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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the April 2019 issue

The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta, Part III

In this third installment of Sang Young Park's novella, two friends steal a microphone and discover their own insignificance. Read the first installment of the series here, and the second installment here.

Oh flopped over the table. Flecks of black hair-loss-concealer powder fell upon the empty sashimi dishes.

At least I won in terms of hair and alcohol. Not that it made me any happier. Oh, still prostrate on the table, mumbled about how he had to get to the Environmental Film Festival. Wangsha, who had been drinking quietly, suddenly let out a drunken shout.

You’re right, this asshole is a fake fag! What fag keels over after a couple of shots?

I placed my hand over his mouth. Wangsha abhorred, above all else, people who could not hold their liquor. We quickly emptied the remaining two soju bottles. Mija took out 30,000 won from her purse and gave it to me, telling me to hail a cab for Oh. I put the money in my wallet and opened my cab-hailing app. Did Oh say he lived in Gangnam? Instead, I input a certain restaurant in Hwacheon, Gangwon Province, as Oh’s destination. What kind of taxi? A black cab, of course, in keeping with Oh’s high style. Not ten seconds later, he got assigned a Benz S-Class. The arrival notification came when Mija was busy figuring out how much who owed what. Wangsha and I grabbed Oh and carried him out of the restaurant. The desert dust blowing in from China made the streetlamps shine yellow. Wangsha had allergies, and Oh’s body jumped every time he sneezed. We got to the Benz and dumped his body in there. The driver looked at us suspiciously.

This is the one going to Gangwon Province, right?

Oh yes. Do drive safely to Hwacheon, no rush. He has a credit card.

I slammed the door. The black Benz disappeared around the corner.

Bye, Daniel Oh. I mean, Oh Choong-sik.

Mija had finally finished with the calculating. She came to us, shoving the receipts into her purse, and said her husband kept messaging her to come home. She slipped passed us before we could stop her and tried to hail a cab. I touched her shoulder. Her husband was calling her? It sounded like a lie, like she was trying to avoid us. But I knew she was loyal when it came down to the wire. I was drunk, and sad because of it, and so with one hand on her shoulder I begged her.

Please don’t go. Please.

Are you dying? We’ll get a drink someday.

You said that last time. You said you’d come and you never did. You said we’d be together forever. I’m the only one that’s left.

Mija stood and stared at me. It takes a lot to faze Mija and she was definitely fazed now.

On the fifteenth day of shooting my graduation project from film school, Mija brought the cast and crew a big bag of hamburgers from McDonald’s.

You say you’re poor, but you seem rich enough to get us the empire’s hamburgers.

It was a stupid joke. Mija didn’t laugh. Instead she broke down and started shouting at me.

I can’t afford the set menu so I bought separate burgers! Do you know how much I begged them to give me a lower price? But what the fuck would you know! All you care about is yourself!

Mija threw the bag of burgers on the floor and threw down a curse.

This movie will never be finished, and it should never have been made in the first place. Never!

She left the set. She knew, and I knew, and everyone knew that it was insane to try to film a movie with just 30 million won. We couldn’t pay the cast and crew properly, and our shooting schedule was so tight that we were pulling all-nighters for over two weeks. Mija had been the one keeping everything together, dialing down the complaints and resentment. It did occur to me that my selfishness was ruining our friendship, but I was steamrolling ahead. I was ready to do whatever it took to finish the film. And Mija didn’t return until the shoot was over and we were in edits.

Wangsha snaked his arm around Mija’s.

Yeah, Miss Mija, I heard you’re a good drinker. Just have one more bottle with oppa.

Oh, oppa. You need to go home, too. You have to work.

Work? I’ve been unemployed for over a year now. I’m depressed, come on, have another drink with us.

Sorry, oppa. We’ll hang out next time. I really have to go. I’m so drunk.

Wangsha started shouting at her for some reason.

Hey, do you think we’re drinking because we’re not drunk? We’re making an effort here! You goddamn heterosexuals, you’re all so fucking lazy. That fucking director hits the table after just a couple of drinks! And now here you are, whining about going home! Jesus, I’m so sick of straight people. Popping out their ugly babies all over the place.

