Early spring that year, I got on my bike every morning at nine without fail and headed for the vinyl café by the subway station. The early hour was so I could listen to music inside the DJ booth when there weren't other customers around, a special privilege extended by the DJ and owner—so he claimed, but rumor had it he wasn't the real owner. In return, I cleaned up the DJ box and tidied up the records. The DJ box was located in the middle of the left wall. A Kiss decal glittered on the front window, and tens of thousands of records sat on the shelves that made up the back wall.
I carefully read the covers of the records, put on headphones, and immersed myself in the music of my choice. There were hardly any customers at the café before noon, so no one cared what I put on. This was a wonderful luxury for me when I was twenty and had nothing.
Oh, how sweet those moments were as I look back on them now! The hours I spent listening to music added spark to my life like nothing else. Years and miles away from that time and place, if I happen to hear a few bars of Led Zeppelin, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, or Fleetwood Mac I enjoyed in those days, I find myself right back in that vinyl café, looking out onto the deserted, empty hall in the morning light. [End Page 41]
The DJ had permed, curly, shoulder-length hair that he always wore down and never combed. The look he was going for was, in his words, I don't care about my hairdo. I just let it flow however it wants. His philosophy disapproved of leaving any sign of combing or coiffing his hair, except for right after washing it, when he would run a pen through it, no more than ten times, in solemn, measured movements befitting a religious rite. He thought he looked like Jimmy Page, and the rest of us more or less went with it.
The "us" I'm referring to here were a bunch of high school graduates who didn't have the grades or family situation good enough for college, weren't old enough for the army but couldn't find permanent employment without having completed our military service, and spent our days hanging out at the café, listening to decent-enough music and killing time. We were like furniture—no money, no girls, no place to go—materializing one by one in the corner seats of the café, sitting for hours and having the gall not to order a single cup of coffee despite the waitress looking daggers at us, exchanging jokes that began as harmless jabs but eventually made us want to murder each other, only to vanish like ghosts when paying customers began rolling in. And so it went—it was 1982, we were twenty, and whiling our lives away.
There was a guitar on display in the DJ box. It was the DJ's number one prized possession, a Fender electric with a smooth f-shaped head and "Fender" engraved on the bottom part of the body. He would sit in the DJ box and polish it with a clean cloth every chance he got. He was well versed in details like which guitarist played a Fender or a Gibson, and played records for us to compare the sounds of the two. For example, rockers such as Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck preferred Fender while artists with a traditional blues background such as CCR or BB King preferred Gibson, because of the sensual and modern sound of Fender [End Page 42] compared to the warm, classic sound of Gibson. He said Gibson was more expensive and had a higher quality sound, but he preferred Fender, and that it was a matter of taste, not better or worse.
That word, "taste!" The sophistication and elegance of it! When the DJ brought it up, we felt like school boys in gym clothes sitting at an upscale Chinese restaurant gaping at a spread of Qing dynasty delicacies we'd never even heard of.
How posh to have taste! Having taste opened up a world that existed in a realm entirely different from the world in which you were given four choices, only one of which was the correct answer. It was a fair and just world free from fear of being wrong, a forgiving and bold world where everything I chose could be the answer depending on how hard I believed in it. We held the DJ in such awesome regard, leading us to the profound realization that the wide world is full of masters. So profound was our respect for him we were just about ready to throw ourselves at his feet and beg him to take us on as his pupils.
Not one among us knew enough about instruments to appreciate the difference between Fender and Gibson, but our "taste" from that day on naturally tended toward Fender. Each time we listened to music, we would have an earnest debate on whether it was Fender or Gibson, which often turned into a tiff that the DJ would quash, occasionally with the answer that put us all to shame: This isn't Gibson or Fender—it's a Yamaha.
One unfortunate detail, however, was that none of us had ever seen the DJ play. As rumor had it, in his younger days he had played in a band everyone had heard of, but a tragic mishap damaged his hands so he could no longer play. The tragic mishap, the result of another tragic yet untold mishap, was that he was ambushed by the Ligers, a local gang, who tied his hand down on a table and crushed his finger joints one by one with a hammer. From that day on, his hands were completely useless—a penalty the gang thought most appropriate for a musician. While the source of the [End Page 43] rumor was unidentified, the impact of it had me shuddering as I pictured my own fingers crushed under a hammer.
