I spent all night writing and overslept the next morning, so I only had time to splash my face with water and grab my work bag before heading out of the door. Umma would probably be reading her Bible, trying to suppress her irritation at having woken up in a hospital room yet again. I would see her in a few hours. We’d settled into a routine in which she and I had lunch together before taking a walk in Olympic Park.
On my way down the steps I glanced at my letterbox out of habit and saw a manila folder stuffed into the opening. I took it out, feeling the thickness between my fingers. There was no return address. What the hell? I ripped it open. A ream of yellowed paper was inside.
The writing I had more or less thrown in his face five years before: my diary.
Feeling like I was standing naked in front of a mirror, I started to read the first page. There were red editorial marks over the black letters of my whip-like writing, and underlining that marked awkward expressions. In other words, the bastard had sent me an edit of my diary. Not five days after receiving it, but five years. My fingers gripped the paper as memories of him poured into me like a violent flood. He still remembered my address? The writing on the last page was not my rapid scrawl but a note in his handwriting. It looked as though it were written in blood.
Hello. It’s hyung. I heard you’ve become a writer. Congratulations. I thought your real name had a “je” in it, am I right? You must be using a pseudonym.
This idiot. He couldn’t even remember the name of someone he’d gone out with for over a year.
You’ve gained so much weight that I didn’t recognize you at first.
Fuck it. I’ve read enough. Tear this shit up. But then, the next sentence:
I wonder if your mother’s doing better now. I’m sorry about before. About a lot of things. All of it.
Why do men always apologize to me? Just don’t do the thing that will make you apologize in the first place. Then, just as he always did, he went on talking about himself.
I thought of contacting you many times in the past, but I had my own reasons not to. Then too much time passed, and you changed your phone number, as one does. I apologize for contacting you all of a sudden. I was just so busy. I’m leaving the country on Monday. For a long time. I may not come back. If it is all right, I would like to see you this Sunday. The same place and time we promised before. There’s something I would very much like to give to you.
He included his phone number at the end. Sunday. That was in two days. A little presumptuous of him to ask for a meeting at all, much less with such short notice. And forget this “giving me something” crap. All we had left to exchange were insults. I was torn between shoving the envelope and its contents into the trash and putting it carefully away somewhere no one would ever find it. In the end, I stuffed it into my bag.
My heart was racing as I walked down the street. I was shocked and humiliated that he could still provoke such a visceral response from me. I took out my phone, opened the notepad app where I started story drafts, and typed a single sentence.
Five years ago, I tried to introduce him to my mother.
Thankfully, my mother was still asleep, snoring. She must’ve dozed off right after lunch. I quietly stepped inside, slid the caregiver bed out from underneath hers, and sat down.
Umma’s things began to multiply in the hospital room as she kept extending her stay. Side dishes and fruit in the fridge, a fruit knife in a drawer, a bag of peppermint candies, a little framed picture on the nightstand. The picture was of me at ten and her at thirty-eight. Umma wore the cap from a graduation gown and stood next to some statue, and I stood next to her wearing denim overalls and a sour expression. Every photo of me from around that time has me frowning. Maybe I was born with a shitty attitude. Next to the photo were copies of the two books I had published this year. They were for visitors; Umma never read my books. In fact, she’d never read a single word I’d published—a denial that bordered on the obsessive. She claimed it was because her aging eyes made every letter look like a tiger about to pounce, but I knew there was a different reason.
When I was nineteen, I won a literary prize given out by a college newspaper. The winner would get a million won in scholarship money, and a friend who was on staff happened to pass onto me that there were very few applicants that year. I was always short on money for drinks, so I wrote about a woman in her fifties who’d always had an inferiority complex about her education, who went on to get two bachelor’s degrees at an online university and threw everything she had into her son’s education; it was the only story I could write at that time, and the judges declared it the winner on the strength of its “dynamic rendering of its main character.” Umma heard the news (from her church, no doubt, the source of all evil rumor in this world), got a copy of the paper, and read the story. Then she cried for four days straight. I could hear her sobs and lamentations through her bedroom door. “I can’t believe I hurt you so much, I can’t believe I exploited you like that!” “Umma, for God’s sake, fiction is just fiction! It’s all made up!” She refused to listen to me and from then on avoided anything I wrote, even notes or school reports I dropped on the living room floor.
