Suah Bae Cheolsu E ng l i s h
Cheolsu (철수) JAKKA JUNG SIN PUBLISHING CO. / 21 p. / ISBN 9788972884095 For further information, please visit: http://library.klti.or.kr/node/772
This sample translation was produced with support from LTI Korea. Please contact the LTI Korea Library for further information. email@example.com
Cheolsu Written by Bae Suah
I couldn’t believe it when Cheolsu’s mother contacted me. I was working in the office at the university when she called. “Who did you say is calling?” “This is Cheolsu’s mother.” I could practically see her stretching her fat neck to make her voice sound more refined. “Ah, yes. How do you do?” “You left so quickly the other night. You didn’t even stay for dinner.” “I had to get to my part-time job.” “You were in such a hurry that I didn’t have a chance to ask. What kind of part-time work do you do? Cheolsu isn’t very sociable. He never tells me anything. He’s on leave from the army but all he does is stay out late every night. Sons aren’t sweet to their mothers. Not like daughters are.” “It’s just a part-time job.” “Tutoring?” “Nothing like that.” “Then, what?” I sighed, worn down by her stubborn refusal to give up. “I wait tables.” “Oh my.” She was quiet for a moment, but then she started talking again before I could even
start to think about how to end the call. “But you said you’re a college graduate. You should be tutoring kids instead. That would be better for you. My daughter—Cheolsu’s little sister—is still in college, but she teaches math to high school students. She’s good at math. She was planning to work only over vacation and then quit, but the kids’ mother begged her to keep tutoring them. She said she’s never seen anyone as clever at teaching as my daughter. The children’s father is a chief prosecuting attorney, but the kids were falling behind in school. It worried them. Their father was a younger classmate of Cheolsu’s father when they were in college, so that’s how we know their family. And it seemed more or less reliable.” “Ma’am.” Her story was getting longer by the minute, and I couldn’t bear to hear any more of it. I decided I had to end the phone call, even if it meant getting rude. Maybe, too, I couldn’t handle my anger. “Ma’am, I’m busy right now. I have to hang up.” “My goodness, where is my mind?” She pretended to be apologetic. “Cheolsu said you’re planning to visit him?” “That’s right.” “Are you going this weekend?” “Well, I haven’t picked an exact date yet.” “Oh no, I was certain Cheolsu said you’re visiting him this weekend. I was planning to make him some food.” “They don’t feed him in the army?” I probably sounded curt. The brusquer my voice got, the slipperier hers grew, as if she were greasing it up. “Of course they do, but you know it can’t compare to food made by your own mother.
It must be so hard for him there in training.” “He only has to do six months of service.” If she had suggested visiting him together, I would have absolutely refused. Promise or no promise, seeing Cheolsu was not worth putting up with that much indignity and discomfort. “If you visit him this weekend, could you stop by our house first? I made him some chicken. It’s not much. I promise it won’t be too heavy. You two can eat it together when you go see him. That’ll be nice.” “You’re telling me to take chicken to your son?” I felt like I was shrieking at her. To see Cheolsu, I would have to go all the way past the city of Uijeongbu, which I’d never been to before, transfer buses several times, go to a place called Yeoncheon, which I’d never even heard of, and find my way to an army base with a strange address, and on top of it all, now I had to tote along a bundle of cold, cooked chicken like some kind of refugee. This was too much. “I wish I could visit him myself.” She sounded crestfallen. “But Cheolsu told me not to come. He said the other boys all have their girlfriends visit them, and if his mother shows up, he’ll be embarrassed.” “Is that so?” “I just want to feed my son his favorite chicken dish, so though I know it’s a burden for you, please help me out. Anyway, he absolutely insists that I don’t go, for fear of making his girlfriend uncomfortable.” She laughed. I remembered how her eyes had shone like a rat’s when she peeped through the crack in Cheolsu’s bedroom door at us. I didn’t want to have to look at her face again, but I figured one last time couldn’t hurt and I would never have to see her again once it was done, so in the end, I consented.
