The Woman Next Door

Ha Seong-Nan
Janet Hong
A painting of four Koreans by Shin Yun-Bok.
Shin Yun-Bok, Whiling Away the Hours at a Cheongru, late 17th century.

A new neighbor’s moved into number 507. I’d just taken out the spun laundry and was about to hang it on the clothesline. The washer is junk now. Whenever it goes from rinse to spin, it gives a terrible groan and shudders, as if it might explode any second. Over the years, it’s shifted about twenty centimeters from its original spot. Since it’s done nothing except wash, rinse, and spin for ten years, no wonder it’s in bad shape. I pat the top of the washer and mutter, “Yeongmi, I know you’re tired, but let’s get through it one last time.” The washer wrings out the water and barely sounds its end-of-cycle buzzer.

Yeongmi is the name I’ve given the washer. It’s also my name, though it doesn’t get used a whole lot anymore. To a washing machine, the motor is the same as a heart. A repairman who once came to fix the washer said so. He’d said the motor’s life had reached its limit. It managed to finish its job today, but I don’t know how long I can keep it going this way.

Once my husband caught me talking to the washer. Seeing nobody else on the balcony, he’d asked, “What are you doing?” So I’d played dumb and said, “What does it look like? I’m doing the laundry.” How can a banker who has to calculate sums down to the penny understand? If I’d told him the truth, he would have thought I was crazy. According to him, my head’s stuck in the clouds. That’s why I’m always floating around in space, never touching solid ground. If he knew I’d gone so far as to give the washing machine a name, he’d probably faint. “It’s finally happened–a malfunction in your software.” Eight years ago, I worked at a bank too. Back then I never thought I’d be talking to a washing machine one day. It’s not that I have anything against my husband. It’s good for a banker to act like a banker, isn’t it?

The soy sauce stain on my son’s shirt didn’t come out. I forgot to soak it beforehand, that’s why. When I sort what can be hung from what has to be rewashed, only one of my husband’s dress shirts makes it to the clothesline. My husband says things that show how much he doesn’t understand: “The washing machine does the laundry and the rice cooker cooks the rice, so what do you do all day?”

A mover’s ladder hoist is lifting furniture up to the fifth floor. There isn’t much. After all, you don’t need a whole lot to fill an 75-square-meter apartment. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not the type to snoop around. But is it a crime to look? It’s not like I’m spying on people with binoculars. All the furniture looks new. I can’t stand shabby old things with peeling paint. The person who used to live in 507 brought cockroaches with him when he first moved in, and soon even our home became infested. It’s natural for any woman who’s been married a decade to eye new appliances, especially when her own are old and scratched up.

The furniture may be new, but it’s not for newlyweds, that’s for sure. One look at the bed says it all. The mattress is standing on its side, but you can easily tell it’s a single. This resident–obviously alone with these new things–who could it be? Most of the appliances are the latest models: a washer with a transparent lid, an immaculate gas range, never before lit. My gas range, which has to have its switch pressed several times before it lights up, can’t hold a candle to that. Who is this person? If my husband were here, he’d say something for sure, like how I’m turning nosy because I’ve got too much time on my hands.


Right away I know she’s the new person in 507. She looks like she’s in her late twenties. Or maybe even in her mid-thirties? Don’t they say it’s hard to guess a woman’s age these days? She has a large plastic bag in each hand. The bags are from the department store two bus stops away. They look heavy–the plastic handles dig into her hands, creating purple welts. I’m in the middle of carrying my son’s bike up to the fifth floor, which is the top floor. Our apartment complex doesn’t have bicycle racks, because it was built back when I was in high school. Rumors of redevelopment have been floating around for the past ten years, but still, nothing. But my husband keeps insisting this apartment is a great investment. Since it was built so long ago, trying to find parking around here is madness. So if they were to make room for bicycle racks, about two parking spots would have to go. For that reason, racks are out of the question. If I don’t want my son’s bike to get stolen, I have to carry it all the way up every time. It weighs at least twenty kilograms, more than my six-year-old son. He’d said he wanted to ride the bike, but he’s already lost interest, and has been whining for a pair of rollerblades for the past few days. But you can’t just go buy anything a child asks for. You shouldn’t spoil your kids. This is the only issue that my husband and I see eye to eye on. I have to hook the seat over my shoulder to carry the bike, but by the time I reach the second floor, my shoulder is stiff and sore. Then it’s only curses and frustration that spur me on.