—Myoung-hee loved your book. She said she’s read everything you’ve published so far. You know she’s the smartest of all my friends. A Sookdae grad, no less. She said your writing made her think you’d grown up into a very fine young man.
The fiction I’d put out over the past three years was all about getting drunk, stealing things, illegally committing homosexual acts in the military, prostitution, cheating on boyfriends—what on earth was in there to cast the author as “a fine young man”?! If he was any finer, he’d murder someone. In any case, you had to hand it to the church ladies—they really were consummate spin doctors.
Umma paused her patented soft snoring and sat up, complaining about how she hadn’t slept well the previous night. Yawning, she mentioned that the pain from chemotherapy made it hard for her to sleep. Her snoring had already scared off two previous roommates, so for better or worse she’d had the two-person room all to herself for the past three months. Before, she’d complained about having to share a room, but now she ranted in a most un-Christian, shamanistic way, for someone who had devoted the past forty years of her life to her church, about Death coming to visit her in the night.
—Umma, do you want me to peel an apple for you?
—There’s a bitterness in my mouth. Unwrap a candy for me instead.
She had never eaten sweet things in her life, but ever since her tumor removal surgery, all she craved was peppermint drops. I once made her spit out her candy when I found her picking at her lunch. They said her digestive system was unable to work properly. I sprayed Febreze on the sheets to cover up that sickly hospital-ward smell.
Five months ago, I’d been dismayed but not surprised to learn that Umma’s cancer had returned. She’d been in remission for years, but I had been worried it might come back. And I was sick of this repetition of joy and pain, comedy and tragedy—nothing good ever came of it. I’d already been through everything the relative of a cancer patient could possibly experience, except the funeral. And perhaps now it was time to prepare for this final step as well.
Two weeks later my mother lay down on the operating table of a Gangnam hospital said to specialize in uterine cancer, where she asked the doctors not to anesthetize her because she wanted to participate in the pain of Jesus Christ.
It had been six years since the cancer was first discovered in my mother’s body.
I was an intern in my mid-twenties. The ten interns who had started out had been whittled down to three. Rumor had it that only one would score a permanent contract, and as the only male remaining, it was likely to be me. The research team I assisted investigated the correlation between political leanings and the health of people in their fifties, calling over a hundred people a day. But it was truly a first when a certain center-right woman in her fifties called me out of the blue. I hung up on her twice, but she refused to stop calling. I ended up sneaking in a call though the company phone.
—Hello, I’m calling from Korea Research—
Umma interrupted me, her voice filled with joy.
—Your mother has cancer! In the uterus! Hallelujah.
She was so excited about it, you’d have thought she’d won the lottery instead of being diagnosed with cancer. Two weeks ago, she’d had a dream about azaleas blooming in her stomach and had had “a bad feeling,” leading her to get a check-up, where she learned she had uterine cancer. Several of the church ladies sold insurance, and the various cancer policies she’d taken out so as to stay on their good side were due to pay out over 200 million won—enough money to pay off the mortgage on our Jamsil district apartment. Umma seemed genuinely happy as she went on about how the surgery costs were being reimbursed through the cancer insurance, explaining that we would come out in the black thanks to the rent we collected from the retail units in Suwon and Anyang. She added that because she, my grandmother, and my aunt all had cancer, I was sure to get it myself, and happily proposed that I take out two cancer policies in my name.
My boss was curious as to why I was quitting.
—Did you get a job at a better company?
No, my mother is a widow with cancer, she needs someone to take care of her,was what I wanted to say, but I didn’t. Umma liked to keep things to herself, even things there was no real need to hide, because it was “common” to let others know your business. Her extroverted personality concealed how uncomfortable she was with shame, and she seemed to be very ashamed of her sickness. She fobbed off the clients she’d been managing for twenty years with a story about taking a sabbatical to tour the Holy Land; not even her friends or my aunts were let in on the secret. I had no idea what was so shameful about cancer, but I went along with her wishes all the same. And that’s why, to my boss’s question, I smiled and said I was planning on becoming a writer after I quit. I even added that it had been my lifelong dream.
