The internet had promised me the “cutest, fluffiest day ever.” So when we saw the sign for the cat cafe while out shopping in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, I squealed. On it, cartoon cats pranced around photos of the real cats waiting upstairs to love us. I turned to my boyfriend with eyes wide and hopeful, and he smiled and nodded, said with his ever-indulging attitude, “We can go.”
I hadn’t had a cat at home for more than a decade. Tiger, who wandered onto our porch as a kitten when I was five, had lived 18 years, jumping on our laps and nudging her cool nose under our hands to pet her. The small engine of her purr, the rise and fall of her contented lungs under my fingertips as I watched TV, my lap warmed by her small life — it had been too long.
I didn’t have my own cat for the same reason many people in Seoul don’t: tiny, tiny apartments. Starting in 2018, when I lived in a 150 sq. ft. box myself, Seattle ranked with the smallest apartments in the country, smaller even than New York City’s.
We peeked in the window before opening the door. The narrow room with the observation window gave off a tone of sanitarium, but cat towers and toys, along with a yellow wall and tables like any other café, livened things up.
As we went in, a feeling surprised me, a feeling I usually associate with strip clubs: excitement mixed with shame about what you’re excited for, all in an environment where the thing you want is manifest simply by your presence there. Like at strip clubs, we paid an entrance fee: 10,000 ₩, about $8.50, which included a coffee drink and a full day of feline access.
In the gated entryway, we slipped off our shoes in exchange for black slippers with white kitty faces embroidered on them. Per the posted instructions, we sanitized our hands from a pump on a liter-sized bottle of clear gel.
The only other participant, a grown man half lounging like a nerdy mermaid on the floor near our feet looked up at us as lazily as the cat he was petting. He seemed like he was here on some kind of long-term work trip and had just been whispering to the cat about how none of his friends liked his Instagram posts.
The attendant, a woman in her 30s, sat behind a computer at a desk with a baby-gated entrance. Two cats sat on stools next to her, as if they themselves were on a coffee break from their regular rotations. We paid our fee, noticing that she also sold cat food as bait for 3,000 ₩. That felt too desperate. I wanted the cats to love me for me. She rang us up, then returned a Bengal hiding back there into the main area, its body falling out of her hands like water out of a bucket. As I admired its black to beige ombre fur, it ambled away.
We turned around and wondered what to do next. Cats lounged on carpeted half-pipes by the panel of windows. Patches of fur poked out of the windows of cat towers. Boxes of toys lay unjingled among the tables.
Music would have helped. The silence gave it the ambiance of a doctor’s waiting room.
I wanted to sit all the way in the back, as if hiding myself. There, taped to a carpeted tower that held a white cat in its innermost sanctum, the same clipart cartoon cats dancing on the poster out front danced across the top of a sign with red letters and a jazzy font titling it “Notice.”
“Don’t grasp tails nor hit the rumps,” it said.
I mean, fair enough, but that it had to be said concerned me.
“Don’t hug and pick up cats by force,” I read, suddenly wondering who I was.
“Don’t touch cats when they eat, drink, and sleep.”
But, what else does a cat do?
“Please wait for them.”
I looked around, at cats lying on their beds, calculating the chances they would willingly approach us, two people they’d never smelled before in what I pictured for the first time as a nonstop string of strangers trying to get some fur.
We had brought books, hoping to recreate days at home reading and cuddling furry friends, and I opened mine now only in a gesture of reverse psychology. My boyfriend cracked open his laptop and dove in, hunched over and typing. My brain couldn’t focus for a full sentence before peeking above the page to see if any cat was not eating, not drinking, not sleeping, and might be construed as approaching.
Fluffy, the white one in the tower behind us, teased us with her soft fur, her eyes opening and closing, as if she knew that as long as her eyes were closed, she was off limits. I’m awake, oh no I’m not, oh yes I am, oops, nope too late, nice try.
I gave up on the focus needed for reading, stood, and picked through the cat toys, a selection of bells, a feather, and something that looked itself like a cat’s tail, all attached to rods, like bait with which to fish for love. I dangled some over Mittens, and she kept her gaze so straight ahead I wondered if she had military training. I combined a feather and a cat tail for what I hoped would be an irresistible combo and flicked it around like a piñata. Any second her evolutionary drives should take over and force her to hurl her body at the toy in a way that was both exciting and hilarious.
And yet, nothing.
After 20 minutes, we started to crack. If a cat wasn’t sleeping, eating, or drinking, we ventured a quick pet of the head, to which the cat usually responded by rising up and walking away, staring back at us with its third eye.
“That one over there bit me!” said my boyfriend, pointing to a cat with ears bent back as if he had held them in that position for so long, they stuck.
“Was it sleeping?” I asked, ready to reprimand.
“No!” he insisted, as if the cat had signed up for this gig and should have come to understand these rules during orientation.
Suddenly, the cream-colored Mr. Whiskers jumped up. In the silence, me, my boyfriend, and the other lone customer watched as he ran to the center of the room. Finally, some action. We all hoped he would start leaping for the jangled feather bait, making us laugh 10,000 ₩ worth of laughs.
But he only heaved once, a pulse shooting up his body, ending in a wet snap that stretched long his neck and open his mouth.
And heaved again, head pushed toward the floor.
