It was 2 p.m.
by the time he returned home.
He took out the maesil-cheong extract that he put in the corner of his dressing room and stripped the black vinyl cover and opened the lid.
After blowing away the sour smell from the fermentation, he dipped a wooden chopstick into the contents and put it in his mouth.
There was a strong sense of sweetness followed by a faint sourness.
That was the taste he wanted.
He took the bottle of muesli-cheong and honey-dipped ginger.
The car that moved around busily headed into Seoul.
He turned his car into the familiar alley.
As he was driving up the hill slowly with the window open, Maru heard a familiar sound.
Woof woof, it was Dalgu, who had become old, barking.
He took the maesil-cheong and the ginger and got out of the car.
Behind Dalgu’s children, who were wagging their tails at the entrance, was Dalgu, who looked docile now.
“I see, you’re old huh.”
He opened the front gate.
When the rusty iron door creaked open, the pups returned to their mother.
Maru patted Dalgu, who yawned with her belly on the ground, on the head before standing in front of the main door.
“Elder, it’s me, Maru.”
He shouted while knocking on the door.
A moment later, he heard a voice telling him to come in.
He opened the door and went in.
The smell of doenjang across the whole house as well as the furniture that was getting on in age along with the elder; the laundry that was in the middle of the living room as well as the books placed around here and there.
It was just as he remembered from when he visited right after getting discharged.
If there was a difference, it was that there were dog houses in red, yellow, and green on the way to the bedroom.
“They got houses.”
There were even nameplates on them.
Dal-il, Dal-i, Dal-sam.
They were the names of Dalgu’s pups whose names didn’t have a shred of thought put into them.
Were they really called that?
“Ganghwan brought them as a gift.
Though, they aren’t much use since they rarely use them.”
He understood when he heard that they were Ganghwan’s work.
The elder came out to the living room with a pot.
Maru placed the food he brought on the table.
“Some maesil-cheong and some honey-dipped ginger.
For the maesil, you can mix it with hot water whenever you have a bad stomach, and as for the ginger, you can just have them as a snack.
I made them myself instead of buying them from the store.
Maru took out one of the pieces of ginger with chopsticks.
“Here, have a taste.
It tastes awesome.”
The elder put the piece in his mouth with a smile.
After chewing on it, his eyebrows twitched.
“Are you sure you were the one who did it?”
“I actually did.
I received the knowledge from my mother, but I did everything from picking the ingredients to making the whole thing.
How is it? Not bad, eh?”
“It suits my tastes perfectly.”
“Don’t give it to the drunkards that visit your house and eat them by yourself.”
“Those drunkards must be disappointed, but I guess I can’t help it.
The one who gifted it to me doesn’t want them to go to other people.”
Maru took the pot that the elder was holding.
It was boiling braised black beans.
He picked up the long pair of wooden chopsticks right next to the stove and stirred them so that nothing stuck together.
“The one who will wed you will have an easy time.
You can do everything by yourself.”
“My plan is to do the household chores.
In this era, the man doesn’t really have to be the breadwinner.
I will look after the house, do the laundry, look after the kids, and make the meals.
I’d love to meet a competent wife and have an easy life.”
“Then first, you must meet someone to be your wife.”
“As much as I’d love to, there’s no one around me who likes me.
Looks like I don’t have any charm.”
He put the braised black beans to one side and left the kitchen.
The elder was sitting on the sofa with the three pups that came in from outside.
“I did hear that she give birth, but I never imagined it was to three of them.”
“It’s so hectic around here thanks to these ones.
They’re so familiar around people like their mother.
Every night, they would come to me and lick me.
These little ones have such good stamina.
They never run out of energy after running around all day.”
“As expected of Dalgu’s pups.
But isn’t it good to have some bustle around here?”
The elder replied by tickling the puppies on the necks.
“How was the trip to Europe?”
“I realized how much of a pain it is to leave the house.
But there were a lot of things to see.”
“There are people willing to take you on trips lined up, so you should take their offer.”
“I’m wondering if I have enough energy for that.
It’s hard for an old man to move around.”
“I know you’re still energetic.
Since we’re at it, what do you think about going on a trip with me? I will do my best.
Though, you’ll have to walk quite a lot because I don’t have a lot of money.”
“You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you? Usually, people grow up when they go to the military, but you’ve gotten more sly.”
“Maybe it’s because I left a lot of things there.
I feel so light that I might fly off somewhere.”
Maru started folding the laundry neatly and piled it in front of the sofa.
He felt at ease as though he had made a visit to his own grandfather.
He visited around the time it would become awkward to visit again, so he felt like this place was his own house.
He even felt like he should place his set of cutlery and toothbrush here.
Everyone who visits this place might feel like that though.
“It’s as you say.
It seems you have left a lot of things there.
Is it just me who thinks that you’ve left behind some things you shouldn’t have as well?”
Maru smiled and stood up with the folded laundry.
The elder shouldn’t have miraculous powers that looked into the minds of others.
After all, God was petty and did not scatter his powers anywhere.
Was it the power of experience that allowed him to see through other people’s hearts despite not having magical powers? Or did he show it on his face without knowing?
He thought about it while putting the laundry in the drawers.
About the things he shouldn’t have left behind.
A dark corner in the drawer seemed to be whispering to him: you didn’t leave them behind, you are pretending that you have left them behind.
You’re pretending to have left behind Han Gaeul.
He pushed the drawers shut.
He still missed and longed for her, but he had already entered a path of no return.
In her memories, the one known as Han Maru might have become a ‘wretch’ after ending their relationship with a simple ‘let’s break up’.
