Just Eric – Part 5
I considered Stacy my girlfriend pretty much right away, even if she didn’t think so. There was no conversation about it or anything, I just thought it and that’s what she was. I got a bit of a wake-up call though when we went on our fifth date to a skeet shooting range just a little bit north of Seoul and she pulled away when I tried to hold her hand for the first time. ‘I guess we should have had that conversation,’ I thought to myself then, and awkwardly tried to recover with a joke asking if she thought it was good idea for a white guy like me to have a gun so close to North Korea. She giggled and kept her hand close to her leg. I watched as it didn’t sway free again, and kept up a positive exterior while I got all nervous inside.
We walked up a long, pebble parking lot and up to a small tin shack with a homemade sliding window cut into the front. Sitting on the wooden ledge, under the window was a row of thin empty soda cans and one noodle cup, meant as snack bar advertisement. Taped to the glass was a piece of scrap paper that listed in shaky black marker scrawl the prices for the snacks, gun rentals and bullets. The old man inside was trying to spy on us through the clear streaks that served as eyeholes in the dirt caked window, probably not impressed by me or the woman and her showy make-up, target-sized earrings, tight jeans that gave her deer thin legs, the highlighter pink winter coat and un-runnable high heels. He grunted something as he slid open the glass and greeted us with a friendly attitude that was as convincing enough to me at the time as it was tolerated by Stacy. We paid and the old guy led us to the shooting area, recited a lazily memorized set of English instructions and then sloshed off into the field to work the machine that fired the clay plates into the air. We both stepped up to the star spray painted on the grass where only one shooter could stand at a time. Neither of us would move from the spot, cutely arguing about who deserved to shoot first, and I certainly wasn’t about to let her deny holding my hand and then get to do this too. That old guy impatiently yelled out something from his little booth in the field. I had no idea what he’d said but Stacy understood that he wanted us to play ‘rock, scissors, paper’ to find out who should shoot first. That was a good idea and I won the best 2 out of 3 by using rock every time to beat her straight scissors. The shooting went fine after that, neither of us was really any good, but we were definitely having fun teasing each other and celebrating each time we did get a hit. So as we were leaving I tried to hold her hand once more but she pulled away again.
I hadn’t gotten that far in Korea by being scared so I sucked it up and asked why she didn’t want to hold hands. At first she just tried to ignore me. We were a 10-minute walk from the subway and then another 30 minutes into the city so she wasn’t going to be able to pull that off for long, and I persisted to know if everything was okay. She stopped walking, faced me and said that she really liked me but felt a little uncomfortable because of having to use English to explain her feelings. Then she asked if I’d heard what that old man said when he yelled at us to play rock, scissors, paper, which I hadn’t and she told me that he’d spoken Korean and wished she could use it right now too. This gave me a great idea: use the gibberish! I started explaining how I used to have the kids in my cool school classes speak gibberish words instead of English during activities. They were allowed to make up sounds that were kind of like words and they loved it, as it seemed to take the pressure off of having to use English perfectly every time they opened their mouths. I told her that maybe using gibberish would make her feel better and help me understand her feelings. I said I’d start and that she should close her eyes and just listen to what I did. The gibberish words flipped and flopped like we were kissing, the juicy and engorged sounds purred out of me, making her face light up below her closed eyes. Then she put her hand up and felt my face, found my eyes, and slowly lowered the lids like drapes. Gibberish started to spill out of her mouth, just a few cracks of words at first, nothing musical or confident yet like mine, but as she stumbled along the nonsense words came out more smoothly. Soon she was rambling on with a fluency that was so infectious I could feel her personality like a soft tiny hand wrapped within mine. Her inflection and intonation magically revealed her fears of being with a man like me sexually and the message holding hands would send. She thought it might make me want to rush into something, like how she’d rushed in before with another man, a foreigner she met when she was staying a few days in Qatar between flights. Then I realized the cultural significance of holding hands as an unspoken pact here in Korea after the All-English changeover once conversations became less common. I expressed my understanding through another round of poetic gibberish and then I felt her real hand come forward and clasp into mine.
