Summer of Soju

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제 6 장

The next morning, or afternoon, we rise from our crypts and regroup in the lounge. As per the itinerary, Joey informs us that we’ll be taking a trip to Busan for the night, a coastal city roughly fifty miles south of Daegu.

We order pizza for breakfast, which arrives painfully late, then slug along the boiling concrete to the bus station, each donning a pair of black shades to hide the unfortunate effects of a bad night’s sleep.

When we escape the dusty suntrap of a bus, we head straight towards the beach, picking up a few cans of Hite on the way.

Loud bars and tall shiny buildings envelop the beach, and a suspension bridge with flashing neon colours hangs over the sea.

The sun begins to dip its toes into the ocean, so we perch ourselves on a row of giant rocks, knocking back our brews while tiny Korean kids run circles around us, shooting off fireworks into the pink sky.

‘How come nobody goes in the sea here?’ I ask.

‘Well, they can’t swim.’ Joey smirks.

‘Really?’

’Yeah. Most of ‘em, anyway…’ He points to a lifeguard sitting by the beach. ’That guy’s probably only there to stop people going into the water. He won’t let anyone go in. He’ll just assume they can’t swim.’

He probably can’t swim.’ Frank sniggers.

‘Right…’ I gaze at the waves. ‘Why’s that, then?’

‘It’s just not that much of a priority here.’ Joey lights a cigarette. ’If you think about it, we’re really serious about swimming in the UK. Maybe excessively so. I mean, I had to go, like, every week in school. And then I’d probably only go swimming a few times a year on my own accord. What’s the point?’

I shrug and light a cigarette. ‘Exercise, I guess.’

‘I think you can go in the sea,’ Justin says. ’People just don’t, though. Or, if they do, they don’t wear bikinis and all that. They go with T-shirts and dresses on.’

‘Bloody modesty…’ Frank mutters.

‘Oh, man…’ Justin sighs. ‘I wish we came here earlier now. A nice dip might’ve set me right.’

Fireworks continue to light up the night sky.

A pair of seagulls touch down on the beach, guffawing and trudging along, their webbed footprints being left behind in the sand as they go. The kids realign their fireworks to aim them at the birds, and a storm of red explosions comes raining down on the gulls. The birds flee, back into the sky, and I share a brief smile of victory with the children.

Frank interrupts my moment of serenity by taking a phone call. He wanders out of earshot, pacing up and down the coastline, later returning to announce that he needs to leave Busan immediately. He doesn’t offer much by way of explanation, nothing more than a shrug and a mumble - ‘Emergency,’ I think he says, turning his back and disappearing into the crowds.

The wind begins to pick up, so the remaining three of us abandon the beach in exchange for one of the bars on the other side of the road. Heaving with tourists and Koreans alike, we worm our way to the counter, picking up a bottle of Cass each.

We attempt to engage in casual conversation, but our voices are practically drowned out by an unrelenting barrage of western pop music. Joey makes a vague gesture towards the rooftop bar, and almost immediately, we grab our drinks and venture upwards, leaving this mess of a scene behind.

A fresh sea breeze caresses our faces as we rise from the steps, the smell of the ocean returning to our noses, the sound of crashing waves soothing our ears once more. And what’s that I see? A free table, shimmering under the moonlight, shoulder to shoulder with an electronic dart board?

Oh, my! The heavens have opened!

God himself is smiling through the clouds, stretching one big veiny arm out, beckoning us inside with the other. ‘Come on in, boys!’ he bellows. ‘Yes! Yes! I’ve been waiting for you!’

Justin inserts a 1,000 won note into the darts machine and sets up a game of 501. He picks up a dart and aims it at the board.

‘What’s been up with Frank?’ he says to Joey.

‘Today? I dunno…’

And last night.’ Justin collects his darts from the board. ‘Why’s he gotta put on deranged shit like that at five in the morning?’

‘You know how he gets.’

‘Hmm.’ Justin sips his beer. ‘I just feel like it’s becoming more of a regular occurrence, you know?’

‘What?’

‘Frank, man. Every time we have a drink now, I feel like he’s gonna do something weird or stupid. Or both.’

Joey sighs and fire his darts. ‘Yeah… I know, but, he’s just having another rough patch, that’s all. He’s been like this before.’

I step up to the board and surprise myself by hitting a fifteen, a single bull, and a double twenty.

‘Wahey,’ Joey cheers. ‘Here’s the dark horse.’

‘Thank you, brother.’ I bow, collecting my darts. ‘So, where are we staying tonight?’ I ask him.

‘Hadn’t given it much thought.’ He smirks. ‘Thought we could just check out a jimjilbang somewhere?’

‘Oh, of course you did,’ Justin laughs, throwing a dart. ’See what I mean, Leon? Now he’s getting us involved with his weird obsession.’

