A Pure Heart
by Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2004. All rights reserved.
Professor David Marks was seated with two other foreign professors at a round table in the back of Monk Jazz Bar, near the campus of Pusan National University. The bar was named after the famed jazz musician Thelonious Monk, rather than after some Buddhist monk who loved jazz music, as many Korean students who had very little knowledge of American jazz history mistakenly believed. The blue neon sign over the entrance read the official name Monk, rather than Monk’s, but most of the foreigners, and in particular the English teachers who frequently visited the place, referred to it as Monk’s with the apostrophe s, since that sounded to them more like correct English. Usually it was only the Koreans who would refer to the place as Monk without the s, since they were clueless as to how awkward this sounded to a foreigner’s ear. Many of the foreigners themselves made their own unapologetic error when they referred to the owner of the bar as Mr. Monk, or simply Monk, rather than call him by his Korean name, all because they thought it was cute, or because they were too lazy to try to remember another Korean name.
It was a real tragedy and a great loss to everyone who was familiar with this Monk and his popular establishment when the genial young man with the long hair that was considered to be very unconventional in Korea at the time, and who also possessed an immense knowledge of American jazz history and the contemporary American jazz scene, committed suicide by jumping out of a high window after his wife took a new lover. Monk took the great leap into the unknown just a few years ago, several years after the present story about the three foreigners in his bar took place on an early September evening in 1997.
When Monk greeted the three familiar foreigners at the round table in the back of his bar and brought them their third round of Hite beers, he was so cheerful and friendly, speaking English like a natural to his loyal patrons, that of course no one present could imagine that one day trouble with his woman would so depress and devastate this vibrant and successful small businessman that he would be compelled to do himself in.
After he learned of Monk’s suicide David was troubled by a disturbing dream. In the dream he was stuck in a bar with Robert and Thomas on Texas Street. Although he wanted desperately to leave Thomas had tied him down to his chair and he was immobilized. Robert, drunk as a sailor on leave stood up with his drink in his hand and spoke at length about the lessons to be learned from Monk’s death.
“She killed him, that bitch did,” Robert said in the dream. “Everyone says he did himself in, but she was the cause of all of his troubles, she carried him to his state of desperation. That is what exactly what happened, and Monk’s tragic demise should serve as a warning to all men, Korean, American, and otherwise, that to trust a woman with the entirety of your being is to subject yourself to the very real risk of self-destruction should she violate your faith in her, and if you are not driven to suicide like poor Monk then at least you will suffer an intense humiliation from which you will be lucky to recover completely with the passing of many years. Monk’s tragic end is worth considering here not simply because it serves as a lesson for other men, or because his story is unique in our time, which in truth has more than is share of faithless adultery and treacherous women who willfully violate their matrimonial vows. The true relevance of Monk’s suicide is that it reminds us of the capricious nature of the fate that governs the world and its women that we men mistakenly think we understand so well. One day a man is up, as satisfied as a king with all of his successes in romance and business, the next day he is falling face downward towards the pavement because the woman for whom all of his struggles were waged to reach a place of stability and permanence in life has almost absent-mindedly decided to seek elsewhere the thrill he could not give to her himself because he was too tired from all of his hard work on her behalf.”
Next in the dream a prostitute, much to old to still be a prostitute, walked over to David who remained immobile and tied down in his chair. Her long white hair like that of a Korean ghost brushed against his face feeling like wool as she took his hand and placed firmly it against her chest. Instead of feeling the soft breast of a woman David could feel only the sharp outlines of a frail ribcage.
Now this dream of David’s was years away as our present tale commenced, because there was Monk alive and well, chatting away and smiling with our three foreigners as if the sun would never set on his bright future. The three foreigners at the round table in the back of Monk’s were not thinking about fate and they were not at all worried about the doomed Monk as they told him how much they enjoyed the new quartet he had discovered for the night’s performance. Monk told them he was pleased they were satisfied with his establishment and he told them to tell all the foreigners they knew about his place. They could even tell their students about his bar since in Korea most college kids were old enough to drink and they made excellent customers spending their parents’ hard earned won on Monk’s beer. Then, after reminding the three foreigners of the night’s special on mixed drinks, two for one, tonight only, he spun around with his empty tray and returned to talk with his wife who was working behind the bar, his long black hair seeming to bounce to the rhythm of the quartet as he walked across the half-empty dance floor.