Uh oh. But it was too late. Mija pushed Wangsha away.

Fine, asshole. I’m a lazy straight girl. And I want to pop out an ugly baby, too!

Mija had been seeing a fertility expert these past two years. She’d also had a miscarriage recently, which made Wangsha’s words especially hurtful. Wangsha hugged Mija, who sobbed uncontrollably. They hugged each other and cried like the reunited Korean War families on TV. I could feel my buzz fading. I knew I had to get her into a taxi before things got really sordid. I hailed one, ripped her from his arms, and guided her teetering form into the cab.

As the taxi drove off, Wangsha started screaming after it.

Where are you going, Mija! Buy me a drink! Buy me a fucking drink!

Jesus, the insults and the cursing when he got drunk. I slapped his back as hard as he could.

You idiot! Did I not tell you, again and again, that Mija is going through IVF? Why the fuck were you talking about popping out babies? What the fuck was that about heterosexuals? Are you crazy?

That’s it, Mija is straight. Straight people have babies. We can’t.

Wangsha’s wide shoulders slumped. I pretended not to see him as I lit a cigarette. His shoulders began to shake.

I ruined everything. Again. It’s my fault. I’m always ruining things.

I stubbed out my cigarette and stood him up straight. I wiped away the tears on his face.

Hey, hyoung, stop that. I’m sorry. Don’t cry.

You are? Then let’s go to a karaoke room!

He was all smiles, leading the way. Had that been sweat and not tears? Did he just pull one on me? It was too late. Then as now, he knew how to go for the jugular when it came to me. Eh, fuck going to work tomorrow. Something will happen. We put an arm around each other’s shoulders and went down the unfamiliar street in search of a karaoke. Every step was greeted by a sheet of sand in the air hitting our faces.

The streets of that redeveloped city were as neatly arranged as bento boxes. But we couldn’t quite find a karaoke and our buzz was wearing off. So we went into a twenty-four-hour convenience store and got some dried salty pollock (high in protein, approved by workout-obsessed Wangsha) and five bottles of soju, which we hid in Wangsha’s large workout bag. We each took a handle and marched on. The bag was heavy as a full complement of army gear.

Five minutes later, we started seeing neon signs that were like mirages in a desert. World Cup Karaoke. Chanel Karaoke. Obviously, we went into Chanel Karaoke. Between the World Cup and Chanel, it was always going to be Chanel. That’s the kind of thing that fake fags like Oh Choong-sik would never understand about the real life of gays. Wangsha and I pushed open the glass door, bursting into the joint.

 

The interior was of another era. Red and white lights flashed everywhere. The proprietor at the counter was a woman whose true age was obscured by her eyelash implants and liposuction. Her middle-aged voice gave it away though.

You gentlemen aren’t going to order any drinks?

We said we were only there to sing. We enunciated this as clearly as possible, trying not to seem drunk. She kept asking, You’re two men. You don’t want any drinks? Or anything else? We shook our heads. She accepted the 30,000 won that came out of my pocket with a sour expression. It was the taxi money Mija had given me. The karaoke joint was small but there were a lot of lady professionals moving about the various rooms. We shuffled past them and went into Room 7.

I poured soju into the paper cups we got at the convenience store and tore at the dried pollock. We downed our shots. Wangsha, somewhat red at this point, leafed through the hundreds of songs clamoring to be sung off the catalog, picking a mournful tune. Then, when the EDM beat dropped, Wangsha and I stood side by side and did army group dancing. His moves were forceful, but his smile never left his face. A true professional. I wondered if it was his flight attendant school training. He was truly awe-inspiring, like a moth swooping into a flame. A sadness and beauty, a dancer dancing his last in the face of imminent death. If only I could’ve picked him, I would’ve . . .  When the song ended, his body soaked in sweat, he immediately input more song numbers into the machine. Songs by Untitled, Chae Jung An, FINKL, and Turbo. The numbers popped up on the screen. The selection was so Wangsha, this wide range of eras, octaves, and genders.

Our time abruptly ended when we had about twenty songs to go. We didn’t get bonus minutes. They had barely let us last our paid hour. Wangsha pointed at his watch.