Together we three who had paid to be in this room watched the space below his mouth. With one more contraction he flung forth an oatmeal-colored ball glazed with goo. He then darted into a tower.
The owner meandered over, sprayed the floor and wiped it up, folding over the paper towel to dry the floor completely.
We resigned ourselves to standing back and admiring their colors. The Bengal had truly the most stunning eyes I’d ever seen, iceberg blue. As I captured them in a keepsake photo, they stared back at me with a look that said, “I hate everything about your kind.”
Mittens looked out the window, wishing, I imagined, she’d listened to her mother. By the litter box, Princess stubbed out a cigarette under her paw. “Just one more year,” she said to Sassy. “Til I get my degree. Then I’m out.” Behind the litter box, Muffins hit the catnip.
Eons ago, wildcats roamed the Fertile Crescent, now here I was trying to tantalize Teacup with a bell into batting a paw, so that I didn’t just pay $8.50 for a too-sweet coffee and an emotional mélange of rejection and shame, enjoyed amid the enclosed scent of a half dozen litter boxes.
We resisted calling it and admitting defeat, or naiveté, or the fact that we should have known, with all previous intel we had via so, so many memes about how aloof most cats are to their own loving families, that this would obviously have been a terrible idea.
Then the children arrived. Two of them, bouncing in the holding area with an innocence I remembered from half an hour ago.
The gate opened. They ran in. They did not read the sign.
Cat fishing poles waved in cat faces. Sleeping cats pet roughly. Cats hugged without consent. Their mom paid for cat food, and they held it out for the cats to come near, like total cheaters, free to enjoy that childhood innocence about how much animals hate you.
We got a little more brazen ourselves. I reached my hand into the cat tower, to Fluffy’s white fur, and I pet Fluffy without Fluffy coming to me.
I got what I paid for. I nodded to my boyfriend.
We sanitized our hands on the way out.
Photo at the top of the page is by Paulette Perhach.
One afternoon in the early spring, Yasmine and I ended up in a department store on the way to Itaewon, a section of Seoul sometimes referred to as Little America. A nickname born of its close proximity to an American military base, and the fact that shops, restaurants, and clubs catered to American soldiers. As we passed the jewelry counter in the mall, Yasmine suggested we buy matching rings.
“Why?” I asked incredulously. Except for earrings, I didn’t wear jewelry.
“I always thought it would be nice to have a friendship ring. But until now, I never had a close enough friend,” she looped her arm through mind and pulled me closer to the display.
I felt flattered, but by then, somewhere deep in my subconscious, something had begun to nag at me. At random moments, I’d feel a prick, a pinch, as the notion attempted to bore its way back into my conscious mind. The secret I spent so much energy frantically attempting to bury. Lately, I had learned to successfully refuse its entrance, but in quiet, solitary moments when it grew persistent, I swatted at it like a buzzing, bothersome mosquito.
“A ring…might be nice,” I looked at my hand, wondering which finger I’d wear it on. At the moment, I was so focused on my finger and my subconscious dread that I barely noticed the word I had used, the bland, noncommittal adjective. Nice? Isn’t that what people used when they didn’t have anything good to say, but didn’t wish to say anything negative either? But why would I shy away from her gesture? From her overt proclamation of how much she valued our friendship?
Looking into the glass case, she pointed to simple gold band, which too closely resembled a wedding ring. “What do you think of that one? We could even have our names engraved. That way when you leave, when you go back to America, you won’t forget me.”
“I wouldn’t forget you anyway.” I laced my fingers through hers, and she gently squeezed my hand.
“You will. If only you could take me to America with you.” Then she smiled again and led me back outside. “We’ll come back.”
But we never did go back. We never did purchase rings because a month later, Don arrived from Canada and started teaching at Wonderland. Blond, blue-eyed, thin, and overly enthusiastic about learning Korean, his first priority was in finding a Korean girlfriend. Dating a Korean girl, he reasoned, would embed him more deeply in Korea, make him more vested in society. Why he felt so driven to immerse himself I never did ask. At the time, I didn’t care. I only prayed he would disappear.
Because the moment he stepped into the faculty room for the very first time, he settled his attention on Yasmine. His second Saturday in Seoul was the first Saturday night in weeks that Yasmine and I did not see each other for even a few minutes. It took her only a few days to succumb to his pleas, promising to go out with him on one date. But one turned into two, which turned into three and soon ushered in a serious long-term relationship. Even when Yasmine invited me along, remembering how inseparable we once were, I often declined.
I’d never felt so jealous of anyone. So threatened. Yet I knew I shouldn’t feel that way. She was only a friend, I repeatedly reminded myself. Just a good friend, the best friend I had made in Korea. But if she was only a friend, why did I feel so empty without her? Why, at night, when I lay in bed alone, did I feel as though I had been shipwrecked and tossed up onto a deserted island?
A couple weeks before my contract expired, Yasmine invited me to join her and Don for a night in Itaewon. At first, I balked at the idea. Don was the last person with whom I wished to spend an evening. But after thinking about it, considering my options, I changed my mind. In two weeks I would be gone, and then what? I’d miss Yasmine, and it would be too late to undo my stubbornness. To avoid regret, I agreed to go.
When I met Yasmine at the subway station, our agreed upon meeting place, I was surprised to find her waiting for me alone.
“He’s sick,” she smiled, putting her arm though mine and leaning against me as we sat down in the subway car. I was elated. In no way would I miss him, but I worried that she would.
