A Feast for Max Berkowitz
by Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2004. All rights reserved.
Exactly why I ever permitted myself to become friendly with Max Berkowitz I will never know for certain. From the very first, I considered him to be one of those brash New Yorkers who chauvinistically believe the Big Apple to be the only city of significance in the entire United States, and New Yorkers to be the only Americans with a genuinely alive culture--fed and maintained by hard experience in the big cold world unto itself that is New York City.
According to Berkowitz, because New Yorkers live where the action is, they are eminently qualified to comment with sarcastic expertise on every subject under the sun from fine art to literature, from taxi cab drivers to crack dealers. Max Berkowitz had strong opinions, New York opinions, about practically everything, and I had spent the last year listening to him ceaselessly formulate, pugnaciously expostulate, rudely argue, and shamelessly push his overbearing New York opinions on me and everyone we knew in our little expatriate community of English teachers in the far eastern city of Pusan, South Korea. We were thousands of miles away from Berkowitz’s beloved New York, literally on the other side of the earth, but far from encouraging the slightest hint of cultural sensitivity and appreciation of Confucian poise in this young man, this fact of our geography had the amazing effect of exacerbating the tenacity with which Berkowitz clung to his beliefs and the volume at which he made them known to whomever was so unfortunate as to be forced to listen to him out of their own inescapable politeness. It was almost as if Berkowitz was trying to speak to some neighborhood pal all the way back in Long Island whenever he hollered his indelicate views about politics, religion, philosophy, sex, sports, the World Wrestling Federation, or the weather into our delicate ears while we were harmlessly sipping our drinks at one of our small expatriate parties in the Samik apartment towers near Kwangon Beach in Pusan. Once those parties got going we could all be a bit loud and obnoxious compared to our Korean neighbors, because we were Westerners and young--most of us--and drinking merrily--all of us--but Berkowitz, the way he unremittingly hounded you with his blather, let me tell you, he was something else.
Had we not been assigned to the same language institute in Pusan by the English Language Services International Corporation which had hired us in the States and flown us to Korea for our year-long teaching contracts, I am certain Berkowitz and I would have had no occasion to become the fast “buddies” that we were. In spite of the fact that I had sprung from the modest Midwest and immediately found his obtrusive manners to be offensive, I recognized that we had enough in common to warrant amicable relations of a temporary nature, if not long lasting friendship, between us. We were both recent college graduates from worthy schools, Berkowitz graduating from Columbia in ’91 with a degree in English and myself from Chicago a year later with a degree in political science, and we both fancied ourselves to be exceedingly intelligent, even though we were without the faintest clue concerning what we would do with ourselves after our time in Asia came to a close. I sometimes talked vaguely about applying to graduate school or law school after my very modest teaching contract was up, while Berkowitz was certain he would not return to his New York until he had spent at least a few more years teaching in Asia. No doubt his chief motivation in prolonging his stay in the Far East was to give himself more time to flirt and frolic and induct into his special school of the romantic arts the dozens of Asian women who were his constant friends, admirers, and lovers.
Today I still wonder if I would have been better off had I never met him or allowed myself to be taken into his confidence to hear all of the sordid details of his endless plans for romantic mischief and debauchery throughout the great continent of Asia. But back in Pusan, where I was so distant from my good friends and relations in the States, I was not selective when it came to choosing my companions. Life in a foreign country can be disappointingly lonely for the young traveler intent on discovering exotic adventures sufficient to make the cultural isolation and intermittent episodes of deep culture shock seem worthwhile. My own sense of isolation was at times almost unbearable in Korea, a country that has never been the most hospitable land for weiguksarams, and I firmly believe that it was this sense of isolation that brought me closer to my Western co-workers at the language institute. As Berkowitz was one of them, I was drawn closer to him as well.
Hence Berkowitz became my companion of necessity and convenience and I his chief spectator and audience to numerous feats of mild depravity in the most out of the way places in the huge city of Pusan, places which Berkowitz always managed to discover after following some woman onto the wrong bus, or getting off at the wrong subway station on the trail of another female until the two of us were hopelessly lost in some strange neighborhood where foreigners like us were rarely seen. Berkowitz played the role of haughty robber of virtuous hearts and Eastern innocence, and I the role of outraged moralist who nonetheless heard each tale of infuriating turpitude with vicarious pleasure. I tolerated his wantonness and endless chatter about the necessity for all great men to experience the forbidden at some stage in their moral and intellectual development because I knew him to be sharp and clever, even if totally misguided and egotistical. It was true he was an Ivy leaguer, but you would never know it listening to him gab on and on in the most unsophisticated manner about his women.
How Berkowitz managed to impress himself upon the vast number of young Korean women who followed him around the city was no mystery to either of us. His towering self-confidence gave him a certain charisma that drew in innocent Korea women like so many children to an ice cream truck, even though he was not especially attractive or handsome to the opposite sex of his own country, who were more discriminating because they were better equipped linguistically to detect the fabrications and fictions in the seductive words pouring forth steadily from his enticingly masculine mouth. His looks were not those of a superstar, yet all of his Korean female associates used that very appellation when they spoke of him. Why were these Asian women so flattering? In the vast continent of Asia, the relatively small number of Western men when compared to the vast quantities of Asian males makes the Western man a scarce commodity. Following the immutable laws of scarcity and demand which indisputably apply to love in the same manner that they apply to economics, out of the unfathomable billions of Eastern womanhood come forth just enough young girls seeking something exotic and adventurous in their lives to make the average Western man with standard good looks feel like a virtual Leonardo DiCaprio.
This was precisely the case with Berkowitz, and the fact that he clearly understood the statistical inevitability of his attractiveness and desirability in Asia, far from introducing the slightest hint of modesty to his character, made him all the more flamboyantly flirtatious and cocksure. His confidence and charisma seemed to feed off of constant female adoration, magnifying his entire persona to the point where even I had to admit there was an ebullient glow in his smile that made him a tolerable companion, if nothing of an example for youth.
He was tall at six feet four inches, his height being another real advantage to him as a target for women in Korea, where the natives seem to have a deep-seated psychological complex or hang-up of a sort about leg length. In Korea you are either unfortunately and pitifully shortdari (short-legged) or fortunately and happily longdari (long-legged). If you are longdari, members of the opposite sex like you better and are more likely to view you as a potential marriage partner since you are assumed to be capable of passing on your genes for longdari to the next generation, and nearly everyone in Korea of course desires to bestow upon their descendants and blood line this magnificent advantage of being longdari. Berkowitz was definitely longdari, and so, because sometimes in some places in this world things are just that simple, scores of Korean women were nuts about him and harbored an instinctive desire to mate with him and produce Amer-Asian children with long legs. The large number of Korean women who were intoxicated by Berkowitz included the vast majority of his female students at the language institute, women he met in coffee shops and bars, women on buses and trains, and women in practically any of the out-of-the-way places Berkowitz frequented in his never ending search for tangible adventures to satisfy his youthful greed for excitement and pleasure. Beyond his long legs and charisma, the women were attracted to his dark blue eyes, short cropped curly black hair, thick sensuous lips, and strong Roman nose, which the Korean women thought was humorously large and foreign, but not so large as to mar his standard good looks. No, he definitely was no Leonardo DiCaprio as I saw him, but the Korean women routinely treated him like he was just such a superstar.
It was on a Sunday afternoon in late May, near the end of my teaching contract, when I was waiting for Berkowitz to call me in my apartment in the Samik development near Kwangon Beach. The night before, we both had attended a small party of teachers from the language institute held in the apartment of an older teacher, who was someone who had occasionally joined Berkowitz and I when we went out together to explore Pusan. Berkowitz had told both the party’s host, Franklin Pierce, and me that he wanted to arrange a meeting to celebrate our impending departure from Pusan at the end of the month when our teaching contracts would be up. We had all signed our contracts the previous April, had all started working at the institute on the same day last year, and would all finish our contracts at the same time at the end of the month. I was scheduled to fly back to Chicago in a mere two weeks, to a future about which I had not an inkling of particulars to guide me. Berkowitz was moving on to Vietnam where he had signed another contract with a language institute. Pierce was, of the three of us, the only one who had decided to renew his contract with English Language Services International and stay on in Pusan for another year.
Berkowitz’s idea was to have a late lunch in our favorite raw fish place along the beach and reminisce about our time spent together in Korea over the last year. Pierce and I agreed to walk down the beach with Berkowitz to our farewell luncheon as soon as Berkowitz would call at an undisclosed time in the afternoon. I was not the least bit surprised when Berkowitz was late in calling, since I knew he would need all of the morning and a bit of the afternoon to recover from his performance of the previous night. He had downed four bottles of soju, the Korean national beverage, by midnight, and he was far past gone when I saw him leave the party at half past three with one of his former students, a beautiful young college sophomore with long black hair who wore a tight black mini-skirt and silver cowboy boots to the party. On Sunday, I was lying half asleep on my black leather couch, wanting to call up Berkowitz and remind him of our appointment, but afraid to make the call because I thought the girl in the silver cowboy boots might answer the phone. If she had answered the phone, I would have been speechless because this month she was one of my students. The honest truth was that I was very attracted to her but had never sought to make my interest in her apparent since I always shied away from student-teacher relationships for reasons that were personal rather and professional, and because I wanted to leave the country untroubled by complicated emotional attachments in two weeks time. So instead of calling Berkowitz, I dialed up Pierce’s number to see if he had heard any news today about our appointment from our mutual companion. Remaining in my reclining position on the couch I reached down to the floor with one hand and pulled on the telephone cord until the phone was within easy reach. Then I picked the phone up, placed it upon my chest, and made the call.
“Good afternoon. Franklin Pierce at your service,” the always gentlemanly Pierce said when he answered the phone.
“Frank, it’s me, Paul,” I said. “Have you heard anything from Max about lunch yet. I’m starving.”
