Another Man's City

Ch'oe In-ho

Illustration by Monika Grubizna

The café was located at the boundary of a residential area and the commercial area. The unpretentious sign made K think of a secret meeting place; it certainly wasn't intended to lure customers. K went down a stairway and saw on one of the walls a mural of the very same Renoir painting that adorned his bedroom.

The café was not too big, not too small. In the dark interior he made out half a dozen customers, all of them women.

"May I help you?" a bearded man in a necktie asked cautiously.

"Could I get a coffee?" ventured K.

The man shook his head. "Sorry, we're not serving coffee."

He's lying. The place was fragrant with the aroma, and each of the women had a coffee cup at hand.

"That's strange, it sure smells like coffee—and isn't that what those ladies are drinking?"

"Ah." The man nodded. "We serve coffee to the public only on weekdays—today it's members only. If you're not a member, well, I'm sorry. Sunday we're open only in the morning and that's for our members. Please come back some other day. I'm sorry."

In contrast with the man's jagged features, his words and manner seemed artificially cordial.

K then recalled what P had told him. "Actually I'm here to meet someone. I think he might be a member—his name is Olenka."

"Olenka—Olenka, you say?"

"That's right."

"Oh, you should have told me. This way, sir." And after giving K a once-over, he led him to a table in the corner. As K was settling in, the man asked, "Would you like to use the fitting room or the powder room?"

K looked up at the man. A fitting room? That's where you change your clothes. And a powder room? That's where you fix your makeup. But this was a café, not a locker room at a swimming pool or a makeup room at a theater.

"No thank you."

"Well, if you change your mind, just let me know and I'll give you the key."

K caught the trace of a sneer on the man's face.

"Could I have some coffee, please?"

And voilà—a sign on the wall told him he was in a smoking area. He found his cigarettes and lit up.

Once his eyes had adjusted to the dim light, K found his gaze drawn to the cluster of women, who were sitting toward the far wall. Each and every one wore eye-catching clothing—almost like costumes for a masked ball. They looked like the women in the Renoir mural—long dresses, white opera gloves, white-rimmed hats, parasols even. The images jumped out at you, like figures in a painting. K couldn't fend off the intuition that something was unnatural about them.

The coffee arrived. It was absolutely delicious.

K heard a bell ring. The door to the café opened and two men came in, all spiffed up. They must have been members, judging from the bearded waiter's warm welcome. They took seats not far from K.

Their coffee arrived and as they sampled it they all together shot K a look. Unfazed, K continued to savor his coffee. And then one of the men summoned the waiter and whispered in his ear, gesturing subtly toward K. Was he asking who K, the outsider, was? The waiter said something, whereupon the man nodded and vacated his seat. K noticed he was holding something. The other man cast the women an affectionate glance, then went up to them and began chattering away. The women responded with a chorus of laughter, and the man returned to his place. He still seemed to be suspicious of K.

K checked his watch. It was past 10:30, but still no sign of P. He held up his cup and signaled the waiter.

"Could I have a refill."

"Sure can." And the waiter obliged.

In between sips K crushed out his cigarette. He heard one familiar pop song after another—"Black Orpheus," "Barco Negro," and such.

From where the first man had exited, a woman appeared, like in a play. The woman sat next to the second man and helped herself to his cigarette.

K wondered where the first man had gone. If not for the musical sound barrier, he probably could have eavesdropped on their conversation.

And now the second man got up. He too slipped into what K now recognized as a back room. K lit a second cigarette—how else to kill time here. And the coffee had lost its taste. He kept his eye on the door, wondering when P would arrive.

A woman appeared from the back room and sat down next to the other woman. K felt like he was watching a magic show. The two men had gone up in smoke and the café clientele was once again all-female—with the exception of K, who felt very much the odd man out.

The door to the café opened, and there was P. K rose to greet him.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," P said with a searching look at K. "My wife grabbed me just as I was heading out."

