Back in November, I interviewed for a job in Beijing, China. Two weeks later, I’d signed a contract. A few months after that, I was on a plane to Beijing Capital International Airport. What greeted me – the place where I found myself – let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected. Yesterday was nice and sunny and so I went for a stroll and took some pictures. And thus I present to you my new home, for better or for worse. Cheers!
Of all the curious idiosyncrasies of the human race, people’s unique behavioral
blips, I’ve always been baffled by the decision some strange individuals make to wear underwear that has flowers on it. It’s definitely not sexy, unless one has a fetish for wallpaper, and from a strictly aesthetic perspective, a floral print can only be visually pleasing to those who think quilted Bounty paper towels are fine art. Mind you, I’m not against underwear that has personality – in fact, I own one pair of boxers with the Super Mario Brothers on it and another that retells the Little Red Riding Hood story (literary lingerie, there’s an idea, market it if you have the time). It’s just that flowers seem tacky. Grandmotherish. And flowers are also the most obvious vaginal symbol I can think of (right, Georgia O’Keefe?); a girl with flowered panties is sort of like a guy wearing tighty whities covered in bananas and The Washington Monument.
One Sunday evening, I found myself sitting in my room, the nervous breakdown that I’d been having for the previous three weeks beginning to subside slightly. I’d been hiding all weekend, terrified at the idea of seeing another human being, wanting only to be left alone, in the dark cavern of my apartment, taking shelter in my cave like an agoraphobic bear or an early 2000s Bin Laden. I’d hear people outside in the lobby of the apartment building, talking and laughing, and my heart would pound. Why were they out there? When would they leave? Their presence was cancer, a black widow spider hanging above my bed on its string, they were there to get me, I had to stay safe. The building was full of threats. Stepping outside my apartment was Russian Roulette, spin the barrel, pull the trigger, listen for noise.
For over a month I hadn’t done any laundry because the laundry room was down the hallway and I was too petrified of people to force myself to go. I figured it was easier to wear the same dirty underwear, BO scented shirts, and soy sauce stained jeans than risk running into someone in the public laundry room. But on this Sunday, the hallway was quiet, and I was feeling adventurous. I threw some clothes in a bag and literally sprinted across the lobby to the laundry room. The washer was all in Chinese and I had no idea how to work it. Whatever. I tossed my clothes in, poured a bunch of detergent on top like a Canadian eating pancakes and going heavy on the maple syrup, and punched buttons until the machine started. What was the worst that could happen? I’d either end up with clean clothes or turn the apartment building into The Impossible.
Forty five minutes passed. It was time to make the transfer to the dryer. I gave myself a pep talk, pumping myself up, like someone does before walking over hot coals, and then I darted back to the laundry room. There was only one dryer not currently in use but, to my horror, someone had left clothes inside it. I cursed under my breath and ran back to my room. Twenty minutes later I repeated the process, pep talk, 15 meter dash, dryer check. The same clothes sat in the dryer, left and abandoned, shed and forgotten, the same way cats leave their fur all over the place.
“Son of a bitch!” I shouted. I knew that I didn’t have it in me to come back again. Whoever was doing this was torturing me. I opened the dryer and started taking the clothes out, throwing them on top of the machine. To hell with it. My head ached. There’s a privacy agreement inherent in any Laundromat and I was breaking it, smashing it with each t-shirt or sock I tossed out of the dryer’s warm circular metal embrace.
And I would have kept going, had it not been for what I was unearthing. Panties. Lots and lots of panties. Whoever was responsible for this had washed a record amount of underwear, lifetimes worth. Flowered panties, tons of them, descending from the dryer, falling down onto my face, like I was an opera singer and the crowd was pelting me with roses.
How could I leave some girl’s underwear out in the open for anyone to gawk at? I only wanted to dry my clothes, not humiliate anyone. Anger filled me as I held the girl’s floral patterned panties in my hand. I imagined that if I was single, maybe one day I’d have a romantic hook up with one of my coworkers, bring her back to my apartment. Things would get heavy, bra unlatched, and I’d slide her jeans off, only to recognize this same pair of flowered panties snug around her hips. Passion would die right there. The lights would have to come on, and instead of sex, she would get a long lecture on laundry etiquette.
“Hours! You left your clothes in the dryer for hours! What kind of girl just leaves her panties in a public space like that? Have you no decency?!?”
It was no use. I put all of the mystery girl’s clothes back in the dryer, then took my soaking wet laundry and stuffed it in my bag. Returning to my apartment, I hung my drenched clothes around the place like I was redecorating, putting socks on bookshelves as if they were family photographs.
“I finally did some laundry,” I sighed. “I should feel happy.”
