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by Sarah 

Posted: 24 July 2003
Word Count: 7130
Summary: two women make sense to one another

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

Eujin, stationed on the floor, washed her hair with her legs wrapped around a green plastic bucket full of cooling water. Also on the floor, tucked close to the crux of her groin, lay a little red notebook, open, sheltered from the water falling out of her thick hair. She’d been washing over half an hour, with her head bent over the bucket. She shrugged her shoulders every few minutes to give her neck a rest; ignored the tight, painful pull in her lower back. Her black hair, slung over the top of her head and down into the bucket where it swirled around the bottom, had been soaped and rinsed, soaped and rinsed, soaped and rinsed. Her fingers were squeaky-cheese pruned, and every now and then she carefully dried her left hand by bunching her t-shirt at her stomach so that she could numbly turn the pages of the notebook without soiling it.
Seoul had lost its meaning to Eujin, as if it were made up of the characters and idiosyncracies of some foreign language as inaccessible as ancient Japanese. She was twenty-one years old and hadn’t left the alley in five years; the interpretative tools had abandoned her. She was left wondering why people strapped themselves into cars, only to sit idle and tap their steering wheels and proceed by inches rather than bounds. The sight of pedestrial hoards waiting at red lights, scrambling on green, poking each other’s eyes out with fingers or umbrella tips made her laugh. And what about that man in the canvas hut – opaque plastic windows – on the corner, fixing people’s shoes? Today he will fix their broken, worn shoes – almost all of them black shoes – and tomorrow he will fix their broken black shoes, and there will always be broken black shoes to mend, soles to replace. Stitches to restitch, leather to punch. Must be mad, she figured.
Every building the same: grey, lacking authenticity, blocks upon blocks, over rows and rows, following the contours of the landscape like chainmail over the contours of a body. (When Eujin was young, this was the picture she drew: one slim, geometrically impossible rectangle filled with haphazard squares for windows. She put idiotic, smiling faces in the squares, and an airplane with fat wings in the top right-hand corner. She repeated this scene with little variation, until she grew tired of the art.) Eujin also became confused about the street signs radiating fierce lights; blinking blinding screaming lights, robbing the city of night. WORD WORDS WORDS everywhere in the harshest of lights, upon every building, on screens that looked as if they were dropped into the sky by something extra-terrestrial.
City Hall sat humped like a boulder in the centre of Seoul, where the expensive hotels were, where there were more buses than cars. A digital clock, mounted high on the façade, marked time down to the thousandths of seconds, in bright red numbers bigger than Eujin. The day she lost completely her feeble ability to cope with the city, a sixteen-year-old Eujin sat, distracted, on a bench in front of the Radisson Hotel, on the other side of the City Hall round-about. Hardened pigeon shit decorated the bench with powder-white spit marks. Ten feet away a woman sat under an umbrella like a well-fed toad on a toadstool. She was selling silkworm out of a steaming, sooty vat. The wind blew the musty, rotting-fungus silkworm smell towards Eujin in waves, making her want to vomit. It was March, and Eujin’s jacket was thin, her pants only knee-length. She hugged herself to keep warm, and fell into a version of meditation. The people clopping past morphed from their individual forms into one heaving current, pulsing along the sidewalk. A body with thousands of eyes, arms hands fingers. Nails. She let go of herself and held tight to the bench, and pulled her feet up and curled them under her bum, because every few seconds a hand would shoot out of the current, fingers curled and nasty. As an escape, Eujin watched the loud red numbers of the clock change for nearly two hours, so intently that by the end of it she also slowed down to the relative time of milliseconds, could see each number clearly, could see in the space around her what happened in a millisecond. The current turned into individual people again, yet their faces contorted like they’d been dismantled and put back together off kilter. Picasso faces. The steam coming off the silkworm vat became a solid cloud, the fire underneath like lava. Her ears took in sound as if through water. She waved her hand in front of her face, creating a trail as substantial as a wall. And then her hands became vapour, unable to hold anything. Unable to touch. She wrenched herself from the bench and scuttled home towards the alley with her head down, her hair around her face like a curtain. Her feet were able to carry her, though she couldn’t understand how because they jolted like a video playback with whole frames missing. A low-quality splice.
At one point she looked up, and was faced with mannequins in a store window. Angular mannequins, with only the impression of human facial features. A pinch for a nose, a small, soft indent for an eye. The gesture of a mouth. White as bone, hairless, hands like sparrows. Eujin shrieked at the mannequins, slammed her hand on the window.
When she arrived at the south end of the alley she stopped, raised her head, and watched time speed up. The alley rushed at her like a train, then flattened into a wide wall, and smacked her to the ground. Ajhouma came running, picked her up and dragged her by the armpits into the main apartment, put her to bed and fed her sticky sweet rice, and salty kim, and tea.
So she stopped going into the city. She stayed out of the sun even, and her skin became so white she didn’t need to use bleaching lotions like some of the other girls. Even the soft brown freckles on her nose faded away. She only washed the grease out of her hair three times a week and it stayed heavy like sealskin.
Eujin liked the American boys the best, but the reason was practical and to her this justified such a taboo preference. It certainly wasn’t their generosity; the Americans thought they could bargain like they were in a street market. It was because she could practise her English with them. Sometimes she could mimic their accents – with difficulty though because they were diverse as snowflakes. Some of them dragged words out, sounded like cats, got her own fur up. Others spoke quickly, barked like dogs. Some thick, some thin, robotic, or serpentine. Sometimes they were too drunk to make sense, or too shy to make noise, but through all the jabber she learned. And if she knew English she would be better off. She knew that because Ajhouma said so. From the beginning when she was learning to talk, she was spoken to in Ajhouma’s chaotic, 500-word Korean-English – Konglish. ‘You likey me tits, yes? They very largey, same American tits?’ Ajhouma taught the Eujin to read and write English, not bothering with the native Hangul. And all the girls spoke dirty in English, observations from the cinemas – ‘always makey fighting and sex.’ Eujin and her alley sisters talked about fucky fucky, and dicks, blowjobs, dog breath and tongues. They cursed the school girl bitches, greasy paper bags of dried squid in their tight little hands, who sometimes came to the alley, ‘just to see, we just want to see.’ The little girls in their uniforms pushed and pulled each other along, and pointed and screamed, hugged each other and laughed and swung their eyes about horrifically.
The alley girls talked about the theatrics involved in faking an orgasm. ‘You bitey pillow,’ said Gi-han once. ‘Make eyes tight and scream scream scream you face.’ She threw her head from side to side when she said this, and her hair caught Eujin in the eye. ‘No,’ Eujin had disagreed, rubbing her eye. ‘More quiet. Same like baby cat.’ She spat the word ‘cat’, like pleghm.
It became obvious to Eujin that she could make more money if she learned to speak English well. She kept notebooks – small, spiral bound, red, plastic covered notebooks. Paper lined very faintly with blue. Onto these lines she wrote her precious English words, phrases, meanings. Idiosyncrasies. Idioms.
Get off of my back.
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
She kept the book under her bed and was apt to scribble voraciously, in the nude, while whoever’s sweat it was still crept down her thighs.

