Broken Summer by J.M. Lee
The people of the city knew him well. The old people who recognized him while out walking would acknowledge him with a passing glance. Young parents told their children in a low voice that they should try to become a great person like him. When the children asked who he was, the parents replied that he was a painter named Lee Hanjo, who was famous for his wedge paintings. Three of his works, they would proudly add, were hanging in the city hall lobby.
This was neither an exaggeration nor a falsehood. Hanjo was the pride of Isan City, which had a population of less than three hundred thousand. Hanjo himself ignored the whispering and the affectionate gazes directed toward him. He was content with living in the city. Those who said he was too trusting and those who said he was too demanding all agreed to love, respect, and envy him.
Hanjo’s life was simple. Every day, from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, he would paint in his studio, sometimes pausing to sit on the garden bench just outside to observe the street at the bottom of the hill. At sunset he would take a walk along the riverbank.
On his forty-third birthday, this routine, which was as slow and precise as the second hand of a clock, was disrupted. As with any other day, he woke up just before eight a.m. and ate the sandwich his wife had made for him. He then went to the studio, an annex off the house, and spent the morning observing the light shining through the window.
At two in the afternoon, he and his wife visited the food section in a downtown department store. They soon had a full shopping cart. In the evening, they were going to hold a small party for just the two of them to celebrate his birthday. They also planned to celebrate the high price his work had sold for at last week’s Hong Kong auction.
On the way home, they climbed the hill, their faces flushed with moderate fatigue. At the top of the hillside road that stretched upward like a white belt, Howard House came into view. The mixed-style house, with its Korean tiled roof on Western-style redbrick walls, was harmonious, magnificent in its scale and simple formal beauty. Surrounding the house, which had a basement and two floors aboveground, stood three cedar trees, creating an idyllic atmosphere.
When they opened the forged-iron gate, the sunlight was silently sinking into the carefully manicured garden. A red rambler rose climbed the porch pillars, and the warmth of the heated stone steps formed a kind of haze. The sound of a sprinkler gushing and the scent of cut grass surged toward them. The solidity of the house, the bountifulness of the garden, and the comfortable space embraced them.
For the rest of the afternoon, Hanjo watched the subtly changing angles of light and shadow in the garden. The smell of food came drifting out through the French windows onto the terrace. As the sun went down, his wife laid a white tablecloth on the table beneath a leafy magnolia tree and brought out an oven-baked chicken. Dressed in a white sleeveless dress, she looked rather like a mannequin in a luxury store’s display window, one that was deliberately designed with long, slender arms and legs to show off her dress.
They bumped glasses and ate the food. The sun sank lower, and the sound of insects’ wings rubbing together filled the air. Little flying bugs and butterflies with unknown names went drifting up. In the cooling sunlight, Hanjo looked back at all the things that belonged to him, the position he had acquired, the achievements he had attained, the influence he had secured.
“What are you thinking about?” his wife asked.
“Now, I think this is the perfect moment and place. This moment belongs to us and we belong to this space. It’s a perfect day.”
Even before he finished speaking, he realized the error hidden in his words: the fact that a perfect moment is never perceptible and disappears as soon as it is noticed. Even so, the happiness that was right in front of him was his, and no one could take that away. As if confirming the obvious, he filled the glasses again.
Click. His wife turned around in her chair and took a selfie with the table and him in the background.
“It came out well. The sky looks lovely,” she said.
His wife held out the iPhone to show him the picture she had just taken. He was sitting at the cluttered table, holding a half-filled glass and smiling. His wife in the picture looked more innocent than usual, maybe because of the wine she had drunk. The evening sky behind him shone like glistening dark-blue satin. When the gloomy winter came, he would gaze out of the window at the snow and remember this graceful evening.
“You look even lovelier,” he told her.
It wasn’t mere flattery. If it had not been for his wife’s dedication to him, he would not have gotten where he was now. She was his mother, lover, manager, teacher, and watcher. She was neither lacking nor excessive; she neither changed nor disappeared. She was as quiet and steady as a turtle heading for shore with a shipwrecked sailor on its back.
The porch light came on. The air cooled quickly, heralding the night. His wife wrapped her arms around her bare shoulders. He hurriedly drank the remaining wine and stood up. His wife pulled the edge of the tablecloth up to cover the mess of empty bowls and leftovers, the half-eaten custard tarts from the department store, the wineglass marks on the cloth. Their gazes were directed toward each other with a warmth lit by lingering echoes of their own voices speaking softly to each other . . .
