Monday Night Snow Fall

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snow 2I’m meeting Y, my girlfriend, in the subway station at 6:45. It’ll be the first time I leave the apartment today. Y broke the door off the cabinet last night and I was supposed to fix it. I couldn’t. I figure I’ll say it’s because there’s a screw missing. Find that screw, and I’ll have the door back on no problemo. Two minutes, tops. Yeah, the screw is my scapegoat, and I’m thankful for it. I know that Y will see right through this, but I figure I’ll say it anyways. I must have some sort of excuse. It’s expected of me.

When she comes out of the subway station, I’m waiting for her. She looks lovely. Outside, Seoul has gone cold, winter jacket mean. Y’s face is reactive; she turns it away from the wind and scowls. I haven’t had my hair cut since September and we walk to a barber shop. There’s a spinning barber’s pole outside the place, pink and yellow, cartoon girls with big eyes going round and round. The lady inside sits me down and asks Y what she’s supposed to do to me. Y tells her something in Korean, relaxing in the seat next to me, and soon there’s hair falling from my head. I hate getting my hair cut, having to look at myself in the mirror, practically forced to, my heinous image inescapable; when it’s mercifully over, the lady asks me if it’s okay, and I, in turn, ask Y.

Afterwards, Y takes me to a restaurant where she orders us Canadian eel. We put the long, thin eels, dressed in red spices, onto a grill and cut them to shreds with scissors. The meat is chewy. Y’s ponytail has come undone; it’s losing its sense of order, a long strand of hair going down the side of her face. She’s got a yellow shirt on and a necklace with big white plastic pearls. I don’t think she’s ever looked more beautiful. We eat the eel with mint leaves and garlic cloves. I tell her she looks beautiful and she laughs.

Which, while not the intended response, is okay, since it emphasizes my point.

On the way back, it starts to snow. This is the first snow either of us has seen this year. Sure, it’s freezing cold and dark outside, but that’s all background noise. I feel so proud walking next to Y. I want to kiss her. It’s only a short walk home, and the snow falls softly down on her black hair.

*

You Abandoned Me with a Cockroach: A Love Story

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It was 7:30 one Thursday morning and I was sound asleep, curled up like a potato bug in my girlfriend’s pink and purple bed.  I can’t say with much accuracy exactly what I was dreaming of, although, given my dream history, it probably involved either playing with a big bunny or losing my teeth.  In other words, my attention was fully absorbed in something exciting.  I’d gone to bed at 1:00 the night before, and my alarm was set accordingly, programmed for 9:00 so that I would be getting the standard 8 hours of sleep that every human must have.  That’s a requirement.  Go under that number and you will be exhausted; go over it and you will officially be a lazy bum.

Suddenly, a harsh, loud, pounding noise pulled me from my rest.  It was my girlfriend, slamming on something by the kitchen sink.  My head hurt and my vision was blurry.  I longed to go back to losing my teeth.

“What the heck are you doing?” I asked.

Delicious Coconut: Toolkit Required

“I’m opening this coconut,” she said.  She had a coconut in one hand and was banging on it with a giant hammer like she was John Henry workin’ on the railroad track.

“What?” I moaned.

“I want to drink the coconut water,” she said, and proceeded to keep whacking away at the thing.  I briefly entertained the thought of going back to sleep.  The coconut had no quit, though.  As opposed to helping my cause by just plain breaking open, the stubborn thing refused to yield, remaining as impenetrable as a bank vault, and so I gave up and dragged myself out of bed.

Sleep is an important part of my life.  I do it every day and often look forward to it. Being in a relationship is also important, although it sometimes makes sleeping a lot harder.  Since I’m happy in my relationship, I try to accept not getting enough sleep or being woken up.  Sure, it’s a little annoying, but it’s more imperative to be a good boyfriend.  I try.  I’m generally supportive, spend lots of quality time with my girl, and often tell her that she’s beautiful.  Too often in today’s society, women feel that men only want them for their personalities – I like to remind my girlfriend that I also love her for her physical appearance.