The woman probably came up behind me as I was dragging myself up. She wouldn’t have been able to pass me because of the bicycle, but she doesn’t look a bit annoyed. And then to have the patience to greet me, with her heavy bags and all–isn’t that something? All I can do is bow awkwardly, hunched over with the bicycle. Cleaning products like scouring pads, rubber gloves, and a box of powdered detergent poke out from the bags. She opens her door while I’m chaining the bike to the stair railing and calls out, “Jal butak deuleo yo.”

It’s a rare thing to hear these days: I entrust myself to your care. I mean, isn’t this something a new employee would say to her superior on her first day? But I’m not her boss, her elder, or even her landlord. I’m just her neighbor.

“You know, there’s a supermarket nearby with a cheaper, better selection …” This is what I offer as a friendly greeting.

Jal butak deuleo yo. Soon enough, I would grasp the full meaning of these words.

My husband stops undoing his necktie and worries again. He says my reckless trust in strangers is as dangerous as a child alone by the water. He wasn’t always like this. The bank he works for merged with another bank, and as a result many employees were laid off. He didn’t lose his job, thank God, but he compared that uncertain period to the torture of hanging from an iron bar, trying not to fall. The generations that had to take mandatory P.E. exams in school know well the agony of doing chin-ups or hanging from a bar for a long time. The anxiety from those several months left a coin-sized bald spot on the crown of his head.

My husband seems uneasy that she lives alone. “Without a family of her own at her age–isn’t it obvious what kind of woman she is?”

“But you’d see what I mean if you met her. She seems very down-to-earth. People like that are so rare these days.”

I’ve said things like this before. But he’s turned out to be right every time. Triumphant, he would then reproach me: “How can you be such a poor judge of character?”

“What does she do, anyway?”

Naturally I don’t know a thing about her. While I set the dinner table, the words he spits out from the bathroom pierce my back like darts.

“You better not lend her any money.”

Standing in front of a hot stove
frying fish in 34-degree August heat is the worst. The dried corvinas I had put in the freezer all have their heads wrenched up. Some have burst bellies. It’s because the ice trays had been thrust on top. Even fish don’t turn out the way I want them to. The fish cook unevenly, since not all the parts are on the grill. Just as I’m flattening their raised heads with a spatula, the doorbell rings. It’s the woman next door. She steps into the front hall, flicking her gaze around our apartment. I can’t help feeling embarrassed, since everything is old and scratched up. My son’s toy blocks and grimy stuffed animals are scattered all over the place, and what about the dingy wallpaper smeared with his fingerprints? Just then, the washer spins the laundry with agony, as if it’s wringing its heart. But listen to this woman.

“Oh, everything is so cozy here! I don’t know how long it’s been. I used to live in a house like this. Pots with permanent stains … ”

The warped drawers are hanging open, exposing their contents. To my shock, the woman heaves a sigh, pursing her lips to hold back tears. After gaining control of her emotions, she finally speaks.

“Is it okay for me to call you Onni?”

Big sister. I’m so flustered I forget to invite her in. She speaks again, as if she just recalled why she’s come.

“I was wondering if I could borrow something … ” She hesitates and then mumbles, “A spatula.”

A spatula? I’m stunned once more. Although I’ve lived here for six years, no one’s ever come to borrow a spatula. It’s totally out of place, as foreign as, let’s say, the name Remington rifle. Not once has a spatula come up in conversations with my husband. And would I ever need to mention it to my six-year-old son? So of course it would sound alien to my ears.

The woman points at my right hand. In my hand is the spatula I was flipping the corvinas with. Needless to say, I’ve also given it a name. Frying things can get so tedious sometimes. There’s some greasy fish meat stuck on the end. I hurriedly flip over the corvinas and hand it to her.

“Thank you, I’ll bring it back right away,” she says apologetically.