The Ligers were the most notorious gang in our village, and our group was always rife with rumors of their latest atrocities. For instance: Not long ago, three Liger members stormed the billiard hall next door with machetes and slayed a dozen members of the Station Crew, the second most notorious gang in our village. We would shudder anew over the cruelty and infamy of the Ligers and feel sorry for the unfortunate DJ who happened to get tangled up with the worst gang in town.
We believed that was the worst misfortune of the DJ's life. If he could play again, get back up on stage and toss that magnificent hair! We believed beyond a doubt that he could have been the best musician in Korea, even better than Jo Yong-pil, and it infuriated us no end that just because of this tiny little problem—that he couldn't play the guitar, an instrument any idiot could play—a man completely equipped to be a musician couldn't be one.
One waitress at the café was a tall girl we nicknamed the Frog for her perpetually surprised look on account of her slightly protruding eyes. Each morning, I would walk into the café and find her wiping the tables or sweeping the floor. When the cleaning was done, she would sit by the window with her chin propped on her hand and tap her foot to the beat of the music I put on, or look in the mirror and fix her makeup. Sometimes she would shout toward the DJ box where I was sitting, "What do you call this?" I would tell her the title, and she would nod a few times, "Nice song!" She gave me free coffee when she felt like it. Sometimes, she would offer me half a pack of cigarettes, saying a customer threw it out.
One day, the Frog popped into the DJ box.
"You biked here, right?"
"Can you do me a favor?"
"What?" [End Page 44]
She was three or four years older than me, but I'd somehow ended up using informal language with her.
"I forgot my meds at home. Can you go get them? I'll make you a nice cup of herbal tea."
The most expensive menu at the music café was the herbal tea with an egg yolk and crushed peanut as garnish, but I wasn't into the smell of herbs.
"Forget the herbal tea and buy me a pack of cigarettes."
"Fine. Hurry. And don't poke around my things, okay?"
She drew me directions to her place on a piece of paper for jotting down song requests, and gave me a key. If the landlady asks who I am, I was to tell her that I was a close friend. I followed her directions to her place.
The Frog lived on a block by the railroad about a ten-minute bike ride away from the café. Her room was the first one to the left of the gate. I was trying to open the front door with the key when the fat landlady came out in her undershirt and asked who I was. In weather still too cold to be wandering around in just an undershirt, her large, dark nipples showed under the fabric. As per the Frog's instruction, I told her I was a close friend running an errand. The landlady retreated back into her room without saying anything more. I stood awkwardly in the yard for a moment and went into the Frog's room. It was crowded and shabby in there but it was pristine compared to the dump I lived in, and it had a pleasant smell I couldn't place.
The meds she was referring to were sitting on a large suitcase. The bright forest green suitcase doubled as a dressing table—cosmetics were sitting in a row on top and a mirror hung on the wall above it. I found her meds, but didn't want to leave right away. It hadn't occurred to me on the bike ride over, but it was my first time in a girl's room, and my heart raced with the exquisite excitement of it and I wanted to sit in it a bit longer. I looked around the room and opened a portable fabric wardrobe in the [End Page 45] corner. I remembered her warning not to poke around her stuff, but that did nothing to curb the curiosity of a twenty-year-old.
Outfits I'd already seen her wearing hung on the hangers, and underwear of all colors lay folded neatly on the bottom. I picked up a pair of underpants on the very top. I could nearly hear my heart beating in my chest, and my hand shook as if I had tremors. The white underwear with little flowers on it was so small and pretty I could look at it all day. I wanted to stay in that room forever, going through her underwear. Testing the firmness of her bra cups, I wondered if her nipples were as large and dark as her landlady's.
Was it love? From that day on, the way I saw the Frog underwent a great change. As I listened to music in the DJ box, I periodically looked out the window to see what she was up to, and the most casual conversations with her made me so nervous I couldn't find suitable answers. The answers would often come out a bit standoffish, and she would stare as if to ask what was the matter with me. Then I would put on a song she liked without announcing it, like "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" by Olivia Newton-John, and she would listen without reacting and then turn to me around the interlude and flash a smile in the direction of the DJ box, revealing her neat row of pearly whites. She had a pretty smile. I played her favorites often so I could see that smile.
