Here’s a dark, laconic, mesmerizing story of alcohol and infidelity in the expatriate demimonde of Seoul. A kind of free-floating rage drives the story; music on the juke box insists; motifs (music, a lover’s infidelity, smoking, the Seoul sewage system — yes!) recur with a maddening rhythm, the whole thing driving toward a climactic violence. Sybil Baker writes the darker side of betrayal, writes about vengeance and ugliness (on the inside). It’s a gorgeous, tough-minded story. Sybil is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, edits fiction for Drunken Boat, and is also the author of a new novel — Into This World (Engine Books, 2012). (You can read an excerpt from the novel here.) This story originally appeared in print in Prime Mincer, Summer, 2011.
I was at this bar with Neal trying to remember songs. He sat across from me, just like Steve had those first few months here in Seoul. Outside, the street was gradually darkening. I stared at a blank square of paper on the table and brought the tip of the pen to my lips, hoping that something would to come to me.
The last time I’d been here was six months ago. Steve and I had been sitting in this same booth next to the same window that looked out at the same man tending the fire. That was when I told him I knew about the Korean girl. What was her name, I asked him. Steve said, it didn’t matter, her name. That it was a mistake. That we never should have moved here together. He never should have invited me. And I said, who do you think you are, the fucking president of the country? I don’t need your invitation. I can live wherever the fuck I want. I can go back to Atlanta or move to LA or New Orleans. But guess what, I’d told him, I’m not going to make your life that easy. I’m not going anywhere. And then I poured a full mug of beer from our pitcher and drank it slowly, just to prove it.
Now I took a drink of beer for music inspiration. I wrote down “The Logical Song,” by Super Tramp. Barry Manilow, “Copacabana.” Olivia Newton John, “Have You Never Been Mellow?”
“Where do you come up with those?” Neal lit a cigarette, abandoning his own blank slip of paper. He was British and didn’t get the sad beauty of those songs.
“Steve,” I said. “He was good with that stuff.” I closed my eyes to remember. Then I wrote down a few more songs and creased the paper in half.
“No more Steve. Remember?” Neal blew smoke at the window even though it was closed.
“You asked.” I scooted out of the bench and walked across the bar to give the bartender my requests. Behind him, three shelves of albums were stacked like books, old faded things with fraying spines. I tried to make eye contact with the bartender, a cute guy with shaggy hair and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, but he acted busy with the computer. I reached over the counter and put the list in front of him. He smoothed it on the counter and nodded.
Back at our table, Neal had refilled my glass.
“You Brits are so well-mannered,” I said. I batted my eyes at him and turned up the dial on my Southern accent.
“And all you Southern girls are so charming.” He offered me a cigarette but I shook my head. Too early.
Except for the bartender, the only other people there were two young women at the booth behind Neal. Under the bar’s dim lights their hair looked like velvet. The girl whose back was to me wore a fitted turtleneck and butterfly clips in her hair while the other had bangs cut straight across and fistfuls of bracelets on her bare arms. In between sips from their bottled beers, the girls chatted rapidly. Their cell phones were displayed on the wooden table, and every few minutes they pounced on the phones to scrutinize new text messages. Between the cell phones was a white pack of cigarettes decorated with pink butterflies. The two girls inhaled the ultra slim cigarettes at the same time and occasionally waved them dramatically in the air when they wanted to emphasize a point. They reminded me of the girl Steve had left me for.
“Such poseurs,” I said. “Acting like they’re Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Neal didn’t bother turning around. “When I first got here I saw a man slap a woman for smoking in the street,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, although I thought I knew the answer. Ugly. That’s what my mother called women who smoked. Ugly.
Neal tapped his cigarette in the ashtray. “Women weren’t supposed to smoke in public.”
“Remember what you told me about Zen masters?” I said. “How they would strike people meditating with a stick to help them become enlightened? Maybe that’s what he was doing.”
Neal smiled his sexy half smile. “Maybe.” “Riders in the Storm” was playing. “This place is brilliant,” he said. “Why didn’t you show it to me before?”
“You mean like in the whole month we’ve been together?”
Neal shrugged and sang along with Jim Morrison. I looked out the steamed window onto the street. People were coming into the restaurant below, their scarves wrapped around their necks, arms hanging on each other. I felt a pang of hunger and picked a few of the squid-flavored chips out of the basket.
“The other thing that drives me crazy is the bathroom,” I said after I’d chewed my squid ring. “They have this little metal ledge above the roll of toilet paper and a wet folded tissue for women to put their cigarettes out in. I mean they encourage it, smoking in the toilet, just to keep the image of the pure Korean girl. What a joke. After a few drinks they’re running back to the bathroom to sneak a smoke. Pisses me off because I usually have to go really bad, and these women are taking their time puffing away in the stall. Just so they can pretend to be innocent.”
“You’ll see an end to it soon enough,” Neal said. “You Americans started this whole nonsmoking farce.”
“That’s just the beginning,” I said “In Seattle we have strip clubs where you can’t drink.”
“And no trans fat for your chips in New York,” Neal said. “Pardon, French fries.”