‘Shut up!’ Joey throws a plastic dart at Justin. ‘It’ll be good for him to see what it’s like. It’s the cornerstone of Korean culture.’

’It’s the cornerstone of seeing men’s junk. You know we’ll have to get naked, right Leon?’

‘For what?’

‘For the saunas and hot tubs and all that.’

‘They go naked?’

‘Yes…’ Joey rolls his eyes. ’But it’s fine. It’s normal here.’

‘Hey – I’m down.’ Justin raises his hands. ‘It is relaxing, after all. And I could do with sweating out some of this booze in the steam room. I just wanted to make sure you brother’s comfortable.’

‘Should be.’ I throw my remaining darts. ‘Maybe after a few more drinks.’

‘Cool.’ Justin smiles. ’It’s not that weird. I mean, once you get in there and assimilate, then you’ll be fine. Makes for a good story at least.’

‘Yep…’ Joey aims a dart, closing one eye. ‘Ain’t nothin’ like a good story.’

*

After a few more rounds of darts and Cass, we flag down a taxi to commence our hunt for a jimjilbang. The taxi man welcomes us in and delivers us to the first place that springs to mind – SPA LAND.

Joey goes to check their availability while Justin and I wait in the taxi, but sadly he returns with bad news: ‘Fully booked.’

Joey climbs back into the passenger seat and the taxi man apologises extensively. He pauses to think again, then hits the accelerator, hoping to do us well this time with STEAM ‘N’ SWEAT.

With glass doors and marble floors, the jimjilbang itself looks promising, but as the taxi man parks the car outside, a young boy hurries to the window to shatter our STEAM ‘N’ SWEAT dreams: ‘Fully booked.’

The taxi man slaps his steering wheel and apologises again. It’s because it’s a national holiday tomorrow, he communicates to Joey, so everyone’s kicking back in the jimjilbang tonight. ‘Right…’ Joey nods, sharing a mild look of despair with me and Justin. It’s 2AM, and there appears to be no room at the inn for the three unwise men.

The taxi man slaps his steering wheel again and again, then reverses out of the STEAM ‘N’ SWEAT and back onto the main road, still determined to find us a place for the night. Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, he cruises through the dripping night, racking his brain for another possible establishment.

At one point, he suddenly clicks his fingers and veers into another lane, and that’s when we know – this time, he’s gonna deliver, this time, he will.

‘Here, here,’ he announces as he turns off the meter, his headlights illuminating a white sign in front that reads: Clean and happy! Come stay!

Joey darts inside and back out again to confirm availability of the jimjilbang.

And he’s done it! Our saviour!

We thank the taxi man for his impeccable service, and with a smile and a wave, he sends us on our way.

A young Korean twiddles his thumbs as we approach the main desk. He charges 10,000 won each for the entrance, then raises his arm in the direction of a door further down the hall. ‘Please…’

Through the door is another Korean worker, an old caretaker, dressed in the same attire as the one on the desk. Behind is a locker room, packed with many many naked Korean men, coming and going from the wet room as they please, their dongs swinging like pendulums, their mouths conversing as casually as they would in an office workspace or a franchise coffee shop.

The old caretaker hands over three sets of towels, pillows, pyjamas, blankets, and wristbands with keys attached.

He mutters something in Korean and gestures towards the locker room.

The number on my key is three hundred and sixty.

‘Gotta go find our lockers now,’ Joey says, wading through the crowds.

‘Where do I get changed?’ I call to him.

‘Wherever you can find a spot!’ his floating head calls back. ‘I’ll see you by the wet room!’

Justin and I also split up to search for our lockers.

Wet Korean men graze against my dry clothes as I rush around the locker room, hunting down my assigned place so that I too can unclothe myself and join them in solidarity, each and every one of our members breathing the same hot steamy air just like God intended.

I locate row three hundred and continue venturing onwards, my hand caressing the wall of lockers, the cracks and ridges rubbing against my fingers, excitement building inside me now as I know the hunt is nearly over, that soon it will be time to undress and plungeth myself into a hot bubbly jacuzzi.

I pass number three hundred and fifty, three hundred and fifty-one, three hundred and fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine, and- ‘Oh,’ I peep as I bump into a soaking wet Korean man, his penis freely dangling in front of my locker.

He grimaces in disgust at my fully clothed body. ‘Eh?’

I gesture to the locker, being extra careful not to point directly at the guy’s dick.

‘Eh?’ he repeats, totally unfazed.

I present my key-bracelet and gesture to the locker again. ‘Look,’ I direct him. ‘This – mine. Look.’

’Ah… soh-ree,’ he grumbles, pulling his pyjamas out of the locker above and wandering off somewhere else.

As I’m making the final touches of pulling off my pants and socks, I hear Justin call my name. I turn around to see him standing before me, fully nude, our hairy bodies now staring each other right in their hairy faces.

‘We’re moving quickly, aren’t we?’ I say.

