Charlie Brown Trees, Unicorn Sleighs, and the Heart Shaped Umbrella (A Christmas Post)

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Charlie one“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.

asian santaSo 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.

couple ringsPlenty 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.

charlie twoOnce, 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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

The Clean Apartment Theory

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On a Friday night in September, a friend and I sat in Two-Two Chicken, eating chicken drumsticks like they do here in Korea, with a fork and a set of small clamps.  It was while engaged in this rigorous form of dining that he and I began talking about my messy apartment and the connection it had with my ability to pick up women.

“What’s the state of your apartment?” he asked.  “Would you be comfortable bringing a girl back there?”

“It’s all right,” I said, lying.  My apartment was in a complete state of disarray.  The floor was covered in socks and undershirts, the table in used tissues, and the bathroom floor in hair shed from multiple parts of my body.  I had been using my soap dish as an ash tray, and had knocked the cigarette butts all over the place without picking them up.  The same soggy noodles had been sitting in my sink for days.  I would, in fact, not have been comfortable bringing a girl back there, unless maybe she was homeless.

My friend pulled some flesh off his chicken.  “There you go,” he said.  “You’re already mentally defeating yourself.  If you don’t have a place to bring a girl back to, you can’t really believe you’re going to pull a girl tonight, now can you?”

I sipped my beer and mumbled, “It ain’t that bad…”

“But it isn’t good,” he said.  “I read about this in a book.  It’s called ‘The Clean Apartment Theory.’  For a guy to have confidence with women, he must have a place prepared to take them.”

Many hours later, I returned to my apartment alone.  I looked at it and shook my head.  If this was a metaphor for my confidence with women, I might as well have taken a vow of celibacy.

The next week I slaved away like Cinderella, dusting and sweeping and mopping until the place looked pretty pristine.  I washed the socks, cleared the cigarette butts, and made a small wig from the hair, which I then sold to an ajima to cover her bald spot.  When Saturday night rolled around, I set out as I normally did, happy the apartment was clean but skeptical that anything would come of it.  I mean, I’d only changed my apartment.  The bigger problems – my clothes, hair, head and body – were still present.

Now, I promise that this next part is true.  To my shock and delight, I successfully brought a girl home that night.  The Clean Apartment Theory – in its first application – had actually worked!  In preparation for the next weekend, the apartment was cleaned again.  Thoroughly.  Low and behold, that Friday, I found myself sharing a cab home with an entirely different female.  Could it be possible, I wondered, that in all these years talking to girls, the only thing I had to do was clean my place?  That was the key to success? 

“I just want to warn you,” I said for my own amusement, “my place is a little messy.”  I wanted her to be blown away by the tidiness.  Once we got there the girl looked around and said, “What are you talking about?  This place is spotless.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Oh yes it is.” 

I didn’t know it then, but I had hit the zenith of The Clean Apartment Theory.  For the next month and a half, no lovely set of eyes would see my sparkling place of living.  No girl would share a cab home with me or wake up in my bed, filled with regret.  Oh no.  And through this stretch of failure, the apartment gradually began to regress.  It fell into a routine – hell Monday-through-Thursday, freshly cleaned on the weekends.  The state of my apartment depended entirely on my plans.  If I wasn’t going out it would go back to being messy.  Or, as I thought of it, normal.

But although the shine of the theory has lessened,  I’ve still made a vow to keep my place nice.  The Clean Apartment Theory isn’t about having a well-prepared lair.  Instead it’s about creating a feeling of control and responsibility, of adulthood and competency.  The Theory makes me face the question, “What kind of person would you be if you could keep an apartment clean ALL of the time?”  A better one, I think, especially if done out of discipline, and not just to create an illusion for a random girl, whose own apartment might not say so much about her.

*

A Girl with a Goal

Standard

“Life Goals.”

These are the only two words written on the first page of Kelly’s journal.  They’re written at the top, and the rest of the page is completely blank.  I laughed when I saw it.  It amused me to think that this Kelly person sat down, determined to make a list, wrote “Life Goals,” thought about it for a little while, and then decided that she had nothing.  The only thing that would be cooler would be if she wrote the word “none” on the page.  Life Goals: None.  I also liked that she never went back to it.  There was one brief moment when she wanted to make her list, but that passed and she wasn’t interested in silly things like life goals anymore.  At the very least, she could’ve made a goal to make a better list.

The journal belonged to Kelly, who I don’t know and have never met.   I found it the first day I moved into my apartment in Korea.  It was in a drawer under the television.  Despite being the type of person who has no life goals, Kelly kept the apartment up pretty well.  She was very thoughtful and left me a lot of other stuff besides her journal.  I inherited loads of body wash, a yoga mat, two jump ropes, a deck of Indiana Jones Playing Cards, and an extra toilet seat with cartoon bears all over it.  I’m hoping these things were left on purpose.  I wouldn’t want Kelly searching through her possessions upon getting back home and frantically crying, “Where the hell’s my teddy bear toilet seat?!?”

A few pages into her journal, I found a rough draft of Kelly’s resignation letter.  Reading it, I learned that Kelly broke her contract in Korea and went home early.  The letter, written to her principal, says that this was because “a sudden and very urgent problem has arisen.”  It goes on to say, “It was an extremely heartbreaking decision to make {to break the contract}, but at the present I need to be home with my family.”  The letter is pretty vague, but things became much clearer when I read the next pages of Kelly’s journal.

Of course, I had no right to read Kelly’s journal.  It was a nosey thing to do, but I couldn’t help myself.    It was too enthralling – especially the letter she had written to someone named “Baha.”  It reads:

“Dear Baha…I’ll probably be sitting next to you when you read this letter…I came back for you, for me, for love.  I come knowing that we may never happen…I want you to know that…I’ll give up most things for you, that’s what you are to me…I made a mistake…Why did I do it?  I have no excuses.  I was weak and selfish.  I was scared…I’m beyond sorry for hurting you…Whatever happens, I love you…I’ll never forget you.  You’re the great love of my life.  Whatever happens, I’m lucky to have had you once.”

The full letter is much longer, and I couldn’t help but be moved by what Kelly wrote.  There really wasn’t a “sudden and very urgent problem” like she told her principal.  No, there was a boy.  There was love, and Kelly (whoever she is) went where her heart wanted her to go.  Thinking about what she wrote, I found myself talking to Baha (whoever he is) in my head – “Take her back, stupid Baha!  She’s sorry!  The girl loves you!  Don’t you understand that?!”

And then I realized that I was reading something written by a stranger, to a stranger.  I knew nothing.  All I had was one letter written by a heartbroken girl.  I couldn’t read the letter and feel the same things Baha would, because he had all the scope and complexity and context that surrounded it.  I thought about love songs and poems in books.  It’s easy for strangers to be moved by the love someone feels towards someone else.  But we never know the reaction of the person the song is written for.  Maybe that person changes the radio station, and maybe Baha throws down the letter.  It’s heartbreaking, in a way, to think that all those songs and poems and things like Kelly’s letter – the things written about love – can move a stranger much more than the person they were intended for. 

In the real world, Kelly didn’t want to write a letter that the guy who moved into her apartment would read and find touching.  She simply wanted to be loved back.  That was her one life goal.  The one she probably meant to write on that blank page, but for whatever reason couldn’t.

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