* That weekend was the last of the criminal sociology lectures. I took the day off work so I could visit Cheolsu. It was also my last chance to sit in on the lecture. Going to the lecture on a Saturday afternoon felt like I was going on a date. I sat in the very back of the hall in the dark, the professor standing clear on the other side of the room behind the podium, and chewed on a pencil while listening to him talk about domestic violence. He was so far away that I could barely make out his face or the expressions he made. “We all have many commonly held misconceptions about domestic violence. A typical example is the belief that domestic violence recurs in families that are less educated or are economically lower class. Other examples are the belief that the happier a family appears on the surface, the less likely they are to experience domestic violence, the assumption that when a child is abused, the abuser is whichever parent is less close to the child, and the assumption that domestic violence within families is always linked to other social issues, such as broken homes, alcoholism, criminal records, and so on. These case studies show us that, just as with other social institutions, domestic violence has less to do with any inherent characteristics of the family as a primitive community of relatives and more to do with the changes wrought by modernization with its complex and diverse variables. As the causal factors, triggers, and control factors correlated with domestic violence intensify and diversify, it becomes harder for us to draw a clear conclusion.” The lecture lasted a straight three hours. It ended with the students turning in their homework. Since I wasn’t a registered student, I tore out a piece of notebook paper and wrote a long note for the professor and turned that in instead. “I sat in on your lecture today. I kept telling you I was too busy to go, so you probably didn’t know I was there. To be honest, it was hard to follow. I’ve never taken any sociology classes, or anything else like it, so of course it was new to me. I must confess that I
was never that good of a student. Back when the semester first started, you said that you saw me sometime in the early autumn? That must have been at the opening tea party we held in the office to kick off the new semester. Since I don’t know what any of the part-time lecturers look like, I don’t remember meeting you. I’ve worked here for less than a year. I’ll probably change jobs soon. I’m not a full-time employee—just a temp on a one-year contract. I don’t know if you’ll be teaching criminal sociology again next semester, but I don’t think I’ll be running into you at school anymore. Finals are next week, and then it’s vacation. Winter is already here. Every time winter rolls around, I find myself longing for things. A warm home. A warm blanket. A wool sweater. A soft, light winter coat (that I can’t afford). A kind word when times are tough. White snow falling in this dirty city. Stepping into a phone booth on a snowy night in the middle of a street that’s so quiet it seems to be holding its breath, and a single secret phone number that you can call at that very moment. Like something out of a play. Listening to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on repeat while waiting for a bus that never comes because the snow is falling too heavily and the traffic has come to a standstill. It feels strange to have attended your last lecture and to write what will be my last letter to you. At any rate, you and I have never knowingly met. And though we might one day, a long time from now, cross each other paths on the subway or at someone’s funeral or at a freeway rest stop, we won’t recognize each other. That’s what’s likely to happen. For all we know, we might even hold hands one day at a demonstration. A human chain demonstration calling for the disposal of all weapons on the face of the earth. I’m not a member of the Watchtower Society, which denounces the keeping of any and all weapons designed to hurt and kill people (and you’re probably not a member either), but if I were to receive an invitation to one of their demonstrations, I would probably cancel any unimportant appointments I had in order to go (and maybe you would too). Probably