“Nothing from our friend Max as of yet I’m afraid,” said Pierce. “I’m sure he won’t be long though. It’s a rare bout that he doesn’t recover from before three o’clock.”
“Did you see him leave with that student?” I asked, knowing the answer already.
“Of course I did, Paul. We all saw the lout up to his old tricks. He didn’t even try to hide the fact. Do you know the girl?” Pierce asked me.
“I know her alright,” I said. “She’s in my beginners class. Low proficiency in English, barely any comprehension skills to speak of, but did you take a look at her?”
“You must remember, Paul, I’m fifty-four now. Fifty-four years old, Paul,” Frank dispassionately reminded me.
I said goodbye to Pierce, hung up the phone and removed it from my chest to the floor, silently rebuking myself for acting my age when talking about Berkowitz’s girl to a man whom I respected and admired for his sense of humor, his good-natured amiability, his quiet air of respectability, and his experience as an artist, albeit a failed artist. Franklin Pierce was indeed fifty-four years old, a one-time spray paint artist whose very first nine to five job was that of English teacher at our institute. I remember that I was speechless in my amazement and incredulity when Pierce had first told me that he had never before worked a day in his life. When I recovered from my astonished silence and asked him how he had managed to get by all of those years without working, I expected that he would tell me about his wealthy and privileged background, or that he would explain how he had been able to make a living by selling his artwork. Perhaps, thought I, he was working in Pusan as an English teacher in order to get a feel for the culture and the people here in preparation for a series of works depicting Korean life. But instead Pierce told me that he had been born into a simple family of carpenters and construction workers from a blue-collar neighborhood in Los Angeles. His father and older brother had put in long hours of overtime to pay for Pierce’s expensive tuition at the widely acclaimed Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
After graduating from the fine arts program with a highly select class of thirty-seven graduates, Pierce found it to be impossible to support himself though his artwork, which never brought him in more than a few grand a year. A young man in his early twenties with gnawing dreams of fantastic success and renown, he soon felt himself to be constrained and stifled in the unsophisticated environments of his parents’ little three-bedroom bungalow in the working-class neighborhood. He attached himself to a wealthy middle-aged woman from Malibu who fed, clothed, and sheltered him in exchange for romance and the superiority she felt when she fancied herself to be a patron of the arts. This woman was the first in a long series of women who had kept him, sometimes for love, sometimes out of pity, but most often because it was fashionable to be seen with an artist in all of the best cafes and clubs in and around Melrose, Hollywood, and the Sunset Strip. Although he never mentioned the affect of his appearance on these women, I believe his charming good looks and imperturbable nature made him a singularly attractive companion for those of his female patrons who possessed an inclination to marry. Pierce himself did mention on more than a few occasions that he could have settled down with any number of a certain class of these women who were always financially well off business women, divorcees, or widows. There were even a few not entirely obscure actresses who had been seen with him in public for varying lengths of time. But Pierce was not a man who could keep his attention fixed for any considerable length of time on a single object, and this tendency of his applied first to his relationships with his women, and second to his relationship with his art.
His last patron before he gave up painting and came to Korea to teach English was an elderly widow of a once influential San Francisco art dealer. The widow had met Pierce at a small show of Pierce’s works in a tiny, irrelevant gallery just west of Asbury when Pierce was 50 and still trying to find buyers for his art. The widow immediately took a liking to his spray paint pieces, which she said were “appealing in their life affirming phosphorescence.” She sought Pierce out of the tiny crowd of friends and sympathizers in the gallery and pulled him aside by tugging on his forearm with both hands to invite him over to her fashionable home to view her late husband’s impressive collection of post-modern sculpture. Two months later Pierce was living in the spacious studio on the top floor of the widow’s four story Victorian home in one of San Francisco’s elite neighborhoods, where the professional people and stylish old money types had years ago bought out all but the most financially successful artists. The widow fast grew to be dreadfully fond of Pierce and she was exceedingly tolerant and understanding when he failed to produce a single finished work of commercial or artistic value over the course of his fourteen month stay in the studio. Realizing that at her age of 62 she did not have much time to lose if she were to find the companion she had been looking for ever since her husband the art dealer had died, she suggested to Pierce that he move his things down from the studio and live in the big house with her while he took a “vacation” from his work for as long as he wanted. “You never have to look at another canvas again, if that’s your wish,” she made clear to him. Her name was Emily Ratcliff, and she was in truth a deeply lonesome woman, and Pierce who was not young, but not yet as old as Emily, quickly decided that it was finally time for him to go out into the world, find a bona fide nine-to-five job, and support himself for once in his life.
But it was not easy for a fifty-one-year-old man with no history of steady employment to find work in San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or San Diego, or Sacramento, or wherever Pierce looked on the West Coast. He tried desperately to find work as an art teacher, but his lack of teaching credentials or professional success as an artist kept him out of all but low-paying part-time jobs at tiny unaccredited art schools whose proprietors always seemed to be suspiciously dishonest whenever they promised full-time work and benefits after several years of “demonstrated excellence in teaching.” Then one day, when Pierce was scanning the education want ads in the L.A. Times, he saw the same ad Berkowitz saw in the New York Times and I read in the Chicago Tribune. The straightforward ad, which had been placed by the English Language Services Corporation, appealed to the unemployed, frustrated artist in much the same way that it appealed to Berkowitz and myself, the lost college grads seeking travel and adventure. It read like this….
TEACH ENGLISH IN KOREA
Multinational educational corporation and publisher with language institutes in 17 countries worldwide seeks responsible, adventurous, and open-minded English speakers with at least a 4-year college degree to teach at its reputable language institutes in South Korea. Come with a professional attitude, enthusiasm for teaching, and a willingness to explore Korean culture, and we will provide you with respectable housing, full medical benefits, a competitive salary of 1.4 million Korean won per month plus severance pay upon completion of your contract, and roundtrip airfare to Korea from any city in North America. Call our recruiter Mr. Park: 217-974-3526.
Like us youthful graduates, Pierce answered the ad, and a few months later we were all sharing the same large teachers’ office with twenty-two other teachers at the institute in Pusan. Pierce was definitely the oldest of the teachers at our institute, which employed teachers from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan, as well as a few Korean teachers who were paid far less than we foreigners. Pierce’s age, added to his remarkably quiet and passive nature, made him an almost silent presence in our office overflowing with the immature boisterousness of misled passionate youth involved in all sorts of untidy international affairs (of a romantic rather than political nature) with one another and not a few students. A female Australian teacher was dating a male Canadian teacher who was secretly sleeping with an English woman who shared my desk; a Japanese male teacher was in love with his Korean girlfriend who in turn called her American teacher on the office phone at least ten times a day to flirt; a Korean teacher pursued her Canadian colleague claiming to be madly in love when everyone knew what she really wanted was a visa; and so on and so forth went the eternal gossip and chit chat of our lively crew, which from time to time was interrupted by serious discussion of cultural and pedagogical issues, only to return once again to endless attempts at wittiness and repartee. Resounding over and above all of this, of course, was the thunderous clamor coming from Berkowitz as he sat atop his desk with a cup of black coffee in each hand and teased us all with his incessant, humorously absurd braggadocio.
In the middle of all of our animated dialogue and debates about topics ranging from the word order of the present perfect continuous to comparisons of Japanese and Korean lovers to the ethical implications of the Korean delicacy boshintang (dog soup), Pierce would teach his three two-hour classes each day like the rest of us, occupy himself with the endless busywork required of teachers the world over as he sat at his desk before, between, and after classes, but utter not a word to the rest of the teaching staff during school hours. I liked him immediately in spite of the dour and nearly depressive expression he wore upon his face at work. Looking at his face it was obvious to me that it genuinely pained the man to be in attendance at this or any other site of employment. Outside of the school building located in downtown Pusan, Pierce was an altogether different person who allowed his inborn amiability to allure me into a close friendship launched on territory safely distant from the institute, since the institute was so manifestly a place Pierce loathed to visit in order to perform what were, in his eyes, the disagreeably mundane tasks which earned him his daily bread.
Over the past year, Pierce and I had spent many a weekend together exploring Pusan, watching American movies to feel closer to home, discussing Pierce’s art, and listening to Berkowitz rant and rave about his latest conquests at the frequent parties that quiet little Pierce ironically enjoyed hosting in his small apartment located in the same Samik apartment complex where all of the foreign teachers from the institute lived.
At the small informal usually spontaneous parties, which commenced always after the Pusan bars closed at the 12:00 midnight curfew, Pierce would smile and pour our drinks for us, rarely speaking or opening his mouth except to say “Here, have some more lemon soju” or “Would you fancy a bit more dried squid with your maekju?” While we drank, talked, gossiped, and danced at those parties, I felt an indescribable feeling of comfort in the presence of Pierce whose gentlemanly demeanor contrasted so sharply from the exuberant knavery of the indefatigable Berkowitz.
The previous night at the party in Pierce’s apartment, Pierce was his usual entertaining self, providing all of the drinks and snacks and making sure the music never stopped until we all went home tired and satiated with mellow alcohol-aided satisfaction at half past four. At that early morning hour, I made the short walk alone back to my apartment in the building just down the street from Pierce’s. I must admit I did stumble over the curb, intoxicated as I walked looking up at the twenty story apartment buildings lined up in neat rows just south of the beach. Fortunately I was able to steady myself by grabbing hold of the trunks of the aromatic cherry trees lining both sides the street. The Samik apartment complex where we lived must have had thirty apartment towers in all, each one painted identically in white and yellow with blue and green vertical and horizontal lines running across the tops and up the sides of the buildings. As I peered upwards through the branches of the cherry trees, the uniformity and massive scale of the apartments reminded me of the urban housing projects back in my native Chicago, only I knew that Samik, and the thousands of housing developments like it all across Korea, were different because they were cleaner, neater, almost completely free of drugs and violent crime, and full of tightly knit, solid, middle-class Korean families. The large buildings glowed faintly in the darkness, the white and yellow paint lit up by the streetlights in the road below, which ran through the housing development and to the beach. I might have been completely lost among the identical towers, and I probably would have wandered aimlessly among them until dawn had I not been aided by the streetlights so I could see the address “Samik 606” painted in large blue characters on the side of my building. I walked quickly past a sleeping security guard slumped in the straight backed wooden chair in his tiny office near the elevator, entered the empty lift, and was soon exiting the elevator on the sixth floor. After fumbling with the lock and my keys for what felt like a good fifteen minutes, I finally stumbled into my apartment and immediately fell asleep on the black leather couch in the living room.
