Summer of Soju

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제 21 장

We later head out to the same Korean barbecue restaurant we went to on the first night, to end things how we started.

The atmosphere around the table feels delicate and uncertain. Frank and Joey attempt to lighten the mood with their ordinary exchange of quips and jokes, but none of them land as well as usual, instead withering away just moments after being made.

‘Here we are, then,’ Frank goes again. ‘The last supper.’

‘Right,’ Joey joins in. ‘But who’s the Judas, eh?’

Our waiter wheels his cart over and unloads the usual dishes, along with a few chunky slabs of meat. He cuts up the meat and ignites the barbecue, swaying back and forth as the steel heats up.

A cloud of translucent smoke rises into the air as he throws the meat onto the barbecue, and when each piece becomes crispy enough, he distributes an even share between our plates, waddling back to his post when the job is complete.

Naturally, we proceed to fill our pieces of lettuce with the usual assortment of items - pork, garlic cloves, radish, bean sprouts, ssamjang, all to be folded up and thrown into our gobs whole. For some, the parcel remains firmly in the mouth and can be digested with ease, but for the smaller-mouthed among us, such as me and Justin, the job seems to prove more difficult; a thin line of pork juice spills down the corner of each of our mouths, and as we both glance at each other and realise that we share the same grievance, our stuffed mouths curl into a bloated smirk. Frank and Joey clock the drip of fat and their faces light up like a pair of children watching fireworks. Justin turns his head and tries to work his way through the parcel sub rosa, but with an overflowing mouth and stretched-out cheeks, he has no option but to cough a disfigured lump of Korean delights back onto his plate. Uncontrollably, I follow suit.

‘Bloody hell,’ Frank bursts out. ’That was… impressive.’

The waiter then concernedly races across the room to lay his eyes on the two balls of muck. ‘Everything okay, sirs?’ he asks, craning his neck forward.

‘Did we press the buzzer, mate?’ Frank scoffs. ‘We’re fine. Don’t worry.’

‘OK…’ The waiter skips off again, and the four of us begin to laugh in unison, each switching eye contact from one to the other, our rip-roaring laughter eventually culminating into one big sigh of relief.

‘God…’ Justin wipes his mouth, taking a moment to catch his breath. ‘Who’s getting the drinks in, then?’

*

A rotation of Cass and soju ensues, and the bitterness that I felt towards Joey earlier begins to subside. We exchange familiar glances over the steaming barbecue, grinning, laughing, basking in the new unruly atmosphere of our own making.

After two hours of terrorising the staff and innocent bystanders, the waiter passive-aggressively delivers the bill. Frank sits back and gazes in contemplation. ‘Might have to call it one actually, lads,’ he says. ‘I’m shattered.’

‘Yeah,’ Justin agrees. ‘Me too.’

‘Oh?’ Joey frowns. ’Thought we were just getting started?

‘It’s been a blast, pal.’ Frank sighs, wrapping his arm around Joey’s neck. ‘But it’s been a long week, you know?’

‘Sure.’ Joey shrugs and turns to me. ‘Well, I guess it’s just us then?’ he says, staring at me intently with hopeful eyes, expecting an affirmative answer, wanting everything to carry on as normal. And I think I want that, too - but something in my brain keeps nagging at me, trying to tell me there’s something wrong, something more that needs to be done or said or reconciled, but I can’t quite grasp onto what that thing is, and then the thought eludes me completely. I look back into Joey’s eyes and a sudden twinge of sadness runs through me.

‘Uh-huh,’ I nod, smiling at him. ‘I guess so, brother.’

Our soju-soaked brains escort us out of the restaurant and back into the streets again.

‘Well, then,’ Frank says to me. ‘What time are you leavin’ tomorrow, Leon?’

‘Sometime around two, I think.’

‘Flyin’ back from Seoul again?’

‘Yeah,’ Joey says, placing a hand on my shoulder. ‘We’re going up together.’

‘Nice, boys.’ Frank smiles, extending his hand. ‘Well, I’m up early in the morning, so, I guess this’ll be goodbye. Been a pleasure and all.’

‘Likewise,’ Justin says, repeating the same action.

‘Alright.’ I shake both their hands and they pull one last grin before turning their backs on us. I light a cigarette and gaze at them wandering out of sight, oddly in the knowledge that I might not ever see them again. They disappear into a dark underground station, and just like that, they’re gone – like they never even existed.

‘What now, then?’ I turn to Joey.

’Well, anything, brother,’ he says with nonchalance. ‘Yes, oh, yes… anything we please.’

*

Joey leads me through a number of dark smoky alleyways until we reach a 24/7 arcade; a bright, blaring, seizure-inducing palace of fun, bursting at the seams with Korean adolescents, their hands tightly wrapped around joysticks, their feet stamping on dance machine pads, and their throats, straining to reach the high notes of some pop song in a norebang.

The amount of choice is overwhelming, to such an extent that it takes me a while to even figure out where to start.