‘Yeah…’ he answers slowly, smirking. ‘Shall we… go and find Joey?’

‘I suppose we should.’

It occurs to me that I’ve never seen my brother naked before.

He stands hunched by the entrance to the wet room, his grin widening as our bare skin becomes more and more visible. He starts giggling at me, so I poke him a few times in the belly until he stops, then we slip gracefully into the wet room together. A few guys cool off in the showers while a group of chubby fellas sink into a jacuzzi. Steam covers the sauna windows, and a little kid dives into the pool with his ass in the air.

No one pays much attention to us.

We start with a cold shower, then alternate from hot jacuzzi to cold shower to sauna to cold shower, and so on.

And what a thrill - the drastic change in temperatures does wonders for my hangover. I feel radiant; mentally, physically, spiritually, like a freshly-cracked glowstick.

In the body temperature jacuzzi, our heads float just above the water.

‘Yeah… I needed this,’ Justin announces, a satisfied grin across his face. ‘How you feeling, Leon?’

‘Oh, fine. I was a bit startled at first, you know, with all the guys out there. But it’s nice once you’re in.’

’I told you, brother,’ Joey says. ‘Everyone just comes here to chill. When you understand that, the dicks fall into the backdrop.’

‘Yeah…’ I bob with the flow of the bubbles. ‘Nobody looks at each other anyway.’

Exactly.’ Joey slaps his palms against the water. ‘I’ve been saying this the whole time.’

‘Sorry, Joey,’ Justin smiles wryly. ’But going as many times a week as you do, it is kinda perverted.’

’Oh, that’s it,’ Joey glowers. ‘You know what, Justin?’

‘What, Joey?’

‘You know what…’ he trails off, raising his arms above his head, shutting his eyelids, pressing his hands together in prayer position, silently waiting for a moment or two before he pops his eyes back open and shrieks at Justin: ‘Puck you!’, bombarding him with as much jacuzzi water as he can get his hands on.

Justin splashes back with insurmountable enthusiasm. ‘Puck you! Puck you!’ he squawks, stretching his neck away from the onslaught of crashing waves.

Koreans spin their heads while Joey and Justin keep on splashing, like their trying to simulate a tsunami or something. I decide to give Joey a taste of my wave by slapping a few currents his way, outnumbering him now from all flanks, ultimately forcing him into submission. ‘Okay! Stop!’ he begs. ’Please! Stop!’

We accept his surrender and the tide is calm once again.

Joey coughs up a few splashes of bubbly water as he emerges from the wreckage, and the Koreans finally turn their heads back around after a good deal of frowning and shrugging.

’What was that?’ I snort. ‘Puck you?’

Joey closes his eyes again. ‘Well,’ he whispers, ’puck you… is an ancient Korean proverb, meaning to puckyou, yes?’

‘Oh, shut up,’ Justin sneers, turning his bobbing head towards mine. ’It’s what the kids in his class all say to him. ‘Puck you,’ they all go, ‘Puck you, sir,’’

‘Yeah.’ Joey grins above the water. ’It’s pretty funny. They try to say ‘fuck you’, obviously, but for some reason they think it’s ‘puck you’. They must’ve misheard it in a film or something… I don’t think they even know what it means, ’cus they say it to me all the time.’

Justin sniggers. ‘They probably just don’t respect you, Joey.’

‘Hey,’ Joey grimaces, spanking a bit of jacuzzi water in mine and Justin’s direction. ‘Puck yooooouuuu!’

And naturally, we retaliate in full force, like no jimjilbang has ever seen before. More waves crash down onto Joey’s head than if he were sitting below Niagara Falls, his poor puny head, succumbing bit by bit to the power of the jacuzzi tide, the power of men, two naked men uniting against one good-for-nothing tyrant of the jimjilbang world. ‘Puck you! Puck you! Puck you! Puck you!’

*

After retrieving our possessions and changing into our loose-fitting pink pyjamas, we descend to the underground sleeping room. Quite impressively, it holds around five hundred people, most of them sprawled in awkward positions, their faces laid right against the hard wooden floor.

It’s difficult to even find space to put your feet when tiptoeing over the endless bodies, but with a stroke of luck we manage to locate a spot against the back wall, wide enough for three.

We make our beds (set down the blanket with the hard-as-brick pillow at the end of it) and say, ‘Goodnight.’

But after half an hour of trying, I still can’t sleep. The blanket doesn’t provide enough comfort and the room feels like it’s forty degrees.

Justin starts snoring, so I roll onto my other side to face Joey, who yawns and opens his eyes, smiling tiredly at me. ‘Can’t sleep either?’ he says.

I shake my head.

‘Bit hot, isn’t it.’

I nod.

‘Well, I wanted to say, anyway,’ he whispers. ‘I know yesterday ended up a little weird at my place, but thanks for being here and everything. I’ve had a great weekend.’

I smile.

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