The middle-aged man who was sprawled on the wooden bench next to mine kept muttering indistinct phrases in his sleep. He didn’t seem to mind the bright lights that shone on him from the ceiling. Neither did he mind that three uniformed police officers behind the information desks rolled their eyes, pointed at him, and shook their heads.

No wonder. The man was too drunk to notice a thing. If the bench were to catch fire, he’d burn with it, in blissful oblivion.

So, this was what it was like to sit in the waiting area of a modern police station. The floor was ten times cleaner than the clothes of the drunk man. The police officers were too polite (or too lazy) to bother to kick him out from the station.

Maybe it was because it was located in a nice neighborhood. The officers here didn’t face many challenges on the day-to-day criminal-law-offense front. No petty fistfights; no juvenile delinquents; no thieves. They could avoid unpleasant experiences entirely, if they could leave this one man on the bench. And that was exactly what they did, in the most passive-aggressive way possible. Knowing that, this man had made a trip all the way here. He knew that this station was ironically hospitable.

By the way, I was sure that he’d taken a trip, a real one that required a subway or a bus ride, from several districts away. He positively screamed “Not from around here.” Even more than me.

Five minutes ago, when I’d entered the station, the three police officers had glanced at me up and down, curious, but not hostile. They’d seemed surprised that someone who wasn’t bleeding to death had bothered to fight through the downpour to come here. Water was dripping from my sturdy umbrella as if it were its own little sky, with its very own clouds and desire to flood its surroundings. I quickly folded it. Before fully closing the glass door shut, I shook the umbrella outside. Only then did I tie it, hold it by the middle, and step in.

That had earned me the approving nod of the oldest officer. When I asked if I could talk to Detective Hong, he glanced at the youngest officer, who made an internal call, then told me to please sit down and wait, he’ll be out shortly.

The officers exchanged glances. You could read so many things into these unspoken exchanges among people in a culture that discouraged open commenting.

Who is she? the middle one (in terms of age) seemed to say.

Detective Hong’s girlfriend, the youngest seemed to say, judging by the meaningful wriggling of his eyebrows.

I blushed. But he smiled at me kindly. Now I recognized his face. We hadn’t been formally introduced, but I remembered that he was here the last time I visited.

I nodded at him to signal: Yes, I remember you, and smiled back awkwardly.

Hong never dates, the middle officer signaled, frowning in strong disagreement.

Not casually, the youngest one implied, eyes large to indicate his defiance.

How do you know this? Why hasn’t he told us before?

Because, sir, young people don’t like old people nosing around their business.

Ah, baloney!

The oldest officer sighed softly, sipping on his vending machine coffee in a paper cup.

Young people these days, he seemed to say. What does it matter if she’s Hong’s girl or not? She knows that she must shake a wet umbrella before she enters a building. That is all that matters.

The entire conversation was imagined, of course. But, live long enough around people who don’t say what they mean, and you’ll do the same. You’d think that people, who don’t indulge in open comments because they fear breaking taboos, would avoid silent comments as well. But that’s rarely the case. In spoken words or in glances, people will comment.

At any rate, the fact that the officers were “politely” implying and signaling and nodding clearly indicated that they didn’t dislike me. Presently, their total and open disapproval was focused on the drunk man. The officers seemed to have an agreement that young people these days were indecipherable. But middle-aged people? Easy.

No middle-aged man who was properly employed could be roaming around, drunk in the early afternoon of a workday. Modern culture first redefined Saturday as part of the weekend, instead of a weekday. Then some claimed that Thursday was the new Friday. And now, for some, Wednesday was the new Thursday. But this only applied to the young and hip and digital and nomadic.

This middle-aged drunkard was neither young nor hip nor digital nor nomadic. Period. Well, nomadic in terms of his drunken trips, but not nomadic in a career sense.