most people would cancel their appointments in order to go, either alone or with family. There would be so many people there that you and I could rub shoulders and not even realize it right away. Everyone would clasp hands and form a human chain from one end of the city to the other. Human beings are capable of becoming perfectly pure at some moment in their lives. It doesn’t matter if they’re royalty or literati, middle class, working class, or the lowest class. That moment must come to almost everyone. They would clasp hands. And perhaps the memory would return, through blood and body heat. Right at that moment. But now is not that moment. Right now doesn’t mean anything at all.” When I got home, I opened the kitchen cupboard to take out a loaf of bread and found a bottle of alcohol. My mother had started drinking again. I thought about getting mad at her, but gave up on the idea. I must have been too tired. Getting drunk was her choice, as were her drunken ramblings in her boozy breath that I hated having to listen to. Since her benders didn’t happen that often, I could put up with this one for a little while. My mother didn’t seem to care at all how badly she stank, or how ugly the whites of her eyes were, yellowed from the havoc she’d wreaked on her liver. She probably couldn’t even remember anymore, but a long time ago, she’d won a Miss Cambison Ointment pageant. She’d stood on stage in the kind of bathing suit you might see on female divers and fluttered away with the false eyelashes she’d glued to her eyes. But now, it was comical to associate that with the mother who was standing in the kitchen, giving me the side-eye, red marks on her cheek from the pillow, ragged pajamas as dirty as can be. “What’re you lookin’ at?” she asked. Tired of her gaze, I made toast and ranted inwardly. You’ve been home all day, so the least you could have done was make dinner. My brother is hopeless in the kitchen, and my little sister is probably eating instant noodles with her friends at school. When my brother saw there was no dinner, he probably lifted his wrinkled cheeks into a smile without saying a
word and went hungry. “No dinner. My brother must be starving,” I said. “Because of your brother, I had to go back to work at the hospital.” She forced her lipsticked mouth, which looked like it’d been crushed in, into a smile. She’d worked as a nurse before she started drinking. It was dirty work, too awful to describe. She did the kind of work that not even the patients’ own flesh-and-blood would do for them. My brother had always felt terribly guilty about the fact that she had to do such work, and when she lost her job because of her drinking, he said it was better that way. “What happened to my brother?” “He said he needs more money to go to Japan. I don’t know why it’s so complicated. I went to the hospital to see if they had any work for me.” “As if they’d have any work for someone who drinks as much as you do.” “I don’t drink. I told you I quit. I’m not lying.” She shifted her eyes around nervously as she protested. “They said they’re short on people lately and that I could start tomorrow. But even with an advance, it won’t be enough.” “How much does he need?” “A million won.” She let out a sigh. “The money he’s made so far can’t cover it?” “What do you expect? He didn’t go to college, he has no skills, and his parents are no help to him. And of course he has no money to start a business of his own. He has an opportunity to earn money in Japan, but he doesn’t have the funds to get there. And there’s no one he can borrow it from.” “Do you ever worry about me or Mia as much as you worry about him?” “You got to go to college.” She was angry. “Don’t act all high and mighty just
because you give me a little money to live on. You can barely make ends meet with that tiny paycheck of yours. The kids you went to school with are all working in banks and investment firms. They’re making good money. But you make less than half of what they make, and still you complain all the time about how tired you are and you make us all walk on eggshells around you. You owe me! Do you know how expensive it is to raise kids? Don’t you even think about leaving this house before you’ve paid it all back to me. You’ve got a long way to go.” The woman who called herself my mother opened her mouth wide and the reek of alcohol came floating out, as usual. I put down my half-eaten toast and went into my room. For a moment, I thought maybe they could bring in a little money by renting out my room and taking in a boarder. But the house was so old and dirty that there was no way they would ever find a tenant. My mother continued to yell at me from the kitchen. “I didn’t think I’d be stuck living this way, either! You think you’re so different from me? There’s no avoiding it. Not once you’re old and broke. You’ll turn out the same way. You better remember me as I am now. Because you’ll turn out exactly the same. Nothing will ever change!” After my mother’s yells faded, I heard the kitchen cabinet open and the sound of alcohol being poured into a glass. She gulped it down. After a few minutes of silence, I heard the sound of sobs coming from Mia’s room. My little sister was crying. The next morning, I got up early and headed for Cheolsu’s house. The sky was overcast, and the weather forecast said it would be even worse by the afternoon. It was as cold as it was hazy, and the cold, damp air seeped all the way down to my bones. My sister and I only had one winter coat between the two of us. She was younger and frailer than me, so on winter mornings I usually told her to go ahead and wear it since I wasn’t that cold. That morning, as well, I left the house in only my pink sweater. Cheolsu’s mother handed me the