It was true. I was alone and safe, with wet clothes sitting in my closet, while some stranger was out and about, possibly having the time of her life, her laundry a minor detail of her day, already forgotten.
The Seoul subway is packed, just like always, and, also like always, I’m in a shitty mood. It’s mid-January and I’m headed to the airport, on my way to Hong Kong, a giant green suitcase containing half of my worldly possessions by my side, ready to make the trip with me. To get to the subway train, I must go down a staircase. I lift my suitcase, carrying it with both hands like a battering ram, and head down the stairs, taking the first step at the exact moment the train arrives. Approximately 8 million people get off the train and start walking up the staircase, flooding it, a tidal wave of Asians, coming right at me.
I sigh. I’m hugging the wall on the right hand side, as I feel I should be. One would think the people going up would do the same, two lanes, street traffic, headed in opposite directions, but they’re not. They’re spread out. This doesn’t deter me. I put my head down, the green suitcase held out before me, and walk with great speed, gaining inertia as I descend.
“Excuse me!” I yell. “Coming through!”
People duck out of the way, dodging me and muttering angry things in Korean. At least they’re moving, and I’m getting close to the bottom. But then I see an old woman, right in my path, walking up the stairs while texting. Why is an old woman texting? Why hasn’t technology passed her by, and who the hell is she talking too? Probably the retirement home, to tell them she’s escaped. She’s completely oblivious. It’s like a game a chicken and one person is asleep behind the wheel.
“Watch out!” I shout. That seems more pleasant than, “Move, bitch, get out the way!” The old woman continues towards me with her head down. I decide not to veer off, as I have heavy luggage and she should be the one that moves, and we collide. The suitcase wallops her good. She staggers to the side a bit and lets out a furious scream, shocked by what’s happened. I respond by saying “Pay attention!” and then make my way to the end of the staircase.
I don’t look back. It wasn’t my fault.
Maybe she’s learned a lesson about the dangers of texting. Or I’ve given Old Lady 21st Century something to blog about. Because she probably has a blog, with an upcoming entry called, “The Damn White Bastard Motherfucker.”
Mid February. Back in the subway station, a black suitcase this time, containing the second half of my worldly possessions. Another flight, the last leg of the move. I’m standing on the platform waiting for the train, my suitcase beside me like a son (in a bag, I dunno). There’s no one else in the general area and I’m poised to drag my luggage right onto the train when it comes. And then another person appears.
He’s old, probably in his sixties, with wrinkled skin and an Oakland A’s cap. Despite the fact that I’m obviously first in line, the old man doesn’t fall into place behind me, but instead stands directly next to me. I start to feel tense. There’s no reason for this – it isn’t crowded. Why can’t he just let me and my luggage get on the train first? I know that he’ll push his way by me. It’s happened a million times before with these old Asians. I grit my teeth. There’s no way I’m letting him ahead of me.
The train arrives, doors open. I pick up my suitcase and start heading on. The old man goes darts forward, and I feel his body press up against me, trying to push his way past. I guess I could simply let him go, but that’s ludicrous, and instead I position myself in front of him, cutting off his path. He doesn’t yield. Pushes harder.
That’s it. I’m pissed.
I turn and put my hand directly in the center of his chest and shove him back. “Stop it, God damn it!” Like the old woman I bashed with the suitcase, he’s shocked. I make my way onto the train and he steps on after me with hate in his eyes and his jaw agape. “Can’t you wait a second?” I say. I’m sure he doesn’t know a word of English but I don’t care. “I’m getting on the train. Don’t fucking push me.”
Riding the train, I start thinking. Really, if I’m honest with myself, standing on the platform before the train came, I was kind of hoping he would try to push past me. I wanted to do something, make a stand, just as I wanted that old lady to keep walking up the staircase so I could ram her with my suitcase. In truth, I was sick of Koreans being rude on the subway, and I was salivating at the opportunity to confront someone.
“My God,” I thought, “I’m like the George Zimmerman of the Seoul subway.”
Sometimes, standing up against something, be it thieves in the neighborhood or rude people on the subway, becomes a matter of personal need, an action waiting for a target. Maybe I shouldn’t have been such an asshole on the subway. I looked up at the monitor to see where I was.
Dorimcheon. I looked back at the old man and hung my head in shame.
I’d gotten on the wrong damn train.
I could feel the funk settling in. My floor was littered with unwashed clothes, and I hadn’t showered in two days. That’s the thing about depression – there are generally signs of it everywhere. See, depression doesn’t sneak up on you like Oscar Pistorious’ girlfriend on Valentine’s Day; it slowly makes itself at home. One day you sleep until noon but shrug it off. Then, before you know it, you haven’t shaved in two weeks and you’re suddenly listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell.