K wondered if it was his sister P was talking about, then decided P must have remarried. But was that possible—he looked so old. Granted it had been ten years, but in those ten years P had become an old man. Not so much the white hair, but the way he had shriveled up and was stooped over.

P repeated his apologies.

"Don't mention it," said K.

The waiter approached. "Your key, sir?"

"You know the number?"

"I believe so—number 12, sir?"

"That's it."

And presently the waiter returned with a key bearing the number 12.

"And a coffee."

"Certainly, Olenka."

"You're looking good," P said to K. "Tell me about your children."

"There's just the girl."

"It's been that long?" P murmured. "My, how the time flies."

K noticed metallic objects on P's earlobes. Earrings? How odd. A professor close to sixty wearing earrings.

"About ten years, isn't it?" P continued.

"I think so," said K.

"Time passes so quickly. And all the changes."

"Not for me," said K. "No changes in the last ten years and I don't expect any in the next ten years." It came out sounding philosophical, though he hadn't intended it that way.

Being a humanities professor, P proceeded to indulge K in bullshit philosophizing, lapsing into silence only with the arrival of his coffee. He must have had something important to say but was waiting for the right moment to bring it up.

Finally P broke his silence. "I'll give you a heads-up—I'm about to change into a different person. It may come as a surprise, but try to understand."

"That's fine with me," said K. And since P was a literature professor, K thought of a literary metaphor. "As long as you don't transform into Kafka's centipede."

"I just might surprise you more than a centipede. Anyway, if you don't mind waiting, I'm off to the powder room." And with key in hand, he disappeared behind the counter.

K was puzzled. To his way of thinking, transformation was not simply a matter of changing one's outward appearance or one's clothing, but involved a fundamental change in shape, a metamorphosis, like that of a caterpillar into a moth. For creatures born from eggs it also meant metamorphosis in terms of the stages of growth to maturity. So what was P going to do—turn into Dracula and feast on human blood? Would he fly into a rage and turn green and muscle-bound like Hulk?

K forced himself to sip his tepid coffee while he waited.

After a time the door to the secret room opened and out came a woman who made her way toward K's table. She looked very familiar. And like the other women in the café she was dressed like a woman in a Renoir painting.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," said the woman with a smile.

K was at a loss. Here was a woman he'd never met, greeting him with affection.

"Hello—it's me," the woman said, gesturing to herself. Or more specifically, gesturing to her voluminous bosom.

And that's when K realized it was P. So that's what he meant by 'changing into a different person.'

"Tell me—what kinds of things do you like?" said the woman, or rather K's former brother-in-law. "You know, hobbies, interests, leisure activities? Hiking, stamp collecting, golf?"

"Well." Nothing came readily to K's mind, but he couldn't very well answer "Nothing" and douse P's attempt at conversation.

"I go to church every week. Though I guess you couldn't really call that a hobby or an interest."

"Why not? You go to church every Sunday and I come here every Sunday to dress up as a woman—that's my pastime. 'Eonism' in medical terms. It comes from d'Éon, a diplomat in the court of Louis the Fifteenth. He was a social butterfly, loved to dress up as a beautiful woman."

Which told K why the café was named Eon.

"I knew you were waiting, so I'm just 'up' now, not 'full up.' 'Up' means you're in women's clothes, 'full up' means you're all made-up as well—a complete transformation. So I just did basic makeup. If you don't mind, I'll finish up here."

"By all means, professor."

From a chic handbag P produced a mirror and makeup kit. Propping up the mirror, he began to apply more makeup.

"From now on I'm not Professor P or your brother-in-law, I'm a woman by the name of Olenka. So why don't you call me Olenka."

"I understand, Ms. Olenka."

Nothing so strange or uncomfortable about that. In fact K felt as comfortable calling P whatever he wanted, as he felt being referred to by his baptismal name, variously Pedro or Peter, or hearing his wife's baptismal name, Elizabeth.

"And you can drop the 'Ms.' Just 'Olenka,' and put some feeling into it—what do you say?"