Alison’s pun, one that she thought she had perhaps made up herself, (but it came to her much too easily, and she’d learned that ideas which came too easily were probably someone else’s) was this: Seoul is a city that has no soul. Yes, it was alive. This was obvious from the hum of the electricity and the hum of the cicadas, the bump and groan of traffic, fourteen million people all walking in the same direction. But it was all surface. Chocolate syrup that hardens over ice cream and tastes nothing like chocolate. She likened it to a simulacrum, a term she understood dimly from the readings of cryptic essayists who thought in isms. She tried to apply something she’d half learned, less than half – fractionally – fractionally learned, hazily understood. She tried to apply this sort of thinking to a city she understood even less. A simulacrum. Pierce it and the image waves like the window of a calculator that you’ve just drawn your finger over – a minor disruption – but becomes deceptively clear again.
One day on Apkujong Roe she followed a dog. A three-legged silver husky, trotting on the sidewalk just ahead of her. Regardless of its missing back leg it flexed like a snake. Its body contorted to an acute angle, and froze mid-stride to save its ribs being crushed by a Daewoo that slunk out of a side street. She’d been following it since she came out of the market near her two-room apartment, where she’d bought a small packet of kim – dried, salted seaweed – and a chocolate bar. The dog flowed with grace between rushing-leg machinery. And then it was gone, suspiciously agile, and Alison couldn’t keep pace.
After another block the dog was there again, sprawled on a large cement staircase leading up to the Korea Exchange Bank. It had hung its dirty front paws over the steps, and sat there, pulsing, presiding over the buzzing sidewalk with mercury eyes. The people around her didn’t seem to notice what she thought was an extraordinary anomaly, and this pleased and disappointed her, because she hadn’t expected them to.
Before this, on her second night in the city, she met with a woman she’d known briefly at home in England. Getting to the meeting place was a mission: abandoning her two rooms to take the bus. She couldn’t pronounce the name of her neighborhood, didn’t know the name of her apartment complex, wouldn’t know what to tell a taxi if she got lost and needed to take one. She had a phone but didn’t know her number, and wouldn’t have known which coins to slip into a payphone. Initially this ignorance invigorated her; the comforts of home in England had become uncomfortable. She’d practically memorized the tunes of morning birdsong.
“Take the number 263, or the 411,” Tam had said to her earlier, when she called. The phone had a single ring. "Take either of those buses until you see the Hyundai building.”
“How will I know the Hyundai building?”
“Oh it’s huge. And they light it all up. Pink or Purple. And it’s got red streamers hanging off the front that sort of blow around.”
“This is a car dealership?”
“Well, no. They make everything. This is a department store. Just meet me in front at nine.”
“What side of the street do I catch the bus on?”
“What side do you live on?”
Alison couldn’t answer that. Didn’t know east or west, or even the name of the eight-lane street the buses ran down. She’d been to the 7 Eleven that morning to buy water, and had to memorize the shapes of letters on shop signs at key corners, so she’d know how to get back to her apartment. Turn right at the yellow sign, red words. Turn right again at blue sign, green words, small street with outdoor market at the far end. Cartoon billboard of a jolly fat pig and a jolly fat cow (shiny cheeks) dancing together with a fork and knife in each hoof. Dinner napkins tied round their fleshy necks. Go past the Duncan Donuts.
“Okay,” said Tam slowly, “you said there’s a Tower Records near you?”
“Was there a McDonalds next to it?”
“Okay, and three movie theatres across the street. I know where you are. Is Tower Records across the street, or on your side?”
“Across the street.”
“Then don’t cross the street for the bus.”
The 263 or the 411. Buses screamed by on two wheels and had to be flagged down; she had to clamp her fingers around the overhead handles, wedged in forced intimacy between the fingers of others. The bus smelled of garlic and liquor. Every third advertisement was for plastic surgery or liposuction; a pair of cheruby china-doll thighs sucked into Barbie-doll thighs. Eyes drawn tight and shiny.
The thick traffic jerked in spasms and the driver moved with it. Given an inch, he’d lurch, launching them all into each other. She mashed other people’s toes and didn’t know the word for sorry.
