And the most important thing is the numbers.
“Numbers?” I ask.
“Yeah, the number of girls in the group. You see, if the ratio isn’t one-to-one, then it’s already game over.”
“Really?” I ask again.
Albert leans in intimately and says, “Remember that mee-ting me and you went on when we were at Yonsei 10 years ago?”
“Yeah, that awkward 2-on-2 blind date. Koreans and their weird perversion of English words.” I start recalling memories from that summer in Korea.
“See? Guys and girls need to have matching numbers to get together,” Albert replies.
“I remember that we tried to get them to come with us to buy fake Abercrombies.”
“Ah, right! We tried to get them to come to Itaewon with us. And they were scared of this place.” I can see Albert is playing the reel of that summer in his head. “Back then it was just a bunch of US military folk roaming around here. I’ve been in Korea only a year but my colleagues at work have told me that Itaewon has changed a lot in the past couple years. Isn’t that right, Johnny?” Albert looks over at his friend from college. I am meeting Johnny for the first time today.
“Seriously, the last two, three years this place has been a boon for new bars, clubs, and restaurants. I know some of the owners here and they are raking it in these days,” Johnny replies. “I’m saving up some dough to start something here. But I gotta find a better paying gig than teaching English.”
“What kind of place are you thinking about opening?” I ask. Johnny’s attention has turned to everything in the room except for me. He looks around at the furniture, the walls, the ceiling, the people. He grimaces ever so slightly, seemingly to criticize some detail he doesn’t agree with.
“Look at this place. A couple of refrigerators with cans of beer. Some cheap seating inside. Even cheaper seats outside with some patio awning. And this place is on the 3rd floor slash rooftop of this building. Cheap rent!” Johnny sweeps across the room with his hands. “And this place is packed. They are just printing money.”
“What’s your point?” asks Albert.
“The point is I should have been doing something like this but better if I had the cash.”
“Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Life doesn’t stop for us. We just need to go with the flow. You know? Live without looking back.” Albert pauses and looks over at me. “Have you seen that movie with Jim Carrey called ‘Yes Man’?”
“Yes, man.” I pause to expect laughter but the pun is left unacknowledged.
“Well, that’s been my life philosophy as of late. Say yes to everything so you don’t lose out on any opportunities.” Albert points to Johnny. “For example, I said yes to this guy when he suggested we should study abroad at Yonsei for the summer a decade ago.”
“Wait, Johnny, you weren’t at Yonsei,” I say.
“Well, unfortunately he backed out at the last minute because he found some better use of his summer,” Albert replies.
Johnny chimes in, “I got an internship. Plus, all of my mom’s friends’ kids went there to quote-unquote study and came back as alcoholics so my mom was going to probably veto my going anyhow.”
“Well, you missed out, right?” Albert says glancing over at me.
I nod my head. My best memories from college.
“Well, let’s not miss out on tonight. Let’s down these beers and get out of here.” Johnny holds up his beer for everyone to clink.
I follow Albert and his friend Johnny through the crowds of Friday night revelers in the back alleyway of Itaewon. We make our way into a Irish-themed pub that is nearly standing room only. Johnny leads the way as we single file through the crowd, occasionally stopping to let the oncoming flow of people pass us. Then Johnny slows to a stop.
“Yo, Al, what about those three by the bar?”
“Not too bad,” Albert says. “Shall I engage?”
We both nod, both of us trying to suppress any notion of enthusiasm. Albert walks to one of the three girls at the bar. I can’t make out what he is saying but I notice he flashes three fingers at them. Then after a few more back and forth with his counterpart, Albert points over to us. Johnny and I pretend to be preoccupied with something else. A few moments later Albert motions to us to come over. I try hard to squash the smile that is forcing itself to surface.
Johnny and I walk over to the group and Albert, in Korean, introduces us to the girls. I make a slight bow of my head to them.