A cheap thousand-won spatula with a burnt plastic end? I’m the one who feels bad. I call out to her as she’s disappearing into her apartment. “Make sure you wash it first! It probably stinks of fish!”

Just that morning, my husband had looked at me, shaking his head. “You act like you know everything about her and you don’t even know her name?”

Remembering his words, I rush out into the corridor in my bare feet. “By the way, what’s your name?”

Her voice comes to me through her open front door. “It’s Myeonghui!”

She seems to be in the kitchen, flipping something with the spatula. After a slight pause, she says, “Myeong, as in bright, and Hui, as in feminine. Myeonghui.”

Myeonghui is a single twenty-nine-year-old who teaches composition, four days a week, at an afterschool academy for elementary students.

“So did you learn anything about her?”

My husband’s got a twisted mind. I’m not a detective and Myeonghui isn’t a criminal. He mocks women’s friendships. He says our friendships are like aluminum pots, boiling over one moment and turning cold the next.

There are still more than ten corvinas left from the bundle I’d bought. My son is already complaining it’s always fish. It’s only after I place one on the grill that I remember the spatula, but a ramen ladle is hanging from the spatula hook instead. I rummage through the shelves, but can’t find it. The fish is starting to burn.

“Okay, okay. I’ll flip you over, hold on a sec.”

I lower the heat and even search the master bedroom. But there’s no way the spatula could be there. I crawl on the kitchen floor, peering at the gaps between the floor and sink. My whole body is covered with sweat. My knees slip several times.

“Onni, it’s me. Can I borrow the spatula again?”

Myeonghui, who’s come in at some point, is gazing down at me. Spatulas aren’t tiny like beans. So it would be impossible for it to fall in a crack, wouldn’t it? I try to flip the corvina with a pair of metal chopsticks, but it breaks into two chunks.

Myeonghui doesn’t ring the doorbell anymore. She tries the doorknob, and if it’s unlocked, she opens the door and lets herself in. I’m not so uptight. If someone opens up to me, I open up, too. Again last night, my husband said women were truly incomprehensible creatures. He asked how in the world we could have become so close in one week. I blurted, “As long as you’re a banker, you’ll never understand. You have no right to criticize her. Plus, you haven’t even met her.”

“Haven’t met her? I carried a sack of rice up for her just now. This is ridiculous. You’re actually defending a stranger you’ve known only seven days instead of the man you’ve been married to for ten years?”

“So what do you think? I’m right about her, aren’t I?” I wanted my husband to like Myeonghui.

“How can you tell by just looking at the hardware?” he said with a smirk.

Obviously, Myeonghui hasn’t returned the spatula after borrowing it the day before. So what’s she talking about, asking to borrow it again? I don’t want to accuse her of not returning a spatula that barely cost a thousand won. At the same time, it isn’t good for boundaries to be so unclear from the start. Just as my husband says, you can’t go trusting just anybody, right? Can I trust Myeonghui?

“Don’t you remember, Onni? I returned it with some fried zucchini yesterday. You hung it right there on that hook.”

The hook Myeonghui is pointing at is the same hook I always hang the spatula from. Seeing me so confused, she begins to laugh. Then she asks, “You’ve already brought in the laundry? You never sit still, do you?”

The clothesline on the balcony is bare. That’s when I remember the laundry; I’d forgotten to take it out of the wash. I hurriedly open the washer lid. Inside, the clothes have dried into a clump. When I tug at my son’s trousers, the other laundry follows, all strung together. Myeonghui laughs. I laugh, too.

Myeonghui brings me a present. She’s wrapped it in pretty wrapping paper and even attached a bow. But I know what it is right away.

“Oh, Myeonghui.”

I nearly cry. I sense my husband eavesdropping on our conversation; he’d been watching TV in the bedroom with the door closed, but the volume had been turned down all of a sudden. Myeonghui tells me to open it. It’s a spatula. The part used for flipping is stainless steel and angled just the right amount to prevent your wrist from straining, and the handle is made of silicone to resist heat. I’d seen it at the department store, but hadn’t bought it because it was too expensive.

“I was picking one up for myself and I thought of you, so I bought two.”

