I’ll start with the early winter of 1996. I was lying in a hospital bed. I had been found after trying to kill myself by swallowing a lethal dose of sleeping pills with whiskey – an attempted suicide patient, they called me. When I opened my eyes, rain was falling outside the window. A few stray leaves were dropping off of the sycamores. The sky was so overcast that I couldn’t tell what time it was.
I thought about how my uncle – my mother’s brother who was a psychiatrist – had told me he wished I would cry. He looked old for his age, and if it weren’t for the situation, I would have teased him by saying, You’ve lost more hair, haven’t you? You look like a grandfather. Now that I’ve survived, can I get a smoke? Then I would have laughed at the shock on his face. But instead, I had refused to answer his questions, and because he was such a goody-goody, he added, How could you do this when your mother is still recovering from her operation? I retorted, Are you really that worried about my mom? Do you really like her that much? But he just smiled and said, I wish you would cry. It was a sad smile, though, filled with compassion for me. I hated that.
There was a knock at my hospital room door. I didn’t respond. When my mother, whose cancer had been removed over a month ago, had tried to visit me recently,
I screamed at her and smashed my IV bottle. None of the other family members had come to see me since then. It was clear from their faces that they considered me an even bigger headache than the centimeter-long tumor that had grown inside my mother’s breast. This life that my mother wanted so badly to live was boring to me. Neither of us had ever considered whether she – this person I called mom – had a life worth living. But I shouted at her that since she didn’t want to die, I would die in her place. I would never have made such an awful scene if she had not come into the hospital room where I had been brought back to life and told me she didn’t know why she gave birth to me – the same thing she had been telling me my whole life. But what made me even angrier was the realization that I take after her. I thought the knock on the door was my youngest sister-in-law Seo Yeongja, the pushover who only knew how to say yes to everyone, bringing me a bowl of abalone porridge, and I closed my eyes.
The door opened and someone stepped into the room. It wasn’t my sister-in-law after all. If it were, she would have called out in that nasal voice of hers, Miss, are you sleeping? She used to be an actress, but now she acted like she owed some kind of debt to the Mun family, as if her life’s goal was to do all our dirty work for us. Whenever she came to my room, she silently emptied the trashcan and rattled the vase on the windowsill as she refilled it with fresh flowers. But to my surprise, I didn’t hear her this time. I knew as soon as the door opened that it was Aunt Monica. I could tell by her scent. Where did that scent come from? Back when I was a kid, whenever she came to the house, I would press my face against her habit and sniff.
What is it? Do I smell like disinfectant?
No, not disinfectant. You smell like church, Aunt Monica. Like candles and things.
Aunt Monica told me that she had graduated from nursing school and worked at a university hospital before suddenly deciding to join a convent.
It was the kind of look a new mother gives to small living things – a combination of boundless compassion mixed with the curiosity of a mischievous child.”
I cracked my eyes open, as if I were just waking up. Aunt Monica was sitting in the chair beside my bed and quietly watching me. The last time I had seen her was right before I left to study abroad in France, back when I was a pop singer who wore a miniskirt and sang and shook my ass on stage like – as my mother put it – I knew no shame. She had come to see me briefly in my dressing room backstage, so that meant almost ten years had passed. Her age was already showing back then: the hair that peeked out from beneath her black veil had turned gray, and though her shoulders were still square, her back was stooped. Even allowing for the fact that it’s hard to tell how old nuns are, her age showed. For a moment, I almost thought about the sad fate of human beings who must live, grow old and die. Aunt Monica’s eyes were fixed on me, and I could see that they were filled with a strange fatigue. Her small wrinkled eyes seemed to hold both a slight annoyance and a certain warm maternal love – something my mother had never showed me. There was something else in her eyes, as well, that had always been there for as long as I knew her. It was the kind of look a new mother gives to small living things – a combination of boundless compassion mixed with the curiosity of a mischievous child looking at a newborn puppy.
Since she was being quiet, I smiled and said, “I’ve gotten old, haven’t I?”
“Not old enough to die,” she said.
“I wasn’t trying to kill myself,” I told her. “I wasn’t trying to die. I just had trouble sleeping. Drinking alcohol didn’t help, so I took a few sleeping pills… I guess I was too drunk to count the pills. I just took whatever was there, and the next thing I knew, all this happened. Mom came to see me and told me that if I want to die, I should just die and not worry her, and now I feel like I’m some kind of juvenile delinquent who tried to commit suicide. But you know how Mom is. Once she makes up her mind about something, you can’t argue with her. I’m sick of it! She’s always treated me like I’m defective. I’m over thirty…”
I had intended not to say anything, but the words spilled out of me.