—Dreams are all well and good. But remember this: opportunities are like trains. Once you miss one, it will never come again.
Is this guy a fucking idiot, doesn’t he know trains come again and again like clockwork? In any case, I quit my job, and two weeks later my mother lay down on the operating table of a Gangnam hospital said to specialize in uterine cancer, where she asked the doctors not to anesthetize her because she wanted to participate in the pain of Jesus Christ, a declaration that (finally!) prompted her doctors to add some psychiatric treatment to her prescription.
Umma’s cancer, which the X-rays had shown as minor, turned out to be serious once they opened her up. The surgeon suspected that it had metastasized to the lymph nodes, and the liver function also seemed impaired. He recommended a multistep treatment implemented over a longer period of time. Despite multiple bouts of radiation after her hysterectomy, the cancer cells were slow to disappear. The road to remission turned out to be long and difficult.
It was around then when I first met him, in a humanities class at a private institute. The reason I picked the class on “The Philosophy of Emotions” was because I was having a hard time keeping a lid on my feelings. Not only was I cramming for English aptitude tests and entrance exams for companies, I was also taking care of Ummaat the hospital and going with her for a daily walk after she had first begged for and then demanded it. Taking care of someone who was thoroughly sick in both body and mind made me feel like I was coming down with something myself. Hoping to avoid the well of unhappiness that was my mother, and to understand the feelings that kept threatening to boil over, I went to the class once a week. The course used Spinoza’s Ethics as a textbook and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and A Lover’s Discourse as supplementary texts, dividing up classes by different emotions. The instructor, who introduced himself as a “freelance philosopher,” did what most inexperienced teachers do, which was to force everyone to go around introducing themselves to the class. The school being run by a human rights organization, half of the students were activists. They went on about their affiliations, political beliefs, and sexual orientations (not that anyone had asked them), and I felt the pressure to confess to being a “center-left male homosexual” when my turn came, but I just stated my real name and that I was a college student. Jo Wind, James, Mapsosa, Legend of the Fall . . . The others had activist nicknames of bizarre national origins and esoteric references.
I saw hints of what seemed like a long tattoo on his neck, wrists, and even fingers. Something like a lizard’s tail. I wondered what shape would emerge if I followed it, or where that journey would end.
Someone came in the door just as the last person had finished introducing themselves. He was so tall that his head almost touched the ceiling, which explained why he had a slight stoop. He put his bag down on the seat next to me and shrugged off his hoodie. Both the black hoodie and the Eastpak backpack, which had a South Korean flag sewn into it, looked a few decades old. He must’ve been running, because the heat from his body slammed into my face. I saw hints of what seemed like a long tattoo on his neck, wrists, and even fingers. Something like a lizard’s tail. I wondered what shape would emerge if I followed it, or where that journey would end. I found myself gulping down saliva as my eyes took in every inch of him. Before I knew what was happening, he was right by my side. I felt the little hairs on my body stand up, all the way from my ears to my toes. He put his mouth next to my ear and whispered:
—Uh, excuse me, but could I have a sip of your coffee?
Before I could even reply, he popped the plastic lid off the disposable cup in front of me and started chugging down the iced Americano. I perceived his movements in slow motion. He clearly didn’t give a damn about my (no doubt steaming) gaze as he drank the whole thing down to the ice, which he then crunched between his teeth. For his introduction, he said he was “a creative” and left it at that. In that teeth-chillingly cool, simple declaration, in which he neglected to mention the field of this “creativity,” I had an inauspicious foreboding that this man was seriously full of himself (a feeling that soon proved to be accurate).
After the class was over, the man came up to me and offered to buy me a coffee, to pay me back for the one he’d drunk earlier. The fact he had taken my coffee without permission gave me a bad feeling, not to mention his way of talking and the look in his eye—so I waved away his offer. He then said, very formally, that he wanted to repay me for the moral good I’d done. That we then proceeded to walk to a nearby Starbucks wasn’t because I couldn’t again refuse such a moral offer but because in fact he was actually totally my type. He had a low, clear voice, a prominent brow, unreadably thin lips, and freckled skin that had never known the touch of sunscreen. His personality seemed a little weird, but the anticipation of spending a few minutes gazing at the good-looking guy overwhelmed all foreboding, (again, in hindsight, a mistake).
