Excerpt from Jeon: A Survivor Who Did Not Survive
It was late at night when she was walking along the sidewalk, lost in her own thoughts. The street was stranded. The silence was palpable. She kicked a pebble as she walked. It hit a dumpster and sent a clang through the silence.
She had just broken up with her boyfriend. She was confused, broken and was unsure if she had made the right decision. What could she have done? He had been acting really crazy for the past few months. He had seized her cell phone and had followed her wherever she went. He had threatened her saying he will post their private pictures on the internet if she disobeyed him. But she had loved him and had cared for him.
“Hey.” She turned to his voice with a smile on her face. She knew he would come to apologize. Her smile faltered as she saw the spite on his face –
“You think you are so beautiful, huh?” He said as he gripped her arms. It hurt her but he did not care. He never did.
“I am sorry…” She began but she did not know what for. Victim’s instinct, she thought. Was she really a victim?
“You want to explore the world, huh? Meet new people? Make new friends?” he repeated her words to her. He had always remembered whatever she said. But did he remember when she said “I love you.” She wasn’t sure.
“Let me show you what real world is.” He continued.
“I am sorry.” She whispered again.
He let go of her and quickly took something out of his jacket. He opened the lid and her eyes went wide –
The next thing she knew was that she was screaming and wailing in pain. Her face was burning like fire as the acid made its way through her skin. She glanced a look at him and saw him standing there with a smile as she cried.
And she realized it wasn’t love. It was sadism.
“Jeon…you are not so beautiful anymore.” He hissed as she struggled to breathe.
“I can’t do it.” Park said.
“Please.” The person on the other side pleaded.
“No.” He said firmly.
“We need you here, Park.”
“But I can’t do it anymore, Sridhar. I am sorry. I think I have learnt as much as I could from the job. Now, there is just nothing left but monotony. And it is boring.” Park said as he stirred the coffee in front of him.
Sridhar sighed through the phone and said – “I can offer you an increment. I wish I could promote you but I love my job too much to quit it for you.”
Park laughed at that and the situation calmed down a little.
“Please. Just think about it.” Sridhar said at last.
“Okay.” Park replied. But he knew that he did not have to think about it. He knew that he was quitting but he decided to stick to the social conventions of giving someone a brief period of relief.
He disconnected the call and took the first sip of his morning coffee. His laptop was open in front of him and a number of jobs were listed on the screen.
“You want anything else, sir?” The waiter asked.
“Do you have a vacancy?”
Park was just a regular guy but very odd at the same time. He had never aimed for luxury or wealth in his life. He had always desired happiness at the end of everything. And for him, happiness was living a life on his own terms. He had been a peculiar child in his school. And being peculiar always has his cons. Yes. He got bullied too. He never fit in. He never wished to. His parents worried about him.
He had made a micro statue out of a chalk once, just with the help of a magnifier his Dad had got him. That statue did not live very long as the kids in his school stepped on it on purpose –
“That is micro than your stupid statue.” The kid had blown the chalk powder on his face.
But Park was very proud of that work. He made as many micro statues as possible and finally stopped the day he thought he had picked all the fruits in the garden of micro-art. He had always desired something new. Unique. Odd. Rare.
And that was what Jeon was.
She was rare.
She would go to the same café every day with a book in her hand. She would sit on the same seat every day. She knew the café timings. She would go there when it opens and leave when it closes. She always had a pair of green earphones in. She was unique. She was odd. She was rare. And that attracted Park.
It was his first day at the job. He had stumbled across that café on his way to work one day and had found himself being amazed by the amount of hard work every person in there was putting to make their customer feel happy. He wanted that. He wanted to share that happiness. More than that, he wanted to learn just another thing.
“Are you trying to insult me, Park?” Sridhar had said.
“What? No. I just got another job. How is that an insult? I made my situation clear to you.”
“Yes. You got another job. As a waitron. Are you fucking kidding me?”
“No? It is still a job. And I never worked for money, I thought you knew that. I have enough money to be earning more.” Park had said defensively.
“I have nothing more to tell.” Park interrupted before his ex-boss could say anything more.
The staff had taught him everything that was required for a newbie to know. Park liked all of them. There was Jin, Kim and Minyoon. All of them worked part time and were hard workers. Park found Jin as the most mischievous one as the latter would make coffee for self when the manager won’t be looking but he couldn’t blame him for that. The coffee there was heavenly.
Kim was a weird kid with an affinity towards making ugly faces even though he was the most handsome among all of them. Minyoon seemed to be a bit arrogant and quiet or rather he kept to himself. He did his job and left on time. The manager there never really spoke to anybody. He would just sit behind the counter and do the bills.
It was his first day at the job when he saw her. He had seen many beautiful girls in his life but never someone like her. She looked different. Almost otherworldly. She glowed. She walked in with a book in her hand and paid for one café mocha even before she ordered. She sat at a seat far up in a corner and did not take her eyes off the book she was reading. She looked beautiful and almost unreal. And later, he saw her just every day.
