The first year I lived in a very tall building. The tower was plain, ugly even, despite its remarkable height. It was a place to live. From my window, I could see the offices of electronics companies and, when the haze wasn’t bad, a flat ribbon of the river. The haze was usually bad. Some days I’d wake up and all I could see was a thick curtain of dappled gray.
My building was connected to a chain bar with an Irish name. Businessmen from the electronics companies came in throngs and would drink and eat until they turned to shouting. Flanking the bar were a mini-mart and a great little greasy spoon. What a country of convenience I thought when I arrived.
While looking for the trash area, I found even more businesses at the basement levels. There was a printing company and a karaoke bar called New York Karaoke, written in Hangul. Listed on B3 was something called Bar Medical Team. The sign, written in English, comforted me. That I lived over a medical group—like EMTs, I supposed—always there and at the ready should some sort of emergency strike.
Before long I met someone from Eugene, Oregon. He lived on the other side of the city in the foreigner neighborhood where we met. He inveighed against Itaewon from the start. He said that living there gave him an inauthentic experience. That was a word he used a lot: experience. He was tall and outgoing and I fell for him fast. Having grown up in California, I thought we already shared something; that finding him was like a little piece of home.
Weekend after weekend he’d stay over at my place. “I love that we never have to leave!” He gestured wildly, demonstrating everything that was at our fingertips—booze, hot food, dry food we could make hot. Toilet paper. “This is living in the future,” he declared, standing against the cream-colored material that made up my kitchenette, ramen juice dribbling from a cup dinner.
Right before I moved out, he wanted to go drinking downstairs. He said for old time’s sake, but I thought that saying was only for things you used to do and we did this all the time.
We ordered a plate of chicken and he ordered a Heineken. I wanted a Guinness, but this bar was perpetually out of Guinness. We held hands. He was going to stay. I was going to go home and come back, I thought. He ordered more beer and then some soju. We discussed doing karaoke, which we did sometimes, but I wasn’t in the mood. After our third round, the businessmen nearby turned their shouting on us. Always they had the same questions. I grimaced at Eugene, Oregon, and he chugged his beer before leading me out.
I suggested we go downstairs but I kept walking down past the karaoke place and a parking garage. B3 was quiet— peaceful, even—compared to everything up above. We were greeted by frosted glass doors below a sign that read, in bold yellow and purple font: Bar Medical Team.
Right away it seemed like a mistake. He pushed opened the doors and went in first. I thought momentarily that we’d stepped into an accidental place. Some kind of vortex. It was dark, there was a sparkly glint to the walls and a crystal chandelier hung overhead. Seven women stood in a row, facing us. In bandage dresses and heels, they towered like statues, hips jutting out. Their skin bright and smooth satin. They looked past us. Or, they looked through us. I scanned their faces as it became clearer. At once bored, tired, indifferent. Looks that morphed from permissive to pure venom.
He scurried out of there and up the stairs with a squirrelish laugh under his breath. I backed out slowly, trying not to startle the women perched so nimbly in their astonishing shoes. In the lobby, the group of shouty men passed me, jackets slung over their shoulders. Sloppy. I smelled fried chicken on them as they headed toward the basement. I headed into the street and looked around, searching for Eugene, Oregon. This was how I spent a year of my life: misunderstanding everything around me until the very last minute.
Charlotte Hammond is a writer living and working in Jersey City, NJ. Her work has appeared in the Capra Review, River River, Gone Lawn and others. Connect with her on Twitter: @lotte_world