I was still laying half asleep on the black leather couch at nearly 4:30 in the afternoon on Sunday when the phone in my apartment finally rang. Without getting up, I reached down to the floor where I had left the phone after I had called Pierce earlier in the day. I picked up the phone expecting to hear Berkowitz apologizing so profusely for being late as to demonstrate once again his complete ignorance of respectful equanimity. Instead, for the second time that afternoon, I heard the calm voice of the infallibly courteous Pierce.
“Good afternoon, Paul,” my friend said. “Or should I say good evening?”
“Hello, Frank,” I responded, “Not quite evening yet. Calling to tell me our luncheon has been indefinitely postponed?”
“Postponed, yes, but not indefinitely,” Pierce said. “Lunch has been forgone in exchange for dinner. Max just called here five minutes ago to fill me in.”
“How thoughtful of him,“ I said sarcastically. “It’s about time. Should we meet at the usual place before we walk down the beach?”
“Sure thing, Paul. Max will be joining us later. He called from way across town, said he’ll take a taxi and meet us at the raw fish place on the pier.”
“Okay, Frank,” I said as I wondered where Berkowitz could have called from. “I’m going to take a shower and change out of these smelly, smoky clothes from the party that I fell asleep in and am still wearing now. Then I’ll meet you in front of the bakery in twenty-five minutes.” As a last thought I added, “Do you have any idea where Berkowitz was calling from? I can’t imagine how he was able to drag himself out of bed, not to speak of getting himself across town this morning, considering the shape he was in last night.”
“Sorry, Paul. I didn’t think to ask,” Pierce said apologetically. “You’ll have to ask him at dinner.”
Twenty minutes later I was finally wide awake from my shower, looking and smelling very fresh in a clean pair of jeans and my well worn, but also clean, maroon University of Chicago sweatshirt as I stood outside a small bakery waiting for Pierce. The bakery was located at the northernmost end of the Samik apartments and the southernmost end of the mile and a half long Kwangon beach, or Kwanganli, as the Koreans called it, the end of the word li meaning beach. The tiny bakery had a pair of signs, one in English and the other in Korean. The English sign in blue neon said “Morning Calm Bread House and Bakery” while the other sign in red Korean characters simply said, “Bbang,”. Outside of this bakery was our usual meeting place where Berkowitz, Pierce, and I would get together before we went out. The meeting place was a convenient location from which to start a walk down the beach or to the nearby bus stop for the downtown bus. It was also an ideal location from which to catch one of the innumerable cheap taxis speeding down the road running between the Samik apartments and towards the beach and the heart of the city miles beyond the beach. The bakery was also a good place to meet since it was only a few blocks down the fair-scented, cherry-blossom-lined road from our apartments. When I first came to Korea, I was surprised to find that little mom and pop bakeries like this one were not uncommon in a country where the staple food is of course not bread, but rice. Such establishments as the Morning Calm Bread House and Bakery were to me a welcomed source of Western staples such as sliced white bread or freshly baked baguettes, particularly when I fell into one of my intermittent periods of gastrointestinal rebellion against the uniformly spicy and strongly fermented Korean fare that was ubiquitous in the restaurants I frequented for most of my meals.
The owner of the bakery, who was also the chief baker of the place, a one Mr. Kim, knew Pierce, Berkowitz, and me by name since we always purchased our bread there and also made a point of buying a scone, croissant, or baked Korean treat whenever one of us was waiting to meet another in front of the bakery. Since I had arrived first this time I purchased one of my favorite Korean treats, a small ball of dough filled with sweet red bean paste and deep-fried in oil like a donut. I was standing on the sidewalk outside of the bakery munching contentedly on my fried delight when the baker, who had followed me out into the street to accompany me as I waited for Pierce to arrive, started up a friendly conversation in his broken English.
“Mr. Paul, you waiting for Mr. Max nowtime?” asked the Korean baker as he wiped his flour-dusted hands clean on his white apron.
“As a matter of fact, no, Mr. Kim,” I answered. “Mr. Frank and I are going to meet Mr. Max a bit later. Right now I’m waiting for Mr. Frank.”
“Where are you going this evening,” the baker wanted to know. “Going to the nightclub for drinking and hunting women?”
“No, no, no. Nothing so adventurous tonight, Mr. Kim. Even Americans have to rest on Sundays. I’m afraid the three of us are just meeting for a quiet dinner on the beach, at least for as quiet a dinner as can be had in the company of Mr. Max.”
“Mr. Max is too much loudness, I know,” said the baker rather seriously. “My wife are afraid of him whenever he comes yelling at her in our shop. ‘One-half dozen cinnamon rolls, and make it snappy ajumma’ he is always shouting at my wife. She does not like Mr. Max. She very much does not like him.”
“Well, Mr. Kim, you can tell Mrs. Kim not to worry. Max is not dangerous. He’s a wild one all right, but not a threat to a good solid woman like your Mrs. Kim. And besides, he’s leaving Korea in a few weeks.”
“Mr. Max is leaving Korea? Why he leaving? Mr. Max no like the Korea?” asked the baker Kim who sounded slightly hurt when he asked again, “Mr. Max no like the Korea?”
“No, no. Max certainly has enjoyed himself here. Indeed, I think he’s had a bit too much enjoyment for sanity’s sake. He’s leaving because his contract is up and he wants to see another country, and another country’s women I believe.”
“Mr. Max are a grand playboy I think,” asserted the baker. “I am glad he no gonna make big afraid my wife no more. Where is he going? Back to Big Apple?”
“Not yet Mr. Kim,” I said. “He’s going to teach at an English school in Vietnam.”
“Vietnam?” questioned Mr. Kim. “I think Korea is the better place to teach than Vietnam. Vietnam man is poor and not free. I think American man really loves the freedom.”
“We certainly do love our freedoms, particularly the personal ones,” I granted. Taking these words into consideration, I thought to myself that Berkowitz could very well be one of the most American of all the Americans I knew in Korea. “Perhaps Mr. Max can teach his students in Vietnam something about our love of freedom,” I said without conviction.
“Maybe he will do that. But I hope Vietnam woman is ready for Mr. Max,” the baker said with a laugh and a hard slap of his left hand to my right shoulder.
“How can they prepare themselves for such a man,” I managed to cough out as I recovered from the blow which the baker had intended to be a confirmation of friendship, but instead had taken my breath away.
“They can make ready to run fastly,” said the baker as he left me to return to his shop. As he stood in the door of his bakery he turned around to ask me one more question. “Mr. Paul is leaving Korea soon too?” he asked sadly.
“I’m afraid so,” I answered. “I’m going back home to Chicago in two weeks.”
“Will you miss the Korea?” the baker asked, looking almost as if he would shed a tear.
“I’ll certainly miss this bbang.” I said truthfully.
“I am appreciate your business. I am missing you already,” the baker Kim said while standing in the doorway of his bakery. As he held the door open I caught a whiff of the sweet fragrance of yeast and the freshly baked tasty creations of Mr. Kim, Korean baker. I said nothing, but instead simply nodded my head in agreement as I stood out on the street. I saw the baker look past me and down the road to the apartments. “Here come your friend, Mr. Frank,” he said with detachment. Then the baker disappeared into his bakery and shut the door behind him.
I looked down the road and saw Pierce walking towards me underneath the branches of the blooming cherry trees. He wore a brown plaid blazer and khaki slacks, coming across as rather academic for an artist in his outfit and distinguished-looking gray hair. He was smiling contentedly in a fashion that enhanced his spruce look, and I smiled back at him and waved to show him that I saw him coming. I knew his smart appearance was in large part a product of his celebratory mood, which habitually lasted until the weekend was over, when it would then disappear for the duration of the workweek. Starting on Monday everything about Pierce would have that deflated look of sullen endurance of all that was related to gainful employment. The following weekend the ebullient hue would return and Pierce would once again be all smiles and good cheer. This was the pattern his moods had invariably followed over the course of the year that I knew him in Pusan.
A minute or two later Pierce was standing next to me. He shook my hand vigorously and asked me whether or not I had recovered from the party of the previous night.
“That was another fine little get together last night,” I congratulated him as we headed toward the beach.
“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself, Paul. As always, I enjoyed your company,” Pierce said. Smiling widely, his face narrow and somewhat worn with age but clean and freshly shaven in the most respectable manner, his big blue eyes shinning like sapphires under wrinkled eyelids and heavy gray eyebrows, Pierce looked like a familiar old relative who had been fond of me and had showered me with gifts since my youth. “Shall we walk on the sand down by the water, or do you want to take the footpath?”
“Why don’t we walk the beach,” I said. “You know how I love being near the water. It’s nothing fancy compared to my Oak Street Beach back in Chicago, but I like to be close to the water on any beach.”
