This is an odd place to wake up from a nap. There are a lot of Koreans here. I woke with death on the brain and a faultless understanding of why it was such an unmitigated necessity that we dream up the gods. Is there a scarier prospect than a forever of nothing? No feeling, no observation, no experience, absolute nothingness. Pain sounds more appealing … in theory.
I took a walk to burn off some anxiety. Heading into the city, I passed all the skinny Korean boys in their skin-tight clothes, with their exaggerated hair down in their eyes. I double backed towards the apartment to do some push-ups and chin-ups on a bar installed near the trail where I went hiking the first day I was here. The whole area was covered with a fine, golden film of pollen, or maybe this was the dreaded Yellow Dust that has everyone so excited. Exercise, I have discovered, is the linchpin. Without it, my mind scrambles dangerously forward into the future, or backwards into the past, unfocused and unstable. Where am I going? What have I done? What does it all mean? And, seriously, what the fuck is Yellow Dust? Should I be wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask, too? Nonsense, just work.
I almost ate dog. At least, I think I almost did. We stopped at some roadside truck stop offering a buffet of sad-looking food the other day. One of the items on display was a pink, ham-looking meat. I was told to try some.
“What is it?”
“Dog,” she snickered. I thought maybe she was putting me on, so I asked someone else.
“Smoked dog,” he said. “Here,” he offered to fork some onto my plate.
“No, thank you. I have one at home,” was all I could think to say. Later, when we were sitting at the table, the man said that wasn’t dog up there just now. It was turkey, he said. Turkey my ass. There’s no turkey in South Korea. I haven’t seen turkey once in all the time I’ve been here, and I’ve never seen pink turkey anywhere in my life. Without passing judgement (on the eating of dog, not the being lied to), I helped myself to more rice. The dog-to-person ratio isn’t what it is in the states, but some people still keep dogs as pets. I’ve seen them; hell, I hear them barking every night outside my window. However, come to think of it, there always seems to be one less bark in the mix with each passing night. Where once I might have heard ten dogs barking in unison, I now hear maybe three. Is there a dog farm in the neighborhood? Those poor, little bastards. They’re being harvested, one by one. No wonder they bark like that.
I chipped my tooth failing to use chopsticks properly. Yep, just when I thought I was getting better. It got me thinking about dentists and doctors. I can hardly order a meal; how would I go about ordering surgery? An invasive operation is scary enough when you have unwavering confidence that your surgeon knows exactly what ails you. Here, I could never be certain that I was properly understood. Everyone is bowing and smiling, and I’m feeling assured, I’m feeling placated, and then I’m waking up in a recovery room with my balls on ice. I said I needed an appendectomy, not a vasectomy.
Living in a culture of such dissimilarity to home is a lot like being the new member in some clandestine, secret society with its own secret language, and secret rituals, and secret handshakes. Once you learn all these things, life begins to carry on in its familiar rhythms again, but until then you’re just an initiate in Phi Kappa Korea.
Climbing some stunning path through yet another cut of breath-taking Korean wilderness, Mr Park turns to me to ask if I’d like to stop at a natural spring to refill our water bottles. He says to me that the best things in life are free. I’ve heard that before, but it’s as if I’ve never fully understood what it meant until just that moment. He points at the water, the sun, then like an enlightened shaman waves his hand at the group of us to indicate fellowship. He’s right, of course. I would argue that you don’t really need to pay for food either; you pay for the convenience of someone else preparing it. Sex should be free as well, for that matter. What do I concern myself with most? The things I need? No, I have everything I need. What does that leave? The things that money buys. Shit … frivolous, trivial shit. It wasn’t necessary for me to come to South Korea in order to remember this, it just so happens I did.
I can’t find a single stick of deodorant for sale anywhere in this whole city. Apparently, Korean men don’t wear it. Seriously. Some women do, but I guess it’s only as a substitute for perfume, and then only rarely. I haven’t quite discovered the reason for this yet. I just know there’s no demand for it, so there’s no supply. Perhaps, it’s available in larger cities with greater concentrations of western transplants. To be fair, I have yet to smell a Korean person at all, malodorous or otherwise. I mean, I don’t even notice the scents I’m used to smelling on women: perfume, hair products, body lotion. It’s one massive, odorless mob. Check with me again in August.