They walked hand in hand to the studio annex, which was warm and smelled of paint and turpentine. His wife sat on the sofa with slightly sleepy eyes. He went behind the sofa, to the cabinet, took out a bottle of whiskey, and filled a glass. She shook her head with an embarrassed expression, but she did not hold him back. Today was his birthday, and he deserved it.
He swallowed the cold liquid and his throat burned, as if on fire. His wife was studying him as if she were looking at an old painting. They were speaking about their love story, as they often did: when they met, how. His lips had hardened imperceptibly, he stuttered slightly, and red spots began spreading at the drooping corners of his eyes.
He drank from his glass repeatedly. The story of their love was like a gushing spring that never ran dry, no matter how much they drew from it. He was always interested in the memories, which changed little by little with each repetition. For example, they could not agree whether they had first met on July 8 or 13. Even after he agreed that her memory was correct, he remained doubtful.
“I must have drunk a lot. I suddenly feel tired.”
He liked the idea of falling asleep in front of his wife at that very moment so that he could feel her gaze upon him while he slept. He imagined what she would see: a forty-three-year-old man who had suffered, hit rock bottom in life, and then risen back into the light. A pleasant sense of pride lingered around his mouth with its moderate wrinkles, the intelligence and confidence of a life-loving artist. He stretched out his legs on the sofa, and his wife got up and covered his knees with a rug. It felt cozy and warm. She put her hand on his forehead. It was like ice on flames. He closed his eyes with a sense of relief.
Now his wife would read his sleeping face as if reading a book, his sensitivity and talent, his intelligence and dignity, wit and desire, even his anxieties and fears. Then she would climb in next to him and fall asleep. This narrow sofa of theirs would be warm and safe. They would become watchmen guarding each other’s dreams.
On the first morning of his forty-fourth year, light fell silently on Hanjo’s eyelids. He raised himself, rolling a body that felt heavy and stiff. The blanket his wife had covered him with the previous evening lay rumpled on the floor. The chair she enjoyed sitting on was empty. It seemed that last night she had left him sleeping here and gone to their bedroom.
He walked slowly across the garden. The sunlight was sharp here, striking his pupils like the point of a needle. He entered the hall and found the house eerily silent. There was none of the usual noise from the television, no music, no wife’s footsteps going in and out of the kitchen, no clatter of teacups. He had only crossed the garden, yet it seemed that he had entered a parallel world. Had his wife overslept? Or had she gone out in a hurry to buy eggs or milk?
“Honey! Honey, where are you?”
The house was neat and clean like a hotel room. He couldn’t see the pair of socks he had taken off and dropped carelessly, nor the jumper he had thrown aside roughly. There was no spot on the bathroom mirror; a pile of light-blue towels lay folded neatly on the shelf. The kitchen sink was clean, without a trace of moisture. The dishes and oven trays used yesterday lay shiny in the dish rack. It seemed like a house someone had meticulously tidied before leaving on a long trip.
He opened the front door and ran into the garden. The dew on the lawn soaked his ankles above his slippers. The outdoor table was completely clean. There was no leftover food, no empty wine bottle, no dirty tablecloth.
“Honey! Where on earth have you gone? Damn it . . .”
On the landing, their three-year-old Labrador retriever, Rothko, looked at him with curious eyes. It was already 10:20 a.m., well past his breakfast time. Hanjo quickly prepared the bowl of dog food, which Rothko gobbled down.
“Rothko! Where’s your mom? Huh? Where’s your mom?”
Rothko emptied his bowl in a flash, then lolled out his tongue, gazing at Hanjo with languid eyes. Hanjo went into the living room and parlor on the first floor, the guest room, and the bathroom and the bedroom on the second floor, then knocked on the door of his wife’s study and opened it slightly, in vain. There were no traces of his wife in the boiler room on the first floor, in the pantry next to the kitchen, or in the outdoor shed where garden tools were stored. In the garage there was no sign of her small car. There weren’t even any wheel marks.
His wife had disappeared without a trace. She hadn’t just popped out for a moment; she wouldn’t be back soon. There was no knowing whether she had left him, abandoned him, or run away. Should he report it? Should he go to the places she frequented? But where did she often go?
He picked up the phone in the living room, but he couldn’t remember his wife’s cell phone number. She was always there for him when he needed her, when he wanted her. It was only now his wife had disappeared that he realized he knew nothing about her.
