Look away from the middle-school kids lugging their stolen bicycle, and you’ll notice a large, mixed-use building. Perhaps it looked impressive when it was being built but now, less than ten years later, its worn façade is stands in stark contrast to the other high rises crowding around it. A few faded outlines trace the shapes of storefront signs, now long gone. The elevator, invisible from here, has gotten stuck more than once. Students have thrown themselves off the top of the building a few times, though of course there are no traces of that left now. The first three floors of the building are for commercial use; the rest is residential, arranged around a hollow center. If you take the elevator to the top floor and look down into the hollowness, you get a sense of just how high up you are. The residents call this interior the courtyard. The sun never reaches here, it is permanently in shadow. Every once in a while, it’s here that someone plunges to their death. Once every three or four years. Enough time for people to become traumatized, to forget, then become traumatized all over again.
I’m waiting for the elevator on the first floor when an old woman comes and stands next to me. She looks up at me and I can see her lips move slightly.
Floor twenty. Nineteen. The elevator descends toward us. Three. Two. One. It arrives and the doors open. Two people get off. The old woman waits for me to get on first, then slowly shuffles in after me. Three of the walls inside are mirrored, so I can see her without looking directly at her. Her lips continue to move and she mumbles to herself: ‘I can’t ride this alone. It got stuck that one time. I can’t ride this alone.’ She presses the button for the fifteenth floor. I was planning to go all the way to the top, and it’s reassuring to know I won’t be getting off before she does. I don’t know when she started living here, but I do think it’s unfortunate that she has to wait for someone to appear each time she wants to use the elevator. You’ll always find someone waiting for the elevator on the first floor. It’s easy to run into people on the second and third floors, too, since they’re for commercial use. But after the fourth floor the number of passengers diminishes considerably. Does she live alone? Does she live on the fifteenth floor? How many people are left on the fifteenth floor during the off-peak times, when people aren’t rushing to work or children aren’t coming to and from school? The elevator arrives at the fifteenth floor, interrupting my thoughts. The doors open and the old woman gets off. She must be around seventy, I’m guessing. The doors close, blocking her receding figure from view. I want to see this old woman again tomorrow. I don’t have any reason to be on the fifteenth floor, but if she has to rely on the presence of strangers to feel safe taking the elevator, then the least I can do is wait for her, there on the fifteenth floor. I think I could wait for hours, if need be.
Twenty-two. Twenty-three. The elevator ascends. I briefly hear muffled sounds from the outside. The elevator keeps going. Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. The elevator stops. The doors open, and I hear someone scream in the distance, then the thud of front doors opening and closing all over the building. I approach the railing and look down at the distant black of the courtyard. There are railings on each floor, stacked from the fourth to the twenty-ninth. Here and there, people lean against the railings, looking down. Their gazes converge on a single point. The hem of a skirt in the corner of the courtyard. The screams continue.
This building, with its hollow center, functions as a great echo chamber.
The sound of slippers along the floor. A gasp. Low-pitched sighs and the opening and closing of the elevator doors run like a convulsion through the building. I lean further out against the railing and see the heads of others looking down. I reach into my pocket and remove a rice ball. I unwrap it and take a bite. It tastes of blood. Even though it contains no iron supplements.
Every morning when I step on the scale I find I’ve lost 500 grams. Throughout the day I eat, I excrete, and when I weigh myself again at nightfall I find I’ve gained 400 grams back. In sum, I’m losing 100 grams each day. That’s three kilograms per month. What is the minimum weight a body needs to sustain itself?
One day as I am eating, drinking, excreting, recording, my cell phone chimes with a text message: my bank account has been frozen because I haven’t paid my health insurance for twelve months. It’s true I haven’t paid the bill, but I couldn’t. Because they billed me an astronomical sum. I went to the National Health Insurance Service office and consulted with an agent, who told me to submit a letter of complaint to headquarters stating that their calculations were off. I had my doubts, but it wasn’t like I had any better ideas. So I went home, I submitted the letter and three months later received notice that the claim had been dismissed. Then there were other notices threatening account seizure, all of which I ignored; ultimately my account was frozen.