That was all I could do for her, because I didn't consider her a love interest at all. She was a café waitress, a woman completely out of my league, and several years older than me to boot. I was penniless and bound to waste away until I was called up for the army, so she must have felt similarly uninterested in me. In short, neither of us was going to act on anything.
And then I couldn't go to the café for some time. Four buddies and I got a job at a construction site building an apartment. We were all high school graduates too old to ask our parents for pocket money, so we were constantly broke. Then we happened upon a [End Page 46] friend who worked at a construction site where the foreman told him to bring friends for day labor. It was a sweet offer for us, always checking our pockets for loose change, so my friends and I agreed to start work the following day.
The work began at seven in the morning and ended at seven in the evening. We were unskilled labor, so we went up and down the scaffolding lugging bags of sand and stone on our backs, sieved sand and mixed it with concrete, or followed the carpenter around the site fetching lumber and assisting with mold construction. Moving rebar and bricks was the hardest task of all. We'd never worked before, so the sudden weight on our shoulders was agony, and by evening we were ready to collapse from exhaustion. But the fun of working with friends and the reward of pay accumulating was enough to make the week fly by.
One week was the initial plan, but two weeks went by and I stayed on as my friends quit one by one. My face became tan in the meantime and holes appeared in the soles of my shoes. My pants were fraying from rubbing against the rough bricks daily. But I discovered the feeling of labor washing away the grime of existence, and the occasional pork rinds and soju the foreman treated us to after work. And of course, there was the pride of making money with my own two hands for the first time in my life.
Forsythia laced the hill by the construction site. I sat facing that hill with the forsythia in full bloom each time I had my post-meal cigarette on the site. I'd seen those flowers every spring of my life, but they were especially golden and brilliant that year against the backdrop of my hard labor.
Pointless thoughts flooded my head as I worked: the depressing situation at home, my passion for music, how to stay afloat until I got called up, and the sad premonition that I'd be doing hard labor for the rest of my life. My thighs felt like they were on fire as I climbed up and down the scaffolding with the loaded A-frame on my back, but that didn't stop the thoughts from coming. Thoughts flung me all [End Page 47] over the place, as if my mind had separated itself from my body. At some point, I noticed that I'd developed a habit of picturing the Frog. Her big eyes, her smile that revealed her straight teeth, her favorite songs, and finally the trail of thought led me to her white floral print panties. At the age of twenty, I realized that I had a very specific object of desire for the first time in my life. These thoughts persisted as the forsythia gradually wilted and gave way to light green leaves.
About two months after I started working at the construction site, I rode my bike in the direction of the Frog's house. It was after work, after I'd stopped by a food cart for some sea eel and soju with some co-workers. A few shots of soju, given my low tolerance, left me dizzy and short of breath. But the gentle, warm breeze of the spring night felt good on my face. I cut across downtown and biked toward her house without a thought in my head. It was too early for her to be back from the café, but I just wanted to go there.
When I arrived at her place, I saw the light was on. My heart thumped for joy. I rode up and down her street past her window three or four times for no reason before I worked up the nerve to knock on it. The window soon opened and her surprised frog-face appeared. She recognized me and suddenly yelled, "Hey!!"
Her voice was filled with delight. I was so relieved that her reaction wasn't tepid.
"What are you doing here?"
"Nothing. I was passing by and I saw your light on."
I leaned against the seat of my bike and lit a cigarette.
"I hear you're working in construction now."
"Your buddies. You're all tan."
She smiled as she examined my face under the streetlight.
"You, in construction? Who'd hire a scrawny little thing like you?"
"Hey, watch it. I'm older than you." [End Page 48]
Then she gave a little smirk. We were awkward around each other at the café, but seeing her outside, I felt we were suddenly much closer. She also seemed a little more excited than her usual, calm self. Something hot kept rising up from inside my stomach, so I lit another cigarette for lack of a better solution. Then she beamed as if she suddenly thought of something fun, and said, "Hey, you wanna run an errand for me?"
"I'm not your errand boy."
"C'mon. Go get me a couple of grilled chicken skewers down at the food cart by the station. And pick up a bottle of soju at the store down there on your way back. Hang on. I'll give you money."
She disappeared from the window to grab her purse before I had a chance to answer.