Hanjo finally remembered the speed-dial button for her number. A distant ring came, as if from underwater. After a while, a high-pitched mechanical voice rang out. “The person you are calling cannot take your call just now.” He threw the handset onto the carpet. Fear of what might have happened to his wife and resentment at her leaving him unattended surged together. He thought what his wife would have done at times like this. She would have calmed him down and acted as if nothing had happened. She would have first looked around the house, then called people nearby. But he didn’t know whom to call, let alone the phone numbers of his wife’s close friends. There was no place left for him to look, nor did he have the energy to search.
His hangover made his head throb, and his throat was dry. His wife’s absence was as painful as a stomachache. He had no idea why or to where she had disappeared, or why on the day after his birthday and the day he had made the highest auction price. Who knew where she was, if or when she would come back, or whether he should be furious or grateful if she did return?
In the afternoon, he attached Rothko’s leash to his bicycle and pedaled along the path he always took when strolling with his wife. At least he was doing something familiar, he thought. On the way back, he passed by his wife’s regular stores, one after another, starting with the bookstore and music store, then the bakery, the grocery store, the hardware store selling paint and tools . . .
The store owners all asked, “How come you’re alone today?” and he realized he must look strange to them.
“We’re not bad people, are we, Rothko?” he mumbled. “So nothing bad will ever happen to us. Right?”
When he reached home, he felt certain his wife would come out to greet him as if nothing had happened. Rothko lolled his tongue as he followed Hanjo, worn out. Contrary to his expectations, only silence and darkness greeted them. His shirt stuck to his sweaty back and he felt exhausted.
He went to his studio and fed Rothko. He himself had eaten nothing all day, but he didn’t feel hungry. Instead, he felt intolerably thirsty. He opened the drawer of his workbench and found a whiskey bottle about one-third full. He filled a glass with whiskey and gulped it down. His throat burned, and a tingling energy spread through his body. Perhaps because of the alcohol, he suddenly remembered one last thing.
His wife always carried two phones: her own and his. She responded on his behalf while he was at work. Curators, critics, journalists, and producers, people saying that they enjoyed his work, others protesting and asking what on earth he thought that painting was about, spam calls offering loans, real estate agents offering a good investment, insurance salespeople, voice phishing . . . While he was confined to his studio, she took charge of all sorts of miscellaneous tasks, such as household chores, having the lawns mowed and trees pruned, moving furniture, coordinating meetings with galleries, responding to requests for interviews, planning exhibitions, checking sales and settling profits, making flight and restaurant reservations for overseas events. They were things he never did. He felt sure that nobody could act as a gardener, a housekeeper, a repairman, a secretary, a tax accountant, a spokesperson, and a fixer all at the same time. He was suddenly surprised at how many things his wife had done for him. Had her own life faded away because she was bearing his life on her back like a scraggy mule?
While the phone was ringing, he tickled Rothko’s neck. At the second ring, Rothko raised his head and pricked up his ears. His dark eyes fixed on the stairs. Somewhere, Hanjo heard the faint sound of “Let It Be.” It was the ringtone his wife had downloaded for his cell phone.
Rothko took the lead, his rear end swaying to and fro as if he had discovered something. Hanjo blankly pursued Rothko up the stairs. As soon as Rothko reached the landing, he ran to the door at the far right side of the hallway, panting. It was the room his wife had been using as a study for the past six months. Paul McCartney’s voice was coming from inside.
Hanjo grabbed the doorknob, hesitated for a moment, then went in. The room was as usual. Books were neatly arranged on the bookshelf, and four of his paintings hung in a row on the wall. His phone was lying on top of a thick envelope on one corner of the large wooden desk. The music stopped when he answered the phone. No sound emerged from it.
He switched on the desk lamp, the light illuminating the package. Nothing was written on the envelope, and it was unsealed. He was about to open it, but paused. He had the impression that his wife was going to throw open the door and ask what he was doing there.
He opened it anyway. Blue letters were written on thick A4 paper: Your Lies About Me. It was her familiar handwriting. He remembered his wife once saying she was writing about him. At the time, it had sounded so natural. If someone was going to write a book about him, that person had to be his wife. No one else knew him as well as she did.
Suddenly, he wondered if this was all according to his wife’s detailed plans. Before her departure, hadn’t she cleaned every corner of the house, then lured him into the room where she had left the manuscript? The fact that she had left his cell phone behind suggested a wish to reject her subordinate role, a declaration of her intention to regain her own life for herself: Now do things for yourself!
He was frustrated by his inability to guess his wife’s intentions. What was she planning? Why had she left the house without a word? What complaints did she have? And if she had any complaints, why hadn’t she told him earlier?
