Hello, hello goes the voice, immediately, then rushed. It gives me an unexpected, long pause to decide whether to hang up on this intrusion, and just when my thumb decides yes, I hear the voice calling out “Jimin-ah, is that you?” before drowning into nothingness. My thumb perspires against the heat of the end button. It’s Yeju.
Seoul is sweltering that summer. Sometime around May, the sun became a nuisance and not the beacon of warmth that doused us in sporadic beauty. By June, hellfire. People share near- death experiences over the phone and I secretly rejoice. The heat wave is as good a reason as any to remain in status quo, holed up and hunched in my room, festering, licking my wounds.
“Please don’t call again,” I write back. “Even with a different number.”
But my phone pleads. An hour it says, just an hour. Okay, thirty minutes. Even less. Please.
We meet at a tent bar where older men drink alone. The orange tent is partially open to let out the heat. A rickety fan spews hot air in the corner, facing the cook whose face is awash in an oily, red sheen that resembles the color of her apron. We order food. The smell of scallions sizzling in fresh oil makes heads turn lazily towards the sky, whiffing and panting.
“I’m paying.” Yeju scrambles over to the counter. The cook palms the money and offers us soju in return. Silently, we each down a shot and watch the flour puddles turn golden brown on the skillet.
Yeju is bare faced today, her form-fitting blouse a smattering of funfetti against white polyester. The flimsy material is sticking to her skin and turning beige. Wrapped around her legs is a pencil skirt of moderate length, no heels. A cheap vinyl bag with the print of a running poodle on its side completes the look. Not her usual form.
She catches me assessing.
“How’ve you been doing?” she asks.
I’ve been telling close acquaintances I’ve been sick. A benign tumor. “I’ve been sick. Benign tumor. That threatens to be aggressive.”
The cook scissors thick pancakes into manageable portions before serving them up, effectively cutting me off. The sides are burnt and crispy, the dish a little too much flour and not nearly enough scallion. Yeju tears off the burnt bits before she wolfs down a piece.
“So,” I prompt. “Start talking.”
The hollow of her cheek bulges as she pushes her mouthful to the side, chipmunk-like. She begins.
It all started with a man and ended with his wife slapping her in front of six of her co- workers. The man, K, had a small apartment to his name, a Hyundai Avante, and also a funnel chest that prevented him from getting frontally nude with her, ever. But he’d shown himself to his wife and that niggled Yeju.
“I’ve heard this a million times before,” I tell her. “Twenty minutes.”
“There’s more this time. I promise.” She rips into another pancake.
The married K was good friends with another man, an insurance salesman called S. Yeju thought S a proper gentleman because he bought her two glasses of white wine and nothing more. He didn’t press for sex. Her sob story about being the office wife turned into a nuzzle, where he kneaded her thighs with his veiny hands as he gently head-butted her neck over and over again. One night, he drove her along the Han Kang Bridge and they watched the rainbow lights “flirt with the night sky”—his words.
“I’m leaving,” I tell her. I wish to curl up in bed and wake up in December.
“No, listen.” Yeju fills her paper cup to the brim. “Initially, I was trying to get back at K; I admit this. But I ended up really digging S. I met his family and all.”
She drums her fingers on her neckline. “S had a brother. Slim, good looking kid, only seventeen. He was a neutdoongyee, thus the absolute baby of the family. The mother was forty- six when he was born.”
The man next to us snorts. Yeju ignores him, or rather, doesn’t notice.
“His brother was blind. Nothing congenital. This kid was born healthy and stayed in tiptop condition throughout his adolescence. Then he suddenly went blind when he was sixteen.”
Her hand makes a pulling motion as if she’s switching off a light. Despite myself, I am hooked. Yeju has a knack for this, which is why she was so successful as a bar hostess. Most girls there listened but Yeju could really talk.
“Naturally the family was devastated, S most of all. He adored his brother from what I’ve heard. In fact, he claims he’s only ever loved me like he loves his little brother.”
I gag. “It’s a sales pitch. He’s in insurance.”
“Right. But that insurance saved his family. They were about to lose the house. The mother was diabetic, which led to renal insufficiency, which eventually led to hospice care. The father lost his job in a layoff and refuses to wash himself anymore, because what’s the point? Add to that the poor blind boy and you’ve got yourself a chronic situation,”—she uses the English word— “and S felt guilty because he thought, well, blood money. That money saved them.”