After Monk left, the three foreigners began talking about what a great guy he was, very cool for a Korean, and they talked about how terrific it was that there was a place like this where they could kick back and have a few drinks, perhaps more than a few drinks, while listening to what had to be the best live jazz in the entire city of Pusan. For these reasons, as well as for the fact that the bar was small enough to be comfortable and friendly but large enough not to be overcrowded even on a busy Saturday night like this one, Monk’s was indeed a very popular hangout for foreigners working and living in Pusan, and was perhaps the premier small venue for live music in the entire city.
David Marks, eldest of the three foreigners at thirty-seven years old, was tall, slightly overweight from too much drink and too little exercise, but nevertheless moderately attractive. The American said he liked Monk’s in particular because he believed the Korean cliental was more respectable there than at several of the other more popular bars and clubs in Pusan which were frequented by foreigners. David’s hands flailed at his sides as he explained to the other two foreigners, his American friend Thomas and Thomas’s Australian drinking buddy Robert, how in his opinion Monk’s was obviously more respectable than the tawdry nightclubs on Texas Street in Choryang Dong across the street from Pusan Station which were full of prostitutes who catered to the Russian sailors and other international patrons who came to Texas Street when their ships were in harbor in the great port city of Pusan. Years ago when the American naval presence was more noticeable in Pusan, and long before the opening up of trade with the Russians through Vladivostock, the Texas Street girls sold their goods to the American sailors and GIs who frequented the nightclubs and sleazy hotels in the Texas Street neighborhood. These days, however, the Americans were far less common than the Russians. David reminded Thomas and Robert of the night when the two of them had persuaded him against his better instincts to go out to Texas Street. He recalled the strong body odor of the Russian sailors who crowded the dance floor and danced there unashamed with their gaudy hookers. The placed smelled like a veritable locker room with all of the big Russian men sweating up a malodorous cloud of manly stink as they stomped away with their whores to the cheesy techno beat. After Robert called over one of the bargirls to join them at their table, and after Thomas assented to Robert’s advances towards the girl and joined in with the dirty talk and sexualized banter, David politely excused himself and took a taxi home alone. It was only 10:30, but he had already had as much of Texas Street sleaze as he could stomach for one night.
David continued talking as Thomas and Robert drank their Hite beers, about the time Thomas and Robert had dragged David against his will to one of the bars across the street from the American military base, Camp Hieleah in Choupdong. That place was similar to Texas Street in spirit if not in size, the only real difference being that it catered to American GIs rather than Russian sailors. David had left there directly after the strip show, which was short and rather respectable and tame considering the surroundings. Nonetheless, it was not tame enough for David, and he took a taxi home by himself once again, long before the place really started hopping at 11:00 with all the GIs dancing nasty with the bar girls and a few adventurous English teachers joining in the fun which was anything but reflective of good, honest, and wholesome American values.
More tolerable but still not as nice as Monk’s in David’s view was Murphy’s, the nightclub and bar in the basement of the Hyatt Hotel at Hyundai Beach. There were no garish prostitutes there, although there were a fair number of well-dressed Korean women on the hunt for foreign dates and boyfriends. These women often pretended to be innocent girls with little or no experience, and they were quite gifted at fooling many of the foreign men who had no idea that the same women would return to Murphy’s night after night to work the dance floor and bar, hunting for a different man each time. Sometimes they accepted payment, sometimes they did not ask for it, and from time to time they tried with success to turn an unsuspecting trick into a boyfriend who would take them out and treat them for weeks on end. Once every so often a clueless foreigner married one of the girls he met at Murphy’s, having no idea that she was formerly a “hostess” or “business” girl.