“What’s the special occasion today?” Albert asks the girls in Korean. His Korean is near native, only the very keen would notice the subtleties that might give him away. At his question the girls only look at each other as if they are trying to telepathically come up with a unified answer.
“We are out celebrating my birthday,” announces Johnny, trying to maintain the rhythm of the conversation. Johnny’s Korean is decent but he has a slight accent that rings like a dissonant chord in a familiar melody.
“Oh, congratulations! Is it today?” asks Albert’s female counterpart.
“No, it was three months ago,” Johnny exhales. At this the girls try to suppress a laugh. “Such good friends these guys.”
“Actually, the guest of honor is this guy,” Albert interjects while placing his arms around my shoulders. “We are showing him around Itaewon.”
Albert’s counterpart looks at me and asks, “This is your first time here in Itaewon?” She has emerged as the clear leader of her clan.
I try to think of a funny answer that would elicit another round of laughs. “No, I came here before to buy Abercrombies.” My Korean is the worst out of us three. My words have an immediate jarring quality to it. The contorted accent and uneven intonation betrays my guise. I am being unmasked as a forgery.
“Are you not Korean?” one of the girls asks. It is not the first time I have been asked this in Korea. Usually it comes from a taxi driver who struggles to make sense of the destination I have pronounced. No matter the frequency I am still embarrassed by the question.
“I am a gyopo,” I answer coyly. The girl nods as if to understand now.
“We are all gyopos,” Albert declares, saving me from further scrutiny. “We all grew up in the US and my friend just arrived here in Korea only a couple weeks ago.”
This declaration is met by an awkward silence. Albert musters up a serve. He explains in a did-you-know format that the term “Ugly American” is an oxymoron because the root word for “America” in Korean means beauty. Plus, he says, that term shouldn’t apply to him. This is greeted by polite smiles. Johnny volleys with a pun about how we all went to “mi-dae”, a homonym meaning art college but also suggesting an American university. This is greeted by just politeness. The girls respectfully announce they have to make their way to the restroom. The discourse on linguistics is on hold for now. We watch them leave our immediate vicinity.
“A warm-up, boys,” Albert announces confidently. He motions with his head to signal to us to follow him as he starts walking away.
We again follow Albert through the maze of people, occasionally stopping to let groups of two, three or four people pass. Some of them mirror images of ourselves. Some of them possibly mirror images of me. Following the herd to some adventure that awaits them, hoping it will define their night.
Albert halts to a stop and I almost run into Johnny who is ahead of me. Albert gestures at me to come closer to him.
“Do you want to practice your pickup artistry?”
“Remember what I said about ‘Yes Man’? The worst that can happen is you get rejected. What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.” Albert is philosophical tonight.
I ponder his proposal for a few moments. “Ok fine,” I say, but my body winces at the statement. “Who’s the target?”
“I think those girls at the table seem pretty bored,” Albert says pointing to a short distance from us. I turn to look where he is pointing. There are three girls at a table, each typing away on their phones.
“Umm…. ok.” I quickly select one of them and think of what line to start out with. Ask her to drink together? Ok, that probably works, I think. I take a deep breath and slowly head to them. As I am walking over I keep reminding myself that this will all be over in seconds.
“Wanna… get a drink?” I stutter, in my muffled Korean. The girl doesn’t respond and keeps looking down at her phone. The seconds are ticking by excruciatingly slow.
“Wanna get a drink?” I say a bit louder. There is an intense silence amongst the drone of the crowd. Enough seconds have passed. I acknowledge defeat and turn around to walk away.
Albert greets me with a consolation slap on the shoulder. “Nice man. That girl was a bitch anyways.” I have come back up for air.
“How about we check out upstairs,” Johnny proposes.
We go up a flight of stairs within the same building as the boisterous backdrop of the pub gives way to the glossy entrance of a lounge. The somber music and lighting subdues the noise and flurry but shrouds itself with an air of refinement that seems exclusive and uninviting. Albert and Johnny are ahead of me, and as I enter I hear the bouncer say to me in Korean, “We don’t allow hoodies.” I have already given myself away.