Well, at least that’s what happened to me. Relocating to China was beginning to wear me down, bum me out. Moving someplace new, really, is a lot like buying a porn magazine. Sure, the new issue of “Juggs” is thrilling for a day or two, but pretty quickly it gets boring, depressing to own, and you want it to go away. So was the case with China, at least in the early stages. The first few days were fun, but then I didn’t want to see its breasts any more, metaphorically speaking.
“Hey,” I said on the phone, calling one of the school coordinators, “I don’t mean to complain, but I can’t get any hot water in the shower.”
“Oh, you know it gets turned off, right?” she responded.
“No, I had no idea. What time does it get turned off?”
As soon as the number left her mouth, I knew I would not be showering again. Sure, getting up at that time would be fine when classes began. Until then, while the school was on vacation and I wasted the two weeks away memorizing the lyrics to “Blue” and attempting to feel better about myself by watching “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” there would be no way I’d be able to wake in time for the hot water. No, I would become dirty and disgusting, like a homeless person or someone vacationing with Carnival Cruise Lines. I considered my options – taking a cold shower or investing in a good bottle of cologne and bathing in the style of so many great Italians before me – and decided to just sleep more.
Writing this blog also seemed impossible. The Great Firewall of China was proving to be a greater foe than I had anticipated. Without exaggerating, I seriously spent about 10 hours trying to put a stupid Mitch Hedberg picture in my AIDS post, getting kicked offline by the proxy server over and over again. “Son of a bitch!” I shouted. “When I read there were Internet blocks in China, I didn’t expect that to apply to me!”
And then there was food. It took about a week to find a grocery store that stocked it. Finally I did, and I ran back home with delight, having purchased a whole chicken, cooked rotisserie style. I got home and cut it up with kitchen scissors. Starving, I devoured it. At one point, I was trying to gnaw the flesh off some part of the chicken – what appeared to be a wing – and was having trouble. I took the chicken from my lips and looked at it.
“What the hell is this?” I thought. Right after that I rotated it in my fingers, like it was back on the rotisserie, the image turning right side up, and that’s about the time my heart stopped. “Dear God…it’s the head!”
Yes, apparently the head of the chicken is not removed in the grocery store, and I had been nibbling on it. It was a horrifying sight to behold. Brown, soft and gelatinous, its empty eye socket stared up at me. “Fuckin’ shit!” I screamed, throwing its face back down onto my plate. It had to go, immediately. I grabbed a fork and thrust it down upon the chicken head, puncturing it through one of its eye sockets. Dinner had turned into a nightmare, and there was a gooey brown head on the end of my fork like a piece of fudge brownie from hell.
Afterwards, the chicken head flushed down the toilet, I sat on the bed and shook. I felt like a murderer. Terrible thoughts ran through my head. I pictured purchasing a bucket of KFC and opening it to find Colonel Sanders’ decapitated head inside.
Thankfully, things started getting better. Just as depression is quite apparent at its onset, it’s easy to tell when it’s left too. Things began to make sense and a new routine started to form. Plus, I got my passport back, which meant a quick trip to Korea to see my wonderful girlfriend, and if anything can get a guy over the self-loathing that comes from having eaten something’s scalp, love can.
There’s nothing less fun than having to take an AIDS test. Pregnancy tests aren’t fun either, but if those turn out positive, as a guy, I can take the girl in question on Maury Povich and hope somebody else knocked her up. And if that doesn’t work out, at least I’d get to be on Maury Povich. You’ll never see Maury doing AIDS tests:
“Well, I’m holding the results of the test in my hand,” Maury would say as I sweat bullets up on the stage. “With 99.9% accuracy…you sir…are not the father!”
“What? It was supposed to be an AIDS test.”
“Oh, yeah. About that…you got it.”
It just wouldn’t be good TV. Likewise, a show about my attempts to get a Chinese work visa would make for equally bad television.
“On today’s very special episode,” the voice-over guy would say, “Bill is required to go to a Hong Kong hospital and undergo a full health exam, including an HIV test. Viewer discretion is advised: this episode contains adult themes and isn’t entertaining.”
Really though, the doctors and nurses at the hospital in Hong Kong couldn’t have been nicer. They had me in and out of that place in about an hour, as though they were the Jiffy Lube of health examinations. I was told my results would be back in a week, and I nodded, knowing I’d be spending the next seven days freaking out.