At any rate, I was used to silent judging, so I wasn’t perplexed by the officers’ staring. Besides, as long as I could ignore the annoying, constant smacking of the drunk man and his reek of alcohol, the waiting area was a pleasant place to sit in. It was air-conditioned just enough so that the room was comfortably cool. That didn’t eliminate the dampness, but this was still better than the air outside. The rain had stopped within two minutes of my arrival. The atmosphere was re-accumulating humidity to fight the next battle of suicidal droplets, probably tonight—a time of rest that seemed to be far, far away.

Suddenly hyper-aware of our predicament again, I shivered. The previous night, that last night during which I hadn’t known anything about the video, I’d had that sweet, familiar dream again—one that was unusual because of its recurrence and its clarity after waking up. All the other dreams were quickly washed away from my consciousness in the first few minutes of the day. But not with this dream. It came back over and over again, with the same sharp unambiguity.

In it, the laughter of children filled the air. The chiding of parents followed—but they were always gentle, with plenty of love for their kids. The rattling of amusement rides added a predictable rhythm to the whole soundscape.

Yes, in the dream, I was at a theme park: the Children’s Grand Park, located in the eastern part of Seoul.

I clearly remembered this day from my waking life. Maybe that was why even in the dream, I consciously knew where I was and with whom: my parents and Little Sena. Such awareness in dreams is rare and strange, yet there it was. In the dream, I thought, How strange to see Sena so tiny again, compared to me. The air was crisp and fresh—late winter, early spring. The day of my elementary school graduation. So, Sena had just finished first grade. Perhaps that was why she looked up at me with wide eyes, those eyes of children who look forward to getting older, because for them, age still guarantees physical growth. With children, five years’ difference is a lot of difference. I imagined Sena thinking, I’m going to get as tall as my big sister! I’m going to graduate from elementary school! Then we’ll come here again, and I’ll act all grown up by telling Mommy and Daddy that I don’t need a balloon.

But, for now, Sena did hold a balloon in one hand. A pretty red one, her favorite color.

As we walked past the zoo and the botanical garden with the odd combination of speed and ease that was typical of dreams, I also thought, My parents look more or less the same as they looked on the day they died. This realization ached me. They hadn’t had the chance to get white hair. Maybe one or two strands here and there—but not overall. Overall, their hair was as black as mine and Sena’s.

No stench from the animals disturbed our pleasant family outing. It was because the dream wasn’t real. And for the same reason, the botanical garden was filled with brilliant, colorful flowers, even though the air was cool enough for us to wear jackets and thin scarves.

Suddenly, I smelled something sweet. Sena did too. We looked around. There, under a tree, was a truck where they sold cotton candy.

Sena pointed. “Mommy, I want one.”

Mommy and Daddy exchanged glances, the way parents sometimes do to stay on the same page before telling their child the bad news.

“Sweetie, you already got your balloon,” Daddy said.

“But a balloon isn’t the same as cotton candy.”

“Sure, but remember we agreed that you’ll get one thing here, today, and if you do that, you’ll get a bigger birthday present later?”

Sena’s face fell. The red balloon danced in the gentle breeze. Her eyes were still on the cotton candy truck.

“I’ll trade with you,” I said.

Sena looked up.

“I haven’t used up my one thing.” I looked at my parents. “I’ll get that cotton candy and give it to Sena if she gives me her balloon.”

In the next moment, Sena’s face was all sticky from the sweet stuff and she was giggling and my parents were laughing. And in my hand, I held the red balloon. Sena plucked little bits of the cotton candy and put them in each of our mouths. So much love. So much sharing. My parents, so happy and proud that their children got along splendidly. Look, they seemed to say with every happy glance they exchanged. Just look how they got both the red balloon and the sweet cotton candy by cooperating with each other.

Suddenly, there was someone standing in front of us: a faceless man with a camera.

“Smile!” he said.

We beamed at the camera.

A flash—

And I was awake. How swift dreams are! How strangely disjointed!

