and pointed at the mat on the floor. A few days ago he’d learned that sleeping on the floor made the fridge sound louder than sleeping in bed. All the low sounds of the room seemed to sink with weight slowly sliding down towards the floor. When he lay on the floor in the dark of night he heard the sounds humble themselves towards the ground.

– So what are you going to do in Canada?

– My older sister lives there. I’m going to stay with her, get used to living there, learn some English, and then go to school.

As though talking about a local neighborhood, she talked about one area in Vancouver and the places she’d gone to with her sister and niece. How her sister attended a Canadian church and not a Korean one and how she had gone along for service one time and on the way back they had scones and coffee and then, as though this place in Korea was connected to the Vancouver neighborhood, she saw the little church plants and theology study group signs behind the condo and wondered out loud why there were so many of these groups in this area. Tae-sik thought of the places he’d never been to but could always visit in the future as a little map in his head, as though drawing a map of some place in Canada. The many alleyways and stores and the roads where he ran and the countless paths that led towards the hill. The alley and the bench from earlier with Si-on too he slowly added to the picture. He turned and as though tracing a path on a map he drew his finger along the contour of Si-on’s face. He followed her hairline with his finger, slowly. Her brows and cheekbones were neither too sharp nor round. Hand trembling almost imperceptibly with his big and slightly rough finger, he slowly traced her face. Then he rose like he’d remembered something and went past the table and to the sink. He turned on the tap and left it running before filling the kettle again and bringing it to a boil. A moment later, he refilled the emptied mugs with the tea bags still inside and put it on the floor by the sofa. Steam rose from the mugs and Si-on with her eyes still closed brought her hands to her face and traced the lines as though following the lines Tae-sik had drawn. Near her cheekbone she sensed the warmth from the mug and she felt as though she could see the mug spill as though it were already set in stone.

When I reached out and touched Tae-sik’s face,  but not in the way he followed the contours as though sketching them, but my putting my thumb on his cheek then bringing it to his brow and tracing his jaw with my index finger, Tae-sik did not meet my eyes and could not meet my eyes and looked at the corner by the sofa then closed his eyes so we did not look at each other’s faces but I lifted his face with my hand again and slowly stared into his face.

– The way you look at my face reminds me of a dentist.

For the first time Tae-sik laughed. That day was the second time I ever saw him. That day we slowly talked about the things we each saw and spent the whole time together. Before I left for Canada I visited the house where Tae-in slept many times, but Tae-sik never allowed me in and I was not allowed to meet him. But I know that Tae-in knows my face. What I knew was Tae-sik’s face and although it has been several years since, I sometimes vividly remember in my fingertips the way the lines of his brows and nose came together and for some reason when my fingers remember, his face comes clearly back into my mind.

The way you look at my face reminds me of a dentist. I made Tae-sik sit back against the sofa like it really was the dentist’s chair and with his eyes still shut Tae-sik laughed. Feels like my teeth are all better and the mug of hot tea fell over. I took his hand but our feet were already drenched.

Translated by Slin Jung

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