On a Cold, Dark Ocean
By Wyatt Hong
This is the closest I've been to being inside a story. If I had to guess its author, it would be Haruki Murakami, the maestro of surreal sexual encounters.
Now, I have your attention.
It was the end of summer, 2013. I was lying on a bench by the exit of a subway station in Seoul. I was cold, almost shivering. Ten minutes ago, I had circled back home to change my Gap boxers to a pair of black briefs from Calvin Klein. The smooth panels of the bench drained all warmth through my blue linen shirt.
I had my earphones on. I was listening to Entitled Opinions, a snobby radio show on philosophy and literature. Apart from music, this was the only thing I listened to. Its musings on such topics as Proust and Heidegger provided me with a sense of narcotic detachment from the animal bustle of the city. I was 23, about to start my senior year at Stanford.
A year ago, I had returned to school from my compulsory service in the Korean military with a hidden vindictiveness. I hadn't seen action, but living in a barracks with a hundred men and witnessing the obscene abuse of power within that microcosm had instilled in me a contempt for my younger classmates whose idea of human rights came from TED Talks. In class, I conducted thought experiments by locking them in an airtight chamber with a bunch of guns and seeing who would be first to pull the trigger the social justice warrior from Los Altos Hills would invariably live up to her name.
Yet, being young, I was hopeful. I had realised that the game of life could not be won by fair play, but through the back door. I no longer aspired to become a poet, but was gearing up for medical school as my parents wished. They were paying my tuition, and I saw their wish as a valid demand in a financial contract. As long as I satisfied that demand, my life was free from other interference. Such compromise, of bartering hours of bondage for hours of freedom, I guess, explains the trajectory of my life since. Back then, at 23, I did not know that life, like a rolling snowball, bends less to one's will as it accumulates inertia.
Earlier that summer, I had broken up with the girl I was seeing. The breaks of ecstasy in her cold, north-facing apartment in San Francisco could not overcome the fact that we didn't trust each other, for good reasons. If this had been the Stone Age, I would have left my known world with a spear and a coat of bearskin.
The episode was on Emily Dickinson. The show host and his guest were discussing the poem 'Of Bronze and Blaze'. The guest volunteered to read the poem out loud:
Of bronze and blaze
I stared at the amorphous night sky, purple from the taillights of cars. Trees, heavy with leaves, swayed among the tall streetlights. I connected my US phone to a public Wi-Fi and refreshed my KaTalk.
I'm leaving now.
The message had been sent a few minutes ago. I clicked on the picture of a daisy she had set as her profile photo. The name read "Sera".
The whole affair began on Saturday night when Chan texted me. Chan and I were army buddies. We had shared a shower for two years, could identify each other by his pubic hair on the mat where we slept 20 to a room you get the point. It was nearing two years since our discharge, but I'd hit him up when I was in Seoul, and we'd do a rerun of our army days, when we'd go clubbing in our crewcuts, armed with fake American accents to back-up stories that we were anything but pussy-deprived soldiers on a weekend leave.
Chan was enrolled in a university in Seoul, though he rarely went to class. I knew that his father was in the construction business, which in my mind was equivalent to the mafia. His text said one word.
I had a family trip to Singapore on Monday, after which I had to return to the States. Lying in bed with the lights off, I had listened to a lone car's circling for the last parking spot.
In a few minutes, I was getting dressed in the dark.
The clubbing had been usual: 6's morphing into 8's after several tequila shots. A bottle of soju at the nearby FamilyMart, which was the more economic option, turned every moving creature into a 10. We would go for pairs, each taking whomever was closer it really didn't matter. Despite our grandiose toasts, I was batting a 0.000, and like most nights, we lost each other in tunnels of blackout framed by blinding storms of confetti.
I regained consciousness around 4am and groped my way towards the exit. As I emerged from the smoke-filled dungeon like Orpheus without his girl, I felt someone grab my arm.
"I'm going home," I told Chan.
"Let's make one last round."
"I'm so fucking tired, bro."
"One last round." He had a death grip on me. His eyes came in and out of focus like a broken doll's.
My arm still in his grip, I followed him back into the club and to the VIP section upstairs. "They don't check wrist-bands this late," he yelled above the music, which was transitioning from Billboard house to apocalyptic techno.
