Saw her again today. She sat there in that same spot looking like she was waiting for someone …
A beach resort somewhere. She was there yesterday as well, like she was waiting, sitting vacantly. Age, about twenty-four or twenty-five. No matter which way he sliced it, she didn’t appear single. At a beach, the most obvious thing to do was to go for a swim, but she didn’t even do that. She just sat there in the same spot and stared out into the sea. This woman grabbed L’s attention, and he found himself pacing back and forth before her.
“Such lovely weather we’re having,” he finally initiated.
“Yes, indeed. It’s a very lovely day.” The words fluttered out of this woman’s red lips. Her teeth were more than just white. They were translucent.
“Are you here to swim?”
“Yes. I’m here on vacation.”
This is how the gate to their relationship opened.
“Would you like to go for a walk?”
“Shall we lunch together?”
“If you’d like.”
The two people became a bit closer. (Her name was Hye-gyŏng.) Then one day, L saw a portrait photograph of a man hanging in her room.
“Who is he?” L pointed at the portrait and asked. His question contained a hint of hostility.
“He’s my husband.”
“Is that so? He must be a great man,” he replied.
That night, L couldn’t fall asleep. The portrait he saw hanging in Hye-gyŏng’s room lingered before his eyes. A handsome man, a rugged man, a man of good looks—there were many ways to describe the men of this world, but L had never seen a man who had the looks of the one in that portrait. His face wasn’t pretty like a girl’s. It was manly and noble. The owner of such looks could’ve been a Greek sculpture in his past, but it’s hard to believe such a person could exist in the flesh. He was of a rare refinement. L was also known to be a handsome man. He was confident enough not to feel inferior to anyone when it came to his looks. This is something he was convinced of. But when he compared himself to the subject of that photograph he’d seen earlier, he found himself beating his chest. In other words, he was of an ordinary tailor’s swatch or hat advertisement status, whereas the status of that man in that photo could not be surpassed. L lacked refinement. When he compared himself to the subject of that photo, it was like comparing the sun to a terrapin—a useless comparison.
Then why leave a great husband like that and show any affection to a fellow like me? he wondered. But just because such doubts occurred, it didn’t mean he would give up on her. Hye-gyŏng definitely showed an interest in him, and as long as they left such doubts by the door, the affair would continue. On the following day, L brushed his hair for half an hour in preparation to pay Hye-gyŏng a visit. He fixed his tie over ten times and put every effort into dressing himself up. He sent a message to his home and had his entire wardrobe sent to the beach resort. He changed his clothes every morning and afternoon in attempt to improve his looks somehow. From that point forward, he and the subject of that photograph were locked in a fierce competition. He went through every means to improve his looks, no matter what it took. Due to this, L’s looks (in spite of his already decent reputation) improved day by day. To top it off, his relationship with Hye-gyŏng deepened.
The beach season passed. The urbanites who’d come to enjoy the summer by the shore returned to the city. Hye-gyŏng headed back as well. So did L. But even upon their return, L and Hye-gyŏng continued their affair.
“Where is he?”
“Travelling in Italy.”
“When he gets back, please introduce him to me.”
“Goodness, L. Why do you say such things? As soon as he returns I should go back to him, don’t you think? Pardon me for saying this, but L, you’re a temporary companion just while he’s away.”
What? Such violent rebelliousness. I’ll make myself even better than him, so that even if he does return, she’ll never leave my side—and so L continued to spend all his efforts on his looks. An inexplicable anxiety came over him. At this moment, he was definitely trying to take over all of Hyegyŏng’s affections. But there was no way to predict when she would return to her husband. Whenever he and Hye-gyŏng walked side by side down Chongno, he would occasionally catch a reflection of himself with her in a shop window and renew his sense of confidence—that he was indeed worthy of accompanying Hye-gyŏng. But then the memory of that photograph he saw in her room at the resort would make his heart grow weary once more. On a typical scale, his own looks were quite fair, but compared against the subject of that photograph, he barely reached the subject’s heels. The thought of Hye-gyŏng walking with that man, linking arms, made L burn with jealousy. It even made him throw air punches.
I can’t lose against him. No matter what it takes, I have to win. With determination, L devoted himself even more to grooming.
Autumn passed. So did winter. The following spring, Hyegyŏng’s husband, who’d been travelling in Italy, did not return. L and Hye-gyŏng’s affair continued. One spring day, Hye-gyŏng paid L a visit. She stayed around till sundown. After Hye-gyŏng left, L found a piece of paper lying in the spot where she sat. When he picked it up, he saw that it was a letter. Hye-gyŏng had mistakenly left it behind. L opened the letter. Hye-gyŏng’s friend had written to her with the following:
We heard that your husband has returned from his trip to Europe. How happy you must be! Let’s meet at X Theatre the day after tomorrow. After the play, we should have supper together. It’s been too long. Please come. Hope to see you.
So he’s back! L’s heart sank. Now that the subject of that portrait had returned, Hye-gyŏng would return to her husband’s arms (just as she’d always planned). Looking back, it made sense why Hye-gyŏng seemed so cold. Had he known of his return, he would’ve tossed her like an old pair of shoes. The thought of the subject of that portrait—an elegant man of high pedigree—sitting side by side at the theatre with Hye-gyŏng made L’s teeth chatter. The evening after next, L also went to X Theatre. He himself did not know why it was necessary for him to go and see for himself, but he just had to.
