Forever a Narrator
I am someone who often thinks about what kind of person I am. I answer when you call my name because I want to know what kind of person I am. But I find it strange that that's my name, so I keep calling yours instead.
I am someone who often thinks about what kind of person you are as well. Are you cynical or not? Are you shallow or not? So you are cynical and shallow, but do you like me anyhow? I am someone who cannot love until I know, but sometimes I hold my breath during an unknowable caress.
I am someone who picks up words. I am a collector of myself. I am the most insolent person to myself whom I frown upon. I am the kind of person who, though my bladder is about to burst, leans closer to hear people at a pub tell me what kind of person I am. As a person who considers myself a bit special, I find it offensive that people in front of or next to me may also consider themselves special.
Maybe I could describe myself as "someone who can only do one thing in a day." If the task du jour is to wash my sneakers, all I really do that day is wash my sneakers. I may be lazy but I'm also diligent in that I think about how 'I really need to wash my [End Page 243] sneakers today…' all day long whether I'm sitting or lying down. I dislike those who boast about their knowledge but feel ecstatic when someone comes into my room and says, "Look at all these books you got!" I like jokes but harbor hostility against witty people. I get depressed over just 10,000 wŏn sometimes, and am always self-conscious when someone's in line behind me at an ATM.
I am someone who feels relieved after making strangers laugh, someone who adores my prejudices and someone who can't let go of the paths I took to acquire them, getting hurt in the process. I am the kind of person who underlines Alyosha Karamazov's "… that was the question of a sufferer. …" I am a nobody and someone whose knees tremble with the fear that I might really be a nobody.
I am what I fear, disdain, wonder. I am what I watch with my eyes wide open, glance sideways at, turn a blind eye to. I am someone who says it's okay, I'm sorry, thank you. I could also talk about blood types, horoscopes or the plethora of descriptions we've read about each sign. I am someone who still has much that remains.
I collect this and that and you always say it's not enough. I go back to the beginning and tell my story again. So it gets progressively more boring, as when someone you have no interest in confesses his feelings for you.
I am the kind of person who often asks what kind of person I am. I turn my head when you call my name because I want to answer what kind of person I am, but I find it strange that that's my name, so I wait for you to answer instead.
I am the kind of person who often asks what kind of person you are as well. Are you funny, or not? Are you vain, or not? So you are funny and vain, but do you like me anyway? I am someone who cannot love until I ask, but sometimes my heart drops when you call my name.
I am my first love. I am a must-read I never got around to reading. I was never my crime but have become my punishment. I am the kind of person who, though my bladder is about to burst, chain [End Page 244] smokes to explain what kind of person I am in an online chatroom. I am someone who wants to impress you but knows deep down in my heart that the person I want to impress the most is myself.
Maybe I could describe myself as "someone who's considerate." I may be caring but I'm also rude in that I love how polite I am to be listening to your woes more than I love you. I hate the arrogant but distrust the humble. I'm someone who muses in front of a painting everyone likes that I never liked it that much. I'm someone who thinks there's a side to me that you just don't know but when it comes to people other than me, I always think I know everything about them that no one else knows. I nod even when I don't agree. I am a nervous chatterbox, I am my story, I am who you think I am, I am my footnotes.
Hence there was a time I believed blaming myself was a sign of really knowing myself. It was a form of pride, a form of conceit. I felt it made me "real" to you and prided myself on being able to say those self-deprecating words. But in retrospect—it was always worse than bragging.
Is that what happened that day? Was I choosing my words as carefully as a woman picking out her wardrobe? If I am really someone who can only do one thing in a day, I must have been thinking about that one thing all day. Even if it meant taking my cell phone in to have it fixed or scrubbing the mineral buildup off my toothbrush holder, on that day, it would have been the most important task for me.
The subway car was head-butting the belly of a languid afternoon, dashing into the name of the city that contained the letter Cheon.1 People on the platform looked just like those standing there long ago and longer than long ago. It was a curious sight at [End Page 245] first, as if no one thought they were being lied to because everyone was telling the same lie.
