Life, Once Again! - Chapter 754
“The guy who said he’ll come soon is always the latest.”
“Hey, this isn’t the first time Youngjin was late. He’s the dude who overslept on the day of his enlistment.”
“When I think about how we got chewed the next day because of that guy, I still grit my teeth. That was the first time I couldn’t wake someone up by shaking him.”
“If Youngjin had a terrible personality, I would not have befriended him. But he’s a good guy.”
“Yeah. He got up quite quickly once he got smashed once, so there were no problems after that.”
Listening to Beomsoo and Gitae’s words, Hyungseok felt like he had returned to when he was a private. It had already been a year since he got discharged, but his memories were still vivid. Although he could laugh and chat about it because memories are bound to be beautified, he couldn’t have been more scared back then.
“But hey, we managed to get through the private period without accidents, right?” Hyungseok said as he put down his smartphone.
Gitae, who was in the passenger seat, agreed and smiled in relief.
“It’s because Sarge Han covered us a lot, but we were pretty decent as well. Us July recruits were all quite good.”
“There you go again, beautifying your memories. Don’t you remember how you got your ass chewed because you couldn’t memorize artillery numbers or the wireless communication jargon? You had to keep memorizing them in the corner until the evening roll call.”
“Then what about you? You got a barrage of insults because you couldn’t memorize the military songs.”
Gitae and Beomsoo still nitpicked each other.
“How can you not have changed after a year? Idiots,” Hyungseok said.
As soon as he said those words, Gitae and Beomsoo kindly replied at the same time with ‘bullshit’.
“Hey, since we’re all inside a car like this, doesn’t it remind you of when we were in the Signals box truck?”
“Right. The four of us often ate boiled ramyun together.”
“Do you remember when we first became private first classes? We went to the PX for the first time by ourselves to buy some ramyun and then ate it next to the box truck.”
“That was awesome.”
Hyungseok remembered back to that day.
“It was Sarge Han who treated us that day, wasn’t it?”
* * *
The Signals box truck was the resting place of the Signals platoon as well as a symbol of seniority. Privates couldn’t come anywhere near the box truck unless they were doing their duty or it was during a training mission. The only thing Hyungseok and his colleagues could do was glance at their seniors slowly walking over towards the box truck with boiled ramyun in their hands.
“We finally get to come here.”
Hyungseok put down the lot of frozen food he bought in front of the box truck. Until just last week, he and his colleagues weren’t able to use the PX as they were merely privates. If they wanted to go, they would only be able to do so in company with a private first class or when they went as a platoon. When he first heard of the rule that privates weren’t able to use the PX by themselves, he gritted his teeth at the unfairness of the military, but it didn’t feel like anything now. It was because he had become a first private class and also because he got used to the unfairness. He experienced for himself how foolish it was to look for fairness and justice in the military. The only law in the military was time, aka seniority.
“Good work doing nocturnal specialties last night,” Maru said, appearing last with a bag full of food.
“It was you who did all the work, private first class Han Maru. Give those to me.”
His colleagues, Gitae, Beomsoo, and Youngjin received the plastic bag from Maru. Hyungseok lowered the foothold that was used to get in the box truck and put the food they bought from the PX in it. Hyungseok finally felt that the fact that he had become a private first class had sunk in when he could eat in an open space like this and not at the PX, where all the seniors would be giving him unpleasant stares.
“It’s pretty cold out here.”
“I told you we should eat at the PX.”
“But we became private first classes, so we should visit the box truck at least once. Private first class Han Maru, thank you for the food.”
“Yeah, go on and eat. You guys are gonna have to use a lot of energy from now on. I was always frustrated that I was the only private first class because of the shitty assignment, so I’m expecting a lot from you.”
“I’m good at using the shovel, y’know?”
Hyungseok ate some steaming ramyun while giggling. It was as tasty as the ramyun he ate after his night shift. He recalled what Maru said before: you can only endure the military because you get access to more and more as you spend more time. It couldn’t be more true.
