With one semester left in college, I maxed out all of my credit cards. I applied for more, but none of the remaining banks took me. I would have signed up for a private loan, except I’d already made that mistake once. I was stuck with forty percent interest, which was the reason for this mess in the first place.
We sell girls like you, the collections agent liked to remind me. We pull gold fillings out of girls like you. We cut toes. We piss on girls like you.
I’m running away, I said.
He laughed. No you’re not. You wanted that crocodile handbag. We made it possible for you to have it. Now you make our numbers right.
Eventually I registered for a student loan and used that money to pay off some debt. I waited for the tuition fees my parents had sent me to come through, and then I used that money to pay off more debt. Any perfume or handbag with the tag and box, I sold it as well. I cleared out of the university dorms.
I moved into a ghost neighborhood. A forgotten tangle of alleyways in the heart of Seoul. I looked at one apartment, a studio unit with no gas supply, just some plastic windows, and I took it. My bathroom converted into a shower when I sat on the toilet and held the nozzle over my head. I set up a flimsy clothesline on the balcony, with nails and a handful of shoelaces from the discount store.
I slept on the floor, in a pile of old blankets. The blankets weren’t mine. They were dropped off at my door one day, probably by the nice old couple renting the place to me. The couple had also found me a few shifts at a nearby supermarket.
When I got hungry I ordered Diet Coke and double-fried chicken. Somehow, no matter which shop I ordered from, the same delivery boy came around. I heard his voice and saw his face over and over again, without ever really getting to know anything about him.
I sold my cell phone with nationwide LTE and a sixteen-megapixel camera. I didn’t write down any of the numbers stored inside. I didn’t transfer any of the pictures to my laptop. I sold my laptop.
With all lines of communication purged, I didn’t have to lie to my family, or beg and borrow from friends. I pictured them asking everyone at church to pray for my safe return. Everyone there would continue to be good people without me. People who tried their best on tests, arrived at church on time, and never parked in the handicapped space. Good people, enlightened people. Too ashamed to be seen with a crocodile handbag. Not once tempted by the vanity of taking away the life and the skin of another one of God’s creatures.
I could feel them worrying for me. The worry pulled at me like ant pheromones. That’s what I felt like, an ant magnetized by its colony. I felt poisoned.
I said goodbye to their petty perfections. I would never have to face them anymore. After all, we shared a city with twenty five million other people, a city built on the logic of numberless streets and looping subway lines. I had unplugged myself from their Matrix.
But sometimes I had dreams of following them undetected. I drove with them to where they bought their groceries. In these dreams I helped them pick out clothes and sipped on creamy espresso while they cut their hair.
One morning I woke up with a tooth in my mouth. It didn’t belong to me. I dropped it onto my hand, a small molar with the slopes of a mountain range. The next morning I spat out a sharp canine. My tongue felt sore where the tooth had pressed into me.
I walked to the 7-Eleven with the cash I’d made at the supermarket. I borrowed the cashier’s phone to send a money wire to my loan agent.
The teeth stopped appearing.
There were days when all the cicadas in the city seemed to sound at once. I had once been told the species in Korea were abnormally shrill. A single cicada held up to the ear could turn a person deaf. But then there were inexplicable days when the cicadas collectively vanished. I couldn’t hear the cries at all.
Not too far from my building was a single-shot golf range. I couldn’t tell which alley would lead me there. But I could see the massive green net with a bull’s eye target marked with numbers indicating how far your pitch shot would have landed on a real course.
At any given time of day I heard the metallic thuk thuk thuk of golf clubs making contact. On a clear day I could even see the golf balls flying on an arc. I envied the housewives with nothing else to do, just killing time, refining their swing.
The previous tenant had left a flowerpot on the balcony, in the corner with the most daylight. Whatever had been growing inside was now pale and dead. I used it as an ashtray.
I hung up my supermarket uniform to dry only at night. I didn’t want anyone walking by to look up at my laundry and know I was the supermarket girl. I sat beside my clothes, the stench of cheap detergent surrounding me, and waited for my chicken delivery.
From the balcony I also observed my new neighbor Nara. She lived in the apartment across the hall, had more friends than I knew was possible, and wore thigh-high leather boots even in the summer. She walked weightlessly. Hair, makeup, pantyhose—everything about her looked expensive. Her fake blue contacts held and twisted light like gemstones.
Nara enjoyed vampire hours. She departed after dark and returned in the morning after a night out with her girls. It became a soothing routine for me to watch her with my cold leftover chicken on the balcony. When the cicadas started shrieking in the morning, and the streetlamps turned off one by one, Nara turned the corner and came home.