We left the street, the bakery, and the Samik apartment complex behind us and walked with some difficulty across the sandy beach until we reached the hard-packed wet sand just near the water. It was easier to walk on the wet sand near the surf, and there was little danger of our shoes getting wet since the languid waves were barely noticeable as they inaudibly inched up the shore. Kwangon beach looks out upon a small bay, beyond which is the East Sea as the Koreans call it, or the Sea of Japan if you take your geography lessons from the Japanese. The big waves out in the East Sea almost never make it through the bay and to the shore at Kwanganli. On that particular evening in mid-May, the beach was fairly crowded with Korean couples, families, and small groups of teenagers who were all taking advantage of the fine spring weather to take a stroll down Kwangon Beach. Some of the Koreans smiled at us as they walked towards and past us, and a few of the adults even ventured to say, “Hello,” or “Good evening,” in English. Groups of teenagers amused themselves by following behind us at a safe distance of ten meters or so and by shouting in English, “Hello.” “How are you?” “What’s your name?” ”Where are you from?” and “What time is it?” These were all phrases Pierce and I had heard on a hundred different occasions like this one, when were out in the city among Koreans and viewed as walking targets for English practice because of our white skin. We had become so bored of the little game over the last year that neither of us made much of an attempt to answer the teens. It was more than enough that we had to teach English thirty hours a week, we did not want our relaxing Sunday evening stroll to turn into a busman’s holiday. Usually the Korean teenagers persisted in shouting their limited set of stock questions for several minutes before breaking into uncontrollable giggles and laughter and eventually quitting their crude impersonations of English speakers. Then they would leave us alone and run off to return to their playful hubble-bubble and frolicking along the shore.
One group of about five or six high school girls was so persistent as they hounded us with their taunting English questions that I was forced to turn around to say or do something to satisfy their obstinate inquisitiveness. After listening with rising annoyance to the girls shout, “Where are you from?” at the top of their lungs for six or seven minutes, I spun around in the sand and stared at them in mock anger, clenching my fist tightly while I wore the most horrifically perturbed expression on my face. The girls were quite shocked when they saw the look on my face, and since they were completely unable to detect the sense of humor I had attempted to convey through my exaggerated expression, they were almost frozen with fear. Feeling a bit guilty when I remembered how difficult it was for most Koreans to correctly decipher the meaning of a western visage intending to portray sarcasm or irony through exaggeration, I suddenly transfigured my antagonistic countenance into a cheerfully smiling and friendly face of the most cordial sociability. The girls’ looks of shock, surprise, and fear instantly melted into equally startled, but at least now smiling faces of exuberant young girls. I maintained my felicitous expression and watched the girls as they bubbled over themselves with fervent Korean imprecations in an impromptu debate amongst themselves concerning the proper English phrase to use in order to answer my ludicrous performance of pantomime.
I noticed the absurdity of their clothing as the exclamatory prolixity of sonorous Korean whining and moaning poured forth from their youthful mouths. Whenever Korean girls spoke, and especially when they were angry or excited, I seemed to hear the whining and moaning of spoiled children making impossible demands on helplessly compliant parents. The sound was pleasant to my ears for some reason, perhaps due to an instinctual response to the cries of children or else my love of the sound of the Korean language in all of its variations. The euphonious complaints, which I could never understand, rang in my ears as my eyes attempted to make sense of the shiny, space-age hip-hop apparel they sported, along with outrageous high heels and ridiculously elevated platform shoes. Had it been a school day instead of a Sunday evening, all of these girls would have been impeccably and respectfully dressed in their neat clean, but drab, school uniforms. But the day was Sunday, their one day off after their six-day school week. The girls had obviously indulged that passion for fashion that is so universal among the female half of the human race, especially during the years of colorful post-pubescence.
A heavyset girl with short black hair like the rest, wearing black lipstick and great big gobs of blue eye shadow with sparkling silvery glitter smeared over her large round eyes, appeared to be the leader of the group. She wore a tight white tank top to show off her developing womanhood, and long, baggy, and shiny black hip-hop pants that reached down to cover her fantastically high gold-colored platform shoes. The cuffs of her pants were coated with wet sand from when her friends had first pulled her into the bay up to her ankles and then dragged her back up onto the sandy beach. She shouted at the rest of the girls to quiet down their Korean whining, and after a great deal of effort on the part of the heavyset girl, the other girls became silent and stood there in their garish outfits in anticipation of some further show by me to bring them additional amusement. When her friends had silenced themselves and all stood watching me with looks of insufferable expectation, the leader in the white tank top stepped forward bravely and addressed me directly without hesitation.
“Where are you from?” she asked me as I stood there with my affable smile still painted on my face.
“I’m from Chicago,” I answered. “Where are you from?” I asked her in return, knowing ahead of time that my question would sound ridiculous to the girl because she was so obviously a Korean from Korea.
“I’m from Korea, of course,” the chubby girl managed to say in-between giggles. “Why did you come to Korea,” she wanted to know, just like the hundreds of Koreans who had asked me that same question.
“To eat kimchi,” I quipped, setting the leader and the entire gathering of teenagers into another bout of uncontrollable laughter interspersed with that euphonic Korean whining and complaining sound. After the leader regained her composure and admonished her companions to do likewise, she looked at me directly with her immaturely painted face, and with pretension of a kind I would have considered to be laughably promiscuous had I not grown so accustomed to Koreans’ habitual inquisitive directness she asked me a question which almost every Korean I ever met had asked me almost immediately after making my acquaintance.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” asked the chubby girl who was much too large for her tiny shirt.
The answer to the question was, no. I had dated a few Korean women now and then during the past year, but I never allowed myself to become deeply involved with anyone since I intended to stay in the country for just one year. I did not wish to be tempted into a longer stay in Korea in pursuit of some relationship, which could only lead to marriage if I treated the woman decently since almost all the Korean women I knew thought marriage to be imperative. I certainly did not want to come back to Chicago with the extra baggage of matrimonial responsibility that caring for a Korean wife at my young age of 23 would entail. I was sure I wanted to study some scholarly field in-depth in graduate school, even though I had no clue what that field would be, and I was troubled by visions of myself returning from a university library with an armful of books to greet my Korean woman on her hands and knees, scouring and scrubbing the floor of my dorm room like a good Korean housewife. Consequently, it seemed to me to be most proper to honestly answer the curious teenager, who in reality was no more and no less curious than the hundreds upon hundreds of other Koreans, including most of my male and female students alike, who had asked me if I had a girlfriend. I was about to confess my self-imposed romantic solitude to the young stranger when my friend Pierce (whom the young girls had practically ignored after I initially grabbed their attention with plasticity of my farcical imitations of maniacal anger followed by remedial fraternity) abruptly interjected the following answer on my behalf.
“Does this man have a girlfriend?” Pierce asked rhetorically. “Why, he has hundreds and hundreds of girlfriends.”
The girls, open-mouthed with astonishment upon hearing Pierce’s falsehood, started to talk among themselves. I could hear them saying over and over again the English word “playboy” followed again and again by the Korean word for playboy, baramdungee. The heavyset girl appeared to be scandalized, but also amused.
“Korean girlfriends?” she asked.
“Why of course Korean girlfriends. Why not?” said Pierce in mock seriousness. “And American girlfriends, French girlfriends, Chinese girlfriends, African, Polish, Mongolian, Japanese, Italian, Malaysian, Romanian, Transylvanian, and Icelandic girlfriends. He has loved women from all continents and nearly every nation on earth.”
I was initially startled to hear Pierce be so facetious with the girls since it was so unlike the older man to behave so childishly. Shortly however I considered how the not inconsequential dullness of the original question, which we both had grown bored of many months before after being constantly bombarded by it, called for just such a fatuous response. While some of the girls were still open-mouthed in disbelief, the sprightly leader was on to us.
“Which country’s woman is most beautiful? How about Korean woman?” she inquired tauntingly.
“He likes Icelandic women the best,” answered Pierce.
“How come?” asked the leader.
“They’re the coolest.” Pierce said this ludicrous sentence very slowly, hoping the girl would be able to comprehend his jocularity if he spoke at a cautious pace. He was disappointed to see the obvious look of infantile puzzlement on the girl’s face. She turned to her friends to see if any of them had caught the meaning of Pierce’s insuperable riddle of English words, which had sounded to them like so much garbled babbling. Finding her bemused friends to be as absent of understanding as herself, the chubby girl laughed uncomfortably and then confessed with a disquieting politeness, “Excuse me, sir. I need to study harder my English. I do not understand your saying.”
“Don’t worry about him,” I said to the girl while I pointed to Pierce with both hands. “He wasn’t speaking English. He was speaking Russian.”
Since thousands of Russians could regularly be seen in the port city of Pusan where they came to purchase cheap clothing, shoes, and other goods to take back to trade in Russia via Vladivostok, my bogus explanation seemed reasonable enough to the girl. Pierce’s good humor and the insufferable cuteness of the confused girls had inflated my teasing mood. The leader was credulous in spite of the fact that she was obviously hip. She addressed her friends as if to translate my false statement about Pierce speaking Russian. After she finished translating she spun around in the sand, her baggy hip-hop pants billowing with air as she turned to us dramatically and bowed politely.
“Have a good time in Korea” she shouted as she ran away laughing with all of her friends down the beach and far away from Pierce and I convinced we were a Russian and a playboy. For a few moments Pierce and I watched them run away clumsily through the sand in their ridiculous high heels and platform shoes. I turned to Pierce and asked, “Icelandic girls?”
“Just having myself a laugh at the expense of those pertinacious little teenyboppers with their questions I’ve heard a million times and more,” Pierce retorted. “I’ve grown so weary of their adolescent giddiness every time they spy foreigners like us.”
“I’m quite used to it myself. But you are right. It is tiring,” I said. “Let’s get going. I’m starving and we have at least a mile to go before we get to the pier.”
We continued our trek down the beach. The Koreans continued to greet us as we walked by small groups of them heading in the opposite direction. I looked out into the bay and saw the calm water shimmering green with golden-yellow ripples where the setting sun left its trace upon the surface. There were no swimmers since it was far too early in the year and the water was too cold. However, quite a few Koreans were wading through the shallow water, their pants rolled up over their knees to keep them from getting soaked. Small children and older youths kicked playfully at the water to splash one another. Every so often an unlucky wader was pulled or thrown down unwillingly into the water by his companions. The mystified and deceived victim of these games, while sitting, kneeling, or laying down in the cold water, would shout colossal imprecations at those responsible for his waterlogged state of fury.