“Private first class Han Maru,” said Beomsoo, who opened a drink and handed it over to Maru.
“What did you do outside?”
“I’m curious about that too,” Hyungseok interrupted.
While they spent the past 6 months together, he didn’t know anything much about Maru. When he was a new recruit, he didn’t dare to even talk to him because Maru engraved his presence as the scariest senior, and ever since he adapted, he didn’t have the time to ask what Maru did in society as he was so busy with military work. If they were assigned to shifts together, they would be able to talk to each other about a lot of things for two hours, but privates and private first classes were never assigned to shifts together. Not only that, Maru was always called out to various places, so they rarely got a chance to talk to him. Maru was the same age as him, but he felt so distant.
“I did plays.”
“Plays, you say?”
That was an answer he didn’t expect. Hyungseok’s colleagues were all college students. In the Signals platoon, there was no one other than Hyungseok who wasn’t a college student. He naturally assumed that Maru was a college student as well, but it turned out that he did plays.
“Were you famous?” Gitae asked.
Maru had a faint smile that was not so much like a smile.
Hyungseok had never watched a play in his entire life, but he knew through the media how hard a play actor’s life was. They would be fortunate if they received any pay, and he heard that most of them did part-time jobs to continue their passion. Was it because he lived a hard life that he didn’t make mistakes when talking to other people and was good at everything despite them being the same age?
“Hyungseok, you said that you sold clothes, right?”
“Yes. I thought that I should jump into society early rather than rot in college for four years, so I started a business with a friend of mine.”
“Did it go well?”
“I would say yes. My friend is still running it.”
“You set on a nice path. Earning money quickly is good. The rest of you said that you were in college right? Now that you’re private first class, you can get a light extension with permission from the squad leader to study, so you should do some studying before your brain solidifies. If you don’t do anything for two years, you will really brick your brains.”
Hyungseok’s colleagues all nodded. If that was from the other seniors who could only yap about without doing anything, they would only pretend to listen and ignore it entirely, but Maru had earned their faith, so they all seemed to engrave it into their minds.
Just then, Youngjin, who was watching Maru quietly from the side, spoke,
“Private first class Han Maru, did you appear on TV before?”
“Why do you ask?”
“N-nothing. I must have been mistaken.”
“Don’t wimp. I did.”
Youngjin’s expression brightened.
“It was on a late-night drama on YBS, right?”
“Yeah, it was.”
“I knew it. I thought of that as soon as you said you did acting. My sister really liked that drama.”
“So it’s almost been three years since I shot that drama.”
Hyungseok looked at Maru’s face. He thought that Maru was an actor who only acted on a small stage, but he turned out to be someone who showed his face on public TV.
“Private first class Han Maru, may I ask you a question?” Gitae asked while picking up his chopsticks.
Hyungseok felt uneasy. Gitae was a good fellow who he would love to befriend if they were outside, but there were times when he wanted to give him a solid smack. Hyungseok always watched his mouth because whenever he asked a question that got on the nerves of the seniors, he was scolded as well for being a colleague. He was going to kick his calf to stop him from speaking if he was going to say something weird.
“Gitae, I said this before, but if you just watch your mouth, you wouldn’t need to worry about getting chewed on until you become a corporal,” Maru said first.
Gitae flinched and put his hand down.
“Since you’re at it, let me hear it.”
“Are you not going to chew me for it?”
“Punk, fine. I won’t chew you for it.”
“…Why did you switch to plays when you were on TV? Aren’t plays crappier?”
“Crappier, huh. Well, I guess ordinary people would normally think that. Anyway, hey, watch your choice of words. What the heck is ‘crappier’? You’re gonna get killed by corporal Choi Taejin.”
“I’ll fix it.”
Maru sipped some of the drink in his hand before speaking,
“The drama did well. It got good viewing rates. It was only four episodes long, but we held a celebration because the last episode got 7%.”
“It’s good considering it’s a late-night series. Also, that result was achieved with practically nameless actors. I did interviews and I was given offers to play child roles in other mini-series. I think they were Iron era and Flaming lady.”