chicken in a disposable aluminum container tucked inside a paper bag. The chicken was warm, but it would soon cool and turn as hard as a rock. I couldn’t stop myself from frowning. Cheolsu’s whole family was sitting around the kitchen table. I told them I’d already eaten and turned down their offers of breakfast. His father said grace. The praying family looked pious and cultured. When I thought about the fact that Cheolsu had had these kinds of mornings the whole time he’d known me, my body twisted with awkwardness. “This is Cheolsu’s girlfriend. She’s on her way to visit him today.” When his mother introduced me, they all stopped eating and stared hard at me. “Girlfriend? He never said anything about a girlfriend.” Cheolsu’s younger sister stared openly at my old, pilly sweater. Then she added meanly, “And you know he tells me everything.” “Why would he tell you about his love life? Anyway, this is your brother’s girlfriend, so you better be nice.” Their mother’s voice was stern. The family probably went on talking about me after I left. Cheolsu’s sister would have said, ‘Why are her clothes so out of style? What school did she say she went to?’ And Cheolsu’s father would have asked, ‘What does her father do? Do they go to church? Where did she graduate?’ Cheolsu’s mother would have solemnly lectured her daughter that dressing neatly is all that matters, and she would’ve said that belittling someone for wearing old clothes is not the mark of a true human being. Then, when the daughter wasn’t around, she would have told her husband what Cheolsu and I were doing when no one else was home. ‘We need to give him a good talking to. But we have to remain objective and not get emotional when we do. He’s already an adult. He has to control and manage his own life. Could you talk to him? Until we figure out the right answer, I’ll keep pretending I didn’t see anything.’ Cheolsu’s father would momentarily experience the classic worry that that girl would be a ball-and-chain, an obstacle to Cheolsu’s future.
It was a long way to the army base. I took a bus to the subway, then the subway to Uijeongbu, and then an intercity bus for miles and miles. The streets of Uijeongbu, where winter was just taking hold, were bleak and dry. The cold had come on quickly and frozen the streets. Lonely restaurants and shady-looking bars near the army base. Women in blue eye shadow and clothes that clung too tightly to their bodies, and a restaurant with faded roof tiles, called The Rose Garden, stood bleakly at the end of the road. A perfectly gray street. An old and dirty street. The Rose Garden didn’t look anything like a rose. I sat on the intercity bus with no coat, as frozen as a scarecrow in an unsown paddy in the middle of winter, until the bus reached the stop where an old woman with chipped and worn nail polish told me I should get off. By the time I stepped off the bus in front of an army base in the middle of an empty field, Cheolsu’s chicken in its paper bag was completely cold. The bus took off. I was not the only woman there. It was the weekend, after all. “Who are you here to see?” The PX was filled with women visiting soldiers. A guard wrote down my name and ID number with a black ballpoint pen. “Kim Cheolsu.” I kept my answers short. The guard looked up at me. “Kim Cheolsu isn’t here today. He’s out on a training exercise.” “That can’t be. He told me to come today.” “The exercise was announced at the last minute. But he’s not far. I can tell you where to find him. Do you want to go visit him in the field?” “Sure.” “It’s about four kilometers from here. The bus will get you there right away. Or you can walk. Just take any bus that stops out front. Get off in front of the fishing hole. There are signs pointing the wait to the base HQ. Follow those signs, and they’ll lead you right to the
drill field. It’s easy. Just head there, and you’ll find him.” Soldiers who’d been called to the PX were checking in before meeting with their girlfriends, mothers, younger sisters. I would rather have died than have to leave the warm PX and go back out into the cold, windy streets, but I had no choice. I picked up the bag of chicken and headed to the bus stop. I stamped my cold feet while waiting for the bus. Luckily, it didn’t take long. I sat near the front. I was supposed to get off at the fishing hole? I tried to remember what the guard had said. In front of the fishing hole. The scenery outside the bus window looked completely different than before. Paddies and fields (I never could tell the difference between the two) and sheds and