After a quick dinner at Nashville, a burger joint, we crossed the street to J&Rs, the bar we frequented before Don entered our lives. Since it was still early, the place was relatively empty. Sitting down at the bar, we ordered beer. I didn’t care for Korean beer, but it was cheap, and both Yasmine and I drank as though we were parched. By our third round, the place was packed with Americans. Music pulsed around us and when No Doubt started to sing “Don’t Speak”—a song that still reminds me of her—Yasmine leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I smiled, and her deep-brown eyes sparkled. My chest tingled, and I held her gaze until out of the corner of my eye I saw Don lurking in the doorway. Had she done it to provoke him? Or was she genuine in her affection? Either way, I was irritated by his intrusion.
Anger and disdain rapidly dislodged the euphoria I had felt seconds earlier. Scowling, I confronted Yasmine, “I thought he was sick.”
“He was.” She looked as genuinely confused as I was, but instead of anger, her eyes seemed to twinkle with delight, the way a child’s might just before executing a prank.
“Let’s dance,” she grabbed my wrist and dragged me to the dance floor. I’m a terrible dancer. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I rarely danced. The exception, of course, was when I was drinking. After a few beers, I didn’t care how awful I looked.
Don watched us as we disappeared into the crowd. Instead of following us, he headed over to the pool tables. He quickly made friends with three other guys and joined their game. When the music slowed, I tried to excuse myself and exit the dance floor, but Yasmine, as inebriated as I was, pulled me closer. I don’t know who initiated. Whether the alcohol blotted it out or my own subconscious wiped the memory clean matters little. What matters is that her lips were suddenly pressed to mine, and I kissed her with more emotion, more feeling than I had ever kissed anyone. The song ended, and a faster song started to play, but lost in our kiss, we were oblivious to everything else.
That’s when he noticed, and his rage erupted, reverberating throughout the bar. His scream echoed in my ear, and the force with which he pulled me away from Yasmine knocked me to the ground. The crowd swam around me. As if through a tank of water, I heard Don shouting at Yasmine. Yasmine, completely unnerved, turned her back on him, offered me a hand, and when I stood up, she embraced me. In defiance of Don’s wrath, she kissed me again. When my hands slipped up the back of her shirt, Don punched a wall, then dragged us both out of the bar.
Outside, he hailed a cab and shoved me and Yasmine into the backseat. Unperturbed, Yasmine pressed against me, her lips warm as we continued to kiss. I thought for certain that when the cab pulled up to her apartment, either she or Don would dismiss me, and I’d be left to walk home alone. But instead, the three of us stumbled up the steps together. When Yasmine opened her door, she nudged me inside, then barred Don from entering. Confusion clouded his face, then fury flashed in his eyes. She slammed the door, and his fist pounded the metal. “No,” he shouted, no doubt waking everyone else in the building. “You can’t do this. You can’t let her stay.”
Yasmine locked the door. Angry voices, shouting in Korean and spilling out of other apartments, eventually silenced Don. Without words, Yasmine and I fell onto her bed. Half dressed, we curled into each others arms. While I let her hands roam at will, fear prevented mine from going too far. What I wanted was wrong. My upbringing had taught me that. And so I stopped myself, content in the moment that I, not Don, was falling asleep beside her.
Furious, Don returned to Yasmine’s apartment early in the morning. This time, she opened the door when his fist smashed into it. Immediately, Don sighted me in the living room, crouched down next to Yasmine’s CD collection.
“She’s not a dyke, you know.” Breathing heavily from running up the stairs, his eyes threatened violence if I got too close.
Blankly, I stared back him, trying to process the meaning of his words, the meaning of my actions, actions I so desperately wished to blame on the alcohol. But now that I had sobered up, I didn’t exactly regret them.
I had kissed a girl. I enjoyed it. But what exactly did that mean? Why did it have to mean anything?
“Do you hear me?” His voice rose. “She’s not a dyke.”
“Neither am I.” The label unsettled me, but as I sat there, my eyes uncomfortably locked with Don’s, I knew that he had shattered the last of my illusions.
“Yes, you are!” Don pronounced the words like a life sentence, and I stoically swallowed them, knowing that an appeal would be futile.
We glared at each other for another moment. I knew he would not back down, and I had nothing left with which to defend myself. Abruptly turning away and stepping past him, I smashed through the door and thundered down the stairs. Outside, the morning sun pulled me into a warming embrace, but wanting no comfort, I broke away.
In the shadows cast by a truth I could no longer deny, I cried.
Photograph at the top of the page was taken by Elizabeth Jaeger.
Chuseok fell in early September that year. In Korea, it is a day for families to gather together and celebrate. Like Thanksgiving, it is a harvest festival, but unlike Thanksgiving, it lasts three days instead of one. Since it is a major holiday, Wonderland, the school in which I was teaching, closed for a week. Many of my American colleagues, teachers who had already been working several months, had booked flights to awesome places, places I’d have loved to travel to myself: Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. But having only arrived three weeks earlier and having very little money, I intended to stay in Seoul. There I planned to get better acquainted with the city that would be my home until mid-summer. However, my new friends, Jake, Lauren and Lindsey, were intent on a vacation and they chose Jejudo—an Island off the Southern coast of South Korea—as their destination. When they first invited me to join them, I was hesitant, uncertain that I’d have enough money to last me until my first pay check. But the thought of going somewhere different—somewhere close enough that the airfare wouldn’t break me—proved to be too much of a temptation, and I quickly relinquished my plans to stay behind.