I was walking down the stairs just as the train was about to leave. For someone who already had all the answers to a list of questions—whether I would ignore religious cult members approaching me on the street or politely brush them off, whether I think aliens live among us, whether I like beans in my rice—a metro train about to leave was something to let go. But the allure of the closing doors that looked like they might stay open just long enough was so overwhelming that sometimes I jumped in, mindlessly or inadvertently.
It was almost empty inside the train. I sat down beyond the reach of the sun that kept cracking and started looking around. Your tightly closed knees under the skirt. Your zipper bulging in your sleep. Your Nikes you must have adored when you first got them. Your lover consciously exhaling shallow breaths down your earlobes covered with soft peach fuzz. Your eyes constantly checking on a crumpled paper bag on the overhead rack. And an army cadet over there you would see every few cars. The only difference is that I've become more judgmental. I disapprove of the way you wear your pants pulled up to your chest, the way you sit with your legs so wide apart and the way you chew your gum. It bothers me how you could laugh at such a stupid joke and how you could read such a book. Come to think of it, perhaps those little things are why we kill.
Another difference is that I no longer look around obviously, now that I've mastered the art of stealing discreet glances at people. That's what I'm doing with you sitting across from me now. You may be someone people point at and say, "He's nice but totally incompetent," or whisper, "He may look like that but I hear his family's loaded," or say, "You are too much of a straight arrow," or "Is it true he had the top score coming in here?" You may be someone who indulges in flattery or rages at sincere honesty. You [End Page 246] may be let down by a friend who tells you, "But you have it better than me," or lifted up by an acquaintance who tells people, "I really like this guy." You may be heavy as a rock or light as a feather. You may finish your food, however awful it is. You may have been driven out of a place by rumors. You may be someone who often sneers at television news. You may be someone who prefers the back of the bus or the last bathroom stall. You may be a wife beater; you may be someone everyone likes; you may be someone I've once met. So when my eyes met yours at a brief stop, I fiddled with my cell phone, like touching your nose when lying back in the day.
Some coincidences creep up on you, like 11:11 AM or 4:44 PM. The coincidence of you sitting in that car at that particular time on that particular day. The luck or loneliness of the person who happened to look at her watch right that minute. Nonetheless, 11:11 AM repeats itself every day; so we met but didn't really meet.
I felt a face full of question marks watching me. Having learned that adults shouldn't stare at each other like that, especially on the subway, I was made uncomfortable by such an intense stare. Soon, she approached me.
"Aren't you so-and-so?"
Since I was actually so-and-so, I couldn't help being startled at the sound of my name.
"You are so-and-so, aren't you? Hun! I almost didn't recognize you."
She beamed broadly as she sat down next to me. Dazzling in her baby pink dress and Flower by Kenzo, she emanated the goodness of a kindergarten teacher, the kind that overwhelms people. 'Who might she be?' I scrunched my forehead as she fumbled for something in her purse, leaning closer to me until our bodies touched.
"Girl, it's been so long! How come you never called?"
She pouted her lower lip and crinkled her nose, making a cute face. She had the look of someone who knew how to make the most appropriate face for any occasion. A strange kind of confidence [End Page 247] radiated from her, a common characteristic of people who initiate conversations when running into old school friends by chance. After making a show of rummaging through her purse, she produced a business card. Lee Ji-hye. Didn't ring a bell. Next to her name was Web Designer in small print. I was worried she might notice that I didn't recognize her. The only people I remember from school are either the really good students or the really bad ones. She must have been one of the many in between. Though remembering someone is hardly a major feat, I still thought she would have liked it better had I addressed her by name, too. Even at that moment, I was someone who put others first, or rather, someone who first put them down in order to put them first. Awkwardly, I hurried the card into my pocket.
"I know, haven't really been keeping in touch with people. …"
I said, as I lowered my eyes to her shiny, copper-colored calves. She looked at me expectantly as if waiting her turn. I made a conscientious effort to wear an innocent expression, and told her I didn't have a business card. Looking animated again, she said it was okay and started filling me in on how the girls from school were doing.
"You know Ji-eun, right? I heard she married a Chinese guy last year. And apparently, he's filthy rich. You know what they say, right? Rich people in China are supposed to be really rich."