Seeing Aunt Monica after all that time made me want to act like a child and throw a tantrum. She seemed to guess what I was feeling, because she tucked my blanket around me like she would for a baby. I felt the secret joy that only grown-ups who are being pampered like a baby can enjoy. Aunt Monica’s small rough hand caught my own, and I felt the warmth that radiated from her body. It had been a long time since I’d felt another person’s warmth.
“I mean it,” I said. “I don’t have the energy to die. You know I’m not that kind of person, you know I don’t have the will or the courage to die. So don’t try to tell me that if I have the will to die then I also have the will to live, or that I need go to church. And don’t pray for me either. I’m sure I’ll just give God a headache, too.”
Aunt Monica started to say something and then stopped. My mother had probably told her everything. I bet she had told her, Yujeong said yes to the engagement but now she doesn’t want to go through with it. Her brother says this man went to the same school as him and graduated at the top of his class from the Judicial Research and Training Institute, so we know he’s a good person with a good academic background. He’s a decent man. His family isn’t much to speak of, but she’s over thirty. Where does she think she’s going to find another man like that? Go talk to her. She listens to you. I can’t stand that girl anymore. I can’t believe I gave birth to her. Her father spoiled her because she’s the only girl. That’s what’s wrong with her. Her brothers all went to the best universities, but she could only get into that lousy school. No one in our family has ever had bad grades, so I don’t understand how she could turn out that way…
If only people were like trees and could fall into a long death-like sleep once a year and reawaken. It would be nice to wake up, put out new pale green leaves and pink blossoms, and start over.”
“I didn’t do it because of him,” I said. “I never wanted to marry him. He probably didn’t really want to marry me either. He’ll find some other girl, someone else from a good family with money. Younger, better prospective brides will be lined up for him. He told me the matchmakers have been banging down his door.”
Aunt Monica said nothing. I heard the wind rush past outside and the window rattle. The wind was building. The trees outside were dropping their leaves. If only people were like trees and could fall into a long death-like sleep once a year and reawaken. It would be nice to wake up, put out new pale green leaves and pink blossoms, and start over.
“You know what? His ex-girlfriend who lived with him for three years came to see me. She said she’d had two abortions. Her story was so predictable. I bet she gave him spending money, bought his books, cooked for him. On the day of the bar exam, she probably took him out for barbecued ribs and toasted to his success. And then, that son of a bitch, after all that, he had a change of heart and went after me, the little sister of the chief prosecutor. Probably factored in my share of the inheritance as well. I’m sure he likes our family because it’s full of doctors, lawyers, PhDs… all those stuck-up professionals. Aunt Monica, do you know what I hate the most? Clichés. If only he had dumped her in a less clichéd way, or wanted to marry me for reasons that weren’t so clichéd, I would have closed my eyes and looked the other way. I mean it. I couldn’t stand what a big cliché he was. That’s it! You have to believe me. It’s the first time I’ve told anyone this. Not my mom, not my brothers, no one in this family. No one knows about it. They all think I’m being picky, and I prefer it like that. That way, I don’t have to deal with them as much.”
At the time, I had no idea why I was telling my aunt things I hadn’t told anyone else. Nor did I understand why I hadn’t just explained to my family why I wasn’t going to marry him. His ex-girlfriend’s voice had trembled faintly over the phone: Is this Miss Mun Yujeong? I’d like to talk to you. When we were sitting face to face, I was surprised to see how rough her hands looked wrapped around the coffee cup. Her face was pretty, but her face and hands were completely different, like they were serving two different masters. Though her inviting eyes and the contours of her oval face were soft, she was deathly pale. He’s everything to me. The moment she opened her mouth and said those words, my heart dropped. How on earth could one person say that about another, especially a woman about a man, and how could you say those words so resolutely to someone you were meeting for the first time? It’s possible I felt a little jealous of her, just as I felt jealous of everyone who had faith and conviction, a sense that what they were doing was right. I don’t mean that I was jealous of her for having a man. I mean that I had never had someone in my life for whom it was worth risking everything, even if it did end in a childish, immature, even laughable way. She looked sad but she didn’t cry, and that seemed to be because she still held onto some foolish hope that kept her from facing reality. I thought it might kill her to realize that she was a fool for hoping and was therefore worse off than if she had despaired instead. She had a tragic and dangerous glow about her. But as I finished telling Aunt Monica about her, I started to wonder why I had kept it a secret from my family. My ex-fiancé was not good-looking. He was not that tall, and his square jaw and dark complexion showed that his childhood had not been an easy one. There was nothing sentimental about him. But I wasn’t expecting him to give me butterflies. I was old enough to know that when you’ve made up your mind to get married rather than keep playing the field, then that’s how it is. The first time we had met, introduced by my older brother Yusik, I asked him if he had dated a lot of women. He looked down and smiled shyly. I felt a flash of pleasure at the thought of being the first to conquer virgin soil where no others had trod. I could see why men sought out virgins. But I also knew that if I gave in and married this eligible fool who spent all of his time with his nose buried in books, my family would give me a gilded passport into the kingdom they had constructed and never again bring up my past. And when I thought about it, hedonism, self-indulgence, and debauchery – in other words, booze, sex, and other vices – were becoming clichés to me, too.
