I return, too often, to the kitchen scene that opens Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. A housewife, Yeong-hye, has a violent dream of animal slaughter. She wakes up in the middle of the night, resolved to become a meat-free woman. On his way to the kitchen for a glass of water, Yeong-hye’s husband finds her in front of an open fridge in a nightgown, standing still as a potted plant.
By sunrise Yeong-hye is still at the fridge, only this time she’s crouched over and surrounded by trash bags, disposing of everything that was once alive: hunks of striated beef and fatty pork belly, saltwater eel; eggs and milk for good vegan measure. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is an act of control and defiance that her husband mistakes for madness. But then her husband is easily maddened: While disposing of the household meat, his wife has forgotten to iron his white shirt. It’s the husband who narrates the kitchen scene as well as the first third of the novel. By the end of that third, he divorces Yeong-hye and his narrative voice disappears.
Last autumn I lost my hunger for all things meat and all things otherwise. It’s not what I meant to do—this wasn’t a ploy to become thinner, one of the intentional appetite-reduction strategies of my teenage years—but it’s what I did. No matter how ravenous I got I could not finish a plate in one sitting. Half of everything I packed into takeaway boxes and saved for an indefinite later. I sucked the empty tines of a plastic fork, and whenever I sat down to eat until full, I found that a sadness had already filled me three-quarters of the way.
That sadness was owed, in part, to separation: A few weeks before, I separated from my partner of five years. Our break was inevitable but also desolating. I had been with my partner since I was 18, fresh out of a difficult situation. There were parts of my history I had wanted to push away, parts that had grown rotten and dank with trauma, and being loved by this older and put-together man gave me the brief illusion that I could push these parts away.
I missed him, but more so I missed the me so preoccupied with another person that she didn’t have to deal with herself.
Of course, nothing boiling stays under the lid too long. After all the idiosyncrasies of a relationship, it saddens me just how generic it is, the language of our ending. We grew up with each other. When I was young, I had the tendency to furrow into the shadow of his guidance; I did not grow up into the woman he had wished me to become. It is possible to love someone for so long and so dearly you forget how to be good to each other.
Weeks folded into new weeks, and still my appetite grew smaller. Occasionally I ate raw spinach by the handful, to be somewhat good. I wanted to heal, to snap out of the physical drama of heartbreak, but admittedly I am the type of woman who is buoyed by drama, who loves only a particular and painful type of man—someone a little unkind, someone a little or a lot older, whose love I have to earn—and so it’s much easier for me to backslide into bedrooms and sadness and Syrah than it is to recover. I missed my partner. Even the arguments we had at the end (there were many) I found somewhat comforting; the din of him yet another intimacy I didn’t want to let go. I missed him, but more so I missed the me so preoccupied with another person that she didn’t have to deal with herself.