“Hey guys,” I shout. Albert and Johnny turn around and come back towards me. “Looks like they don’t like me having this hoodie on. You know, I think I’m just going to head home. I’m feeling a bit tired now. You guys have fun.”
“The night is way too young.” I sense that there is no way Albert is going to send me home this early. “Hey, I think you can just tuck in the hood part. That’s ok, right?” Albert pleads with the bouncer and he gets a slight nod out of him.
“Alright, fine.” I tuck in the offending piece of garment. I have a reprieve for now.
“Problem solved!” Albert leads the charge again. We walk a few steps and then I am allowed to hide in the cornucopia of people, everyone displaying their merits through sleek business attire punctuated by meticulously styled hair.
“Hey man, always be lounge ready, “ Johnny says to me with a friendly pat on my back. I half-nod and put on a half-smile.
“Look, I knew it, he’s here with a table,” Albert announces pointing to the side of the lounge that is a bit more elevated and segregated by a short railing. There is just a scattering of people in this area, sitting around fancy coffee tables glowing with bottles of gin and vodka. They seem to be oblivious of the cacophony just off to the side as they talk amongst themselves with ease. We plod through to one of a couple access points and invite ourselves up a few steps. We arrive at one of the tables and are met by two guys dressed in tieless black suits with black shirts.
“Duke! Why am I not surprised to find you here?” Albert slaps hands with one of the guys at the table. He has his hair slicked back in a dour, humorless manner. “Duke, meet my buddy, he just got to Korea a few weeks ago.”
I put out my hand to meet his. “How’s it going,” I have to nearly shout.
“James Duke Kim. You can call me Duke. You can call me James. But don’t ever call me Jimmy. Only my mom calls me that.”
I nod at him. Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. I try not to say it out loud. Albert tells me Duke always has a table here, making sure he makes a reservation a week in advance. I look over at his sidekick and nod awkwardly at him.
“So, what do you guys do here in Korea,” I say, trying to make some conversation.
“Marketing,” Duke says but his attention is elsewhere.
I try to pretend I’m impressed. “Oh nice, what company?”
“I think we all need some shots,” Duke exclaims to the group. He pours five shot glasses to the brim and hands everyone one. “Ok drink up fellas and let’s bring some chicks over.” We all take the shot and everyone promptly puts on their why-did-I-drink-this look.
“Ok party time,” says Albert. He looks over the railing and starts talking to a group of girls. I can’t hear what they are saying but he’s talking to giggles and nods. The one nearest to him confers with her three other friends and then they start making their way to our table.
“Wow, pulled another Jedi mind trick,“ Johnny proclaims.
“Ok, everyone stand up, make room for the ladies,” Duke says to all of us. We all get up from our seats and allow the group of four girls to stutter step to the leather sofas. The table seats six comfortably, eight if you pack it in. Duke, his sidekick, Johnny, and Albert find seats promptly, leaving me without one, like a game of musical chairs. So much for the numbers.
“I can stand,” I say sheepishly.
“Yo squeeze in,” Albert replies. It’s a gesture that is unrealistic.
“No it’s cool, I need to stand for a bit anyhow.” No one replies to my statement. The conversation has already started. At first, I awkwardly try to be a part of it but the physics of sound and matter handicap me. I check my phone, pretending to have more important things to attend to. I place my ear to my phone, mimicking the motions of a received phone call, and make my way away from the table. When I get far enough, I put the phone in my pocket again.
I decide to get myself a drink at the bar. I pry myself into a gap between bar chairs trying my best to be invisible to the people sitting on both sides of me. A girl talking to her girlfriend while making the hand gestures fit for an epic tale. A guy offering up a story while his female counterpart listens attentively for a morsel of humor. I look around for a bartender that would have a moment to spare. I raise my hand meekly to try to get the attention of one of them.