"Never mind! I have money!" I shouted at the window and headed for the station on my bike.
"Hey! Take this!" she shouted from behind, but I pretended not to hear and pedaled hard.
Moments later, we were sitting face to face in the Frog's room with soju and grilled chicken skewers between us. She couldn't stop exclaiming how good the chicken was as she put away three in a flash and chased them with soju she tossed back like water. She was toting a cigarette in one hand in the midst of all this, which was somewhat dizzying and made me nervous, but she ate, drank, and smoked like a champion. This was a side of her I'd never seen at the café. She was cheerful, lively, a good eater, and somewhat masculine.
"Aren't you gonna eat?"
"I already ate."
"What did you eat?"
"Unagi? Do you know why they call it that?"
"Dunno. Unagi is unagi."
"Dummy. You're so young. Unagi is good for guys who-not-git it up. Get it?" She laughed to herself. [End Page 49]
It was a while before I got her joke and smiled awkwardly. That night, I had to make a second trip to the station to get more skewers and two more bottles of soju. As I couldn't hold my drink, I retched several times over the drain of the kitchen adjoining her room, she patted me on the back to help me along, and I don't remember what happened after that. Either she suggested I stay the night, or I begged her to let me.
The next morning, I woke up to find the Frog gone. Hung over, my head throbbing, and a little disoriented, I biked to the café. She saw me mid-sweep and smirked at me. It was that smile I liked so much. I slipped into the DJ box and put on some music. As I listened, I remembered that I was due to get paid after work that day.
Soon, the Frog opened the DJ box door and said, "Come out and have some French toast."
I went out in the hall, and she brought me a piece of French toast on a plate and a cup of coffee. I quietly sat and swallowed every bite of it.
"You're really dark now. You look like a Filipino."
The Frog looked at me this way and that and kept smirking. When I finished the toast, she picked up the plate and got up to go to the kitchen, but then suddenly turned and punched me right on top of my head.
"You sons of bitches. 'The Frog?' What kind of nickname is that for a woman? Dumb bastards."
That afternoon, I went to the construction site. The foreman demanded to know why I was late and then gave me a sermon about how that kind of work ethic will doom me to do hard labor for the rest of my life. I lied that something suddenly came up and I was urgently needed down south. He tallied my wages, which came out to be less than promised. I protested, and he gave me a list of excuses. I wasn't skilled, he hadn't received the payment from above yet, the workers were supposed to pay for their own [End Page 50] meals, and the list went on as I got so pissed I hopped on my bike and got out of there without saying goodbye. I was furious inside, but completely forgot about it an hour or two later thanks to what happened with the Frog the night before.
That evening, I went to the shopping arcade at the subway station to get the Frog a gift. I didn't know anything about women then, so I had no idea what would make a good gift. Then I stopped in front of a lamp store. I thought her shabby room could be transformed with a little floor lamp. A little lamp with a shade made of fabric caught my eye, but it turned out to be pricier than I imagined.
I called her from a pay phone and told her to come straight home after work—I would be waiting. She was quiet for a moment and then said okay.
That night, we sat in her room and drank beer under the lamplight alone.
"It doesn't go with this room," she said as she looked at the lamp. Unlike the night before, there was a weariness in her voice. Her face in the gentle glow of the lamp seemed forlorn. I looked down at the lamp quietly, not knowing what to do in a kind of light I'd never experienced before. It felt strange and awkward to be sitting in that pool of light, as if we were trespassing in a world we were forbidden to enter. Then she suddenly lifted her head and said in a forced, cheerful voice to change the mood, "It's still nice, though. Thanks."
She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. I wrapped my arms around her neck. My hot cheek pressed against hers. Her soft neck smelled good and her hair tickled my face.
From the next day on, I started living with the Frog. I read borrowed comic books in her room during the day and crawled into the crummy kitchen to make my ramen, and when she came home, we made dinner together or went walking hand in hand [End Page 51] along the train tracks. I didn't meet up with friends or go out. I stayed curled up in her room like a larva. The train tracks ran right behind her house, which shook the beams and made a racket all day long, but I got used to it and wasn't bothered anymore.
She never mentioned her family, friends, or her past. I didn't pry, so I didn't know anything about her other than that she was from Daejeon somewhere. She, on the other hand, wanted to know everything about me.
