After the movie ended and the ending credits started rolling, Maru kept watching the screen without saying a word. The story was very ordinary. It was an overdone ‘communication between the dead and the living’ plot. The acting of the actors were decent and the series of clichés made it so that the movie wasn’t worth praising, but it was not a waste of time either. Simply put, it was just a ‘decent’ movie. It was a family comedy movie that aired every Christmas - everyone could have a laugh watching it. It was one of those movies that everyone would forget about after the movie finished and just grab something to eat afterwards.
“Should we stay a little more?”
She spoke. Maru nodded faintly.
Despite the common plot, the reason Maru couldn’t escape the swamp of emotions should be because the situation didn’t feel unfamiliar to him. He was well aware that a movie was just a movie and that fiction had nothing to do with reality, but his heart didn’t act the way he wanted it to. His mind stayed silent, yet his heart was crying all by itself.
He focused on the movie and didn’t even realize he was crying. The figure of the husband that passed away overlapped with his own figure at the last moments of his life, which made him gnash his teeth. After that, he felt a tragic sadness when he saw that the spirit of the husband tried to help his remaining family without making his presence known. Throughout the entire movie, he saw within the actors the figures of his wife in her forties as well as his daughter who might have been in middle school or high school. That suffocated him.
The woman that introduced herself as the angel or the grim reaper showed him that his wife and daughter were living safely in another world, but when he watched the movie, he started getting worried about the forces of society that might bring trouble upon them once more. What if something happened to them? Wouldn’t they be in trouble like the characters in the movie? Perhaps they are resenting me? - He had many questions in his mind.
He thought that he was over that by now. He was confident that he could stay smiling and just go past it without getting sad. However, he was clearly wrong. Well, it would be a little surprising if he could erase 20 years of life with just two. He had the faint premonition that the fog of emotions in his heart would continue being there for eternity. Was he fated to forever keep the two of them in his mind? If it was true, then it would definitely feel like running amidst the darkness in search of the shadow of hope that could never come true. Was he supposed to live as the clown wearing a smile mask while crying underneath, singing requiem to a reality reflected on a mirror? Forever?
Just as he kept questioning himself, he heard her voice. The moment he heard the words ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he fell into shock. He felt as though her eyes were looking at the depths of his heart. It was as though she would accept and understand everything about him. The thick fog in his heart cleared up in an instant and a ray of sunshine dawned on him. The perfect words came at just the perfect time, so Maru thought that he was hearing things for a brief moment.
He felt naked. Not in the sense that he was embarrassed, but that he had nothing in his hands just like the moment he was introduced to the world. All of his senses were pointed at her in front of him. Just like a newborn baby would cry in order to live, Maru couldn’t help but keep looking at her to consolidate his soul that was almost collapsing. She was still a young girl who was just maturing, but for that moment, she felt too mature to him and he had the misconception that she, who was supposed to be together with their daughter in another world, had appeared in front of him.
He could smell the fragrance of skin from her hand that wiped his tears. It was the same warm smell that came from her neck and shoulders from when she was sleeping throughout the night. The two had the same smell. Maru could only start smiling then. Here, in this place, was the person he loved.
The guilt and the longing for the family living outside of his reach was something akin to a shadow - he thought. He couldn’t remove those feelings even if he wanted to. That was because the proof of Han Maru’s living was that shadow. It was unknown when and where he would remind himself of his wife and daughter again. However, Maru intuitively realized that he wouldn’t be crying at that time; that he would be able to smile back at those memories.
After the ending credits finished, the faint lights in the theater brightened again. Maru slowly stood up after seeing staff come in and start cleaning the place. She should be confused right now, but she just held Maru’s hand as they headed for the exit. As soon as they left, stuffy air attacked their faces. Maru felt as though he came back from dreamland.
He wiped his face. As he was a man, he felt somewhat embarrassed for showing tears. He shook off his emotions before looking at her.
“...Why are you like that?”
She had teary eyes and looked as though she was about to cry. Only then did he realize that the hand grabbing his hand was rather stiff.
“You cried first,” she spoke.
She sniffed and wiped her eyes with her sleeves. She couldn’t look more adorable. Aah, I cannot escape this woman - the words ‘happy confinement’ came to his mind.
Maru patted her shoulders. She looked mature for a brief moment, but she was actually just a young girl. How confused must she be after receiving the grief of a 45-year old man? He felt very sorry.
He threw a few jokes thinking that he should make her smile again. Thankfully, she started smiling again.
“I feel tired all of a sudden,” she said as they entered the lobby.
Maru understood where she was coming from. She suddenly had to deal with a crying man next to her. Receiving other’s emotions was much harder than releasing one’s own. Maru had her sit down on the sofa and went to a nearby cafe to buy a warm drink for her. When Maru came back with some drinks in his hands, he saw that she was dozing off. Maru sat down next to her and lent her his shoulder. Her round head fell on his shoulder.
* * *
“You should’ve woken me up.”
“You were sleeping too soundly, so I didn’t dare to.”
They were standing at the bus stop. Maru spoke as he looked at the coming bus,
“There it is.”
The bus slowed down and stopped at the bus stop. She got onboard. Maru looked at her through the window. After sitting down on an empty seat, she smiled at him and waved her hand.