Standing there at the counter, I noticed that he was a head taller than I was. It was unusual for me to have to look up at someone, my own height being slightly above average. We took up our iced Americanos and found a seat. He’d been the one to suggest coffee, but now he was just sitting there silently and staring into space.
What is up with this guy? Why did he ask me out if he was going to just say nothing?
In the end, I was the one who had to grope for an opener.
—You must’ve been very thirsty.
—You saved my life.
And . . . silence. Back then, as a temp who dreamed of a permanent contract, I was all about “putting myself out there,” which meant babbling on (entirely unprompted) about how I was a college student, majoring in French, how my favorite hobby was reading, how I had joined this class because . . . I kept on talking about whatever pointless crap came into my head. Meanwhile, the man stared at me almost rudely, as if sizing me up, and finally opened his mouth just when I was starting to run out of steam.
—You have a pretty way of talking.
What the hell is he saying, this guy, that I’m faggy? That I sound gay? Or is he just saying stuff for the hell of it? Am I being paranoid? Too many thoughts, which made me shut up. More silence. After an awkward pause had built up long enough for me to see the bottom of my mug, he suddenly piped up again.
—My ummais an alcoholic.
—Uh . . . OK?
—So I put her into rehab, but she escaped so many times that we’ve had to try a psychiatric facility.
—Uh . . . OK.
—We keep changing treatments but there’s no progress. She always finds a way to hide the alcohol. There are bottles under her bed, in her bag. It drives me crazy.
Who talks about their mother’s alcoholism to someone they’ve just met? How was I supposed to react?
—She’s even showing signs of early Alzheimer’s brought on by alcohol poisoning. It’s getting harder and harder to deal with her. Every four days or so she escapes from the ward, and I have to chase her around the hospital trying to catch her.
Jesus, what is wrong with this guy? Just how weird is he?
I felt a sudden pressure to lay out my own family saga. Our family is extremely ordinary, and like any ordinary patriarch, my father had so many affairs that my mother eventually divorced him, my mother is now suffering from the number one killer of middle-aged Koreans, aka cancer—was that what I ought to say at this point? Or should I come up with something even more elaborate? In the end, I stuck to the basics.
—My umma is sick, too. Uterine cancer. She’s been hospitalized, and I’m taking care of her.
—Ah, I see. We have a lot in common.
It hit me that this was the first time I’d mentioned my mother’s sickness to someone else. The man spoke again.
—This is your first time taking a class at the institute, right?
—Yes. How did you know?
—I’ve taken almost every humanities and philosophy class there. I’d never seen your face before. I’d remember such a cute face.
Was he flirting with me? Was this some kind of (very unsmooth) courtship situation? That couldn’t be right. I had a mirror at home, I knew all too well that I wasn’t worth a whole cup of coffee.
I still remember his expression when he said this. He acted all cool and nonchalant, but his trembling eyes and the hesitation in his lips showed how nervous he was. I was taken aback. No one had ever called me cute, not even as a joke, at least not since I was a baby. My complete and utter un-cuteness was the key to my cuteness, at best. Was he flirting with me? Was this some kind of (very unsmooth) courtship situation? That couldn’t be right. I had a mirror at home, I knew all too well that I wasn’t worth a whole cup of coffee. I was so stumped, I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was trembling and was so nervous I couldn’t look him in the eye, and I was trying my best to hide it. Then, in a tone so light as to mock me, he added:
—If you don’t have anything to do after class, let’s have dinner together each week.
And so we ended up wandering around the area after each class, picking a place to have dinner. He was the one who knew the shops and restaurants well, introducing me to all the hot spots (which mostly served rice and side dishes, the kind of homestyle places frequented by middle-aged men), while I luxuriated in the false sense of being invited into his intimate spaces (I later learned that he liked pretending to be knowledgeable to any random person).