"What are you gonna do with your life?"
"Go to the army."
"After the army?"
"How about college?"
"I didn't do so well in school."
"You look like you would have."
"You know what my ranking was in my high school homeroom?"
"Fifty-eight out of fifty-eight."
"It's true. I'm one of those kids. They look smart, but when the exam results come out, they're at the bottom. That's me."
"That's hilarious. Isn't there anything you want to do?"
"So do it."
"I have no talent."
"How do you know?"
"My friend and I started learning guitar at the same time, and he picked it up much faster than I did. So I knew I didn't have talent."
"Well, good for you. So what are you gonna do, really?"
"Like I said, dunno."
Twenty and fresh out of high school, I was already squeaking and rattling like a car that had been racking up the miles for [End Page 52] decades. I was as listless as an old dog with sad bald patches, and an unidentified sense of helplessness made me feel chronically empty inside. So what could I have told her about my future plans? I hadn't even figured out what I wanted to do with my life, let alone formulate a plan. I honestly just wanted to be called up soon.
This applied to my relationship with the Frog, too. We didn't talk about our future. We hadn't reached an agreement about what not to bring up, but the unspoken rule was to avoid discussing the future, a topic I felt would instantly end our precarious relationship. Like lovers in a relationship with an expiration date, we were moving through spring without high hopes.
And then one night, after loitering downtown late, I dropped by the café without calling her. I thought if the Frog were by herself, I would help her close the café and we could head back to her place together. But the moment I stepped into the café, I was assaulted by an ear-splitting noise. It turned out to be the sound of a guitar coming from the DJ box. I stood by the entrance and peeked in to see the DJ playing with his guitar up to the amp. Guitar strap slung over his shoulder, he was on his feet tossing his magnificent head of hair as he played. His guitar pressed against the thigh of his skintight leather pants, he was shredding the fingerboard without mercy.
I froze where I stood. The DJ on the guitar! The legend himself who gave up his destiny when his finger joints were crushed finally gets onstage! I listened carefully to his playing. I'd never heard this song before, but I knew right away that there was something extraordinary about it. I paid close attention, trying to figure out what song he was playing, but the song got stranger and stranger. After a while, I concluded that the noise coming from the speaker made no sense. He wasn't even playing chords or scales. He was just messing around and making noise with it, and he was so into it he didn't even see me standing there.
I snuck back out of the café dumbfounded and chuckling. He had all the accessories and haircut of a great musician, yet no talent. [End Page 53]
On the one hand, I felt bad for the guy, but I also felt betrayed that I was fooled by such a poseur.
I continued to spend the money I made at the construction site in little increments and holed up in the Frog's room. Sometimes I went down to the café to listen to music and chat with the DJ, but I was no longer interested in his showing off. It was partly that I knew what a fraud he was, but mostly that I'd lost my interest in music.
What twenty-year-old doesn't fantasize about putting together a rock band? I wanted to be a rock star, too, but my talents were too ordinary, and making a living as a musician seemed about as real as the neighboring galaxy. At some point, putting on headphones and sinking into meaningless noise started to feel pitiful and pathetic. I became apathetic about music in the end, and to this day I don't enjoy it.
Truth be told, you're not desperate for anything at twenty. It's not the glittering asset of youth, but the fact that your desires haven't crystallized around any one thing that leaves twenty feeling like an in-between state of ignorance and chaotic darkness, not any sort of meaningful time. All I needed back then were comic books to pass the hours, money for cigarettes, and a bicycle that could take me anywhere I wanted to go. What else did I need? Would I have turned out better if I someone had giving me decent book recommendations? But during my twelve years of formal education, I never met a single teacher like that. All they taught me was the scary premise, "If you don't go to college, you're useless." They weren't entirely wrong about that, of course.
"I hear you tapped the Frog," said one of my friends. A bunch of us were drinking.
"Says who?" I asked, trying to act cool. "Everyone knows, dingus."
It was a small town, and I guess someone saw me and the Frog walking together. At the time, women were just objects of sexual [End Page 54] and derogatory jokes to us. We were all too ignorant and vulgar to understand the importance of not hurting people's feelings or maintaining good relationships. For reasons I couldn't understand, I felt ashamed that I was dating a waitress at a café we all hung out at. And the culture of the times made opening up to my friends about how much I loved the Frog absolutely unthinkable.