I didn't remember anyone named Ji-eun.
I asked, "Ji-eun?"
She answered, "Yes, Ji-eun."
When I screwed up my face, she said in a soft, chiding voice, "Student number one in our class." The way she said it with such conviction forced me to venture a feeble response, "Was she … a bit short and late all the time?"
To my surprise, her face brightened. She exclaimed, "Yes! And we all ate jajangmyeon2 together at the end of the year with the money we collected from everyone who was late for class." [End Page 248]
My eyes fixated on her smooth calves, I nodded, slightly tilting my head left and right. 'Did we really?' She was wearing spray-on air stockings.
"Myeong-hwa, remember Myeong-hwa? You know she got a nose job?"
I didn't remember anyone named Myeong-hwa.
Reluctantly, I gave an evasive answer.
"She did? Must be prettier now."
"You don't say! I've never seen a girl that unattractive even after getting work done." She burst into loud laughter, sending me that subtle 'Don't you agree?' sign from one conspirator to another. I laughed along awkwardly. I was a little surprised she knew how everyone was doing in such detail.
Ji-hye asked me about someone else.
"You know Sun-mi, right?"
I didn't remember anyone named Ji-hye, Ji-eun, Myeong-hwa, or Sun-mi but felt like I had to lie for some reason. And if I were to lie, I might as well do a grand job of it: "Yeah, she called me the other day. She said she just called to say hi and wanted to get together sometime."
Ji-hye looked shocked as she asked, "Sun-mi called you?"
I said, "Yes, she did." "The other day? When?"
After some contemplation, I replied, nonchalantly, "A few days ago."
She looked at me gravely and asked again, "Are you sure?"
"I mean, was it a few months ago? But why?"
She swallowed her dry saliva, and answered my question.
"She's … dead."
"…" [End Page 249]
She stared into my face long and hard.
I felt truly sorry, like someone I actually knew had passed.
"You haven't heard? She died in a motorcycle crash a couple years ago while riding with her boyfriend. I was shocked, too, when Ji-young told me this the other day when we met up. That's weird. Are you sure it was Sun-mi?"
"No, I don't think so. I must have been mistaken."
She gave a sigh of relief, her face still stiff. But before long, she started telling me about how her first love from the neighboring boys' high school called her up out of the blue and tried to sell her an insurance policy, what a pervert her high school homeroom teacher was, and how cute the son of a mom-and-pop store by the school was. None of her stories remotely interested me, but I feigned interest, occasionally throwing in "Yeah," "Really?" "I see." They all sounded like stories I might have heard somewhere or never heard anywhere. As she went on, saliva dried around her mouth, forming a white border. I strained to remember who she was from the few clues she gave, while silently nodding along.
After a while, we were enveloped in uncomfortable silence. The train was filled with afternoon indolence, and the sun continued to burst in at speed. I asked her where she was going. She said she would get off in a few stops. Another silence between us. I slowly opened my lips,
"By the way. …"
Excited by the prospect of my trying to say something, Ji-hye leaned closer as if welcoming any comment. My mouth was dry as I swallowed hard, "Where'd you buy the spray-on stockings?"
She seemed perplexed for a second, but bounced right back: "Oh, this?"
She launched into the benefits of using spray-on air stockings and gave her take on the marketing strategies of various TV home shopping companies. The white crust of dried saliva around her [End Page 250] mouth continued to bother me. I asked her if she enjoyed her work. She said, "It's okay." I asked her if she had a boyfriend. She said, "Yeah, he works for a venture capital firm." I asked her if she lived alone, and she said yes. We ran out of things to say again. She said I should check out her social network page. The address was printed on her business card. I said I would. But I didn't like checking out the social media profiles of people I went to school with. For as long as I can remember, it's bothered me how willingly people put their life on display for everyone to see, seemingly oblivious to gawking eyes, despite knowing full well that everyone was checking out everyone else's account. All sorts of friendly comments proliferated under the perfect-seeming pictures, where everyone looked happy. Every day was a school reunion online.