I decide to climb onto a motorcycle racing machine and immediately get down to business. Joey saunters off to acquire some drinks while I focus on knocking the top players off the leaderboard. He soon returns with a bag of soju-pops and a handful of straws, so I move my elbows onto the handlebars to carry on steering, then take one of the soju-pops and lean myself forward to suck some of it down while I whirl around the Silverstone circuit.

Joey provides me with a seemingly endless supply of soju-pops throughout the night, and as we work our way through the arcade’s bountiful selection of games, not a moment goes by where either of us is without one. He simply digs his hand into the plastic bag and withdraws another one whenever it’s required. The bag, I think to myself, must be a portal to a fridge in a CU or GS25 somewhere. Either that, or Joey is somehow managing to dart to the shop and back without me noticing. I stare at the bag, wondering… and then at Joey, wondering… and then, I realise I don’t care.

Time passes obscenely fast in the arcade. Hours feel like minutes and minutes feel like they don’t exist. Joey and I challenge each other to air hockey, car racing, motorcycle racing, horse racing, darts, dance-offs, zombie killing, basketball throwing, target shooting, baseball hitting…

We somehow spend almost an hour on a crane machine because I ironically say I like the look of one of the potential prizes – a Minion dressed as a French maid.

‘We’ve got to get that, then,’ Joey slurs as he empties his pockets into the machine.

He eventually runs out of change and we’re forced to pull ourselves away from our dreams of winning the prize. ‘Rigged,’ he utters resentfully. ‘Bloody rigged.’

We abandon the machine and venture through the now almost empty arcade in search of something new, something that we haven’t tried yet. But as Joey and I pass the machines that have already gifted us so much joy, our hope of an undiscovered treasure soon dwindles. I start to get the feeling that maybe we’ve been so spoilt that we’ve become greedy, and entitled, and ungrateful.

‘I think we’ve tried everything,’ I defeatedly murmur to Joey, but he refuses to accept that the fun stops here and carries on doing countless laps of the arcade, eventually tiring himself out and returning back to me for a refreshing sip of soju-pop. And as he sucks down a decent helping, amid all the dings and zaps and bleeps and bloops, the sound of an off-key wail echoes throughout the room. The wail begins to take some sort of rhythm, and among the harsh discordant sounds, I think I hear the words: ‘Iiiiiiiiiii waaaaannnnaaaaaa daaaaanceeeee wiiiiiiith sooooomebooooodyyy!’

Joey and I turn to each other, grinning encouragingly as we’re enveloped by the sound of Whitney Houston’s classic being butchered somewhere nearby.

We follow the wailing racket to the back of the arcade and find a row of private rooms.

‘Norebang, eh?’ Joey smirks at me suggestively. ’I have secretly wanted to try it again.’

‘Well, then…’ I ease one of the doors open. ‘Shall we, brother?’

The norebang is filled with a leather sofa, a big black booklet with laminated pages, a pair of microphones, and a wide-screen TV that reads: Welcome to norebang. Enter song number to play.

A spinning disco ball hangs from the ceiling and shoots out purple balls of light that bounce across the walls. Joey picks up the booklet while I resign myself to the sofa, soju-popped to death.

‘Thousands of songs…’ he mutters to himself, flicking through the pages.

‘What you gonna go for?’ I ask him.

‘Oh… I dunno,’ he replies vaguely, a peculiar smile wrapped around his face as he drops his finger onto a specific page. He springs himself up from his previously hunched position and enters the numbers 2-5-7-3 via some buttons on the wall. A loading screen appears, and a metallic voice begins to count down from ten.

Joey picks up one of the microphones and bops along to the countdown, his shoulders grooving and his face, glazed with that familiar hint of mischief, smiling down on me as the numbers approach zero.

3…

2…

1…

Ready?

Set!

Sing!

Facing away from the screen, Joey raises his soju-pop in my direction. ‘Here’s to yer last night in Daegu…’ he slurs, and then some words pop up on the screen and he yells into the microphone: ‘Whatch… whatchu sayin’…’ and a moment later the familiar trumpets of the Beastie Boys’ Ch-Check it out blasts from the speakers.

An uncontrollable desire to rock my body back and forth immediately possesses me. Joey endorses my new-found enthusiasm by raising his soju-pop again, his back still turned to the screen while he’s supposed to be reciting MCA’s lyrics. And in this surreal moment, time seems to stand still – I gaze at Joey as he wiggles about innocently, his eyes gleaming like a child, happily lost and free, and I think to myself: Is this the same brother I saw last night? Do I really know him? Does it even matter? Does anything? Do I?

And on and on and on, till the breakadawn, we sing and rap songs to our heart’s content. It’s not until we’re both belting out the chorus of Smells Like Teen Spirit that our bubble is burst. A timid janitor nudges the door open and a thin line of yellow sun creeps into our den. He looks rather startled at the sight of us and meekly gestures that we clear out, but Joey steps towards the old man and continues reciting the lyrics: ‘Hello, hello, hello, hello… hello, hello, hello, hello…’

‘Yes, hello,’ the old man nods, ‘please, go…’

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