Not that I thought I had HIV. But having the test put the thought in my head. It’s like, you never think about certain things until somebody brings them up. “Don’t you want more in-depth labels on food?” a person might say. “Aren’t you worried about what you’re eating?” Um, why? Should I be worried about what I’m eating? What’s wrong with what I’m eating? Is it going to kill me? Oh my God, it IS going to kill me, isn’t it? I’m such a fool!
So because somebody felt it was necessary that I take an HIV test, all of a sudden I became convinced that I had it. I walked around Hong Kong humming Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” song, imaging myself on the Real World, being harassed by Puck. One night I stood by VictoriaBay and got super dramatic, thinking that when the test came back positive, I would leap into the bay at night and commit suicide. No one would even know why I did it, the test results kept secret thanks to HIPPA laws. Everyone would simply assume it was due to my despair over “Gossip Girl” getting canceled or the Phillies signing of Delmon Young.
My anxiety was at an all-time high when I finally got an email from the hospital, saying I could come pick up my test results. The tone of the email was neutral, which I considered to be a good sign. After arriving, the doctor sat me down in a chair to go over everything.
“We did a blood test,” she said, “and you’re blood type A positive.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Relax,” I told myself. “She said A positive. There was no I or D or S.”
She proceeded to go over the rest of the results. I was HIV negative. I breathed a heavy sigh in relief. Then she told me my lungs had pleural thickening. “It’s not a big deal,” she said, “but it’s something to be aware of.”
“My lungs? Thickening? Is that because I smoke?”
“No,” she said, “pleural thickening is usually caused by exposure to asbestos. Smoking is very bad, though. You need to quit.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Asbestos?”
I was dumbfounded. I thought asbestos poisoning was something that went out after the New Deal. How had this happened? I told myself that if one thing doesn’t kill you, something else surely will.
“Well, thank God you can’t get AIDS from old buildings,” I thought, leaving the hospital with my chest X-ray in hand, so I could show my pleural thickening to all my friends.
“Tune in next week,” my voice over guy said, “for a very special episode, in which the happiness of being HIV negative is somewhat muted by a 30 minute coughing fit.”
Sometimes, when traveling, one encounters a person with a name that is impossible to pronounce. In the Philippines, there was a guy from Finland that everyone called “Rusty” because his real name was too challenging; in Paris, there was a Turkish gentleman that we all, quite cleverly, referred to as “Turk.” The same thing happened to me in Hong Kong, where I met a young fellow from Sweden whose name was as hard to say as some Ingmar Bergman films are to make sense of.
“Just call me Thor,” he sighed, mercifully, after I’d butchered his name badly, leaving it disemboweled and beheaded.
“Thor?” I asked, wondering if that was really any better than calling him “Swede.”
“Okay, Thunder God,” I said. He looked down at the floor, as if by shifting his attention, he could erase the bad joke from ever having happened.
It’s a little known fact that Hong Kong, a small sovereign island off the southern coast of China, is actually the second most expensive place in all of Asia to visit (the first being Japan). The cost of living in Hong Kong, believe it or not, is higher than that of New York City. Thor and I met because we were both staying on the 7th floor of the Chunking Mansions, block D, the cheapest place in all of Hong Kong to stay. At fifteen bucks a night, we’d found ourselves in a room about the size of handicapped bathroom stall, with two bunk beds, one power socket, and two other men who, like us, did not possess enough money to stay anywhere better.
There was little doubt that all of us were broke. Early on, I’d decided that I’d save money by eating only ham and salami sandwiches, storing my modestly priced sandwich meat in the otherwise unused communal refrigerator that sat in the hallway. The others ate cheap curry sold on the first floor of the building. One day, Thor entered the room excited, a bottle of water in his hand.
“Hey guys!” he said. “There’s a water fountain in Kowloon Park. We won’t have to pay for water anymore! We can fill our bottles up for free!”
It was brilliant. I quickly headed over to the park with two empty water bottles of my own. I’d heard the park was lovely, filled with things to see, but I didn’t care. I was there for the free water. I rushed past a group of Chinese people doing Tai Chi, down a walking path lined with statues of famous Anime characters; I blew by a scenic pond populated with tall pink flamingos. None of it caused me to take pause. All I was focused on was the elusive water fountain. I’d been searching for around forty minutes and the only water I’d seen was being slurped up by flamingos. I felt like grabbing someone by the shirt collar and yelling, “I’ve been told of the free water! Where on earth are you hiding it?”
Then quietly adding, “Thor sent me.”
Thankfully, I found it, right outside the restrooms, where I would steal toilet paper to use as tissue. “What’s happening to me?” I thought. It was like I was turning into my depression-era grandfather, who used to steal napkins from McDonalds and magazines from the dentist’s office. Upon returning to my room, I found the rest of the guys lounging around, drinking from their water bottles.
