The affable young clerk laid out the photographs on the glass case backlit by a small fluorescent bulb. Their reddish tint, a bit like the color of the lilies that grew everywhere in the summer, suggested discoloration. Though taken with color film, the pictures were monochromatic, as if they were black and white photographs processed with red toner.
"The film's destroyed. It's been too long since you took these pictures. You didn't store it properly, either. You really shouldn't have left it like this," the clerk at the photo shop said, in a voice implying that it wasn't his fault that the pictures had lost their color. I didn't feel like revealing that I'd been unable to find a job for almost a year, without money to spare for getting pictures developed.
Innumerable water drops dangled from the ceiling and walls of my unheated semi-basement room. She had said that the water drops on one dirty wall reminded her of the work of a Korean artist living in France. I'd never heard of him. Maybe loving someone helps you to see a fresco in the place of a dirty, mildewed wall. At the time, I resolved to take a look at his paintings, but I still haven't gotten around to it, and now my memory's erased the artist's name.
It's not only his name that's become a dim memory. The talks we shared under this fresco created by the humidity; vows that, with the passage of time, I realized had been terribly empty; the salty taste of sweat as we licked each other like baby monkeys; the delicious struggle of loving, fighting, and loving again; all had become fuzzy, brushed with the color of lilies and tucked away into the corners of my memory. It was probably the awful humidity that ruined the film, rather than the passage of time.
I took those pictures when we went on vacation together. Though it was before the forest had lost its green, the landscapes in the photographs-the trees, rocks, people, and even the sky-were dyed red. She went on vacation with me, dared to say she loved me to death, and peed with the door open, laughing. She, who was able to fall asleep only after having wrapped her bare legs around me like a multi-legged creature, is not with me anymore. I'm exactly one year younger in those pictures. I wondered if she's changed. How could she have not, when even Kodak film undergoes changes?
Then again, maybe above ground where you can control humidity and temperature, she'd have transformed into an even fresher and younger woman than before. Like a flashback sequence on the big screen, she was smiling dreamily in the reddish photographs.
Knowing that I didn't even have the money to develop the pictures from our vacation, she at first said that it was OK, soon started to sigh, and later burst into tears for no reason. It was only after she'd left that I realized she'd been crying in advance, thinking of our parting. When you look at it like that, there is nothing that brings back memories more than pictures.
Though I hadn't yet been able to move out of my basement apartment, I'd found a job in the meantime and had enough to afford to have the old film developed. Perhaps I had gotten the pictures, which no longer had any meaning, developed just to make sure that I'd changed in the past year?
I found a job when I realized that I had to adapt myself to a job's circumstances instead of looking for the circumstances I wanted. By that time I had become savvy enough to choose the design of the wrapping paper in which to present myself to others. Officially I was the X-ray operator in an internist's modest general clinic, which he had established after quitting his job at the university hospital. In reality, my obligations were as varied as the illnesses of the patients who visited the clinic. Inner peace had descended after I'd adjusted the needle on the scale inside me measuring the meaning of existence. I arrived at work earlier and returned home later than anyone else. The breakfast served to overnight patients, which I could eat if I went to work early, was much tastier than my staple of ramen or instant soup, and the clinic, with perfect humidity and temperature control, was a lot more pleasant than the semi-basement room with the expatriate artist's fresco on the wall. Fortunately, the director thought my behavior stemmed from an innate conscientiousness. Aren't most losers like this? If they're scolded, they want to kick something for no reason; if they're praised, they try harder to prove themselves, even going so far as to lift up their grimy undershirts for you. What I'm trying to say is that, during the past year, I've changed more inside than on the outside. I've realized that if you want to be loved you have to be willing to apologize first.
So I answered the clerk, assuming the expression of a generous man who'd never been angry in his life. "It was in the back of a drawer that hasn't been cleared out in a while."
"I see." The young man, counting out the change, couldn't hold back and finally remarked, "There were some interesting pictures."
Interesting pictures? I didn't know which ones he was talking about, but I didn't feel like checking each and every one in front of the bastard. How interesting can a picture be in this day and age when you can access live porn in only a few clicks? Dumb kid. He hadn't yet learned how to treat customers because of his youth. You're supposed to pretend not to notice even if there's an erotic picture in the pile. But I give too much advice at the clinic to give it for free to anyone else. Instead of consulting the director, who spat out incomprehensible phrases, patients came to friendly ol' me to figure out the prospects of the disease and even the treatment. Patients wanted to listen to my predictions of an optimistic and vague future, like those of an insincere fortuneteller, over and over again. They wanted to hear it again today, after hearing it yesterday, and when a week passed they completely forgot about it and wanted me to sing hope for them once more.