The Hyundai building came up on the left. A monolith of grey concrete, lit from the base. She had to go underground to cross the road and ended up in a cement quad with a choice of eight staircases to ascend. She kept coming up on the wrong corners. The underground layout had no logical relation to the intersection above. On her second attempt she met a flower seller at the top, a woman mostly hidden by her stock of roses, daisies, tulips, carnations, lilies and hyacinth. The flower seller watched her reach the top, take a look around, and stomp back down. On her fourth attempt, she met the flower seller again, and the flower seller again watched Alison curse herself, look across the road to the Hyundai building. She went back down and found the right staircase on her next try.
Tam wasn’t waiting there but there were a lot of other people dawdling around the revolving doors or leaning against the façade, smoking, pulling their jackets tighter around their necks, checking the time. She sat on a low wall and considered the beauty of Korean women. Powdered, baby skin and almond eyes, folded neatly. Like paper. Puffed pouty lips, burnt maroon. Eyebrows a whisper on the foreheads, and glossy hair. But they wore too much make-up, and some of them stuck their feet into black boots that pointed into toe bits as narrow as weapons, so long that they had to wrench their feet sideways to walk up the stairs out of the subway tunnels.
It was cold and after nearly half an hour she thought maybe she missed Tam. She walked around the side of the building to see if there was another entrance, which there wasn’t, and when she got back to the front a man who’d been waiting since she arrived was gone.
And then Tam came up from the underground crossing and bounded towards her. People stared as Tam wrapped her huge arms around Alison. Tam, round and white, baseball hat over her thick red hair, wore glasses that reflected the purple lights of the Hyundai building so that Alison could not see her eyes. She wore a surgeon’s mask over her mouth and nose, elastic straps wrapped around her ears. Didn’t apologize for being half an hour late.
“I was starting to worry,” said Alison.
“Oh man, this is Seoul time. But you got here okay?”
“Ya, ya. What’s with the mask? When’s the last time we saw each other?”
“I’m thirsty. Are you hungry? There’s a bar across the road. I should have told you to meet me there. The pollution is murder on my lungs. I look like a fool wearing it, but people stare at my fat anyway so fuck it.”
They held hands as they went back underground, and emerged on the other side, directly in front of the bar.
Tam talked about things that Alison half listened to, taking comfort from English syllables. The front door opened to a steep set of stairs, which took them into the small, dark, empty bar. They picked a table in the corner, and dug their fingers into a bowl of sweet peanuts mixed with pink shreds of dried squid. A neon Cass sign hung over the bar and the waitress wore a tight red shirt.
“When’s the last time we saw each other?” Alison asked again.
“Before I left I guess, last year. I can’t believe you actually came. This is perfect timing. The two people I actually liked at work just left, so, it’s good you’re here. I mean, there’s lots of people to hang out with here, but I don’t really like any of them. Seoul attracts a lot of people who have run out of other options.”
“Well I’m glad you convinced me to come then,” Alison said, and snorted, squinting at Tam through the dark.
“Ya, it’s so good to have you here, ” Tam said, and ordered two Cass beers and noodles.
“Thanks so much, again Tam, for thinking of me for this job.”
“Mr Park was desperate to find someone with any sort of journalistic background. You’re the only person I knew who was doing nothing.” Tam said slowly, as if she were walking bare foot in the dark.
“I was doing something; but I was becoming habitual.”
“You were waitressing.”
Alison shrugged, felt Tam didn’t know her well enough to be so frank. “Well I’m here now.”
“What’s the deal with Mr Park?” Tam asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What’s the contract like?”
“It’s for a year. He bought my ticket here, and he’ll give me the return ticket when I finish the contract. He’s really got me though, because he’s also holding back ten percent of my salary until the end of the year.”
Tam leaned back on her chair. “Par for the course.”
“What are they so paranoid about?”
“Westerners find it hard to stay a whole year.”
“I’m not surprised. What is this place?”
“I’ve been here two years and I’m still confused,” said Tam, and vacuumed up a mouthful of noodles.
Up in the bathroom, Alison was distressed. It resembled a public toilet: had a sink and a mirror and a cubicle with a lock. But there was no distinction for man or woman, and the porceline receptacle within the cubicle was shallow, rectangular, and built into the floor. There was a drain hole at one end, and shoe marks on the long edges of the bowl. She took direction from the marks of people who had pissed before and lined up her own shoes. Dropped her pants and squated, not sure whether she was facing the right direction.