My account balance is only 134,000 won. The unpaid insurance bill obviously surpasses this sum. I’ve been working at the same company for the past seven years, but it doesn’t subsidize my health insurance. To be honest, I ought to be grateful they haven’t fired me, yet I cannot summon an ounce of gratitude. In a dream, I met the president and lambasted his attempt to compensate for the deficit caused by reduced corporate taxes through an increase in the earned income tax. But I’m not a salaried employee. I’m actually listed as self-employed. And I owe more in health-insurance payments than what I’d owe in a tithe to the church. So I didn’t pay, my account was frozen, and now I lose 100 grams of myself each day. According to a letter I received from the pension office, by 2046 I’ll be eligible to receive 430,000 won every month. The world will have ended by 2046. I wonder how much my 134,000 won in the bank will be worth then. In 2046, what will I be able to get in exchange for 134,000 won? Even now, in 2014, it’s not enough to cover a month of health insurance. Every day, my body shrinks by 100 grams. By 2046, I will have wasted away to nothing. Neither my health nor my pension will survive. The 430,000 they say I’ll be getting will be rerouted to somebody else. Perhaps it will be enough for a cup of coffee, at least. Or a pack of gum.
The problem still has a number of solutions. I could go to the National Health Insurance Service and pick a fight, or throw a tantrum, or set up a payment plan to unfreeze my account. But all of these methods are temporary, and none help dissipate my unwavering loathing. When I call I am connected to a customer-service representative. She tells me she loves me. I do not love you. You probably do not love me either. I tell her what I earned last year and that what they’re billing me for health insurance is disproportionate. She says she’s sorry. But you probably aren’t sorry. I feel a surge of anger. On TV or in the movies I’ve seen victims of bad service calling for the manager at a restaurant or a hotel. I, too, want to talk to the manager. But I don’t know who the manager is, if he’s someone who can be contacted, or if there’s more than one. When I give no indication of hanging up, the rep’s voice tightens with rage tone grows more urgent. I’m sorry, but I have no intention of accepting her apology. She hasn’t done anything wrong, I know that. It’s just that she’s the only one there to listen to me right now. I tell her that my weight is shrinking by 100 grams each day. She apologizes to me again. I’m shrinking by 3 kilograms per month. At this rate, 24 kilograms will be gone in a year, and my body will be half what it used to be. I keep talking in this vein, and stay on the line. The customer-service rep listens patiently. Perhaps she has already set the receiver down. But this misguided, petty revenge won’t get me anywhere. Overcome with frustration I burst into tears. With a shout, I start to throw the phone across the room, then restrain myself. The representative speaks, ‘Sir, you can submit an appeal.’
‘I tried that already. They called me ‘sir’ when I went in person to the National Health Insurance, too.’ I feel the absurdity of this epithet as an even greater insult. I tell the rep I’m sorry. She is silent. For a brief moment, I feel sincerely apologetic towards her. Sincerely, hah. An absurd term.
Night. I record my weight again. In the morning I weighed 500 grams less than yesterday. Now I weigh 300 grams more than this morning. 200 grams depleted. It appears the tears and the shouting and the anger have consumed an extra 100 grams. Have I lost it in fat, muscle, blood, skin, or in rage? I turn on the TV and watch the news. The National Health Insurance Service announces that, starting next month, everyone seventy-five years and older will receive dental benefits allowing them to get implants at half the price. My teeth are fine. To reach seventy-five I’d need to live twice as long as I’ve lived already. By the time I turned seventy-five, it would be past 2046. I try to remember if the old people I know still have their own teeth. The amount I owe the insurance agency is equal to the cost of one new set of implants. The thought is enough to make me give up a fight I know is hopeless.
I have coffee at Kind Coffee. The next day, I have coffee at Kinder Coffee. The weather is cold but the snow hasn’t begun to fall. Every day I spend 4,000 won on coffee, and every month I make 550,000 won in wages. The stale air is dank in the basement where I work five days a week. The owner isn’t at the bar very often; he’s owner in name only. Instead his father stands watch, popping corn and hauling kegs of beer. Sometimes customers sit at the bar rather than at a table. One of these customers is German, although he speaks excellent Korean. He comes in twice a month or so. There’s someone with him again today. They speak in Korean and, even though I try not to listen, I can’t help but overhear their conversation. The German mentions a part-time job he had when he was young, at a little restaurant on the edge of a small city.