Fortunately, in David’s opinion, Monk’s was a classier joint free of all the tawdry glitz and questionable women who made him so uncomfortable at those other places which Robert and Thomas so enthusiastically enjoyed. Sure, there were a few young women who came to Monk’s with a religious regularity, specifically because they knew the place was frequented by foreign men, but for the most part the Koreans at Monk’s consisted of small groups of young people, many of them students, just passing the time with friends and enjoying the music. An additional advantage which Monk’s had to offer was that foreign women, real educated English teachers and professors, were not afraid of or disgusted by Monk’s as they were afraid of and disgusted by those other places. David said that Monk’s was a good place to mix with trustworthy foreign women with whom he could converse in fluent English, even though he had never actually initiated a conversation with any of them.
Robert agreed with David that Monk’s was indeed the classier place, but the short, muscular, handsome blonde, and blue-eyed Australian saw this as a drawback rather than as an advantage.
“Sure mate, this place is classier than hell, and the women don’t dress like whores,” Robert said with a grin. “But if you ask me, I prefer a wild night out on Texas Street with a bargirl, or a night on the town with a lovely little hostess form Murphy’s. The decent little Korean students and overeducated politically correct western women here leave me as limp as old celery.”
“You shouldn’t talk that way,” said David. He spoke with the authority of a man twelve years older than the twenty-five-year-old Australian. “Remember, you are a university professor now. You have a certain image and appearance to keep up. What would your students or Professor Choi say if they knew you liked to hang out on Texas Street?”
Professor Choi was the boss of the three foreigners who all taught at the Language Institute of Pusan National University. David was concerned about Robert maintaining appearances for Professor Choi because it was he David who had stuck his neck out for Robert and influenced Professor Choi to hire him even though Robert had no master’s degree. While David had a master’s degree in English Literature from a very good American university and seven years of experience teaching English in Korea, Robert had only a three-year degree from a mediocre college in Australia and almost no significant job experience whatsoever. David had had to pull hard for Robert in order to convince Professor Choi to hire him, and now David was concerned that Robert’s behavior off campus would mar his own reputation and good standing with Professor Choi and the rest of the Korean faculty in the Language Institute.
At times like these, when Robert spoke so admiringly of Texas Street bargirls, David wondered why he had ever stuck his neck out for the Australian who was not even his friend but rather the drinking buddy of Thomas, his good friend from the States. Thomas was a friend from college in the States, and while he was anything but committed to the teaching profession, at least he had a master’s degree even though it was not in English. David was not at all worried about Thomas’s standing with Professor Choi, since Thomas was much more discrete than Robert about his rare encounters with the finely dressed girls at Murphy’s who he dated whenever he could afford it, which was not often. David had persuaded Professor Choi to hire Thomas and David had no regrets about that. He had been very uncomfortable, however, when Thomas had pressured him to convince Professor Choi to hire his drinking buddy, Robert. Previously, Robert had been teaching grammar school kids at a private institute, and the Australian had no experience teaching college students or adults. David suspected he was one of those backpacker teachers who had little serious interest in education or pedagogy and was only using English teaching as a means to support his travels and misadventures in Asia. The way Robert constantly gawked over all his young Korean students and demeaned and disparaged all of the foreign women who taught at the institute, David suspected that Robert might have been led to pose as a teacher in Asia in order to satisfy a fetish for Asian women. Nonetheless, David had convinced Professor Choi to hire Robert because Thomas was one of David’s best friends. Professor Choi had hired Robert on David’s advice because his faith in David’s instincts and honesty was absolute. David was a seven-year veteran of the Pusan National University Language Institute, and it had taken him considerable time and hard work to build up that level of trust and earn his good reputation. Now David was afraid Professor Choi would cut him loose after he found out what Robert was really like.
David wanted Robert to know that he did not approve of all of his whoring, but he felt he needed to tell him with a certain degree of tact since he thought his good friend Thomas might be displeased if he were too direct.
“You know, Robert,” David said politely as he picked up his Hite beer, “You really ought to try and see a side of Korea which I don’t believe you are familiar with. For your information, in addition to Texas Street bargirls and Murphy’s hostesses this country has some fabulous and moving scenery, as well as a good number of very decent and warm-hearted people. Have you gone hiking or climbing in any of the beautiful national parks yet? Chirisan? Soraksan? Odeasan? You should plan a trip for yourself, spend a few days in the countryside so you can escape from all of the neon, glitz, and painted ladies for a while.”
