Spring on the Peninsula

The following is from Ery Shin’s Spring on the Peninsula. Shin was raised in Manhattan for the first decade of her life, then Seoul for the second. She received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a doctorate from the University of Oxford. The author of Gertrude Stein’s Surrealist Years, a study of Stein’s later experimental gestures and their philosophical implications within Hitler’s Europe, she is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi.

There is a street in Seoul where all the homosexuals go to buy drinks, linger, fall in love, or just spend the night in a love motel. (Or if they live alone, spend it where they live.) The last time Kai ventured there, it was quiet—a weekday, perhaps. He was not there to be coy but was there for food. Kai went there to eat street food under a plastic canopy with a few college friends of a childhood friend, who were all now his good friends, affectionately esteemed. It had been a bitter spring, and everything and everyone seemed repulsive to him save for these faces. They spoke of love and the suffering it inflicts, the longing to return to the euphoria of childhood before such ordeals became common. These ordeals were rendered all the more tiresome by humiliations endured at the office, the insolence emanating from age-mates and superiors. Money was not a problem in this circle; love was.

Kai had recently been abandoned by a lover. The lover had left suddenly, simply vanishing one day. It was as though a parent had said goodbye to a child, and the child had left for school as usual but then never came home. Or a child went to school, and the parent never showed when pick-up time came. Or as though one lost one’s sweetheart in a car accident, one’s mother to cancer, one’s father to alcoholism, then oneself to rape by a neighbor, followed by partial blindness after being hit by a bus, all in the span of a year (which happened to a friend Kai cherished, one of the unluckiest beings he knew). Or like an anecdote Kai’s own father had told him about a classmate who had perished without warning overnight. Kai’s father had recounted feeling the heat of that boy’s arms around his chest—then, just like that, he was gone. Kai’s father had told Kai about this, about Kai’s father’s younger self, about a peer he had known in middle school (or was it high school?) who had embraced him on their school soccer field. Everyone was laughing, having a good time, but the next day, the boy was reported dead because sometime in the middle of the night, his heart had given out. Hearing this story the first time had made Kai’s own heart ache. The area over where Kai’s heart was nestled contracted, palpitated. He remembered the sensation of moisture gathering around his eyes. Everything seemed so bittersweet and futile. Was life really like this? What an early bud destroyed. Smiling, laughing, husky embraces one moment morphing into nothingness the next. It had been exam season when Kai first heard this story. Such a sweet, aching feeling. Ah, grief!

The absence of Kai’s lover invoked all these delicate sentiments at once. His absence made the forlorn Kai want to write everything down before the world was over, the private apocalypse came. At different times, the unholy magistrate comes for everyone. The species begins and ends in the same place, of course. So Kai pondered about carving out on paper a grand beginning and hopefully an adequate ending, and if things became sentimental somewhere in the middle, so sentimental they should be. There was nothing wrong with feeling sentiments; a taste for the melodramatic was even better! Moods had a way of being pleasant, changing here and there. They made life interesting, less staid. Each day is the same, each day is different, but something needs to give at this point, Kai thought. At this stage in my life, I need something extra. It is too much of the same. What he was experiencing was not a puerile, predictable boredom—just a little something inside that needed to be watered more frequently. Kai may have needed to get more air, let the north wind waft through, as they say. The story of what would happen to Kai was precisely that: of him treading around various surfaces at the same time he burrowed deep into that ripeness writers often speak about, that place in the heart of the ocean where one feels like one is collapsing under gravity’s weight to become like those colorless fishes that exult in stillness, in the peace imposed by mountains of water. Kai’s mother called this a very pure feeling. It is the peace of being thousands of fathoms deep during monsoon season. (It was, in fact, monsoon season on the peninsula when these thoughts were happening to Kai.)

Kai’s friends asked about the end of the affair. What happened? You devoted nearly a decade of your life to him. Why the long face, plumpy? An elderly couple at a neighboring table was taking shots of soju while gossiping in a somber sort of way. The atmosphere at Kai’s table was similar. The tone was raucous at first, but a melancholic air took over when he shared word of the failed affair. Kai became a pitiable creature in the group’s eyes in that instant. But pride did not bar the orator from divulging yet more morsels of an intimacy gone sour. The mist enveloping the drinking tent on the sidewalk put Kai in the mood to wade deeper among the rushes. One cleared one’s throat, yielded to that restlessness bundling up, hardening into caulk within. Ignored the slightly acrid smell coming from one’s pits. Kai turned toward rapturous ears. I wanted to go home. To be among the petals, the people I love. I thought we were the real thing. Yes, these platitudes bristle with truth. At age thirty-four, my lover had lost all ambition. No, he had never had any to begin with. His annual contracts were never renewed. There is nothing sorrier than a pretty but useless person. He was weak and insincere, betraying me by changing his mind at the last second about following me here. He thought he could, but he could not, he wrote. He lied to himself and me about having a future together. And then he changed his mind about changing his mind, leading me on for a year as I groveled by letter and phone. I begged him to reconsider even as I myself had begun to lose hope, pass into boredom. That last phase was memorable—a slow, billowing premonition, an unease that came down with such heft that I became flatulent most of the time.