What I’m getting at is this: If one had to choose but one thing, would one choose love or sleep?  It’s not a very interesting question, as this is typically not a decision a person must make.  There are times, though, when it’s as paramount as anything.  In the instance of the coconut, I suppose I could’ve gotten grumpy and told her to be quiet.  I didn’t want to be that guy, though, and so I chose instead to let it go.  I chose love over sleep.  Also, I don’t want my girlfriend to feel controlled or inhibited in any way.  If she wants to smash open coconuts with a sledgehammer at 7:30 in the morning, she has the right to make that decision.  Just as I have the right to purchase coconut water in a can and present it to her shortly before throwing her hammer in the Han River.

On another occasion, though, I had a bit more difficulty dealing with the love/sleep dilemma.  It was on a weeknight, and I was stressed because I had an especially hard day ahead of me at work.  My girlfriend, as she always is, was impeccably sweet and comforting.  Around 1:00, I decided to call it a night and shut my eyes.  Two hours later, I was woken by the blaring sound of my girlfriend’s security system.

I would feel so embarrassed trying to describe the Korean thief to a sketch artist.

“Baby?!” I hollered, shooting up in bed.  The door slammed.  The security alarm was still going off.  My girlfriend was not in the bed with me.  The room was dark and my head started spinning.  What the hell was going on?  I wondered if I was going to have to fight somebody, and tried to remember where the giant hammer was kept.  Just then, the door re-opened, with my girlfriend standing in its outline like I was looking at a photograph of her in a picture frame.  She typed in a few numbers and the alarm went off.

“Sorry,” she said.  She was fully dressed.  “I have to go to the store.”

“The store?  Now?”  I looked at my phone.  It was 3:15 in the morning.

“I saw a cockroach in the bathroom,” she said.  “I can’t sleep.  I have to go get repellent.”

No one has the right to be afraid of cockroaches until after they’ve seen that last segment of Creepshow.

My girlfriend’s apartment is nice and clean, and she likes it that way.  The presence of a cockroach was too much to stand.  It had to die, and it had to die now.

“Can’t this wait until later?” I begged.  “I really need to sleep.”

“No,” she said.  “I can’t stay in here with the cockroach.”

“Maybe it’s friendly,” I said.  “You really have to go now?”  She nodded.  “Well, I won’t be able to sleep with you awake and fighting bugs.  I’m going to walk back to my place, then.”

I can’t explain precisely how my mind was working.  It was very decisive, sort of like a dog’s.  When a dog’s owner throws a stick and tells him to fetch, he either goes or he doesn’t.  A dog never stops to ponder, thinking about his owner and asking himself, “If I don’t go fetch, how will that make him feel?”  All I wanted was to sleep, and so I put on my clothes and left.  I split.  I chose sleep.

My girlfriend sent me a text message the next morning.  It said, “I can’t believe you abandoned me with a cockroach.”

All made up.

Yes, yes I did.  It’s one thing to abandon your girlfriend; leaving her alone with an insect makes it worse.  If it wasn’t for sleep, I feel none of this would’ve happened.  That’s my defense.  Luckily, we were able to work out the abandonment incident and I was able to return to her apartment, which is now equipped with a cockroach patch.

This morning, I was again yanked from sleep by a loud sound.  In the alley in front of my girlfriend’s place, people walk around with wheelbarrows, picking up recyclables that they can sell.  Today I was woken by the grating screech of someone’s wheelbarrow tires; it was as though he was barreling along and a cat or a small child ran in front of his wheelbarrow and he had to slam on the brakes to avoid vehicular homicide.  My eyes snapped open, my brain confused.  But there was my girlfriend, with her head tucked up against my chest.  My arms were around her shoulders and hers were around my waist.  Our legs were intertwined.  The wheelbarrow also woke her up, and her sleepy eyes looked up and met mine.  It was, really, the most beautiful way to start a day.  The morning sun came in through the window and everything was quiet again.