So I left, throwing an absentminded, "Yeah?" over my shoulder to the photo shop guy.
The wind blowing in my face made me feel lonely. I thought for a split second that I shouldn't have gotten the pictures developed. Things haven't gotten worse for me since last year, other than excruciating attacks of loneliness from time to time. When the weather gets a bit cooler and I turn on the heat, the water drops on my wall will disappear. Does she still inhabit a corner of my heart, even though I'd thought I was over her? I put my hand in my pocket and caressed one of the picture's sharp corners.
I stopped by the bakery next to the photo shop and bought a loaf of whole wheat-barley bread. I studied a slice of cake with a thick layer of creamy icing, but then stopped myself. Working in a hospital had made me behave like an overly health-conscious patient all the time—although I felt like I was behind the times because I didn't have high cholesterol like everyone else. At home, after eating spicy beef soup at a neighborhood soup and rice joint, I looked around at the water drops hanging from the ceiling and the walls. I was sure there would be a day when I'd miss this place, since I was planning to move by next summer.
Maybe because I walked up the hill after eating hot food, a burning thirst rushed up from inside me. I took a can of beer from the fridge and sat at the desk. It was the beer. I wouldn't have had the urge to call her without the help of a little alcohol when I came across the "interesting pictures" in the stack. Is a single one thing ever the cause of something else? Burned meat and excessive drinking cause a tumor, a torrential downpour and a weak dam meet to create disaster, and when money and love both disappear, lovers part ways.
They were most likely taken in a cheap motel on our last vacation together. Not serious nudes, they were obviously shot with a lot of laughter on the part of both the photographer and the model. Even now, I could see the laughter spreading out with clarity, like ripples made by a stone skipping off the surface of water, from her open legs. Nostalgia slowly diffused through me like a gentle drunkenness as I looked at the pictures, shaky and unfocused with laughter. It wasn't so much that I missed her body as I missed the memory of warmth. Looking at the curve of her back in the picture, so much like a sand dune with stark contrasts, I started missing the feeling I used to get when I touched that back, the feeling of calm, of peace without any hint of violence. When I grazed her back with my late-afternoon stubble, she would let out a lament-like moan, gently twisting her waist like an annelid. Thinking about that, I wanted to cry. I wanted to tell someone, anyone, how over the years I'd lived through moments of defeat and despair all alone, how I'd been living without ever realizing how lonely I was, the way an abandoned child might. I visualized her phone number, which I still remembered, and wondered how I hadn't thought of calling her once till now, surprised at how cruel I could be.
"Hello?" Yun-mi's voice hadn't changed. Then again, voices don't change that easily.
"It's me." Mine was probably the same too. Judging from the way she didn't say anything, Yun-mi seemed to have recognized my voice. "You doing well?"
"Of course, what about you?"
The distance between us became distinct after the formalities. There was nothing to say. I fingered the pictures spread out on the desk. The pictures burning up in the color of lilies. I felt nostalgic. Through the small window, I could see the late summer night deepening.
"Remember the last trip we took?" I asked.
"Of course, I still think about it sometimes."
"Yeah? Well, today I got some pictures we took developed. I found them at the back of a drawer when I was cleaning my desk. I feel like I haven't had such bright and happy times since that trip. There are a few . . . interesting pictures that I'd like to give back if you wanted."
Interesting pictures. Unintentionally I had borrowed the photo shop clerk's words. Had the curve of her back and the shadow between her legs been merely "interesting" to me? No. At that time I was obsessed with them, wanted to lick them, received a warmth from them that I couldn't get from any other thing in the world. I frowned. The way I said "interesting" was vulgar.
"Yeah?" Yun-mi thought for a short moment, then made a quick decision: "Just rip them up and trash them. They're not the kind of pictures I can keep even if I do take them back."
Even though it was only a few words over the phone, the distance between us that had grown over the previous year had disappeared for me. I had returned to last summer when we were always nice to each other and tried hard not to say anything hurtful. We used to call at sundown to say we missed each other, and always made love twice in a row when we were at my place. I wanted to tell her that I hadn't contacted her not because I didn't love her, but because I couldn't do anything for her. I was also too proud to call. If I told her that, I would have also wanted to add, behaving like a spoiled baby, that the time I spent alone was dark and desolate, time spent in a humid cave strung with millions of cobwebs.
"Could you rip them up for me? You'll do it, right?"
"Yeah. Can I call once in a while?"
