Summer of Soju

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제 12 장

I’m sitting on the sofa watching Show Me the Money when Joey bursts through the door. ‘Pack your bags,’ he instructs. ‘We’re going to Seoul tonight!’

I oblige, and together we speed down to the bus station.

The trip takes six hours, two more than usual, the delay being caused by a fatal bus crash on the motorway. The fires were still burning in the windows when we drove past. Some people gasped with hands over their mouths, a few reaching for their phones. The rest didn’t pay much attention at all.

Once in Seoul, we hail a taxi and arrive at the hostel around midnight, some place in Itaewon not far from where I stayed last time.

The hostel reception looks as if it’s been abandoned - dimmed lights, eerie waiting room music, and not a single person in sight.

We start to think that we’re too late and might have to find somewhere else, but just as we turn to face the door, a series of cackles and shrieks echoes down the staircase. Joey and I follow the noise all the way up to the roof, where several heads spin around to see us tumbling through the door. Stevie Wonder’s Superstition plays in the background.

A tall Korean staggers towards us, inquiring: ‘Who you?’
‘We were supposed to get here earlier,’ Joey explains, ‘but the bus was delayed.’
The Korean squints hard at Joey, analysing his words. ‘You… stay here?’
‘Yeah…’
‘Oh…’ the Korean smiles, offering Joey a fist bump. ‘O-K.’

‘So, should we check in?’ Joey asks, bumping the guy’s fist.
‘Ah, yes…’ the Korean nods, ‘very boring, yes, but O-K! Very good!’

He sticks a thumb in the air then charges down the stairs, his arms flailing above his head like a maniac.
A short black guy with glasses then approaches us, grinning. ’He’s wasted,’ he says, extending his hand. ‘I’m Chris, by the way.’

‘Leon.’

‘Joey.’

‘Cool.’ He bobs his head. ‘So… are you guys—’

‘HEY!’ the Korean yells from the bottom of the staircase. ‘What’s big hold up? I’m waiting!’
‘Oh, shit.’ Chris grins again. ‘We better get down there.’

At the bottom of the stairs we find the Korean leaning back on a swivel chair, vacantly gazing into a computer screen.

‘Finally, guys,’ he groans, rotating the chair to face us. He looks dead serious for a second, and then starts madly giggling to himself, ’I Just kidding! Just kidding! Not-hard-boss. O-K? Now,’ he sits upright, grabbing at the mouse, ‘what your names?’
‘Joey Tyzack.’
The Korean trawls through a long list of names, eventually finding Joey’s with a visible sense of achievement. He raises two thumbs this time, then races back up the stairs, calling down for us to follow him again.

We chase him to the third floor where he hands us a key and wanders into a dorm. ‘Two other guests here,’ he says, ‘but they gone out somewhere.’

‘Right,’ Joey shrugs, dropping his bag on the floor. ‘Seems reasonable.’
‘You guys wanna have a drink with us?’ Chris asks, bouncing. ‘We’re drinking on the roof.’

‘Hmm…’ I glance at Joey pensively. ‘I’m not sure.’

‘Oh, come on,’ Chris pleads. ‘I love British people, man. You guys are British, right?’
‘Yep.’ I smirk. ‘Well… I guess one can’t hurt, Joey?’

Joey nods slowly, and the Korean guy starts falling around the room, tripping over himself. ‘Oh, yeah!’ he goes, ’You gotta fucking drink, man! Yeah!’
‘Alright!’ Joey yells at the Korean, rubbing on his shoulder. ‘Let’s do it, then!’

Back on the roof, Joey, Chris and I perch beside a glass table, covered with empty Cass and soju bottles.

The Korean guy stumbles into a nearby kitchen and starts howling at Chris through the window: ‘Gotta fucking wash up, Chris! Gotta clean up!’
‘I’ll do it in the morning!’ Chris calls back.
‘Morning no fucking good, Chris!’

And the Korean suddenly side-steps out of the kitchen like a crab, hurling himself onto the wall, leaning over the edge. ’Fuck, man! I’m wasted!’