‘It was just outside the city, so it drew mostly locals.’
‘Parting from the city for your part-time job.’
‘That’s right. One time, we had a customer who I thought looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I thought I might’ve seen his face somewhere. It turns out he was a regular at the restaurant I worked at in the city center. He would always come in with his wife. But that day, the woman he brought wasn’t his wife.’
‘I overheard their conversation as I was pouring their water. She was his girlfriend, not his wife. Too many prying eyes in the city center, so he’d brought her all the way out there. He couldn’t have known I’d recognize him.’
‘Probably didn’t suspect a thing.’
‘That’s how it seemed. But he left me a generous tip. I thought he hadn’t recognized me. My heart was pounding at the thought that I might be the only person who knew his secret. Not that it mattered . . .’
The German mutters something further in German. His companion says something about the likelihood of being able to keep a secret in a small city. Then the German says he’s glad he lives in Seoul. His companion’s face takes on an enigmatic expression.
The father of the bar owner who’s never there opens a newspaper to pass the time. The German orders another beer. The keg sputters empty in the middle of the pour. The owner’s father closes the paper and brings up another from the storeroom. I open the tap and let the head clear before I refill the glass. The German’s companion asks how he can stand Korean beer. ‘Korean beer isn’t bad’, the German says. ‘The potatoes are terrible, though.’
I give the German his beer and sit back down, and as I do the owner’s father turns and tells me he saw a woman wearing boots in the subway. This turns into a diatribe about women who have the gall to walk around in boots even though it’s not cold out and it hasn’t even snowed yet. I wiggle my toes in my sneakers and think about the boots I wasn’t able to afford. The air in the basement is damp from the lack of ventilation. Sometimes, mushrooms grow between the cracks of the wooden floorboards. I pick the mushrooms and throw them away. Every week that I buy coffee from Kind Coffee and Kinder Coffee, I lose 32,000 won. If I saved 32,000 won each week, after a month I’d be able to buy a decent pair of boots. If I saved 32,000 won per week for a year, I could even buy a plane ticket to Germany. I wouldn’t be able to stay there for long, though. The German and his companion pay their tab and get up to leave.
I remember reading about someone who decided to keep living after receiving a bolt of summer fabric as a gift. The passage was in a book by a Japanese author. I vaguely recall it being Osamu Dazai, but I can’t be certain. In any case, I often think of it. One’s reason for living is sometimes no more than an emotion invoked by a single moment. The airport is quiet, save for the armed police occasionally passing by. They pay no mind to the foreign tourist with his little carry-on and not-so-little toy horse. Other passengers poke around the shabby duty-free shop, where I was a moment ago. My daughter asked me to buy her a horse, you see. Her thirtieth birthday is just around the corner, and she asks her father for a horse. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Anyway, Mongolia is famous for its horses. I heard about a guy who flew to Mongolia, bought a pair of horses and rode them all the way back to Europe, alternating between the two animals. Me, I’d never take a trip like that. First of all, how would you feed for the horses? How would you find lodging with stables? Once you got to Europe, how would you get rid of the horses? Mongolian horses are smaller than European ones. Which might be good for maneuverability, but who knows how appropriate they would be for a long distance trip? But what do I know about horses. Didn’t they conquer Europe on horseback in Genghis Khan’s day?
Instead of horses I take planes. And I stick to guided tours. When I went to Vietnam the guide dragged me and the rest of our group to a latex factory, a gem shop, and a coconut-soap shop. I bought a baby pillow from the latex factory for my grand-daughter and an amethyst necklace from the gem shop for my daughter. I refrained from buying anything at the coconut-soap shop, neither soap nor snake liquor. The guide looked unhappy when he saw I wasn’t buying anything. His face brightened when he saw others in the group buying snake liquor. It fell again when I chimed in, saying the snake liquor would be confiscated by Korean customs authorities. They bought the liquor anyway. I never found out if it was confiscated.