In fact, that was too good of a treatment for someone who had fallen silent after a one-sided announcement.
“Am I even a wretch in her heart?”
If he was a wretch, it would mean that he still remained in a corner of her memories.
If she had ripped out Han Maru from her memories like ripping out a page from a note, he would become nothing more than a ‘passerby A’ in her life.
A wretch was better than a passerby, wasn’t it? He was planning to meet her in a while.
He looked forward to, and at the same time, worried about the expression she would show.
He would feel hurt if she greeted him nicely, but he would also be hurt if she looked at him with contempt as well.
The consequences of meeting her were that he was bound to end up with depression and self-loathing, no matter how it turned out.
“Should I bring some drinks?”
“I was wondering when you were going to say that.”
The drunkards that visited this place, aka, Junmin, Ganghwan, Geunsoo, and Sooil, all left behind traces under the sink, in the cupboard, and in the fridge.
The drink that one had to wait 2 years after ordering in order to get was tragically contained under the sink.
The bottles of drinks that were lined up next to it were all quite valuable as well, but they were nothing more than deadweights in this house.
The elder’s preference was always soju.
In the cupboard were dry drinking snacks from all over the globe.
A cursory glance would be equivalent to a trip around the world.
He took out two of them at random.
As these were all snacks that passed the quality test of the picky drunkards that visited this place, there was no real need to hesitate.
He took out some budae-jjigae that could be made easily from the fridge and boiled them before putting them on the table.
“Here, have a drink.”
He accepted a glass from the elder and took the bottle from him.
After toasting with the elder lightly, he emptied the drink in one go.
“If you’re going to cry, tell me beforehand.
Don’t just go crying without warning like you did last time.
I may look like I’m experienced with most things in the world, but I’m bound to panic if a young man past twenty suddenly starts wailing on the spot.”
“Elder, that was already three years ago.”
“I’m saying it because you look exactly like how you looked back then.
Don’t you think you should give me some time to prepare? I’d have to give you some tissues if you start crying again.”
“Please forget that time.
I was not right in my mind because it was right before enlisting.”
“Oh please, something other than the military was the problem.
Try fooling someone else.
It’s not like I’ve only seen you for a day or two.”
“This is why I can’t even lie in front of you, elder.
I had the confidence that no one else would find out, but you keep seeing right through me.”
“Weren’t you practically flaunting your sadness in front of me?”
Maru smiled and said that that might be the case.
The drunken sensation spread through his blood vessels.
Outside, he didn’t get drunk no matter how many bottles he drank, but he got drunk after just a few glasses in front of the elder.
The fact that he didn’t have to put on an intricate mask, and that he could act spoiled in front of the elder disarmed all of his defenses.
This place was the reed forest; the only place where he could shout that the King’s ears were donkey ears.
Do you remember a story I told you about before? That I was forty-five in a dream?”
“You told me this back then: I should try hitting the world as a reality and not look at it as scenery.
You were entirely right.
When I tried it, things went easier than I was worried about.
I no longer have any fears about not being able to act.
It doesn’t matter if I become poor as well.
I can be satisfied as long as I can continue acting in my life.
However, I realized that there were things in this world that you just simply can’t clash against.”
“If you can’t clash against it, you can only avoid it.”
“That must be how it is, right?”
“From the looks of you, you don’t seem to like that decision.
You said you had a girl you liked, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Did you break up?”
“I told her that we should break up when I was a complete idiot without anything good about myself.
That was three years ago.
That’s how I ended up acting spoiled in front of you.
That’s the reason this fully grown-up man wailed in front of you.”
“What is the reason that this girl became something you could not clash against?”
“Would you believe me if I said that the heavens have decreed so?”
The elder sighed before drinking.
He neither mocked nor nagged him for being so vague.
“If there’s a clear reason you can’t, then you should forget about it.”
“I think so too.”
“But thinking that and carrying it out is different.
I don’t know what your circumstances are, but I hope you don’t make decisions that you would regret.
Usually, choosing something you know you would regret because you had no other choice doesn’t end up that well.”
“What if both choices end up with regret?” Maru asked as he put down the glass.
“For problems you can’t do anything about, there are only decisions that you can’t do anything about.
If everything went the way you expected it to, you can’t call that life.”
The elder raised the bottle.
“I’m sorry I can’t give you a useful answer.”
“You were much more helpful than those plausible-sounding lies.
I guess the only answer to a problem you don’t have a choice for is a decision you don’t have a choice about.
I’m sure I’ll end up regretting it, but if that one regret is enough to end it, I will be satisfied with it.
It’s better than tasting regret repeatedly.”
Maru propped up the glass.
He already had the answer: to not enter a deep relationship with her.
He just wanted conviction.
He wanted to know if this was the right choice or not.
He would only find out the result of this choice on the day he dies.
If his life ends, he would have been right.
If it was repeated….
“If you made the wrong choice and regret it to the point you feel like crying again, you can come over and cry again.
You can do that as much as you want while I’m alive.”
“Oh, please, elder.
That was my last cry.
There will only be happy things in the future.”
He had lost something he couldn’t afford to lose.
A person who no longer had anything to lose should not possess any sadness.
Maru smiled and grabbed the glass.
From how he found smiling not so difficult, it seemed humans were bound to adapt after all; to a life with her; to him without her.
“The pain won’t last forever.”
Those were the elder’s words.
 Green plum juice concentrate.
 Respectively, Dal-one, Dal-two, Dal-three.
Dalgoo also happens to be Dal-nine.
 Korean army soup.
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