“I took a trip up north to Soraksan during our spring vacation. Had a splendid time I must say. The mountains were brilliant, but of course I did no real climbing or hiking since I spent most of my time in the foreigner’s Casino at the Mt. Sorak Hotel.”
“You went all the up to Soraksan and you didn’t do any climbing or hiking?” David asked incredulously. “Incredible. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“How much did you lose?” asked Thomas, a mid-sized, balding mid-westerner who worried so much about his life and his future it made him restless and fidgety.
“Not a single Korean won,” Robert boasted. “I came out ahead, believe it or not. When I walked out of the casino I was up almost 500,000 won. That’s about $650 U.S. with the great exchange rates before the crash.”
Robert had taken his sojourn at the Mt. Sorak Hotel Casino in the spring of 1997, several months before the currency crisis of that year would send the won on a downward spiral and take a big chunk out of everyone’s paycheck.
“You lucky bastard,” shouted Thomas. “Here’s to you,” he said as he raised his beer.
“Here here,” Robert quipped in return as he raised his own bottle to himself and downed a big gulp. “Paid for the whole trip, including travel expenses, with the winnings, and had enough to get myself a tall voluptuous Korean honey when I got back to Pusan.”
“You bastard, “ Thomas shouted again. “I bet you didn’t even go home first.”
“That’s right, mate. Train from Seoul pulled into Pusan Station at 5:30 p.m. Right then and there I seriously considered walking across the road to get myself a Texas Street girl straight away. Then I thinks to myself, wait a second now, I’ve got some major cash on my hands, so why not live it up and head on over to Murphy’s for a tryst with a hostess?”
“Why not indeed,” Thomas agreed. “You had the cash. Time to get some quality goods.”
“Right you are mate. But to be honest with you, though, it was a real struggle at the time. I mean I was all mixed up about it. That Texas Street snatch was just blocks away and I had been dreaming of hot Korean girls for hours on the train from Seoul. I was so hungry for it that I even considered making a play on a fine young hottie who looked like she was alone on the train, but I got up and cooled myself down a bit by walking up and down the aisles for a spell, and eventually I talked myself out of it. Why work for it like a square, I says to myself, when I had more than enough on me to purchase my pleasure. Understand me, that didn’t mean my eyes weren’t glued to the hottie on the train for the entire trip. I mean she was outrageous and I couldn’t look away from her for more than a few minutes at a time. She must have thought I was a lunatic.”
“She was right,” Thomas blurted out.
“She was indeed. But then, be patient, I says to myself,” Robert continued. “Just wait, bide your time, and soon enough the train will pull into Pusan Station and before you can say Jack be nimble I’ll be speeding off in a cab to Hyundai Beach and Murphy’s, ready to drop some tall cash on a worthy cause. I pulled out a bottle of soju I had stashed away in my bag and downed it as fast as I could just to cool off my jets. But by the time the train pulled into the station, I was such a mess I thought I might skip Murphy’s and head straight on over to Texas Street for a fast one, if you know what I’m talking about. I mean, by that time I didn’t think I would make it all the way to Hyundai Beach, I was jonesing so bad for Korean twat.”
“So what did you do?” asked Thomas with prurient delight. “Did you opt for Texas Street or Murphy’s?”
“I’m getting to that. Well, so I’m standing outside in front of Pusan Station with the fat wad of bills in my pocket and the soju making everything topsy-turvy and surreal, and I’m asking myself, Robert my boy, where to next? Should I walk on over to Texas Street or flag down a taxi for Murphy’s. I was utterly undecided concerning my proper course of action because it’s not every day I have enough cash to get a Murphy’s girl, but I’m so close to Texas Street I can almost smell the pussy in the air.”