In my hand, there was nothing. And now, with the terrible news that Sena had told me, those sweet times were gone, real or imagined. I had a feeling that I’d never dream of that special day again. It had rotten away or had been burned to ashes, to become thin smoke at some landfill, like those photo albums that my relatives had thrown away.

Gone.

The drunk man next to me grunted and turned. Then, once again, he snored softly, blessed by deep sleep. I smiled painfully. My slight irritation with him subsided. Whatever dreams were visiting him, I wholeheartedly wished him sweetness only, nothing like the nightmarish events that could occur while he was awake.

“Mina?”

I looked up. A man was blocking the ceiling lights. In fact, he was so tall, so wide, and blocked the lights so completely, that the drunkard next to me woke up from the sudden lack of light.

With a loud grunt, followed by a few confused swearwords, the drunk man sat up. I flinched, thinking he’d tip over forward and land on top of me.

The tall light-blocker reached out to form a barricade between me and the drunkard with his arm. In his hand, he held a pen and a notepad. The arm was as thick as some female idol group singers’ thighs, and way more muscular. His black T-shirt fit tightly around it.

“What?” the drunkard barked, abruptly shifting his weight backward so that he had to support himself with both hands on the wooden bench. “You think I’m going to attack her? You think I attack women? You think I’m a women-attacker? You think—”

“Calm down, Mr. Ahn,” the tall light-blocker said.

“Don’t mister me!”

“Sir. Calm down.”

“Sir? Calm down?” the drunkard said. “Are you making fun of me? You think you can make a fool out of me just because I’m obviously not a ‘sir’ anymore?”

“If you don’t like mister and you don’t like sir, what am I supposed to call you? By your first name?”

Mr. Ahn, the drunkard, ignored that. “You think because my wife left me and took our children because I have no money and the loan sharks are after me, you think you can treat me like this? Huh?”

Too much information, I thought, still frozen in my flinched position.

All those tragedies must have happened recently. Because, if he were like me and had had a chance to hone his skills in tragedy survival for fifteen years, he’d know better than to reveal this much information about himself in front of strangers. Share your victories and watch how it comes back as jealousy; share your sorrows and watch how others attack you where it hurts the most.

“Whatever, sir,” the tall light-blocker said, mixing official politeness with just enough indifference to shut up Mr. Ahn. “Please stay where you are.”

Keeping his arm barricade where it was, he beckoned me to stand up. Once I stood behind him so that his entire massive body blocked the drunk man’s path toward me, I sighed in relief.

“Gentlemen, if you could please…” the light-blocker said. He waved between the three uniformed officers and the drunk man.

The youngest officer, who’d been standing and staring the entire time, nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, sir, Detective Hong, sir, of course.”

But there was nothing the youngest officer needed to do for now. The drunk man blinked heavily. He was no longer looking at the light-blocking massive man, Detective Hong. It seemed that the drunk man had reacted out of pure habit, not knowing who he was talking to or why. Maybe people had really made fun of him and treated him like a fool and called him “sir” in a sarcastic way.

“Shall we?” said Detective Hong.

“One sec, Radishtop,” I said.

I swiftly went to the vending machine in a corner of the station. I put in some coins, pressed the buttons, and picked up the hangover-cure beverage that rolled out.

By the time I returned to the bench, I noticed something odd.

All three police officers behind the information desks suppressed their chuckles and were failing miserably. Radishtop, a.k.a. the massive light-blocker, better known as Detective Hong in the world of grown-ups, had turned pink. The only one who’d stayed the same was the drunk man.

Hurriedly, I placed the beverage on the bench next to the drunk man.

“Alcohol doesn’t help,” I told him.

“Wha…” he said, looking up with bleary eyes.

“Let’s go, Radish— I mean, Detective Hong.”

Detective Hong—always Radishtop in my mind—was completely mortified. He glanced back at the officers. They were pressing their lips shut to avoid laughing out loud. But they couldn’t stop grinning.

Radishtop shook his head and walked out. I followed him. Behind us, we could hear the roaring laughter of the officers. Radishtop! they said.

© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.