“How was the park?” one of them asked, taking note that I had two water jugs stuffed under my arms. The four of us laughed, as though we’d discovered some magical oasis, Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Penny Pinching. Once in awhile we’d meet a new person in the hallway and we’d always nudge each other, nodding, telling the person of our secret water supply.
Then one morning I awoke to discover that someone had eaten all of my salami. This was a nightmare come true. The community fridge had been raided. “That motherfucker!” I said out loud to the empty hallway. “What kind of bastard steals a poor man’s salami?” To add insult, the person had left the empty package there, not even having the manners to throw it out. The ham was untouched, which confused me. “Who takes the salami and leaves the ham? I’ll tell you who – a fucking fool who doesn’t know how to make a proper sandwich, that’s who!”
I sat down on the bed in despair. My efforts to get by on as little as possible had been wasted, destroyed by pilfered lunch meat. It seems that for every cheap person in the world, there’s an even cheaper person; for every guy swallowing his pride to take water from the public park, they’re someone shamelessly stealing that person’s salami.
A few hours later, Thor and the others checked out. I looked at the twenty full water bottles we’d accumulated. “I’m not telling anyone about this,” I said to myself. “Those bastards can thirst to death for all I care.”
Or, I suppose, they could pay.
“I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” – Charlie Brown
It’s Christmas, and I’m broke. Y, my girlfriend, hasn’t let this alter her wish list. She knows what she wants. We’ve been together ten months, and she wants us to get couple rings for Christmas. Couple rings are a very Korean thing – when Korean couples get serious, they buy matching rings to express their love and/or signal ownership. The meaning of the couple ring is vague, they don’t signify that you’re engaged or anything, it’s more like in the ’50s when girls wore a pin to show they were going steady. And Y wants my pin, in the form of matching rings that she says will cost around $150.
So it’s off to the mall we go. I’m anxious to get there, not because of the rings, but because I want to see if there’s an Asian Mall Santa. It’s juvenile, but the thought amuses me. I start thinking about how North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would make a wonderful Santa Claus. They’re virtually the same person: they’re both fat, come from the North, live in secrecy, are surrounded by small people, and both of them have magical horned animals (If you haven’t heard, North Korea claims to have discovered a unicorn lair. No, I’m not making that up.) True, Mr. Kim is most famous for his nuclear weapons program, but who’s to say Santa doesn’t have WMDs too? Have we ever checked? I mean, what do you think little terrorist Al Qaeda kids want for Christmas? I don’t think the elves are making them wooden rocking horses.
That’s what I’m thinking about as Y and I start looking for rings. Kim Jong-Santa and his unicorn sleigh, flying around the world, giving good little children magical toys and spreading government propaganda. We hop from one jewelry store to the next. Each time, Y tries on rings and asks for the price, and every time the price is significantly higher than what we anticipated.
“I love it,” she says. “It’s $550.”
“I’m sure you’ll find another one to love,” I respond.
Plenty of rings in the sea. Although it turns out all the good ones are (not surprisingly) out of my budget. The jewelry store owners all seem grumpy, Scrooges all of them, and Y tells me it’s because we’re looking at the most inexpensive rings, and they think it’s ridiculous. “They see a foreigner and they think he’s rich,” she says. “They think all foreigners are rich.”
The day comes to a close, and we don’t buy anything. I tell her that I love her, but I can’t afford these rings. Then I try to make it sound like we’ve done a public service, since my broke foreign ass has shattered the stereotypes the jewelers had and we’ve enlightened them. Yes, I couldn’t afford a ring, but at least I expanded cultural awareness.
Fast forward. Christmas Eve. Y and I are watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, which she’s never seen. This is just the beginning. I’ve also downloaded The Snowman, The Grinch, Rudolph, Garfield’s Christmas, and about 30 other specials. I see her future, and it involves stop motion animation. But before we can get to the next special, she takes out a box and gives me my present. It’s a wallet with a change pouch. I didn’t expect anything.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t have anything for her. Not a thing. What’s wrong with me? I’m the worst boyfriend ever, the boyfriend that stole Christmas.
I think she’ll get upset, but she doesn’t. She says all she wants is an umbrella. A heart shaped one. So the wet snow doesn’t fall on her. And she goes over to the computer so I can buy the gift online. The Internet, like Ernest, has saved Christmas.
Once, as a young man, I thought that I understood and could relate to the tree Charlie Brown buys in his Christmas special. You know, the little goofy one that helped teach Charlie the true meaning of Christmas. Over the years, I relate to it on a deeper level. Every holiday, it seems like the Charlie Brown Tree gets more and more important.