How could I have suspected Myeonghui of not returning my spatula …

“But Onni–”

“What is it–do you need something?” Now I can just tell by her voice.

“I think my fluorescent light burned out, and something’s wrong with the door, too. Can I borrow your screwdriver?”

It seems my forgetfulness is no laughing matter. In the morning Myeonghui came to borrow the screwdriver again. She’d returned it last night shortly after using it, but when I opened the toolbox inside the shoe cabinet, it wasn’t there. I’d been on the phone at the time. I’m the type of person who can’t do two things at once. I was the same way when I worked at the bank. Girls who could yak on the phone while punching numbers into a calculator or stamping receipts never ceased to amaze me. It’ll probably turn up in the wardrobe or my son’s toy box. Maybe I even tossed it in the trash. It happens all the time. You hold a piece of tissue you’re planning to chuck in one hand and the car keys in the other. After tossing the keys in the garbage, it’s only when you try to start the car with the tissue that you realize your mistake.

My husband calls me at lunchtime. He was waiting for his grilled tuna special to come out. It sounds like chaos inside the restaurant. Amid the stainless steel bowls clanking and crashing in the background, he raises his voice. “Why’s there a screwdriver in my briefcase?”

There’s no time to make excuses, for he calls out to the server, “Excuse me, there’s lipstick on the cup. A new one, please!” Then in the next breath, “What else are you going to put in my bag tomorrow? For God’s sake, don’t put Seonghwan in, because he’ll just run around the bank all day.”

For some reason, I’m the one who gets angry. “Seonghwan? What are you talking about–a new gum or brand of cigarettes?”

With the sound of his laughter, the line goes dead.

Seonghwan is our son. I feel as if I’m going to forget that, too. Right then I realize he still hasn’t come back from kindergarten. He’s usually home by 12:50, but it’s already 1:20. I throw on my slippers and run down to the apartment entrance. In the playground under the blazing sun, my son is on the swing and the person pushing him is Myeonghui. Then I remember. Since yesterday, he’s been out for summer break.

Myeonghui and I worry about my forgetfulness together. “Onni, stress might make it worse. Don’t obsess over it.”

But when I boil the kettle dry until it’s scorched black, she seems to think the situation is a bit more serious.

“There’s a famous poet who trains his memory. Why not use this chance to memorize the capitals around the world?”

I have trouble sleeping. At four in the morning, I get up and walk back and forth between the bedroom and kitchen to make sure I turned off the gas. Awakened by the rustling, my husband throws a fit. I lie down after making sure the gas is off, but I begin to suspect I’ve left the door open. When I get up and check, the door is locked.

Since I can’t sleep well at night, I’m drowsy during the day. My son spends more and more time with Myeonghui. Occasionally their laughter seeps into my dreams.

Myeonghui and I usually run our errands together. She’s given me a small upright shopping cart as a gift. She has the same one. We usually go to Huimang Shopping Center, which opened a year ago. Not even half a year later, the nearby supermarkets both small and large were forced to close. One or two survived, but it seems they’re barely holding on by selling cigarettes or liquor late into the night. When I’d told Myeonghui the first time I took her to Huimang, her response had been completely unexpected. I thought she would at least sympathize with the markets that were forced to close, but she’d just shrugged while examining the expiry date on a package of instant tripe-stew. “Onni, why do you shop here?” she’d asked.

Huimang’s prices were cheaper, but more than anything, you got prize coupons–one for every ten thousand won you spent. When you collected a hundred coupons, you could redeem them for a pair of rollerblades. Rollerblades are the latest craze around our complex. The sight of my son, gliding about the apartment courtyard on rollerblades, dances before my eyes.

“See? It’s survival of the fittest. There’s nothing you can do.”

The interior of Huimang is full of mirrors. Everything is ridiculously distorted in the bulging convex mirrors. In obscure spots, signs warn that shoplifters will be charged a hundred times the cost of the stolen item.

Myeonghui, who’d been picking out scouring pads, looks at me out of the corner of her eye. “Onni, isn’t it hot?”

Although the air conditioning is running, it doesn’t seem to be very effective.

“You want to cool down fast?”