"If you want to. Bye."
Though not particularly chilly, Yun-mi's voice returned to its businesslike tone. Was she with someone? It had been a while and this really was so sudden.
I looked at the pictures one last time. It was true. These pictures were for the two of us to look at, laughing, never something to keep or show someone else. I found a pair of scissors in a drawer and started cutting the pictures into thin vertical strips. The strips, scattered across my desk, shone in a meaningless lily-color, as her unfocused dark crotch and her back, as warm as an afternoon sand dune, disappeared.
Sweat beaded on my forehead. Even though an arm, a leg, buttocks, and laughter were being cut away between the blades, a photograph is after all only an image. The sweat on my forehead wasn't due to the destruction of her body. The scream I heard as I cut the pictures was the scream of memories, of time that remained inside me without trickling away, or perhaps the onslaught of the sweaty smell of overripe fruit.
I placed the scissors back in the drawer but then took them out again. I started cutting up the film. The blades of the scissors didn't match and chewed up the film, and soon, bored, I cut them up in big pieces, not caring. I returned the scissors to the drawer. The phone rang as I was sweeping the pieces into the garbage can.
"It's me." It was Yun-mi. "Those pictures. I was thinking about it, and I think it'd be best if you gave them back to me."
"Uh-oh. I just cut them all up."
"You did? Damn."
"Well, I thought it wasn't appropriate to keep them."
"Yeah . . . well, did you cut them all up?"
"Yeah, all of them."
"OK, then. Make sure you throw them all out, OK?"
"You're getting all serious on me. Don't worry."
She would have remembered each impudent pose, one by one, after hanging up the phone. It was probably a woman's inclination to retrieve them and dispose of them herself. I poured the remains of the garbage can into the kitchen trash bag. The bag was overflowing and pieces of film fell on the floor. I put my slipper-clad foot in the bag and stepped firmly. With my foot still inside, I knotted one side of the bag's ties, then lifted my foot out and secured the remaining ties. I pushed the pieces of film lying on the floor into the gap of the bag. The last piece was Yun-mi's half-opened hand. Her hand that used to caress my back, that used to lunge to playfully choke me. I shoved the piece in the bag, trying not to remember the warmth of her hand when it touched my body.
Seeing me open the front gate with the garbage bag in hand, the landlady said through the screen window, "You don't have any food in there, right? If there's even a tiny piece of fish, those stray cats rip apart the bags and the pieces make folks fall down on their faces."
"Don't worry. I don't even cook at home."
"Oh, lord. How can someone young as you live like that? Think the food you eat in restaurants is gonna fatten you up?"
Hearing worries without a shred of sincerity only makes a singleton like me feel more depressed, but I decided I'd rather feel lonely than try to teach her that.
Yun-mi's sudden phone call reminded me of my empty bed, though I'd been living self-sufficiently all along. Yearning for the body heat of a woman who's gone is as useless as reading last year's horoscope in an old magazine, similar to reading garbage like, "Your relationships will grow. You can get lucky if you don't reveal your feelings."
Should I have lied that I threw out the pictures, but kept them on the sly? In bed, I flipped through the photographs in my head one by one. It was the rare night when I didn't feel lonely. Closing my eyes, I thought of the texture of her tongue licking my lower belly. I was able to come with only a few jerks of my hand. In my dreams, Yun-mi walked out of a photograph and let me caress her soft, dunelike back and allowed me to bury my face between her legs, its strong contrasts of dark and light. The feeling of warm skin made me teary, so I kept burrowing my face between her legs.
Far away I heard the doorbell ring. I hadn't had visitors for a long time. I buried my face in my pillow. I wanted to linger a little while longer on the periphery of sweet dreams. Someone leaned on the bell. It was probably someone for the landlord mistakenly ringing my bell. The window was bright. I guess I overslept. I threw on a pair of shorts and hastily held the front of my shirt closed with my hand and went outside. I could see Yun-mi through the geometric pattern of the steel gate. She headed directly into my room when I opened the gate.
"I see everything's still the same." Saying hello in a vague and awkward way, she asked, "The pictures?"
"I threw them out. Like you told me to yesterday."
"Oh, man." Yun-mi looked around the room and started questioning me like a detective. "Where did you throw them out?"
"In the garbage can."
"That garbage can?" she asked, looking like she would sprint toward the Snoopy-print garbage can in the corner of the room.
"Then I put them in a garbage bag and threw it out."
"Where's the bag?"
"Outside the gate."
She scurried out instantly to look and returned. "It's not there."
