By Konrad Kostecki
Click hear to read part I
I remember when I met her. It was a fairly unoriginal introduction —over a drink. In Korea, it was extremely common to meet people in a bar. I can hardly name a friend whom I did not meet that way. It just seemed to be that way—we, as foreigners, had our hangouts, regular watering holes. They were places where we could congregate after work, on the weekend, and get blitzed, bitch about Korea, meet a foreigner-friendly Korean girl and get into an occasional fight.
A number of foreigners that I know, including myself, have lived in Korea in a kind of a bubble. We live in and are surrounded by an alien, monothematic culture, in which we will always be foreign, no matter what. It is only natural that we gravitate towards each other. The bars are the gravitational fields where all the particles meet. Most cities in Korea have these places and as long as foreigners live in Korea, these places will continue to exist.
No matter what, no matter how much a foreign culture may initially excite us, after a while, WE inevitably seek the solace of similar wavelength. As an alien in Korea, it is only natural for me to wish to talk with and befriend others of my ilk.
We tend to reject what is not innate in our genes, in our blood. That is why, we seek out each other and build a cocoon of familiarity, a shroud that gives us a little comfort and shields us from unfriendly or indifferent surroundings.
One of these bars was the old J-Rock in Daejeon, a smoky, narrow, cramped hole in the wall with graffiti covered walls, a few tables, a long bar and a pool table at the wider end. But it was magic in those days. Those were different days when everything about Korea was still wild and exciting, before familiarity and contempt had polluted my consciousness and marred my countenance.
It was a hot night and the stench rising from the sewers hit our nostrils as we staggered to our destination. We felt good, our heads light with the booze pumping through our veins. A few more strides up the stairs and we were at the gates of J-Rock. Patrons were lining the bar, loud, raucous, guzzling the cheap draft beer and pounding tequila shots. It looked like a happy scene. Everyone seemed pretty friendly and approachable. A few hotties passed here and there, some looked taken, others, looked like they were looking for action. I was willing to take my chances. I wasn’t dressed my best, sporting a blue fleece jacket— more fit for a mountain hike than a night on the town—and some greenish jeans, but prior to our entrance, I doused myself with cologne, strong enough to cut through the cigarette smoke and cause a riot in a passerby’s nose. Besides, the other foreigners hardly looked any better in the dress department and so I fit right in.
We approached the bar. My friend Ian was there already with a tray of tequila shots, handing me one along with a little plateful of slices of lemon and some salt on the side. We touched the shooters, careful not to spill any, and threw the evil liquid straight down the gauntlet. After a few shots, I wanted to diversify and ordered a gentleman’s drink – a good ole’ gin and tonic. It was no Bombay Sapphire but for three bucks it was alright. With that in hand, I gently spun around and scanned the bar, on the lookout for some possible action. I was so damned famished and all these sexy women that I saw day in and day out in my adult classes and on the street stroked my untapped libido, which was ready to burst like a cork off a champagne bottle, for the lack of a better metaphor. I did not feel too guilty harboring these fantasies of conquest – I was only 24 and I wanted to take a chick home, pure and simple. I was clueless as to how to go about picking up one of these flowers but I had to try.
I spotted her sitting at one of the tables next to the graffiti wall. She was busy talking with her friend and some drab looking foreign guy who seemed to be trying to stir some interest. There was one empty seat at the table and without thinking too long, I grabbed my glass and parked myself across the table from her, next to the guy. He glared at me for a second, not sure what to make of me but I paid no attention to him and introduced myself to the two girls. Their response was positive and about an hour later, just before she left, I managed to collect a phone number, writing it down with utmost reverence on a fresh paper napkin. The girls left and I pondered my initial success, hoping to meet her. After a moment or two, I snapped out of my drunken reverie, reminding myself not to put too much faith into the phone number and went back to drinking with my cohorts.
I woke up the next day with a mild hangover, frantically searching my wallet for the napkin with Kathryn’s number. To my great relief, I found it, stuffed between a couple one thousand won bills. It looked a little worse for wear but the number was still legible. I smiled and decided to wait a few hours before trying to call.
Later, I dialed the number. Kathryn answered. We talked for a minute or so and then decided to meet the following weekend in front of the Envy department store in downtown Daejeon. At the time I did not know the town very well and the Envy was a good central place, easy to find and get to.
A week passed uneventfully as I looked forward to meeting her. On Saturday, around lunch time, I flagged down a cab and was on my way. I arrived downtown and headed towards Envy. There were many people hanging around—I surmised that it was a popular meeting place. I took a seat on a wooden bench and waited. I lit a smoke and contemplated the surroundings. About twenty minutes later I saw her strolling towards me. She looked great, with her wavy hair gently blowing in the breeze and her clothes hugging her silhouette. I smiled as she approached. We were both a little hungry and she suggested a place for lunch to which I promptly agreed. Not only was she gorgeous but her English was fluent. I felt really happy to be with her.
Things moved quickly and within a week we were meeting on a regular basis. Our schedules were almost identical–the split hagwon schedule, despite its inherent discomfort, afforded us a long break in the middle of the day to see each other. We started spending time together every day. After my morning classes, I would go back to my little apartment and she would arrive an hour later, affording me enough time for a little recuperating nap. Most days we would just laze around in bed. Oftentimes we would go to a movie, a restaurant, coffee shop. There wasn’t really much else to do in Daejeon.
On Friday or Saturday night, I would meet her at J-Rock or another bar located around the corner, the Watermelon Sugar, commonly known as the dick bar due to the ungodly size of a concrete penis hanging from the ceiling. Occasionally, we would take a trip out of town on the weekend. We would visit a temple in the mountains or take a train to the coast. Those were good days and at times I thought that life really could not get any better. The things began to change.
There were times when I sat alone in my room thinking that I really could not take it if she left me. I could not stand the thought of her dumping me for another man. And Kathryn was volatile; she threatened to dump me on numerous occasions. At times, I felt like I was on a roller coaster ride with her—one minute she was happy, the next she seemed annoyed and vocal about some harmless comment I made. I quickly learned that I had to pay more attention to what I said and sieve my words thoroughly. I was happy with her and always looked forward to the next time I would see her. As much as I loved her, I always felt extremely sorry for her. This feeling weighed heavy on me after learning of her past suicide attempts, her difficult relationship with her parents who unequivocally disapproved of me, her frequent depressive moods, so many things.
Our precarious bliss lasted a year and then it ended abruptly just as it began. I guess that all good things come to an end but somehow I never expected that it would be the hand of death that would take her away from me. Now she is gone and I am still here, for how long, I don’t know. I hope that time never dulls those days.
Konrad was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1976, the year of the Dragon.
He spent his early childhood climbing trees, playing cowboys and Indians and running amok with other misfit kids around the concrete jungles of his town. In 1987, he was abruptly uprooted from his surroundings by his parents and taken to Italy where he lived for almost two years in a refugee camp in Ostia, just outside of Rome. There he attended the remaining years of elementary school where he learned to speak Italian. After the stint in Italy, his fate took him to Australian shores where he continued his education and mischief. After graduating university and driven by ennui and lack of ideas as to what to do with his life, he came to South Korea where he remains to this day plotting his departure.
He enjoys listening to loud music, scuba diving, busting through red lights on his motorcycle, lifting weights, reading and banging a few open chords on his newly acquired Les Paul.
He’s a fan of Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson, Milan Kundera, J.M Coetzee among others.