And for about a month there things just seemed to be going so smoothly for me and everyone else around me – the world felt like a great place to be. I was happy and healthy, meeting my great girlfriend every few days with a job in between that was a nice blur. Since I was white guy here in Korea it was pretty much accepted that anything I produced at the office would be good enough no matter what, and I’d taught at a cool school and knew that the teachers didn’t care about the classes and the students were just glad to be doing anything, so everyone was easy enough to please. But the work I did was more than good enough, I’d started to take the job seriously and looked at the text I was being asked to revise and create for the cool school textbooks and made sure that all the English was perfect and the instructions were as logical as possible. While I didn’t necessarily agree with many of the ideas, I knew not to complain too directly, and instead started to make a list of the changes I would make to specific tasks and was planning to soon put it all together in a nice proposal that I could present to the Supervisor of the Add-ucation Development Department and the other executives at the head office in a persuasive and professional manner. Even though I was just a white guy here hired to sit around and look good, I wanted to do my best to reasonably contribute something constructive at least once.
The other white guy who worked with me at the office, Steven, was kind of annoying but I’d warmed up to him I guess. That seems to be what annoying, needy guys like that do, they just buzz around like a fly you can’t kill until you finally just tolerate him being there. I had started to find a kind of satirical glee in listening to him talk very vaguely about all the women he’d apparently slept with here. At first I’d thought for sure these stories were true but as I spent more time with my own girlfriend it made me take his boasting much less seriously. Then one day he confessed that he had actually been seeing one woman regularly at that point and was willing to tell me exactly who it was as long as I promised not to ever tell anyone. Of course I agreed, and he said it was the Supervisor of the ADD. I was stunned. He seemed like he could pick of any of the pretty young women in the office if he wanted, while the Supervisor was much older than both of us, in her mid-40s at least and we were both in our late 20s. She wasn’t particularly attractive either, a bit dumpy with an angular face that made her look like a witch from certain angles. Don’t get me wrong, she was incredibly nice and I liked her a lot, but they just didn’t seem like much of a match. In fact, I’d just assumed all along she was married, which she wasn’t he told me and at least I was happy that this guy wasn’t breaking up a family. I softened up when Steven described their very chaste sounding relationship that didn’t contain any of his usual sexual innuendo or hyperbole, just two adults enjoying some dinner and desert, walks in the park and movies on the weekend. So I was happy for him and swore that I’d keep his secret.
Ken, on the other hand, was definitely having a lot of sex with his flight attendant tutoring student slash girlfriend Veronica. He had no problem providing every possible graphic detail and this made me slightly jealous since just holding Stacy’s hand was a difficult enough move to pull off. Yet, around the same time that Steven revealed his relationship with the ADD Supervisor to me, Ken admitted that his feelings for Veronica had recently gotten a bit deeper and it all started shockingly when he made peace with his ex-girlfriend Catherine. Apparently they’d hashed things out in a long, emotional conversation on the patio of a convenience store, drinking beers and shedding tears over events in their long and tumultuous time in Korea. She apologised for cheating on him and acting cruel in front of the other teachers at the school where they still both worked, and Ken told her that he’d never taken it personally since they were like family. Then they reminisced about all the misadventures they’re gotten into as teenagers back in Christchurch. After a couple of hours, they hugged goodbye and Catherine went home; however Ken stayed on the patio, still with half a beer left to finish, and sat there wondering if maybe it was time to move on from Korea. He’d always dreamed of moving to a beachier place like Thailand, and imagined himself retiring as a cabana owner in some remote village. Then he said his concentration was broken by a guy sitting at the table next to him tapping his pen to the pop dance music that was being pumped into the patio from a set of speakers above the convenience store entrance. Being an acoustic guitar type, Ken wondered why the guy bobbing his head so emotionally was into that stupid music. Never before had he actually looked at a Korean guy and thought that he might have a unique personality rather than a generic cultural identity shared with everyone else in the country. Ken thought about Veronica and said he was suddenly blown away by the seemingly obvious realization that she wasn’t just a cardboard cut-out of a beautiful Korean stewardess. She must have an amazing personality and he swore to find out what it was, starting with the kind of music she liked. He knew he could live up to this vow and from that point on he’d stay in Korea and learn all about these wonderful people. He was so animated and exited as he was telling me this, like a weird guy who had found religion. And I figured that something truly phenomenal was happening here, with all of us. We were changing for the better I thought, and changing the people around us too – we were making this place a paradise.