Yeju takes a pause to swig and I follow suit.
“They say soju tastes sweet when you’re miserable,” she titters nervously. I’m entirely unimpressed with this role she’s given herself.
“And, well. He decided anyone he cared about should understand the benefits of insurance. You never know when you might drive your car off the road or go blind.”
“That’s awful pessimistic of him.”
“Like you, Jimin. Your semi-benign tumor?” She challenges me now, her heavy-lidded, half-moon eyes waxing. I am waiting for the moment she asks me to partake in her beau’s insurance scheme.
“Anyhow, I told S the only way I’d spring for something that big is if he’d do it with me. And like I told you, he’s a gentleman. He applied first. I applied next. We are moving towards a new level of commitment as a couple.”
“How stupid are you?” I ask.
“No, but we are.”
She plucks a ring from the depths of her blouse, tethered to her neck by a delicate silver chain. Baby diamonds huddle in a neat line atop a thin, platinum road. The ring looks a hair too small for her fingers and does not belong in this seedy tent.
“He proposed,” she says.
“Did he?” My plastic stool scrapes concrete as I stand. The alcohol shoots straight to my brain and my teeth start to pound.
“This was mildly interesting.”
“Good to see you, Yeju. I think we’re done here.”
I walk through the tent sleeves without saying goodbye, realizing a few drunken steps later I’ve left my sandals at the bottom of my seat. Yeju emerges a moment later in a halo of light, my sandals in one hand and her vinyl bag smothered to her chest in the other. Her mouth rounds into an O as she trips over a beveled tile on the sidewalk, releasing a scratchy yelp as she lands on hard concrete. On all fours, she looks up and addresses the night sky: “I’m fine.”
I quicken my pace. Yeju swallows the pain and tails me. Gravel bites into the soles of my feet as Dangsan Road expands and brightens upon itself, and I reach the four-way intersection where two boys and a girl are walking a Pomeranian dressed in red booties. This nugget of a dog gets critical of my dirty, naked feet and proceeds to wrap its strap around me as it loop-de-loops, yip-yip-yip.
“Ottokhe—I’m so sorry,” the girl apologizes as she hands the harness to her friends and helps me loose. Twenty yards back, Yeju is still hobbling after me with shredded knees. When the street light hits her square, all three adolescents gasp and jaywalk from the site, dog in arms. The light turns blue.
Yeju finally catches up and throws herself onto my back. Her arms snake over my clavicles as my back arches, my legs kicking seconds after my brain tells them to, slow and heavy like they belong to someone else. My mouth is smashed against her bicep. MAC Ruby-woo drags along the polyester, leaving permanent, garish streaks. There is no one around but cars.
“His little brother didn’t just go blind,” Yeju gasps. “S took out a youth insurance policy a year before that kid went blind.”
I go limp.
“Needle, from a syringe.” Her arm is a hot noose, her whisper scallions and liquor. “He said it went in like going through thick pudding. Or like yanggeng, red bean bars. S was crying buckets when he told me.”
Sensing my body slacken, she unfolds herself some.
“Would you listen now?”
I nod. Face to face, Yeju gives me a look I instantly recognize as the one from my wedding, the time she caught the bouquet.
She was my purse-gal. Yeju flanked me throughout the entire pre-ceremony, collecting envelopes stuffed with cash and holding my purse while suits and mid-length dresses floated into the boudoir and took glossy photos of us looking unnaturally happy. My parents didn’t approve of this harlot, this semi-prostitute-in-waiting—as my mother called her—standing in as my best girl. My mother, the stay-at-home tutor, and my father, a distinguished professor of a university no one has ever heard of—they like to think themselves as proper, well-meaning folk. They did little to hide their contempt. Yeju graciously stayed until the end, her beautiful nails a bloody mess by mid-reception from being chewed on when she thought no one was looking.
I should’ve defended her. But her social accounts are peppered with heavy-handed documentation of takeout coffee and beautiful food, men with missing heads that only hint at the identity of the recorded. The most they show are pearly smiles because Yeju crop every photo she uploads to keep her life undefined.