Now Alison was four months a veteran in Seoul, could mimic the sounds of words for the appropriate greetings, thank-you, water, sorry, river, mountain, how much and home. She moved through the city unnoticed, trying to make eye contact, vieing for attention. Seoul is a city that has no soul. So she found a track and stuck to it.
She could order food, enquire about the price, count to ten – eyes closed and fingers poised – and say please. The people she came into contact with for the magazine spoke at least some tapestried derivative of English. She fell into a habit of pretending she understood when she didn’t, and fumbled carelessly through news features on hotel openings, dance festivals, gala charity dinners. She smirked and drank her way through an interview with a Puerto Rican officer with the US army, who was moonlighting as a Salsa DJ. ‘You can feel it in the rythm of the night,’ he said to her with a wet grin. She used the quote to tie up the story and cringed like a person smelling her own flatulence.

Tam wanted to go to the bath house for months and Alison was the first person to agree to go with her. ‘It’s not that I’m ashamed,’ Tam had said. ‘But you know, with the size thing, they’re going to think they’ve been invaded when I get naked. I really need you there.’ ‘No, that would be good. I'll come,’ Alison said. ‘Maybe they’ll stare at me too.’ ‘You’re too little to be stared at,’ Tam had said.
They had pushed the heavy door into a cold, wet foyer. A set of wooden lockers lined one wall, and they thought maybe they were supposed to get naked right there. But another woman came in, took a long look at Tam, then showed them that the lockers were for their shoes. Inside another door into tangible humidity, the smell of shampoo and salt and the burning mechanism of a hairdryer. Could taste the shampoo. Naked, waif bodies sat on benches, bended in front of tall wooden lockers, lolled around a table, eating rice and dumplings. Some lounged in plastic chairs watching soaps, stretched to the toes. Two older women slapped up and down the back and legs of another lying face down on a massage table. Alison and Tam paid a woman by the door and she gave them each a key with a number on it. While they undressed by the lockers, their backs to the room, the Korean women ogled Tam’s great white folds of flesh, pinched their own hips and breasts and smiled at the two foreigners. The gossip was obvious as their chatter turned to the hiss of whispers. Tam looked at Alison, “I told you,” she said. “They’re wondering who let Moby Dick through the door.”
“Hey, at least you’re making an impression. You’ve wowed them.”
“Ya, wow.”
Through a glass wall at the other end of the room was the main bath and sauna room, and when Alison and Tam went in, the women who had been eating noodles hopped over to the glass to watch Tam have her shower.
“There you go,” she said, and gave her breasts a good shake. “There’s a display for you.”
Alison watched the soap run over Tam’s body, looked down at her own small frame, looked at the other women soaping themselves vigorously under steaming hot water, or floating in the cold bath. Or mercilessly scraping dead skin off heels and elbows. Some women came out of the sauna for a peek at Tam, and when they opened its door, Alison felt the hot, dry rush of air through the wetness all around her. The women all smiled; some pushed their cheeks out and mimed round bellies with their skinny arms.
“I don’t think they know how offensive they’re being,” Alison said, closed her eyes and leaned against the warm tiled wall. “You should feel flattered that you’re making such an impression, Tam.”
“Who’s offended?”
Alison kept her eyes closed, listened to the slap slap of Tam lathering herself, closed her mouth to the taste of citrusy soap. She imagined it was she who astonished them.