*

Endings at a Park

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The list of unspeakables had gotten long.  Ashley and I sat in the park near Incheon’s Arts Center, eating sandwiches and watching the children play in the enormous fountain.  My chicken wrap dripped mustard sauce like sweat; it was a Sunday and the sun was bright and warm.  Summer was just stepping to the front of the line, the heat of the days making things like breeze and shade more valuable.  The children in the park ran through the fountain to cool themselves off.  Ashley and I sat right in the sun.

“Have you noticed that we’re the only non-family here?” she asked me.  It hadn’t dawned on me, but she was right.  Everyone in the park was either a parent or a child.  When a little girl fell down, there was always a mother there to pick her up.  Boys played catch with their fathers.  Sometimes the children would walk past us and, seeing the lightness of our skin broadcasting that we were from somewhere else, they would wave to us and say “hello.”

A relationship between two people – whether it be friendly, romantic, or some sort of mixture of the two – is only as good as the list of unspeakable things is short.  Ashley and I sat in the sun and talked about movies, feminism, and childhood.  We laughed when a small boy took off his clothes and urinated in the fountain.  Still, our list was there and I could feel it stuck between every pause in the conversation.  It was all the bad things that had happened between us – the people that couldn’t be mentioned, the nights that had gone bad.  Certain words, like “lawyer,” had grown fatter in meaning because of the things I’d said.  Simple questions like “what’d you do last night” changed into inquiries, switching from conversation to control.  Those questions weren’t simple any more.  Questions have memories, and my questions were filled with the memories of those nights when she’d left me alone to go off with other guys.

But there had to be something that brought us to the park on a hot Sunday afternoon.  It wasn’t coincidence, or boredom, or the allure of eating a chicken wrap and getting mustard sauce all over our fingers.  It was the three months we spent together, talking for hours every day, making each other laugh and becoming great friends.  When there’s a list of unspeakables, something must be there to keep two people pushing past it, making conversation in the face of it feeling forced and awkward.  Or at least a person likes to think so anyways.  Like every sentence she said told me that no matter how much she might have hurt me, she was still there.

Every now and then, the water in the fountain would stop, and the children, their wet clothes soaking up the heat, would wait anxiously for it to start again.  Some of the little ones would wander around, confused.  Still, they seemed to know where they were, aware that they were inside the confines of something – the park, the fountain, their families – and if they would wander away from the collection of children at the fountain’s center, they would never have walked too far away.  Not so far, they seemed to know, that they couldn’t turn and come running back to the water when it started up again.  It would only take a few beats to rejoin everyone, in the heart of the fountain, where all the complexity of the world was washed away by giant geysers of white water shot five feet up in the air.  I wondered if, at the end of their day, headed back home to dry off and get ready for school the next morning, those children, thinking back to their Sunday in the park, would feel like smiling or like crying.

Monday morning I called Ashley.  I was exhausted.  I told her that I cared for her, and then I told her that I couldn’t handle having her in my life anymore.  Our list had gotten too long, the hurt too much.  Strange, isn’t it, how empty one can feel when they know they’re doing the right thing?  It must’ve felt, I imagined, the same way those children felt leaving the park.  I suppose the end to anything, no matter how good or bad the events that preceded it, is always at least a little bit sad.

*

This is a Student Film

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In Blame Logic, all occurrences are the end result of a long and often tedious string of vaguely connected events, strung together by a pitiful individual who thinks too much.  I’m such a person, so I’ve always been a fan.  Let me give you an example of what I mean – My roommate is using the oven to cook dinner.  I go for takeout, and on the way I trip and break my ankle.  Using Blame Logic, the hospital bills should go to my roommate.  If he hadn’t monopolized the oven, none of this would’ve happened.  Blame Logic is a great way for me to never feel responsible for anything bad happening, and a nice way to convince myself that the entire universe is out to get me.