Yet defined her life was, at least in my eyes. She used to tell me stories about her men, paying clients and non-paying ones. The way her hair cascaded onto pillows of every bachelor pad and motel imaginable—once, the back seat of a moving train; once, the gleaming wooden surface of a temple floor. The smell of hand sanitizers. Sanitized hands patting under pillows each time, groping for a condom, a knife, an ulterior motive, for her phone, to tell me that I was the only person she could truly be open with ever since that day we met in the hospital where we both eventually lost something: her, a womb, and me, a baby. In the end, her stories meld together—the motels, card keys, and cheap toothbrushes that spit bristles into her mouth where she eventually gives up and gargles using her own travel-sized Listerine, spitting again and again into a bowl that is perpetually coated with fluid, under a light that casts violet shadows on her face. I may have tolerated my mother’s vision of Yeju, if not outright believed it.
She didn’t want the bouquet. I threw it to her anyways. When the time came, she caught the flowers half-heartedly, almost quizzically, as if the hydrangeas and peonies had taken flight by their own volition and landed in her arms, like an evil omen, or a reminder. When we locked eyes amidst the flurry of cheers, Yeju shot me a look. Later, before I went off to Saipan for my honeymoon, she toasted me and slurred: be happy enough for the both of us.
“I’m planning to do the same to K.” The Yeju in front of me says.
We are still under the street lights, backed by the constant flow of traffic. I look down and half-expect to see my wedding dress dragging in hot gravel.
“You’re the only person I’m telling.” She pats the rump of her vinyl bag. “K took out an insurance, too, under S’s guidance.”
“Are you still seeing K?”
“No.” She shakes her damp curls. “Could if I wanted to.”
“Did S put you up to this?” I ask, feeling more absurd by the minute. “How do you know he won’t do the same to you? After all, he blinded his own brother.”
“I just know,” she says. “That brother is living with us now. We’re paying for his everything, and that’s okay. I’m living with S, and that’s okay, too.”
I watch Yeju rummaging around in her bag, fishing for validation.
“If anyone finds out,” she says. “I’m going to bring this to the authorities.” The syringe rests at the bottom of a ziplock bag.
“He kept it,” she says.
We walk back together. Our tired legs glide over the intersection, the flickering lights, the tent-bar, the gravel. We are swept into the maws of a dark apartment building, lifted by an elevator that smells vaguely of dead roses, cat pee. At the entrance of my apartment, Yeju leans tentatively against the doorway, tracing her breath with palms folded over her chest.
“We’re friends, aren’t we?” she asks.
“Maybe.” I wave her off. “I might tell on you.”
“That’s the chance I’m willing to take.”
Yeju sinks gently to the floor, shivering despite the heat. A paper-thin rivulet of blood is traveling down her left shin, heading straight for the talus. She says she’s not drunk, just exhausted.
As she lies still on the sofa, her head slowly dividing the two cushions propped beneath her cranium, I dress her wounds with mercurochrome, dabbing red over red.
“What did it look like?” she suddenly asks.
“His chest. I want to know.”
Her eyes are wide open, thick pudding and red bean bars. “Search up any old funnel chest on the web and you’ll see.”
Yeju shakes her head. “But it’s not his, y’know. I just want to know what was so bad about it that he had to hide the damn thing.”
The deep hollow of K’s chest floats by my line of vision, a fleshy bowl that cradled my palm every night for the six years we were married. He cried real tears the day he revealed it to me. He cried over many things, one pearly tear for each flaw.
“With no kids in the picture, you’re going to get a good amount.” Yeju smiles. “Maybe you can go back to school. Or try flying yoga. Remember you wanted to try flying yoga?”
I don’t remember a time when I wished for such things. Yeju dozes off, her nose kissing the hatch mark surface of my sofa. Her handbag is half open and loose by my feet. Her knees are an open wound, as are my soles, and I vaguely recall my high school teacher saying heat travels up girls, heat travels up. My body burns as I drift into an adjacent room, dialing. He picks up and calls out my name; hello, hello, immediately, then rushed. “Jimin-ah, is that you?” He’s ready to come back home. I open my mouth to find a blister taking over, knotting grey matter over my failing lips, sealing them shut.