The dogs have all stopped barking.
There was an elderly man in the airport who fell down an escalator. I didn’t see this, but I heard it. It sounded like canceled plans. He was unconscious for a while, unmoving. Dead with a broken neck, I thought briefly. Then I saw his chest rising and falling. A crowd gathered. Nervously, I started to laugh. I couldn’t help myself. I do that sometimes when I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I wanted to take a picture, but thought better of it for the sake of his troubled family. That’s just what you want to see when you fear the worst for your poor, clumsy grandfather: a maniacal tourist giggling and taking snapshots of your suffering, your terrible day at the airport. It was the first excitement of my journey. Perhaps, the first bad omen. Although, I don’t worry much about escalators. I seem to navigate them well enough without incident.
The goal was to leave behind little or no attachments. Why then, this knot in my gut? I feel loose in the mind, uncertain. Goes to show how comfortable I had become. Exhausted, I nod off on the first flight and wake to a second’s panic, a dawning realization that everything I’ve just abandoned is truly absent. My feet are moving; I’m boarding connecting flights. I’m functional, but the motherboard is thoroughly fried. There, that guy looks happy and well-adjusted. He looks like a man without a doubt in his mind, someone who knows what he’s doing. Maybe I can just follow him, mimic his movements. He might have some Advil.
I’m flying over Alaska now, watching airplane television, wearing airplane slippers, trying desperately to sleep some of the twelve-hour flight away. I’m landing. Customs is a breeze, and I’m signaled almost immediately by a man holding a cardboard sign bearing my name. I nod. He nods. He ditches the sign, and grabs my bags, and I’m following him out into the street where he tosses me onto a bus without so much as a word. Four hours later and almost two full days since beginning the trip, I arrive at my destination: home of the Park family, my new employers. I pop an Ambien with a melatonin chaser and sink into the lustful folds of sweet, uninterrupted sleep. I wake a few hours later because my body is still operating on Eastern Standard Time. I stay prone in spite of myself and muscle out another few hours. I wake to the sounds of Mr. Park cooking breakfast. He tells me I should hike the trail behind their apartment. There’s a path through the mountain overlooking the city. I pass more than one person wearing a surgical mask. Yellow Dust, I later learn, is something that blows in all the way off the deserts of Mongolia and northern China, and for some medical reason, either real or imagined, scares the hell out of the natives. I return just in time for breakfast: legs of chicken (I presume but don’t ask) in a spicy red sauce and black rice. I fumble with the chopsticks. There are no drinks on the table and this is no mild dish. I excuse myself to blow my nose in the restroom … twice. Then I see it, perched at the end of the table beside three empty glasses. Milk! Why has it not been served? My face is leaking; I’m a mess. Pour the goddamned milk. Not until the last of the food is gracelessly devoured using my underdeveloped, chopstick-incompetent hands, is the milk served. Was this some kind of isolated oversight or can I expect this delayed gratification bit at every meal?
The shoe thing was cute at first. People here remove their shoes before entering homes and many places of business. Wearing your shoes into someone’s home is the social equivalent of shitting in their yard. It’s a pretty custom but where I work we use a public restroom located down the hall from our offices. This means putting on your shoes and then removing them again every time you need to use the bathroom. Not so quaint when you drink as much coffee as I do, or as much prune juice as Mr. Park. Without footwear, Koreans become house-ninjas. There’s always someone sneaking up on me, creeping noiselessly about from room to room in their stocking feet, catching me in the act of not expecting them.
I’m getting good at charades. Attempting to make any purchase has become a full-on street performance. If only my Korean was improving as well. I wish I’d have spent more time learning to read the language. Korean characters are everywhere like strange graffiti advertising products I cannot identify, transmitting messages I cannot receive. They might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics speeding by in some great indecipherable blur. I’m as vulnerable as an illiterate child, bound to poison himself eating from the wrong cupboard. There’s a sign that adorns the side of a building featuring a man wearing fishing waders. He’s pointing at an unmarked jar of white-lime fluid as large as his head and sporting an exaggerated, cartoon smile. Is he promoting this concoction? Letters from the Korean alphabet float about his head in three-dimensional, unreadable glory. Is it a warning of some kind? Something having to do with being waist-deep in water? Can I ignore this or would that be unwise?