He told me he’d had a crush on someone once. We didn’t get past the second date. I must have bored her. After that, I was too busy studying for exams. I take responsibility very seriously. For a man, it’s important to have a good job that enables you to support a family. Marriage and love are secondary; you have to make something of yourself first. He didn’t hide the fact that he wanted to make a good impression. I thought it was cute. I said, So, what you’re saying is that, even though you’re over thirty, this will be your first time going on a date and kissing a girl and taking her back to a hotel room? You’re a good liar. I laughed. He looked shocked, as if he had never met a girl like me before. But I could also tell from the look in his eyes that he was not entirely repelled by feisty women like me. In a way, it was curiosity toward a different species. It bore a trace of the longing that a hick with sunburn and a buzz cut and wearing a wifebeater – and in this case it would be a wifebeater and not an undershirt – can’t help but feel when he meets a girl from Seoul who is dressed in white lace socks and fancy black shoes tied with ribbons, a girl who doesn’t know the meaning of the word obedience. It was probably true. I think I even considered using him as a foothold from which to elevate my life. It was tempting, the idea that he could make a proper woman out of me. Stepping out of my dirty shoes in a muddy courtyard and placing my feet on his stepping stone, being lifted onto a clean, polished wooden porch… standing strong and balanced so the arrow can find its target. I was probably longing for exactly that.
Because there was something a little too bashful about his smile, I assumed he wasn’t telling me the whole truth, but I did sort of fall for it. Or was it that I wanted to trust him? Was I trying to convince myself to believe him, telling myself to trust someone once more, to do whatever it took to trust someone just one last time? If I’m really honest about it, I didn’t have a problem with the fact that he had lived with a woman, and I was not some innocent virgin who had something to lose. I had lived with men as well when I was studying abroad in France. They had lasted about a month each. But even if he had abandoned her, the woman with the big rough hands that didn’t match her face, in order to marry me, the rich girl who returned from pretending to study art abroad and was nagged by her mother into holding a so-called solo exhibition and was given a full-time teaching position that she was unqualified for at a metropolitan university run by her family, I had no right to criticize him. As far as I knew, there was no reason for his actions to be all that strange or especially immoral. Everyone I knew got married the same way. But I couldn’t do it. It became clear to me that if I couldn’t marry my first love – the man to whom I could not bring myself to say, I love you, I love you to death, the man whose last memory of me was me standing in a crowded intersection, crying and screaming, Leave! Leave and never come back! – then I couldn’t very well marry this man I felt nothing for.
I had never been good at saying things like I’m sorry, thank you, and I love you… I had never used those words when I really needed them, when no other words would do.”
Disappointed at the thought that I would not be able to gain citizenship in the kingdom my family had built, I started drinking myself into a stupor again. It wasn’t because of that woman. The streets overflowed with pathetic people, pitiful victims. Was there any unhappiness that didn’t have a story behind it? A sadness that wasn’t unfair? To say those people were pitiful meant that justice had already turned its back on them. So even if it had killed her to be abandoned by him, it wasn’t my problem. Come to think of it, both she and I were clichés. If there was any kinship between us, it was that we had tried to get ahead in life not on our own but through a man.
“That’s right, our Yujeong isn’t the type to die over something like that,” Aunt Monica said and stroked my hair.
“What took you so long to come see me? I called the convent several times after I got back to Korea, but they always said you weren’t there.”
“That’s true, I’ve been busy. I’m sorry. I guess my excuse is that since you’re over thirty now, I thought you were all grown up and didn’t need me.”