When I was with him, I became someone who spoke and ate little. I was completely intent on observing him, squirreling away within myself the sight of his short, unkempt hair, the warm air that flowed between his front teeth when he laughed, the way he raised an eyebrow when he felt shy, and the slight whistle whenever he pronounced an s. After dinner, I had to scramble to keep up with him on my at-least-four-inches-shorter legs as he strode along with his gaze straight ahead. I was often thrown into despair over the fact that he never once looked back at me on that long walk to the subway station.
Whenever I sat staring at him, all kinds of thoughts ran through my head. I wanted to know him as a person, and more than that to know what he thought of me, and even more than that, I longed to understand how he managed to keep jerking my emotions around. My thoughts, my feelings kept racing ahead at hundreds of miles per second, and I hadn’t a clue as to what to do with this kind of energy. So, I turned the spiralbound notebook I had bought for the class into a diary and wrote about him and the changes in my emotions that he brought on, recording and examining my feelings.
The more I wrote, the less I understood.
He shared very little about his life, but I knew he did not have a job that demanded regular hours, and he seemed to meet up with almost no one apart from me. From time to time he sent me meaningless text messages (Today is a good day for a walk) and articles about foods that were good for your immune system and battling cancer, much like an old uncle. These would spark a conversation that covered his very boring day (Today I read Kant and fed some stray cats), the situation with his alcoholic mother (She escaped from the hospital, got a hold of some alcohol, and fought with a taxi driver), and photos of his one-person dinners (I cooked some spicy mackerel). To these I barely managed to reply meaningless answers like Ah, yes; How bad for you; Have a nice meal. If the conversation threatened to break off because of my lackluster replies, he sent smiley-face emojis or fat-cat stickers to prolong our awkward exchange. A few more meaningless messages and my mood would end up like a deflated balloon, with me believing that he wasn’t talking to me because he was interested in me (for whatever reason), but that he was simply so lonely it was either talk to me or talk to the walls. I knew the temperature and the smell of such loneliness all too well.
Because back then I was exactly the same kind of person.
“You’re eating rockfish right now, but what you’re tasting isn’t rockfish. The taste on the tip of your tongue is the taste of the universe.”
The fourth class in the Philosophy of Emotions was about “the feeling of completely immersing oneself in something.”
Afterwards, he took me out for hwe. He said he’d pay for the fish if I got the alcohol. This was the perfect proposal, as I’d never refused alcohol or raw fish in my life. I sat across from him, determined as ever not to show my feelings for him until I understood how he felt about me. He must’ve been a regular, because a “medium set,” including flounder, rockfish, and spicy fish soup, appeared before us without anyone having to take our order. I added two bottles of soju. Behind him were several fish tanks. They must’ve sold out that evening, because the tanks were empty except for little bubbles from the circulation system. The aquarium tanks were backlighting him, and the effect was somewhat creepy. He wiped his hands with the wet wipes provided and stared off into space. His thick fingers with their snake-like tattoo, his almost hairless wrists, biceps, and triceps, his small earlobes, the curve of his ear, and his firm jawline—my eyes roamed all over his body, until they met his own. I quickly looked away and asked a question I wasn’t even that curious about.
—Why did you take so many philosophy classes?
—I’m very interested in how the world works.
—A laudably broad interest for a “creative.”
Silence. Anxiety had caused me to blurt out whatever came to mind, and I was regretting having come across as rude. But he didn’t seem to care—he looked as though he was considering his next words carefully, poised to reveal some great secret.
—Actually, I’m working on a philosophy book.
—I’m an editor at a publisher that puts out books on theory. Or I used to be. Now I’m a subcontractor at the same company.
—Uh . . . OK.
He had such an unexpectedly normal job that I was surprised to the point of rudeness. I should’ve known. All the paper inside his backpack, the sewn-on Korean flag, the fine felt-tip pens in red and black, plus the pre-sharpened pencils in the pencil case—these were all items that screamed “editor at a book publisher.” Like most revelations, this one came way too late.
—But really, I’ve always been interested in the universe. It’s curious. Why the world looks the way it does, why there are so many stars in the wide, vast sky, and how pitifully absurd I am, that kind of thing.
—Yes. Human beings are absurd. Pitifully so.