Up on the beach, safely distant from the water, were wrinkled and dark-skinned old men and women who had set up little carts on the beach to sell snacks to people who, like ourselves, were enjoying a relaxing Sunday evening stroll down Kwanganli. The sun, which had darkened these elders during years of outdoor peddling, was never so conspicuous as their gaudily decorated carts, some of which were elaborately equipped with loudspeakers blaring long out-of-date Korean pop songs accompanied by the languorously toneless drone of inexpertly played keyboards. The sun-darkened elders shouted out the names of their refreshments in order to attract customers: ojinga! bondegee! godong! They also sold western treats like corn dogs, cotton candy, and ice cream. Other women set up makeshift carnival games in the sand. For 2000 won, approximately two U.S. dollars, you had five chances to toss a small red rubber ring atop a row of five bottles of beer half buried in the sand. If you scored three ringers you won a small, nearly worthless Pokemon doll or pack of Korean cigarettes. One could also have the bright or dark clouds of foggy fortune demystified and brought into clear view by the numerous palm readers who had set up shop in the sand. Pairs of inquisitive lovers sat rapt in the sand before the old fortunetellers. The lovers sighed in relief or shuddered in foreboding, depending on whether distant signs of amorous bliss or doleful separation from romantic delights were revealed. Interspersed among the pairs of lovers were anxious high-school students attempting to find out from the fortunetellers if they would pass the dreaded and excruciatingly competitive university entrance examinations. When unsatisfied with the revelations of some demoralizing oracle, many of the couples, as well as the students, simply moved on down the beach to find themselves another soothsayer who would hopefully relieve their heartfelt trepidation with better tidings.
Past the fortunetellers and vendors was an asphalt footpath, beyond which was a road running the full length of the beach. Across the road and facing the ocean was a line of buildings from one end of the beach to the other. Most of these concrete structures were under five stories, but a few were as high as fifteen stories. Inside the buildings were billiard halls, fast food joints, pizza parlors, soju bars, western-style bars, other restaurants (mainly Korean and Japanese), a few discos and nightclubs, one or two art galleries, several small hotels, computer internet cafes by the dozen, an even greater number of video game rooms, Karaoke rooms or singing rooms that the Koreans call norae bong, and close to fifty coffee shops. The last of these places of entertainment, the coffee shops, were different from the coffee shops I knew in the states. These Korean coffee shops, far from being places to grab a quick cup of Joe and a donut, or a cappuccino and slice of cake, if one preferred, were lavishly decorated and comfortable little dens of refuge from the concrete jungle of Pusan. Inside the luxurious and fashionable coffee shops of Kwanganli, one could relax and recline on soothing couches for hours while paying the Korean equivalent of five dollars for a tiny cup of coffee or tea. On the faces of all of the buildings were garish neon signs advertising the places of amusement within. Up and down the street outside walked teenage boys who were paid a pittance by the owners of these places to pass out small flyers advertising a particular nightclub, bar, or coffee shop.
From our vantage point near the water, we could see the throngs of young people parading down the street, showing off the latest fashions as they traveled in small packs of five or six. Some of the restaurants had large windows, behind which were large fish tanks teeming with flounder, eel, octopus, squid, and other seafood. If you wanted to eat at one of these places, you picked out your live fish from the tank, took a seat inside on the floor to eat your pancheon or Korean appetizers and side dishes, and waited for the chef to bring out your plate of raw fish, which only minutes ago had been swimming alive in the tank.
Ahead of us on the far north end of the beach was a long and wide concrete pier, which jutted out into the bay and formed the northern border of Kwanganli. The pier was dotted with small tents under which vendors sold tiny raw octopi with soju, and other Korean delicacies, for prices which were far cheaper than in the restaurants. Other larger tents sheltered amusement park games that presented lovers with the possibility of winning stuffed animal dolls for their dates. Past the tents were batting cages, air rifle shooting galleries, and a place where one could shoot an arrow at an over-used target so full of holes that it was impossible to make out the bull’s eyes. Beyond these amusements were the carnival rides which operated from ten a.m. to midnight when the outlines of the pendulum-like Viking, the tall Ferris wheel, and dizzying stomach churning Whirl-A-World could be seen brilliantly aglow from far far away, the radiant multicolored flashing lights reflected on the water like the glow of so many dancing crazed electric eels. At the entrance to the pier stood a large warehouse-like structure, above which was a twelve-story building full of raw fish restaurants. That was where Pierce and I were headed to meet Berkowitz for our celebratory meal.
We continued walking down the beach, saying little to one another that was not directly related to the scene we saw before us. In the quickly receding twilight, a man persisted in an employment better suited for the brighter afternoon hours by selling small kites in the most interesting manner I had ever seen. He had connected all of his kites, of which there must have been fifty or sixty, along one extremely long line so that they were all dancing in an orderly queue of multi-colored bat-shaped flyers reaching several hundred feet into the air. Whenever someone wanted to purchase one of the kites, the man simply pulled down the line until one of the kites came within his grasp, and then he would untie the kite from the main line and hand it over to the pleased buyer. I thought his system employed one of the most effective methods of advertising I had ever seen for the sale of any toy, and I was confirmed in my opinion by the long line of excited youngsters waiting in jittery anticipation, dancing to and fro on the sand no less than the very kites dancing in the sky, to purchase one of the kites with a few thousand won given to them by their parents who were always close by.
As we looked with pleasure at the long line of colorful kites reaching high up into the now very dark blue sky of approaching night, we saw another kite of sorts sweep into view, free of all strings and earthbound navigators and instead controlled by what appeared to be a very tiny human form hanging beneath the great expanse of a rainbow-colored floating sail. It was a hang glider who had most likely leapt with his rainbow sail into the sky from atop one of the mountains, which formed a wide perimeter around the entire Kwangon district, several miles away from the beach. We stopped in our tracks to stare up at the daredevil and his handsome glider as it circled high above us. Scores of other people walking on the sand had their heads turned up to the sky like ours, their arms stretched out to point up at the exhilarating exhibition of graceful air ballet. The hang glider swooped out over the bay and downward precipitously, dropping closer and closer to the water that looked very dark and cold now that the sun’s glimmer no longer reflected off the surface. The man hanging under the flying rainbow sail was no longer a tiny figure. He was an almost life-sized human on whose face we could distinctly see a look of focused concentration as the rest of his body moved, shifting slightly in its hanging harness under the sail when the man steered the glider to prevent it from crashing into the cold bay. Pierce said the big rainbow sail looked like it was headed for the waves, but I told him I had confidence in the pilot’s competence and accuracy. He sailed right over the heads of a crowd that had gathered at the shoreline to admire his flight, causing several people to duck down for fear of being hit. Then he dropped down to the earth suddenly and landed his craft safely without a hitch on the beach in a wide patch of sand--free of crowds, fortunetellers, vendors, couples, children, volleyball nets, and other human and non-human obstacles and impediments to a safe landing. After the glider landed, a shout of approval and a few rounds of sporadic applause could be heard from the crowd. Several groups of children ran across the sand to get a closer look at the colorful flying apparatus, while following these youngsters were a fair number of equally curious adults who wished to speak with the pilot to learn more about his equipment and ask flattering questions about his recent experience of the joys and exhilarations of flight.
“That was fantastic,” I said to Pierce as we continued on our way to the raw fish building. We could clearly see the Korean sign in front of the building advertising the restaurants within, but we could not yet make out the Korean letters because we were still too far away and it was getting darker outside by the minute.
“Certainly was something else,” Pierce agreed. “Ever had the daring to go try and do something as crazy as that?”
“Not in my life,” I confessed. “Hang gliding is a form of recreation more suitable for someone more fearless, someone like Berkowitz for instance.
“Can you imagine that clonking giant floating up there with the birds,” Pierce mused, “his long legs trailing off behind him like some dragon’s tail?”
“The son of bitch would probably pontificate to the pigeons, you know, try to show them how to fly more gracefully,” I said.
“We have only to endure our friend for a short time now,” Pierce reminded me.
“That’s right, at least for the next two weeks,” I said. “Two weeks for me and then its goodbye Berkowitz and goodbye Korea.”
“Two more weeks in Korea for you. A year, maybe two, maybe ten for me. I’m stuck here,” Pierce continued. He was afraid that he would never be able to find decent work in the States and consequently would have to remain in Korea, or some other far away country absent of the comforts of home, in order to feed, house, and clothe himself. He sometimes brooded anxiously about his future and his newfound career as an overseas English teacher.
“Don’t think of it that way. Think of it like this. You’ve got to be where the opportunities are best for you,” I said sympathetically.
“Opportunities? What opportunities? Look at me. Look where I am. At my age I should be planning for my retirement and sending the last of my kids off to college. Instead I’ve got nothing saved and only the humble little occupation of English teacher to keep me out of the poorhouse.”
“I’m sorry for you, Frank,” I confessed.
“Well, don’t you worry about it,” Pierce said, cheering up with the same suddenness which characterized the transitory depression that had gripped him only moments before. “I suppose Korea’s not the end of the world. There are worse places I could be, like the poorhouse, or the street more likely, since most of the good folks in our own fine country care not for the homeless or the starving. Here in Korea at least the raw fish is cheap, and I certainly have enough won to pay for that whenever I have the urge for uncooked flesh.”
“You’re positively middle class here,” I assured him. “You can have a fine life in Korea. You’ll never get rich, but what’s a decent guy like you going to do with a million bucks? You’re a starving-artist type anyway, not a mogul. Think how it would be if you started painting again, you know, in the evenings or on the weekends. You would have something to look forward to, a real reason to exist, regardless of the immaterial facts of geography. Work a few more years at the institute, maybe do a Master’s course through correspondence, and you’ll be teaching at a university here in no time. Piece of cake. Then get yourself a little ajumma, maybe a student or some other woman young enough to be your daughter, a couple of half-breed kids, and what else could you ask for?”