Myeonghui slips the steel wool pad she’d been holding down my shirt. I can hardly breathe. I quickly glance around. Fortunately, the cashiers at the three registers are too busy punching in numbers.

Looking at my pale face, Myeonghui snickers. “Oh, don’t be so uptight. It’s just for fun.”

Turning her back on the cashiers, she replaces the scouring pad from my shirt back onto the shelf.

“Not so hot anymore, right?”

She looks into the convex mirror and sweeps up strands of loose hair. “Those signs are there just to scare you. They’re like scarecrows. But of course smart birds never fall for them.”

My legs are still shaking even after we leave Huimang. “Have you ever stolen anything?” I ask.

“Only when I was really young. I used to work at a supermarket and I would see women who stole all the time, cheap things like scouring pads and gum, but I pretended I didn’t see. If you make a scene over something like that, you’ll only lose your customers. So even though you see them leave with things in their pockets, you just let them go. One lady would come dressed in a trench coat and steal big things like jars of honey. But these women were regulars who were responsible for most of the sales.”

Myeonghui and I are like sisters. We’re very open with each other and get along without any problems. We even play around like little children. I don’t talk to washing machines and spatulas anymore. But sometimes she’s like a complete stranger. She’s very different from me. Using the same spatula and same shopping cart don’t make us the same. For one, she’s very fashionable. She wouldn’t be caught dead wearing things like sweatpants, even at home. Shuffling around in cheap flip-flops, shorts, and a stretched-out shirt–I can’t compete with Myeonghui.

Yesterday, I saw my husband coming out of her apartment. I don’t know when they became close. Naturally, she’s started to call him Hyeongbu. Brother-in-law. This isn’t so unusual, since she calls me Onni. He was holding a screwdriver. He said he’d just replaced her fluorescent light.

“Didn’t you say women are like aluminum pots? Boiling over one moment and turning cold the next?”

There was no way my husband could have missed my sarcasm. But far from getting angry, he grinned and said, “The hardware, obviously, and the software seem pretty good. She even calls me Hyeongbu.”

I’d been a little worried he might not like Myeonghui, so it’s a good thing they’re getting along.

The bathroom door is open a crack while I’m on the toilet. This isn’t the first time I’ve left the door open. My husband walks past and slams the door shut. I hear what he says. “No shame, I tell you!”

For someone who used to sneak peeks through the crack in the door, what does he mean by shame? It’s not like I leave the bathroom door open and urinate in front of just any man. What more do I have to hide from a man I’ve lived with for ten years? There’s nothing left to hide, like a pocket turned inside out.

Since it’s bedtime, I’m just in my slip. The nights have been over 30 degrees for the past few days. With a cigarette clamped between his teeth, my husband asks, “Why do you always wear granny underwear? You know the kind with lace? Can’t you wear those for a change?”

Lace lingerie … what could be less economical than those? You can’t even put them in the washer. They need to be hand-washed, and if you’re not careful, they’ll snag and get ruined. So why would I start wearing expensive lingerie like that all of a sudden?

While replacing Myeonghui’s light, he must have snuck a few peeks at her lingerie hung out on the balcony. I’ve seen them before, too. Delicate mesh slips like dragonfly wings, the material so fine they’re easily hidden inside a fist. So what does he mean I have no shame? I’ve never hung my underwear in plain view and invited men inside the apartment.

Above the stove hangs a spatula. The same one hangs above Myeonghui’s stove. I’ve named mine Myeonghui. I touch the spatula–the symbol of our friendship.

Myeonghui and my family are like one family now. Whenever I make stew or season greens, I make Myeonghui’s, too. On some weekend nights, the three of us have a few drinks together. I don’t know where she’s heard such funny stories. She makes us laugh to the point of tears. She and my husband seem to understand each other well. They talk about stocks and shares, even mixing technical terms like syndicate and franchise in their conversations. As for me, I have no interest in that kind of talk. Eight years ago, I worked at the bank, too. Although I was never late or absent, I never became an exceptional teller. If they were to talk about how milk production doubled after letting cows listen to music, or how hard the vegetation in a forest must work to get sunlight, I’d also join in. But when my husband and Myeonghui talk about things I have no interest in, I make tea or peel melons, nodding occasionally, pretending to be paying attention.