I’m sure of it. They took out three minutes. They gave us fifty-seven minutes. I checked.

I knew of rumors that karaoke machines these days were rigged so that proprietors could knock off minutes on a whim. Who knew that it would happen to us? Bad enough they didn’t give us extra time, how dare they shave off our minutes! I threw my tambourine on the floor.

They’re doing this because we didn’t hire one of their lady professionals.

They’re treating us like dirt because we’re not partaking in prostitution? These fucking heterosexuals. They should die.

Wangsha was enraged. Then, having decided on something, he dropped one of the wireless microphones into his bag. I burst out laughing. Now was the time to show how classy gays can be. Wangsha and I tossed in the other microphone, the ashtray, the electric tambourine, and an empty soju bottle. We zipped it up and Wangsha hoisted the bag on his back, snaking his arms into the two handles. We took deep breaths, counted to three, and opened the door. We passed the counter, our eyes on the floor. The lady professionals looked away. The door chime rang loudly when we pushed open the door, and we ran down the steps instead of taking the elevator. Wangsha screamed, You fucking assholes,in their direction. We giggled as we ran out of the building.

 

We strutted down the well-lit streets of the new-old city. Wangsha was in high spirits and took out one of the microphones. It had a sticker label that said Chanel Karaoke in crooked handwriting. We weren’t the only ones stealing microphones, apparently.

What are they, ten-year-olds? What’s with the sticker labels?

Wangsha scratched it off. He was in a good mood. I snatched the microphone from his hand. I played Kara, Deuce, and Seo Ji Won on my cell phone and sang along. Wangsha, a true pro, knew the right dance to every song. Next up was Yu Chae Young’s “Emotion.” Our favorite dance song. Wangsha shouted at me. Why am I so excited? Yu Chae Young is such a great artist! He grabbed the mike from me and started singing. I didn’t know back then how to love someone. I barely made it through one line before the sandy air made my throat hurt. Wangsha hit a high note and cried a little.

Fuck. Why does everyone die.

I got teary myself. I thought I might as well have a good cry and really let it out. Wangsha cried, got tired of it, and gave me the microphone. I tossed it into the basket of a bicycle parked under a streetlamp. The joy of having got back at the evil Chanel Karaoke proprietor had been short. All the happy feelings we had disappeared and all we had in their place was fatigue. Our footsteps became heavy. It was 3:36 a.m., there were no buses or trains to take us back to Seoul. Wangsha said his bag was heavy. I took out the empty soju bottles and tossed them into a flower bed. I heard something smash. It didn’t excite me at all.

Hey, I’m hungry.

Yeah, me too. Let’s get hangover food.

 

We walked through the yellow dust like pilgrims and came to a sign that had risen in the distance like a mirage. Beyoncé Blood Sausage. We ran to it.

The building was a traditional hanok pagoda-roof house on the outside and cyberpunk neon lights inside. There was a man with a big head and a tattoo drinking by himself at a corner table. We sat at the table in the center and ordered blood sausage soup, and, what the hell, another bottle of soju. We dumped our rice into the soup and ate it with the soju. We were getting drunk again and feeling better about ourselves. They started playing Beyoncé in the restaurant. Wangsha took out a microphone from his bag and ripped off the sticker label. I smiled and started lip-synching to Beyoncé. We were really serving it until someone snatched the microphone from my hand. I looked up. The man with the big head and tattoo glared down at me.

This is Chanel’s.

Silence. I quickly looked up at the ceiling. Two security cameras with a full view from the entrance to our table. We were trapped! I don’t know what you’re talking about, I said casually. Wangsha blinked up at the man, a picture of innocence.

It’s Chanel’s. I saw you rip off the sticker. You know this is theft, right?

He smirked and called someone on his phone.

Hey Ma. I found our microphone. I’m at Beyoncé. Get here now.

The Chanel proprietor swept into Beyoncé Blood Sausage, fake eyelashes and all. Without asking permission, she sat down at our table and poured herself a cup of our soju in a water cup. She struck up a conversation.

I mean, I said to my son tonight, we just lost 600,000 won. The price of two microphones. We had to close early. Tonight was just not our night, you know? So we said, eh, fuck it. But look! My son then called me about finding the microphones. At this hour! At Beyoncé, no less.