“Fucking Brit.” I grabbed his hand and smiled stupidly at him.
The Doors had ended, and Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly,” scratched from the LP player. The song was warped and faded; in other words, perfect.
Four Western guys walked in, taking a table near the skinny cigarette girls but away from the windows. They wore baseball caps that hid most of their buzz cuts, pressed shirts and jeans with bright running shoes. U.S. military, enlisted. This bar was about thirty minutes away from the closest base, making it easier to dodge the military’s midnight curfew. And here, in a bar like this, they could meet pretty girls.
“Do you know that Alaska has the highest ratio of men to women in the States?” I said. “Women there have their pick.” I tucked a strand of hair behind my ears, which were large for my face and stuck out. I kept my hair long to hide my them, but sometimes I forgot or didn’t care, and I’d expose my elephant ears to the world. “They sell T-shirts in Anchorage that say ‘Baby when you leave here you’ll be ugly again.’” I paused, waiting until Neal smirked to show he got the joke. “If it weren’t so damn cold there I’d go to Alaska someday, just to see what it feels like to be those military guys at that table,” I said.
“Who cares about them anyway?” Neal closed his eyes. He was handsome in that slightly pale British thespian way. “They’re just generating negative energy, and if you think about them you’ll do the same.”
“Sounds like more of that Buddhist stuff,” I said.
Neal opened his eyes and straightened his back so that he suddenly seemed much taller. “As a matter of fact yes. It’s really helping me.”
“How’s that?” I leaned toward him, hoping that he would meet me across the table and kiss me.
“Well, I’m learning to detach from daily annoyances,” he said. “I’m learning that violence does not solve problems. I’m learning that your irrational, emotional outbursts have nothing to do with me.” He pronounced the words clearly and distinctly, like he was reading a diagnosis from a textbook.
I traced the edge of the ashtray with my index finger. Still too early in the evening to throw it at him. “Well excuse me for feeling,” I said. I slid out of the bench and stomped to the bathroom. On the way, I stopped by the bar and scribbled a hasty request and slipped in a folded five-thousand won note with it to make sure it was played.
The women’s bathroom opened to a bare sink and a single stall door, which was locked. A thin wisp of smoke trailed up to the ceiling above the stall. The toilet flushed and the turtleneck girl emerged. She was wearing tight black pencil pants and spiky heels. She ignored me as she left the room, not even washing her hands. In the stall, a lipstick-ringed cigarette butt in the metal tray glowed its dying embers.
Next to the toilet, the trashcan was empty except for a few wadded tissues. By the end of the night it would be overflowing. Toilet paper clogged the ancient city pipes, so it was forbidden to flush it. While I peed, I perused the graffiti and found my contribution: “Jasmine & Steve TLA” scrawled in the middle of a big heart. I took out the pen in my pocket and tried to scribble over Steve’s name, but the tip wouldn’t write on the concrete wall. So I spat on it.
When I emerged from the bathroom, the turtleneck girl and her friend had transported their cell phones, cigarettes, and bottle beers to the table with the military guys. I sat back down and refused to look at Neal, who was singing, “And so Sally can wait, she knows it’s too late as we’re walking by, her soul slides away, but don’t look back in anger.” Oasis. His request, no doubt.
Outside the city was too bright for stars. On the street below people were walking arm-in-arm, bundled in groups of threes and fours, steaming the air with their laughter. A man on the side of the street was busy bringing the large hot coals from the fire he’d been tending into the bulgogi restaurant. Finally I faced Neal.
“See that girl with the bangs and the bracelets?” I asked.
Neal twisted his head.
“Don’t be too obvious. They were sitting behind us, but they’re with those military guys now.”
“I think that’s the girl Steve left me for,” I said.
“Well, it pisses me off.”
“Maybe it’s not her,” he said.
“It is.” But I wasn’t sure. I had only seen Steve with the girl once when I’d stumbled upon them one night in another bar down the street from this one. I’d seen bangs, though, and bracelets, before I ran out.
I drained my beer, thinking that there never seemed to be enough in my glass. My request came on then, the one I’d slipped the bill for: “Both Sides Now.” I sang, “It’s love’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know love at all.” Neal just shook his head, wrote something on a piece of paper and went up to the bar. He sat back down across from me, his eyes narrowed. When his song came on, he gave a satisfied smile.
“American Woman, stay away from me, American Woman, mama let me be,” he bellowed out of key. I laughed and joined in, singing even louder than him. When the song was over, I moved to Neal’s side of the table and kissed his neck. He filled my glass, leaving an inch of foam at the top. I felt his knee rub mine, and I wanted to go back to his place and have sex right then.
The bar was getting more crowded. A few tables of Koreans, college-age, thin with glasses were air-guitaring to Bon Jovi. The girls with them were dressed up in heels and held tiny purses in the crook of their arms. They looked like they’d much rather be somewhere not so dark and dingy, a place that served colored cocktails. They were biding their time.
All the tables were full now, which meant the time for me and my song requests was over. We were having territory problems. Cigarettes were borrowed. Neal’s lighter was appropriated. Beers were poured, empty glasses abandoned on our table. More and more people were hovering over our table. Prime real estate.
