Drunken Malaise, One Year Contracts, and Tired Barhopping in Bupyeong

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Toronto was leaving on Saturday, so we thought it would be a good idea to go out drinking one last time.  Of course we did – drinking is what people do to say goodbye.  Toronto was flying out of Korea and heading back to Canada.  He didn’t have a job to go back to but his time here was done.  Maybe he’d come back, he told us.

“I’ll be here,” I said.  Toronto would be another in a long line of friends who had gone away.  That’s how it goes when you live in a foreign country: work visas eventually expire and people get sucked back to their homes.  Their real homes.  Permanent ones.  In the last month, most of my friends had vanished.  Perkins went back to South Africa, Pierre back to Canada, Cindy to Chicago, Clare to England, and the list goes on and on.  It sort of reminded me of how much I used to hate summer vacation when I was at college.  For two months, everyone just picked up and took off.  I’d have to leave my fun apartment and move back in with my parents until school started back up.

I had never thought “vacation” and “punishment” could be synonymous until those awful summer breaks.

For Toronto’s going away party, it was only him, TTD, and me.  We started with a few drinks at Underground, and then went over to a popular Western bar called Goose Goose.  I sat at the bar and smoked and ordered whisky and cokes.  Thursdays at Goose Goose used to be packed; the place would be full of life, young people yelling and drinking.  There was an excitement there.  A community.  We used to go to Goose on Thursdays and everybody we knew would be there.  It was the place to go to play trivia and to complain about work and to plan the weekend.  But on this night it was dead and dreary, with just a few people sitting around a table or playing darts.  There was nobody there to talk to.  We ordered more drinks and decided the best thing to do would be to get drunk.

Goose was getting depressing so we left and went to Who’s Bar.  Toronto had something to do and stepped away for a bit.  TTD and I went in and sat at the bar.  The place was empty with the exception of the owner, Won Seok, and some of his Korean friends.  They were playing poker at a table.  We told Won Seok not to bother getting up and stepped behind the bar and poured our beers ourselves.  We sat there talking, and then TTD said, “Hey, you know…I’ve known you for a year now and I never asked you before…why did you get divorced?”

I tried to come up with some kind of a coherent answer.  The marriage felt like a lifetime ago.  Why did I get divorced?  I didn’t know.  My life three or four years ago had been so different.  I remember when Betty and I bought a house in Charlotte together.  The realtor gave us the keys early and we drove down at night, just to walk in our new home and know that it was really ours.  We went in and I remember how damn happy Betty was.  This would be the place where we would make our life together.  Our first real home together.

About a year later, I moved out.

After, when I came to Korea, I wanted to show my students pictures of the house back in the States, so they’d have an idea of what “back home” looked like.  Betty lived there now with her new boyfriend.  I typed the address into Google and I found it on a Real Estate website.  She was selling our house.  I had no idea.  For some reason, everything sunk in right then.  It was like someone highlighted a huge portion of my life and hit the backspace button.

TTD and I were bored and starting to feel miserable.  We walked back to Goose.  Everyone had gone.  The bartender was asleep and the rest of the staff was busy playing slow Korean music on the jukebox.  Toronto called and we went back to Who’s Bar.  There were two strangers there this time.  They were happy to see some signs of life, and they bought us Flaming Dr. Peppers and we all drank.  It was after three in the morning and the booze was starting to do its thing.  TTD and I were drunk and we told the strangers that we were a couple and that we met at an orgy.  The strangers seemed to believe that, or maybe they were just so drunk they would’ve believed anything.

Toronto sat there laughing at all of us.  I would miss him.

We decided to ditch the strangers and go to McDonald’s.  On the way, we passed an old man sitting on the ground and drinking soju by himself.  TTD didn’t see him and nearly stepped on him.  He shouted at her in angry Korean.  I can’t eat when I drink, so I let Toronto and TTD go into the McDonald’s and I sat down with the old drunk Korean guy.  He had a Dixie cup and he drank shots of soju from it.  I sat there chain smoking while he rambled on and on in Korean.  I would nod and sometimes say “ne.”  He pointed towards the McDonald’s every so often and his voice would get louder.  He seemed upset.  I didn’t know what he was talking about so I kept nodding.

How the hell did I end up here?  In Korea, on the ground with a drunk old Korean guy.  Where was Betty now, and who was living in our house?  It was all so confusing.  I couldn’t get a grasp on anything, and the old man kept talking.

Two days later, Toronto flew back to Canada.  He emailed me the other day to say that he just bought a new washroom cabinet and some pillow shams.

It seems like life has a funny way of moving on, even when you don’t really want it to.

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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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