We entered the mezzanine like two proletariats stumbling into the Czar's palace. White, leather couches gleamed like seashells under the blue, oceanic glow. Most of the booths stood empty, with plates of fruits and toppled glasses sprawled on the table like a Dutch still-life.
We hacked our way through the jungle of strobe lights towards a group of girls. As Chan liked to say, girls who stayed beyond 4am were here for more reasons than to dance. I thrust my hand into the river of limbs and came up with a pale wrist. The girl turned.
Her hair was dyed reddish brown. Her make-up shone like a translucent mask under the UV light. She did not move away always a good sign. By this point, I was dancing like a wind-up alligator in his last cycles of life.
She looked at me and laughed.
"What's your name?" I shouted over the music.
"Sera," she said. "What's yours?"
I gave her the name I had chosen for the night. "How old are you?" I asked. In retrospect, one betrays one's youth by asking such a question.
"28," she said. "And you?"
"25," I lied.
"Are you in school? You look so young." She scanned me toe to head.
"I go to school in the States." I was too drunk to keep track of my lies.
"Really? I did too."
From then on, we conversed entirely in English.
After whispering into each other's ear answers to questions I can't recall, I led her to an empty booth and poured her a glass of water as if I had paid for the booth. Looking down at the dancefloor, I realised how plebeian the masses seemed from here, how much like a Bombay slum seen through the Ritz's window.
I took a good look at her as she drank her water. By instinct, I could tell that she was much older than I the unspoken rule that women subtracted three years from their true age would put her at 31, perhaps more. She did not look like any other girl I had dated. Her sleeveless biker jacket and leather shorts had come from a wardrobe of a different epoch. Her eyelashes were too perfect for them to belong to someone certain of her youth.
"I like this song." She looked at me with her feline eyes. "Do you want to dance?"
I downed a shot I had poured from the unclaimed bottle of Grey Goose.
"You're cute." She touched my face.
Time seemed to slow, the music as if heard through a glass wall as we kissed for a thousand nights.
It was morning when we left the club. Chan had got my sign and peaced earlier.
"Did you drive?" she asked.
"No." I thought this a strange question no one I knew drove to clubs. I glanced at the Lamborghinis parked at the entrance of the club.
"I can drop you off, if you want." She took out a key fob from her purse and pressed it. For a second, I thought I was watching a scene from Transformers.
It was black, hard-top BMW Z4. Its roof slid into the trunk seamlessly as we reached the convertible. She entered the driver seat and put on leather driving gloves the colour of her hair. I swallowed and got in the car.
"My friends are going to karaoke. Do you want to join them?" she asked after checking her phone.
The sun began to lift the fog from my brain. I had heard of people getting shipped off to kidney farms in China this way.
"You know what? I think I might head home."
"Want me to drop you off?" she asked like a friend's mother.
"No, I'm alright."
"What are you doing tonight?"
"Nothing," I answered honestly.
"Do you want to hang out later?"
We exchanged numbers. I got out of the car and walked two blocks before hailing a cab. It was Sunday morning. Balding men were on their way to sauna, their wives to church. I closed my eyes, my injured ears ringing from the bass, and passed out.
The show on Emily Dickinson ended with Imogen Heap's 'Hide and Seek.' More than an hour had passed since her last text. I was beginning to think that she was a North Korean spy when my phone buzzed.
The convertible had its top down despite the chill. The orange letters on its dashboard glowed like embers in the dark. She was wearing a khaki field jacket over a pair of shorts and stiletto boots that reached her knees.
"What are you in the mood for?" she said as I entered the car.
"I'm down for anything." Was I supposed to say sex?
"Have you eaten?"
"Yeah, but I could eat again," I lied.
She drove fast with both her hands on the wheel. I clenched my jaws so as to not shiver. I blame it on the cold, but I was also fucking nervous. At each red light, I felt people stare at us through their windows.
"You prefer younger guys?" I spoke.
"Can you tell?" She laughed. "I find older Korean men, what's the word "
"Yeah, but more "
"Adulterated?" I tried again.
"Yes," she nodded. "Adulterated."
"What makes you think I'm not?" I tried some humour.
"What's the craziest sex you've had?" she asked with a straight face.