I don’t remember who initiated the trip, who conceived of going somewhere inexpensive, but Jake, who had backpacked and camped extensively through Europe, suggested that we camp in order to make the trip even more cost efficient. So one Sunday, our one day off from work—our school ran on six-day work week—Jake and I ventured out searching for a tent large enough to accommodate all of us. It was no easy feat. With each store we visited, Jake grew increasingly frustrated and disgruntled.
“Cheap! Cheap! They’re all cheap.” His fingers poking, prodding and slapping the nylon and polyester of every tent in every store. “If it rains, we’ll get soaked. And if we have to take it down and put it back up, it will fall apart.” He found not a single tent acceptable. Then finally, after a long day of walking through much of the city, he settled on a green four man tent. It would shelter us until it fell apart, and if that happened before our holiday ended, we’d figure something else out. Though there was no point in worrying about it just yet, Jake continued to grumble as he pocketed his receipt—certain the store, the manufacturer, the sales clerk had ripped him off. He continued to vent as we headed to the subway, the tent tucked tightly under his arm.
In our group, only I traveled with an oversized duffle bag. I felt conspicuous walking through the airport since all my friends carried backpacks. But a duffle bag was all I had. Of the five of us boarding the plane, I had the least amount of travel experience. Except for Canada, Korea was the only other country I had ever visited. The others had at least experienced parts of Europe. They knew how to feel their way through unfamiliar cultures and foreign cities without having the right words with which to communicate. I wore my naiveté like a bright scarlet letter stitched across my chest—and face. Whenever possible, I tried to dissolve into the crowd, make myself invisible. I didn’t want to be seen, not the way I saw myself: confused, unsure and anxious. I had never been to an airport alone and so I had never been forced to pay attention. I didn’t know where to go. What to say. And so I followed my friends, letting them guide me while doing my best to mask my ignorance. If they caught on, they were gracious enough not to call my attention to it. If perchance we got separated or if they got tired of me and cut me loose, I’d most certainly be lost, scrambling blindly to feel my way. No, I didn’t have confidence in myself nor my abilities, a fault that has always infected me.
The flight was short, about an hour, which left me no time to get bored. It seemed we barely reached our cruising altitude when the pilot began his descent. None of us had thought to make reservations anywhere for our first night. Even if I had thought of it, I’m not sure how I’d have gone about doing it. In 1996, almost no one had a cell phone, and Google was a future convenience. As a kid, I remembered my parents pulling out the AAA books before a vacation and combing through the listings. Once they settled on places that seemed acceptable, mom or dad would call to make reservations. Sometimes, if our plans changed mid-trip, we’d stop along the way at a tourist information center, and someone there would make suggestions and call around until they found a place with a vacancy. But there were no AAA books for international travel—or were there? And it would be another six or seven months until I walked into a bookstore and discovered the Lonely Planet, the backpacker’s Bible.
We collected our luggage from the baggage claim carousel and then stood around staring at each other, all wondering the same thing, “Now what?” Jake, always the most outgoing, randomly started talking to a couple of Canadians, and we knew they were Canadian because of the flags stitched prominently on the front of their rucksacks .
“We’re looking for a place to crash tonight; any idea where we might go?” Jake cornered them, beginning the conversation as he so often did, as if he and whomever he addressed had been friends forever. “Nothing fancy—a bed, a shower.”
“Are you here for the holiday?” The shorter of the two guys asked.
“Yeah, we’re teaching English at Wonderland. No school this week.”
“You’ve heard of it?”
“We have. There’s a Wonderland on the other side of the Island. That’s the crazy school with bathrooms for classrooms—right?”
“Yeah, sort of.” Some genius thought it would be a good idea to put non-functioning toilets in classrooms to encourage kids to say “pee” and “poop” in English.
“Friend of ours teach there,” the taller guy added.
An announcement echoed through the airport and the Canadians glanced up at the monitor, “We have to go.” They started to walk towards the terminal, then the shorter one looked back over his shoulder, “Grab a taxi. Go to the center of Jeju City. You’ll find plenty of places to stay.”
The taxi line was easy enough to find. Communicating where we wanted to go presented more of a challenge. But somehow, with the aid of a phrase book and charades, we conveyed where we wanted to go.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we found a hotel. We dropped off our things and then reconvened to begin our exploration of the island. Stepping back outside, I inhaled deeply, relishing the smell of salt carried by the sea breeze. It reminded me of home, summers spent on Long Island, swimming in the bay, walking on the boardwalk. I would miss that next summer. It would be my first summer away, my first summer off on my own, and though I was excited to be seeing the world, I couldn’t ignore the subtle pang of loneliness lodged in my consciousness. If I hadn’t made friends, the loneliness, I knew, would be far more pronounced.
“Where to?” Jake asked, as we started to walk without direction since none of us had thought to bring a map.
“How about a noraebong?” Someone else recommended to a consensus of agreement. A noraebong is a singing room. Like karaoke, music plays and lyrics scroll across a screen. But instead of singing in a large public group, participants rent a room for an hour, two, or however long they wish to hang out. Beer and soju (hard alcohol made from rice) are a crucial part of the experience, especially for people like me, people who can’t sing at all and are painfully aware of how much they suck.