"They must've taken it away."
"Did you just take it out?"
"Don't worry, I cut them up before trashing them."
"God!" She became standoffish but then, as if resigned to the fact that she couldn't do anything about it, said, "Well, give me the negatives."
"I threw those out, too."
"What? You always keep the negatives."
"So you cut up the negatives too, before you threw them out?"
Yun-mi, with an expression of disbelief, or maybe frustration, stood there. "You're telling the truth, right?"
I realized, as I took in the woman with her dry voice and brown eyes, that we'd each changed much more than the Kodak film could undo.
Shifting her purse from her left hand to her right, Yun-mi announced, "I'm getting married." Yun-mi added, "You'd probably know who it is if I said his name." As if I, looking on silently, had asked her about it.
Then she stopped talking, as if she wanted to brag a bit about him but felt like it wasn't a polite thing to do.
"About the pictures, don't worry." My voice rustled, dry.
Anyone would be suspicious if a pathetic, penniless man suddenly got some film developed and then called to talk about the pictures. I didn't want to resent Yun-mi for that. But I couldn't stop the bitterness that arose in me as I realized I was the only one who wasn't fully aware of my situation, which everyone else could see so clearly.
"The room's cold. It used to be hot and humid."
"I didn't turn on the heat."
"It's cool at dawn, so you should keep it warm. Your feet must be cold."
Maybe because she'd rushed to come over, Yun-mi's feet were bare.
Though confused, I put my arms around Yun-mi's back and held her gently. Every time she exhaled, her warm breath touched my chest through my thin shirt. My feelings became confused. Her asking me to hold her seemed like a plea for me to remember our bygone love and to not even think of bothering her with the pictures. Outside the window, as small as a piece of construction paper, a cloud shaped like a rabbit floated by. Judging from the color of the sky, I thought that autumn was arriving.
At work, time passed quickly. Officially I was the X-ray technician, but there were times when I had to resolve staff disputes, direct traffic at the receptionist's desk, and even give medical advice to patients.
At first, my job of photographing invisible objects, after being used to recording visible ones, felt strange. Soon, though, I was able to determine the size, form, and even the condition of a patient's stomach or liver from his outward appearance, just like someone with X-ray eyes. Usually, the stomachs of cute women are also on the pretty side. At first, it was like magic to direct a nervous, compassion-seeking patient to stand on the machine, then press a button, and see humble white bones or a liver as cheerful as a mischievous child. These days, I think it's funny how I used to produce images of plainly visible objects and be happy about them for so long. Long gone are the days I believed that capturing a single moment in an image created new meaning, even art.
There wasn't a scheduled coffee break at the clinic. In the mornings there usually weren't enough chairs in the waiting room and patients had to stand, but at some point in the afternoon, the chairs would start to empty and the youngest nurse, Miss Oh, would put the water on, massage her swollen legs, and say, "Let's take a break," and that would be our break. It could be three o'clock or sometimes four, and sometimes when we were busy with a lot of patients, we would skip it.
Thursday was relatively calm compared to the rest of that week. The waiting room was quiet for once. Pouring water in the kettle, Miss Oh said that she wanted some soondae sausages.
"Let's draw straws to see who's going to pay. I'll go buy the sausages and spicy rice cakes," Nurse Kim said. I waved my hand, saying, "It's my treat today."
"Wow, really? What's the occasion, Director?"
"Ten thousand won and you promote me to Director?" I took out a ten thousand-won bill and handed it to Miss Oh.
"Tell them to give us extra liver and lungs," Nurse Choi said.
"Nurse Choi, you don't gain weight for nothing, huh?"
"I didn't even eat lunch today!"
"Bread doesn't count as lunch?"
"Hey, taking care of patients is manual labor."
"You know, I don't like hazelnut coffee. Black Mountain is the best coffee."
"I can't believe the director. Remember he said he'd let us take vacations before the summer's over?"
"I'd be like him too if I was the director; you lose millions of won when you close shop for even a single day."
"You really do start accepting the system like that when you get older."
I actually enjoyed listening to the three women more than the coffee. Because we all toiled together, in a place they'd nicknamed "the construction site," the women didn't pretend to be shy. Whenever I listened to their unpredictable chatter, which revealed a familial closeness, exhaustion fell from my body like fish scales. I'd started thinking that there is no one stupider than a man who doesn't enjoy the company of women.
So when the front door flew open abruptly and four men with bodies that seemed to fill the doorframe burst in, we all turned toward them with relaxed smiles brimming with generosity and happiness, the kind of smiles that implied that we would greet anyone who walked in the same way.