I lost the house key. When leaving for Huimang, I was positive I’d locked the door. Myeonghui also remembers up to the point where I locked the door and twirled the key chain around my pinky. My forgetfulness is a big problem. Where could I have dropped it? I search the flowerbeds and walk all the way back to the store with my gaze glued to the ground, but I don’t see it. While I stand anxiously in front of my door, Myeonghui calls the locksmith. The locksmith arrives on a motorcycle and takes less than two minutes to open the door for us. By then, my son’s ice cream has melted in the grocery bag. He comes up from the playground and screams as he chucks the ice cream. “Stupid Mommy, stupid Mommy.”

Sensing my anger, he darts off without slipping on his shoes. It’s off to Myeonghui’s again. He eyes me as he clings to the ends of her skirt, using her as a shield.

“Come here. You better come here by the time I count to three.”

But even when I count to three three times, he doesn’t budge. The tactic doesn’t work anymore.

Myeonghui scolds him, purposely wearing an angry expression. “If you say something mean like that again, a horn will grow on your bum. You understand?”

My son’s black pupils glitter in his grimy face.

“I’m serious. A boy I knew ended up with a horn this big on his bum!”

Left with no other choice, he reluctantly comes out from behind Myeonghui. Without looking at me, he mumbles as if he’s reciting lines. “Mommy, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

I don’t know when Myeonghui’s words began to carry more weight. I start to know, then don’t know.

“What’s going on inside that head? Take a good look in the mirror. No wonder you can’t think straight. You look like a lunatic.”

My husband changes the lock. Myeonghui seems more upset than me. I have to admit my feet look pretty filthy, with dirt between my bare toes and my cracked heels like a turtle’s shell. Since I’d been running around in my flip-flops, there’s no way they’d stay clean.

“Where’s your head at? You’re like a person playing with a ball, except without the actual ball.”

My husband doesn’t look me in the face anymore. Why does this man refuse to look at me?

Myeonghui thrusts something at me. She’s even laminated it.

“I didn’t know if I should. But you know how I feel … ”

The capital of the United States is Washington, Canada is Ottawa, Australia is Canberra, Ethiopia is Addis Ababa, Burundi is Bujumbura … Tiny writing fills the whole page.

“A teacher from my school helped me. Better safe than sorry, right?”

Thinking of Myeonghui’s efforts, I stick it on the fridge with a magnet.

My husband goes to get a drink and sees the list on the fridge.

“Addis Ababa? What the hell is this? Why do you waste your time on these stupid things? You retain such useless information that you end up forgetting the stuff you actually need. What are you planning to put in my briefcase today? What surprise do you have up your sleeve this time?”

My son, who had been lowering his chopsticks to the corvina, starts with fright and backs away.

“What is it? Did you find a hair or something?”

My gaze runs over the whole plate, but there’s nothing wrong, except that the lower part of the fish is a bit burnt. He points at its mouth with the ends of his chopsticks. The tongue, fried in oil, is a dark gray. Pushed out of its mouth, it lies limply on the edge of the plate, looking like a fat caterpillar.

“I’m never going to eat fish again, Mommy. Auntie’s fish doesn’t look like this. I like nice fish.”

I take out the rest of the corvinas from the freezer. My fingertips go nearly numb from tugging the fish out of the twine. All of them have their tongues sticking out. The tongues seem too large for fish. Why do they need tongues anyway? Not to taste or to talk. Are they only for pushing food into the esophagus, like the shovel of a bulldozer? The fish seem to be sticking them out only to taunt me. Stupid Yeongmi, stupid Yeongmi. I pull out each tongue and snip it off with scissors.