"Got it, Olenka."

P grinned from ear to ear, his face overflowing with joy. Just as a poet sang, "Whenever I call you, you appear before me as a flower," whenever K referred to P as Olenka, he could feel P coming alive in splendor, blossoming with rapture. The sad thing was, P was too old for the gorgeous display he was projecting, and the lush hair on his arms stood out in contrast to the meticulous women's trappings. Even more incongruous, he kept his normal voice instead of adopting a falsetto. On the other hand, his wig was exceptionally becoming.

Olenka continued to peer into the mirror as she applied mascara and then a hot red lipstick. Her eyes took on a lustful gleam.

"It wasn't until my late forties that I discovered my feminine side. One day I was going down an alley and I spotted a pair of panties drying on a line. And I stole them. And tried them on. You wouldn't believe how happy I felt. As Aristophanes said in Plato's Symposium, 'In the beginning there was man and woman and a third gender that was both man and woman.' Man was sun, woman was earth, and man-woman was moon. Man-woman, this third human type, actually came first. But Zeus could not tolerate man-woman's growing pride, and he divided man-woman in two. The man and the woman that resulted were left to wander the earth, each in search of the other half. It was man-woman, this third human type, that was the origin of humanity, and in the future it would become known as Homo ludens, the most advanced species of human. If man-woman had flourished, we wouldn't have sex crimes, gender discrimination, gender inequality, you name it. The family would be a place of freedom, a site of gender liberation—don't you see? Now don't get me wrong. I myself am not bisexual, and I'm definitely not homosexual. It's just that somehow I'm stimulated by dressing up as a woman—but my transformation ends there. It's all about peace of mind, simple as that. I hate it when people approach us thinking we're gay. I believe a husband can play the role of a wife, and a woman can play the role of a man—why should they be limited to husband or woman? I think gender can be communalized—that the family can be a paradise on earth, a place where there is no such thing as possessiveness or jealousy."

"Does anyone know you turn into Olenka every Sunday?"

"Not a soul—not even my wife, and definitely not my son. Oh, I forgot to mention, I remarried five years ago—sorry, I guess you don't want to hear that."

"Please, never mind, Olenka."

"Olenka—it's a beautiful name, isn't it?"

"It's different, I'll say that—doesn't sound British or American."

"It's Russian. Olenka's the protagonist of the Chekhov story 'The Darling.' The name is lovable, just like the title."

"Do you wish you were a darling, Olenka?" K asked playfully.

K's eyes met Olenka's in the mirror, and K instantly noticed their sensuousness.

"If only. Oh yes, if only."

A man who wants to return to his mother's womb, thought K. And be reborn as a pretty, lovable lady.

"The reason I suggested we meet here is that Sunday is members-only and if I skip it I really suffer the rest of the week—it's like a panic attack, or a woman's monthly cycle. And I figured I could trust you to keep it a secret . . . "

With a few dabs of the powder puff Olenka finished her makeup. The mirror snapped shut and back into the handbag it went with the makeup kit.

Olenka's femininity was striking, but to K it was freakish. On the other hand, a drag queen in such an outfit wouldn't be considered out of place. People were getting better at not eyeballing others in public. And P could do just fine in the role of Olenka the pretty lady. A perceptive person could see through the disguise, but as a drag queen Olenka would experience gender liberation, as P had put it.

"Now, down to business. This is the number I had for your sister three years ago, and I'm guessing it hasn't changed." Olenka passed K a slip of paper, which he pocketed. "She's a good woman, your sister. She really loved you. She was always worrying about you—my little brother this, my little brother that. Of course, I shared her opinion of you."

"Yes, Olenka, I know."

"Three years ago I heard she remarried. I truly hope she's happy."

"I do too, Olenka."

"There's another reason I wanted to see you—I want to buy something for my son. You remember we had a son, right? I used to see him now and then, but not now that I have a new family."

"You had a boy?"

"Yes, a son. And it's been a while since I've given him anything. I thought you might be able to deliver a present for me."