I watched her and listened to damp leaves brushing each other in the wind.
Once in a while, she stayed in at home. Or she took visitors, a friend who would stay over for the night. Afterwards Nara walked her girlfriend out to the front steps of our apartment complex.
From bits and pieces of conversation, I gathered that her hangout was a place called Shampoo. It was a famous club catering to foreigners and half-Koreans and supermodels. The owner Ricky also operated several other venues. Ricky the kingpin, the Czar of Seoul. And no one was closer to him than Nara.
Eventually, every girl who came by wanted to pry about Ricky. Why wasn’t he at the whisky bar last night? When does the whisky bar open tomorrow? Can you sneak me on the table booking list?
So how generous is he? A girl with warrior cheekbones asked her one day.
He’s my boss, Nara replied.
Bullshit. I know all about your business with him, you little shit.
You know nothing. Zero point zero.
You fat fuck. So some nobody who doesn’t exist fixed your tits and fixed your face? You were a fat hairy fuck before he came along.
Nara kept still, slender arms crossed at her waist. Cheekbones dropped her head to shake and tease her flat hair into a big poof once more.
I’ll see you on Tuesday, she said. She gathered her hair into a bun, then let it fall, and just like that they were OK again.
I timed my chores to run into Nara in the narrow corridor between our homes. Sometimes I wasn’t so sure that she hadn’t planned to run into me.
Miss Kim, she called me, even though that wasn’t my name. Do you have hot water?
She followed me into my unit with three plastic buckets stacked in her arms. We filled each one. I held my door open as she carried them back into her room. She walked slowly, no spills.
We kept running into each other at night and moving water together.
She was a courteous guest. She took her slippers off and lined them up neatly next to my shoes before coming in. She brought gifts. A bunch of grapes from the supermarket, or samples of lotion from a department store. Once she handed me a real calla lily, slipped from a hotel lobby when no one was looking.
The flower had only one petal that wrapped into itself. The petal flared out like a white sail. I stuck the calla in the flowerpot while she ran some water for her shower.
You should just bathe here.
Miss Kim. I can’t.
But the relief in her fake blue eyes told me she would.
For the first time I noticed the pink rims of her eyes. Inflammation on the verge of infection. A common look on Korean women who couldn’t stop their cosmetic surgeries. They kept slicing their eyes wider and wider each time, until the eyelids couldn’t shut properly when they tried to sleep. Half the women in Seoul walked around with saline drops to soothe the sting.
I didn’t mind Nara’s swollen tear ducts and eyelash glands. She was still graceful, the tips of her wet hair curling away from her shoulders. Even her breath smelled warm and sweet, like fresh bread on display at a bakery.
You look clean, Nara said, when she grew comfortable with me. Clean enough to be in college.
I started playing with loans.
Where are your parents?
She nodded slowly.
I’d always thought she was my age like all the other club rats I knew. But from this close I realized she was much older, old enough to have a child to teach words to. Instead she just had a cold sunless room, like me.
We have to take care of each other, she said. She reached out her hand, but before I could react, she let it fall on her lap. She folded the hem of her dress over and over again. We absolutely must take care of each other. That’s what we’re here for.
I showed her the molar and the canine I’d been storing in a paper cup. She shook the cup around to see better in the dim light.
Has he taken a shit on your pillow yet? she asked.
You still have time.
I buried the teeth in the flowerpot, next to the yellowing calla. At night I shut my windows to keep out the breeze. Sometimes a noise woke me in the middle of the night. I bit down on my tongue. But it turned out to be a phone, or a floorboard, or a birdcall from outside that I’d never heard before.
I came home from work to find her waiting for me in the corridor. Next to her purse, on the floor, were shoeboxes full of coins. The boxes were so heavy she dragged and kicked them over the threshold. I dug my hands into the massive collection, five hundred won coins with identical engravings of a crane taking flight.
She told me our mission was to comb through them all, until we found one marked with the year 1998. Only eight thousand of them had been minted that year. Now, each one was worth over a million in auction. There was a secondary list of other production years that were valuable for other reasons. A new alloy, an unexpected misprint.
We’ll share everything we find, she said.
We stopped at different vending machines each day. Machines for colas, for coffee, for cigarettes. We checked for forgotten change in the trays. Sometimes we could afford to make a purchase ourselves and collect the coins they spat out.
I looked forward to my shifts at the supermarket. After lunch and after closing, I went through the coins in every register.
It wasn’t just the years that were different. Engraving tools seemed to change as well, which affected the thickness of lines and the milling of edges. Some coins felt heavier than others, depending on the compound used. They aged and wore down differently. Sometimes even the crane seemed slightly off to me, although Nara swore the crane had always been the same.