Sticking to this approach, it was really Katie Nelson’s fault that I got into a car wreck on the I-490 and totaled my Ford Taurus station wagon.  Katie was my co-worker at Blockbuster, and I had a disgusting crush on her.  The crush was disgusting due to the combination of its intensity and its one-sidedness.  Like someone who swears the Holocaust never happened, I was in absolute denial that Katie Nelson didn’t have feelings for me.  No facts or evidence would sway me towards recognizing the obvious.  Katie barely paid me any attention when her shift ended at five o’clock and I passed her going through the door on my way to take over her register.  Regardless, I was frantic about getting to the Blockbuster before she left, just so I could savor her cool look as she slid by.

Because of this, I drove far too fast down the expressway and my car spun out of control.  I hit a truck and then went careening into the guard rail at light speed.  As the police cars came and the smoke poured out from under the hood of my demolished family utility vehicle, I could only think, “Damn!  Katie’s got to be gone by now!”

Like I said, it was Katie’s fault that my car was totaled.

Coincidentally, one of the frustrated drivers stuck in the traffic jam created by my accident was Adrian Lozano, who just so happened to be my professor at film school.  Adrian was a fat lesbian who wore all black and disliked everything.  Her range of approval went from mere hatred to all out repulsion.  After screening our projects, certain students would beam with excitement, claiming, “Adrian Lozano only mildly despised my film!”  Perhaps the one thing Adrian disliked more than anything was being stuck on a backed-up highway.  When she found out that I was the cause of it, her lip twitched and she said, “Oh, so you’re the reason I was twenty minutes late getting home.”

I had never felt so ashamed in my life.

Soon after the accident, my mind could only focus on things of the utmost importance: my upcoming final project at film school, the wrecked car, and Katie Nelson.  I became horribly depressed.  Bumming rides to and from school from my friend Richard, I’d hang my head as if all hope was lost.

“Snap out of it!” Richard said.  “You’ve got a student film to make!  Don’t you realize the opportunity you have?  This could be your big break.”

Richard himself was making a documentary on an overweight guy who liked to dance in public.  “It’s going to be called ‘Fat Guy Dancing,’” he said proudly.  “I shot some footage of him dancing by a fountain last night.  It came out really good.  The lighting is perfect.”

With my car out of commission, Richard was my transportation.  He would also be my cameraman once I started my film.  I figured anyone who cared enough to light an obese street dancer like he was lighting Marlene Dietrich had to be worth working with.  Richard gave me some advice about my project.

“Take everything that’s happened,” he said, “and channel it into your film.  That’s what artists do.”

That sounded good, especially since it implied I was an “artist.”  Alone in my bedroom, I poured my heart into a ten page script.  The story involved a man who had accidentally killed someone in an auto wreck.  Now believing that he was capable of anything, he kidnaps the girl he’s crazy about.  He believes he can force her to love him.  But he can’t, and in the end, he sits in a parking lot in his junked car and watches as she goes off with someone else.

The next day, I handed my script to Katie Nelson and asked her to star in my film.

“Who’s gonna play the guy?” she asked.

“I am,” I said.   My student film was turning into a complete exercise in ego: it was about me, would be directed by me, would star the girl I was crazy about, and so it might as well have me in it, too.  Just like in classic painting, I figured – no artist ever painted a self-portrait of someone else.

To my surprise, Katie called me the next day and was enthusiastic about the project.

“I think it’s good,” she said.  “Do you really want me to be in it?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Why do you want me?” she asked.

The obvious answer was, “I desperately love you and see this as my only chance to ever impress or get anywhere near you.”  But I didn’t say that.

Instead I said, “I just need a girl and I don’t know anyone else.”