He’s your son? Oh my, ma’am, you don’t look old enough to be his mother. But my flattery was hopeless.

Anyway, enough with the age stuff, my son was born in ’88, you know. Again: I was saying to him a moment ago that tonight was not our night. Let’s just shut it down and drink soju. He went on ahead and oh my, called me and said he caught you guys here? So I said, you know . . .  where the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window. What I want to know now is why did you do it? Tell me.

Wangsha stood up and spoke in a loud voice.

Are you saying we’re a couple of goddamn beggars who stole your microphone? Look here. We went to college, we have good jobs, we have houses in Seoul. We don’t have to steal your shit.

Wangsha took out a card and shook it in front of her face. The Chanel proprietor slapped it away with her soju glass and the card fell in front of me. Wonjin Plastic Surgery Clinic, Assistant Marie Jin. I crumpled it and slipped it into the trash. The Chanel proprietor didn’t so much as bat an eyelid and said, If this is how you want to do it, we can take it up with the police. Wangsha immediately reined it in and spoke in a calmer voice. Who are you calling thieves? We just happened to carry out the microphones by mistake. It is most inappropriate of you to treat us like this. We were going to bring back your microphones when we were finished.

Then why did you assholes rip off the sticker label?

This was said by the tattoo guy, who spat into a rice bowl. The Chanel proprietor told us we better find the other microphone or pay for it. A chilly silence descended upon Beyoncé Blood Sausage. I proposed a compromise. I think there’s been a misunderstanding. We just made a mistake in the process of getting drunk, and we were going to go back with the microphone once we were done with our food. We’ll find the other mike and get it back to you.

The Chanel proprietor’s expression was forced, like she couldn’t decide whether to frown or smile. Please. Who knows where you’ll run off to then? Pay for the microphone first. I’ll refund you if you find the other one.

I thought of the microphone I’d tossed into the bicycle basket and slowly handed over my credit card. The Chanel proprietor said, Aren’t you forgetting something? I took out the electronic tambourine and ashtray and meekly put them on the table. The Chanel proprietor and the man who was supposedly her son took my card and the things and left. Wangsha said he’d find the microphone and left with them. I sighed, thinking the ordeal almost over, and quickly ate the blood sausage soup mixed with rice. A 300,000 won purchase text message notification arrived. Assholes. Take it all, why don’t you. I messaged Wangsha and told him not to forget the refund. I went back to my soup and soju.

Half an hour later, Wangsha came back, grimacing. He gave me back my card and a receipt. I got a bad feeling right then and there.

You didn’t get the refund?

Wangsha began to wail.

We were robbed!

What are you talking about?

Those bitches found the microphone first and were putting on a show.

What? We put the mike in the bicycle basket.

It’s not there. Not in the basket, not on the street, nowhere. We were had. Had!

I screamed. Wangsha tried to think of a way to get back at them.

They were drunk but they drove here. We can get them on a DUI!

It’s too late. Who knows where they are.

Then we can call Chanel in France and tell them their copyright is being violated. Like Burberry did to that other karaoke that time.

Do you speak French?

No.

We’re fucked.

Yeah. We’ve been caught on too many CCTV cameras. We’re fucked.

We both flopped down on the blood sausage restaurant table and gave out hot sighs of impotent anger. Another perfect failure. And the thing about failure is that no matter how many times you get through it, you never get used to it.

***

On the last day of our mural-painting duties, we were doing the wall of Erbil’s biggest public school. It was near the end of our deployment and we were so used to each other that the job rolled like clockwork. It was an even sunnier day than usual, though, so we decided to take a break for a bit before finishing it off. The anime character I’d drawn on the wall and the cobalt blue that Wangsha had painted for a sky were drying next to each other in the sun.

Wangsha didn’t rest but passed out cookies to Iraqi children by a tall olive tree. I heard Lee Jung Hyun’s techno dance music coming from his mp3 player as I approached. Wangsha had given Korean nicknames to all the kids and kept talking to them. The kids joyfully scarfed down the cookies without seeming to care much about what Wangsha was saying. Wangsha had basically named the kids after the cookies they liked.