She had the eyes of someone which will make one think of the vast blue ocean. Her eyelashes curled up naturally, gave her eyes just some more added beauty than they needed. Her skin had a shine and her complexion was the same as the mocha she was drinking. Her hair was dyed black, darkness you would like to embrace and not run away from. She was beautiful.
She was engrossed in her own world, or rather, as she would say, engrossed in a world which no one other than she could visit. That is how she described her reading.
She took another sip and looked up for once and saw someone watching her. He shifted his gaze as soon as she saw him. His boring eyes tried to hide the excitement but she looked through them. He stole another glance and saw her looking at him. She cocked her head slightly to the left and lifted her eyebrows a little as if to say – “What?”
Her blue eyes met his grey ones at once and a rush of hormone shot through his body from top to toe. He waved at her subconsciously.
“Hi.” He mouthed.
He smiled back.
She walked in every day with a smile plastered to her face. And it was mostly towards him. He blushed. He melted. He had never felt anything like that before.
One day, he gathered his courage and walked towards her, marking the beginning of something so beautifully terrifying.
“I am Park.” He said, as he stood next to her. There were not many customers that day and the manager was dozing behind the counter.
“Jeon.” She said. Her voice was like music to his ears. Is she real? He asked himself.
“Beautiful.” The word slipped out of him.
“Your name, it’s…um…beautiful.”
“Thanks.” She said and smiled again, sending a flutter to his heart.
“You can sit.” Jeon said flashing a grin so angelic.
Park looked over at the manager who was snoring by that time –
“He wouldn’t mind.” She said. “He is my old friend. He wouldn’t say anything. Sit.”
“I have never really seen you here before.” Park said.
“I come here every day and you see me every day.”
Park blushed at that –
“I mean…around here. I have never seen you around here. I have been living here for quite some time and this is not a place where one won’t recognize the other.”
“Ah. I stay in mostly. I don’t go out much.” Jeon said.
“Can I buy you another cup of coffee?”
“Are you trying to court me?”
“Maybe.” Park blushed. His hands were a mess. He was sweating like a baby.
“One Cup of Mocha, then.”
“Is something wrong?”
Jeon was looking out the window and her book was closed in front of her. It amazed Park.
“Have you ever been in love?” She asked, as she turned to look at him. Her eyes locked with his. He looked away instantly as he feared something. Something asked him to do that. To look away.
“Yes.” He answered.
“And what happened?” She dared another question.
“She left me. She was a good person and all but it just did not work out. Sometimes, it is just not meant to be.” He said.
“Ah.” She merely said and continued looking out the window.
There were a few minutes of silence before she spoke again –
“I was betrayed by one. Maybe, it was just not meant to be.” She said as a tear escaped her eyes and stained her glowing skin. The sunlight made it shine even more. She looked ethereal.
“I am sorry.” Park whispered and held her hand.
“Right away.” He stood up and bowed.
It was late that evening and Park managed to finish his work soon. It was his first evening shift and he was glad to have gotten it. He wanted to talk to Jeon and the timing was perfect. It was almost closing time and there were no customers or the manager. It was just him and her.
He prepped himself up to ask her –
“Hey.” A voice behind startled him.
“Hey.” He breathed as he saw her standing in the kitchen with him.
“Do you need any help?” She asked sweetly.
“No… No… I…um… am done.” He stuttered.
“Oh.” She said.
“Are you done with the book?” Park asked, pointing at the book in her hand. Eleanor and Park, it read.
“Yeah.” She smiled. “It has your name on it.” Her eyes were beaming.
Park smiled at that. “What does he do? I mean…Park?”
“He loves Eleanor.”
“Does she love him back?”
“More than you can imagine.” She grinned widely.
He laughed, with a hand on his chest.
“You kill me.” He said.
A few days passed and their conversations continued. Jeon started to visit him at the kitchen whenever the manager dozed off. She would go and help him wash the dishes even though he insisted not to.
“She is so pretty.” Kim said once.
“I know.” Park blushed.
“Someone is scoring.” Kim teased.
Park had splashed water over him at that.
“Why do you read so much? Park asked her one day as he served her her cup of Mocha.
“It calms me.” She said.
“Yes. It keeps me sane.” She said.
“Should I be scared?” Park said dramatically.
“I love reading.” She looked down as she said that. “It helps me to escape the real world. Real world seems too cruel to me. And I have friends I can meet so often in here.” She pointed at the book.
“That sounds sane.” Park mocked her.
“You wouldn’t understand.” She merely said, feeling hurt.
“I am sorry.” He said, feeling guilty. “I…just am not so much into reading but…um… I love to look at you read. I love the way you talk about the characters as if…as if they are real.”
“They may be real.” She said and he made a funny face at that –
“I know I don’t understand but I am trying to.” Park said and they both laughed.
Park had never felt so happy before. He had never felt so much zest in his life before he met Jeon. He had never felt so much before. The emotions were overwhelming, whenever he was with Jeon.