“How will we find one?” I asked, still unable to read the oddly shaped Hangul letters, all of which blurred into a pile of what looked like broken sticks.
Lauren again pulled out her phrase book and looked up noraebong. We took turns examining the angular letters, committing them to memory, so that we could attempt to look for a match on the signs hung on the buildings we passed.
After walking a few blocks, we zeroed in on a word that appeared to match the one in the book. In a single file, we entered the front door. Music played in the distance, but the music sounded somber and slow, not the sort of music half-drunk people rowdily sing along to.
Ascending a flight of stairs, the music grew louder. An arrow pointed to the door. Jake grabbed the nob and yanked it open, jovially entering a room full of sobbing women and stoic men. We stumbled in after him, our smiles deflating as it slowly dawned on us that we may have just crashed a funeral or some other somber event. Embarrassed, we whispered our apologies, tripping over one another as we rushed out the door, down the stairs and back into the night.
Eventually, our persistence and a little bit of luck led us to where we wished to be. That was the night I learned that Lauren could sing, that she was quite talented. And not wanting to embarrass myself with a voice that sounded like a flock of sea gulls descending on a cluster of abandoned French fries, I sat in the corner, listening to the others, content to not be alone.
In the morning, we tasked ourselves with finding a campsite to set up our tent and to act as a base from which we could further explore the island. At a complete loss for where to even begin, I hung back while the others discussed our dilemma. They settled on hailing a taxi, and miming, if necessary, where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. One of us must have had a protective guardian angel hovering nearby since the cab driver who stopped to pick us up spoke a bit of English. We released a collective sigh of relief, then sat back to watch the scenery fly by the open windows. For all we knew, he took us the long way, a route that added miles to the drive, so that the meter earned him a generous fare.
Eventually, the taxi pulled into an empty field. Not a single tent had been pitched anywhere. We—or perhaps only I—were dubious. Had he brought us there to rob us? Kill us? How easily he could abandon us, taking what he wished. But he simply pointed towards a cluster of trees, “There is waterfall. You swim.” We handed him our fare and he drove away, leaving us alone, skeptical and skittish.
Assessing the area, we selected a place to set up the tent. I busied myself helping the others as a wave of discontent, a flood of swear words swelled around us. Jake resumed his offense against the quality of the tent. The poles were flimsy and as we pushed them through the loops we had to take extra care so that they wouldn’t tear the material.
Once the tent was up, we settled our things inside, changed into our swim suits and went off in search of the waterfall. It was small, but somewhat picturesque—aren’t all waterfalls? Large rocks—boulders—surrounded the watering hole and, like kids, Jake and I had to climb them. The sun glinted off the surface of the water, giving off an illusion of warmth, an invitation to enter. Accepting the invitation I dove in, my head freezing immediately upon contact. I hoped that swimming, treading water would warm me up, but it did not. Too cold to remain in the water, I pulled myself up onto the rocks and stretched out so that the warm sun could melt the ice in my bones.
Not long after we arrived, a lone figure, a young Korean man with tattoos spread across an arm like a detailed map and a ring finger missing on his right hand, emerged from the line of trees in the distance. Wearing only swim trunks, he approached the waterfall, and without acknowledging our presence, he dove head first into the water. Seemingly immune to the cold he stood under the waterfall, the water beating against his head. When he’d had enough, he climbed back onto the rocks and with his arms hung loosely at his sides, he surveyed us from a distance.
“It’s Chuseok,” Jake reminded us, his voice low as if he were conveying a secret.
“Yeah, so?” Lindsey snapped.
“There is no one else here. Koreans are supposed to be with their families. Why is he here?”
Lindsey shrugged, Lauren looked up from the rock where she was perched, logging her journal. “Perhaps he doesn’t have family,” Lindsey offered.
“Did you see his tattoos? He’s missing a finger.” Jake’s eyes widened, a fearful scenario taking shape in his mind.
“Yeah, so?” Lindsey repeated, irritation rising in her tone.
“I’ve never seen a Korean with a tattoo or a missing finger. Have you?” Jake stole a furtive glance at the stranger. “Do you think he’s a North Korean spy?” He asked, turning back toward us. “Or does he belong to a gang?”
“Or maybe he’s just a guy who wanted to get away,” Lindsey, now bored with the conversation, yawned. Lauren released an exasperated sigh and my mind wandered. Would he kidnap us? Kill us?
Regardless of the stranger’s purpose, he didn’t leave. He seemed rather interested, too interested, in us. After a while, I could feel his eyes. Though the others said nothing, I could tell by their covert glances, the tapping of their fingers, the pacing that they too were growing apprehensive. When the silence between us became heavy, like storm clouds on a summer afternoon, we retreated to our campsite.
It was Jake who noticed the small single man tent not far from where ours stood. When he started to speak, a shiver ran through me. “If he’s part of a gang—”
“Jake, hush.” Lauren commended.
But he couldn’t help himself, he leaned towards me and whispered, “If he’s a spy, I wonder if he’s part of a nearby cell. Could they have us surrounded?”
“Are we important enough to surround?” I asked, but I didn’t wait around for an answer, worried that I might not be as insignificant as I wanted to be at that moment.