When I heard the word sorry, I felt taken aback. She had no reason to apologize to me. I was the sorry one. Sorry that I was over thirty and still not a grown-up. But I had never been good at saying things like I’m sorry, thank you, and I love you. Other than in sarcasm, I had never used those words when I really needed them, never used them when no other words would do.
“Aunt Monica, you’re so old. You never had a pretty face, but at least the last time I saw you, your skin wasn’t this wrinkled. You’ve gotten so old.”
“That’s right,” she said. “We all get old with time. Nothing lasts forever. Everyone dies. It may not happen right away, but we do all, eventually… die.”
Aunt Monica stood up as she spoke. She paused before the last word and then spat it out, as if it were difficult for her to say. She went over to the mini-fridge, took out a can of juice and drank it. She must have been thirsty because she downed the entire can. She sighed and looked out the window. Outside the window opposite the bed, the branches of the sycamore were shaking in the wind. I copied Aunt Monica and stared out the window. Drop them, drop them, I thought, and let the wind take them.
“Aunt Monica, I didn’t want to die. I was just bored and tired. Fed up with everything. I thought if I kept living, I would only be adding one more boring day to a boring life. Because we live one meaningless day after another until, as you said, we eventually die. I wanted to shove my whole life in the garbage. I wanted to shout at the world, ‘That’s right, I’m trash! I’m a failure! And I can never be redeemed.’”
Aunt Monica stared at me. To my surprise, there was no emotion in her eyes. I had always been afraid of that indifferent gaze and, as with any true fear, it was mixed with respect.
“Yujeong,” she asked me carefully, “were you in love with him? The lawyer, Kang, or whatever his family name was?”
I burst into laughter.
“That hick?” I asked.
“He hurt you.”
I didn’t respond.
“Would you reconsider it?”
I paused for a moment and then said, “I couldn’t forgive him. But Aunt Monica, I thought about it, and I don’t think it was love. When it’s love, your heart is broken. But mine wasn’t. When it’s love, you’re supposed to want the other person to be happy even if it’s not with you. But I never had that feeling. I didn’t hate him. What I hated was the fact that I took one look at his background and trusted him right away. I hated that, despite fifteen years of rebelling as hard as I could, I still wanted to be like my brothers and my sisters-in-law and people like them. And I hated the fact that even my own hatred failed me.”
Aunt Monica nodded.
“Okay, I believe you,” she said. “But listen, Yujeong. I saw your uncle, Dr Choi, right before I came here. He said this is already your third suicide attempt. He told me you have to stay in the hospital for a month for treatment, but I said I would take care of you instead. He wasn’t sure at first, but then he said if I really wanted to, it would be okay with him. It’s technically against the rules, but he trusts me. So, what do you want to do? Stay in here for a month and go through therapy again? Or help me with something?”
I could tell from the tone of her voice that she wasn’t joking. There was no reason for a nun in her seventies to joke with a niece who has just attempted suicide, but I laughed anyway. I always laughed when I wanted to get out of doing something difficult. But when I heard the firmness in my aunt’s voice as she said the words third suicide attempt, I couldn’t help but think that I, too, was a cliché. I wanted a cigarette.
“What kind of help would I be to you? I drink and smoke and cuss, so other than making people uncomfortable, I’m not good at anything.”
“So you’re aware of that,” she said drily. “There’s someone who wants to meet you. They want to hear you sing.”
“Aunt Monica – excuse me, Sister Monica! You’re not asking me to sing in a nightclub, are you? Did the convent run out of funds and now you need a has-been to perform at your café?”
I laughed. I knew I was overacting, but the habit was so ingrained in me, as if I had become a method actor, that it could have fooled someone more naïve. Aunt
Monica usually did me the favor of pretending to fall for it, even while being shocked at my behavior. But this time, she didn’t laugh.
“Someone wants to hear you sing the national anthem,” she said slowly.
“What? The national anthem?”
“Yes, the national anthem.”
I laughed again. This sounded like it might be fun.
Extracted from Our Happy Time, translated by Sora Kim-Russell and published by Short Books. Read more.
Gong Ji-young, one of Korea’s most acclaimed and popular novelists, has sold over 10 million books in South Korea alone, and many of her books have been adapted for film. Her awards include the 2011 Yi Sang Literary Award, the 21st Century Literary Award, the Korean Novel and Literature Award and the Special Media Award from Amnesty International for Our Happy Time.
Author portrait © Dahuim Paik