There are still forty minutes left until the plane takes off. My daughter was probably joking when she asked for a horse. I hadn’t taken her seriously anyway, joking back that the quarantine process was too complicated for me to fulfill her request. But then I found this stuffed horse in the duty-free shop. It’s about the size of a pillow. I asked if they had any that were a bit smaller, but the salesperson made a concerted effort to act as if she didn’t understand what I was saying and directed me to the large one instead. So I bought it. Now I’m sitting on a bench near the gate, trying to stuff an oversized toy into my little carry-on. For thirty-five years I worked at the same company. The bulk of the salary and pension I earned went to pay off my younger sister’s debts. I forgave her, but my wife didn’t, and neither did my son. I use the small sum I’ve been able to set aside to go on these short trips to Mongolia, or Vietnam, or China. And to buy my nearly thirty-year-old daughter a stuffed horse from Mongolia. Or the amethyst necklace from Vietnam, which I’ve never seen her wear. I only see her once or twice a year, though, so it’s not a big deal. Our tour guide comes out of the bathroom and heads toward me. ‘I see you’ve bought a toy horse, sir. A gift for your grandchild?’ I just smile and nod. One good thing about traveling is that they always call you ‘sir’. All of us tourists are sirs and madams, lords and ladies. We all become equals when we travel. Now that I think about it, I haven’t bought a gift for my grandchild. I take out my phone and take a picture of the toy horse, sticking out from my luggage, to send to my daughter. It must be around three in the afternoon back in Korea. My lazy daughter must be up by now.
The gate announces that boarding is about to commence. The passengers return from the duty-free shop.
The horse juts out from my bag at an awkward angle, so I pull it out. I’ll use it as a pillow on the flight. Others from the group, with whom I’ve gone out for beers these past four nights, comment: ‘A gift for your grandchild? I bet that horse is Chinese, not Mongolian.’ Airline employees are scanning boarding passes at the gate. My pocket begins to vibrate with an incoming call and I take out my phone. It’s my sister.
The day is breaking. The birds are singing. The birds have been singing for the past hour, which means the sun must have started to rise about an hour ago. If the sun began to rise an hour ago, then the day has already broken. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you should say the day has broken, and when you should say the day is breaking. It’s bright outside. Inside the room, it’s dark. Stuff is strewn everywhere. All cheap things, bric-a-brac. I wonder who came up with the phrase ‘bric-a-brac’ and feel grateful to that person, whoever it is. But I want to ask the person who invented tenses why they didn’t try a little harder to come up with more. Although, as I understand it, tenses weren’t invented, they just appeared, channeled through many people. It would take a lifetime to make each and every one of them accountable. Maybe if I dedicated my life to that, I could die happy . But no. It’s irresponsible to force someone to take responsibility for something they can’t actually be responsible for.
I flip through the TV channels and come upon some unfamiliar scenery: sand-colored buildings casting dark shadows; a sky so arid you can sense it through the screen. There isn’t a single cloud. Flags flutter and the shadows waver darkly. It’s the Nigerian presidential palace. They say the name of Nigeria’s president is Goodluck Jonathan. I wish you good luck, Jonathan. But that wish hasn’t come true. He must be miserable right now. But that’s not right. He may look miserable, but who’s to know what he’s really thinking? What were his parents thinking when they stuck the name ‘Goodluck’ on a child? To wish someone good luck means the luck hasn’t come yet. No hope lives in the present. All hope lives in the future. Ultimately, the future never does become the present. Therefore, luck does not exist. My name contains neither luck nor fortune. My name is ordinary. I meet people who have the same name as I do all the time. I have no complaints about having a common name. Sometimes I search my name on the internet and read about the other people it belongs to. They are moderately happy, and moderately unhappy. There are so many people with my name that, if I wanted to, I could spend the whole day browsing through their mundane lives. One of them just went to the Seychelles. It was the first time I had ever encountered that name: Seychelles. The scenery in the pictures was beautiful. They said it was an island off the southern coast of Africa. Sey-chell-es, I try pronouncing it slowly. It’s a name that evokes nostalgia for a place you’ve never been. Even if they don’t make it to the Seychelles, most of the people who have my name seem to be leading fairly happy lives. I say ‘fairly’ because people tend not to talk about their unhappiness. In the blogosphere, at least, there are considerably more people flaunting their happiness than those flaunting their unhappiness. I regularly follow the blogs of a few people with my name. It’s satisfying to deduce their unhappiness from the frequency of their posts, the tone of their writing, their photos, the spacing of their text, etc. I could be wrong in my assumptions. They may not be unhappy after all. Honestly, I’m not exactly unhappy either. I’m just not happy. I don’t even know what happiness is anymore. Not that I knew what it was in the past – all I had then was speculation and imagination. Honestly, I don’t know what unhappiness is either. Unhappiness, though, is not known but felt, and I do feel that I’m unhappy. Not because of the sheer number of people with my name, though that doesn’t help, since they all seem happier than me. I started a blog, too. It was easy to set up, but I couldn’t write a single line. I couldn’t post a single photo. Watching and doing are two different things. I posted a few links to songs whose popularity had long since peaked, and then lost interest in the blog. Obviously, there were no visitors. No one spied on my happiness. No one spied on my unhappiness. Even I did not spy on myself. I was neither happy nor unhappy. I have failed even at the imitation of happiness.