A man wearing tinted glasses was walking toward us, playing a trot-style "God save a sinner like me" on his portable speakers. It wasn't the first time something like this happened to us, but we still braced ourselves once more to present a strong front. Ji-hye was in the middle of dishing dirt on the head teacher from our year who taught math. I listened to her half-heartedly as I watched an academy cadet in full military uniform seated across the aisle. After poking around his pockets and feeling around his body in search of his wallet, he put his 007 suitcase on his lap as if he had just remembered something. The panhandler was approaching the cadet who was opening his suitcase. Maybe the suitcase was too heavy; he put it back down on the floor and bent over to look for his wallet. I quickly but discreetly surveyed what was inside his suitcase.
"It's all because of his complex."
"Huh? What is?"
"I mean the head teacher."
The cadet was searching everywhere for his wallet from that uncomfortable position. After a while, he took a small bag out of his suitcase, and unzipped it, retrieving his wallet at last. Before I [End Page 251] knew it, the panhandler with tinted glasses was standing meekly before the cadet.
"Anyway, you really haven't changed a bit," said Ji-hye after taking in a huge breath of air.
"Huh? What about me?"
Not knowing why, I couldn't take my eyes off the cadet and waited for him to hurry up and give alms already after going to such lengths to retrieve his wallet. Finally, he opened it.
"You were always alone. Always depressed."
A look of embarrassment flashed across the cadet's face.
All he had in his wallet were green 10,000 wŏn bills.
"Yeah, you know, back then because of Eun-mi … well, it's all in the past. I'm glad you seem to be doing well now, though."
He went pale as he checked every compartment of his wallet. The panhandling man hadn't budged, and now almost everyone in the car was staring at the cadet.
"What did I … ?"
Carefully observing my reaction, Ji-hye said, slyly, "Hey, remember? We used to have lunch together."
At that moment, I felt I might remember who Lee Ji-hye was. But was that Ji-hye this Ji-hye? She continued with a smile.
"You were such a nice girl back then."
The cadet had been hesitating, but pretty soon he began backtracking, meticulously. That is, he didn't give the panhandler any money, closed his wallet, put it back in the small bag, zippered it shut, put it back in the 007 suitcase, shut the suitcase, and placed it back on his lap. Oddly upset, I stood up.
"You getting off?"
Without thinking, I answered, "Huh? No," and sat back down.
She sounded like she just couldn't understand why I was acting this way when she said, "Well, I am."
The panhandler, who had been lingering in front of the cadet until then, contorted his face and began to slowly move away. Jihye, [End Page 252] standing at the door with her back straight, said she'd see me again at the fall reunion and didn't our school have such pretty gingko trees? The train stopped, and just as she was about to exit, she turned and asked, as if she'd forgotten something,
"Where are you going, by the way?"
Before I could answer, the door closed, and the sound of the panhandler's hymn faded into the next car.
"Where are you going, by the way?" Where was I going? Right, I was on my way to see you.
I felt heavy-hearted. Meeting people from school always put me in a bad mood. Especially running into anyone who knew me during those years I don't look back on with much fondness. I resented them just for having witnessed me then, because they'd obviously be thinking of that time even as they said hi, smiled, and asked how I was doing. And I didn't just feel this way during chance encounters with those who knew me when my head was perpetually down. Once I ran into a girl from my junior high at a fast food restaurant. Barely twenty, she was carrying a baby on her back and next to her was a boy who looked about five. She asked in her nasally voice, "Aren't you so-and-so?" and I was startled without exception because I was so-and-so. With her, I returned to my former self—the kind, honor student—and remarked on how cute her baby was so she wouldn't be ashamed of herself. Despite how happy she'd looked to see me at first, soon she didn't have much to say. We asked each other what we always ask all our old school friends. Having run out of things to say again, I strained to remember her closest friend's name and asked how she was doing.
She perked up and offered, "Mi-young? She still lives in our old town. You want her number? Do you have pen and paper?"