The owner of Huimang watches me a little too closely. Even if she doesn’t, I don’t like her bulblike eyes that gleam with suspicion and nosiness. They’re eyes that catch everything without seeming to, eyes that would light up like a hundred-watt bulb with the flick of the switch. If it weren’t for the prize coupons, if it weren’t for the rollerblades, I wouldn’t come here at all. Plus, I know she’s cheating me with the scale. I get two kilograms of tomatoes from her. Then I go to the snack aisle to get crackers for my son. I can’t help picking up and putting down various packages, since I try to find ones with less sugar. But the owner, who’d been sitting in the produce section, is suddenly behind me. As soon as our eyes meet, she retreats hastily back to produce. Then in another aisle, I’m putting a box of laundry detergent into the shopping cart when I glance back and meet the eyes of the owner once again. How could she be suspicious of someone like me? I hurriedly pay for my things and leave. If I just collect two more coupons, I can get the rollerblades.

Whenever I stand in front of the washer or fry fish, I now memorize the capital cities around the world. I’ve already memorized over fifty different capitals. I hope this works. I’ve replaced the kettle with a new one that whistles when the water starts to boil. The washer is struggling to do the spin cycle today. The theory behind washing machines is quite simple. Spinning uses centrifugal force. The repairman told me, so it should be right. The reason the drum, which can hold six and a half kilograms of laundry, doesn’t fly out is because its protective box prevents it from escaping. But you never know if the washer that could no longer handle the centrifugal force would crash through the balcony window one day. Patting the washer lid, I whisper, “What happened? How did you come to this?”

It seems my husband and Myeonghui got off work at the same time. Through the window, I see them walking side by side as they cut across the apartment courtyard. They walk up to the entrance and stop. Then my husband turns and begins to walk toward the playground by himself. Myeonghui comes up to the fifth floor first. I hear her door open and close. Around ten minutes later, my husband rings our doorbell.

A couple of days ago, I’d heard her say to him, “I’d like to make a deposit of around 10 million won at your bank. Could you help me choose a plan that comes with tax benefits and a high interest rate?”

She’d probably stopped by his bank to make the deposit. Considering his bank isn’t even nearby, I should be grateful she went out of her way. That’s probably why they ended up coming home together. And they probably pretended to come home separately, so that I wouldn’t get suspicious. After all, my husband believes my head is full of daydreams, and he doesn’t believe in friendships between women. I’m sure he’s being careful so that my friendship with Myeonghui doesn’t end over a small misunderstanding. But our friendship isn’t like aluminum pots.

My face in the bulging surveillance mirror looks distorted and ugly. Without makeup, it seems especially sallow, and because I didn’t get enough sleep, my eyes are bloodshot. Just as my husband said, my mind really seems to be off in space. I feel as if I’m walking on sunken ground.

Myeonghui says it’s just my nerves, but I’m certain the owner of Huimang is suspicious of me.

“Onni, try to relax. You’re just being paranoid. I’m worried you’re going to drive yourself crazy.”

Is she right? Am I just paranoid? Myeonghui is looking inside the ice cream cooler with my son. She often gives him what he wants. Just a couple of days ago, she bought him a box of expensive cookies that came with a cheap toy, and slipped an ice cream cone in his hand. I keep telling her not to do that. I tell her it would only spoil him and create bad habits, but she doesn’t listen.

I come to the aisle with household goods. A sign warns that stolen goods must be compensated a hundred times the original price. Myeonghui had called it a scarecrow. I laugh to myself and repeat what she’d said. I touch a steel wool pad the way she had. There isn’t a single person in sight. Turning my back on the checkout counters, I quickly slip the scouring pad into my bra. I feel a thrill run down my spine. When I look behind me, the owner is glancing half-heartedly between the aisles.

“Hey Light Bulb Eyes! Catch me if you can. I’m right here!”

The owner doesn’t scare me. To balance things out, I slip another scouring pad into the other side of my bra. My breasts become extremely full. I shine those breasts in the bulging mirror. If the owner is suspicious, she’d be running up to me by now, but no one has noticed. I guess Myeonghui is right. I’m just tense because I haven’t been getting enough sleep.

Myeonghui approaches, pushing the shopping cart. My son holds her hand, and in his other hand there’s a box of cookies that comes with a toy. If I get one more coupon, I can redeem all the coupons for a pair of rollerblades. As soon as I mention the rollerblades, my son begins to jump up and down with excitement. I pay for my things and collect the last coupon. As we’re about to step out of the store, the owner blocks my path.