In another hot room, in another part of the city, Eujin turned off the hot water and stood in front of the mirror, wiped away the condensation and saw herself half rubbed out and difficult to get rid of. Her towel, fresh from the sun, made her feel reluctant to move. She sat on a plastic stool and rubbed out another window in the mirror, then brushed her hair and brushed and brushed until water stopped streaming down her body. She ran her hands over her face softly, then harder to get the blood flowing. First she applied an oily, pink cream, worked it into the corners of her round nose, the divet under her lower lip, over her eyes. Then she patted her whole body with a soft, almost luminescent powder. Rubbed it in until it looked natural, and glinted silver where her bones jutted out. She outlined her lips with magenta lip liner, enlarging them, and filled them in with red-almost-black lipstick. She powdered silvery blue above her eyes, right up to the thin brows, then went over it with more white powder. She dabbed her lashes with mascara, modestly, because experience had taught her that when screwing got sweaty, mascara melted and looked demonic.
She went down the hall into her working room, not the room where she slept with all the other girls, together on soft, thick yo’s on the floor, but a room with a Western-style bed and a mirror. Always a small pile of clean white towels on a table next to the bed, thanks to the orphan Sung-hyun, who thrived in the alley by acting as everyone’s personal assistant. Eujin pulled a flimsy cardboard box out from under the bed and searched through it with veiny hands, looking for lace, a swath of nylon. Maybe rayon. She chose red, plastic leather and placed her feet into white shoes with heels like daggers. She went back to the mirror, looked past her own face and into imagination, and continued an old story. No mobs of people in black shoes here. Smiling vendors offered her paper cups of silk worm and warm sugar cookies, grilled squid, flowers like fireworks and swollen yellow plums. Men drank soju in roadside tents but didn’t lear; they sang nursery rhymes and their pockets were full of promises. Written hangul made sense. She could sing along with the birds.
Sung-hyun sat next to her, spoke in hangul. “Do you see Tom Cruise in there?” she said, and pinched Eujin’s ribs.
Eujin drew air through her teeth and pushed Sung-hyun. “You know I’m crazy. Let me be crazy.”
Sung-hyun bounced back to the dressing table, grabbed the lipstick. “He’s in a new film and you get to see his ass.”
“Whose ass.”
“Tom Cruise. And it’s playing down the road. Why won’t you take me Eujin?” Powder exploded around them as she wolloped it onto her cheeks and nose.
“Don’t be an idiot. You’re too young to look at that big American ass.”
“But that’s not why you won’t take me,” Sung-hyun said, and frowned, and traced the leather seam across Eujin’s back with her little finger.
“Because you’re crazy.”
“I never liked films.”
“But you can practise your English.”
“The GI’s give me practise. Stop doing that, you’re giving me the shivers.”
“I’ll protect you. Come on, take me to the cinema.”
“Someone else will take you. Ask Lin.”
“I want you to take me.”
Eujin shrugged, got up and pulled Sung-hyun with her. In the reception area, Ajhouma sat horking phlegm and organizing bric-a-brac. She sniffed, raised her eyebrows at Eujin and spoke to her in English.
“It one o’clock, Eujin. Mens outsiding for you.”
“Yes, Ajhouma,” said Eujin, clasped her hands together and hunched a small bow.
“Let me see you face,” Ajhouma said, and pulled Eujin’s face towards her by the chin. She pushed her face to the right, then to the left, and to the right again. She spoke softly in Hangul. “Do you know how precious you are?”
Down the hallway past the reception desk, through the last door of twelve, was where Eujin displayed herself. Sun-lee was already there, sitting on the floor of this white, two-square-metre space, doing her makeup in a small mirror. She was in full lace, royal blue, and hunched over in an awkward position in order to see her reflection.
Eujin perched herself upon the lone stool in the middle of the space, faced the one glass wall that fronted onto the alley. She let her face slacken, opened her legs a little.

Tam and Alison were drunk and hearing a discourse on the art of embalming. This was Itaewon on a Saturday night. The biggest American military base in Korea, Yongsan, stood within Itaewon, so the area was crawling with big-backed army privates, captains and the odd airforce personnel up from the airbase in Kunsan. Alison had been intoYongsan base before; a friend of Tam’s who was a munitions logistician got them a pass to come in so they could buy diet Coke at the canteen and smuggle it out. Yongsang had disturbed her. There were playgrounds covered in trees, children on swings, US mailboxes. Cars obeyed lights and signals, stopped for pedestrians. People lived in rows of tidy houses with squared-off front yards and turtle pools. There was a community centre. A red brick, non-denominational church. A Toys R Us, a highschool and a four-star hotel. The canteen took American dollars and its shelves were full of Western products. This world, even stranger to Alison than Seoul because of its bald juxtaposition, was enclosed by six-metre-high cement wall. Spirals of electrically charged razor wire topped the wall, snagging nearby branches when the wind blew. ‘I only love you for the diet Coke,’ Tam had said to the logistician when they were leaving. ‘You know that don’t you?’ They collected their passports from the Republic of Korea soldier at the gate and the twenty-four cans felt heavy in Alison’s bag.
“When someone is dead none of their sphincters work; all the stuff just slides right out,” Alison and Tam were told by an inebriated army mortician on the patio of a bar called the Branson. “You have to take care not to tip it when you’re moving it, or you end up with wet shoes!” he said, and laughed obnoxiously.
“That’s lovely,” said Tam.
“We flush the blood, but have to refill the vascular system through the femoral artery… mixture of formaldehyde and ethyl. I’m very good at that… very, very thorough.”
His accent was deep deep south, difficult for Alison to understand.
“We plug up all the openings, put jelly in the eye sockets, foam up the nose and other holes I won’t mention in front of you ladies.”
“Sorry?” Alison said. “What holes?”
“Well, I’d just as soon not mention them.”
“Do you mean asses?” asked Tam.
“And vaginas?”
“We sew the mouth and the eyes shut,” he continued, serious, eyes rolling under the lids. Didn’t notice Alison laughing at him. “To sew the mouth we go in through the nose, down the inside of the head and to the inner lips. We do this a few times you understand, because we don’t want the mouth to be flying open at the wake. And believe me girls, that’s happened… that and a lot worse… same for the eyes. We glue the hands together over the chest with rubber cement – ”
“Ever tempted to, you know, set someone’s hand up like they’re giving the finger?” asked Tam. Alison coughed up a mouthful of beer.
The mortician squinted at her, swayed, and took back the floor. “We inject collagen into the lips and cheeks, because the skin is sagging and the body doesn’t really look like… we morticians are sculptors – we really are. Make-up artists. We powder, gloss, shade, put colour… brush the hair and put a little life back into the dead.”
“That’s really fantastic,” said Tam.
“Live it up,” Alison said, and raised her bottle, took a drink. “You don’t have a fucking clue, do you?” she said to him.
He rolled his eyes and threw his head back.