By this time, most of the other students in my film class had already finished their films.  They showed their work in class to a typically unimpressed Adrian Lozano.

“It’s technically well done,” she’d say, “but I don’t see any emotion in it.”

Aha!  If it was emotion she wanted, my film was going to be stuffed with it.  While the other students aped Kevin Smith, I was putting myself on film without shame.  It was all going to be out there for the world to see – everything I felt in life, naked, captured in crisp digital video.

Finally, the night came when I arranged my film to be shot.  I had more or less run out of time, and so the entire thing would have to shot in one night.  My father let me borrow his car so that I could go pick up my starlet.  Coming out of her house, Katie looked radiant.

I opened the passenger side door for her and Katie hopped in.  Heading in the direction of my apartment – or as I had called it on the phone, “the set” – Katie suddenly began telling me about her sex life.

“So,” she said, “I got laid last night.”

Absorbing the blow of those words, I almost lost control of the car.  It would have been the second wreck Katie would’ve been responsible for.

“What?!”

“I’ve been miserable lately,” she said.  “I decided to sleep with the bartender from Donnie’s.  It was just to cheer me up.  I don’t think I feel any better, though.”

My hands shook on the wheel.  “Why would you do that?” I asked, sneering like Adrian Lozano during my midterm project.  “Don’t you want someone who likes you and would be good to you?”

“No,” she said bluntly.  “Not at all.  I don’t want a boyfriend.  I just want to have sex right now with no strings attached.”

At that point, I might as well have taken her back home and forgotten the whole thing.  It was done.  For the hour or so that we tried to make the film, Richard chain-smoked and worried about the editing of his film, I couldn’t focus on anything other than the mental picture of Katie having sex with some sleazy bartender, and Katie just sat there looking sad.

Finally I threw in the towel and put my student film out of its misery.  Just like that, my ego-trip was over.  All that was shot from my ten page script were a few lines of dialogue and some shots of Katie sitting on my couch, looking lovely.

Later that night, I looked through my prop box in an effort to inspire myself.  I had to shoot something, after all.  Nothing jumped out at me except a fake finger I had in the box.  My new film (shot by me, directed by me, staring me, and featuring special effects by me) consisted of me sitting around chain-smoking.  Near the end, I open the pack for another cigarette and there isn’t one.  Then I take a knife and cut my finger off.  I put the severed finger (which was – relax – the fake finger) into my mouth, light it, and smoke it.  Fade to black.  The end.

“What the hell was that!?” Adrian Lozano gasped.  “It’s terrible!  Poorly shot…there’s no point…what on earth were you thinking?”

Bent over in shame, I muttered, “I thought it would be funny.”

“Well,” she huffed, “I didn’t hear anyone laughing.”

It was true.  That would change, however, in a few moments, when “Fat Guy Dancing” made its premiere.  The class laughed uproariously as the Fat Guy popped and locked to Da Dip.

Squeezing out her words through laughter, Adrian managed to say, “Well done, Richard!  It’s perfect!”

Maybe an artist puts himself on the screen.  Richard put something up there that made people laugh.  In a school of thinkers, his dumb little film turned out to be the best thing made all year.

*

I didn’t see much of Katie Nelson after that.  She quit Blockbuster and moved away.  Taking her words at face value, all she wanted was someone who didn’t like her so much; she didn’t want the pressure of being admired.  Maybe that was my mistake.  Maybe when she passed by me on the way out the Blockbuster door and shot me that cool look, I should’ve returned it.

A month after the disastrous screening of my half-assed student film (in front of the entire film program), I was kicked out of film school.  I didn’t have what it took.  Not the desire to succeed, or even the knowledge of how to work a camera or read a light meter.

“What are you going to do now?” Richard asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Work more hours at Blockbuster, I guess.”