“Love Shack” was on and the small clearing that passed for the dance floor was packed with revelers grinding under the newly installed strobe lights. The two girls had disappeared, and the Westerner’s table had been taken over by a group of Korean salary men, their ties loosened, their drinking furious. Four Korean girls sat where the original two had, behind Neal. I danced near them so I could watch them. They were scheming. After the song was over, I scooted in next to Neal and waited.
One of the military guys I recognized from earlier, dark skinned, Hispanic probably, shoulders twice the width of Neal’s, sat himself and his beer down across from us and ground his cigarette out in our ashtray.
“Excuse me, this seat is taken,” Neal said.
“I don’t see anyone here,” the guy said.
“This is our table. Someone is sitting here.”
“Who?” The man turned around dramatically and surveyed the bar. While he wasn’t looking, Neal flicked the ash of his cigarette into the guy’s beer. “I don’t see anyone sitting in this chair except me,” the man said.
“He’s in the loo.” Neal blew smoke in the guy’s direction.
“You’re a very rude guy.” The military man shook his head and took a long swig of his beer. He smiled at me, all fake polite. “What about you? Do you mind if I sit here?” The man’s ears looked like they belonged to an elf.
“Why are you here?” I asked. “It’s twelve thirty. Past military curfew.”
He looked around, shrugged.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Ron from New Mexico. There’s nothing there.”
“Ron from New Mexico, how can you justify those wars?” I leaned forward and touched the gold cross he wore on a chain around his neck. “How, Ron, how?”
Ron’s smile disappeared. He looked at the table. “I’m not a bad guy,” he said. Then he stood and left.
“Well done,” Neal said, giving my thigh a squeeze.
It wasn’t over, though. I watched Ron watching me from the other end of the bar. He towered over the Koreans. He lit his cigarette with a Zippo, then began chatting with some nearby girls.
Neal’s back was to me as he was busy lighting the slim delicate cigarettes of the girls behind us. He spoke to them in semi-fluent Korean. The bar had long stopped playing our songs. I had to go to the bathroom again. I held on to the table for support as I stood. Neal didn’t even see me go.
The bathroom door was locked. I sighed and leaned against the wall. The door in the men’s bathroom was open slightly, and no one was waiting so I walked in. Ron from New Mexico was zipping his pants at the urinal.
I backed away slowly into the hall. When he came out he brushed my shoulder. “Can I have a cigarette?” I asked.
Wordlessly he tapped out one of his Marlboro Reds and placed it between my lips. Then he lit it with his Zippo. The girl’s bathroom door was open now. Once inside, I locked the stall door and peed, tossed my used toilet paper into the now overflowing trashcan. After I flushed, I stayed in the stall and smoked next to the tiny window that looked out into the alley. The ashtray was stuffed with half-smoked cigarettes, so I flushed my butt down the toilet. When I came out Ron was still there.
I fell into him. He smelled like one of the boys in my high school I dated a long time ago. “So,” I whispered into his ear. “How dangerous is North Korea? Really?”
He had his hand on the back of my neck so that his lips grazed my earlobe. “I don’t know. I just do what they tell me. I’m not a bad guy. Really.”
“Me neither. Not really,” I said.
We were kissing then, the Marlboro Red fresh on my tongue and the scruff of his military haircut rough on my cheek.
Then there was a hand on my shoulder pulling us apart. Neal’s eyes looked red and tired. His free hand gripped his half-full mug of beer. He dropped his hand from my shoulder, shook his head, and turned away. Then, he spun around and tossed his beer on Ron’s chest. I grabbed for Neal, but my hands came up with air.
Before I ran out the bar, I bummed another Marlboro Red from Ron. After he lit it, he told me to disappear. It was that time of night. Halfway down the stairs, I slipped and tumbled to the bottom. People on the street, drunk themselves, stepped over me, delicately. The fire man walked past, carrying hot coals in his tongs for the groups of people in the restaurant. I stood up, shaking, and brought the cigarette, miraculously still lit and in my hand, to my lips.
Neal appeared from around the corner then, his body coiled tight. He walked straight up to me and slapped me, knocking my cigarette out of my mouth into a puddle on the street. And even though I knew Neal was gone for good, I called his name as he disappeared into the drunken crowds, then Ron’s name, then Steve’s, then all the names I could remember, one after the other, words from a song I still didn’t know.
— Sybil Baker
Sybil Baker’s latest novel Into This World was recently published by Engine Books. She is also the author of The Life Plan, a comic novel, and a linked short story collection, Talismans. Her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous publications including The Writer’s Chronicle, Prairie Schooner, Glimmer Train, and The Nervous Breakdown. She spent twelve years teaching in South Korea before returning to the States in 2007. She is an Assistant Professor of English (Creative Writing) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she serves as the Assistant Director of the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. She is currently on the visiting faculty of the low-residency MFA program at City University of Hong Kong and the Yale Writers’ Conference. Her MFA is from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she is the Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat. You can read more about her at www.sybilbaker.com.