“Weren’t both of those dramas huge hits?” Hyungseok asked.
He didn’t watch those dramas since he was busy setting up his business two years ago, but he did hear the news that they were hugely popular. He heard that women in their twenties couldn’t start a conversation without watching Flaming lady.
“Did you appear in those as well?”
“No, I refused.”
“Why did you?” Gitae asked in a nitpicking tone.
When Maru gave him a stare, he shrank back like a scolded dog.
“Gitae, you should really fix that habit of yours.”
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine if you do that while you’re with me, but don’t do that in front of the seniors. You are private first classes now, so you’ll get chewed really hard. Also, I refused back then because I didn’t have any energy to concentrate on something. I was facing a really important decision in life; I was hung up on that.”
“And what was that?” Gitae asked carefully.
That night, Hyungseok saw Maru smiling bitterly for the first time. The senior who always answered everything perfectly like an encyclopedia gazed at a distant mountain for the first time. If he couldn’t talk to Maru usually because he was frightening when he pointed out mistakes, he couldn’t talk to the current Maru because he looked like he carried all the burdens of the world. He could feel that the weight on Maru’s shoulders was definitely not something that could be shared.
“Giving up on a person,” Maru said after a long time.
“Giving up on a person?”
Hyungseok subconsciously questioned back, but the question just dissipated into the air in vain. Maru only faintly smiled. It was his way of expressing that he wasn’t going to reply. After that, they talked about other things and Maru’s silence thinned out, but Hyungseok couldn’t forget Maru’s face that had a sad smile on while talking about giving up.
After they ate, they put all the trash into plastic bags. His colleagues went back to the barracks first with the trash. Hyungseok checked one last time if there was any trash that they missed. If the box truck was dirty, the seniors would nag them during the evening roll call.
When he stood upright, he saw Maru with a cigarette in his mouth as he sat down on the box truck. Hyungseok was puzzled. Maru never smoked. He was the type of guy who would give the cigarettes he was given to others.
“Do you want me to light you up?” Hyungseok asked as he took out a lighter from his pocket.
“No, I’m not gonna smoke. I used to smoke like mad before, but I didn’t smoke once this time. Since I’m maintaining a streak, I might as well do it until the end.”
His words sounded quite strange. The ‘before’ and ‘this time’ he used were used quite awkwardly. Was he so deeply worried about something that he couldn’t speak properly?
“If meeting has a high probability of causing a problem, it should be better not to meet, right? For both my and that person’s sake.”
Maru’s words sounded like he needed an answer. Hyungseok couldn’t do anything but keep blinking. He couldn’t follow the conversation at all. However, Maru seemed to dearly wish for an answer, yet also want to deny the question at the same time. A detached smile hung on Maru’s face as though he wanted to quit everything like he was at the end of his life. Not that he had ever seen such a person.
“Are you okay?” Hyungseok asked.
“No, I’m not,” Maru replied.
Yet, the smile was still on his face.
* * *
“You should really show up on time,” Hyungseok said to Youngjin, who got in the back seat.
Youngjin, who had his hair dyed purple, made a foolish smile. That smile looked just like the smile he showed when he did his discharge ceremony a year ago.
“Where’s Maru-hyung?” Youngjin asked.
“We’re gonna have to meet him now. Hey, Gitae, get in the back seat.”
“Right, I can’t let Sarge Han get in a cramped space like that.”
Gitae got out from the passenger seat and got in the back seat.
“Well then, let us four stinky men go to Daehak-ro together.”
Hyungseok stepped on the gas pedal.
 Hot water poured into ramyun in its packaging. Not cup noodles.
 The PX is actually open to all soldiers, including privates, but the seniors would forbid them from going because it’s too ‘audacious’ of them. This tradition has mostly been abandoned
 The sleeping schedule in the military starts at 10, but people who request a ‘light extension’ can get an extra hour or two of non-sleep for the sake of studying.