This is a student film – how it works.  A man picks out his star and pictures Hollywood, oh Hollywood, and the titles of his movies on marquees.  Every story of a student film is the story of a dreamer and his dream.  Then, somehow, things happen.  The car gets wrecked, the star goes away, and the movie doesn’t play the same way it did when he pictured it.  When it’s over, he realizes that he’s put his whole heart into an abject failure.  There was a moment of belief, though – not just for him, for his star as well.  She might have left to pursue less ambitious dreams, true, but he can’t forget something.  He can’t forget that for one brief bit of time, she believed in him, and perhaps she even shared a little bit of his dream, too.

Some people can take an image and capture it on film.  They’re the ones who have everything come out just the way they’ve envisioned it.  I’m not one of those people.  My images only take shape in my head, and usually a long time after I’ve first tried to capture them.  I don’t really envy those first people, I don’t think.  It must be depressing, in a way, to take a look at what you’ve done, and know that you’ve seen it all before.

 

*

 

 

So-Mi the Seaweed Girl

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There was no way I could call the girl I had met over the weekend without asking my Korean co-teacher, Hye Jeong, for help.  And because Hye Jeong is extremely inquisitive, I had to explain the entire situation to her.

“You see Hye Jeong,” I said, “when the girl put her number into my phone, she wrote her name in Korean.  I have no idea what it says.  So I need you to tell me what this girl’s name is.”

“You don’t remember her name?” Hye Jeong asked.  I responded by making a drinking motion with my hand.  “Oh,” she said, “you were very drunk.”  I nodded.  Thankfully, Hye Jeong didn’t have any more questions.  She looked at the name entered into my phone.

“Her name is So-Mi,” she said.  Then, because she’s nosey, Hye Jeong added, “You will tell me tomorrow if you have date.”

Calling a girl for the first time is always nerve-wracking.  It’s even worse, though, when the girl is Korean and doesn’t speak much English.  Normally, I would ask a girl out in a roundabout sort of way, making small talk and stalling, poking around the question until I had a fair idea of what the girl’s answer would likely be.  But with a language barrier, there’s none of that.  There’s no banter, no warm-up jokes to build character.  There’s just the question, plain and simple.

I called So-Mi around eight at night, not expecting the conversation to turn out at all like it did.

“Hello?” she said, after about 10 seconds of silence.

“Hi, So-Mi.  This is Bill.  We met at Who’s Bar Saturday night.”

“Oh!  So sleepy!”

“Sleepy?  Okay.  Do you want me to call back some other time?”

“No no.  Oh, headache!  So sleepy!”

“Really, I could call back later.”

“It’s okay.  I’m sorry.”

“Okay, I’ll make it quick then.  What are you doing Thursday?”

“Thursday very busy.  No no.  Very busy.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.  Can I see you next week?”

“Next week very busy.  We will go out next year.”

“I’m sorry?  Next year?  What do you mean?”

“Next year.  We will go out 2011.”

“That’s four months away, So-Mi.  How about Saturday?”

“Very very busy!  We will go out January, 2011.”

“You’re not free anytime before that?”

“Headache!  I call you then.  Next year.  Bye bye.”

With that, we hung up.  It wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for.  Looking on the bright side, though, I did have a date.

As it would turn out, So-Mi didn’t call me in 2011, but in November instead.  “It’s party night,” she said, and we agreed to meet each other out at the same bar where we’d met the first time.  It had been a long time, and I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize her (especially since I didn’t really remember what she looked like to begin with).  Luckily, though, when I arrived at Who’s Bar, So-Mi was the only one there.

“Hey, So-Mi!” I said, although my facial expression surely wasn’t as enthusiastic.  She was quite chubby, with enormous glasses and a gigantic green knit hat on her head.  “It’s pretty warm in here,” I told her.  “Don’t you think you can take the hat off?”

“Oh no,” she said.  “It is my style.  It is like college student.”