He pauses for a moment, his gaze transfixed by the bright flashing lights below, and then he starts giggling psychotically again and twirls back around. ’Fuck you, Chris! Ahaha… fuck you! I go to bed!’
‘O-K,’ Chris sniggers, and the Korean storms off. ’He won’t remember anything by tomorrow. It’s cool. He gets like that every night, but he’s actually a sweet guy.’
‘Why’s he telling you to clean up?’ Joey asks. ‘Do you work here or something?’
‘Kinda, yeah… I’m just helping out for a free bed, you know? Travelling around. I’m from New York, originally. The Bronx.’ He stops for a second to look the two of us over, and then his head starts bouncing up and down again like a crack-addled bobblehead. ’So, you guys are British? Man, I love British people. What are you doing here?’

‘Well, I work here,’ Joey says, ‘and my brother’s visiting me.’

‘Alright!’ His bouncing intensifies. ‘Family reunion! I like it!’ He leans back on his chair to reach for a bottle of soju. ‘Have you guys tried this stuff, yet? Soju! So-ju. Crazy stuff, man.’

‘We’ve had our fair share,’ says Joey.

’Well, man, let’s all have one together.’

Chris pours three sojus and we sling ’em down the hatch.

‘Bleugh!’ he gags. ’That is nasty. But oh-so cheap! Now…’ he slurs, ‘I’m no big drinker, really, I’ll admit that. I am American after all. But you British guys are crazy, right? Drinking like crazy.’

Totally crazy.’ Joey smirks. ‘Yeah.’

‘Then I suppose we should have a drop of this, as well…’ He leans back again to grab a big bottle of Cass. ‘My English noblemen.’

‘God save the Queen,’ Joey nods.

‘Yes…’ Chris pours. ‘Lord save her.’

I take a glass and give my thanks.

‘How long are you in Korea for, then?’ I ask. ‘Are you going anywhere else?’

‘Well… I’ve been in Korea for two weeks. Seoul, mostly. And I’ll be going all over, man. After here I’m gonna be teaching in China, then off to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia. All those places, man. I’ve been saving for years. It was either a big trip like this… or, going to college. But, like, why learn about the world in school when you can go and see it for yourself, you know?’

‘Sure.’ I light a cigarette. ‘What would you have studied at college?’

‘It was probably a toss-up between Marketing, or… Engineering.’

‘Right.’

‘Do you like Korea?’ asks Joey.

’Definitely, man. Things are pretty cheap, and the people are crazy. Sometimes crazy nice… sometimes just crazy, you know? But I like that. Did you say you work here?’

‘Yeah.’ Joey sticks a cigarette in his mouth. ‘English teacher. Daegu.’

‘Oh, well, I suppose I’ll be like you soon, then.’ Chris chuckles to himself. ‘A Chinese version that is!’

‘Indeed.’

‘Hey… could I have one of those?’ Chris asks, pointing to Joey’s cigarette, so Joey lights the one in his mouth and hands it over, reaching into his pocket for another.

Chris then sits and smokes in silence, his gaze switching between me and Joey with every puff, like he’s mulling something over in that bouncy head of his.

He starts mouthing the words ‘yeah, yeah, yeah…’ to himself as he slides from his chair to the table with the soju, and with his back turned, he pours three more shots, his hips jigging along to the infectious hook of Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.

He picks up two glasses and spins back around. ‘So…’ he says, raising each one, ‘we going out tonight, or what?’

*

Chris takes us to a club named The Fountain, what he describes as the craziest place in Itaewon. It’s like if the Romans made a club out of papier-mâché, with chalky pillars wrapped around the edges and mosaic tiles strewn across the walls. We make our way through the crowds as moving spotlights shoot across the room, changing colour from red to blue to green, while a long-haired DJ mixes 2010s pop with drop-heavy EDM. The club’s titular fountain is located behind the bar, its water crashing alongside the cries of thirsty steaming revellers, waving their cash around and heckling the staff to get served.

Chris leads us through an archway and up some faux marble stairs, to a quieter area that hosts a selection of games – darts, pool, air hockey – and a bar you can get a drink at without a fight. Joey sets up a game of 501 while Chris sorts the beers.

‘Man, isn’t this place tight,’ he returns, ‘I told you guys!’

He looks a bit wobbly as he lines up his first dart, hurling it forward and somehow hitting the board next to ours. Our board neighbours feed us a disapproving glare, and Chris apologises, but no official pardon is granted.

He retrieves the lost dart, apologising again, then fires off the rest, this time hitting a three and a twelve. ‘Oh, yeah!’ he congratulates himself. ‘That’s it! Yeah!’