"You laughin' at me?"
Our smiling faces seemed to have annoyed them. The brutes looked around the room, then started kicking things that wouldn't hurt their feet but would make a lot of noise. Things like plastic wastebaskets or the I.V. hangers lined in front of the entrance. I saw Nurse Kim mouthing, Gangsters? to Nurse Choi, and Nurse Choi nodding.
"Where the fuck's the director? Does he wanna run the clinic or what?"
Yelling, one guy ripped off both his suit jacket and his muscle T-shirt in a flash and stepped forward. A tattoo of a dragon's neck with distinct scales was emblazoned across his chest, the rest of its body went over onto his back. As an ultrasound and X-ray technician, I'd seen all sorts of tattoos and most of them weren't even worth talking about. There was nothing to be scared of, even of people with such complicated tattoos that it was difficult to determine where their belly button or nipples were. It's hard to find a person as humble and unselfish as someone who's imbibed a nasty liquid prior to lying down on top of an X-ray machine.
Nurse Choi broke the silence. "Wow, it's a colored tattoo."
I was flabbergasted. People often focus on the details of a situation rather than the real issue at hand. It seems stupid, but sometimes it can have the surprising effect of diffusing tension. This kind of attitude makes the enemy lose his fighting spirit and triggers an instant protective mechanism. There's no man who would attack a woman who is in awe of him and bats her eyelashes innocently. Color Tattoo stopped in his footsteps and put his clothes back on, almost as if it were a favor to the nurse who'd acknowledged him.
With my eyes, I signaled Nurse Choi to go tell the director. While Nurse Choi was in the director's office, Color Tattoo came over and stood in front of me. Looking down at my nametag, pinned to my chest, he said, "So, you're Lee Sung-min, eh?"
Then he turned toward the director, who was coming out of his office. I realized at that moment I was the cause of this situation.
"What's going on?" the director demanded.
Don't they say that when you deal with life and death, you have to be prepared to grab people by the neck sometimes? The director's voice, considering that he was addressing thugs who were terrorizing his establishment for no apparent reason, didn't have a hint of anger or wavering of sentiment.
Color Tattoo's answer was also very gentle. "We stopped by because we were in the neighborhood. To see if the division between medical and pharmaceutical operations was going well, and to see if sick bastards were receiving good treatment. Let's go, boys."
Right then, Miss Oh walked in through the door holding a black plastic bag, and bumped into the men.
"Cunt. Watch where you're going."
With a gasp, Miss Oh dropped the bag. A few pieces of sausage rolled out. Shoes trampled over them and rushed out.
"Has there been a recently discharged patient who wasn't satisfied?" the director asked Nurse Choi.
"No, no one. Should we file a complaint, Director?"
"Nobody's hurt, right? It's fine, then. Technician Lee, clean up, please." The director went back into his office without another word.
Did Color Tattoo utter my name only after looking at my nametag? Probably not. His glare at me had a kind of warning in it. They probably didn't tell the director why they'd come because they knew that having me working at the clinic would be more useful in threatening me.
"Wow, wasn't that just like a movie?"
"Aww, Technician Lee should have pulled some neat martial arts moves."
"Are you crazy? One against four?"
"Maybe they're archenemies of Technician Lee's parents', and they realized that their only son, who they thought they'd killed already, is still alive so they came to eliminate him."
"You watch a lot of movies, don't you? Oh, what are we going to do about the sausages?"
"Older Sister, the spicy rice cakes are fine. They didn't burst when they fell to the floor. Technician Lee, let's eat first."
Yun-mi was standing at the corner when I returned home after work.
"Was it you?" I asked.
"Not me. It was him."
"What do you mean, him?"
"The one I'm going to marry."
"Oh, so you're marrying a really great person."
Maybe because she thought I was asking if she was marrying one of the gangsters, Yun-mi denied it vehemently. "No, he only sent those guys."
"What did you tell him that he's subjecting me to this shit?"
"We were actually together when you called. He's not the kind of man who dwells on the past. It's just that it's a harsh world. If it were only money that he had to lose, he wouldn't worry about this. You know, sometimes a man's honor can be the most important thing in his life."
"Aha, so you are marrying an important guy. What is he, a descendent of a royal family? Is he going to check whether you're a virgin?" I prayed that my voice wouldn't lose its calm.
"He says that men can't stand their ex-lovers getting ahead in the world."
"You want to go back and tell him something? That I don't care whether you get ahead or not. All I was going to do was give the pictures back to you because I just found them."
