HE OPENS HIS EYES. He feels heavy and his breath stinks. Slowly, his brain whirs into activity, and a word gradually reveals itself, like a stranger emerging from fog. Headache. He has never in his entire life suffered from a headache, but he would have to agree if someone pronounced that what he feels is indeed a headache. He thinks it odd that such an insidious, unfamiliar throbbing could be expressed in one bland word—“headache.” This intricate amalgam of physical pain and psychic irritation started last night; it triggered an ominous feeling about everything that would soon unfold in the world beyond his bed. He feels a passing disgust at his own body. It’s as if his soul, having lain dormant in his body, woke up, discovered the heavy and authoritative being trapping it, and began pounding on it loudly in protest.
Lying still, he thinks about his headache, his agony growing worse. A small needle is stabbing the back of his head. He doesn’t know how to deal with it. He resolves to think of this mysterious pain as a temporary visitor, which makes it easier to tolerate. He stretches out to caress his wife’s hip. She moves away, mumbling nasally. He pushes his hand deep into her panties and strokes the hair sprouting all the way up to her belly button, but she doesn’t react. He slides his hand out of her underwear and rubs his eyes.
She asks, still half asleep, “Aren’t you going to work?”
“Aren’t you going to work?”
“What about you?”
“Feed the cat.” She buries her face into her pillow.
Ki-yong pushes the covers off and gets out of bed slowly. The cat comes over and rubs her head on his feet as she does each morning, demanding food. He measures out some cat food with a stainless steel scoop and pours it into her bowl. The cat, whose mottled brown, black, and white fur creates a map of the world on her body, contentedly chomps on her kibble. He gently strokes her neck, then goes into the bathroom, takes out his night guard, and places it in a cup.
Last winter, his dentist warned: “If you don’t do something about that teeth grinding, you’re going to need dentures soon.”
Ki-yong unscrews the cap of the mouthwash bottle and pours the blue liquid into the cup holding his custom-made mouthpiece. He squeezes toothpaste onto his toothbrush, his thoughts wandering to the small needle poking his brain. The more he tries to forget about the needle, the more insistent it becomes. Now it attacks one spot persistently, like a wire jabbing at a clogged pipe. He taps the back of his head with his hand but it doesn’t help.
He looks into the mirror at his daughter with the toothbrush still in his mouth.
“Are you feeling okay?” she asks.
“Iffwoffing.” He wants to say “It’s nothing,” but his toothbrush is in the way. Hyon-mi pokes him in the back, her lips dancing as she tries to hide her smile. Wearing pink Mickey Mouse pajamas, the fifteen-year-old drags herself to the dining table. She pours Kellogg’s cereal into a bowl, opens the fridge, and takes out the milk carton. The cereal crackles as the milk fills the bowl. She crunches on her breakfast. The cat wanders by, rubbing against Hyon-mi’s foot. It feels like a slinking snake to Hyon-mi.
“Meooowwwr,” the cat protests, as if she knows what the girl is thinking.
After rinsing, Ki-yong comes out of the bathroom and picks up the cat. Only at that point does his wife, Ma-ri, step out of the bedroom, in her underwear. She isn’t wearing a bra and the blue veins threading past her nipples make her look cold. She scratches her stomach with her left hand, encased in a cast, while covering a yawn with the other. Approaching the table, she tousles Hyon-mi’s hair with her injured hand.
“Did you sleep well?” Ma-ri asks her daughter.
Hyon-mi shakes her head. Hyon-mi hates that her mother walks around the house half naked, so she won’t even glance at Ma-ri when she isn’t wearing anything. Ki-yong presses his fingers against his temple and offers, “My head hurts.”
“You never get headaches,” Ma-ri says.
“Well, I guess I do now.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Ma-ri throws back, heading into the bathroom.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Sorry, I meant to say something else. Is it a migraine? Is it only on one side?”
“It feels like a needle is sticking into my brain. When does your cast come off?”
His question is buried under the flow of water. “What?” she asks, frowning.
“The cast on your arm.”
“Oh, they told me to come by next week. It’s so itchy, it feels like ants are crawling around in there.”
“Maybe they are.”
Ma-ri closes the bathroom door. She broke her wrist two weeks ago, when a department store escalator lurched to a stop and she fell, unable to stay on her feet against the crush of people behind her.
“You should listen to Yuki Kuramoto,” Hyon-mi instructs Ki-yong as she places her bowl in the sink.
“He’s a Japanese pianist. He’s supposed to be good for headaches.”
“Dad, you’re not one of those people who think kids only say stupid things, are you?” asks Hyon-mi, shooting him a look.
“So give it a try, okay?”
Hyon-mi is already holding out a Yuki Kuramoto CD. He takes it and slides it in his briefcase. For a split second, Ki-yong feels as if he were floating. It’s a joyous feeling, a sensation of his heels lifting slightly off the ground. The mere act of holding the CD is alleviating his pain. Or is it the solace of his daughter’s worried expression?
Feeling buoyant, he tells Hyon-mi, “I think it’s working already.”
“See, told you.” Hyon-mi heads into her room to change.
Ki-yong hears Ma-ri flush. He goes into the master bathroom, washes his face, and starts to shave. The water is warm and the suds are soft on his face. He wipes his face with a towel and reviews his schedule for the day. He doesn’t think he will be that busy. He has to settle the accounts with a theater in the afternoon, but since it’s only a formality, a phone call will do.
He picks out a brand-new shirt and a bluish gray silk tie. He puts on a navy jacket, and he’s ready for work. Briefcase in hand, he knocks on the bathroom door.
“Are you going to be late tonight?” he asks Ma-ri.
“What?” Ma-ri opens the door and pokes her head out. “What did you say?”
“Are you going to be late tonight?”
Ma-ri thinks for a second and shakes her head. “I’m not sure. What about you?”
“I don’t have any plans, but I’m not sure either.”
Hyon-mi comes out of her room, fastening the blouse buttons of her school uniform. She pushes her feet into her Pumas and yanks open the front door. Ki-yong follows her.
“Then everyone’s on their own for dinner,” Ma-ri says.
“Okay, see you later,” Ki-yong tells Ma-ri.
“Yeah, okay,” Ma-ri says, following them to the front door. “Hyon-mi, you’re coming home straight from school, right?”