How Kai had internalized this loss was another matter. It circulated as all fine poisons do. It trembled and sputtered and congealed in Kai’s viscera, turning his blood to brown lava. The stress of it all had given Kai angina and shingles—shingles! Cold sores can even form over one’s nostrils, not solely on one’s lips or inside one’s mouth. A new day, a new lesson, but how disgusted Kai had become of such physiological revelations. How tedious. Unlike the face that still besieged his waking and slumbering hours, intruding upon those stray moments in between work and appointments with acquaintances who tried to entertain Kai or distract him from his ongoing humiliation.

The one who had absented himself from Kai’s life had a thin, high-pitched voice. A relatively impoverished white-collar employee, Kai’s former lover had not been self-assured. He clutched a number of insecurities—some valid, others not—regarding his education. He blamed others for his professional incompetence but was always the first to be let go from any workplace. An irritable hen, slightly autistic. Able to conflate both traditionally feminine and masculine qualities—an androgynous aura seductive to both sexes. Perceptive to Kai’s tacit whims, especially in the act. When Kai rushed in to dominate, his ex-lover would comply by bouncing his rear up and down like a porn actress, moaning with relish, adding that touch of the theatrical Kai adored. He was the only one who understood to what extent Kai meant yes when Kai said no. Quite wonderfully impudent when bickering with strangers. A small egghead liable to making Michael Jackson noises, the hee-hee, when exuberant. Addicted to sharing online clips of his favorite songs, tugging at Kai’s sleeve with the urgency of a spoiled child. Often came over to Kai’s studio to take Kai out to lunch, but would end up napping on Kai’s narrow spring bed. Stared at himself in windows when carrying beer crates across town. Good for making the house feel cozy when Kai had deadlines, bringing Kai food and fussing over Kai’s half-buttoned cardigans as he grumbled to himself in a grandmotherly way. The silhouette of his back as he was lying down beside Kai, turned away—so sulky, so petulant. Wiggling his big toe, flaring his nostrils, proudly inhaling the mysterious stench gathering above his shoulders. The same shoulders begged to be butted in grocery stores. Shoving their cheekbones together, aligning his head with the stinker’s, was one of Kai’s favorite pastimes. Two or three hours past midnight, this person would draw near Kai and initiate sex while half-asleep. Such a complainer, being a light sleeper himself, about Kai’s frequent trips during the night to urinate. Goats before the beheading ax could not have bleated more. He was impassive before aging and death, supremely impressing Kai. A man devoted to his extended family, comfortable with infants and senior citizens alike.

Above all, despite what was poor and paltry in him—the remnants of a vulgar upbringing—Kai’s forsaker had been incredibly lovable. He was endearing in how he twisted his body kittenishly this way and that, prancing for Kai to lift Kai’s spirits, prattling on and on about the mundane and the shocking according to Kai’s moods, cooing, whimpering when he was hungry. He would pout in such a pretty way, scrunching his brows, puckering his lips and pushing them out, the lower lip fuller than the upper, both cold and wet rather than warm and dry. He was a darling at airports, waving goodbye sweetly, waddling a few meters forward, turning back, waving, calling out again, waddling forward and then glancing backward a few times more as a little duckling should. What was it that he would say in the bath? Kai scrunched his brow to remember. We will be two dumplings that are rubbing paunches. The darling would—and this was a memory Kai prayed would remain impervious to time and accumulated rage—emerge from the shower as he called out for Kai’s attention. Watch me, booby, watch me, he would say, wanting Kai to watch his dancing. He called it the ding-a-ling dance, shaking his hips back and forth, delighted by his own stalk slapping from side to side, laughing and chortling like a cute little piglet all the while. What a piggy, so cute.

Kai no longer had any souvenirs from these days of happiness. There were no digital letters spared from mass deletion, no gifts left. Only some photographs and naughty videos had survived on a hard drive that Kai had hidden away in a desk drawer. No social media traces were available for reference either, Kai having erased all profiles in a bid to land a salaried position some years back. And no word from the departed ever since Kai had called him a silly faggot over email. Smarting under the knowledge that the deserter was almost certainly cavorting with others at present, Kai gave in to a rich despair whenever alone. What had made wiping the slate difficult was the way that he had kept contacting Kai after certain intervals, requesting the potential for reconciliation. These overtures tormented Kai with false hope. When he calmed down from whatever fresh bout had occurred, Kai went back to musing about how easily loyalties are subdued. It was as his parents said: couples who go their entire lives together wake up one morning, and it is over. Things seem invincible when one is in the thick of them, but their ends usually erupt out of nowhere. Love is prone to noble beginnings, anticlimactic finishes.


From Spring on the Peninsula by Ery Shin. Used with permission of the publisher, Astra House Publishing. Copyright © 2024 by Ery Shin.

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