“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” – Linus
No rings, that’s fine. There really is no Kim Jong-Santa, so we’ll make do with what we can. We’ve got the snow outside and eleven hours of cartoon specials. A heart shaped umbrella is on its way. And we’ve got another day to spend together, so we’re pretty lucky.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown tells me. Being able to find someone who needs you, just like he found that little tree.
Very few things in the domesticated world excite me like goofy kitchen appliances do. Take, for instance, the Salad Shooter. It’s sort of the culinary equivalent of a flamethrower. Really, what man doesn’t want to own a device that slices up food and literally blasts it out? It’s the closest to hunting that I’ll ever get. Likewise, The Ronco Company is a smorgasbord of cool stuff. They make super knives, the Chop-o—Matic, and a food dehydrator so I could make my own beef jerky. That’s a whole weekend of fun right there.
“What am I doing Saturday?” I’d say, ripping a piece of beef jerky in two with my canines. “Just hanging out in the kitchen. Cutting stuff.”
It would be great. And since I’ve seen the Ronco knife commercial, I wouldn’t simply contain my cutting to food. Pennies, my friend’s wedding ring, the wall between the living room and the bathroom – you name it, I’d cut it. After all of that, exhausted from the tunneling, I would make dinner on my George Foreman Grill. In only a matter of minutes, I’d have a finely cooked steak, and, because I have a bad habit of forgetting to put the little trap down, rivers of blood and lard all over the counter.
Yes, kitchen apparatuses are great. There is a dark side, though, which is that a person needs to have a small amount of intelligence to make these things work. Nothing in this world is moron proof, not even a urinal (ever seen the floor of the men’s bathroom?), and I, on occasion, tend to prove this.
Three weeks ago, I arrived back in Korea after having traveled Europe for around two months. The flight was brutal – 12 hours from Madrid to Qatar, 10 hours in the Qatar airport, and then another 12 hours back to Korea. Upon my return, I took the subway to my girlfriend’s apartment. I was starving and she wasn’t home from work yet. To keep things simple, I bought some ramen noodles from the corner store, punched in the door code, threw my things down, and settled in for a quiet first night back.
Noodles. One would think cooking them would be no problem. Chicken, seafood, Jello, pot brownies, crystal meth – all of these things have a higher difficulty rating than cooking noodles. My girlfriend’s apartment in Seoul is super small; she doesn’t have a stove, but instead a little stovetop burner that plugs into the wall. There it was, and sitting on top of it was a pot. I put water in the pot, turned the burner on, and walked away, waiting for the water to start boiling.
What I failed to notice was that she had placed her electric pot down on top of the burner. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a pot with a thick rubber bottom that plugs into the wall, so it can boil water on its own. In other words, I was supposed to plug the pot in, and not turn the burner on. What I did was sort of like putting burgers in a George Foreman grill, and then taking the Foreman and placing it into a big giant charcoal grill.
In a matter of seconds, it seemed, the apartment was engulfed in thick, toxic rubber smoke. I couldn’t breathe. Melted rubber dripped and oozed out everywhere, coating the portable stovetop. I ran over, coughing heaving, trying my best to stop cooking the electric pot any further. It was done. At the risk of sounding like I’m exaggerating, the apartment really was covered in smoke and it stunk to high hell. I have no idea what it would take to set off the fire alarm in this place; I practically had a reenactment of Waco, Texas going on and still that thing was dead silent.
When my girlfriend got home from work, she found her boyfriend back from his travels and her apartment in a state of chaos. Poison air filled the room, and her electric pot and stovetop were gone.
“Honey, I had a little accident,” I said. “I destroyed two of your appliances cooking noodles.”
I’d forgotten how beautiful she is. That’s what I was thinking as she looked around the place in awe, the same way I’d imagine a person looks at their body after a sex change operation. “What did you do?” she asked.
It felt great to be back. I’d learned so much from traveling, including how much I care about this girl. In the long run, that was important. Killing two nifty kitchen appliances and forgetting how to boil water was, really, just a minor price that needed to be paid.
The Strawberry Yogurt Incident, as I like to think of it, occurred on a lazy Sunday night, not unlike last night. Not unlike it at all, actually, as it, in fact, was last night. But let’s not get bogged down in details. My girlfriend was studying for her upcoming IT exam and I was busy trying to write a short story for a fantasy-and-myth based website. My story was not coming along well at all – it amounted to some gibberish about a rogue knight, narrated by a talking fox – and I was feeling frustrated. The sun was down and, unlike the fox in my crappy story, neither of us were saying much of anything. Until 8:00 struck, and then my girlfriend had a sudden craving.