We sat on my blankets and looked through them together. Nara fell asleep first.
I didn’t stop her. I wanted to hear her breathe and burble through dreams. I wanted to see her hair fan out on my pillow.
She never picked up her phone in front of me.
If Ricky ever comes looking, she said, we don’t know each other. Remember that. You never knew me.
You’re not allowed to have friends? I asked.
No, she said. Not anyone he doesn’t already know.
Does Ricky know your hot water got cut off?
He used to in the past. Not anymore.
Because I’m not a parasite. I settle my accounts.
But you must owe him a lot.
Nara looked at me. He and I will get past that, she said. Like human beings.
I wondered how much her eyes had cost Ricky. How much the rest of her had cost him. It would be enough money to change my life around, to make me a simple university student again. He could change every person he ever met, if he wanted to.
It’s not just money, she continued. It’s history. Many lifetimes. We’ve been brothers sisters parents to each other, over and over again. We keep meeting and giving and parting and meeting and giving. For thousands of years. Every fortune teller says so.
Do you really believe that? I asked.
I’ve been blessed.
He’s a very convenient solution for the rest of your life.
Don’t think like that. People get punished for thinking like that.
Who would punish me?
It doesn’t matter. We are all on this earth to take care of each other.
But she stopped taking care of Ricky. She went days without seeing him. The days turned into a week, two weeks. She stopped meeting up with her girlfriends from Shampoo.
She wouldn’t answer calls, either. I heard her phone vibrating constantly, the low hum echoing through our thin walls.
All the while, Nara grew closer to me.
The first time I saw her without makeup, she showed me every surgery scar around her nose and eyelids. She recited the date and price of each of the scars. She took my hands and guided my fingertips along her jawline, the unnaturally sharp ridge, the numb spots indicating nerve damage.
Our first kiss happened after she traced her lower lip with my fingers this way. That was another numb spot, that lip, and all it could sense was hot or cold.
I could taste how lonely she was, and I knew that I was just as lonely for recognizing it.
Nara showed up at my door with a white envelope. The crisp edges told me it had never been used before. Inside were two paper talismans, black ink on imperial yellow paper. I couldn’t decipher the frantic brushstrokes.
These will protect you, she told me. No one is hurting you until you pay everything back.
She slid one talisman inside my pillowcase and took the other one to the bathroom sink. She set it on fire with a lighter, collecting the ash in a glass. She filled the glass with hot water and stirred to separate the clumps. I was to drink the whole thing.
I washed down the burnt taste with some warm Diet Coke. She watched me with her big blue eyes.
This can’t protect me, I said. This can’t be enough.
Of course it’s enough. The fortune teller grinds the ink himself.
How much did these cost?
She didn’t answer. She squeezed my hand into hers. I thought to myself: there was nothing for her to gain from me in return. But here she came, anyway. Wasn’t that also a kind of fate?
Have you ever asked your fortune teller about me? I couldn’t help but ask her one day.
What did he say?
He said we might be linked from the past. Or we might not be. He doesn’t know yet.
Well. He gets paid first and then he finds out.
But I didn’t want to pay a con man to tell me anything. Instead, I insisted we would find a 1998 coin together. That would also be a kind of fate. Nara wasn’t convinced. She gave all kinds of statistics on probability to feed her doubt.
I didn’t care. Not even about the coin. I just wanted her to feel with me like she did with Ricky, the weight of history anchoring us from somewhere far below.
Ricky could have all her other lifetimes. I just wanted this one.
I sold my pillow talisman to another cashier at the supermarket. I used the money to buy chicken feet, pig ears, and baby clams from the meat section. Back home I cut off one chicken toe and clip off the tip of a pig ear. I crushed one baby clam to get a shard of its shell. I coated these foreign objects with my saliva, spat them out into my palm, and with them I knocked on Nara’s door.
The loan agent came back, I said. They’re trying to kill me. I woke up choking.
Where’s the talisman?
It didn’t work. It’s gone.
Let me see your mouth. Are you bleeding?
I opened my mouth wide for her to look. I wanted her to see my cavities and gravel gray fillings. I wanted her to see I had nowhere else to go.
Nara set about cleaning my room of any trace of the intrusion. Materially and spiritually, the sanctity of my space had to be reclaimed.
She brought over her plastic buckets and an old dishrag. Even the toilet was scrubbed, inside and outside. We stuffed my blankets and pillows into a suitcase and dragged it over to the cleaner’s. She instructed the man to clean the suitcase as well.
We poured bleach all over my bathroom.