There’s a public-service announcement on the radio: don’t aspire to have more – you can be perfectly happy just as you are. I dismiss it as nonsense and change the station. It’s eight in the morning on a Monday, and the intersection is uncrowded. Just a few years ago, you could see birds pecking at the vomit-covered ground on Saturdays and Sundays. But now even the birds are gone. Only the vomit of drunks remains. By the afternoon, the vomit has been cleaned up. When night falls, the vomit coats the sidewalks all over again. I did think about moving to another neighborhood. But it didn’t seem as though my quality of life would improve all that much just by moving. It’s doubtful whether ‘quality of life’ even existed in the first place. The radio station I’ve turned to is now advertising a new resort on the southern coast. We are encouraged to enjoy the romance of a night spent in a room overlooking the ocean. Though TV ads have progressed by leaps and bounds, radio ads don’t look any different than they did twenty years ago. No: sound. No radio ad has ever turned me on to anything. And, actually, I’ve rarely wanted anything I’ve seen on TV either. I drive across the intersection, park on the side of the road, and turn my hazards on. I get out, buy a can of coffee from the convenience store and am on my way out when my phone vibrates. Someone’s texted me a coupon for a free coffee. A gift for Teacher’s Day. I’ve never taught anybody in my life. It must be a wrong number. I didn’t even know today was Teacher’s Day. I drink my coffee and think about replying to say they have the wrong number, but don’t.
The radio is on at the office as well. As lunchtime approaches, there’s a story about the recovery of a missing dog, found at the next-door neighbor’s. The radio host reads what the thief said when the dog’s owner demanded to know why the dog was taken.
‘The dogs are happy here. I can talk to them. They can feel a greater happiness here than in the places they were before.’
Something about this sounds strange. The host stops reading and asks: ‘So that means there was more than one dog?’
I’m more curious about whether the woman who stole the dog really used those exact words. Her phrasing is unusual, uncommon.
The host asks another question: ‘And what about this ability to communicate with dogs?’
The guest can’t hold back his laughter. ‘That’s why you need good neighbors. There are a lot of crazies in the world.’
The host laughs, too. ‘Anyway, we’re relieved the dog has been found. Ms Neighbor, it’s not good to steal other people’s dogs. It’s a crime, you know.’
Kang, who sits next to me, stops drumming away on his keyboard to glance over. His expression seems to say: It’s no different from a kidnapping. I am about to respond when my phone rings. It’s an unknown number.