The scores between Joey and I remain relatively close, but Chris’ ever depleting state seems to be hindering his play. Every time he approaches the board, he’s in a worse condition than before; first struggling to throw a dart, now struggling to pick one up.

He lurches towards the board again, dart in hand, and this time manages to throw it in the direction of the bar, its plastic tip soaring past one bartender only to crash-land right inside the ear of another.

Chris turns his muddled gaze to the floor, hiding from the enraged bartender, while Joey suggests we hurriedly evacuate and cool off with a few soju pops on the street.

‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, I think, I think we should.’

*

‘I looove British people!’ Chris declares, sucking on his straw.

‘They love you, too,’ I say, patting his head. ‘I’m sure they do.’

’Tell me some of that, British slang,’ he slurs.

‘Ah… I’m not too good at that, really.’

‘Oh, come on,’ he begs. ‘Teach me your waysssss, man.’

‘Alright.’ Joey steps forward, grinning. ’Have you ever heard of ‘choking the chicken’ before?’

‘Nuh-uh. What’s that?’

‘Well, in England, we don’t say that we’re going to bed…’

‘Oh yeh?’ Chris attempts to sit up. ‘Whaddaya say?’

’We say that we’re going to choke the chicken, you know? Like, we’d say ‘oh, guys, I’m so tired. I’m gonna go choke the chicken now. Goodnight.’ Or something like that.’

‘Whaaat?’ Chris sniggers, falling onto my shoulder. ‘That’s super weird, man. Why chicken?’

‘Well, I dunno…’ Joey smirks. ‘Maybe farmers used to kill a chicken before they went to bed or something, back in the day.’

Chris falls back against the CU window, muttering to himself: ‘British are weird, man… weird… weird…’ and then he trails off, staring into the night, his eyes hypnotised by the whirling colours of Itaewon, his mouth drooling as the endless swarms of bodies pass him by.

He picks up his soju pop and spills half of it on his t-shirt, then sags his head between his legs, snoring, looking like he’s about to fall head first into the road. Joey catches him by placing a hand on his chest, beckoning me to help, then together we carry sleepy Chris back to the hostel with an arm slung around each of our necks. When we get to his room, he drops to the floor and starts crawling towards his bed. ‘Hey! Guys!’ He rolls onto his back. ‘Chicken, man! I’m going to… chickennnn!’

*

Joey and I head back out into the action.

We grab a few more soju pops and wander the strip, observing vacant pleasure seekers, passing restaurants, bars, clubs, brothels.

One zig-zagging Korean staggers towards us through the crowds. ‘Hey!’ he exclaims, a cigarette stuck between his lips. ‘Got light? Got light?’
Joey holds his lighter out and ignites it for the Korean. ‘Lighter?’
‘Ah. Light-er,’ he repeats, drooping his cigarette into the flame. ‘Where from? Where from?’
‘England,’ Joey responds.
‘England? Oh, wow!’ The Korean’s face brightens. ‘Look,’ he says, lifting up his jumper to reveal a Manchester United football shirt. ‘Look - me Manchester United. How about you?’
‘Oh, nice,’ Joey smiles wanly. ‘Well, I don’t really—’
‘What you? What team?’
‘I don’t like football,’ Joey answers plainly.
‘Oh…’ The Korean restores his jumper to its previous position, placing his cigarette back in his mouth. ‘Football?’

Ugh…’ Joey grumbles. ’I don’t like soccer.’

‘Ah!’ The Korean beams again. ‘Soccer! Yes! It’s good!’

‘Uh-huh…’ Joey nods, and the Korean lingers for a few moments more, eventually thanking us and re-entering the stream of bodies.

‘Funny guy,’ Joey remarks.

*

We walk by another brothel, probably the fifth of the night.

Two young girls are displayed in the window, one bending forward on her knees, caressing her bare skin, the other sitting stiffly like an inanimate doll; her eyes follow the crowds, but her body remains dull and stagnant, barely showing any signs of breathing.

The girl on her knees generates a few hoots and jeers, while the frozen girl is largely ignored, only receiving a scrap of attention for her peculiar lack of movement, or ‘lack of effort’, a passer-by sniggers.

