I moved to Korea because I could think of nothing better to do. I was 22 and Kim Jung-Il was indulging some half-mad petulance while my father calculated the distance warheads had to travel between Pyongyang and Seoul.
A nuclear skirmish on the Korean peninsula worried my father less than my reluctance to find conventional work. He saw my move to Seoul to teach English as a gypsy’s pilgrimage: an impetuous, half-brave attempt to avoid pushing paper in an office. He was right. I was hitting “pause” on my transition to adulthood.
But I needed to do something. That winter I’d dropped out of a teaching degree and was drawing dole cheques. I’d overestimated the market attractiveness of an unkempt lit major and now my anxiety was a möbius strip—self-perpetuating, entwined, infinite. I needed an out. A circuit-breaker.
I saw a newspaper advertisement for English teachers in South Korea. I cut it out and, our phone being disconnected for non-payment, walked to a pay-phone to enquire. The recruiter lived in Adelaide with a lot of dogs. She sounded crazed or lonely or both. It didn’t matter. Being white and holding a degree (in what, it didn’t matter) I satisfied the only requirements to teach in Korea. The airfare was provided up front. I shrugged my doubts off. I was up and away.
I regretted it immediately. The reality was an embarrassing betrayal of my naivety. Bizarrely, my expectations were of a great verdancy occasionally interrupted by solemn monuments, and all of it untouched by pollution. Oh, I knew Seoul was one of the largest and densest cities in the world—I’d read my Lonely Planet—but I was an idiot and nothing had prepared me for the filth, the humidity, the giant millipedes, the brown, brown, brown.
When I was shown my apartment—a sparse shoebox which immediately induced claustrophobia—I collapsed on the bed and listened as military jets broke the sound barrier. My translator helpfully told me that they were US jets on a routine exercise and not, as I feared, South Korean jets scrambled to intercept a Northern invasion.
It wasn’t the kind of invasion we needed to worry about. When it came to private English schools in South Korea, Adam Smith’s invisible hand exercised itself dramatically. The hand was liberally ushering in deviants and drunks; gamblers and misanthropes, each escaping the law or the margins. I thought I was misanthropic, but meeting some of the malcontents charged with teaching children, I realised I’d only been pretending.
Whoever we were, we all found ourselves in the same seedy part of town each Saturday night. Itaewon was filled with Russian prostitutes, US soldiers and military police, its main drag garish and the back streets dark and labyrinthine. We all spent too much time there. Later, I would respond in kind to three mouthy US soldiers and get dropped.
There was one place my friends and I haunted more than others, one favoured by teachers more than soldiers. It had wooden panelling and draft beer and vaguely resembled an American bar. That’s where all of this started. That’s where I met her.
Her name was Beth and she restored what only the night before I had loudly declared to be a painful loss. Drunk and urinating beside a freeway, I began yelling to my friend. “Dray!” I screamed. “I’ve lost my sense of wonder!” Probably I just liked the sound of it. I was like that. As for Dray’s sense of wonder, it may or may not have been improved by the fact that Beth was his ex-girlfriend.
Right away I thought she was beautiful. Vibrant, cute, smart. She liked Simon and Garfunkel and I thought she’d look great in t-shirt and gym shorts. You know, the all-American sexiness of the cheerleader. That she’d read philosophy at some Midwestern university was a bonus.
I spent most of the night talking with her. We spoke about her recently deceased grandmother and I told her that she had restored my sense of wonder. Believing that using plain English to describe my attraction was beneath both of us, I began telling her that she was “vodka and watermelon” in a misguided attempt at poetically capturing her charm. “Vodka and watermelon” is now my shorthand for the warm but pathetic excesses borne from young love and a literature degree.
I had mixed results. Beth invited me back to her apartment but made it clear before we got there that we wouldn’t sleep together. She was wearing the pants. And the thermals, jacket, beanie and scarf. The ambiguity didn’t bother me—I was happy just to talk to her. Looking back now, I wonder if it was an American thing: inviting someone back for company; to help keep the bed warm; to continue the conversation. Or perhaps it was an ex-pat thing—young foreigners in a different culture bounce off each other with a wild buoyancy, intimacy and randomness. Or perhaps she was just a hopeless tease.