"But he said that you might feel resentful when our wedding is in the media and you see my smiling face in the papers."
"So what do you want me to do?"
"I'm sorry that they went to the clinic and made a scene. He thinks you're hiding the pictures. If that's true, give them back. He's the kind of person who'd do anything to get his way."
"I can do anything too. Do you want me to make copies of these pictures and hand them out at the ceremony?"
The color on Yun-mi's face changed dramatically. Blue and white, as if her throat was cut clean with a knife and had instantly spilled all her blood. "So you didn't throw them out! You have them? Do you? Please. Give them back, for your sake."
"When did you start caring about me like that? I'm going to say it one last time. There aren't any pictures. I cut them up, put them in the garbage bag, put it outside the gate, and it wasn't there anymore the next morning. Should I ask the local government to go to the dump to look for it?"
Yun-mi sighed, a complicated expression on her face. "I trust you. But he doesn't. That's the problem."
"They're just a few pictures. We took them laughing, so they're shaky, and you can't even tell whose face it is. And the negative is so old it looks like it's soaked with reddish paint. And I'm not that hard up these days. You know I'm not the kind of asshole who'd ask for money in return for the pictures." I told Yun-mi this slowly, as if spelling it out letter by letter, looking into her eyes, which, thickly painted with mascara like a Barbie doll's, blinked about four times.
Late the next afternoon, I was just about to go to the director's office with an envelope containing files, when four black suits entered the clinic.
Color Tattoo sauntered over, grabbed my envelope, and opened it. "This a picture too, ain't it? It looks just like the stomach I saw in some heartburn commercial. Whoever's stomach it is it's real cute, eh?" He returned it into the envelope and returned it tamely.
The other three stood in a row in front of the entrance. Patients sitting in chairs glanced at the nurses with scared expressions. Though the thugs seemed less threatening today, the nurses looked more frightened than yesterday, maybe because they didn't think they would show up again. A middle-aged woman who came through the door looked around to gauge the situation, then exited, quietly shutting the door behind her. Color Tattoo selected a fashion magazine from the bookshelf and settled in a chair. The patients turned their heads in all sorts of angles in order to not look the brutes in the eyes. Nurse Choi, bustling in and out of the director's office, would have told him by now, but he didn't come out to see what going on. He was faithful to his own rule, by which he had abided for twenty years, of never volunteering to solve a problem, unless the patient demanded treatment. So I didn't have the opportunity to confess that I was the reason for the commotion and that it was all because of a few faded pictures. Because nobody asked why. No terrible thing had happened by the time I closed the clinic doors at six p.m., and the thugs stood still in front of the door, not budging even once, as if to show off their leg muscles. When, finally, the other three followed Color Tattoo out the door, the nurses, eyes and mouths wide open, poured out the chatter they had dammed up during the day.
"Wowww, those guys are more innocent than we thought."
"His eyes were surprisingly pure."
"Did you girls see that his suit is cut from a different material even though it's black like everyone else's? Color Tattoo's is a little darker and has a nice sheen to it."
"Even on her deathbed, this girl's going to say 'fashion,' then die."
"The one nearest to the door looked young, didn't he? He's probably your age, Miss Oh. You should say hello when they come tomorrow so you can be friends."
"They're going to come back again tomorrow? Did they tell you that?"
"Hey, why do you think he was reading a fashion magazine, if he wears a black suit everyday?"
"Ask him tomorrow if you're that curious."
As for me, I felt like the rice covered with spicy octopus I'd eaten for lunch would pour out if I squatted and ducked my head. Chattering voices faded away. Announcing I didn't feel well, I asked the others to take care of cleaning up and left early. Sweat soaked my shirt collar, chilling me.
I had briefly forgotten that beneath its surface life was full of uncertainty, vagueness, and misunderstandings. When you walk along a dark, cold street for a long time, each brightly lit window seems filled with pure happiness. Unless you scratch the surface with your fingernail, the reality beneath it is invisible. I had forgotten that an invisible tattoo of fate was etched somewhere on my shoulder, and that I couldn't escape its solid boundaries, no matter how hard I tried. Leaning against the clinic building, I called Yun-mi.
"Why are you doing this to me?"
"Sung-min, I didn't know this would happen." Her voice was filled with good intentions, like the legendary carp wanting to pay back the favor, so I couldn't continue arguing with her.
"Don't you think you're going too far?"
"You can return the pictures if you think so."
Was I supposed to tell the story of getting rid of the pictures again, as if to a cyborg whose memories were erased daily? I shook my head.