“I need to see everything inside your bag.”

It’s only then that I realize I’d forgotten to take the scouring pads out of my bra. I swear I didn’t plan on stealing them. I have two new ones at home. It was only for fun.

“What kind of people do you take us for?” Myeonghui yells.

The people on the street look at us. We follow the owner back into the store. She hasn’t noticed the scouring pads stuffed inside my bra, has she? She takes everything out of the bag and places it on the floor. One by one, she checks each item against the receipt. A crowd begins to form around us. They’re all familiar faces. After all, I’ve lived in the neighborhood for six years.

Myeonghui says to the owner, “You’re going to be sorry! You’re accusing innocent people here!”

“Explain this pack of gum, then!” the owner cries, holding the gum up to my nose.

It’s a pack of Juicy Fruit. I’ve never bought that gum before. Instead of me, it’s Myeonghui who shouts.

“Do we look like people who would steal a measly pack of gum that costs three hundred won? Do you really want to kiss your business good-bye?”

The owner refuses to back down. My senses start to grow dim. Their voices buzz in my ears.

Myeonghui calls my husband. I don’t know how she knows his work number by heart. My son, terrified, begins to cry. She clasps his hand and wipes away his tears.

I didn’t steal that pack of gum. But I’m not sure if my hand grabbed it without me knowing. Sweat is running down my whole body. My skin begins to prickle and burn as the scouring pads chafe against my flesh. It might even start peeling.

My husband arrives. The dress shirt I had ironed this morning is a bit wrinkled, but seeing him away from home like this, he looks very smart. He shakes me, his hands clutching my shoulders. “Yeongmi! Yeongmi! What happened? Yeongmi, talk to me!”

I don’t know why this man keeps calling my name like this. Surely, he doesn’t think I’ve forgotten my own name.

Myeonghui starts to cry. “I don’t know why Onni did it. It’s all my fault.”

My husband pats her shoulder. He doesn’t even look at me. He’s ashamed, no doubt. He’s probably wishing he didn’t know me. My husband is not the man I once knew. The shoppers glance at our faces as they pass by. I sink down beside the ice cream cooler and gaze blankly at my husband’s face. He’s talking to the owner. He and Myeonghui look like people who’ve known each other for a long time. When did they become this close? Isn’t it women who turn hot and cold like aluminum pots?

“The capital of Austria is Vienna, Lebanon is Beirut, Lesotho is Maseru, Syria is Damascus … ”

I don’t know why I’m thinking of capitals right now. I start to mumble the words as they come to mind. I can’t stop.

Myeonghui approaches. As soon as she bends toward me, she grimaces. Then I hear her. I hear the words she spits out, softly, like a curse.

“She’s nuts, she’s finally lost it.”

I don’t stop. My words build speed.

“Australia is Canberra, Burundi is Addis Ababa, America is Maseru, Austria is Washington, Japan is Kyoto … ”

My memory is still pretty good. I recite smoothly without stopping.

Myeonghui cringes. Actually, it looks like a sneer. Why is she laughing at me like that?

Maybe Myeonghui never returned the spatula she borrowed from me. She may have put the screwdriver inside my husband’s briefcase, since I keep his bag in the front hall cabinet. Anyone can burn the kettle and forget the wet laundry. Even our house key–she could have hidden it. One by one, I begin to recall all the things she’s borrowed from me. This memorization exercise seems to be working.

Spatula, screwdriver, bottle opener, umbrella, key, garlic press …

Myeonghui, my husband, and Seonghwan look like one family. My husband and son–is she planning not to return them as well?

Myeonghui, the woman next door. Who is this stranger?

Ha Seong-Nan is an award-winning fiction writer. Her short-story collections Bluebeard’s First Wife (2018) and Flowers of Mold (forthcoming, and from which “The Woman Next Door” is excerpted) have, like other work, been published in English translation. She lives in Korea.
Janet Hong is a translator and writer living in Vancouver, Canada. Her translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale was a finalist for the 2018 PEN Translation Prize. Her translation of Ha Seong-nan’s Flowers of Mold appears this season.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019


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