Drunk military people bounced off eachother like cars on ice without snowtires. Alison was on her way up a steep hill, for a taxi home, but she was drunk too and the street was steep and each step took her further down. The army folk were feeding: slimy egg sandwiches and skewered chickens and crispy french fries. She watched one guy, pale and zitty and greased up to his nose and down to his chin, tucking into a roasted chicken leg like a mad dog.
Some of the bars on this narrow, steep street were designed to attract everyone: wide open fronts and bright lights, men and women sitting on the stoops drinking bottles of beer and fruity soju slushies served in the sliced-off bottom halves of plastic two-litre softdrink bottles. Other bars called only to men, with juicy girls hanging out the dark doors. Smiling at the boys, snarling at the girls. Some of them looked disintersted, just swayed on the doorframes like worms on hooks. Alison compared herself to them and felt common. Tried to exchange a couple of goodwill smiles but was rejected. They were like wet paint, she thought, like you could draw your finger down the front of one of them and the details would distort into a muti-coloured rivulet. Perfect to look at, but disaster to touch.
The last place Alison saw Tam was in a noisy bar called The Saloon. ‘There’s a place called America Town in Kunsan,’ Tam had yelled, telling her about the airforce base at Kunsan, hundreds of kilometres south of Seoul. ‘I went there once,’ Tam yelled, her voice tickling Alison’s left ear, ‘to meet up with some girls I know. America Town is even worse than Itaewon; it’s like a small-town version of this crap. It’s army people getting drunk in bars, but everyone’s even more obnoxious and the juicy girls are angrier. They have Russians down there!’
‘What?’ Alison had said. She heard the word sessions instead of Russians and immediately pictured sessions of men having sex with other men. She was surprised, and spat a laugh at her own reflex into the perverse. ‘What kind of sessions?’ Alison yelled, finding it very difficult to yell the ‘shh’ sound. It was midnight in the The Saloon, and the volume quadroupled as everyone gathered on the dance floor, cowboy hats on their hearts, bottles of Bud dangling in loose fingers at their knees, heads cocked and meowing like barn cats in heat. The Star Spangled Banner began and the drunken chorus ensued. ‘What kind of sessions?’ yelled Alison again.
‘Hookers! Big blond hookers! yelled Tam. ‘But they were tricked into it! The Koreans who run America Town recruit them from small-town Russia! They tell them their housing and airfare is covered if they’ll come over and work in the bars! The girls get here – ’
Alison had interrupted at this point. ‘Where are the girls from?’
‘Russia! I told you that!’
The anthem singers were in full swing by this point, cheering their heads off and screaming at the ceiling.
‘And when they get to Kunsan,’ Tam continued, ‘they find out that working in the bar means dancing half naked on tables and bonking wasted eighteen-year-old Americans, from like fucking, Barbourville Kentucky, who’ve never left home before!
‘Why don’t they just leave?’ Alison said, delivering the words lip to eardrum.
‘Well they’re in the same boat you are, no?’
‘They’re in the same boat – ’
‘Yes, I heard you!’ Alison closed her eyes and imagined a robust, young woman, bleach-blond hair cut in a neat bowl, skin red and rough. Face moribund, standing on a table with arms at her sides, she moved one foot forwards, one foot back, the other foot forwards, the other foot back, bent the knees only a little. And as she bent her knees, they slid out from the hem of a thin, red skirt. Throngs of loaded army personnel stared up her long legs, sneering. Or maybe they ignored her completely.

Inside one of these establishments with the dark doors and promises, Captain Brian Smitts of the 76th Batallion sat by the bar a little too close to a potted fern, and had to constantly flick one errant leaf from his temple. He was too drunk to put it together that he could readjust either the position of the pot or of himself, and so suffered the incessant tickling while he argued with Tam about the presence of American military in Korea.
“But you guys created the conflict,” said Tam. “You drew the fucking border on a map, for chrissake. You’re here because you created the problem.” The two sat in a practical forest, a provocative jungleland. The walls were an uneven plaster of faux stone, grey stucco dressed up as volcanic rock formations. Red hot light came out of corners, out of pods in the ceiling. Somewhere there was a fountain trickling. Perhaps a goldfish or two.
“What book you read tell you tha’?” Captain Brian Smitts slurred, shifting his brick body towards Tam. “I coulda tol’ you tha’. But if we lef’, there’d be hell to pay. Fugging hell to play.”
Tam grinned and nodded, encouraging him. “If you guys left, the people of this country could finally get on with their lives, and make peace with the North. You’re holding them back, man.”
“Are you fugging serious? This country is a fugging joke. It would fall t’ pieces if we lef’. You know what hebbent to me last week?”
“No, what happened to you last week?”
“I was running with my buddies and this fugging asshole Korean on his fugging scooter knock me down. They have no fugging respec’ for us, their fugging… fugging watchkeepers. He got up and was all ‘sorry s’sorry’ in korean. What good is tha to me? So I fugging knocked him down. With this… fist.”
“You really think you’re a watchkeeper?”
“I don give a fugging shit about this country. Issa fugging game to me.” Captain Brian Smitts smashed his bottle on the bar, sending a bubbly gold-crimson river of beer and blood down the bar and onto Tam’s lap.
“Jesus Christ!” Tam yelled, looking around for a bartender.