So-Mi didn’t go to college, but instead worked at Home Plus, which is kind of like the Korean equivalent of Target.  She wanted to go to a university, though, to study cooking.  We got drinks, and she slammed hers down before I’d taken two sips of mine.  With her hands free, she began eating the rectangular squares of dried seaweed that the bar had set out.

“Boy,” I commented, watching her shove fistfuls of seaweed into her face, “you really like that seaweed.”

“I am very funny,” So-Mi said, smiling.  Then she began taking little bits of the seaweed and sticking them to her face.  “Ha ha ha!  So funny!” 

She put spit on her cheeks and stuck more bits of seaweed on.  “Yeah,” I said, “that’s really hilarious.”

After we’d removed the seaweed off of her, we tried to have a conversation but it just wasn’t going very well.  So-Mi put her head down on the bar after every sentence.  “Oh, headache!  So drunk!”

In horror, I realized that a friend of mine had come to the bar to watch the football match.  I slipped away from So-Mi, who was alternatively putting her head down on the bar and whacking back more seaweed, and went over to my friend.  I hesitantly admitted that, yes, I was with the girl at the bar and, yes, I would eventually have to go back to her.

But when I turned my attention back to the bar, So-Mi had somehow vanished.  She was gone without a trace.  That wasn’t really a bad thing, so I sat with my friend and drank.  Two hours later, So-Mi suddenly re-appeared.

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“Hi!  It’s party night!”  She had no explanation whatsoever for where she had been, nor did she seem aware at all that she hadn’t been at Who’s Bar.

It probably goes without saying that she and I never had a second date.  When people ask me about Korean girls, I usually end up telling them about my date with So-Mi the Seaweed Girl.  It may be mean.  Unfair to the poor thing.  But I imagine that somewhere So-Mi is sitting with a group of Koreans, and perhaps they’ll ask her if she’s ever had a date with a white guy.  And maybe she’ll shake her head in disapproval and tell them about the lousy guy she went out with once, who didn’t laugh at her humor, and who didn’t act in any way that made the slighest bit of sense.

*

The Place Where Elvis Stood

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On one of our first dates, two years before we married, Betty and I talked about the places we’d been.

“I’ve never been out of the country,” she said.  “I went to school in Ohio for a little bit.”

“I went to Florida once with my parents when I was a kid,” I said, thumbing through all of my life experiences.  “Oh, and I’ve been to Ohio too.  And I’ve driven through Pennsylvania.”

It was clear that neither of us had really been anywhere outside of New York state.  Pitifully clear.  Having read On the Road and The Sun Also Rises and a few Henry Miller books (like an English major is supposed to), I was ashamed.  Kerouac had Mexico, Hemingway Spain, Miller Paris, and we had…Ohio.  Betty and I continued to date.  Eventually we decided that it was necessary that the two of us embark on some form of journey, and one that didn’t involve flying because we were broke.  We would have to settle on a youthful exploration of our great big country.

We wanted someplace that would really symbolize America.  But not the faces-in-a-mountain, cracked bell, remember-the-Alamo America.  That was an America found in textbooks.  We didn’t want to go anywhere colonial, or, God forbid, anyplace with the world “fort” in its name.  No, we wanted an America found in novels, the Big America, with burgers and fries and people who sing on street corners.  An America alive, ready to be consumed, one full of pop culture and irony, almost a mockery of itself.  Betty and I were living in an age of sarcasm, after all.  We wanted to see an America we could be proud of and, simultaneously, laugh at.

So we chose to go to Graceland.  It seemed like a good decision.  Elvis had to be the perfect representation of America’s split personality.  He was larger than life, a superstar of stamps, collecting cars and planes and filling out every inch of his stars-and-stripes jumpsuit.  And at the same time, there was Elvis the country gent, with old-fashioned values, cherishing mom, loving his wife, singing songs to his daughter in their dream home.  As quickly as an inkjet cartridge can spit out a set of MapQuest directions, we were in my car and on the road.