“Now you’re being funny, Paul,” was what Pierce said before he added, ”Let’s get going. It will be dark before we get there if we keep up this nattering.”
I was not really trying to be funny, but I kept quiet. Fifteen minutes later we were standing outside of the doorway of the tall building atop the warehouse at the base of the pier that had been our destination all along. We bent down to untie the laces of our shoes, pulled them off of our feet one at time, and dumped the sand out onto the cement pier while balancing on the one foot which still had on its shoe. After we were through dumping the sand out of our shoes and ridding ourselves of the thousands of tiny grains of quartz and silicon so disinclined to release their hold upon us, we proceeded through the doorway together and entered into the long and wide fish market occupying the warehouse-sized bottom three floors of the building.
The cement floor of the market was wet and splattered with puddles between the long rows of large glass tanks and maroon plastic tubs teeming with all varieties of edible sea life. Long corrugated blue plastic hoses, used to pump fresh sea water into the tanks and tubs to keep the sea creatures alive, ran out of the building and down to the end of the pier as far as the amusement park rides. In the tanks and tubs were a multitude of fish species each with its distinctive shape, size, and coloration. There were also shrimp—large, small, and jumbo sized--eel, an assortment of numerous categories of shellfish, sea urchins, jellyfish, squid, octopi-- including palm-sized cuties to be swallowed alive and whole and larger monsters to be boiled and eaten with soup--crab, lobster, seaweed and other forms of life looking simply outlandish when removed from their deep sea environments of colorful coral reefs and the concealing dark depths of Neptune’s realm.
Of this last category of specimens there were numerous variations, and I could neither name them nor stretch my imagination so far as to see them as nourishment fit for human stomachs, let alone human palates. Nonetheless, in spite of the jarring queasiness that the mere sight of these presumably edible myriads of mucous-covered mysteries initiated in my weak stomach, the Korean customers of the place were buying them up greedily, their faces animated with looks of a hungry expectation of a soon-to-come culinary felicity. The Koreans took no notice of my discomposed nausea instigated by the frightful appearance of their much-anticipated delicacies. The formless anteriors and blobish posteriors of these creatures were so impossible for me to differentiate that I had no clue as to whether the ugly little organisms were coming or going as they palpitated on the bottom of the tanks, no clue that is except for the long and seemingly elastic antennae which protruded grossly in the general direction of forward movement.
Standing in front of the tanks and tubs of marine life were numerous middle-aged and older ajummas. They wore baggy pants and shirts with dark patterns and they wielded large nylon nets, which they used to scoop up the fish and other creatures out of the tanks as soon as they were purchased. As Pierce and I walked down the slippery wet aisle between the rows of tanks and tubs, the fish mongers would beckon to us with their arms and nets, each one attempting to lure us to her particular circumscribed area within the large market. They all repeated the names and prices of their living merchandise over and over, hoping to seize our attention and convince us to purchase our dinner from them. Each woman had made a prior arrangement with one of the restaurant owners in the tower above the market. After a customer selected her fish or octopus or whatever unnamable creature she might fancy for her meal, one of the women would net the live animal, hit its head or other cavity housing its most significant organ with a wooden club or mallet to stun it, and then send it up to the particular restaurant with which she had her arrangement via one of her couriers, who was usually another similarly dressed older woman. In the restaurant the chef would take over and prepare the stunned but still living creatures into what had to be some of the freshest raw seafood available in the entire world.
After spending quite some time gaping at some of the more rare and peculiar looking sea creatures, Pierce and I finally selected two large brown and flat flounders and three smaller black fish native to the East Sea called oorak. We watched our old woman with her net very carefully in order to make sure that she caught the specific fish in the very large tank that we had selected after cautiously looking the fish over for any visible signs of disease. We pointed our fingers against the tank glass to direct the old woman and her net to our favored fish as we also articulated clearly brief commands which she could not understand since she spoke no English, commands like, “Not that one. He’s got a yellow sore on his gills. Yogio. This one over here. The lazy one lying on his fins near the filter.” Both of us felt a small twinge of guilt when we watched the old woman hit the small sentient beings on the head with her wooden mallet, but our guilty consciences left us speedily, replaced by a deeper discomfort when we spied the stooped old harridan who was to carry our stunned but living purchases with her in a black plastic bag out of the market, up an elevator in complete and sullen silence to the eight floor, and into a very modest but clean and decent restaurant. A middle-aged hostess led us to our table as the elderly and bent fish courier marched gloomily into the kitchen to hand off her delivery to the chef. Happy to see our fish safely transferred from the wrinkled and freckled hands of our disconcertingly dour envoy from the fish market, we relaxed a bit and took off our shoes in preparation to sit on the floor.
Pierce ordered himself a Korean-brand Hite beer and a bottle of Coke for me since I rarely drank except on important occasions such as one of Pierce’s expatriate parties. I stopped the waitress before she left our table to cancel the order of Coke and ask for another Hite instead. Pierce was surprised at this since he had grown familiar with my tea-totaling ways over the last year.
“What’s this I see?” he asked quizzically. “Paul drinking before eight, and on a Sunday of all days.”
I looked at my watch and checked the time. It was 7:45. Then I thought of a smart response.
“Tonight I celebrate a momentous occasion. One full year in Korea and my impending departure for home.”
“While I sadly must remain behind to earn my daily bread. The only way I can, I’m afraid,” Pierce said less quizzically and with more regret.
“Are you certain you can’t find anything better stateside,” I asked.
“Better or worse, Korea or California, it’s all the same. I’d still have to work, wouldn’t I? My days of living off feminine charity are over and gone. I tried to be an artist for 30 years, from the time I finished art school to my fifty-third year when I caught myself for a second seriously considering marriage to that wrinkled old widow in San Francisco, fifteen years my senior.”
I had heard the story about the widow many times before so I tried to stop Pierce from going down that road again with a jocular toast.
“Well, now there’s something we can drink to,” I cheered. “Here’s to hair-raising escapes from the clammy embrace of geriatric lovers.”
In spite of my attempt to head him off with the toast, Pierce continued the story.
“There was nothing so hair-raising or exciting about it, Paul. I simply shook the old woman’s hand and walked out the door while she muttered to herself, ‘You should have seen me in ’51. I could have been a pin up girl back in 1951. Most everyone I knew said as much.’ Of course I kept on walking, turning around only once to shout from a safe distance up the hilly San Francisco street, ‘So long Emily. Thanks for the chow and the paints, the canvases, the studio, the wardrobe, and everything else. You can keep all of the paintings darling, or give them away to your friends, or throw them all away, or simply burn them. You’re a nice old gal Emily. Just do me a favor won’t you and burn the worthless motherfuckers.”
I believe that was the only time I ever heard Pierce utter such profanity. There was an uncomfortable pause in our conversation before Pierce continued.
“But I’ll drink to that, Paul,” said the unhappy but once again self-composed gentleman. “Our waitress hasn’t brought us our beers yet. When she does, I’ll add this to our toast, to, ha ha, your geriatric lovers, I’ll add this addendum: Watch out Chicago, because here comes Paul Robertson. He’s coming back home and you had better make ready for him. A fine young man I remind you, Chicago. A young man.”
After hearing this I thanked Pierce for the compliment, feeling a friendly sympathy for the plight of the fifty-four year old man whom I feared would never fully adjust to the life of daily toil that is the damnable fate of the failed artist, not to speak of the failed writer, poet, and starry-eyed philosopher. Then suddenly, I remembered that Berkowitz, who was the one who had invited us out for raw fish in the first place, had not yet arrived.
“While we are waiting for the beers, I had better go call Max and tell him where we are,” I told Pierce. “If he doesn’t get his New York ass here soon, he’s going to miss the meal. Where’s the phone in this place anyhow?”
“Don’t use the pay phone. Here, use my cell phone,” offered Pierce who seemed to be already recovered from the momentary emotionalism that had gripped him when he had told me the story about the widow again for what had to be the fifteenth time. He reached into the inside pocket of his brown plaid blazer and pulled out a Samsung cell phone. Just about everyone in Korea had a cell phone like this one it seemed, even Pierce who used his to call me, Berkowitz, a few other English teachers he knew, and no one else since he really did not have anyone else to call. He certainly never thought to call any of his students, male or female, in order to start up a friendship or romance or any other close relationship with a Korean. Why didn’t he allow himself to get close to Koreans? It was not because he disliked Korean people. Pierce was no close-minded bigot or believer in the superiority of Western culture, values, or people. His self-imposed social isolation from Koreans had more to do with the language barrier and Pierce’s inability to communicate to Koreans the intense pathos with which he viewed his own failure to achieve even a modest amount of recognition or tiny sliver of acknowledgment from the art world. So Pierce never drank or dined or socialized with Koreans, and he consequently had no reason to call them on his cell phone.
Berkowitz also had a cell phone that, unlike Pierce’s, was constantly ringing. His numerous Korean callers, almost exclusively female admirers who were frequently also students, would continuously try to track him down to make urgent requests for clandestine meetings in coffee shops all across town where each infatuated devotee hoped to find the confidence and inner strength to reveal her deepest and most personal feelings of genuine love and admiration for the tall and, in the eyes of these fanatics, handsome American. Each time Berkowitz heard his cell phone ring it was as if some tiny electronic receiver buried deep within his ego accepted a digitalized signal directing his already swaggering self-confidence to grow larger, swelling his already swollen ego until his self-concept verged on egomania. He would listen patiently to the entreaties of his callers with a look of self-satisfied cunning upon his face and then would arrange a time and place for the secret liaison, promising with colossal but coolly concealed dishonesty that there would be no similar meetings between himself and any other woman at any time in the foreseeable future, or at least not before the end of the next week.