Alison made it over the crest of the hill. It was quieter there, and the only lights came from a few noodle bars. She chose to go up a set of stairs that she’d never taken before, which lead to another, darker street. The top was three-a.m. quiet, three or four cars parked on each side, telephone wires hung low. A few people roamed about and were all headed down the street to where a pinky glow pumped out of a side alley like cotton candy.
Alison wandered to where the light was coming from. At the mouth of the alley, she saw a muscular man leaned up against a telephone pole. She lightly touched his arm. His young face was like a coal miner’s; like it had been taunted for years by underground darkness and dust.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“Fugg off,” said Captain Brian Smitts, looking at the spot on his arm where she touched it.
“Okay then,” she said, and walked into the alley.
Young Korean girls on display. Lace, red lips, perfect black hair hung down their backs or over their arms. They sat on stools with arms hanging down between open legs, or hunched on the floor, or leaned back against the walls of their cells. Some of them had bodies like ten-year-olds. Some of the drunks from the hill were there too, but a little more sedate. She watched as one guy teased one of the girls, and the girl spit on the window at him, hissed like a cat. Alison moved closer to this girl’s window.
Eujin sat on the other side of the glass with a cramp in her lower back and shoulders tight as steel. She’d been looking through the glass all day, playing checkers with the kindly soju drinkers. And then this young prick came along and shook his testicals at her, so she acted like an animal and scared him off. Now here was this small white woman with blond hair styled like an afterthought. She wore glasses and had miniature breasts and was smiling, trying to catch Eujin’s eyes.
To Alison, Eujin’s face was ironic. Eujin didn’t react to her smile, so Alison kicked up her heals and started to dance, lifted her elbows up high, clapped, and kept her eyes on Eujin’s. She twirled twice around, clapped again. Eujin looked stunned, but then couldn’t help herself and laughed, and Alison laughed with her, and bowed.
Captain Brian Smitts stood – balancing – next to Alison, and slammed an open palm on the glass.
“I want this one,” he said, grinning at Alison. “Unless you want her.” He turned back to the glass. “How do I get in? I want this one!” He looked big enough to consume Eujin whole. He was quivering and sweating and Alison felt a romantic urge to intervene, but Eujin was already gone.
Now an ancient, comically petite woman with the bowl-legged penguin walk and hunch of a farmer who once spent ten hours a day in rice fields, walked towards them, beckoning to Captain Brian Smitts with small jerks of her miniature hand.
“You want fucky fucky?”
“I want that one!” he said, greasy nose to the glass. “Where did she go?”
“She wait for you inside Mr. I will taking you.” She looked at Alison then back at him. “You friend no coming.”
Alison tripped on her own feet stepping backwards from this assumption and turned to go; felt like she witnessed the sex itself by means of listening to the deal.

The cuts on Captain Brian Smitt’s face were repaired as well as they could be, after a series of eight operations.

Alison was working on a feature about prostitution. Specifically about the intriguing woman she danced for – the missing one who caused disfigurment and broken bones to the face of that army captain. Story was that she pushed him into a mirror, after he’d allegedly beaten the crap out of her. She’d litteraly thrown herself into the task. Using the weight of her whole body, she’d pounced on him while he was inspecting his reflection.

The train system was simple enough. Pick a destination, get on and go. Eujin bought two tickets – the other one for Sung-hyun – from Ajhouma’s money. They were going to the east coast. Big sky and rolling ocean, fewer right angles. They would stay in a hotel. She went completely unnoticed, and that was good.

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Comments by other Members

Ellenna at 11:32 on 24 July 2003  Report this post
sarah, I started reading then couldnt stop. I was transported into a humid and desperate sub world and I was intrigued..its left me feeling mildly depressed but its because you have captured that desperate world so well ..excellently done!

Nell at 14:07 on 24 July 2003  Report this post

Marvellous, deep, powerful stuff, excellent writing with so much finely observed detail that one immediately becomes immersed in the world you've taken us to. This was a long piece but it held me to the end.

Too many wonderful descriptions to pick on any in particular.

A few spelling typos - vying, leer, hawking, heels, are the correct ones (I'm sure you know, this is just to help you find them).

Great work, best, Nell.

Becca at 14:39 on 24 July 2003  Report this post
Sarah, this is stunning. I find myself without words. There is so much here, it is so dense, so well observed, that I'm breathless. The alienation you capture in so many of the layers is brilliant. The mortician talking about making up bodies and the prostitutes making up their faces, two powerful images/ideas that blend into each other by some sinister means. What plans do you have for this piece? I'd aim for the literary mags, if you're going to publish it, it's worthy of a high place. I'd do just a little editing, because it's so long, to give you more chances with word limits. The only place I hesitated in was the section where 'The Hyundai building came up on the left.' That could be a good editing place.
I wondered about your para changes once or twice, I thought for example that 'Eujin liked the American boys best..'was a new thought wave and would look better as a new para. Also 'When someone is dead none...' could be a new para.
Just a couple of possible typos spotted:
'Ajhouma taught the Eujin to read..'
'Apkujong Roe..' (road?). Then one tricky sentence: '... and the girl spit on the window at him, hissed like a cat..'
If you changed hissed to hissing it would make better sense of using 'spit' rather than 'spat'.
Blimey, have I been on a journey, or what? This is so good I might have to nag you to let me know it's publishing fate. Also have you thought about a novel, this piece is in short stories, yet you could make such a delicious novel.

stephanieE at 19:40 on 24 July 2003  Report this post
Whoa, Sarah, this is just... mindblowingly good. Damn, I've got to go out - will return later tomorrow and comment properly. But hey! what a stonking piece of writing.