‘Have you ever… been to a brothel?’ I ask Joey.
‘Uh… yeah,’ he answers, high-pitched. ‘Not here, though. Only in like, Thailand, Vietnam and that.’
‘Right,’ I nod, puffing on my cigarette.
‘Why? Have you?’
‘No, no… never.’ I pause. ’But, I was just thinking… well, you keep saying I should experience everything Korean and all that, so… maybe… to experience everything, then… I should—′
‘Sleep with a Korean woman?’
‘Yeah?’ I smirk. ‘What do you think?’
‘Well…’ he purrs, ‘the logic makes sense, brother. The logic does indeed make sense.’

*

Joey leads me down a side-street lined with dimly lit window fronts, each occupied by girls perched on stalls, either glued to their phones or beckoning in passer’s by. One in particular seems to catch Joey’s eye, so I trail behind him as he barges through the door.

Inside is a slim, aged Korean woman, standing tall behind a desk, observing us closely as we stumble towards her. Joey slams his hand on the desk and starts babbling in for all I know is perfect Korean, while I’m left to smile awkwardly at the woman, glancing around the room at the faded chrysanthemum wallpaper and tired leather sofas, the framed photos of prostitutes past, and the long, dark corridor, hanging behind the old lady like a shadow, with numbered doors and rooms on either side.

A short, fat man emerges from a room and a Korean with a pale smile escorts him to the front door, shuffling past me before another tourist enters - a man in his forties who brushes against my shoulder and feeds me a crude wink as the two of us cross eyes, contaminating my intoxication with a sordid grime, a feeling of shame that makes me shudder and wince as I turn my gaze back to the tall lady behind the desk.

Joey carries on babbling and starts pointing at me for the tall lady to see. She yells something in Korean down the corridor and her voice cuts right through me.

I desperately feel like I need to leave.

I tug on Joey’s shirt and whisper in his ear: ‘Maybe we should go. I don’t feel like doing this anymore.’

He doesn’t respond, so I tug his shirt again. ‘Joey, I–’

‘Oh, calm down,’ he snaps. ‘Look, some girls are coming out now.’

‘But I don’t want to anymore.’

He ignores me again, then four girls line up either side of the desk, all dressed in black lingerie.
‘Choose,’ the tall lady orders.
‘Let’s go,’ I whisper again.
‘No,’ Joey says firmly. ‘I’ve already paid the 200,000 for the both of us, so just choose one, alright?’
And I step back, defeated, left with no choice but to inspect the row of girls, each young lady that could be mine for the night, all for a measly 100,000 won. Joey pounces forward to curl his arm around the waist of the first in the line, probably the best looking one, then disappears down the corridor with her. ‘See you after…’ I hear him say.

And the pressure to make a decision now weighs on my shoulders like a tumour. The girls begin to look restless, and fed up, and maybe even offended by my hesitation.
‘I’d have the last one, mate,’ comes the crass voice of the middle-aged Brit behind me.

But he’s probably right.

I turn to the girl and her eyes light up, like a dog that’s about to be taken for a walk. I nod vaguely in her direction, and she grabs me by the arm to walk me down the hall.

We enter one of the rooms and the girl eases the door shut. I shuffle onto the edge of the bed and she turns to me, softly, biting on her lip.

She removes her bra, letting it drop to the floor, and my filthy crotch starts to glitter and dance - there’s something in the way she looks at me, standing by the door with her nipples pointing and her dainty breasts glowing in the red haze of the room; I can’t help but writhe on the bed like a prepubescent teen.

She makes her way towards me, and I begin to fantasise about all the little things that can be achieved in the space of half an hour, all of my drunken dreams that can be fulfilled by this one young lady making her way towards me…

And then bang, a thunderous slam hits the wall next door.

The girl stops, turns her head, and the slamming begins to take rhythm, thud thud thud thud thud like a steam train.

My stomach reels as the tempo increases, and the image of Mia suddenly flashes in my head.

‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I say to the girl, backing away now.

But she shrugs apathetically and carries on, smiling.

‘No,’ I say, with reeking soju breath.

But she just shrugs again and tries to climb on top of me.

I push her away and she drops to her knees, giggling, ‘hehe.’

I let her pull my jeans off and she starts to fellate me, my limp dick now like a deflated football getting pumped to size.

The bashing next door gets louder and faster, thud thud thud thud thud like my heartbeat. The girl follows the same rhythm with the movement of her head, jerking it, back and forth, back and forth till I’m almost ready to blow, and then she stops and tries to climb on top of me again, but I push her back down and she carries on jerking, thud thud thud thud thud, like an orchestra approaching its final crescendo, thud thud thud, and then I fill her mouth.

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