"He said that if you called after more than a year because of the pictures, you couldn't have gotten rid of them. I'm starting to believe him because he keeps saying it, even though I know that you're not that kind of person. In any case, it doesn't matter what I believe anymore, unless he's convinced too."
"How do you convince him?"
"It's gotten so that he can't be convinced that there aren't any pictures. I really didn't think that things would end up this way."
Nothing changed the next day. The thugs arrived right after lunch and stood cautiously in a line in front of the door, as if they didn't want to disturb the clinic's work one bit, and, as usual, Color Tattoo flipped through fashion magazines. It didn't seem like there were fewer patients than usual. The director would never do anything as naïve as calling the police, and the nurses, perhaps because they regularly saw patients covered in blood, were no longer scared.
Miss Oh started the incident. Putting water on for coffee, she asked, "Would you like some coffee?"
The thug standing in front of the door relaxed his stiff facial muscles and said, "No, thank you."
Color Tattoo gently laid his magazine down on his chair, and went to stand in front of him. "You here for fun? You think I put you here so you can joke around?"
His voice wasn't raised and he didn't even look angry. Everyone thought that was it. But his punches, which started lightly, as if he were shadow boxing in his suit, started to gain more and more energy and momentum as time passed. The rest of the brutes, neither helping with the beating nor intervening, stood at attention. The thug didn't scream once, despite the beating. The punches stopped only when he was prostrated on the floor, his unidentifiably bloodied face pressed on the cement floor, and stopped writhing.
"Let's split." As soon as Color Tattoo uttered these words, the other two quickly boosted the downed thug on each side.
The scariest time is not when you're being strangled, but when hands are closing in on your neck. I was actually envious of the guy who was dragged out. Breaking the silence first, Nurse Choi exclaimed, "Wasn't that awesome? Better than a movie."
"That's why people say live action is better."
"I think men are sexiest when they wear black suits with white shirts."
I guess I left the light on when I went to work in the morning.
The fluorescent light peeked through the gaps around the door. As if I were the one who had been beaten up, a bloody afterimage danced in front of my eyes. I slid my key in the lock and realized that the door wasn't locked. I'm living like a phantom. Leaving the light on and going out without bothering to lock the door.
When I entered, I saw that the door to the small loft where I kept random junk was wide open. A black mass suddenly burst out from within. It was Color Tattoo. I shouldn't have been surprised. I could see the crumbs of my haphazard life strewn about the room.
"I see you've collected all sorts of things." Surprisingly, his tone was gentle. "But the pictures aren't here." He looked sad.
I climbed up to the loft and sat next to him. Even the dark, shiny suit, enveloping his large body, couldn't conceal his disappointment and fear. I imagined what would happen to him if he didn't bring the pictures back. No reason or explanation would be accepted.
"How about we look for them together? Maybe there are other pictures like those," I said.
Side by side, we started going through the boxes that Color Tattoo had initially inspected. We first dug through the box containing pictures of people. There were quite a few nudes, but there wasn't anything that might have passed for Yun-mi. The models were voluptuous and the complete opposite of Yun-mi, whose pelvic bones bumped into me when I held her tightly. Even the pictures with the models' faces tilted down wouldn't work because their bone structures were so different from hers.
"Don't you get dizzy when you take these pictures?"
"Yeah, I used to at first."
"Are there pictures in that box too?"
"Those are processing materials. Like the developer and photo paper."
"Do you process your own photos?"
"Well, I used to do that a long time ago, when I took pictures more often, but these days I just pay for them. These are old ones."
"Do you have a portfolio, sir?"
Suddenly called "sir," I stared at him wide-eyed, and he laughed a little embarrassedly. I was a bit surprised because his eyes, close up, were clearer than I'd expected.
"You're an artist. When I saw these, I thought they were different from the pictures of the whores in the magazines I read. Though I'm not sure what the difference is."
Artist. I bowed my head, avoiding his gaze. Over the course of the past year I had started to think I had stepped above the lowest rung of life. I thought that I would be able to rise above the cold, dark surface and spit out the breath I'd been holding, and that I would soon be able to breathe sweet, fresh air. It wasn't true. In the past, my pictures, lying on the floor of the loft, had given me a feeling of fullness even after I'd exchanged them for food. But now, when I looked at the processing materials stuffed carelessly into boxes and the photography books of Bernard Faucon or Man Ray tied with red string and stacked in piles, I realized painfully that I had sunk into an even darker, stickier, more hopeless abyss than I had been in when I had wrestled with these things.
"Wow, these look like nudes of trees."