A minute passes and a bartender takes the order of the guy sitting next to me. He doesn’t seem to see me nor my hand waving at him. Another minute passes and a different bartender comes to the two girls on the other side of me and woos them with a comment I can’t make out. I wave my presence at him but I am disavowed. He leans on the countertop towards his audience of two and weaves a narrative that is received by smothered smiles and laughter. As he changes posture I win his brief glance and he holds up an index finger toward my direction for my appeasement. His tale continues to coast along and the girls keep indulging him. I try to renew his attention. He glances back again at me. This time he slowly moves his way over to me all the while facing the girls. He bows to them and then turns towards me. With a smile not intended for me he asks what I want. I order.
Payment first, he demands. I reach into my wallet and hand him a credit card. He goes off to make my drink as I glance around the bar. Everyone seems to know their lines and their part in this place, their motions natural and their words unforced. I am still gazing around as the drink in its complete form is placed in front of me. I take a sip. It’s bitter and hard.
I decide to take a walk around the lounge to kill time. After a few steps I quickly realize I can’t walk and drink at the same time. I plod through some more and decide the drink I’m holding is more of an inconvenience. I take a couple of large gulps and discard the glass at a deserted area on the bar. I find my way to the restroom.
The restroom is an oasis. The clamour of the lounge is just a murmur here. The lighting is more vivid. It’s a respite from the bustle. I take my time. As I wash my hands with deliberation I peer into the mirror as if to ask myself if enough time has passed for me to return. I’m not given an answer but I hope that it has.
Back at the table, the group of girls are now gone. No one seems to have noticed that I was gone.
“Asiana flight attendants,” Duke states confidently.
“Are you sure? They seemed to be a bit short to be flight attendants,” Albert replies.
“Did you get her number?” Johnny asks, looking at Albert.
“I did but I feel like she gave me a fake one,” Albert replies.
normally a girl will say her actual phone number up until the last digit and then just replace that number, usually with a number that is one higher.
“Switch the last number and usually you can deduce the real phone number,” Duke interjects.
“At the spur of the moment most girls won’t be able to spit out random numbers that would be a convincing phone number,” Duke leans in and continues, “so normally a girl will say her actual phone number up until the last digit and then just replace that number, usually with a number that is one higher.” Duke leans back proudly and crosses his arms.
“Wow, Duke, you really are a creep,” Albert says.
Duke shrugs. “Hey, just passing along the tricks of the trade to my younger dong-saengs.”
“Thank you, hyung, you’re like the older brother I never wanted to have,” Albert says mockingly.
“So guys,” Johnny says while engaged with his phone, “there is this new hip-hop club that is supposed to be bumping tonight. Wanna check it out? I can get us in for free but we would need to go now.” Johnny looks up to get a reaction.
Duke shakes his head. “You guys go, we’re gonna stay here. Come back if you get bored.”
“Johnny, let’s check it out.” We bid Duke and his sidekick farewell and make our way outside.
“Johnny, does this place have a dress code,” I ask.
“Nope. It’s hip-hop.”
I untuck my hoodie from its unnatural place. I feel more at ease now, no longer an imposter. It is a crisp spring night, one that may or may not require a light jacket. We pass a group of girls that don’t seem to require it.
“My favorite time of the year. When the skeels come out. Skirts and heels.” Johnny says while gawking at the group of girls we pass. I also stare as if to sear the scene into my memory for later retrieval.
“Didn’t your mom ever tell you it’s not polite to stare?” Albert grins, nudging me playfully. I feel my face turning red. My wall of non-emotion, of non-passion, of non-desire has just been breached. I fortify myself with the remains and continue walking.
We arrive at the steps leading up to the club. A small line has formed already. Johnny takes out his phone and calls his promoter friend. “He says come up,” Johnny announces and we make our way past the line of people waiting on the stairs.