“Well, Robert, we all face moments in our lives when we are at the crossroads so to speak,” David said with a sarcasm he did not attempt to conceal. He was no longer concerned about offending his friend Thomas by making evident his disapproval of the lifestyle of Thomas’s buddy Robert. Robert was going to get them all fired for sure, David thought to himself. He could not predict when it would happen, perhaps it would happen this semester, perhaps the next semester. It all depended on when Professor Choi would find out about Robert’s off-campus extracurricular activities, and it was a certainty that sooner or later Professor Choi would find out about those activities. Inevitably, on some ill-fated Saturday night, or more likely during the wee hours of the morning just before dawn, a student would run into Robert when he was smashed and out on the street and headed for a sleazy yogwan with one of his Korean hookers. Robert was far too indiscrete to avoid such a crossing of paths between teacher and student. David knew this with incontestable certitude. Before that happened, Robert might get caught sleeping with one of his students, a freshman no doubt. When he ditched the poor girl, she would probably confide in one of her friends and reveal her insufferable pain, and although the friend would swear herself to secrecy, she would predictably talk to everyone she knew about the affair, and eventually some young patriotic college boy would learn of the scandal. Despising foreigners and their corruption of pure and innocent Korean girls, the young patriot would march straight on over to Professor Choi’s office and inform him of the travesty of the foreigner’s crimes of seduction. Then Professor Choi would come looking for David, and at that point in time not even David’s seven years of faithful service to Pusan National University would do him any good. Professor Choi would assume, precisely because David had argued so strongly on behalf of Robert when David had convinced Professor Choi to hire him despite his lack of credentials and experience, that Robert, Thomas and David were all birds of a feather with all of the same dissolute vices and offenses. After that, it would only be moments before David found himself at 37, searching the want ads for a new job without a decent recommendation or reference from his previous employer of seven years. Not that it would be so difficult to find another suitable position in Korea, where English teaching jobs were as plentiful as kimchi. The point was that David liked his current position at Pusan National University. That was why he had stayed there for seven years after all, and he was positively infuriated that he would soon have to kiss his job goodbye, all because of Robert.
“The lecher,” David said to himself as he contemplated his future.
David took a good long swig of his Hite for strength and continued to address Robert making no apologies now for his sarcasm.
“You had a momentous decision before, young man, when you we standing there in front of Pusan Station trying to figure out where to go to chase your whores. The way you so eloquently described the scene, for a moment I imagined I was listening to a veritable poet contemplating the crossroads. And which road did you take Robert, the one to Texas Street or the one to Murphy’s? Which one was less traveled? Didn’t that make all the difference?”
Robert stared blankly at David.
“What the hell are you taking about, old man?” he asked. “You know, David, sometimes you are speaking English but I understand you no better than I understand my very worst student.”
Old man, thought David incredulously. How dare that lout call me an old man. What did this kid know about age or youth or the importance of time? He was so obviously ignorant of all of the weighty and essential things. Why was he, David, even wasting his time with him?
“Perhaps if you spent some more time reading like a goddamn English teacher, and a little less time chasing whores on Texas Street and destroying my good reputation you might know what I’m talking about.”
“Hey David,” Thomas said with a nervous chuckle that revealed his discomfort. “Simmer down buddy. What’s wrong with you? That’s our good friend Robert you’re talking to.”
“What’s wrong with me Thomas?” David asked with rising anger. “I’ll tell you exactly what’s wrong with me. My regret over the fact that I ever let you con me into helping out this pervert by convincing Professor Choi to hire him.”
“Pervert?” Robert asked with an insolent laugh. “Did someone call my name?”
Thomas also laughed, at first nervously like a startled schoolgirl, but then heartily like a dirty old man relishing a scene of inane dissipation. “David,” he said, “You sound like an old woman. Lighten up a bit.”
“Don’t tell me to lighten up. I’m talking about jobs, mine and yours.”
“Our jobs are safe and secure,” said Robert. “Choi wouldn’t fire us in a million years even if I shagged his daughter in the middle of the quad.”
“Don’t be so sure,” warned David.
“Listen, David,” said Thomas, “Perhaps our friend Robert here has his faults; a certain excessive but entirely understandable weakness for beautiful Asian women being chief among them. But that does doesn’t give you the right to be such a boor.”
“A boor? Me?” David nearly shouted, his face red with anger and resentment. “Thomas. Take a good look at him. Just listen to him for goodness sake. Can’t you see what kind of a person “our friend Robert” really is?”