Before we fell asleep she told me about the stray cat she’d rescued, and about the time her father got up one night and went downstairs to the garage and hooked a pipe up to his exhaust and led it ‘round and up and through the driver’s window. He sealed the car as best he could, turned on the engine and sat back in his seat but just before he lost consciousness he thought of his two daughters and so he turned off the engine, put away the pipe and went back to bed. Before falling asleep he placed a photo of his two daughters beneath his pillow.
We may have kissed that night. I don’t remember. I only remember the stories we exchanged. I told her about the German cannibal who had found a man with a complementary desire to be eaten, and how they had met and drunk wine together before the guest was slaughtered, cooked and eaten. Now the cannibal was on trial, and during the proceedings everyone commented on how polite and articulate and charming the cannibal was—how utterly sane. I told Beth that he had been declared fit of mind, that in fact the professional opinion was that he was especially sensitive and intelligent. I told Beth the ways in which German law recognised the victim’s complicity—his blissful surrender—so much so that people were seriously arguing whether he was a victim at all.
We talked and talked until I couldn’t take it anymore and I spoiled the moment by asking if anything might happen between us. She said “no” and I let myself out while she was showering and caught a cab. It was a long ride home and I was sad and happy but mostly tired. The driver let me smoke a cigarette and I watched apartment towers flash by as I allowed that my sense of wonder had been restored.
I didn’t see or hear from Beth for a couple of weeks. Not until I saw her back at the bar where we met. She was sitting on a stool talking to a handsome guy in a leather jacket. I hated him immediately.
We didn’t speak that night. I slunk off to a corner to drink with friends. I must have done a very good job at it, because when I left early the next morning I had lost my scarf, beanie and coat. I walked to the subway station in sub-zero weather wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
The trains weren’t running yet and there was a young white couple huddled together at the grilled subway entrance, smoking. A lone Korean commuter stood nearby, disinterested. I had lost or smoked my last cigarette and was desperate to ask them for one, but their body language told me not to. They seemed to be in some private distress.
I waited on the other side of the road, watching them for a sign that I could approach. Eventually I did, apologetically begging for a smoke. They gave me three. I was grateful, but I detected a weirdness or desperation to them. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I shuffled back to my spot and smoked.
When the gate came up the four of us descended to the platform. My hands were purple. My head ached. My nose ran. I fingered the two remaining cigarettes in my pocket. There wasn’t long before the first train and I silently prayed that it was heated.
Then it started. The Canadian girl’s plaintive, private supplications became public. She fell to her knees and began pawing at her—it was now clear—ex-boyfriend’s legs. She was screaming for him to take her back. She was screaming that she’d kill herself.
And he just stood there. Shocked, embarrassed and quite still. The lone Korean commuter moved to the far end of the platform. So did the security guard. It was me and them and I couldn’t disguise my proximity.
I stood uncomfortably as a moral calculus emerged and I weighed the benefits and pitfalls of intervention. On the positive side was her demonstrable instability and the guy’s inability to quell her. On the negative side was the fact that it was none of my business. But she was hysterical now, insistent that she would throw herself in front of the train, and still the guy just stood there. I walked over.
It’s right here that dialogue should move the story forward, but I can’t remember any of it. She kept screaming that she wanted to die, and I kept feeding her cliches about the value of life. I also remember being incredulous at the ex-boyfriend’s silence. But that’s it. It’s foggy.
Untouched by my improvised counsel, the girl shoved me aside and jumped off the edge of the platform. She sat on the middle of the tracks. I looked at the arrivals board. The train was about five minutes away, give or take a few minutes. Incongruously, her backpack was still on as she stared down the tunnel, facing the direction of the train. The tunnel bent sharply away, meaning we would hear the train but not see it until it was upon her.