We arrive at the front and the girl behind the counter asks if we are on the guestlist. “Yeah, JP entertainment, three people,” Johnny says. The girl nods and prepares three pink bracelets for us. We each put out our wrists to receive the bracelet and then we make our way inside.
“Psycho, I’m liable to go Michael…Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6.” Jay-Z rumbles throughout the club and we walk towards the bar area. The club is intimate in size with a modest bar and a modest DJ booth bookending a modest dance floor but defiantly spilling over with activity. Albert says he’ll get the first round and orders three gin and tonics. We scan the place while we wait for our drinks. Like every other place in Itaewon tonight, it’s saturated with energy but here it is almost tropical inside. The dance floor is right in front of us and like the sea on a hot, humid day, it beckons us to come in. We get our drinks, do the obligatory clinking of the glasses, and take a sip. It’s more tonic than gin. We step forward and start by wading our feet. Johnny leads the way and soon we are immersed.
“If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.” Albert and Johnny bob their heads to the beat as if to fall into a trance. I down the rest of my drink to attempt to fall into the same trance. It seems to be taking some time to take effect. I still am way too sober to move my body in ways I would be embarrassed to show anyone other than the man in the mirror.
“Bougie girl, grab her hand…Fuck that bitch she don’t wanna dance…Excuse my French but I’m in France.” I notice two girls next to me. They seem to be in a different trance. Laughing, dancing, sparkling, alluring. One of them grazes my arm accidentally.
“Just grab them,” Albert shouts in my ear.
“What?” I ask, pretending not to have heard clearly.
“Those girls, you like them? Dude, just grab her by the hand,” Albert states again. His directive violates everything in my mind and body. But I am reminded of ‘Yes Man’. I hesitate for a moment and then I decide to strike. I catch the hand of one of the girls and instantly she snaps her hand away, replacing her euphoria with a look of disgust. She and her friend quickly reel away from us.
“Yeah, man. Nice. Exactly like that. Don’t worry, one will eventually bite,” states Albert. His words do nothing to ease the quick and decisive rejection. More shame than embarrassment. But no one cares except for me.
The DJ suddenly puts on a familiar riff and there is a cheer from the dance floor occupants. “Go, shorty… it’s your birthday…” There is now an increase in energy, almost tangible. “My flow, my show brought me the doe…That bought me all my fancy things…My crib, my cars, my clothes, my jewels.” As everyone worships I leave the dance floor and go back to the bar to order myself another drink. I pretend to be enjoying the music and the scene in front of me.
I see Albert and Johnny come out of the scenery. “We’re going to get a smoke, care to join?”
“Sure,” I reply without hesitation.
We make our way down the stairs and I am intoxicated by the fresh air. Albert hands Johnny a cigarette. He interrupts a pair of girls standing near the entrance, one of them talking and the other inhaling her cigarette, to ask to borrow a lighter. The silent one exhales smoke and complies without any words. Albert and Johnny alternate lighting their cigarettes.
“It’s a nice crowd in there. Lot of hotties,” Albert gleefully announces.
“Did you see the one dancing all dirty? Damn, I’d tap that,” Johnny says.
“You have her. I’mma tap her friend. Did you see her bod? Shit…” Albert mimics the motions of grinding against someone. As he does this I notice two guys next to us aware of our conversation. One of them is thin and a couple inches taller than any of us and the other is stocky and muscular. As they put out their cigarettes the tall one says in muted Korean, “These gyopo bastards fucking think they are yankees…”
Johnny stops smiling and looks over at them. He says to them in clear English, “Did you say something to us?”
The stocky one replies in Korean, “Speak in Korean, this is Korea.” And then in mocking English says, “You know, Ko-re-a?”
Johnny walks over to the stocky one and demands, “Say that again one more time to my face!” Albert and I quickly get in front of Johnny and push him back.
“Johnny, it’s not worth it. Let’s just chill,” Albert implores. Pockets of spectators have started to gather around us intending to watch how this will unfold. Those who were already present outside the club are standing on one side. On the other side, occupying the sidewalk, are a few people who were walking by but now have slowed to a near stop.
