October 7, 2009
The telephone rang. I let it ring for a while before picking up.
“This is Bong Han. Kun called me and I’d like to take you out for lunch.”
“Well, I’m still hung over . . . I guess I can leave now.”
“You should take better care of yourself. Why did you drink so much?”
“They started it.”
“How long are you staying here?”
“I don’t know . . . I don’t have a schedule. I have someplace else to go.”
“Whatever, hurry up. I do want to see you.”
He was a man of principles. He counted every bean, and he rarely trusted anyone but himself. He divided things into black and white and then cut them with a knife. Many people complained that he was hardhearted. His life was locked up in Kwangju in 1980. In the middle of the massacres, he had escaped to Seoul and hidden in an attic for two years before he was smuggled out of the country. Kang Won, who wrote poetry, met him accidentally during his underground days, and the little study group they organized together became a network of spies. After serving five years in prison, Kang Won struggled to make ends meet and died of cancer like Nam Soo. I liked Bong Han and loathed him, equally. It would have been better if he had remained a revolutionary, like those of the Japanese occupation era, but he was lucky enough to survive and unfortunate enough to live past the end of his own legend. For ten years he was in exile and managed to build several well-organized youth groups in Europe and America. I heard of him from time to time when I was in prison. Maybe he was now a scrapped vessel, his propeller gone, anchored at shore. But is there really anything you can devote yourself to for your whole life? I remember a phrase from a song.
I know in my memory
lies my strength
Slowly, very slowly, like a mound of earth dissolving little by little in the wind, what we wanted to accomplish was now leaving its mark on the world in a shape quite different from that we expected. But what could we do? There were still so many unknown days left.
“This town has gone to shit.”
That was the first thing he spat out when I pleasantly greeted him.
“Maybe that’s for the best. Now this city has gone back to normal.” Every fire in the world goes out eventually. What is left is ash. Perhaps some things are salvaged, but most are swept away by the wind.
“How’s your health?”
“I think I’ll be okay. And you?”
“Pretty bad. I once had a problem with my lungs, now it’s back. I have to do these breathing exercises.”
“Are you . . . making ends meet?”
“I manage somehow. Have you ever seen me worry? You need to go somewhere and rest for a few months, figure things out. What are your plans?”
“I don’t know . . . I guess I should look for a job.”
“Kun didn’t say anything to you?”
“His wife died.”
“How? Was she ill?”
Bong Han, watching his own words, turned his head toward the window and looked out toward the street.
“Hit by a car.”
“What . . . ?”
“She was crazy, she jumped in front of it.”
We stopped talking. He took the bowl of beef broth, bent his head down, and slowly sipped from it while blowing. I took a few spoonfuls in silence. Grasping the edge of the bowl, Bong Han’s fingers looked like a bird’s feet. Thin black lines of dirt were visible underneath his fingernails.
“I’m exhausted. This city wears everyone out.”
“There should be new things to do, different from what we used to do. No more commemorations.”
“Hyun Woo, do you have a line you follow?”
“A line?” But I did not laugh. Was there hope somewhere? If something like that still existed, that would be the line I would follow. I changed the subject.
“First of all, you have to get your life back. You’re anonymous now. You’re no one. You’re no longer on the most wanted list, all of that is over. Everyone lies . . .”
I realized he could no longer get along with others now that he had returned home. Lunch was done. I wanted to part ways with him.
“Well, I better get going. I need to go somewhere.”
“Somewhere . . . if you see Kun, tell him I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye. I may come back on my way back to Seoul.”
Bong Han seemed like he had more things to say, but I waved to him and walked toward the traffic. He shouted to me as I climbed into a taxi, “Take care.”