A faint smell of his wife’s perfume rose from the stacked manuscript. It was a bitter smell of hay and a sweet smell of flowers. She must have sprayed it on deliberately. Maybe his wife had left home for a while to give him time to read what she had written. If so, was this a gift from her?
The forty A4 sheets seemed to be an excerpt from a novel. It depicted a personal relationship between a nineteen-year-old high school girl and a famous painter who was nearly forty. It described the love of the precocious girl and her betrayal by the self-centered artist, told from the painter’s wife’s point of view.
The portrayal of the artist was nuanced. Although his behavior toward the young woman was clearly inappropriate, there was a side to him that made the reader want to understand him, maybe even excuse him.
However, no matter how much he was portrayed as a naive artist, that did not change the fact that a man close to forty was using a young woman. His seemingly plausible artistic sensibilities and uncontrollable emotions were nothing more than selfish acts that eventually ruined the lives of the women who loved him. In the end, he was a single-minded man who thought only about painting, a shameless man who habitually used women for artistic inspiration. The narrator was embarrassed by her husband’s betrayal and felt a deep bond with the girl who had been abandoned by him. Both the wife and the girl shared a feeling of hostility toward him.
Of course, there was no resemblance between him and the novel’s protagonist. Although someone might criticize him for his relentless desire for artistic recognition, something that he couldn’t deny completely, he wasn’t shameless enough to take a high school girl to bed like the character in the novel.
It didn’t matter that in his view he and the protagonist were nothing alike. The outward similarities between him and his fictional counterpart were such that if this novel were published, everyone would believe it was really about him. But it was an absurd distortion and a lie.
Maybe he was being overly sensitive? His wife would be an unknown author who had never published a book under her own name. How many readers would be reminded of Lee Hanjo, who was a famous artist, by a character in a novel written by an author with an unfamiliar name?
Yet when it became known that this unknown author was his wife, the situation might change. Close art circles and bright readers would not miss the correlation between fiction and reality. Even if a work claims to be fiction, facts that correspond to reality will provoke vivid imaginations and make headlines.
No matter how much he thought about it, it was unfair. When the book was published, his life, which had been achieved at great cost, would inevitably be ruined. Curiosity would grow around him like poisonous fungus. Journalists would be bound to ask if it was based on a true story. He would answer that it was absurd, but rumors and speculation would not stop. His name, presumed to be shameful on the basis of the novel, would spread on the internet, and scammers claiming to be his victims might appear. People would gossip behind his back, and he would be stigmatized as an immoral human being, whether it was true or not. The price of his paintings would not stay the same, and the number of people who wanted to buy them would shrink and finally disappear.
He knew better than anyone the correlation between a painter’s reputation and the value of his work. It was true that Picasso’s passionate affairs and Modigliani’s sorrowful love had made their myths more vivid, but he was neither Picasso nor Modigliani. Moreover, this was the twenty-first century. He stopped thinking about whether it would be more distressing to lose his reputation, to be financially ruined, or to have his marriage break up. In the end, he would lose everything.
If their marriage had been shaky, he could have understood the situation more easily. However, the two of them hardly ever raised their voices at each other, let alone argued. They went everywhere together, and there was always a sense of trust between them. Although there might have been slight misunderstandings, they were not serious enough to warrant portraying her husband as such a shameful villain.
But why had his wife written such nonsense? Did she really intend to publish this book? Did she not realize what would happen after? Or did she know how reckless she was being and still intend to do it?
The wife in the picture on the wall looked like a mass of light and joy. He stared into her eyes, which he had painted long ago, and asked, “What is the reason for this?” His wife didn’t answer. He asked again. “What the hell do you want me to do?” Again, she did not answer. Fear struck him. It wasn’t that he was afraid he would be disgraced over this false portrayal. It was that his wife knew the whole of his life, which had been hidden from others for so long. Not only his present, but his hidden past, his greatest glory as well as his worst moments, his respectable appearance as well as his disgusting side.
He thought back to the long-forgotten summer he’d turned eighteen. A dead body lying in the river that flowed through the city. The loud sound of gravel at the bottom of the river stirred by shallow dry-season currents. Water dripping from a wet hem. Plants on the corpse’s cheeks, water droplets on its forehead . . . So different from everything that had happened up until that time, and different from everything else combined.
Now he knew. He had lacked the courage to face his shameful and immoral past; he had put it off until now. But he couldn’t put it off any longer.
|August 23, 2022
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