vacant houses whirled past. I couldn’t tell anything apart, like I was looking at a piece of film that kept replaying the same scene. A little kid in dirty clothes was sitting in the street in front of a house, crying with his mouth wide open. After the bus had taken several turns and gone over a hill, I saw the same little boy in front of the same house, still crying. Was it really the same kid? I looked around and tried to jog my memory. Identical vacant houses, fields, paddies, sheds, and bus stops slid past. How long had I been on the bus? It could have been hours, and it could have been only five minutes. Was this bus going in circles through the same village? The sky was as overcast as it had been early that morning, and it hung down dark and heavy, as if snow would come spilling down any minute. And then there was the static electricity of this ominous winter coldly dominating the whole world. I waited and waited, but the announcement for the bus stop in front of the fishing hole never came. “Excuse me, I need to get off at the fishing hole. Is it still far away?” I asked the driver. “Fishing hole? This bus doesn’t go there,” the driver said. “Then where should I get off?” “You’ll have to get off at the next stop, cross the street, and catch another bus. It’s
quite a ways away.” I know the guard had said I could take any bus. But what could I do? I got off, sat on the bench at the desolate, abandoned bus stop, and waited for the next bus. I had already been regretting making this visit. A dog the size of a calf walked past me, carrying a dark red lump of flesh in its mouth. It looked like a dead rat. Snow gradually began to fall. It settled into a thin layer on my hair and my old sweater. The dog with the rat in its mouth turned to me with empty eyes, huffing and panting. I thought maybe it was studying the bag of chicken in my hand. It looked like it had something to say to me. “Give me some chicken, and I won’t eat you.” Posted to a bulletin board beside the bus stop was a wanted flier. There were none of the usual movie posters or nightclub ads. I read the flier out loud to try to stave off the cold. “Wanted by police: One female, last seen with dyed hair and wearing baggy pants, and two males, both wearing basketball shoes. Suspects are believed to be drifters from the city. Around midnight on September 3, Kim (alias), a 39-year-old male resident of Seoul, and Jeong (alias), a 27-year-old female resident of Uijeongbu, were found murdered. Reports indicate that Kim was escorting Jeong home after they had dinner together at The Rose Garden. Kim was killed by repeated blunt force trauma to the back of the head, and his body was found on the side of the road leading up to the Jaein Waterfall in Yeoncheon. Time of death is estimated at 8 a.m. on September 4. Around 9 a.m. of the same day, Yi Sun-im, Jeong’s 60-year-old landlady, heard groans coming from Jeong’s room and found her with multiple stab wounds to the head and chest. She was transferred to a hospital but passed away at 2 p.m. The car that Kim and Jeong left The Rose Garden in has yet to be found. According to anonymous witnesses, after eating dinner together Kim stated that he would drive Jeong home, and they left the restaurant together. In the parking lot, some unidentified youngsters who appeared to be hippies up from the city tried to hitch a ride and became angry when Kim
refused. Witnesses say they cursed at him and then disappeared into the dark. Police found no leads to suggest that anyone had a grudge against Kim, or that he had been in any financial disputes, and there were no indications that he was involved in any sexual affairs. Therefore, the police are investigating this group of youngsters as the prime suspects in this case. The suspects are believed to be in their early to mid-twenties. They are described as vulgar of speech and poorly dressed, and the woman’s hair is dyed maroon. They’ve been spotted frequently in red light districts and in hiking spots near Daegwang-ri, Uijeongbu, and other nearby cities. Kim was driving a black Sable. Anyone with any information on these suspects or who may have spotted these individuals is asked to contact the Yeoncheon Police Department.” The whole time I was reading the flier, the dog kept pacing around the bus stop. September 3. My goodness. That means it had happened over three months ago. Had their murder become this village’s great unsolved mystery? Or was it simply that nothing else had happened after the case was solved, so they forgot to take down the flier? Just as I was debating whether to give the chicken to the dog, the bus finally came. When I got off at the fishing hole, there really were signs pointing the way to the base. The signs directed me to a steep, narrow mountain path. The snow was still falling, and the path was dark. I popped into a store near the bus stop and asked for a cup of coffee to warm myself up. I felt feverish. My shoulders and hair were damp. Once I felt a little warmer, I started walking up the path to the base. Under my jeans, my legs had long since gone numb. I stopped thinking about why I had come all that way, what Cheolsu was to me, and whether I had a future. How long had I been out there? I was hungry and dizzy. I was freezing, but craved a glass of cold water at the same time. I sat on the side of the road and absentmindedly reached into the bag of chicken. I thought I would just have a bite. But when I opened the aluminum container and saw the chicken carcass looking like the body of a woman frozen to