“Yes,” says the tall one in Korean. But then in English he draws out the word, “chill.” Upon hearing this Albert lunges at the tall one but the stocky one pushes him making him stumble, almost falling to the ground. Johnny reaches out to grab the shirt of the stocky one but one of the other smokers that have been watching this escalate dives in between the two.
“Hey, they are drunk. They don’t know what they are saying,” the peacemaker says to Johnny in Korean. Albert is a bit fazed from the hard push but his rage quickly comes back. I see this and quickly go to block any further aggression from him.
“Yo, like you said, this is not worth it. They are not worth it,” I tell him, holding him back. My body is suddenly sick with the fear of a physical conflict.
“Fuck this, let’s go,” the tall one says in Korean to his buddy. I feel sudden relief. I look over at both Johnny and Albert and I see that they are still enraged.
“Forget them. Let’s forget about this. This is over now,” I say attempting to calm them down. I grab Johnny’s arm.
“Let go!” Johnny swipes my arm away and in the process nearly pushes me to the ground. “If I see one of them on the streets I’m seriously going to fuck them up,” Johnny says still clenching his fists. I am a bit rattled.
“Johnny, let’s calm down,” Albert says. The spectators are now dispersing.
“You know, I fucking hate it that we get disrespected like that,” Johnny says to us. “I’ve been here 5 years… 5 years ago that kind of shit happened to me and it still fucking happens.” Johnny shakes his head.
“Maybe we go get something to eat.” Albert looks over to Johnny, “Do you know a good place?”
Johnny breathes out and takes a few seconds to calm himself down. Johnny says he knows of a place and we follow as he starts walking.
“Welcome to Homo Hill,” Johnny proclaims. “The only place in Korea where gay people can be gay.” We walk for a bit but I notice Albert has stopped and is typing on his phone.
“Albert?” I call out.
“Yo, hold up guys,” Albert says without looking up.
“What’s the hold up?” Johnny asks.
Albert looks up at Johnny. “Remember those girls I brought to the table? They are asking what we are doing.”
Johnny lights up. “Nice. Tell them to come here.”
“I’m going to tell them we are going to noraebang,” Albert says.
“Karaoke?” I ask.
“We can go there.” Johnny points to a sign that says “1F Transgender Bar” with the Korean word for Karaoke room above it, 2nd floor.
“Four of them?” I ask, recalling the uneven numbers at the lounge.
“Three. One of them left already it seems. Dontcha worry,” Albert says, winking at me.
We follow Johnny up the flight of stairs and go into the karaoke place. Johnny pays up front for an hour of singing and the manager on duty directs us to one of the rooms. The room has a large screen on one side and on the other side a large L-shaped faux leather sofa. The sofa is complemented by a rectangular table pretending to be made from marble strewn with a couple of thick binders, some tambourines, and a large portable device with a keypad. There is a disco ball shimmering warm spots of colors throughout the otherwise dank room. We can hear dampened echoes of voices belting out from rooms nearby.
Albert says he will go outside to wait for the girls. Johnny and I slide in and sit down on adjacent sides of the sofa. He takes out his phone and engages with it. I do the same. After a minute or two I decide to break the silence.
“Hey, Johnny,” my words trail off.
Johnny looks up at me. “Yeah?”
“About what happened outside the club, I was a bit irked,” I say but I change my mind about the approach. “Rather, I know it was probably accidental but I wasn’t thrilled when you nearly pushed me to the…” I am interrupted by the door to the karaoke room opening.
Albert walks in with the three of the girls from the lounge trailing him. Johnny stands up to greet them.
“Hey, get up so they can come in and sit,” Johnny says to me. I get up and slide out and gesture to the girls to sit. The three girls sit together on one side of the sofa.