But something had bugged him all that while, so he asked her –
“Where do you live? Do you ever plan to invite me?”
“I can’t tell you that.” She said, flustered.
“Why? Don’t you trust me?” Park said, sounding hurt.
“I do.” She said as she looked up at him. His apron was stained and she decided to focus on that stain. It was hard to look into his eyes –
“It’s okay. I understand.” Park said. He turned to leave as she said –
“I will take you when the time is right.” She said as she kept stirring her drink.
“Okay.” Park replied.
It had been 2 months since he met her and he had denied the fact that he had felt anything different around her but he gave up lying to himself and finally accepted the truth –
He loved her and he had to tell her that. She was the most beautiful person he had ever met, inside out. She was kind, smart and gentle. She was interesting. She was unique. She was rare.
He looked at himself in the mirror that morning and groomed himself better than before. He put on his best clothes and took off to meet her at the café. He had taken a leave that day to avoid wearing a uniform and to avoid his manager ordering him around while they talked.
He drove to the parking lot behind the café and locked his car as he got out. He walked to the street where the café was and stood there, dumbfounded –
“Hey. What’s going on here?” He rushed to the people who were bringing the building down.
“Who are you?” One of them asked.
“I work here.” Park replied.
All of them looked at him as if he was crazy.
“I may not look like it. I took an off today. Where is the manager?” Park asked.
“Did you take your meds today, punk?” The guy asked as Park looked in through the window of the café. It was deserted and dirty. There was soot everywhere.
“What…?” Park seethed and shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. “What happened? Was there a fire?”
“Yes. But ten years ago.”
“This place has been like this since then and now, some big shot has decided to buy this land and we are taking it down. Now, don’t come and spit more crazy to me.”
Park stood there. Still.
He had worked here. It had been two months. He was here. The manager. Kim. Jin. Her. She was here. She was real. She ought to be.
He couldn’t believe his ears and so he –
“What the…?” one of the workers said as Park rushed into the café without warning.
“STOP. STOP.” One of the guys said to the other who was operating the crane and the excavator.
“This guy is crazy.” The man said as he yelled –
“Come out, you crazy fuck. You are making my day sour!”
For Park, everything around him had stopped. He had stopped listening. All he could think of was her. He rushed to the place where she used to be. Her table. The soot and the dust were getting to him but he did not care.
And there it was. He walked over to the corner where she used to sit and brushed his hand over the wood. It was real. It had felt real. He had been here. Was he insane?
And among the pile of dust, he noticed something –
A book. The cover was torn at the edges and it was full of dust. He brushed the dust off the title and it read –
Jeon: A Survivor Who Did Not Survive
His eyes widened as he read her name.
Who did not survive. The words ringed in his ears.
He opened the book to its first page and –
1984 – 2007
Jeon Seulgi, an acid attack survivor who committed suicide, wanted this story to be told.
This is a memoir dedicated to her.
It was hard for him to breathe. Maybe it was the dust. Maybe it was the soot. Or maybe it was he himself, who was choking on his own emotions. Someone was screaming inside him. He couldn’t stop the screaming. He let it continue.
“This couldn’t be… “He said. “This couldn’t be…” He repeated.
“No. No. No. No.” he bellowed as he dug his nails deep in his palms.
“She was real…” He whispered.
“Yes.” A voice answered.
He turned and there she was –
“Sometimes, the characters are real.”
“What…?” He did not ask what he wanted to, as he noticed her face. Her face was scarred. It no longer had that glow. Her face was burnt…
“What happened?” He finished his question.
The words hit him hard as he tried not to faint.
“Why?” He asked, almost not believing his words. Tears flowed onto his cheek as he asked.
“I couldn’t handle it. I wasn’t that brave.” She said.
“Am I hallucinating? Is this a dream? Is this some kind of prank?” Park panicked.
“No.” She said calmly and held out her hand.
He dared to touch it and her skin felt real but as he looked up, she wasn’t scarred anymore. Her face was glowing again and the café looked just as before. Kim waved at him from the counter and he saw the manager yelling at Jin. There were customers waiting for their orders impatiently and the moment she dropped his hand, it was all gone.
He gasped for breath.
“Do you still love me?” Jeon asked.
He wondered if he did and hated himself for even thinking about it. Of course, he did. She was the only one who had made him understand happiness. She was the one who had made him feel special. She was the only one who had made him feel that it was worth living. And of course, he did. He loved her.
“Then, let me take you home.” She said, as if she heard his thoughts.
The men outside rushed in with all their safety gear on and yelled –
“Where is that crazy fucker?”
But he was nowhere to be found.
“Did he die?” The tall guy asked the bald one.
“What is that?” The bald guy asked as he pointed towards a blinding white light in the corner.
They moved towards it and it vanished the other second.
“Let’s get out of here.” The tall guy groaned as his eyes ached. “Too much crazy for today.”