“Do you want ice cream?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, looking up from my Word document. “Sure.”
“Ok. Let’s go out and get some.”
“Oh, in that case, no, I’m fine. I thought you had ice cream here.”
I should point out that I’m currently staying rent free at my girlfriend’s apartment, as I have no place of my own. I should also point out that I hadn’t left the apartment all weekend and, to emphasize my laziness, I hadn’t even put on pants.
“I’m craving something sweet,” she said, still reading her downloaded IT handbook. “I want strawberry yogurt.”
“Ok,” I said, knowing what she was getting at and avoiding it. “Why don’t you go down to the corner store and get some?”
“No, that’s okay,” she said. About a minute later she was repeating, “I would really like some strawberry yogurt” for the third or fourth time.
“Are you saying you want me to get it for you?”
Sometimes, a man has to ask himself, “Do I really want to put on pants?” As much as I wanted a happy girlfriend, I just couldn’t bring myself to get up.
“Honey,” I said, “I’m really busy with this talking fox story. You don’t need the yogurt. Besides, you’ve been talking about trying to lose weight all week.”
This, I felt, was a smart tactic. No, baby, it’s not that I don’t want to go to the store and get your yogurt…it’s just that eating strawberry yogurt at 8:30 at night might not be good for your metabolism and I want what’s BEST for you!
“If you cared about me,” she said, “you would go down and get me the yogurt.” While this sounds demanding, I should point out that she’d bought and cooked me meals all weekend, aiding in my ability to live a freewheeling boxers-and-t-shirt lifestyle. So perhaps I owed her a bit.
“Sweetheart, I’m sorry…I’m working on something right now,” I said, trying to decide if the fox should speak in modern slang or not. Ten minutes later, the girlfriend started talking to her friend on Instant Messenger. “Who are you talking to?” I asked.
“My friend,” she said. “She says you suck.”
I could see what was happening. My refusal to go get the strawberry yogurt was turning me into a terrible boyfriend, the kind of guy girls bitch about on IM. In addition, I was struck by the fact that she was so angry about the yogurt, she had to find a friend to hate on me with RIGHT THEN. It couldn’t wait. This wasn’t like What’s Love Got To Do With It, where Tina Turner endured Ike for years before putting her foot down. No, my girlfriend didn’t get her yogurt, and she was ready to seek action now.
And her course of action was making me look bad in front of her friend which, truth be told, was a very effective strategy.
On went the pants, the hair was combed, the jacket went on, the IPod was picked up (blasted Beatles For Sale, repeating track number two, I’m a Loser), and the talking fox was put on hold. I went down and bought the yogurt, and five minutes later I was back. I placed the yogurt and a spoon in front of her and waited.
The yogurt just sat there while she kept talking to her friend. A little while later, she took the yogurt and put it in the fridge.
“What the hell?” I stammered. “Aren’t you going to eat the yogurt?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ll eat it tomorrow.”
This was insanity. It would be like me asking her to cook me a cheeseburger and then choosing not to eat it. Or having her pour me a beer, only to ignore it like it was a cup of V8.
“If you’re not going to eat the yogurt, why did you want me to buy it so badly?”
“Because I want you to show me that you love me.”
So, there you have it. Sometimes a strawberry yogurt isn’t just a strawberry yogurt. Perhaps, I got to thinking, this is a difference between how men and women see things. I am a man, and I see nothing but a small container of yogurt (which sits in the fridge as we speak, daring me to eat it myself). She, on the other hand, sees a symbol. That yogurt, to her, represents everything that makes a relationship work – selflessness, willingness to put work in, care, wanting to please the person you’re with – and for her, eating it is far less important than having it.
Everything said and done, I’m happy with how things turned out. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, there are other symbols of love that women sometimes ask for that are much, much more frightening than yogurt.
All day long I’d been hearing about Dicey’s – not directly as I would have liked, but instead from a distance, from the next room or from someone who would assume that I’d (of course) heard about Dicey’s already, as seemingly everyone else on the planet had.
“Going to Dicey’s tonight?” a big German guy asked me when we found ourselves brushing our teeth next to each other. “Two Euro beers, I heard.”
“Yeah,” I said, bitter that this was the second or third time I’d been sort-of-invited by someone who was invited by someone else. Never by the organizer, whoever that mystery man was, that cool-ass mofo, emphasis on ‘fo’ as opposed to ‘friend.’ “I’ll probably go. Sounds fun.”
“What time are you going to head down?”