We bathed at the public bathhouse instead. We were naked, but there was so much steam, and so many other women in the bathhouse with us. We might as well have been in Shampoo, surrounded by a thousand other Rickys.
Without the silicone lenses her real irises were as hard and flat as beans. And without any makeup, the roundness of her naked face seemed bloated. I kept expecting her to take it off, like a mask, to reveal another face underneath.
She scrubbed me clean, almost raw.
There, she said. Not a trace left.
Now what? I asked.
Now you forget it ever happened.
Why wasn’t there more? I wondered, but I knew it would be impolite to ask. I wanted her to make me sleep in her room, away from danger. To tell me to pray to my ancestors for protection, and then to teach me how to pray to them. How to cook broth and lay out the fruits on the altar.
Instead we packed up our toiletries and covered our bodies with clothes again.
One night a black Bentley cruised down the street. Slowly, like a whale, with its headlights off and windows rolled down. It stopped near our apartment entrance, blocking the entire alley. One arm popped out the driver’s window with a lit cigarette between fingers. I knew Ricky was inside.
Nara met him on the steps of our building. In the darkness, the backs of her bare knees shone moon white.
You hate me, Ricky said. His voice carried upwards, with the pillar of smoke from his hand. I made you beautiful, he said. Now you want me gone.
You’re a kid, she replied. A kid with a lot of money. You’re a shark in a fishbowl.
Ricky tossed the cigarette. It hit a cement wall and rolled along the pavement without losing its spark.
But you’re the one who wanted this. You wanted to be beautiful.
Right now I just want to be ugly. Ugly and incapable and quiet.
What are you talking about? You’re beautiful. You always were.
Nara didn’t say anything.
You’re just lonely, he said. Beautiful people always are.
Nara crossed and uncrossed her arms. I wanted to see her break his heart. Instead she walked up to the car and tapped the side mirror.
Put your lights on, she said, you’re not the mafia.
Ricky laughed. His hand reached out. He grabbed her by a leg, right in between her thighs. And she let him.
You can do the quiet thing with me, he said. We can smoke in bed and make each other sick and watch movies together.
Why would I do that?
Because it’s fun. Ricky moved his hand up and down on her skin. It’s not always a fight.
Nara didn’t say anything.
She let him hold onto her leg. For a very long time, until the chicken delivery boy arrived in the alley. The boy pulled his scooter right up to kiss the Bentley, unafraid of how much a single scratch could cost him. He honked his horn in long stark notes. Ricky let go of Nara’s leg and drove away.
She stayed outside by herself long after he’d gone. She ran her hands over the cotton fabric stretched across her flat stomach. It kept her calm, to touch her own beauty and know it was still there.
I am blessed, she said to herself. I am blessed I am blessed I am blessed.
As a child, I had once seen an orchid that looked like a bee. I’d thrown away the flower in confusion, in alarm, in anger. Its largest petal wasn’t a petal at all, but a heavy black bulb lipped with brown fur. The bulb had evolved into an exact reproduction of the shape, color, smell, and touch of its target. That’s how the orchid survived, by fooling its pollinators into believing she was one of them.
Nara survived the same way. When she wanted to be beautiful, she went to Ricky. When she needed to feel ugly and incapable and quiet, she came to me. I helped her pretend her life also took place in a very small and very humiliating world.
But now that she was beautiful, she couldn’t stop, no matter how ugly she had been before. How do you give beauty back? Who do you give it back to?
We couldn’t live across the hall from each other forever.
She would have to move away, into a seaside condo behind wrought-iron gates, bare feet on tiles of imported marble. Sweeping her past into dark corners. Telling her new friends, over cool slices of sashimi at brunch, whatever new past she cared to invent. Ricky and his After Hours Empire would take care of it all.
When that happened, I would be left behind. By then I would have to buy another uniform for the supermarket to replace my fading one. This was our future.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long for it. Nara and Ricky got back together.
But not without first readjusting some parts of Nara, widening her eyes and injecting experimental-yet-promising fat burners into her thighs.
For one week she went back and forth between her room and the hospital, busy with follow-up appointments. Ricky drove her around and brought her food.
For one week she dropped me the way she had dropped Ricky. I didn’t have a phone to send or receive calls. Even if I did, it would be silent.
She came over when the initial swelling in her face had reduced to green bruises. It was safe to wash herself properly again. Her eyelids were still puffy, but the stitches had come out, and I could tell the results would be exquisite. Soon her face, like the rest of her, would be as smooth as the inside of a seashell.
She showed up with her shoeboxes, a new sample of coins in circulation.
Let me explain, she said.