She was the one who was friends with Mi-young, so I didn't understand why she wanted to give me Mi-young's phone number, but her enthusiasm threw me off. With one hand, she kept pulling [End Page 253] up the baby sliding down her back, and with the other, she laboriously retrieved pen and paper from her bag and jotted down Mi-young's number. Oddly, her innocent kindness in still treating me as she did in junior high made me feel both strangely bad and vaguely confused about feeling bad. But I still couldn't offer genially to hold or help with her bag. That's how I felt about Lee Ji-hye from the subway, too. If I remember correctly, she was the type of girl who would confess her small secrets to you to extract an even bigger secret. My memory was a bit hazy, but I was certain there was a girl like that in my class.
I wasn't that close to Ji-hye, but one day she came over to my desk to talk to me during study hall. As she spent more and more time talking to me, I felt like confessing something to her for some reason. So I told her about my budding irritation with my friends. From that point on, my friends grew distant, one by one. Not knowing why, I had to eat lunch alone. It may seem like no big deal, but if you've ever eaten lunch alone, you know how mortifying it is. The pain came not from being alone, but from everyone watching me be alone. I couldn't stand it. I'd long forgotten about it, but as soon as she said, "We used to have lunch together," it all came flashing back: something like that had happened to me and the name of the person who made it happen was Lee Ji-hye. Of course she may not remember any of this because she wasn't the one who had to eat lunch alone. I felt stupid, now, for having nodded at her words, ignorant of what she had done. But I vowed not to think about her anymore, because I would never go to the reunion, or run into her like I did today. 11:11 AM has come and gone, and now there's no need for me to pay any mind to 11:12 AM or 11:13 AM.
The train was still running. I've been thinking about you. The one person who knows me better than anyone else in the world but is no longer here. (세상에서 나를 가장 잘 아는 사람, 그러나 지금은 여기 없는 사람.) If I was looking in the same direction as him as we both leaned against the subway window, I might have been much more [End Page 254] accepting of the way you sit with your legs so wide apart or the way you chew your gum.
How we held each other and clawed each other—or how we held each other again and pushed each other away again—I don't recall clearly. But the little things I didn't consider important at the time—the way you held your chopsticks, the teethmarks you left on a cucumber after you bit into it as a chaser, your funny-looking big toes, the face you made as you brushed aside the actor I liked, the color of the pork belly you quietly turned over on the grill for me—are the only things I remember now. Just as we kill over little things, maybe we love for little things, too. And now, as I lean against the back of my subway seat, I think of the game we played long ago on the way to a subway station, in exactly the same weather at a time exactly like this.
You and I were young then, and we were walking down the asphalt road the sun was blazing down on, looking for a subway station. After tiptoeing around me because I was too exhausted by the heat to be making my usual silly jokes, he suggested that we play a game—a "what I wish" game. When I asked what that was, he said we could just say anything we wished for—even the things that were impossible. Reluctantly, I said fine, and he said animatedly, "The one with no more desires loses, ok?"
He said first he wished the price of cigarettes wouldn't increase. I said I wished my daily allowance was 20,000 wŏn. He said he wished to win the lottery. I said I wished my English was good. He said he wished he owned a house. I said I wished my breasts would get bigger. He said he wished his father would come to his senses. I said I wished I had a laptop. He said he wished his mother had a lover. I said I wished I could hang my comforter to dry under the sun. He said he wished somebody would look up to him. I said I wished somebody would not ask me if I was okay. He said he wished he had a digital camera. I said I wished I was good at telling jokes. He said he wished he could have his hair [End Page 255] shampooed at a hair salon for an hour or two. I said I wished I could become a high value person. He said he wished he could play an instrument. I said I wished I had straight teeth. He said he wished he knew how to dance. I said I wished I could live off of rental income. He said he wished he could be athletic. I said I wished I could be intelligent. He said he wished he had a car. I said I wished I wasn't sorry about anything.
After a while, he said he wished he could be me. After a while, I said I wished I could be him, too. After a while, he said he wished he could sleep with me. After a while, I said I wished I could sleep with him, too. Over our heads, a subway train passed by, leaving a long trace of line that looked like an omen. We held each other tight and stood there for a long time.
And one day, you said you wished to break up with me.