"On a golf course." To be honest, it sounded cooler than it had actually been.
"That's pretty good."
"I don't have to answer that." The seatbelt held me as she swerved right at Coex. Silent, resplendent billboards passed us in a blur as the Z4 roared. In a few minutes, we were driving up a bars-studded hill in Apgujeong where she knew an Izakaya open till 3am. She declined the valet and parked the car herself.
My soju came out in a porcelain pot along with the plate of bean-sprout stir-fry. She poured her Diet Coke into a glass.
"What's your plan after college?"
"Medical school, probably." I hadn't yet accepted my cop-out to say this without shame.
"You must really like school. I hated school."
She had lived a migratory life her father had been a diplomat. She had no childhood friends, or any real friends, for that matter. She had returned to Seoul from abroad only after having her parents sign a pact that that they wouldn't pester her about marriage.
"Do you know what I think?" she said with an air of an older sibling. "I think it's a waste of time to fulfil what others expect of you. Friend or boyfriend the moment they expect me to change, I break off. With family, it's harder." She smiled. "Do you know the poem 'The Soul Selects Her Own Society'? It's a poem by Emily Dickinson."
I felt as if I were inside a story. The coincidence was too great.
She began reciting the poem by heart.
The Soul selects her own Society
"When I first read that poem, I felt this chill down my spine. You know, like when you get your breath taken away and you feel so cold inside," she said.
I nodded. I looked about me, at the empty tables with ashtrays, the lit kitchen with its Japanese door curtain. This was not a dream.
"I was listening to a show on Emily Dickinson while I was waiting for you," I said after a pause.
"There is a show on Emily Dickinson?"
"It's this podcast I listen to."
"That's super weird." I wasn't sure if she was referring to the show or the coincidence. "You're not hungry, are you?"
I had barely touched the stir-fry, which was now cold.
"Want to get coffee?" She brushed off the table what had felt to me like providence.
"Sure," I said and gave the writer full rein.
The streets were deserted by now. Living in a city for years, one gets in the habit of returning to the same place with different people, such that a street corner or a bar acquires the characteristics of a stage. I had spent many a night in this part of Seoul, first as a stuttering Romeo, then as vengeful Hamlet, sometimes as forlorn as Lear in the storm. Was there a boy-toy in Shakespeare? The shops on Garosu-gil passed me by like the pages of a book.
We merged onto the 10 lanes of Dosan-daero. The streetlights shone on its pristine asphalt as on a regulation pool. By the confidence with which she drove, she seemed to know which places were open. We turned into a narrow street and stopped at a 24-hour Cafι Bene.
I ordered first, planning to pay for the coffee at least.
"Do you have soy milk?" she asked the dude at the counter. Her Korean voice had a practiced sensuality like those in dubbed movies.
"Sorry, we ran out." The fucker was checking her out as he spoke.
She hesitated. "I'll have a small caramel macchiato."
We went upstairs to sit. She picked out a magazine from the shelf and flipped through it back to front. She stopped at a spread of futuristic cars, the kind you only see in magazines.
"I'd buy this car." She pointed at a convertible the length of a limo. "A Korean person would never though," she observed. "Are you interested in cars?"
"You're still young," she addressed me as if I were her nephew. "I want to make more money, at least $10 million."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Buy an apartment in New York and a car like this."
She continued browsing the magazine, passing beautiful yet unliveable homes and androgynous models wearing clothes three sizes too big.
"What are your thoughts on marriage?" she asked after a spread of wedding gowns.
"Don't know. I haven't thought about it much."
"What about your exes? Didn't you guys ever talk about getting married?"
"Yeah. How many kids we're going to have, what our house was going to look like stupid stuff like that."
I had once believed that my life could be given away like a gift and then I would be free of it. But being the gift, and not the giver, I was never freed.
"You know the expression 'Being in the same boat'? I want to feel that like I'm in the same boat with someone, just the two of us." She seemed to take this metaphor literally. Her eyes looked out at the waves, the sky darkening behind her as in a Winslow Homer painting. She must have believed in love. Her eyes had the desperation of a man drowning no doubt she would not go down alone. "The question is: will I ever be able to find that person? If it's not perfect, it's not worth it."