I knew I shouldn’t let her in, but I did.
You keep what you find, I told her. And I keep mine.
Nara gave up after only a few handfuls. She reached for my pillow, and she let the post-operation medication knock her out without explaining anything.
The smell of metal gave me a headache. But I kept moving my fingers and eyes. I needed ten coins from 1998, ten out of eight thousand, to settle all of my accounts. Seventy-seven grams of copper and nickel.
I calculated how long it would take me to pay everything back, if I didn’t find any. No matter how many different ways I mixed the numbers, the answer stayed the same.
The Bentley dropped Nara off after all-nighters at Shampoo, when the black sky had turned into white clouds.
She always looked up at my balcony. I didn’t budge from behind my laundry.
I stayed still next to the flowerpot, which had seen some rain, but not enough to help the calla take root. Some weeds were sprouting. Slender leaves on thick stems. I tried to pull them out. The leaves broke off. Drops of white sap formed on the tip of the stems. I pulled the stems out as well, and rubbed the sap between my fingers until it turned to chalk.
You’re a weed, I whispered. We kill weeds like you.
Nara unlocked the entrance and walked inside.
In a few hours, the housewives would return to the golf range for lessons, and the thuk thuk thuk would begin again. For a while the neighborhood dogs would bark at the noise, trying to make it stop. It never stopped. Those dogs started up every morning, when just the previous day they had accepted the futility and retreated in silence.
You’re a dog, I said out loud.
The barking stopped for a while, then resumed.
You’re a dog, I repeated, louder.
I couldn’t see them anywhere in the maze of alleyways and utility cables. But I wanted to make sure they could hear me over each other.
We ruin dogs like you, I said to them. We stole you from your mothers. Now we will make you wait all day for us, for nothing.
The barking ceased. All of it. I wondered if they had really understood me, or if they just wanted me to shut up. Either way, I felt better. I didn’t have to hear the dogs anymore. Just like that, a part of my life had changed.
I began with small changes like that.
I threw out the flowerpot.
I took down my makeshift clothesline and invested in a proper laundry rack.
When Nara knocked on my door, I ignored her.
In one short afternoon I figured out the alleys around me.
I even found my way to the golf range, and went inside. I couldn’t afford a membership, but I left with a business card.
I went to the 7-Eleven to borrow the cashier’s phone again. This time I called my loan agent directly.
I told him I’d have all ten million by tomorrow.
Don’t disappoint me, he said. I’ve had enough people disappointing me lately.
I waited for Nara one last time. But this time I didn’t hide on my balcony. I waited on the steps of our apartment with two coins in my pocket, a 1997 and a 1999. I held them together for good luck. I waited in my darkest clothes to blend in with the night. When the Bentley drifted by, I would be invisible until it was too late.
The softest part of any car is the windshield, glass so soft that it’s almost impossible to shatter. That was the part of the Bentley I had to make contact with. I had to land on my back if I didn’t want permanent damage. All this on a taller vehicle. The mechanics reminded me of pole vaulters stomping the ground and soaring up and up, flouting gravity. No matter what, I had to clear the beam.
Then I would close my eyes for a while, to make them think they might have really hurt me. To overwhelm them with relief when I turned out to be fine.
I watched the Bentley roll down the alley. The headlights were off.
When the time came, I covered my head with my arms. I dove like an Olympian.
I hit the windshield and prayed it wouldn’t shatter. I told myself I wasn’t a human body hitting glass. I was a sugar cube stirred into hot coffee. I couldn’t rupture. I couldn’t break. I could only swirl and melt into smaller particles that grew faint and dissolved completely.
I bounced and rolled forever on the pavement. My head was still attached to my neck. A cement wall rushed towards me.
A door slammed. Ricky stood over me.
What the fuck are you doing? he shouted, looking straight in my eyes.
The neighborhood dogs started up again.
Ten million won, I heard myself say.
He threw his lighter at the cement wall near my head. It exploded, the handful of blue plastic.
I couldn’t see Nara. Only the carved shape of Nara inside the car. She called out to Ricky. Just get her the money, she said.
I kept my eyes on Ricky. His dry lips. The small balcony three floors above him, and then the scattering of clouds above that.
Ten million won, I said again. Or we can wait for the cops.
Call the cops, Ricky said. They’ll know you hit me.
It’s nothing, Nara said. Just get the money, and we can go.
Someday she would feel embarrassed for sharing any part of herself with someone like me. Once the pity faded, she would deny I had ever existed. But in that moment she was afraid of me and what I was capable of. Her hands came together to cover her cold neck. It’s nothing, she kept saying, but she couldn’t even get out of the car.