"Of course, Olenka."

"There's a department store near the rotary. You probably saw they're having a sale. If it's all right, I'd like to go there with you."

"Of course, Olenka."

"If you don't want to be seen together, then I'll just follow you."

"Makes no difference to me. You look fine the way you are."

"All right, then, shall we go?"

They rose together, the waiter approached, Olenka spoke. "We're going shopping. I'll pay when I get back."

"All right, Ms. Olenka."

When they reached the door, the other women all rose.

"See you soon, Big Sister."

A gesture of respect toward an elder, thought K.

One of the men K had seen pre-metamorphosis gave an affectionate wave of her white-gloved hand.

"Good to see you, Jessica," responded Olenka with equal affection. "And you, Nan-jŏng."

Up the steps and out onto the street went Olenka. The autumn sun reflected from the alley as though it was lined with shattered glass. On went Olenka's sunglasses and up went her parasol. K had reservations about the parasol. It was too old-fashioned, the kind of knickknack you might find at a flea market. And instead of screening her from view, it drew people's gazes. Most of the passersby gave her a glance, but Olenka seemed to enjoy the attention.

"Shall we?" said Olenka, offering a white-gloved arm to K. K linked arms with her and down the street they went, side by side. K thought initially she had made the suggestion so she could enjoy her transformation into a woman. But before long he struck upon another reason—perhaps Olenka's stiletto heels were too high and a supporting arm offered the safety that no amount of practice could offer. In any event, arm in arm the two of them looked like an affectionate couple.

A boy band was performing at the department store plaza to a throng of cheering, screaming girls. Olenka was taken with the scene, and K came to a stop alongside her as they watched the group sing and dance.

"When I'm full up I sometimes get a violent sexual urge," she said. "I want to relieve that urge, even if I have to masturbate, but I'm able to control it." She said it straightforwardly, with no insinuations K could detect, then folded her parasol and led K inside the store. She seemed to know the layout, and they took the escalator up to the third floor—women's apparel. Unmindful of the stares, Olenka scurried to the lingerie section.

"I just want to look around—I don't plan on buying anything."

The sales clerks seemed to know her and they gathered about. K had a rest in the small sitting area, like a husband waiting for his wife to finish her shopping.

Various items of lingerie were on display. Bras, risqué thongs in blazing colors fit for wear by a prostitute, slips, drawers, halter tops. Olenka examined each and every style, a clerk always there to advise her. She was as blissful as a woman strolling in a park where the flowers are in full bloom. Finally she selected a pair of fishnet stockings and a sheer crotch thong fit for a porn star, and they were bagged for her. The thong was too tiny to have concealed her privates and looked feather-light, but had clearly quenched Olenka's thirst. And that's all that counts, thought K.

Their next stop was casual wear for teens. Olenka purchased a winter parka and a pair of pants.

"I'm pretty sure he's thirteen, but this is for a fifteen-year-old. He can always grow into them if they're too big, but they're useless if they're too small. So, you'll give these to him?" Olenka handed K a gift bag with the items wrapped inside.

"You can count on it, Olenka."

"And if you could tell him this—that his dad loves him. Or you can say I miss him. Use your own judgment."

She's lying, thought K. She didn't love the boy or miss him any more than the customer is king, in the words of a department store sales pitch. But he agreed to do as she asked.

Outside the store Olenka unfurled her parasol.

"We might as well say goodbye here—since I'm going back to Eon."

"Thank you for the coffee, Olenka."

"So long," said Olenka as she offered an opera-gloved hand. "I know I ought to take off the glove first, but I'm still Olenka. It's not a breach of etiquette, right, keeping your gloves on?"

And there they shook hands. Off went Olenka toward the café, back went K toward the parking lot. Along the way K looked back. He saw the bobbing head of a giant in spike heels, holding her own in the surging human tide, straight and tall as a poplar.

translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton

Another Man's City is published as a part of Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature.

Click here for more information about the book.