By mid-afternoon, we were all hungry, so we walked up a paved walkway to the main road and caught a taxi into town. None of us were terribly enthralled with Korean food, nor did any of us care to pick our way through town searching for a place to eat. Therefore, when we spotted a pizza place, we collectively turned toward the door and entered. It was relatively empty, but since it was an off hour, somewhere between lunch and dinner, we didn’t overthink it. We ordered a pie and were shocked and dismayed to find it covered in corn. Corn, I’d later learn, was a staple on pizza in Korea. I never did figure out why, but after some time, I at least grew to expect it and did the best I could to ignore it.
Back at the camp site, the temperature cooled and sitting outside, we started to shiver. Someone, I don’t remember who, suggested we build a fire. A marvelous idea and so we set out to scavenge for firewood. Aside of a few sticks, there wasn’t much, and we started to lose hope. Then out of the lengthening shadows, the stranger from the water hole emerged. He tapped Jake on the shoulder and beckoned him to follow. Startled, Jake jumped and swallowed hard, scenarios of scattered body parts flashed through his mind, and desperation flickered in his eyes. But unable to turn away from a good story, a possible adventure, he disappeared behind the mystery man into the woods.
After forty minutes or so they returned, arms laden with wood, enough to start and sustain a fire for a few hours. Setting the wood down, the stranger gathered together a few small sticks and an empty cigarette box. Using his zippo, he started the fire. Once the wood crackled and flames licked the air, the five of us sat on the grass staring at each other until Lauren and Lindsey remembered the Korean phrase books they had packed. Reaching for them, rifling through the pages, they attempted a conversation. Lauren introduced us and then the man pointed to his chest, “Me, Mr. Kim.” Was he for real? Kim was like Smith in America. The most common surname. If he had a need to hide behind an alias, Kim seemed too perfect. And so this introduction did little to put us at ease.
Soon the phrase books grew cumbersome. Our bastardized pronunciations made comprehension impossible. Jake, unwilling to give up, resorted to charades. But even that was a challenge—flapping arms, mimed actions and shadow puppets uncovered nothing. Silence settled around us and when it grew tense and uncomfortable, Mr. Kim reached into his pocket and extracted a cell phone. Don’t forget, this was 1996, years before cell phones became the ubiquitous possessions they are today. I didn’t know anyone with a cell phone, none of us did, and this only seemed to lend credence to Jake’s theories. Dialing a number, Mr. Kim waited impatiently for someone to pick up. A voice answered, and he launched into what sounded like a detailed monologue. When he finished, he stuffed the phone in his pocket and stared meditatively at the fire. We looked around suspiciously, uncertain as what we should do, how we should react.
Then Suddenly, with no warning Mr. Kim jumped up, grabbed Jake’s arm and started running toward the road. Afraid that he was being led to his death, Jake reached for his Swiss Army knife, pulled open the blade and slipped it into his back pocket. The moon cast an eerie glow, as we apprehensively watched Jake dissolve into the night.
Later, Jake told us that once they reached the road, Mr. Kim stopped running. His heart racing, Jake anxiously stood next to him. Within moments, he heard the rumble of a car. The noise grew louder until the vehicle pulled into view, then stopped. Jake held his breath. The doors opened and men began piling bags of food—dried squid, beef, rice, kimchi, lettuce—and alcohol—soju and beer—in Jake’s and Mr. Kim’s arms.
Incredulous, no longer knowing what to think, Jake ambled back to camp where Mr. Kim immediately set to work preparing a feast. We watched in silence, confused as to what was going on while we drank, alternating between soju and beer. A bad idea. The food was decent, the alcohol potent. Mr. Kim kept our plates full and our glasses even fuller. We ate as though we were famished, drank as if we were parched, and somehow, during the course of our meal, we communicated our desire to hike Hallasan—a volcano in the center of the island.
When I finally lay down to sleep, the world spun rapidly around me. I slept restlessly and at some point in the middle of the night, my stomach lurched as a wave of nausea descended upon me. Jumping up, I raced outside to expel the contents of my stomach.
In the morning, we woke up at sunrise. I didn’t want to get up, but I also did not wish to miss Hallasan. I drank a liter of water and still felt ill. My friends ate apples and peanut butter for breakfast, but I knew better than to fill my stomach. It would take a few hours before I could hold down anything substantial.
We were finishing breakfast when Mr. Kim emerged from his tent wearing dress pants and a button down shirt. Weird. But we assumed he was off to work. Then biting into an apple he mimed something about a mountain, and the truth, rather uncomfortably began to settle in. He had been more than kind the previous night, a gracious host and gentlemen, but despite his generosity and eagerness to be friends, none of us could shake the awkward feeling that accompanied his presence. Lauren placed the blame on the language barrier, but I couldn’t shake the fear that Jake had planted: was he a North Korean spy? We pretended we didn’t understand his attempt at charades, but when we turned to head toward the road, he followed. It’s hard, damn near impossible at times, to dismiss someone who makes your life easier.
Mr. Kim negotiated a taxi ride to the base of Hallasan. When we arrived, the sky was blue, cloudless, except for a large cottony one that appeared to be devouring Hallasan’s peak. I looked up in awe; the sight of the volcano, what we could see of it, was breathtaking. It was the first volcano I had ever seen. Jake and I wanted to hike to the summit, but if we understood Mr. Kim correctly, and that was extremely questionable, reaching the top would not be possible. Part of the trail had been closed off to enable the vegetation to restore itself. Oh well, I sighed. Part of the trail was still better than not hiking at all.