That one’s Potto, they’re Gosomi and Mon Cher, the little one over there is So Chan Hui.

How come she doesn’t have a cookie name?

Because she can hit all the high notes.

I had nothing to say to that. I just laughed. Potto was humming along to a song I couldn’t recognize.

Aren’t they cute?

They are. They dance everywhere. Just like you.

Wangsha hugged Potto. The guards were sleeping on the ground with their guns, their helmets pulled down over their eyes. Another ordinary afternoon in Erbil.

The reason we called it a day earlier than usual was the sandstorm. That’s what the desert was like, it would be perfectly clear one minute and a raging tornado of sand would go by the next. The nice day was replaced by sandy winds that whipped us silly. We couldn’t see a thing, could barely open our eyes. We’d been through enough of these to know they’d persist for a while. We put on our goggles and masks and gathered our things. We had to put off finishing the mural until tomorrow.

We were five minutes out on our jeep when the sound of an explosion big enough to shake the car resounded from behind us. We looked back and saw flames towering up from near the school. Screams echoed in the air. A black plume of smoke rushed up to meet us. I quickly put on my gear and secured my gas mask. The guards were also putting on their equipment. Even though it was unlikely, I was imagining things like biochemical warfare and poisons. Wangsha stared at the black plumes, frozen. Hey, what are you doing! Wangsha didn’t react to my shouting. I grabbed Wangsha’s gas mask from his gear and quickly put it on him.

It had happened in a second.

I learned in that second how everything in your life could end in a single moment. The years in which you think you believe you can do anything, when you don’t know how little is in your control. The world in which I believed I could paint anything if I had just five colors was coming to a close.

That night, Wangsha and I were the only people left in the barracks. Some of our unit members in the jeep behind us had inhaled a lot of smoke. They were transported to a medical center within the base. The explosion had happened at a market near the school and there were civilian casualties. It was said there were more than expected. Erbil had been a safe area. Our base was put on alert except for Wangsha and me, who were ordered to stay at the barracks and recover. We lay in our beds with our paint-splattered work clothes still on, silent. Wangsha spoke.

I wonder if the kids are OK. Mon Cher and So Chan Hui and Potto.

I’m sure they’re fine. They didn’t say anything about kids being casualties. They’ll be fine.

It was just smoke. Not biochemical weapons. Right? There aren’t any biochemical weapons here, right?

I don’t know.

Do you think we’ll see them again? Those kids.

I really don’t know.

What am I left with if everything dies or disappears.

Wangsha kept asking me questions that I couldn’t answer.

I thought I could be the one, the only one who would remain in his life. But I didn’t say it. I seemed to be the one thing Wangsha didn’t want to see remaining. I decided to do what I could do. I stood behind Wangsha, who looked so lonely, and hugged him from behind. There was a strong fragrance floating from the back of his neck. I closed my eyes. Wangsha stood still and said something to me, low and careful.

I’ve been meaning to ask you.

Yeah. What.

Don’t you have something you want to say to me.

Of course I did. I had too much to say to him. I wanted to tell him everything. That I tried my hardest not to show my awkwardness when I saw him. How he pushed me away, just so he could fool himself a little longer. How this was all a tired, played-out cliché of a cheap queer narrative. What I wanted to ask most was what was I to him. Just what the hell was I to him. But I couldn’t say any of that. He was already full of questions he was asking himself. His stiff neck, the way he didn’t turn to look at me, it told me plenty. And this was the Zaytun Division. There was a war on, bombs were exploding, and people were dying. My emotions were nothing more than another grain of sand in the desert. I knew that. But I didn’t have the courage to step forward. I withdrew my arms from his shoulders. I spoke.

I’m going to the Cannes Film Festival after we get out of here.

Wangsha grinned. What’s that?

I’m going to become a director and make an awesome movie, the likes of which the world has never seen.

I didn’t sleep a wink that night as I listened to Wangsha breathe. Through my half-opened eyes I could see his back turned toward me as he slept. I thought a lot as I watched that back. It was like a tall and strong wall. Maybe I could paint a face on it. Wangsha was probably frowning in his sleep again. I wondered what my face was like. What my face was like as I stared at him sleeping. Was it a face I knew. Or a face I didn’t know.