After you left, I was so miserable that I wouldn't have cared even if I found an alien on the street in the middle of the night. I kept forgetting who I was. So I became a 12th grade class president, a college part-timer, a girl living in the room down the hall, the nice maknae (the youngest of the group), a mobile service provider customer, a moviegoer in the front seat blocking the view of the one behind me, a polite hubae (one with less experience), an unsure intern, a taxpayer who never misses the deadline, a female acquaintance, a regular at a pub, a smart consumer, or nothing. Not knowing what to do, I was on my way to see you without telling you beforehand.
An announcement was being made on the subway, "This is the last stop of this train. All passengers must get off at this stop. Please make sure you have all your belongings with you." Although I had planned on getting off at the last stop, I still felt rejected every time I heard the announcement. Likewise, although I didn't leave any belongings on the train, I always felt as if I'd forgotten something. After watching the train slowly disappear into the tunnel, I checked [End Page 256] my watch. That's when what Lee Ji-hye said hit me: I'll see you at the fall reunion. Didn't our school have such pretty ginkgo trees?
All of a sudden, it occurred to me that there wasn't a single ginkgo tree at my school. Quickly, I turned around and stared thirstily into the hollow tunnel that had swallowed the train.
In the end, I couldn't go see you that day. I made the long trip back, contemplating "what I wished" and feeling heavy inside.
Thus once more, hereafter still–
I often imagine what kind of person I am. I am someone as far removed from myself as I am from you, so I must imagine what kind of person I am despite that person being me. I am who I imagine myself to be, but finding it strange that that's who I am, I keep borrowing your imagination instead.
I often imagine what kind of person you are as well. Do you have an inferiority complex or not? Are you good with words or not? So you are good with words and have an inferiority complex, but do you like me anyhow? I am someone who cannot love before I believe, but sometimes I call your name independently of everything else.
I am a long address. I am a popular English song, whose only words I can sing along to are the title. I always look a bit cut off the way pictures do. I spend more energy brooding over what you'd think about what I say than what I actually want to say. I am someone who wants to look cultured but doesn't want to seem easily pleased. I am someone who hates those who are honest with themselves. I am someone who is easy to predict but finds it offensive that you are easy to predict, too.
I collect this and that and you always say it's not enough. I go back to the beginning and tell my story again. So it gets [End Page 257] progressively more boring, as when someone you have no interest in confesses his feelings for you.
I am someone who didn't want to waste my life waiting. I am someone who didn't want to make excuses my whole life. I am someone who has thanked those I despise. I am someone who wanted to learn to play an instrument instead of having to juggle part-time jobs. I am someone who spread the story about your pain. I am someone who may have killed, unknowingly. I am someone who wished to have an electric toothbrush and an inflatable bra. I am someone who used to cover my mouth with one hand when laughing. I am someone who still doesn't have an electric toothbrush. I am someone who's still waiting. I am someone who pretends I'm not home when I hear my landlord coming to collect the utility fees. I am someone who increasingly pretends I'm not here. I am someone who couldn't answer when you called my name because I had to pretend I wasn't here but I was actually right there then. … And I know you will never, ever find me in these long descriptions.
I am someone who wishes to be understood but takes a step back when I see your naked face. I am someone who loves you but knows that the love is from a person who starts with I. I am someone who sinks down after saying, "but I." I am someone who sinks back down after repeating "but I" once more. But unable to stop myself, I tell my story again from the beginning: "I am the kind of person who often thinks about what kind of person I am." So we know how to wash our knives without cutting our hands in the running water. [End Page 258]
Kim Ae-ran is a best-selling author and winner of numerous literary awards. Well known for her mastery of humor and irony, she is one of the most refreshing voices for the generation of millennial Koreans. Her short story collection Run, Daddy, Run, featuring "Forever a Narrator," earned her the Hankook Ilbo Literary Prize.
Eungee Sung is a Seoul-based translator, interpreter, and advocate for women's rights. She graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in psychology and is working on her master's degree at the Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
* Eungee Sung won first prize in the 2017 Global Korean Literature Translation Awards competition for this translation.
2. Black bean noodles.