Jake, Lindsey, Lauren and I each carried a backpack with a few choco-pies—cream-filled chocolate cakes—and lots of water. Mr. Kim had a pack of cigarettes in his breast pocket, nothing else. As soon as we exited the cab, he lit a cigarette, glanced around to gather his bearing and then charged forward towards the volcano. Jake and I trudged alongside him, but Lauren started to fall behind, and Lindsey kept pace with her.
“Can we stop?” I called out to Mr. Kim, who seemed oblivious to our presence, so focused was he on speed and our intended destination. But my words, to him, were gibberish. I stopped anyway, extracting my camera to take a few pictures. Catching Mr. Kim’s attention, Jake forced him to stop and wait for me. His posture, the tapping of his foot, and the deep drags on his cigarette radiated his impatience, but he never scolded us.
Halfway up and breathing heavily, Lauren had enough of walking and decided to stop. Encouraging us to go ahead, she pulled a book out of her backpack, settled down in a shady spot and commenced reading. We would have moved much more quickly from that point on, but I refused to put the camera away. Someday, I figured, I’d want to remember. Someday I’d want to relive that moment and so I kept as accurate a record as possible.
By the time we reached the end of the trail—the marker allegedly declaring that it was closed from that point on—the single cloud in the sky broke apart, splintering into dozens of smaller ones. The peak, surrounded by lush green plants, emerged, and I felt a pang of disappointment that we could not go any further. After taking a final picture, we turned around. The descent, as always, beat up my joints, especially my knees, far more than the ascent.
Several bottles of water, coupled with the physical exertion, washed away my hangover, leaving me with a grumbling stomach. Famished, I needed to eat. Since I was not alone in my hunger, Mr. Kim led us to a makeshift building in the middle of nowhere, which turned out to be a restaurant with outdoor seating. Without inquiring as to what we might like to eat, he left us resting at an outdoor table and then scrambled inside to order. Considering the language barrier, I suppose asking us what we preferred for lunch wouldn’t have made much difference. After a few short minutes, he returned carrying a tray filled with various types of kimbab—rice wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with vegetables and meat, tuna, kimchi or cheese.
Our hands dug in, and Mr. Kim signaled that we had to eat quickly. He pointed to Lindsey’s nose ring, the tattoo on her shoulder and then back at the proprietor. Wagging the same finger in the air, he made a giant X. We translated his gesture to mean that the owner disapproved of Lindsey, and therefore, he didn’t wish us to hang around longer than necessary. Pissed off about being singled out, Lindsey asked why his missing finger and his tattoos weren’t an issue. He shrugged before she finished speaking, obviously not understanding what she was saying. I couldn’t fault her, but I also took note of Mr. Kim’s long sleeves which conveniently hid his tattoos, and the fact that whenever possible, he kept the hand with the missing finger stashed in his pocket.
On the way home from Hallasan, Mr. Kim stopped for bulgogi and ramen noodles. Before he could cook, he needed a fire. The night before, he and Jake had scavenged all the fallen wood. To have enough for a second fire, he used deadly force on trees that were still standing, trees that were very much alive. At some point in his life, he must have studied some form of martial arts, because his kicks cracked tree trunks—trunks that weren’t too thick, but were solid nonetheless—and his hands chopped the wood into smaller segments. If he used that force on us, we’d be dead. I tried not to envision it, but every once in a while, images flashed in my mind, and I winced. Jake and I followed in Mr. Kim’s wake, collecting the carnage and piling it up near the tent.
Mr. Kim cooked, and the rest of us conversed. We couldn’t have asked for a kinder, more enthusiastic host or guide. But Jake’s suspicions persisted, and the rest of us could find no evidence to contradict him. How much longer would we be safe if we stayed where we were, relying on Mr. Kim?
While we ate, slurping noodles and wrapping beef in lettuce, Mr. Kim lifted a glass of soju, toasted our friendship—or so we hoped—and swallowed the liquid. Placing the glass on the grass, he deliberately pointed to each of us, then hugged his heart, “Love you.” He smiled, his eyes moist and glistening in the light cast by the fire. Perhaps his overt emotion should have endeared him to us, and maybe it did on some level, but mostly it freaked us out. If there had been no language barrier, maybe things would have been different. But not being able to pry into his life and get a sense of who he was, why he was with us and why he had opted to spend a family holiday alone, skepticism successfully reinforced the wall between us. Later that night, laying in our tent, we began whispering about whether we should stay where we were or search for a new campsite.
We slept late, or later than we had the previous day, but when we stepped out into the cool morning air, breakfast awaited us. Mr. Kim, rising earlier than we had, had prepared kimbab along with a sesame-onion potato soup. The soup was delicious and the kimbab better than it had been the previous day at the restaurant. Sipping my soup, guilt wiggled its way into my consciousness. So when we finished eating and Mr. Kim suggested—via charades—that we go to the beach, none of us could find the words, or the heart, to say no.