“Wait a minute. Is this a 3-on-3 mee-ting?” Albert chuckles. “We have to mix it up a bit.” He directs Johnny to switch places with the girl sitting closest to the inside corner, which is the one Albert has been corresponding with. Albert takes his seat next to her and directs me to sit next to the girl closest to the end.
“I will start the singing,” Johnny announces. He inputs a memorized number into the large keypad on the table in front of us and a G-Dragon song blares in the room.
I offer one of the thick binders to the girl sitting next to me. “Do you want to sing something?” I say in Korean.
“I’m ok,” she answers back. After a brief pause she asks, “When did you come to Korea?”
“Two weeks ago.” My mind races to think of ways to keep this conversation alive. I think of something funny. “When did you come to Korea?” I deadpan.
She seems a bit taken aback. “I was born here.”
“Ah, that was a joke.”
She nods without responding.
I quickly think of a way to salvage the joke. “I was born here too. Left when I was two. Parents decided to immigrate to the US without my permission. How rude, right?”
The conversation is interrupted by the front desk manager coming to drop off 6 cans of beer and an assortment of coffee-flavored peanuts, dried banana chips, wasabi peas, and thin crackers seasoned with sugar and rolled in dried seaweed. There is also a bowl of yellow, popcorn-sized globs of starch that look like styrofoam and may have been crunchy initially; a few pink and green ones are scattered incongruously amongst the yellow. Johnny cuts off his song after the first verse and chorus. The next song in the queue is Albert’s and it’s a slow Korean ballad.
She turns her attention back to me. “Sorry what did you say?”
I decide to move on. “How are all of you friends?”
“Work friends.” She continues, “What do you do?”
The simple question hits me awkwardly. I know the answer to the question but a bit ashamed of it. I wish to answer in the future tense but I am at a loss for that answer. I decide to answer it assertively and confidently. “I’m jobless!”
Politely, she says, “I’m envious.” She turns to her friend next to her and says she is going to the restroom. I stand up to let her pass.
I pop open a can of beer and take a chug. I grab the binder of songs and search for a Green Day song. They have a couple. I settle on “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and punch in the number for the song.
Albert’s song finishes and I take the mic for my performance. “I walk a lonely road… The only one that I have ever known… Don’t know where it goes…”
I overhear in the background the girl talking to Albert. She says something about needing to go home. I hear her apologize briefly and offer a rain check. I continue my singing, pleading ignorance. “… On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams… Where the city sleeps… And I’m the only one, and I walk alone…”
Albert walks the girls out.
I cut off the song. I ask Johnny, “Where did everyone go?”
“The girls left. Albert went to grab them a cab.”
“I dunno. Your girl who went to the restroom I guess she wanted to go home. Probably messaged her friend and they all decided to leave.” Johnny seems a bit irked. “Anyhow, let’s get out of here and go eat.”
I quickly finish my beer and we leave the room. We run into Albert coming back up the stairs. We tell him we are going to go eat.
Outside, Johnny points out a sign in the distance that says “Gamja-tang”. We walk and talk about the girls that just left. Height, face, size of body parts, assessment of personality. I attempt to contribute a comment but find that my words don’t come out too fluidly. I pass it off as a muttered soliloquy.
We walk into the restaurant. Johnny cries out, “Eemo!”
A middle-aged lady comes to greet Johnny. “It’s been awhile,” she says to Johnny.
“Do you have room for us three?”
“Yes, go downstairs.” We go down the flight of stairs and I almost disregard the last step but I recalibrate at the last moment. There are 3 long rows of tables that are designed for sitting on the floor. Two of the rows are already occupied. I follow Johnny and Albert as they take off their shoes. My well-worn Chuck Taylors are forlorn in a disorganized matrix of clean, well-kept sneakers trying too hard to be more than just footwear. We make our way into the unoccupied row and sit on the floor, cross-legged. My rigid body protests the unaccustomed position. Johnny says he will order for us and shouts his order up the stairs.