Our tour ended not long after that. Our final mural was never finished.

***

The last time our unit got together was at the opening of C’s restaurant. C managed to open an Italian restaurant in one of those tiny malls in apartment areas, using the money he got from his deployment. He was the only one who realized his dream. When we got to the restaurant in that little mall just outside of Seoul, we couldn’t help laughing. The name of the restaurant was Zaytun Pasta. C was so shy he was practically apologetic.

This used to be a realtor for Xii Apartments.

On the sign, he’d added a few letters to the Korean letters for Xii to spell the word for Zaytun. His mural-painting skills had proved useful. And if you thought about it, he did earn the money for the place at Zaytun. And there was all that olive oil that goes into Italian food.

C spent an hour making us our pasta that evening. It was overcooked and almost congealed. We had just barely managed to force ourselves to finish it when Wangsha arrived. His face was a touch gaunt and he was carrying a gift box of Del Monte juice. I tried to hide how glad I was to see him when I said hi.

After Zaytun Pasta closed for the night, we rented out a big room at a nearby motel and drank all night. We talked about how we each spent all our deployment money. Someone in another unit had lost it all at the casinos in Gangwon Province. A said he started day trading, and B said he paid off his student loans. I confessed I’d spent it all producing my graduation project. It was Wangsha’s turn. Wangsha, with a nonchalant expression, said he spent it all in two weeks drinking with friends from college. He spent half of it at a fancy club in Gangnam, and the other half in hostess bars. I wanted to block his mouth. He wasn’t looking at me, but I felt like he was talking to me. The other boys begged him to tell them of his exploits. I have a girlfriend now. Wangsha showed him her photograph. He said he’d met her at the club. The boys went nuts. Wow, she’s so pretty. Go get her, hyoung. I didn’t join in. I just drank. I was the first to pass out.

At dawn, I woke when I felt someone touching me. I was lying in the corner of the room. Wangsha had his hand on my crotch. The others were snoring. Wangsha, as if he did it every night, unzipped and lowered my pants. I opened my eyes and looked him in the face. His expression was calm and his eyes seemed empty, as if he had never filled them with any emotion in his life. I grabbed his hand and whispered, What the fuck. Wangsha ignored me and continued to take my clothes off. He said, Isn’t this what you wanted? I closed my eyes. I wanted to cry but of course I couldn’t shed a tear. I just bit my lips so I didn’t make a sound. And as I held in my breath, I realized that the Wangsha I had liked so much was no longer there. The me who had liked him, the me who had stared so longingly at his back, he was no longer there, either. Our feelings back then had swept past us like a sandstorm. When my thoughts arrived at that point I thought I would cry. I didn’t. It was enough that movies were melodramatic.

After I came, I hugged Wangsha. He felt deflated in my arms. He had lost a lot of weight. Maybe the anorexia had come back. He didn’t speak or move, and lay in my arms like he didn’t breathe, either. I withdrew my arms and pulled up my pants. I quietly left that apartment. I never looked back.

 

The mural unit met a few times after that, but Wangsha never showed. I felt an urge to contact him several times, but I always stopped myself. I believed that was for my own good, too. A few of the others tried to contact him but he had completely fallen off the map. There was a rumor that he had killed himself. I didn’t want to believe it. I called him. All I got was a message saying the number was unable to receive calls.

 

A year later, I got an unexpected call. A queer rights organization was screening a series of queer films that had been neglected in the past. A worker at the organization had seen my first feature-length film, The Unknown Universal Love, and wanted to put it in the program. This was around the time when every distributor in the country had turned it down. I got to my feet on the spot and bowed with the phone against my face as I shouted, Thank you, thank you so much.

The screening happened at a community art center outside of Seoul. One Thursday evening, I sat down with seven other dedicated art filmgoers and watched my movie. The center had been repurposed from an old factory, and the sound of other, adjacent factories echoed throughout the screening. Maybe that was what made my movie, which I’d seen so many times, so unfamiliar. Like I was seeing it for the first time. There was only one thing that I took away from the seventy minutes I spent watching it.