We would go on to spend exactly one week in Memphis.  This was our grand voyage.  It turned out to be a pretty run down place, full of beat-up old cars and panhandlers.  We kept ourselves busy.  I remember looking out on the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot, eating at B.B. King’s restaurant, and seeing all things Elvis – the King of Rock and Roll. There are Kings everywhere you look in Memphis.  The place is full of ‘em.

Then we went to Sun Studio.  In the basement, there was a tall microphone sitting on the floor by a huge picture of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.

“That microphone was used by Elvis himself,” the tour guide said.  “He made some of his earliest recordings in this very room.”  Betty had me go stand by it and she took a picture of me and the Elvis microphone.   In it, I look nervous, clutching the mic stand with my right hand with a forced smile on my face.

Betty and I held hands on our stroll through Graceland.  We saw Elvis’ gold records and later his grave.  She took pictures so we could remember it all.  Around that time, we realized that we were only half-interested; that we didn’t really like Elvis much to begin with.  We left Memphis unsure of why we’d gone there in the first place.  It was good, though, because we had a week in a strange place to spend together.  We had danced on Beale Street and made love in the Best Western Benchmark Hotel, right across the street from the Peabody where the ducks come out of an elevator in the morning and waddle around like ugly babies.

Betty framed the picture of me holding the Elvis microphone.  It was on the wall all through our marriage.  Now she’s in America and I’m in South Korea, and that time in Memphis has sunk deep into the past.  I can still see that one photograph, though, in my head when I think of it.  I wonder if Betty kept it or threw it away.  There I am, standing in the place where Elvis stood, back when I was young, waiting for my future, so very much in love.

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Desk Full of Hate

Standard

My Vice Principal has a very clean and lovely desk.  He keeps one framed photograph on it.  I’ve talked to him enough times to know that he has a wife and a daughter.  However, neither of them have found their way onto his desk.  Instead, the one framed photograph is of him and the Principal, standing in front of the school, smiling and looking highly professional.

There’s nothing wrong with that, although it might seem a little odd to a Westerner who’s used to pictures of babies or spouses being on someone’s work station.  In essence, the workplace picture serves two purposes: to show off and to motivate.  The first is obvious.  A person wants their co-workers to notice, to say “what a cute baby!” or “awww! you and your husband look so sweet together!”  The second is for the worker, so that in those head-rubbing moments when the thought “why the hell am I doing this to myself?” goes through the mind, there’s a readily available answer.  You can’t quit because you have a baby.  Look, there’s proof on your desk.  It exists.  Stop typing up that resignation letter.

In thinking about the workplace picture, I stumbled onto what I think is a bright idea.  Personally, I’m mostly motivated by bitterness and resentment, as opposed to silly notions like family or pride.  It might be a good idea, then, to fill my desk with pictures of those people that drive me to do better – the ex-girlfriends and the folks I just don’t like.  I could go through Facebook, print off pictures, buy frames, and stock my desk full of the hated. 

“Say,” a coworker might ask, “who are they?”

“Oh,” I would say, “that’s my ex and her new boyfriend.  They look happy, huh?  Those bastards!”

And then, theoretically, I’d become highly productive in order to show them the excellence I’m capable of.  Having to see, say, a picture of Glen Beck everyday would send me into a working frenzy.

“Hey, Bill,” someone might ask me, “I heard you wrote two novels last year?  Where’d the inspiration come from?”

“My desk full of hate,” I’d answer.  “Yeah, I was having trouble finishing the second one, so I framed a picture of Frank Wycheck from the Music City Miracle.  Then the novel just kind of wrote itself.” 

People keep pictures that make them happy.  There’s a tragedy in looking at a picture and wishing it was you in it and not someone else, or that your team (go Bills!) was the one celebrating in the end zone.  I’d never actually do my “desk full of hate” because of that “show off” factor.  It would be hard to admit, as I would often have to, that the picture doesn’t often turn out the way I’d hoped it would.

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