He spotted Hye-gyŏng immediately. But her husband? The elegant man of high stature that he’d seen in that motel room—Hye-gyŏng’s husband? L searched for him all over the theatre. L traced every inch of the place, but the man he’d seen in that photograph was nowhere to be found. Instead, there beside Hye-gyŏng, was a man that appeared to be her father—an elderly man who sat next to her and watched the play. He appeared to be around fifty years old. His face was covered in a beard like an animal. His eyes were so small that they were barely visible. His nose was flat. The world’s ugliest man sat beside Hye-gyŏng and watched the play leisurely.
“?” L was dumbfounded. That man was too hideous to father a beauty such as Hye-gyŏng.
But later, when he found out through a friend that that hideous man wasn’t Hye-gyŏng’s father but in fact her husband, how great his shock was. At first, L did not accept this. He couldn’t accept it. But after the play ended, on his way back, L happened to walk by the two and overheard the hideous man say to Hye-gyŏng, “Watching such an unsatisfying play only made my back ache. Let’s hurry up and get that supper with your friend and head home.”
After hearing these words, L had to accept it as the truth. His love for her also completely cooled. The thought of Hye-gyŏng folded inside that ugly thing’s arms did him in. Because L had believed that man in the photograph to be her husband, he worked very hard on improving himself, but after seeing that hairy thing as Hye-gyŏng’s husband, L realized he could’ve stopped bathing for ten years, stopped grooming for three years and gone without shaving for a month and still best that creature.
And so L stopped his self-improvement. L, who used to complain of itches if he didn’t shave three times a day, began to walk the streets au naturel with a dark moustache below his nose.
The final afternoon. Hye-gyŏng and L decided to call off their long affair and say their goodbyes at a quiet place.
“Here are the love letters you sent me. Please take them all back.”
L accepted the bundle of papers that she handed him.
“Well then, goodbye. Why don’t you head down left and I’ll walk right?”
When she turned to look at him, L suddenly came back to his senses.
“I have one final question.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember the photograph you showed me at the beach? You said that he was your husband?”
She began to smile. “Yes. I did say that.”
“Whose photograph is that?”
“Ha ha ha ha. Why do you ask? I don’t know whose photo that is. I bought it at a photography studio in Shanghai for a couple of nyang. He’s probably some Chinese actor or a nobleman of some kind.”
“Shanghai? A couple of nyang? Then why—why …”
“Why did I fool you and say that he was my husband, right?”
“You still don’t know? You should know yourself just how much you adored me after I told you that the man in the photo was my husband. If I am to have an affair, I’d like to do it with a much more decent-looking man, which is why I pulled that trick. It wasn’t to be spiteful. Forgive me, but to tell you the truth, after I showed you that photo, your looks improved by three or four times.”
L was speechless. He sat there for a long time just moving his lips without sound. When he finally was able to speak up again, he said, “So what you’re saying is I’m like some dog that high class ladies drag around, wash with soap and spray perfume on. Is that it?”
“Is it necessary to take it that far? Ha ha ha…”
“Okay, fine. I must commend your tactic. But why is the ending so bland? Why couldn’t you take your cleverness all the way to the end?”
“What do you mean? Please elaborate.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you. One day you came over to my place, spent some time and then left. But as you left, you dropped a letter. It was that letter that led me to see your husband. I learned of that hairy man—forgive me—that hairy monster. That monster—“
“Please watch what you say.”
“Then are you saying that that monster isn’t your husband?”
“Of course he is my husband.”
“Well, there you go. Because I saw that monster, we grew apart, did we not? Before that, when I saw that two nyang photo, I became a much more handsome man and pulled all kinds of tricks to improve myself, but after seeing that hairy monster—forgive me—I forgot all about that kind of maintenance. If I compare myself to that monster, I could go without shaving for a year and still look a million times better than he does. So why did you let a letter bring you to failure like that?”
Hye-gyŏng looked at L for a long time. She smiled as she did.
“Listen to me. Hearing you now, I realize how primitive you really are.”
“It’s mighty silly of a woman having an affair to go around dropping letters here and there, isn’t it?”
“Then you’re saying you didn’t drop any letter?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying.”
“Then what do you mean?”
“I definitely dropped a letter, but it wasn’t a mistake. I did it on purpose. I wanted you to see it, so I left it behind on purpose.”
“What do you mean? Because you dropped that letter, I went to the theatre, and when I went to the theatre, I came across that monst—excuse me—that monster. But you meant to show me that letter?”
“Then, because I came across that monster, I stopped grooming myself and because of that our relationship came to an end. You’re saying you did it all on purpose?”
“L, don’t get worked up, and listen. That was my plan all along.”
“For what reason?”
“Goodness. Men are so slow. If I put it simply, the photo I showed you at the beach is the same photo I will show some other man. So what I’m saying is that even if you stop grooming yourself, it won’t affect me any longer. Understood?”
“L, listen to me and listen to me good. Men can be manipulated any which way with a single photo and letter. Don’t ever take a photo or letter you come across for what it is. It’s all a trick. Aigu—why do you glare at me with such scary eyes? This is our final farewell, so let’s end it with a smile and remain friends. Now then, as I mentioned earlier, you go left and I’ll go right. I have plans to meet a man I showed that Shanghai photo to, so I’m a bit busy. Take care then.”
A dusky street. She headed right on the street towards the light while humming to herself. She’d told L to take the left, but he could not move. He stood there like a man without a thought and watched her as she left.
A half-lit street.
A barren street.