The picture he handed me was taken in the forest, angled toward the sky, the leafless trees joining their heads intimately. Soon we had put our heads together like the trees in the picture, and started critiquing each picture within reach.
"Even this concrete building seems different when it's captured on film like this." "I feel like I'm rising slowly toward the sky when I look at this picture." "Where's this? It looks like an alley in the neighborhood I grew up in. Where was this?"
"I don't remember."
Color Tattoo looked disappointed by my answer. "So the photograph is like a storage place for memories and contains things we see with our eyes but in reality don't notice." A few blue dragon scales were visible on his forearm, as he'd taken off his black suit jacket.
"Will it ever fade?" I asked, pointing at the tattoo.
He studied his body carefully, as if looking at it for the first time, and said cautiously, "Looks like it'd be difficult, right?" He became gloomy. "When I'm older I think I'll regret it."
"You think so?"
"What happened to that guy from earlier today?"
"Oh, him? Don't worry. That's his role in the organization, so he doesn't have any complaints. The fist for us is proof of existence."
I laughed to myself at his sudden use of philosophical terms. "What happens if you can't bring the pictures back?"
"The pictures." He became downcast as if he'd forgotten. "I have to take them back."
I shook my head. There wasn't a single one of Yun-mi's pictures left. "Do you always wear suits in that color?"
"Only when I work. I have other clothes too, like an orange jacket and white pants."
"You wear things like that?"
"It's just symbolic. When I hang them up in my closet it feels like I'm a man of free will."
"I went to him and said it looked like it'd be hard to get them back. He said, 'Don't fuck with me. There's no such thing as the impossible for me.'"
"I really don't have pictures of her."
"Mr. Lee. The person who makes up the questions for a test also has the answers. Do what he wants."
I looked at Color Tattoo. A droplet of sweat, dangling under his close-cropped hair, sparkled under the fluorescent light. Was he scared?
"Call her, and say that you'll give back the pictures. Then when she comes, everything you need is here. The camera, the photo paper, the developer, the model. When she gets here, make her open her legs and take pictures. Make her crouch forward and take a picture of her back. She's done it before, why wouldn't she be able to do it now? If she resists, we just need to hit her a few times."
I shook my head.
"God, you're driving me nuts. It's not the pictures he wants. It's proof of his own power, not some unimportant truth. How long are you going to resist?"
He took his cell phone out of his pocket and gave it to me. "Fuck it. You have to do things you don't want to. That's life, isn't it?"
His voice wasn't threatening. Instead, there was an earnestness tinged with sorrow. Even though his delicate and beautiful muscles were glistening in the light, looking like they would burst through his skin, his voice shook in a fragile way, almost as if someone were hiding behind his back.
I pulled the box with the ripped edge from the corner. The developing tank and developer were in it. When I looked at the bottle, I could almost feel the sour smell of the developer, which used to stimulate not only my sense of smell, but also my passion for the work, fill my nostrils. The excitement I used to feel when I stared at the pictures rippling and rising like ghosts came back. If I used black and white film, it would be possible with these old materials. It would be better to use black and white and treat it with toner, rather than color film, if I had to recreate the faded pictures. I could see red toner and processing supplies in the box, and D76, which I could use as the fixer. It was perfect. I looked at Color Tattoo.
It was true. Life was full of things that you didn't want to do but had to. His words created bubbles in my head and slowly dissipated, like an antacid that foams in water. I closed my eyes for a minute, like a weak patient waiting for the medicine to kick in.
I took the cell phone and pressed the number pads. Color Tattoo had taken the camera out of the box and was fiddling with it. For me, photography had evolved from recording the visible world, to taking pictures of organs hidden beneath the skin, to the technology that would shield me from my invisible enemy. The photograph, first food for my soul and later the source of hot dinners, would now prevent my life from going off a steep cliff. I had taken a million pictures, differing in both subject and purpose, during my not very long life. If I wanted to recall an event in my life, it would be faster to think of the pictures I'd taken during each period.
The night before she left, Yun-mi had hugged me, crying silently. She had caressed every inch of my body with hands as soft as cilia. She'd said she loved me and, even though I was already embracing her, kept asking me to hold her, burrowing into my arms like a blind mole. Who would ever have imagined that she would leave the next day? Like the impossibility of traveling to the other side of the universe, Yun-mi would also not ever have imagined that I'd call her to return the pictures, only to take those pictures again.
"Hello?" Yun-mi's voice was relaxed and sweet.
We were so very happy the day we took those lily-colored pictures.
It's true—there's nothing like photographs to bring back memories.