"So, how was it? Give us some details," my friends kept prodding as I clammed up.
"How was it? A real man doesn't kiss and tell," I said coolly.
"Damn, listen to this guy! You think you're better than me?" Jealous and curious, the guys kept pressing me for details. I felt uncomfortable. They were forcing me to disclose something precious and private. Their ignorance and vulgarity were hard to endure. I was about to excuse myself and take off when one of them said, "I'll bet the Frog was juicy!"
Without a thought in my head, I threw a punch at him.
"Motherfucker! I said shut up!"
He flew back and the guys separated us. I'd busted his lip. Someone dragged me outside. I blushed so hard as I left I might as well have bared my soul to the guys.
Back at the Frog's place that night, she jumped when she saw my hand.
"What happened to you? Were you in a fight?"
I knew something was wrong even as I was biking home, and sure enough the tiny cut on my knuckle began to swell up as soon as I got back. I must have cut my hand on his teeth. I told her it was nothing, ignored her advice that I go see a doctor, and went to sleep. But my hand ached and throbbed so badly I woke up in the middle of the night and had to go into the kitchen and dunk my hand in a basin of cold water for some time.
My hand was much worse in the morning. The swelling had spread to my wrists and I saw pus in the cut. The Frog offered to come to the hospital with me, but I insisted on going alone. The [End Page 55] doctor admonished me for not cleaning up my germ-infested cut and making it worse by soaking it in tap water. He disinfected the wound and bandaged it up. I got a shot and a bag of meds.
That evening, the guys came by. The guy I punched the day before looked perfectly fine except for a slightly puffy lip. We looked at each other and smiled bashfully. The guys made fun of him for not brushing his teeth. We headed in the direction of the subway station and came across a drunk guy fallen over in a deserted area. One kid pretended to help him up and swiped his wallet. We called it the "Arirang Lift," a trick we sometimes used. We bought ourselves more booze with that money. No one brought up the Frog this time.
We were meant to break up. One day, when the swelling in my knuckle was almost gone, the Frog mentioned in passing, while applying lotion to her face, her hair wrapped in a towel, "I've let the room out."
Her tone was as matter-of-fact and business-like as a bank teller's.
"What about the café?"
"I'm looking for another place to work."
The announcement came like a slap in the face. I was somewhat upset that she hadn't mentioned anything sooner.
"We usually don't stay in one place for long. I've stayed here for way longer than I planned."
Picking up on the vibe, she had added this to console, but in her words was also a finality that we were absolutely done. I had nothing to say. What was coming had come.
"Where are you going?"
"I know someone in the Munsan area, so probably there."
I'd never been to Munsan, and I didn't know anything about the place, either. I only knew it was some place up north. What could I have done in that situation, at twenty? That old saying about [End Page 56] a man having to dominate his kingdom by twenty didn't seem to apply to me.
That night, the Frog shared a secret with me.
"There's something I held back from you."
"What is it?" I asked, rolling over toward her.
"The truth is, you and I are the same age."
The second slap of the day left me as speechless as the first. When I'd asked her before, she'd said she was three years older.
"So you lied to me."
"It's common practice among our types to lie about our age. But I've always wanted to share this with you some day."
What I felt at that moment I can't describe even now, over twenty years later. But I remember trying to hold back my tears as I stared at her face in the dark.
Once the Frog decided to move, she wasted no time packing up. There wasn't much to begin with. Once her clothes were shipped, the rest of her stuff fit into just one rolling suitcase. Parting ways with the Frog was sad, but I had the bigger problem of not having any place to stay. She asked me in passing as a joke if I wanted to come with her to Munsan, but I only laughed because that thought had never occurred to me.
Around that time, I reconnected with a close friend from high school who went off to college down south. He was attending school in Cheonan and had his own place near the school. He said he wasn't adjusting well to college life and was bored, with no one fun to hang out with—would I come keep him company? For someone desperate to get out of town, his invitation was as good as any.