Following Mr. Kim, we took a bus into town and there he borrowed a car from a friend to drive us to the beach. It was late September, and the water was cold, but I enjoyed swimming. Beaches were very much a part of my childhood, and splashing in the water always transformed me back into a child. While I swam, Lauren and Lindsey sat in the warm sun, reading. Mr. Kim, perhaps searching for ways to enhance our visit, summoned Jake to walk with him along the beach. Carrying a bucket, Mr. Kim searched for snails, plucking them from the sea and dropping them—if alive—into the plastic bucket. He insisted that Jake do the same. Grumbling, but falling into step and doing as told, Jake joined in with the collection.
When Mr. Kim assessed that they had enough—two buckets which they filled together—he sat down on the sand, selected a snail and sucked it from its shell. The look of ecstasy on his face was as stark as the look of disgust on Jake’s the moment Mr. Kim handed him a sail, indicating that he too should eat and enjoy. Jake, generally as adventurous in his eating habits as he was in other aspects of his life, felt so repulsed he found it impossible to acquiesce. Holding out his hands, he shook his head. Lindsey, Lauren and I reacted in a similar fashion, so Mr. Kim, completely unfazed, jumped up and disappeared into one of the snack bars on the beach. Much to our surprise, he persuaded the kitchen staff to steam the snails.
Returning with dead cooked snails, he tried again to feed us an early dinner. Jake feeling as though he owed the guy something, munched on a few. Lauren’s manners were also intact. Like Jake, she politely forced a few snails into her mouth, doing her best to keep her face neutral, and her smile from wilting. Lindsey and I were not so gracious. The thought of ingesting the slimy creature caused us to gag before we could even attempt to be curious. Mr. Kim didn’t seem to mind, or if he did, he didn’t express dismay or disappointment. Instead, he suggested we stop at a pizza joint for dinner. Even though the pizza was soggy with wax like cheese and runny flavorless sauce, it was far preferable to snails, which Mr. Kim, enthusiastically, and Jake, grudgingly, continued to gnaw on throughout the evening.
Back at the campsite, we solidified our plans to jet the following morning. Jake couldn’t handle another round of snails, and we were afraid if we insulted Mr. Kim in any way we’d regret it. Fear, lack of trust, and overly active imagination defeated Mr. Kim’s good intentions, his eagerness to befriend us, and his unselfish generosity. When we explained our desire to see another part of the island, our interest in moving to another campsite, sadness creased his brow as understanding dawned on him. But he didn’t beg us to stay; he didn’t threaten. Instead, he woke us up early for one last expedition. He knew that Jake and I wished to go horseback riding, so before allowing us to depart, he ushered me and Jake onto a bus and took us to the stables.
I hadn’t been horseback riding in a few years, and excitement filled me as we drew close. The horses were small, more like ponies. Jake settled into his saddle and looked like Gulliver in Lilliput. Reaching for the stirrups and realizing I could either let my feet dangle or tuck my knees under my chin, I too felt conspicuously large. Too big for the toy horses that should have been relegated to a child’s park, my excitement instantly withered. I regretted having left camp.
My frustration exploded when a worker, dressed in jeans and a stained white tee-shirt, grabbed the reigns of both horses and gently, slowly, as if we were toddlers out for our first ride, led us around a small track. Two, three, four times the horses slogged around in a circle. I glanced back at Mr. Kim, furious, wondering how he could possibly have thought this would be fun, an adventure to remember. Much to my chagrin, he smiled, beaming at the both of us, completely obvious to how ludicrous this excursion had been. Was horseback riding in Korea always this lame? By the end of our forth rotation, I felt dizzy, nauseous and when the worker led the horses led back to the platform for us to dismount, I felt relieved.
“Let’s get out of here.” As soon as Jake’s feet hit the dirt, he hustled toward the bus, eager to put the awful experience behind us. “What a way to waste our time.” Disgruntled and agitated, he spat the words, his heels kicking up dust, and I struggled to keep up his pace. “We should have stayed at the tent. This sucked.”
I couldn’t argue. I agreed completely. Since Jake expressed my feelings so adequately, he saved me the trouble of having to voice my own complaints.
When we returned to the campsite, and the girls asked us how it was, Jake grunted, curling his lips and baring his teeth like an angry dog.
“That good!” Lauren smiled.
“Let’s get out of here,” and with those words, Jake yanked out the stakes that anchored the tent to the ground.
We helped Jake break camp and then said goodbye to a teary Mr. Kim. He walked with us to the road and waited until the bus squeaked to a stop. From the window, we waved goodbye and watched as he turned, shoulders hunched and head down, to return to the empty site.
The bus ride to the other end of the island felt eternal. I tried to read, but found it impossible. My eyes would scan a few words, but my mind would drift back to Mr. Kim, wondering what he was doing, if he was missing us.
It was dusk when we finally reached our campsite. The sun brushed the tree tops out on the horizon and shadows stretched across the landscape. Small hills dotted the campground and after speculating for some time as to what they were, we convinced ourselves that they were ancient burial grounds. Whether it was true or not was irrelevant. The story we told ourselves, that spirits hovered nearby, roaming the grounds and eternally haunting campers, kept us entertained. At least until we tried to sleep and found that we couldn’t. The absence, or rather our abandonment of Mr. Kim haunted me the most. I pictured him alone, making a fire and thinking of us. Perhaps we shouldn’t have left, but we did, and there was nothing I could do to undo the hurt we might have caused. But leaving eventually, was inevitable. In the morning, we’d pack up once again, board another bus and then a plane in order to return to Seoul and our new—temporary—lives as teachers in Korea.