Although not as absurd as his philosophy, apparently. He sighed deeply and added one more thing in a somewhat overly serious tone.
—Thinking about it makes me very lonely.
His eyes did look very lonely, it was true. I didn’t know what to say. All of the social skills I’d mastered during my twenty-five years on Earth seemed useless, so the only thing to do was apply myself to the raw flounder hwe in front of me, my chopsticks conveying the morsels of fish to my mouth at an almost competitive speed. He had his chopsticks up against his lips as he looked at me, smiling. Is there something in my teeth, why are you looking at me when I’m eating?
—What do you think you’re eating now?
—Flounder. Wait, is this rockfish? I can’t really tell fish apart. I just like whatever’s expensive.
—You’re right and wrong. You’re eating rockfish right now, but what you’re tasting isn’t rockfish. The taste on the tip of your tongue is the taste of the universe.
—What? What (bullshit) are you talking about?
—The rockfish that we eat, and our own bodies, these are all part of the universe. Therefore, we’re universes tasting the universe.
—Uh . . .
—Each of us is a universe and, as part of the larger universe, we live and move and have relations with each other—isn’t that fascinating?
Now that I thought about it, his gaze did look a little unfocused. Was he part of some cult? I suddenly remembered hearing about all the weirdos who drifted into extension courses like ours. I had one hand gripping my bag in case I needed to make a run for it, but he didn’t seem about to drag me off by the scruff of my neck to a meeting. And now that the topic of conversation had reached the existential matters of the universe, there was nowhere else for it to go. My gaze drifted back to the tattoo on his fingers, and when he noticed me looking, he quickly tried to draw his sleeve down to hide it.
—I like your tattoo. I’ve been wondering about it since the first time I saw it. About what it might be.
—Actually, I was in a motorcycle accident in high school. I got the tattoo done to cover the scars.
—Oh, I see.
—It’s not like I was wild or anything back then.
—I can see that.
Unable to bear the silence that felt heavier than the universe, I ended up downing all the soju we’d ordered. He must’ve thought I needed more to drink because he kept refilling my glass as he sipped his own, and with all the fish and the pouring of each other’s shots, our faces soon became red.
—The more transparent one is the flounder.
—The more transparent one of the two is the flounder. That’s easier to remember. The chewier one is the rockfish.
—Why don’t you call me Rockfish from now on? Because I’m so chewy.
Jesus, I’m losing it.
—No, I’ll call you Flounder. Because I can see right through you.
The drunk man’s slowing speech made him a little cuter. I listened to his cute, awkward talk as I ate more flounder or rockfish or whichever it was. I’d become very drunk very quickly and for some reason was thinking about Umma. She hadn’t been allowed to eat anything raw since her cancer diagnosis six months ago, not even the hwe that she liked so much. Digging through the saury flesh that had come in the spicy stew, I had the uncharacteristically filial thought that I should bring her here when her treatment was over.
—Umma was always good at taking the bones out of fish for me . . .
Hearing this, he deftly ripped out the bones of his own saury and dropped the chunk of fish into my rice bowl.
—Oh no, I didn’t mean it that way, please don’t, I can’t take your fish.
—I’m happy to.
—Me too. Saury is tasty.
—I’m not happy about the saury. I like the universe that is you.
Was this how the lovers of Pompeii felt when the magma covered them? I was deluged by something very hot, and the world seemed to stop turning. Spinoza had distinguished forty-eight different kinds of emotion. Which one was I feeling right then? Desire, joy, awe, or confusion? And what did the man on the other side of the table feel for me? A mix of disdain and curiosity, or something similar to what I felt for him? In an attempt to calm my pounding heart, I tried to recall the many keywords from the Philosophy of Emotions course but failed. In the blue light of the aquarium, he seemed paler than before. It was too late by the time it occurred to me that he looked lonelier than anyone I had ever known. His face grew larger and larger as it approached, and I was kissing him.
I tasted something on his lips that I had never tasted before. The fishy, chewy taste of rockfish. Maybe the taste of the universe.
That night, we both went back to his place.
Excerpted from Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park (Grove Atlantic), and translated from the Korean by Anton Hur. This excerpt appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Grand Journal. Subscribe here.