The problem was, I was broke. I'd squandered all my earnings from the construction site. I could have scrounged up the train fare, shown up empty-handed, and crashed at my friend's place—he wouldn't have minded—but I didn't want to move on to the next city with nothing to my name. I thought about going back to [End Page 57] construction, but I didn't want to work for the same foreman, and the friend who hooked me up with that first gig got himself a job at a baked goods factory in Seongnam, so I didn't have any contacts. A few days before the Frog was due to leave, I was tossing and turning at night when an odd idea struck me.
The day the Frog was leaving, I stopped by the café early in the morning. There was just the other waitress at the café.
The Frog was taking the afternoon train to Munsan, so she was planning to take the morning off, tie up a few loose ends at home, stop by the café later, and head over to the station. The waitress and I acknowledged each other with a quick nod, and I went into the DJ booth to put on some music. Too preoccupied with my plan to pay attention to the song coming out of the speakers, I watched the hall and waited for the waitress to clear out. When she finally left and the hall was empty, I jumped out of the chair and grabbed the Fender leaning against the booth wall. My heart was beating out of my chest, and my hands were trembling as I stuffed the guitar in its case.
The hall was still empty when I came out of the booth with the guitar. I snuck out, ran down the stairs and out of the building, and headed for the subway station. I had my cap on, but kept my head down in case I ran into someone I knew as I got myself a ticket to Jonggak Station and went through the turnstiles. Without checking where it was bound, I got on the first train that pulled into the station.
At the time, a Fender guitar was more expensive than the college entrance fee. My plan was to sell it at a second-hand store at the Nakwon Music Arcade. It's a lame excuse, but I desperately needed the money, the DJ who couldn't play one chord properly didn't need a virtuoso instrument like a Fender, and he deserved this for fooling us all. Anyway, I was pretty sorry I was doing this to the DJ who'd always been nice to me. [End Page 58]
I got off at Jonggak Station and headed toward the Nakwon Arcade with the guitar slung on my back. A few people passing by glanced at me and the guitar, and it felt fantastic to be looked at like I was a musician, in spite of what I was about to do. I took my time looking around the stores at the arcade I'd visited before with the DJ and went into one that had a sign "We buy guitars." The owner checked out the Fender as I checked out the instruments lining the store wall. A group of guys in one corner were talking about the instruments using industry lingo I didn't understand. They all had the DJ's long hair and leather pants, a sign that they were all veteran musicians. I was glancing at them admiringly waiting for the owner's appraisal.
"I'll give you twenty thousand for it," he said after a long inspection.
I stared at the owner with my jaw on the floor. I was thinking of what the DJ had said about second-hand Fenders costing about as much as new ones, and how sometimes the second-hand ones are more valuable than new ones due to the characteristics of a well-made instrument.
"Er … this is a Fender?" Maybe the words came out as a question because I felt something was very wrong.
"Yeah, it's a Fender. A fake one!" The owner laughed with one of the long-haired guys standing near him.
"Yeah. How much did you pay for it?"
"I didn't … er, it was a gift. But the head here is f-shaped. And the logo here—"
The whole group of long-haired guys burst into laughter.
"Hey, kid. Look at this guitar up here," the owner said, pointing at a rack with dozens of electric guitars hanging from it, all with the Fender logo on it.
"Those are all Fenders. But they're all fifty thousand a pop. They're all fakes!"
I was dumbstruck. So many fake Fenders! [End Page 59]
"So, whatcha wanna do? You can take your Fender someplace else if you don't believe me."
"I'll just take the twenty thousand."
My face was red, and I just wanted to get away from the long-haired guys.
I felt profoundly shitty as I left the arcade with the money. It was a mix of regret (I wouldn't have stolen it if I'd known it'd only fetch twenty thousand), shame (Who would leave a real Fender unattended in the DJ booth?), and betrayal (Another of the DJ's many lies!).
I called the café from the arcade. The Frog was hanging out there after finishing up with the packing. She said she was going out to the station at around four. Fortunately, no one seemed to have noticed the missing guitar. I told her I was running an errand in Seoul and would meet her at the station.
I got off the phone and bought myself a bowl of starch noodles at a snack joint at the entrance to Insa-dong. I still had a lot of time left. My plan was to see the Frog off and get on the train to Cheonan straightaway. I did want to waste what little time we had left together, but I was too racked with guilt about the guitar to go anywhere near the café. I wandered aimlessly around Jongno and saw Grease at a cinema that played re-releases. I had too much going on in my head to even follow the movie. I had so little to my name, I was about to break up with the Frog, I couldn't go back to the café again, and everything was messed up. All kinds of thoughts flooded my mind during the movie, but eventually I was resigned and briefly fell asleep.