For lunch, I ate something the texture of wet fat that tasted like peppered soil. It was served with a shot glass of water. I swear I’m the thirstiest man in all of South Korea.
It occurred to me that there isn’t one item in my wallet that will be of any use to me upon landing in Korea. Preferred shopper cards to all the local grocery stores, business cards for enterprises not located in South Korea, even my driver’s license is useless to me there. I could easily reinvent myself. Okay, what can’t I change? My name, they have that now, but very little else. Say, for instance, I’ve always wanted to have a nickname. Nothing ever stuck when I was a kid. I was born to a vanilla name that didn’t appear to possess the kind of malleable properties necessary for creative ridicule. I envied the guys with firm, enduring aliases. It immediately suggests that there is at least one interesting thing about you. A nickname says to people, “I’m paid attention to enough by my peers to be given a moniker,” and they always come with some interesting story to validate them. I am now in a position to fabricate for myself a nickname with its very own unique anecdote to lend it credibility. Hi, I’m Troy but my friends call me Primo because I’ve always taken first place in every manly demonstration of prowess I’ve competed in. Or … I could be one of those guys who has a weird nickname that he won’t explain but still insists on going by. My name is Troy but everyone calls me Bandito. Don’t ask! Only two people in the world know the story behind that, and I don’t know you well enough to make you the third. Now I’m a man of mystery, see, spreading intrigue wherever I travel. You can call me Nubs. Just call me Scoots. Call me Tripper. I’m Bucket.
I’m a little disappointed that no one has begged me to stay. Apparently, nobody will fall apart without me here. I don’t imagine there won’t be those who miss me, but not one of them has fallen to their knees, scrabbling at the pavement, wailing at the thought of my absence. Maybe that’s how you know it’s really time to move on. Who would beg you not to leave? Your wife or husband? Don’t have one. Your children? Nope, not that I know of. If I didn’t name them, then they aren’t mine and they certainly don’t need me around failing to meet their expectations every other weekend. The people close to me don’t need me, which is very different from loving me. They want me to go nuts and travel the world. It’s as if they’re saying, “Go, we don’t need you. See if you can find someone who does.” To be fair, I’m very careful to avoid anyone growing reliant upon me. If I sense something like that might be happening, I’ll be sure to disappoint him or her early so as to prevent him or her from making a habit of it. Although, it could be that the reality of my departure hasn’t fully hit this certain someone just yet. I might be in store for a very public airport scene where someone yet unbeknownst to me will elude security to run out onto the runway in an effort to stop my flight so that I can be told just how necessary I really am. But, as I watch this person promptly ushered off to some undisclosed, basement broom closet beneath Pittsburgh International to be swept for explosive devices and waterboarded, I know I would only think: Jesus, who could function within the vice grip of that kind of dependence? Only in a Hollywood movie would someone find that sort of obvious insanity romantic. But, as it stands, no one shatters, I can breathe (and travel free of guilt), and if I die tomorrow my tombstone will read: Here lies Troy J. Craig; completely unnecessary.
There is this one girl. This trip was well on its way to happening by the time we met. It may have been the subject of our first conversation, in fact. It’s not a deal-breaker at that point. You haven’t even had dinner yet. By the time you think about putting on the brakes, it’s already too late.
“I like this. Maybe we should stop seeing each other.”
“I like this. Why would we stop seeing each other?”
“You’re leaving; where can it go?”
“We’re all gonna die eventually; where can any of it go?”
And, the two of you continue with this pointless exercise in futility that makes such perfect sense. I don’t know what happens tomorrow and I wanna try to stop living like I do. I want to fully comprehend the difference between sound preparation for the future, and behaving as if I possess consummate knowledge of what that future holds. I’m in love with this idea of any single moment in life preceding an infinite number of possibilities, an uncountable number of potential outcomes. Damn, that’s exciting! But, I spend so much time convincing myself that I know exactly how this situation or that situation will unfold that I shape my path to meet it. Thus, I turn my glorious, unpredictable journey into a mutinous, self-fulfilling prophecy. Stupid human.