I’m really nothing.

My film was about a bunch of people who weren’t special and who loved in a not very special way. Oh, and an anticlimactic ending. Aside from the fact that the main character was gay, there was really nothing special about the whole thing. It didn’t even need to be a feature-length narrative. Mija was right. The film never should’ve been made in the first place. I was just drunk on my own ego. I’d never been able to see something for what it truly was. The credits rolled, and the audience left the room. I wanted to apologize to each and every one of them. I cried a little. I was about to really let it rip as I wallowed in my own worthlessness when some tall guy came up to me.

Hey. Long time no see.

He looked older and tanner than before, which made his eyes look even more sunken in. I sniffed. I thought you were dead. Wangsha smiled and asked why my voice sounded funny. I sniffed again.

Allergies.

I hadn’t been to Zaytun Pasta in a year. Its lights were off. We peered through the locked glass door. There was a pile of fliers and unopened mail right by the entrance.

I can’t believe it went out of business already . . .

It was a bit too late to go anywhere else, so we just went to a convenience store in the same building and bought a box lunch and soju. We sat at one of the plastic tables in front of the convenience store. Wangsha poured soju into a paper cup.

I hate beer.

Me too. You get bloated and it tastes like crap. Soju is the best.

Thou art wise. We’ve got a lot in common.

Yeah.

Wangsha practically vacuumed up the box lunch, a brand named after a famous middle-aged actress. I told him about what was going on with my life. Wangsha had gone to grad school but left after a semester because he couldn’t afford it. He looked for someplace to work and found a contract job as a teller at the National Agricultural Co-op. I asked him why a bank, and he said he didn’t have a real reason, it just happened to be the only place that accepted him. They said I looked really manly and solid and tough. Isn’t that hilarious? When I’m totally the opposite. But wow, you really became a film director. That’s so awesome. I didn’t know what to say to that. I just fondled my cup. Wangsha carefully asked me something.

But, uh, about that movie . . .

I know. It’s crap.

What are you talking about? I loved it! That’s not what I was going to say. I just think the movie is just like you. That’s all.

What was just like me?

The characters are always drinking and fucking, that kind of thing. I kept thinking you were trying to get my attention with it. Am I just being egotistical?

I dunno.

You haven’t changed at all. You look the same.

You’re a bit older.

And you still have no manners. You never call me hyoung.

We giggled and knocked our paper glasses together. Wangsha downed several shots. Then he got serious.

There was actually something I really wanted to say to you.

What?

I wanted to say I was sorry. I wanted to say it for a long time.

What’s there to be sorry for?

Just, you know. Everything.

Eh. Water under the bridge.

But I still, you know. Wanted to say it. I wasn’t in a good place at the time. I couldn’t accept myself. Which is why I ended up hurting you.

I said nothing. I took another shot. Wangsha started talking about the things that had happened to him.

It was true about his suicide attempt. He didn’t succeed, and he was treated in isolation at a psychiatric ward for six months. He lost a lot of weight and some of his hair fell out. He said he didn’t remember that time very well. That he had yet to recover the muscle mass he lost during that time. He said this as he stroked his still formidable forearms.

I’m not like that anymore. I changed everything. Well, not everything, but I’m much better now. Like you’ve realized your dream of becoming a film director.

I’ve realized nothing. I made a movie that cost 30 million won, seen by a grand total of seven people.

That is truly artsy. I think you’re artsier than I am, now.

We giggled again. His smile was like his old self. A smile of someone who wanted to forget tomorrow for now to fully enjoy the moment. The smile reminded me of how much I had liked him back then. I grabbed his smiling self into a hug, and he obligingly hugged me back. We just stood there, in the middle of a suburban mini-mall, hugging each other.

That night, we determined we just weren’t drunk enough, so we went to the Itaewon district for more drinks. We danced at an empty gay club that Thursday night until 5 a.m. before we parted.

We shared the same drinking philosophy where if you’re going to get drunk, you better get drunk quickly. It made us see more of each other, this time as two friends. Whose sexual desire for each other had been gathered in and tucked away, to whom remains a bright, clear friendship shared by two people who are going through the most uncertain part of their lives. And now, gazing at his wide and solid back, I’ve decided to reconcile and accept the me of the past who had so much trouble accepting him or even the idea of liking him. As you can see, I still dream of the impossible.