death in Siberia, I lost my appetite. Fortunately, the snow wasn’t sticking. It was settling lightly on the ground and melting away like dew. Had the snow survived instead of melting, I would have wished for it to turn sharp. Turn sharp and pierce through me. I arrived at the entrance to the base and told the guard I was there to see the platoon leader, Kim Cheolsu, who was on a training exercise. “Ah, you mean Acting Platoon Leader Kim Cheolsu?” The guard was friendly. “If you head up that way, you’ll see a burned clearing. That’s where everyone should be.” “Is it far?” “No, it’s not far. You just can’t see it from here because of the tree cover.” A burned clearing. That’s how the guard had described it. And just as he said, in the middle of the forest, I came across a deep water hole that appeared from between blackened and burnt trees, and a huddle of soldiers. And fire. The soldiers had gathered firewood and were clustered around a bonfire. Dark, shining faces that I couldn’t tell apart. Cheolsu’s face was not among them. But then again, Cheolsu’s face could have been planted right before my eyes and I would have walked on past, too full of disappointment to recognize him. The soldiers’ faces were that uniform, and that unfamiliar. I told them I was looking for Kim Cheolsu. They looked around at each other and shook their heads. The paper bag with Cheolsu’s chicken fell from my hand. Out past the treeless clearing, I saw a white cliff wall, and somewhere, a crow let out a sharp cry. The wind blew through the branches and scattered the lacework of snow that had settled there. The tall autumn grass that had not yet died was flattened by the wind. “I came all this way because I heard he was here.” There were about ten soldiers gathered around the fire. None of them spoke. As if the wind had frozen their mouths shut. Their lips were chapped white like they were malnourished. I stared at the cliff wall. Cheolsu, where are you?
After a dull and interminable length of time had passed, one of them finally spoke. “Kim Cheolsu didn’t come to training.” “But I was told he was here.” They closed their mouths again. Branches crackled and snapped in the fire. I bent over to pick up the bag of chicken. “We have some hot water. Would you like some?” I accepted a cup of the water that had been boiling in a camping pot. A stab of pain ran through my head like a knife. I felt frozen. I sat down on the snow-dampened mud with the soldiers. “Kim Cheolsu didn’t report for training,” the soldier repeated. “But they told me he did.” “There must have been a mistake. Maybe they confused him with the Kim Cheolsu who had an accident.” “The Kim Cheolsu who had an accident?” The question came out fast. The hot water exploded in my head. The soldiers stopped talking again, as if they didn’t know what they should say. None of them appeared to be in charge. That’s probably why they weren’t sure of how much they should tell me. “Actually, there are two acting platoon leaders named Kim Cheolsu.” I was speechless. “The Kim Cheolsu who was supposed to be on this training exercise isn’t here. I’m not sure which one you’re looking for, but you should go back to the first place you went. The Kim Cheolsu who’s there is probably the one you’re looking for.” So there were two platoon leaders here with the same name. Since no one had told me that, I would never have figured it out. Maybe one of them really was the Kim Cheolsu I knew. All I did know was that, for reasons unknown to me, I could not meet the Kim Cheolsu