Anyway, you have this thing, and it’s pretty cool, and just because you think you’re probably leaving town on business, it’s no reason to smash this thing into tiny, unrecognizable pieces. I asked before: how then do I better appreciate what’s mine, while it’s mine? Maybe real gratitude lies in the “not smashing” of the thing … that, and a little less attention to what you perceive to be the inevitable outcome. I’ll call it healthy repression. Ignoring periodically that death is waiting in ambush for you and could be lurking around any corner is natural, after all. A thing’s ultimate demise can be forgotten for a time; there is living to be done.
There was a fleeting moment when I entertained the idea of taking my dog with me to Korea. After all, I can’t remember being apart from him for more than a couple of nights in over eight years. That is a record commitment for me concerning relationships with other living things. His name is Solo because when he was a puppy only one of his testicles ever descended. He had both of them but the one was hidden from sight, tucked away somewhere safe in his innards, leaving that lonely gonad to hang there solo. When he was about nine months old he was diagnosed with an untreatable liver condition that keeps him extremely thin, but as he ages the symptoms have multiplied. You can’t pity him, though. I won’t let you. He doesn’t know that he’s sick, see? And I’ve never told him, so he behaves much like any ordinary, healthy dog would. He does, however, require medication and a little more attention to certain routines than you would probably give an adult dog without his condition. Doubtless, I am in no way prepared for the loss that I will experience upon leaving him behind. You can pity me. He’ll be fine – better than fine. He’ll be cared for by family who have land, dogs, horses, even pigs. I, on the other hand, will be inconsolable without him. I have no pigs.
People always say things like, “You need to appreciate what you have,” and “Be grateful.” Okay, I’m in. I want to fully acknowledge the blessing that is these last few days with my dog. How do I do that, exactly? Can someone describe to me the act of being grateful? Merriam-Webster describes appreciation as “a favorable critical estimate or sensitive awareness.” If I was to write down instructions to someone on how to appreciate what they have, what would the first line read? Okay, first, close your eyes. Always with the closing of the eyes, right? Alright, so I can’t do this while driving. I’m serious, though; I desperately want to better appreciate the now before I lose it. Oops, shit, there it went. Did I appreciate it enough? Can I be thankful for what I have while doing anything else or will this require all of my mental faculties? I’ve got things to do today. Can I practice flashing the perfect sideways peace sign in the mirror, all the while practicing perfect, heartfelt appreciation for my special bond with my dog? It seems unlikely. This is what sedentary, lazy people should say they’re doing when criticized by their lack of activity. “I’m appreciating this precious moment and I couldn’t possibly clean out the gutters without becoming distracted from that!” I suppose it all depends on the activity. I’ll bet I could be thankful for the time I have left with Solo while also taking him for a walk. We’ll start there.
Ultimately, I decided to not take him along because I have no idea what I’m getting into. I don’t know where I’m staying when I first arrive. Do people in South Korea keep dogs as pets? Would he need to be quarantined? Could I find an animal doctor for him? But the big question is, what’s really in his best interest? Before she agreed to take him in, my step-sister said she was worried that if something happened to him I might forever blame her. I told her I would be surprised if he was still alive when I returned. If you think that’s hard to hear, imagine how hard it is for me to say it. When he was diagnosed, I asked the question that everyone asks: “How long does he have?” They took a guess but they did it in months. Eight years is the low-end of a healthy Doberman’s life-expectancy and he’s closing in on nine. It doesn’t seem like a reasonable expectation to imagine he might be here when I return. However, I’ve grieved for this dog believing on half a dozen occasions that I was spending my last moments with him only to see him recover, time and time again. He defies odds; that’s what he does, every moment that he’s alive. I wasn’t kidding when I said that nobody’s ever told this dog that he’s sick. He seriously has no idea.
Don’t think for a second that I’ve managed to talk myself out of any guilt over this. I feel like one of those high school girls who gets knocked up by Bobby Badass just before he leaves town forever to go race tractors. So, she dumps the kid off at her mother’s because she wants to go off to college and make something of herself but the kid thinks his grandmother is his mom, and he has no dad, and he’s never quite right, so he drops out of school to go race tractors. I tell myself that it would only be selfish of me to drag him along like a boy who won’t part with his soiled binky. I’m the one that signed on for this, not him. Truthfully, I have no idea what I’m doing … with any of it. If anything about this makes any sense, trust me, it’s purely accidental. I’m abandoning my dog. There is only one living thing that depends on me for anything and I’m turning my back to him. Funny, I thought writing it all out might make me feel better.