Climbing down the stairs, eemo hauls a large tray consisting of a large pot of spicy pork back-bone stew with a portable gas burner, some side dishes, a bottle of soju, and shot glasses to our table. She quickly disperses the side dishes and sets up the portable gas burner and pot of stew. Johnny opens the bottle of soju and gives Albert and me a shot glass.
“You ordered soju?” Albert asks.
“No gamja-tang is complete without it.”
“Johnny is religious about his food and drink,” Albert says. For now, he is the high priest.
Johnny pours me a shot. “One shot it,” he says to me.
“Naw I’m good,” I reply. My vision is starting to pick up TV static.
“What? No, you take that shot. You are 1981, right? I’m 1979. That makes me your hyung. Now drink up.”
The stew is now bubbling. “I’m good,” I say while looking directly at Johnny.
“Are you a man or a mouse?”
“I said,” my voice is loud but shaky. I slam the shot glass with all its content onto the floor. I scream, “I’m good!!” The room grows quickly silent and I feel the stares of everyone in the room. I see the TV static grow with more noise. And I feel it start to swallow me up.
I open my eyes to the sunlight invading the room. I quickly sense the unfamiliar surroundings. I try to remember my last memory but I am obstructed by a pounding headache. I sit up and look around. I’m on a sofa in a worn but tidy home. I still have on the clothes from yesterday.
“Hello?” I call out. I hear a toilet flush. Then running water. A door opens and walks out Johnny.
He looks at me and says, “Good morning, how are you feeling?”
“Not great. How did I get here?”
“You don’t remember, huh?” Johnny pours a glass of water and hands it to me. “What do you remember last?”
Suddenly I recall the scene I caused at the restaurant. I look down at my feet, suddenly embarrassed. “Hey, at the restaurant, whatever happened I don’t think I was quite myself and I, uh…”
Johnny chuckles. “Don’t worry about that. We hashed it out yesterday.”
“We did?” I gaze up at Johnny. “And what happened after that?”
“Well, you turned into an animal after that!”
“Yeah man. After we hashed things out. You decided you wanted more company and you started talking to a group of girls sitting at the table next to us. We eventually combined tables with them.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yeah you did. And then after eating you decided you weren’t done for the night so we went to an afterclub.”
“Stop messing with me.”
“No I’m serious. You were hitting on a couple girls there. Check your phone, I’m pretty sure you got a couple of numbers.”
I pull out my phone and see that there are 3 numbers that I dialed that I don’t recognize. “And then what?”
“Well the afterclub kind of emptied out after a bit and when we went outside you weren’t in the best condition. You could barely walk straight. We tried to put you in a cab but you couldn’t tell us where you lived and Albert didn’t know either. So we all cabbed it to my place which was nearby and brought you here.”
“Hey man, I really appreciate it.”
“It’s cool. It was a fun night.”
“Well, I wish I remembered the fun parts.” I look at the time. It is almost 1pm. “Hey, I better get home,” I say to Johnny.
“You going to be ok?”
“I should be able to manage.” I put out my hand. “Thanks for letting me stay and putting up with me last night.”
Johnny shakes my hand. “Anytime. Go get some rest.”
I get up and slip on my shoes. I make my way outside. I start walking along a small street that seems poised to meet a larger one. I reach a 2-way street and see a taxi coming towards me. I hail it and get in.
“Shin-chon station,” I say to the taxi driver. He nods affirmatively and starts driving.
My phone vibrates. I check to see a text message from Albert: “Heard from Johnny you’re alive haha”.
I send an emoticon of a face puking.
He sends another message: “This girl from last night and her friend want to hang next Sat. Johnny said he’ll be there. It’ll be us 3 and them 2. You game?”
The cab brakes to a stop at a red light. Peering out the window I notice a stray cat perched upon a public bench, undaunted by the streams of couples strolling precariously close by on this sunny afternoon.
I send a reply to my friend: “Count me in”.
“Numbers” is a short story contributed by guest writer Milton Noh.