It was late May when I first saw the bruises on my wife’s body. A day when the lilacs in the flower bed by the janitor’s office sprayed out petals like severed tongues, and the paving slabs at the entrance to the senior citizen’s centre were clotted with rotting white blooms, trampled beneath the shoes of passers-by.
The sun was almost at its zenith.
Sunlight the colour of a ripe peach’s flesh oozed onto the living room floor, shedding countless particles of dust and pollen.
That sickly sweet, lukewarm sunshine streamed onto the back of my white vest as my wife and I flicked through the Sunday morning paper.
The week just gone had been marked by the same exhaustion I’d been feeling for months now. On weekends I allowed myself a lie-in, and I had woken up only a few minutes ago. Lying on my side, I inched my languid limbs into a more comfortable position, scanning the newspaper as slowly as possible.
‘Would you take a look at this? I don’t know why these bruises haven’t faded.’
I registered my wife’s words as a mere disturbance in the fabric of silence rather than processing their meaning. I glanced up at her absent-mindedly.
I sat bolt upright. Marking what I’d been reading in the paper with a finger, I scrubbed my eyes with the palm of my hand. My wife had lifted her vest up to her bra; deep bruises mottled her back and stomach.
‘How did you get those?’
Twisting at the waist just enough for me to see the vertebrae marching up from the zip of her pleated skirt. Pale blue bruises the size of a newborn’s fist, as distinct as though they’d been printed in ink.
‘Well? How did you get them?’ My sharp, insistent tone ruptured the still space enclosed in our eighteen-p’yong flat.
‘I don’t know . . . I just assumed I must have knocked into something without realising, and the bruises would go away . . . but they’re actually getting bigger.’
My wife avoided my gaze like a child caught doing something wrong. Slightly regretting having seemed to scold her, I made an effort to soften my tone.
‘Doesn’t it hurt?’
‘No, not at all. There’s actually no sensation at all in the bruised parts. But, you know, that’s even more worrying.’
The guilty expression I’d noticed a few moments ago had vanished without a trace, replaced by a gentle, incongruous smile. That smile played around my wife’s lips as she asked if she ought to go to the hospital.
Feeling oddly withdrawn from the whole situation, I examined my wife’s face with a cool, dispassionate gaze. The face I was confronted with felt unfamiliar. It felt unfamiliar, almost unreal; nothing like what one would expect given that we were in our fourth year of cohabitation.
My wife was three years younger than me, she had turned twenty-nine that year. Her face used to make her look embarrassingly young when we went out together, before we were married – she was frequently mistaken for a schoolgirl. It now bore clear signs of fatigue, which jarred with her look of wide-eyed innocence. It seemed unlikely that anyone would mistake her for a schoolgirl anymore, or even a university student. If anything, she actually looked older than her age. Her cheeks, the colour of unripe apples into which the red has just begun to rise, were sunken, like knocked-in clay. The waist that had been as soft and pliant as a sweet potato seedling, the stomach that once had such an appealing set of curves, were now pitifully lean.
I struggled to recall the last occasion that I’d seen my wife naked, and it had been bright enough to see her properly. Not that year, for sure; I wasn’t even certain that it had happened the year before.
How could I have failed to notice such deep bruises on the body of the only person I lived with? I tried to count the fine wrinkles radiating out from the corners of my wife’s eyes. Then I told her to take off all her clothes. A red flush appeared along the line of her cheekbones, which her weight loss had left indecently sharp. She tried to remonstrate with me.
‘What if someone sees?’
Unlike most flats, which are laid out facing a garden or car park, our balcony looked out onto the main eastern road. Since we were three streets away from the nearest apartment block, separated from it by both the main road and Chungnang stream, it would be impossible for anyone to pry without a high-powered telescope. There was certainly no danger of anyone catching a glimpse of our living room from inside one of the cars speeding along the road. So I simply took my wife’s protest as a sign of embarrassment. On weekends as newly weds, in this selfsame living room, with both the glass door leading onto the veranda and the window on its far side flung wide open in an attempt to mitigate the sweltering August heat, we used to make love several times in the middle of the day, clumsily exploring this thing that was so new to us until we eventually succumbed to the weight of exhaustion.
After a year or so had passed we were no longer so unaccustomed to our love, and the fervour of those early days gradually dissipated. My wife went to bed quite early, and she was an unusually deep sleeper. If I returned home late, I could take it as a given that she would already have fallen asleep. When I turned my key in the front door’s lock and stepped into the flat, alone and with no one to greet me, washed myself and entered the darkened bedroom, the even cadences of her breathing struck me as inexplicably desolate. If I embraced her, hoping to ease this loneliness, her half-open, sleep-clouded eyes gave me no clue as to whether she was rejecting my embrace or warmly returning it. She only swept her silent fingers through my hair until the movements of my body stopped.
‘Everything? You want me to take everything off?’
Her crumpling face struggling to suppress an outburst of tears, my wife rolled the underwear she’d just removed into a ball, and covered her pubic area.
And there was her naked body, fully exposed in the spring sunshine. It really had been a long time.
And yet I was unable to feel even the faintest stirrings of desire. Seeing the yellowish-green bruises not only on her buttocks but also on her ribs and shins, marring even the white flesh on the insides of her thighs, anger seized me, then just as suddenly relinquished its grip, leaving in its wake an unwarranted melancholy. For this woman, whose mind so easily wandered, had sleep dissolved even the memory of walking along the street early one evening – senses already dulled by sleep’s descending curtain – blundering into a slow-moving car, or perhaps of losing her step and tumbling down the unlit emergency stairs in our building?
The figure of my wife, standing there shielding her pubic area as the late spring sunshine streamed onto her back, absent-mindedly asking whether she ought to go to the hospital, was just too wretched, pitiful, sorrowful for words, so that I was touched with a sadness I hadn’t felt in a long time. I could only hold her skinny body against me.