I answer and an unfamiliar voice launches into an angry outburst: ‘If I sent a text to the wrong number, don’t you think you should have told me?!’ I don’t respond. ‘Don’t use that coupon, understand? I said, do you understand me?’ I pause for an extended moment, then respond, ‘Yes.’ I hang up first and wait a moment, but the phone doesn’t ring again. I tell Kang I’ll be right back. It’s nearly lunch time . There’s a Starbucks in the next building. Nothing like a refreshing Iced Americano on a hot summer’s day. I show the coupon to the Starbucks employee and wait. The streets begin filling with office workers. As I head out with my coffee, I see a flyer for a missing senior. Female, seventy-nine-years old, mild symptoms of dementia. I check the name and am shocked to find she has the same name I do. Cold droplets of water slide down the sides of my plastic cup. The droplets linger on my wrist for a moment before they fall onto the sidewalk. I return to my office. I run into Kang and my other colleagues. Skipping lunch? I nod.
An award ceremony is being held in somebody’s honor. There’s quite the crowd in attendance. I’m a bit late, so I find a spot to stand near the back. The person next to me appears to know me. I bow my head slightly in greeting. I see people holding flowers. The winner is announced, and the speeches begin. A poet intones the presentation speech in flowing metre, telling the award-winning novelist to start thinking about his posthumous legacy. These words ring strange to me. The speech ends and the winner – looking abashed – climbs onto the stage to give his acceptance speech. Then there is applause. I, too, applaud. I become lost in contemplating posthumous legacy.
But I don’t have time to think for long. The drinking has begun. Glasses are distributed, drinks poured. Glasses collide against one another and the drink overflows. Topics of conversation fluctuate from the recent censorship scandal to the North Korean missile crisis to the news of so-and-so’s wedding. Familiar and unfamiliar faces appear in quick succession. Then someone comes and sits next to me, so I bow my head and say, Nice to meet you. He flares up in anger. Apparently we met a few years ago. I don’t remember this. I can’t remember faces and names very well. I’m not proud of it, that’s just how it is. I say I’m sorry, but my apology is not accepted. The air goes icy with tension. He gets up from his seat. I start to get up as well, but then I hesitate and sit back down. No matter how hard I try, I cannot remember his name. But his isn’t the only name I can’t remember. Though I know that’s no excuse. The person sitting across from me finds a way to discreetly slip the name into the conversation for my benefit. It’s not the first time I’ve forgotten a name, but it is the first time I’ve been the object of someone’s rage as a result. I get up and head towards the table where the man whose name I have forgotten now sits. He’s talking to someone. I don’t remember the name of the person he’s talking to, either. No, I can’t remember the name of a single person sitting at that table. I try to get his attention and fail, and let my gaze meander. I feel a surge of fear – there may not be a single person in the entire place whose name I can remember. No. Of course there are people whose names are known. Whose names I know. But I can’t remember what they are. Not one name. I approach the man cautiously. I’m sorry about before. I don’t have a very good memory. I have wronged you terribly. But all he does is wave his hand in dismissal, refusing to turn and look me in the eye. I feel a surge of anger, but apologize one more time. At that, he finally turns around and tells me to leave. So I go.
It’s too awkward to return to the table where I was originally sitting, so I head toward the bathroom. Someone comes out just as I’m about to go in. He greets me with a nod. I nod in return. But I don’t remember his name. This is driving me insane. I turn and look behind me. I see the backs of people’s heads and their profiles. There must be a hundred people in this place, easily. Today’s award winner is sitting far away. At this point I don’t even remember what his name is. Well, that’s a lie, obviously. But to make up for today’s mistake, I mustn’t be able to remember the names of any of the people here. I may even have to forget my own name. In the bathroom I turn on the tap and put my hands under the running water. The water is cold. I dry my hands and am about to turn around when someone enters the bathroom. Unsurprisingly, I do not remember his name. It must be Kim, or Lee. Or Park. I avoid eye contact as I leave. The sound of the music and the voices mingle in my ears. I approach the person who is angry with me once more. He ignores me. The person sitting next to him takes pity on me and takes my arm to lead me outside. I ask him to please apologize to the insulted man on my behalf. He agrees. I decide to return home. I tell my companion to enjoy himself as I turn away from the bar. At that moment, I remember that I’ve left my bag inside. I enter the bar again. And again, I encounter the myriad faces whose names I cannot know.
Erica Chung’s translation of ‘Seven People with the Same Name and their Discrete Moments’ by Han Yujoo is the winner of Harvill Secker’s Young Translators’ Prize 2017.
Photograph © 8minwoo