When I came out of the movie theater, the air around Jongno had changed. There was an enormous crowd gathered in the main street. They were college students holding a rally. They were shouting slogans and running arm in arm down the sidewalk toward Gwanghwamun Gate. Most of the stores had [End Page 60] pulled down their shutters as a plume of tear gas was drifting this way from Gwanghwamun. I didn't know what the demonstrations were for. No one had taught me about their causes. It goes to show just how far removed I was from the center of society. In any case, I was witnessing the first demonstration of my life. I was overwhelmed by the energy exploding out of this staggering number of young people. They were all excited, their faces glistening with sweat and passion.
I was standing off to the side waiting for the demonstrators to pass by. They were all young people my age, who wore uniforms and attended high school like I had until not very long ago. They were a group, and I was alone. I felt they were running toward a clear goal and ideal while I was already old, with rattling bones. They were in Jongno to change the world, and I was there to sell a fake guitar I stole.
One group passed by and another came along in a stampede. I ran out into the street at that moment to cross the road. One of the male students at the head of the group glared and shouted, "Get the fuck out of the way!"
Overpowered by their energy, I froze, trying to retreat, bumped into a big guy's shoulders, and crashed backward into the shutters of a closed store. I wasn't hurt, but I felt like shit.
It didn't occur to me at the time that this shitty feeling was going to follow me around for so long, so unshakably. Maybe it sounds too dramatic to say that my fate as a nomadic loner who wandered in search of his herd but never truly belonged was sealed that day? Maybe it's too self-deprecating to define my curriculum vitae as years spent awkwardly feigning interest in convenient philosophies and false gods, and never quite having the opportunity to learn about the order, hierarchy, sense of honor, and solidarity prerequisite for any tribesman? On my journey south on the subway from Jongno, so many thoughts flooded my head. Spring days were numbered outside the window, and as I [End Page 61] leaned on the subway door looking out at the scenery, I suddenly felt horribly lonely.
The Frog was standing on the platform, the suitcase next to her. I slowly walked up to her. She didn't ask what took me so long. She only smiled, so forlornly I wanted to hold her tight.
"Come visit some time," she said.
I nodded. We both knew we'd never see each other again. I looked down at her suitcase. How many cities had this heavy forest green suitcase seen? How many more would it see? It pained me to know that her baggage was much heavier than mine even though we were the same age. On top of her suitcase was the lamp I'd bought her.
"You should have shipped that, too," I said.
"I didn't want it to break," she chuckled.
The sun was setting far off on the horizon. A day of crime, betrayal, and parting was coming to a close. I heard the train pull in. It was my train.
"You go ahead," she said.
"No, I want to see you off."
"No. You go first," she said firmly.
She was heading north, I south. We would likely never meet again. When the train stopped at the station, she held out her hand. I shook it. Her hand was bony and cold. Her face turned red and her eyes welled up with tears. She was shaking. I clenched my jaw to keep the tears from coming.
I turned and ran toward the train.
The train began to move as soon as I hopped on. Feeling the train move under my feet, I choked up. I leaned out and looked at her. She stood facing me as if she would always be standing there just like that. The lamp that lit our humble room also sat on her suitcase. I hoped the lamp would forever warm all her future rooms. The station receded and she disappeared from view. I was [End Page 62] saying goodbye to a place, the saddest and most beautiful of my life, that I would never get to return to. [End Page 63]
Cheon Myeong-gwan is a novelist and screenwriter. He debuted as a writer in 2003 with the short story "Frank and I," which received the Munhakdongne New Writer Award, and received the 10th Munhakdongne Novel Award in the following year with Whale. He also received the Ku Sang Literary Award in 2015 for his short story "Homecoming." He has also written Modern Family, My Uncle Bruce Lee, and This Is a Man's World.
Jamie Chang received her A.M. in Regional Studies-East Asia from Harvard University. She teaches at the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation at Ewha Womans University and the Translation Academy at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. Her recent translations include The Summer by Choi Eunyoung and April Snow by Son Won-pyeong.