who had been here. I would never get to see the Kim Cheolsu who’d met with some mysterious accident on a snowy winter day. If I went back to the beginning, there would be another Kim Cheolsu, and I would be able to meet him. No one knew if that Kim Cheolsu was the one I knew, the one I’d wandered all that way for, carrying a bag of chicken to give to him. I finally realized it, there in the burned clearing at the bottom of the white rock face. With soldiers dressed in dirty uniforms like guerillas, their lips cracked from malnutrition, gums inflamed from lack of vitamins. “I’ll head back. Thanks anyway.” I handed back the hot water and nodded goodbye to the soldier who’d spoken to me. “Wouldn’t you like to warm up a little before you go?” He looked at me with sympathy. A warm fire. I, too, wanted to stay there forever. Tell Cheolsu his chicken was ripped apart and eaten by a rabid dog. But instead I stood and watched the crows dive through the air like they were falling from the cliff. I couldn’t bring myself to approach the blazing fire. Where was Cheolsu? Was he here? Was he there? Had the Cheolsu I was looking for died in some minor accident? Was he in the hospital? Or was he sitting with the other middle-class platoon leaders, surrounded by giggling girlfriends and mothers and sisters, laughing and joking over shots of alcohol, having forgotten all about me and the stupid chicken? What was real and what was fantasy? And what was it I really wanted? Reality? Fantasy? The same-old apathetic Cheolsu who’d been waiting a long time for his chicken, or the malnourished Cheolsu out here with the crows at the bottom of that cold cliff? When I returned to the first base, other soldiers were signing in for visits at the PX. Just as I had before, I gave my name, ID number, and address, and said I was there to see Kim Cheolsu. The soldier pointed to where he was sitting. He was on a bench beneath a tarp roof. He was with the other platoon leaders and their girlfriends, mothers, and sisters who’d come to visit them, drinking cheap whisky—alcohol that was officially forbidden on base.
They were giggling, and everything was exactly as I had imagined it. I walked over to Cheolsu, who was turned away from me and laughing. Someone nudged him in the side and whispered something in his ear. Finally he noticed me. The closer I got, the more people turned to stare at me. They stopped laughing. The girlfriends and mothers and little sisters stopped smiling and looked at me warily. The snow was still falling, but they didn’t look cold in their all-wool coats. “What took you so long?” Cheolsu asked awkwardly. He took the tattered paper bag of chicken from my clenched hand. “I couldn’t wait any longer and decided to join my friends. We’ve been talking about how to build bridges. One of the guys specializes in bridge construction.” Bridge construction. Building bridges. I didn’t hide the scorn in my face. Cheolsu would be hurt, but when I thought of his friends’ faces, I tried to suppress it. “Would you like a cookie?” One of the girlfriends held out a plate of cookies and sliced fruit. The faces and clothing of the women gathered on the bench in the falling snow were so different from my own. Their breath came out white. I shook my head coldly without saying a word. Cheolsu took my hand and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go over there to talk.” Get your hands off me. Don’t stroke my face. I’m not an animal. Why was I suddenly thinking that? I felt doubtful, but Cheolsu looked straight ahead as we walked. “I wrote to my mom. Told her not to come. I told her it would make you too uncomfortable.” “It doesn’t matter to me.” “But it did.” He sounded upset. “You took so long that I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I left early this morning.” “Then what happened? It’s almost 3 p.m.” “The guards at the PX told me you were doing a training exercise at a different base. So I went all the way to the other base, on the other side of a snow-covered mountain, but they told me you were back here. And that there are two acting platoon leaders named Kim Cheolsu. One got in an accident while doing a training exercise over there, so I couldn’t meet him, and that’s why they told me to come back here. They said you were probably the Kim Cheolsu I was looking for. I came all the way back, worried I might never see you again.” The words came out so fast that I started to doubt whether I even believed myself. So I stopped talking. No further explanation seemed to be needed. Cheolsu probably felt the same. He listened to me with his mouth half open and didn’t say anything for nearly a minute. “What? I don’t follow you. You think there are hundreds of acting platoon leaders around here? I’m the only Kim Cheolsu. It seems there’s been some kind of huge misunderstanding. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and ask someone else.” I didn’t know what was going on either. Was what I was feeling right now hatred? Or a dull affection buried deep inside? Or was I merely acting out some dramatic emotion in order to endure this chaotic life? I didn’t know, but for God’s sake, stop touching my shoulder like that. I’m not an animal. After a brief silence, he asked me, “Did you eat?” We held hands as we walked. Just like two lovers on a snowy, unpaved road. I shook my head. “There’s not much to eat here. Just some pastries.” Cheolsu sounded apologetic, but then he held up the bag of chicken as if he’d just remembered it was there. “We have this!”