As soon as he waved back, the bus started speeding up again. After sending her off, Maru checked on the time. It was 6 in the evening. He wished he could stay with her longer, but let her go after hearing that she had to have dinner with her mother. He remembered that his mother-in-law put importance on having dinner together.
‘Should I walk a bit then?’
The sun was setting so the air was getting chilly as well. The streets were more crowded than it was in the afternoon.
Maru looked at a standing bar among the large franchise bars. It was a small bar which no one gave a glance at, but somehow, he was drawn to it. It must be because of the memories of this 45 year-old self that came back to him at the cinema. It was obvious that those memories would fade out again by tomorrow, but for now, he could not leave this place due to the memories of his company days when he conversed with others about various things.
It was a shabby shelter he ran away to from the bomb known as superiors. It was his hideout where he could celebrate that he had survived yet another day through various insults and verbal violence. He visited these kinds of places with his colleagues, but as his company life dragged out, he eventually started going alone or with just one, very close, person.
‘The owner there made really good golbaengi-muchim.’
The owner made the golbaengi-muchim right in front of the customers. It was just a mixture of cheap store-bought canned golbaengi, as well as another cheap store-bought chogochujang, and some boiled noodles, yet it tasted so good. Maru was reminded of the store that he visited once every two days until he left the company and turned around to get a bus that headed to Seoul.
When he arrived in Seoul, it was 8 in the evening. Maru kept grabbing onto that thin strand of memory as he walked around. Thankfully, the building hadn’t changed, and the streets hadn’t changed that much, so he didn’t have any difficulty finding the place. He bypassed the wide roads and skyscrapers and eventually entered a small road where shabby houses were built. If he walked up some more, he would enter a poor hillside village. There, Maru found a tattered signboard.
He smiled subconsciously.
He felt as though he found some cash in a pocket of a winter jacket that he hadn’t worn for a year. The sliding wooden door was half rotten. It seemed that it had not undergone remodelling again. The menu was written with a permanent marker on a cardboard, and there was a white plastic bag filled with water under the eaves. The owner always said that it was there to chase out the flies.
He grabbed the rusted iron hook on the door and pulled it left. He could smell food inside. Wobbly metal tables were here and there. There were no customers.
When he entered, he found a familiar figure. There was a man sitting on a chair, with crossed legs, watching a small TV hanging on the ceiling. He looked like he was nearing his 40s. The owner from his memories was in front of him, just a bit younger.
‘Yes. Owner, that’s what I called him.’
The store owner had the surname Jang. Most customers called him manager, but the frequent visitors called him owner.
“What the heck? I’m not selling alcohol to a student.”
The owner looked at him and spoke disgruntledly. Maru felt that he hadn’t changed at all.
“How about udon?”
The owner stood up and scanned Maru from top to bottom before going to the kitchen. Although there was a menu on the wall, the prices weren’t on it. The price was up to the owner. The kitchen was open for Maru to see. As he had expected, the owner was just making ordinary store-bought udon. It was made in an instant. The owner then sat down again, crossed his legs and started watching TV.
“Kimchi and pickled radish are….”
“In the fridge, and I have to get them, right?”
“...Yeah. Have you been here before?”
“Probably? That’s a vague answer.”
The owner then started watching TV after losing interest. Maru smiled and took out some kimchi. There was a baseball match on TV, and it seemed that the team the owner was cheering for was losing as he sighed whenever there was a hit.
That familiar sigh made Maru smile. He felt as though he was grabbing a fragment of his memory in his hands.
* * *
After watching TV for a while, when he came to, Maru found himself surrounded by men in suits. His phone indicated that it was neary 10p.m. The owner was busy cooking food while the customers were eating as though they were familiar with the place. He could hear the clanging of glass from some places. This was a quiet bar without much laughter. As the popular menu item here, jeyuk-bokkeum, started filling the tables and a savory smell started filling this place.
A bowl of jeyuk-bokkeum and a bottle of soju was enough to console him back then. He inhaled a mouthful of jeyuk-bokkeum fried in briquette fire before standing up. It was about time he went back. At that moment, the owner brought a bowl of rice topped with jeyuk-bokkeum and put it on his table.
“Eat this and go back home. Leaving the house at your age is just suffering. This old man has done it like one or two times when I was your age, but it really isn’t something that humans should do. You’ll end up ringing doorbells selling cheap gum or something. Even the worst of parents are better than society. If the place you live in is really that unbearable, then just report to the police, not run away like you did. Get it? You will never find a place to call home one you run away from one at a young age.”
He somehow became a runaway boy. He was about to explain but he decided not to and just sat back down. He scooped a big spoonful of the rice and put it inside his mouth. At times like these, he understood why Koreans always had rice. After emptying the bowl, he stood up. He took out a ten thousand won bill and put it on his table.
“Thanks for the food.”
The owner did not reply. Maru smiled as he left.
‘Memories aren’t so bad.’
He engraved the shabby exterior as he turned around. If there weren’t any accidents, this store would keep its place here in the future as well. It would get remodelled, and the owner would start hiring young employees, but the owner’s unique personality and the smell of briquettes would not change. Maru decided that this would be his first favorite restaurant. He thought that he should bring his friends on the day they became adults. He would tell only his close friends this secret place.
“Oh no, I might be late.”
It was almost time for the last train. Maru hurried down the hill.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Lots of Korean cuisine in this chapter... They can't really be 'translated'...