I moved quickly to the edge of the platform. I was the only one who did. The security guard was pretending nothing was happening, while the boyfriend remained statuesque. I glanced again at the arrivals board and pessimistically subtracted a couple of minutes from it. I didn’t commit fully to pulling her off the tracks because I didn’t want to die. But I jumped down off the platform quickly, occupying the space between the tracks and the platform’s retaining wall, and I reached for her and grabbed her arm or maybe her backpack’s strap and tugged hard. I leapt back on the platform and, fortunately, she followed.
I was shocked and disgusted and I walked away from the two of them and. With trembling hands, I lit one of the cigarettes they had given me earlier. Of all the things that had just happened, my lighting a cigarette was the act which finally animated the security guard. He walked over briskly and told me to put the cigarette out, gesturing seriously at the no-smoking signs. I was stunned. “Did you see what just happened?” I screamed. “Did you see what I did?”
I took another drag and exhaled smoke and abuse, but I was denied the satisfaction of his full understanding. I stubbed my cigarette out on the platform and glared at him. It’s impossible that a cigarette has ever been more necessary for me. As I write this, the memory of that guard’s cowardice, pedantry and banal officialdom angers me still.
So there was our train. The three of us boarded and they made it clear that they wanted me to sit with them. The guy was still quiet, but seemed grateful for my presence. Looking back, I think I was letting him off the hook. Again.
They were forlorn and so I asked them about themselves, drawing them slowly out of their shells. It was the last thing I wanted to do as my body recovered from the flood of adrenalin. I don’t remember what I asked them, other than what their favourite films were (hers was Stand by Me). It seems like a bizarrely incongruous question, but it seemed appropriate at the time.
We stayed on the train for some time, riding around and around on this loop. I wanted to go home, throw up and fall on a bed. I was tired of functioning. I needed to collapse. At some point I thought I should leave them alone and I walked down the carriage and inspected a subway map. I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around and it was the Canadian guy holding out some gloves for me—he had purchased them from a train vendor. It was his way, I think, of thanking me.
As I approached my train transfer point (again) I said goodbye to them. I told them that I had to get to bed. We never exchanged details and as is obvious from this story, I never remembered their names. I never saw them again. Looking back, I think he’d seen it all before—that’s why he didn’t move. She never intended to kill herself. It was a pathetic show of histrionics and I was the poor sap caught up in it.
It took me an hour and a half to get back to my friend’s house. It was early Sunday morning and the carriages were nearly empty. My collapse set in. I sat shivering and feeling nauseous. My adrenalin had long abandoned me and I was finally left with the residue of fear and loathing. I chewed my nails obsessively. I twitched. I developed an irrational hatred of the smiling faces on the advertising boards. I was losing it.
I finally got back to Dray’s house. It was about half eight in the morning and I banged on his door. I woke him up. “What’s going on?” he asked. I told him I was going to be a terrible guest and smoke a cigarette in his apartment and drink his beer. He was still rubbing sleep from his eyes.
I told him the story. And I remember I focused on two things: the security guard’s response and the sad, red eyes of the guy as he handed me the gloves. I cried. After I told him the story I showered and he played guitar and sang for me. One of the songs was “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. When I got out of the shower we sat down and watched an American football playoff. The Raiders were playing someone. Dray explained the rules.
We went for bagels afterwards and then Dray had to head off. He asked if I was okay and if I wanted to go with him. “I’m fine,” I said. We separated and as I walked towards the subway station I realised I wasn’t fine. I needed to keep talking. Coincidentally, I was near Beth’s house and I decided to call her from a pay-phone. I woke her up. I told her what had happened, but in a highly abbreviated, casual way because I was self-conscious and didn’t want to appear like I was manipulating her into meeting with me. She said she was hungover and tired and I said that that was cool and I was sorry to wake her up.
I hung up and went to the subway station. I was utterly dejected and I didn’t even have my discman to make the long trip marginally bearable. If I had I would have played my favourite song at the time: Belle and Sebastian’s “She’s Losing It”. The story of a girl’s collapsed backed by jangly guitars and horns seemed perfect to me.
As I rode home, music-less, I was still sure I had my sense of wonder.