Pierce reached across the table to hand me the cell phone. I took it from him without moving from my seat on the floor and quickly dialed Berkowitz’s number which I knew by heart from calling him so many times over the course of the past year. The phone rang five times before I impatiently told Pierce that there was no answer from Berkowitz. I sensed a rising feeling of perturbation welling up inside of me as I listened to another five unanswered electronic rings from the hand-held device. Speculating aloud about the whereabouts of Berkowitz to Pierce and to anyone else in the restaurant who could understand English, I was loud enough to be considered rude by the Koreans dining on their raw fish all around us.
“I bet the son of a bitch is still with the tart with the cowboy boots who can’t speak enough English to save her life. She is the very worst student in all of my classes at the institute this month. Without a doubt lacks the comprehension skills to understand any three consecutive words coming out of that big-mouthed deceitful S.O.B. I feel sorry for her who lacks the fundamental ability to comprehend the essentially ludicrous and obscene nature of all of the dishonorable propositions he has undoubtedly used to win her admiration, who will never understand as I do the tragedy of Berkowitz’s fall from the hallowed halls of Ivy League Columbia to the slimy underbelly of his lying, cheating, exploiting, crude, despicable, laughable, ridiculous, gosh-damned lucky and undeservingly gifted reptilian self, who probably…..”
“Who definitely will never be your girl now that she’s been tainted by Berkowitz,” Interrupted Pierce. “Is that what you are trying to say, Paul? Because it’s obvious you want the pure, poor little innocent, ‘Please don’t do it so hard, Mr. Berkowitz, because I’m new at this,’ horrendously grown up over the past few weeks thanks to Max, little beautiful princess for yourself. Why else would you spout off like this, and in public of all places? Of course, come to think of it, it doesn’t really matter that you are making a complete fool of yourself in public because these Koreans in this restaurant can’t understand a damn word you’re saying anyhow. They can’t understand you, but I can Paul, and I’m beginning to question my high opinion of you. You know, you are beginning to sound like, my God, Paul, I swear you sounded just like Berkowitz himself only a minute ago.”
“Okay,” I admitted. “That was a bit over the top. But can’t you understand where I’m coming from? You already know what I think about how this particular Korean girl looks. She could be a supermodel for Christ’s sake.”
“And what is a smart guy like you going to do with a supermodel who can’t speak a word of English? After the wild passionate deluge of exotic Eastern sex wears you out, what are you two going to talk about? Your favorite color? Your favorite food? Hello? Goodbye? Where are you from? Why did you come to Korea? Why in God’s name did you, or I, or Berkowitz, or any other white man ever come to Korea? Believe me Paul, you’ll be better off without her and her English vocabulary of a seven year-old. Go back to Chicago and find yourself a decent midwestern woman with whom you can talk about your dreams, aspirations, and scholarly interests. Don’t settle for baby talk with a woman you can only lust after and never tell your problems to. You don’t want to mess around with these Korean women Paul. You’re just looking for trouble with a Korean woman.”
“I hear you. I hear you loud and clear,” I said while nodding my head up and down. “You know my policy for the past year has been to keep myself unattached to any servile or sycophantic lovers like the ones Berkowitz likes to have following him all around town. I don’t want to be in a position where I’ll be forced by love or a guilty conscience to stay here any longer than I have to, not a day longer than my contract says I have to stay here. I’m certainly not going to change my policy, now that I have only two weeks left. I’ve flown a steady course for the past twelve months when it comes to women. No need to change directions now when the end is in sight.” I listened to the phone again to see if it was still ringing. “Still no answer from Berkowitz yet. How long is he going to let this thing keep on ringing? What the hell is he doing now anyhow?” I hung up the phone and dialed Berkowitz’s number again. “Anyhow, anyhow I can’t help but to wonder. I’m thinking about what you said, Pierce, about the impossibility of communicating effectively with a supermodel who can’t speak English. And I’m thinking now, just thinking because I know I’m going to fly straight for these next two weeks, and I’m not going to get started on any relationship I can’t finish honorably, I’m thinking, so what if she can’t speak a word of English. I mean, I can’t speak Korean that well, can I? I can order food in a restaurant like this one. I can take a bus, catch a taxi, read a few street signs, buy my groceries, and haggle at the market for a good price for my bootleg rock and roll CDs. I can do all of that in my pathetically uttered, because full of mistakes, Korean. So if I can do all of that in my atrocious Korean, who is to say I can’t make a go of a relationship with a Korean woman, even if she is a lovely silent beauty with the English skills of a first grader.” I put the phone down on the table while it was still ringing. “Goddamn phone is still ringing. Where the hell is that madman?”
“Forget about the phone for a minute will you, Paul. You are neglecting to come to grips with one important fact right now, and that is why you are getting so excited and speaking so loudly even though I’m right across the table from you and can hear you if you whisper. The fact is, Paul Robertson, that you are not Max Berkowitz. You never were him, you are not him now, you cannot be him in the future, nor do you truly want to be Max Berkowitz. You know as well as I do that when we are talking about Max and his Korean women we are not talking about genuine, viable relationships. Max never wanted a relationship. He wants and he gets only arrangements. He makes deals, exchanges, trades of a sort. It’s his idiosyncratic charm in exchange for sex and the praise of misled girls like the pretty one from the party who you seem to be so fond of. Think about it, Paul. Max thrives on praise and admiration from a girl who, like you said, cannot have the faintest idea about what all of Berkowitz’s chatter means. I know you, Paul. I know how you sometimes wish you could free yourself from the restraints of your decency, restraints which sometimes must feel to you like heavy chains when you consider how we must live in a world where guys like Max Berkowitz get to have all of the fun. I know how you admire him for his recklessness and his guilt-free conscience when he plunges headlong into depravity. You have denied yourself the pleasure of following his example because deep down you know, just as I know, just as even Berkowitz himself must know, that you are the better man. Paul Robertson is no Max Berkowitz. Keep that thought in your head at times like these when you can’t stop thinking about some beautiful female student of yours. And keep lofty dreams and principles ever close to your heart. Remember I told you this. Remember because I know how terrible it is to give up on a dream. You know that I know this, Paul.”
I tried to think hard about what Pierce said, but my attempt to sort through the train of these words was interrupted by the sound of a voice coming from the cell phone which was still lying on the table. I picked up the phone and soon heard Berkowitz’s voice yelling into my ear.
“Pick up. Pick up. Pick up. Pick up the phone whoever the hell you are. Pierce? Robertson. Frankie? Paulie boy? Are you there? Is anyone there? Hyun Joo? Baby, Hyun Joo, is that you Hyun Joo? Talk to big daddy, sweetheart. It’s your big American lover-boy here, darling. Sweetie? Kyung Ran? Is that you honey buns? Come on doll, make me happy with your sugar- voice anyonghaseyo . Ji Yeon? Is that you? Where are you, my Asiatic princess, my eastern wonder girl, my queen…All right. Who the fuck is this? You let the goddamn phone ring fifty times already. Now just say something for Christ’s sake. Hello? Hello? Motherfucker. Son of a bitch. I swear I’m about to hang up this blasted phone. Pierce? Roberson? Hyun Joo? Hyun Joo baby? Say hello to your big Daddy…”
“Max, it’s me, Paul,” I managed to squeeze in between Berkowitz’s shouted and indecorous greetings.
“Paul! Paul! Goddamned Paul! “ Berkowitz hollered ecstatically.
“That’s right, Max. It’s Paul with one ear now deaf thanks to you. Pierce and I are here at a raw fish place in the tower on the pier waiting for your New York ass. The food is on the way. Our beers will be here any minute. You’d better hurry up. We’re on the eighth floor. Already picked out enough flounder and oorak for the three of us. The pancheon and kimchi are already here. Get your New York rear end into a taxi and come on down here pronto.”
“Taxi? Taxi? Goddamned Paul. Goddamned Paul. I’m in a Goddamn taxi right now. I’m already in a taxi. I’m in a taxi already, Paul Paul Paul! Happy New Year, Paul! Happy New Year!”
“New Year? What are you talking about you lunatic?” I scolded him. “It’s springtime you maniac.”
“Springtime? Springtime? Goddamned Paul telling me it’s springtime like I don’t know it’s springtime. I know it’s springtime. I know it’s springtime. Get into a taxi, he says. I’m in a goddamned taxi already.”
“Okay, “ I said, exasperated with him. “Tell the cabbie to step on it.”
“Tell the cabbie to step on it?” Berkowitz hollered in disbelief. “I already did that. We’re flying in this cab, Paulie boy, just flying. Zoom, zip, zow, whoosh. Light-years, speed of light, seconds, milliseconds, time, the fourth dimension, Einstein, Stephen Hawking. We’re flying, man. But I think we can go faster. Yes I think we can, I know we can go faster. I’ll tell the driver.” I heard Berkowitz say all of this just before he must have moved the phone away from his mouth so he could order the taxi driver to drive faster. Even though I know he must have held the phone away from his face, I could clearly hear him yelling at the probably terrified Korean driver, telling him to bali bali bali because the fish were almost ready and the appetizer were already on the table and Goddamned Paulie and Goddamned Frankie were waiting for him. I also heard laughter and other expressions of delight from a female in the background. I suspected immediately that the woman was my student, the beautiful college sophomore with the silver cowboy boots, Hye Jung. Then after he was through lambasting the driver, Berkowitz was talking to me again.
“Paul! Paul! Paul! I got that pansy wimp of a driver doing at least 65 now down a crowded street. We’re moving now, buddy. Just flying along like a rocket, weaving in and out of lanes like we are in a computer game. Life is a computer game brother, and tonight I feel like I’ve got an endless supply of credits. And it’s so great man. I can’t even tell you, Paul, how great it is. I can’t even tell you now, but it’s terrific. I just want to say happy birthday, man, and Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, because I don’t care what time of year it is, not tonight. Happy New Year and congratulations. Most of all, let’s not forget congratulations.”