I had no idea. I brushed my gums so hard I spit out blood, angrily. I didn’t even know where Dicey’s was located. It was the place to be, decided by someone who knew where the hell it was and what time to go. Who did the tall German guy think he was talking to? He had mistaken me for being someone in the loop, a member of the in group, someone who gets the secret notes from the President that the inconsequential masses aren’t privy to. In other words, his level of judgment was completely off.
What was I supposed to do? Confess? Say, “Actually, nobody has directly invited me yet, and thus I have no idea what’s going on. Although I’d desperately like to be invited, so if you could pass that along, it would be appreciated.”
Of course not. I said I wasn’t sure what time everyone was going, spit out more blood, and changed topics by asking the guy lots and lots of questions about Germany, nodding to indicate that I was pretending to listen to the answers.
On the way down to Dicey’s, I met Leo and Rachel. Leo was from Germany (it’s a coincidence; don’t think everyone backpacking in Dublin is from Germany) (they’re actually all from Brazil and cook delicious pork dinners out on the hostel balcony) and Rachel was American. There was a whole group of people from our hostel walking down the dark streets in a quest for two-Euro-beers; I still hadn’t technically been invited, but due to the enormous number of people I was able to latch on without looking too suspicious. During this long march, I learned that Leo and Rachel were close friends and were traveling together. At this point, I should probably mention something about their looks. I’m sure that’s what you’ve been wondering (if you’re male, at least). Let’s start with Leo…it isn’t that she was bad looking – she wasn’t – she was just, well, very clearly inferior to her friend Rachel, who was ridiculously good looking. And that is what would lead to the trouble later on.
Poor Leo. I could relate. I’m the type of person that knows where he stands; that won’t talk to someone of the opposite sex if she’s too good looking; that has to believe in the notion of ‘types,’ as in maybe, by the luck of the Gods, some girl will be more interested in my messy ass than a guy who is traditionally attractive and has things like muscles and a strong jaw-line and more than two pairs of jeans (we sure rely on this notion of types heavily, don’t we?; “Well, I know I’m not Pet Sounds or Revolver or Songs in the Key of Life…but maybe this person is more into Floored by Sugar Ray”) (I can be Floored by Sugar Ray); when I make a male friend, I ask myself if, should the situation occur where we’re going for the same girl, there would be any chance that she would choose me (and, if I feel she would go with my friend, I secretly start looking at him with jealous animosity). So, although it didn’t dawn on me yet, I felt for Leo. It’s never much fun to be the lesser of two friends, the buddy in the cop movie, the Supreme that isn’t Diana Ross, the Golden Girl that isn’t Blanche (y’all know what I’m saying).
When we finally got to the bar, I found myself drinking with an Irish musician named Kiernan. As I believe I mentioned earlier, a beer cost two Euro, and a deal like that can only end in chain smoking and liver damage. The night wore on and, at some point after midnight, we looked over to see a very sad scene. There was Rachel in the midst of what appeared to be a brilliant conversation with some big muscle guy, and while this happened, poor Leo stood there by herself, her back turned towards them, watching the band, swaying oddly to the music as though she wanted to dance but had forgotten how to.
“Esh,” Kiernan said, “look at that, will ya?”
“That’s really uncomfortable, isn’t it?” I said. “When you go out with your friend and he hooks up, and you have to stand there alone and pretend that you’re having a good time.”
“It’s the worst. You’re searching around the bar desperately for somebody to talk to, and you can’t get in on the conversation with your mate and the girl, because then you’d be cock blocking.”
“Exactly,” I said, shaking my head, watching Leo purposely-not-watch Rachel getting macked on. “I’m gonna go over there and talk to her. We can’t let her suffer like that.”
I suppose I did all that I could. I went over to Leo and did my best to help. Problem was, I had absolutely nothing to say to her. I racked my brain fruitlessly, searching for some possible topic of discussion. It had gone blank; I had cracked under the pressure. All I came up with was, “So, you’re from Germany…”
“That’s cool…been in Dublin long…have you seen The Book of Kells?”
It was hopeless. I went back over to Kiernan and drank more. When the time came to go back to the hostel, Rachel was missing.
“Where’s Rachel?” Leo asked frantically. “Has anyone seen Rachel?”
“I think she left with some bloke,” Kiernan (unhelpfully) chimed in.
“WHAT??? Who? Where are they? We have to find her!!!”
I scratched my head and checked my gums for bleeding. “Anyone want another beer while we look for her?”
Then Rachel, the elusive one, reappeared. Not two seconds later, some new guy came walking over, offering her a drink. Kiernan shook his head.
“It must be hell being a girl,” he said to me. “They never, ever, get left alone.”
Or, when they did, like Leo, it was even worse. I nodded in agreement. We were lucky, really, that no girls came up to talk to us, and the beer was cheap.