She flipped through the rest of the magazine. The gold Cartier watch on the front cover stared blankly at us. I was no longer sure what we were doing, why we had come here.
Our cups were empty. I waited for the author of the story to decide.
"Do you want to go to my place to watch a movie or something?" she asked.
I was warm from the coffee and awake. Her leather gloves shone under the reeling streetlights as under a strobe light. She had put on music, the metallic kind they play in Berlin clubs, and I less heard it than felt its rumbling on my back. We passed other cars as in a video gamethey seemed mere props in an imaginary city. I didn't know where she lived, but had she driven across the border to North Korea I would have accepted it just as calmly.
She took the first exit off the bridge and drove towards a twin set of high-rise condos. She kept her foot on the gas as the car descended the spiral ramp of the parking lot like hair down a drain. The music filled the basement, then stopped abruptly, leaving an echo, when she turned off the engine. The roof went up to kiss the windshield as she walked towards me in her stiletto boots.
I followed her through the glass door to the elevator. We were going to the 33rd floor.
The scented hallway had the anonymity of a hotel. I made out a tangle of shoes by her door.
"You don't need to take off your shoes. I usually keep mine on." She pushed several pairs of heels to the side. "I don't even turn on the lights because the floor's so dirty."
I took her advice and followed her into the dark.
"Do you want something to drink?"
I migrated to the panoramic window in the living room. The entirety of Gangnam glowed in it as if seen from a plane. Over the black swath of the river, I made out the bridge that we had just crossed, with its web of red and gold made of cars.
She fumbled with the ice machine by the vapid light of the refrigerator and returned with a can of Coke and a bottle of Bacardi.
"Nice view," I remarked casually. This was the most breath-taking view of Seoul I'd seen in my life.
"Do you like it?"
She turned on the fake candles on the windowsill by flipping each upside down. Her entire furniture included a leather couch, a coffee table and a TV stand. I saw no dining table.
"You can help yourself, right?" she said and disappeared into a room.
I poured myself a generous shot then topped the glass with Coke. If I was going to get shipped off to a kidney farm in China, this was the time.
She returned from the bedroom without her jacket. In the fake candlelight, her bare arms were pale as a mannequin's. She sat on my lap, the cushions yielding under her soft weight. She pulled back when I tried to kiss her and laughed.
"Have you ever just cuddled with someone without having sex?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "Then sex in the morning."
"No, no, not like that." She laughed. "Just cuddling."
I didn't know what she was talking about. I helped her top off as we kissed. She was wearing a lace corset underneath. I slid my hand under it and undid the clasp of her bra. I felt like I were in a movie set.
"We should take a shower."
"Together?" I liked the idea.
"No, you take a shower. I take a shower. We take a shower." She explained. "Everything you need should be in the front bathroom."
It felt strangely familiar with her face on my arm, like I could close my eyes and dream that I was with my ex. It was the way she held the fingers of my right hand with those of her left, "the awkward arm" as the other girl liked to call it.
After a while, my heart slowed, and her breathing deepened. My dick had shrivelled to the size of a nut.
Looking at the skyline across the black river, I imagined that we were on a boat sailing across a dark ocean. It was then that I saw her as she was, as a person. Through the sheaths of her make-up I felt her loneliness as through a Russian doll suddenly made transparent.
I held her, like one can do for another human being on a cold, dark ocean. I cursed the author of the story.
"I'm going to leave," I said as the sky turned to the lightest shade of black.
"Stay longer," she said, stirring. "Just an hour or two."
"I have a flight to catch today."
"Your flight is in the evening, you said."
I didn't reply.
"Why leave now?" She exposed her naked breasts.
"You're going to feel lonely when I leave."
I felt like hurting her, if only because I had the power to do so.
"I'm used to it," she replied calmly.
I slipped out of bed and stood in the growing dawn.
"Stay," she asked.
I went to the bathroom and got dressed. I grabbed my phone from the coffee table by the wet glass. I had five missed calls from my parents.
She was still in bed when I returned. Her eyes looked at me but didn't move as I left.
The doorman watched me suspiciously. I hailed a cab at the front door among men dressed in suits. It was a grey Monday morning. I rested my head on the window of the cab and watched the growing forest of buildings on the other side of the river.
I put my earphones on.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020