Becca at 19:59 on 24 July 2003  Report this post
Steph's right, it's stonking.

Sarah at 10:03 on 25 July 2003  Report this post
Forgive the Canadian: what means stonking? From all of your amazing comments, I infer nothing but goodness.

I hadn't read this piece in months and I felt a little trepidation posting it; it needs a hell of a lot more work. I feel like a lot of the dialogue is forced (like the bit where Alison first meets with Tam and they go to the pub, and they talk about Alison's job. It feels like cop-out, plot-setting dialogue). I think the best thing for this is some pruning around the edges.

And thank-you, my typo-spotting queens, for such supportive, kind comments.

stephanieE at 10:10 on 25 July 2003  Report this post
Sarah, I'm back. (And by the way, if you ever find yourself in Bath, there's a marvellous fish restaurant called the Green St Seafood Cafe - I had the most delicious meal there last night, and all good, healthy low-fat stuff... Sorry, I digress)

I've had a chance to think about this a bit more too. Pieces of the writing are so vivid that I can see Seoul, although I've never been there - it's an amalgam of Bangkok Tokyo and bits of LA... (OK, you can tell me if I've got it horribly wrong, but that's what I'm seeing). It successfully immersed me in this alien culture that was so desperately trying to be western, but couldn't suppress it's oriental origins - nor can the west ever forget its foreigness. Not unlike Eujin herself then...

Alison intrigued me - I was surprised that someone as clueless as she appeared had managed to get herself out there at all, and felt rather sorry for her that Tam was so off-hand. Still, she seems to be surviving much better in many ways than Eujin is.

Can I point out a couple of typos?
hoards should be hordes
porceline to porcelain
rythm to rhythm
lear to leer
testicals to testicles
and, I think, Duncan Donuts to Dunkin' Donuts unless there's something weird about the Korean franchise.

But fabulous stuff, and I hope you can get it out there somewhere (oh, and things look positive re Grace's story - congratulations!)

stephanieE at 10:15 on 25 July 2003  Report this post
And stonking doesn't even appear in my dictionary, but the intent is... um... strong, good, great, powerful. You could have a stonking night out, for example, and that would probably imply a wide grin and a hangover in the morning. (actually, you could have a stonking hangover too, but that's probably not quite so positive a definition of the word) Er... I'll go and polish my thesaurus now I think.

Sarah at 12:01 on 25 July 2003  Report this post
stonking... a good one. I think a Canadian equivalent would be...um...wicked.

I am really embarassed about the spelling mistakes (not typos, honest-to-goodness mistakes). Man, I'm an editor too. Sometimes I get it into my head a word is spelled a certain way, and then it looks normal to me, and oh god, what's the grammatical term for two words same spelling/same sound that have different meanings....homonyms...useless me. How many times have I tried to hold a horse by the reigns or talk about the whether? I blame it on spellcheck.

Dunkin' Donuts, of course. Testicles? Sheesh.

Becca at 17:09 on 27 July 2003  Report this post
Sarah, I've been rooting around in my material about publishers and thought this story might suit Aurora Publishing. Monday 15th December deadline on the theme of Travel. I'm putting in 'Man who sleeps with..' Otherwise take a look at Glimmer Train, very professional and pleasant people who treat you well. Sarabande Books who run the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction is another one. I also thought Steph might want to check these out.

stephanieE at 10:02 on 28 July 2003  Report this post
Thanks for these leads - I'm aware of the Aurora people (although I had a deadline of 31st OCtober?) but the otehrs are new to me. Once I get Maddy's Adventures off to PEgasus then I'll start thinking about other short fiction I hope (and not before time - it can be a drawback having your brain in constant bodice-ripping mode).

Sarah at 10:48 on 28 July 2003  Report this post
Thanks for that Becca... I will look into those. I had another idea for the theme of travel, but thoguht it might be a little cliched. It's inspired by the Sars thing.. I thought an interesting short story, with the theme of travel, would track the spread of a virus. This tracking would result in the revealing of a few people's lives, people who are unrelated but touch eahother briefly in some way. But that's been done, many times, hasn't it... what do you guys think?

Tan-Steph-ya.. hard to get used to, Tanya, does this mean that Maddie's story has already been accepted with a publisher!? Good job!

stephanieE at 11:13 on 28 July 2003  Report this post
Sarah - I like the virus goes on holiday idea. It may have been done before, but I can't immediately think where. I'm sure you could do it justice as an original short.

And as for Maddy, the publisher has just asked for the full MS - no promises to publish, but that is better than a polite rejection, isn't it?

Nell at 14:19 on 28 July 2003  Report this post
It certainly is - good luck Stephanie.

Becca at 19:17 on 28 July 2003  Report this post
I've never come across the virus/travel idea in a story before, it used to be something we talked about in trop. med. a lot, just waiting for it to happen. i think it's a good idea and a good slant on the travel theme.

Sarah at 10:28 on 29 July 2003  Report this post
Good luck with Maddie Tanya.

Okay.. virus, let's see where we end up.

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