I shuddered in horror. He couldn’t really be telling me to eat that chicken. “I hate chicken. And besides, that’s your chicken.” “Says who?” “I have to go to the bathroom.” “It’s over there.” Cheolsu pointed to the soldiers’ latrines at the end of the parade ground. I went in and squatted down awkwardly, trying to keep my body from touching the latrine door, and peed for a long time. My thighs and butt were ice cold. When I came out, Cheolsu was pouring a can of Coke into paper cups. He was sitting on a bench beneath a tree overlooking the snowy parade ground. Cheolsu’s friends and their girlfriends, mothers, and little sisters were staring at us from across the way. They looked like they were waiting to see how much I would enjoy eating his chicken. “Here, dig in.” He tried to hand me a cup of Coke. I shook my head. “Eat! I bet you haven’t eaten anything all day.” He was tearing up the chicken as he spoke. “Cheolsu, are there two Kim Cheolsus here?” “Huh?” He put the chicken down and looked at me. “Tell me. Is there another acting platoon leader named Kim Cheolsu besides you?” “I told you there isn’t. Someone made a mistake. Either you misheard them, or some idiot soldier misunderstood you. One of the two. And besides, what does it matter now? You’re here now, and the Kim Cheolsu you were looking for is right in front of you. So who cares? Have some chicken.” “It’s your chicken.” I pushed away his hand as he held out the carcass. “Cheolsu is
not an uncommon name. Right?” “What the hell is it you’re trying to say?” “I know I said your name clearly, both here and at the other base. Kim Cheolsu. I said I was here to meet Kim Cheolsu. Just like that. But everyone told me the same thing. There are two Kim Cheolsus. I don’t know which Kim Cheolsu you’re looking for. But since you can’t see one of them anymore, go look for the other Kim Cheolsu. That’s what they said.” “You’re tired.” Cheolsu gazed into my eyes as if to soothe me. “That’s why your nerves are frazzled. I’m certain of it. Have some chicken. You’ll get your strength back, and you’ll feel better. Do as I say.” My eyes started to well with tears. Up until that moment, I’d never really understood what sadness was. A fierce, mob-like sadness that sneaks up on you, clear and strong. What was it? This sadness that creeps up and cuts through all of your routines and your boredom and your repetition and your drama, that stabs your flesh and sticks in the soles of your feet like a sliver of glass, what was this really? “I went to see your mother,” I said. “She called me.” I ignored Cheolsu’s chicken and kept talking. He must have seen my tears, but he wouldn’t take his hand away. “I really don’t belong with you. If it was like the old days, when all we did was bump into each other at the bus stop on the way home from school and say hello, that would be one thing, but this isn’t it.” “What are you saying?” “I hate the formulaic lives you and your mother lead.” Ah, finally I’d said it. “Don’t say that. Eat some chicken.” Cheolsu seemed like he was suppressing his anger, or wounded pride. His voice was
high and peevish sounding. I took the chicken, placed it back in the aluminum container, and put it in the torn paper bag. Cheolsu watched wordlessly. I carried the bag over to the latrines. The snow was falling prettily on the paper bag that held the chicken carcass, on my footprints, on my sweater, and on the soldier’s latrines, like a midnight drawing. The weather was frighteningly dark, and the world was filled with shadows that made it impossible to tell what time it was. I tossed Cheolsu’s chicken into the toilet and turned around. Cheolsu was standing right behind me. I ignored him and walked away. His friends and their girlfriends and mothers and little sisters were still staring at us. “I’ll never forgive you for this. Ever.” Cheolsu hissed at me from between his teeth as I brushed past him. “All you do is put up walls and make excuses that I can’t understand. I’ve always hated people who go through life like they don’t care, making everyone else pander to their moods. I tried to feel a sense of duty towards you.” Without looking at him, I said, “Now that your toilet has eaten your chicken, you’ve done your duty.” And then I left.
– translated by Sora Kim-Russell