“You are always such a trip,” I said, unable to control my laughter. And I meant what I said. Although he rarely made perfect sense, the guy had the intensity of a speed freak or misled genius deprived of a theater in which to cultivate his talent for moving expression.
“Congratulations for what, Max? What did I do recently to deserve the distinguished honor of congratulations from Max Berkowitz?”
“Not to you, my brother. I’m not congratulating you for shit. Congratulations to me. To me! To me! To me! To me and to Hye Jung! Congratulations to us.”
“Now listen, Max,” I said, my laugher quickly subsiding. “Listen, because that’s just about enough from you. I really don’t want to hear about how you just got through giving it to Hye Jung. She’s one of my students this month for heaven’s sake. How am I going to be able to look her in the face in class on Monday morning when I know she’s spent the last forty-eight hours carousing, and lord only knows what else, with you.”
“Paul Paul Paul,” Berkowitz repeated. “It’s not like that my brother. How can I tell you now, here, in a taxicab. My brother. My Chicago connection. My Michael Jordan Al Capone monster of the midway go go go Maroons go go go Bears go go go Cubbies windy city Chi-town Sears Tower brother motherfucker. I can’t tell you now, here, in a taxicab. Not in a taxicab Paulie boy, my best boy from Chicago. My very best man. My best man Paulie. You’ll find out soon enough. Just sit tight and chomp on that raw fish for now. Hye Jung and I will be there in a few minutes, before you can ajumma, maekju duh chuseo. We’re cruising down the beach road now. We can see the pier and all the carnival rides all lit up like a birthday cake with their flickering lights.”
Then I heard a dial tone because Berkowitz hung up on me.
“Berkowitz is on his way, “ I said trying hard to sound nonchalant. “He’s as crazy as ever, the same way he always is. He’s bringing the girl from the party with him. Hye Jung, the one in my class this month. Lord knows what those two have been doing all day together.”
Pierce was on to my act as always and easily detected the lie in my poor attempt to sound blasé.
“Don’t be jealous, Paul,” chided Pierced. “Remember what I told you. Picture yourself a few years down the road back home in Chicago. Focus on the decent midwestern girl. Lofty ideals. You’re at a coffee shop in Hyde Park talking about your dissertation with your University of Chicago honey. She’s quicker than Einstein, a student of psychology, an expert at satisfying the needs of someone as complicated as you are. You’re Paul Robertson, graduate student and soon to be doctor of philosophy in some rarefied field of study.”
I nodded my head to demonstrate to Pierce that I respected and appreciated the words of fatherly advice from the older man. I tried hard not to think of the student and woman, Hye Jung, tried harder not to imagine her crawling naked all over Berkowitz, the American giant from New York City, struggled unsuccessfully to see myself back home in Chicago pursuing my advanced degree in some scholarly field like philosophy, history, or social thought and dating a solid Midwestern psychology graduate student who would keep me on the straight and narrow path towards my degree, professional distinction, and marital bliss. But in spite of my attempt to heed Pierce’s advice and to be thankful that I could at least claim the advantage of self-respect when I compared myself to Berkowitz, I could not help but to think that somehow his life had more value according to the sublime judgment of some esoteric scale of meaning, which reveals to the gifted few who live beyond the boundaries of morality and convention, just what the point of our inscrutable lives on earth really is after all is said and done. Neither could I help but to think about my student Hye Jung, who had so obviously now given herself completely over to Berkowitz. What if I had not been so certain of my resolution to steer clear of shallow relationships with Korean women? What if Pierce was wrong about me when he said I had lofty ideals?
My train of thought was broken by the arrival of our food and drinks. The raw fish was sliced thinly and laid out beautifully on wide platters garnished with shredded white Korean radish. The slices of fish were actually still in place on the sides of the fish. The chef had not killed the fish. Instead he had merely scraped off the scales from the outer skin and then cut into the living flesh to create the thin slices that were meant to be peeled away from the fish with chopsticks. The fishes’ heads were still intact, as were their insides and inner body cavities. We could see that some of the fish were still breathing when their tortured bodies and gills rose and fell weakly on the platters. When the waitress brought the fish, she also brought a bottle of soy sauce and enough potent green wasabe to put down a wild bull elephant. To eat fish this way, to peel away the meat from an animal that was alive and breathing, was in my opinion essentially barbaric. Nonetheless, I had eaten this way many times over the last year, and in spite of the twinges of guilt I felt as I looked upon the weakly but steadily breathing fish, my mouth was watering in anticipation of what I knew would be a savory meal.
“Should we wait for Max and Hye Jung before we get started on this?” I asked Pierce.
“Let’s give them a few more minutes. We have waited so long already, a few more minutes isn’t going to kill us.”
“You’re right. It won’t kill us, but hopefully it will kill them,” I said as I gestured with my chopsticks towards our suffering meal. “Well, if we aren’t going to eat yet, at least I’m going to get started on my beer. Remember our toast from earlier in the evening?”
I lifted up my Hite beer while Pierce did the same. We stretched our arms across the table and clinked bottles as we reminded ourselves of our toasts from earlier on when we had talked about Pierce’s escape from the San Francisco widow. Then we drank in silence for several long minutes, our eyes staring in mixed pity and longing for the luscious display of our living tortured meal spread out before us on the table. I was full of hunger but well aware that the discomfort of my appetite was nothing in comparison with the pain our unfortunate flounders must have suffered. I was trying to imagine what it would feel like to be skinned alive, flayed, and laid upon a platter, when finally, Berkowitz stormed in with Hye Jung shouting, “Congratulations!” The appearance of the two of them was nothing short of spectacular.
Berkowitz was wearing a black tux with a silver cummerbund and bow tie. The suit was obviously rented since I knew for a fact that Berkowitz had no suits of any kind in his wardrobe of trendy dark shirts, sweaters, slacks, and slick leather jackets. There was a large yellow stain on the ruffled part of his white shirt where either Max or Hye Jung had spilled a significant quantity beer or yellow lemon soju. The suit looked to be of fine quality, but it was full of wrinkles and looked like Berkowitz had slept or played football in it. Standing beside Berkowitz, the top of her pretty head reaching to the height of his chin, both of her delicate hands firmly grasping Berkowitz’s left arm, was my student Hye Jung wearing the cumbersome white rented Victorian wedding gown that Korean brides universally favor for western-style wedding ceremonies. From Berkowitz’s right hand dangled his bride’s bouquet of red and white roses as though their light weight was too much of a burden for the already stumbling drunk groom to carry. Berkowitz wore a wide self-satisfied, inebriated smile upon his face, and Hye Jung, likewise, looked as happy and content as a seven-year-old on her birthday. She wore the heavy white makeup that is the favorite of Korean brides, and her long shiny black hair looked like it had been styled by a professional hair designer at considerable expense. Had they been sober, and had Berkowitz’s tuxedo not looked like he just took it out of the dryer, the two of them standing there together would have made a remarkably tolerable photo for a family album. Berkowitz would have looked manly and debonair in his suit before he had a chance to dispel the illusion of grace by opening his mouth, and Hye Jung, in fact, looked like a chaste virgin who had waited patiently for years to give her hand, and everything else, to just such a gentleman as Max Berkowitz.
Needless to say, Pierce and I were so shocked by the sight of these two in their nuptial vestments that we could hardly speak. I was doubly shocked since I had always believed I knew Berkowitz so well before that night, and I never would have guessed in a million years that this incredible wedding picture standing there in life-size before us was the hidden meaning behind the “Congratulations to me. To me. To me. To me and Hye Jung” that had sounded so much like the insane rant of a confirmed lunatic or genius only minutes before on the phone. I tried hard to smile and say something celebratory to the two of them, but the situation was beyond uncomfortable to me for obvious reasons. All I could manage to say at the time was, “I guess this means you won’t be going to Vietnam in two weeks, huh Max?” Berkowitz answered in a tone that sounded surprisingly earnest.
“What? Vietnam? Hell no, Paulie boy. I’m light-years away from there right now, old buddy. Right now I’m just here, and here’s nowhere but where I am, and that place is heaven, Paulie. You better believe it. You better believe it. You better believe it because that’s the truth, my friend. And you know I never lie.”
“Oh, I see,” was all I could say.
There were a few long moments of quiet until finally Pierce, forever the polite and genial host, broke the silence.
“Well by God, congratulations Max. God bless you, Hye Jung. You look as pretty as a princess in that dress. Lovely. Smashing. Absolutely divine the two of you. What are you doing just standing there? Come over here and sit down with us. Paul, order these two kids some lemon soju. Tell the waitress to send down for another big flounder, make it two. This occasion calls for a grand meal, a fantastic banquet. Why, we’ll call it a wedding feast.”
“Amen, brother Frankie boy,” bellowed Berkowitz as he and Hye Jung sloppily kicked off their shoes. Hye Jung wore fashionable high heels rather than her usual silver cowboy boots. Berkowitz turned to face Hye Jung to look her in the eyes, and then he dropped the bouquet of red and white roses to the floor carelessly so he could put both of his arms around her waist. The tall New Yorker bent down low so he could kiss his Hye Jung passionately for what was, for me at least, an unbearably long time. He pulled the beautiful Korean woman in the cumbersome gown over to our table and sat down with a look of intense pride upon his face as he gazed yearningly at his new wife. Hye Jung’s face looked radiant with joy, but also puzzled and confused as she tried to figure out how she would manage to sit on the floor in the burdensome dress. We three men were now sitting down together ready to eat the raw fish while only Hye Jung remained standing before us uncertain of how she could most efficiently join her husband on the floor. Berkowitz tugged on her dress impatiently and spoke to her in his well-practiced style.
“Come over here baby and sit down next to Poppa,” was what he said. It sounded well worn. It sounded so used up until he almost repeated himself and said with child-like glee, “Come over here and sit down next to me, Mrs. Berkowitz.”