Summer of Soju

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When we get back to the Kingdom it’s about nine o’clock.

We find Frank sprawled across the sofa, brainlessly flicking through TV channels. The door slams and he shudders, turning to face us with dry red eyes.

‘You alright?’ Joey asks slowly.

‘Oh, hey,’ Frank croaks, clearing his throat. ‘How was it, fellas?’

‘Not bad, not bad. Justin about?’

‘In his room.’ Frank points with the remote. ’Too tired to watch TV with me, apparently.’

‘Fair enough. I’m pretty shattered, too.’

Joey throws himself onto the sofa and switches on the news; a newsreader reports on a group of men strapping a pig to a bungee jump.

‘Ah, really?’ Frank’s voice tremors. ‘I thought we could do somethin’… you know, go for a drink maybe?’

‘Nah… not tonight.’ Joey shakes his head. ‘I’ve got an early lesson tomorrow.’

‘What time?’

‘Like, eleven.’

‘Oh, come on,’ Frank pleads. ’That’s easy.’

Joey looks over to me, rolls his eyes, then back to the pig; the men hurl it off a bridge.

‘Let’s do somethin’ else, then,’ Frank continues. ’Come on, I’m bored. Few games? Bit of table tennis?’

‘Oh, god!’ Joey bursts out. ‘Can’t I sit down just for a minute?’

Brief pause.

Frank leans his head towards Joey.

‘Well…?’

‘Well?’ Joey cries, throwing his arms up in the air. ’Well…well, fine.’

*

Downtown, Frank directs us to a shiny metal doorway and jabs a flashing button. The doors slide open and we climb inside.

‘There are tonnes of these random lifts dotted about the city,’ Frank explains as we ascend towards the fourth floor. ’They lead up to game bangs, DVD bangs, norebang. Most of ‘em are above restaurants or bars or cafés, but you’d never know unless you looked up.’

The lift halts abruptly and the doors slide back open, revealing a room of ping-ponging teens sliding their trainers across the floor, whacking plastic balls in all directions.

Frank sorts the equipment and hurries to a free table.

Joey and I unhurriedly trail behind.

‘Who’s first, then?’ Frank asks, clutching his paddle.

Joey and I turn to each other silently.

I try to communicate a lack of enthusiasm with my eyes.

Fine…’ Joey moans, rolling up his sleeves. ‘I’ll start.’

’Don’t get too excited,’ Frank sniffs, pinging the ball to Joey. ‘How was the rest of Busan, then? Good?’

‘Yeah, good,’ Joey says. ‘What have you been doing?’

‘Oh, nothin’, really. Been kinda bored, you know. Sleepin’ mostly.’

I lean against the wall and observe them rallying the ball back and forth. They start to play properly and keep a record of score, but something about Frank seems off. His body is tense and his celebrations are minimal, even on the verge of apologetic.

‘I met this hot Chinese girl last night,’ he says, his voice uncertain as the words squeeze out.

‘Oh, yeah?’ Joey responds airily. ‘How’d you meet her?’

‘One of those Asian dating apps.’ Frank shrugs. ‘Can’t remember which one. I’m on so many.’

‘Nice girl, then?’

‘She was alright. You know, the usual.’

Joey slams the ball down onto Frank’s side to score a point. ‘How’d you mean?’

’Oh, you know… different culture, isn’t it? I mean, they expect the men to do everythin’ here, right? And if you do, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a kiss goodnight.’

‘That why you had to leave Busan early, then?’

Frank concedes another point.

His face looks stunned.

‘What?’ he stammers.

‘Did you leave to meet that girl, last night?’

‘Uh… yeah,’ Frank’s voice raises up an octave. ‘That was it.’

‘So, you’d rather her company than ours, then?’

‘Hey, well…’ He cracks an odd smile. ‘You know me.’

‘I do indeed.’

The two of them continue to rally the ball until Frank overhits it to the other side of the room. He runs a hand through his hair and exhales heavily.

‘Uh, look,’ he says. ‘I just wasn’t feelin’ it in Busan, you know? Felt like I had to get home. We had a long night, and I was beat.’

‘So, you didn’t meet that girl?’

’No, no, I did. But after. I got bored at home, obviously… but what’s it matter, anyway? We’re all together now, aren’t we?’

Joey presses his palms against his eyes, sighing.

‘Yeah,’ he mutters eventually. ‘Yeah, it’s fine, Frank. I was just being pedantic.’

‘God…’ Frank turns to me. ‘He’s such a bastard, isn’t he?’

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