***

We couldn’t bear to drink after all that fuss at the blood sausage restaurant. We ended up leaving half our soju undrunk. We’d never left drinks unfinished before. Wangsha and I walked the streets together. I heard him cough with every step. When we got to a crossroads, a car blared its horn as it zoomed past us. A silver Audi. Wangsha shouted.

Get that car!

What?

It’s the car of those Chanel bastards!

I had no idea what he thought we were going to do when we caught the car, but we began to run after the Audi. I suddenly felt like I was born to catch it, that I had to catch it. We ran as fast as we could, but no human can outrun a car. The Audi ignored a traffic light and disappeared around a bend. Wangsha collapsed on the pavement and shouted in the direction of the car.

You drive the car of fucking war criminals! You dirty heterosexual bastards!

We were the only two people on the street. The sun was beginning to rise through the haze of the yellow dust. My eyes stung, whether from my sweat or the dust. I sat down and peeled Wangsha off of the pavement, righting him into a sitting position. He was crying.

Don’t do that, Wangsha. You’re drunk.

We fucking lost. We couldn’t even steal a microphone properly.

Stop crying. It wasn’t that expensive.

We fucked up. I lost everything. The mike, my dancing, my father. Everything I loved is gone.

Wangsha bellowed, Father! Father! and bawled his eyes out on the street.

Hey, come on, cut it out. You’re thirty-five years old. This isn’t going to bring your dad back.

Dad must be dead. Everyone must be dead. They all fucked up.

No, they didn’t fuck up. They’re just complete. Your father completed a successful life. And you’ve completed your dream of modern dance. We have, I mean, we’ve . . .

We’ve completed our dreams and all our feelings. That’s what I was trying to say but I was crying so I couldn’t. Wangsha didn’t even pretend to listen to me as he howled. If self-pity and craziness were prerequisites for artistry, both of us would’ve been the greatest artists in the world by now. I cajoled and comforted him, even slapped him. Nothing worked. He was always so conscientious, even about crying his eyes out. I thought about it for a moment and finally realized how I was going to make him feel better.

Art.

I took out my cell phone and turned on a song. Yu Chae Young’s techno dance number rang through the street. I didn’t know back then how to love someone. I started dancing to the music. I thought I must be really drunk as I was dancing in the middle of the street, but at least I realized it was stupid, so I couldn’t be that drunk after all. Wangsha was right, Yu Chae Young was a great artist. Her seductive voice could make anyone dance. I forgot about comforting Wangsha as I really got into it. Wangsha stopped crying and took out a bottle of soju from the bag. He said he grabbed it from the blood sausage place. He took a long swig and handed it to me.

So what is it that you’re good at?

I thought I should give the performance that my audience deserved. I took a deep breath and curled myself into a ball on the street. Then, I spread my limbs, and jumped up to the sky as high as I could. It was done with such a sense of restraint and grace that even I could hardly believe I was making it up on the spot. I thought I might cry at my own dancing. Wangsha cackled.

What the hell are you doing?

It’s modern dance. The title is, I Am Just a Small Dot in the World.

Wangsha shook his head. It’s not quite the right title. He got to his feet and held up the soju bottle in a toast.

We’re Not Even a Small Dot in the World!

He was right. We never even ended up being a small dot in the world. We never became anything. Everything we’d staked our lives on became nothing. Forget Cannes, I didn’t even make a good queer film, and he didn’t become a modern dancer. I never had a grand love affair and lurched into adulthood without even realizing what kind of person I was or learning about my own feelings. I was a homosexual but didn’t even homosex properly, I couldn’t even steal a microphone. I had fucked up at a level that was hard to find even in the movies. We had fucked up. We had fucked up and were nothing. Just a couple of queers who laughed and drank and had sex and were going to die. And nothing more, not now, not ever. We were nothing to begin with, became nothing, and would always be nothing.

Absolutely nothing at all.

 

END
 

© Sang Young Park. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.

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