“And what kind of a person might that be?” Robert interjected. “If you have something you would like to say to me David, look me in the face mate and tell it to me directly. There’s no need to talk to me through Thomas. Go ahead, let me have it straight old boy. I can take it. I’m a man, aren’t I?”
“Robert. Don’t you ever call me mate. Someone like you could never be a friend of mine.”
“Come on now David. Calm down old buddy,” Thomas said with an exaggerated soothing voice. “That’s Robert you’re talking to. He’s a friend and you know it. Think about all the times we’ve sat around a table just like this one and packed down round after round. I couldn’t count the number of times if I had a week to do it. That’s jolly old Robert there, come here to Korea all the way from the land down under. You’re getting yourself all worked up over nothing. I know just what you need to see the light, another beer is all it will take.”
“I don’t want another beer, Thomas,” David stated flatly.
“Sure you do mate,” Robert assured him as well as himself. “Monk? Monk? Where the hell is that guy when you need him. Someone go find that no good Korean longhair and tell him to bring us another round of Hite’s, on me of course.”
“That’s the spirit Robert. But why not forget the Hites? Remember Monk said something about a special on mixed drinks, tonight only? Yeah right, tonight only. Can you believe that bullshit? That’s the same special they have here every Saturday night. That Monk’s a born businessman I tell you. What do you think, David? How about a round of mixed drinks? It’s on Robert, he says he’s buying.”
“I don’t want another drink,” David said. “I think I’d better leave now.”
“Come on old boy,” Robert insisted. “You don’t want to leave already. That’s not necessary. It’s not even 11:00 yet.”
“It is very necessary,” said David.
“Don’t be that way man. Stay a while longer and let me buy you a drink. I know just what you need. How’s about a vodka and tonic?”
David started to get up, but the ever-agitated Thomas immediately reached over and grabbed him by the arm with his fidgety hand. “Come on now David. Let the guy buy you a drink.”
David was infuriated, but each entreaty and offer of a free drink wore down his resolve like the asphalt alleys wear down the high heels of a Texas Street girl making the rounds night after night after night. He thought it all over in his head. Perhaps he really was being too much like an old woman. Perhaps he should permit Robert to buy him the drink. Thomas didn’t appear to be at all bothered by the guy, and David could trust Thomas’s good judgment, couldn’t he? Thomas was a true friend, the kind you made in college and would keep for life. Thomas was the kind of friend you wanted to be around when you needed a drink and when you would get older and need to be reminded of how adventurous and reckless you were when you were young. And as a bachelor, you really needed your buddies more than a married man did, didn’t you? But was the Thomas there pleading with him to stay for another round the same Thomas he had met back in the dorm in Ann Arbor nearly 18 years ago? So much about both he and Thomas had changed since then. Squandered time and forgone ambition had left his friend bitter and unsatisfied with life. While David was in Korea because he honestly loved travel and teaching English, Thomas was there primarily because he had not been able to find his niche back home. Certainly the Korea David embraced and Thomas resigned himself to had also changed Thomas, just like it had changed so many of the other foreign men David knew there. They all came to Korea with certain standards and principles acquired from study or various run-ins and meetings with adversity in youth, but somehow all of that was easily laid aside like so much extra baggage the first time they paid a visit to Murphy’s and were approached by a hostess in high-heel leather boots, a mini skirt, and a tight sleeveless sweater. A few flattering compliments from such a tart and they easily forgot all they had sincerely believed about their own moral compasses, and soon enough they fell into patterns of behavior which they began to vociferously defend as culturally acceptable in Asia, while at the same time assuring themselves that they would never allow themselves to take such liberties back home. The prostitutes were as plentiful as rice. It was all part of the culture, they always said, and of course they had nothing to do with the creation or origin or development of that. They were merely responding to it and their surroundings. When in Rome do as Romans. When in Korea….
But if only their sisters and mothers back home knew how they were spending their hard earned won overseas, what would they have to say about it? David wanted to know? Probably, he thought, they would never find out, and it was just as well that they didn’t. What could they do about it if they did find out? Cry? Scream? Disown their brothers and sons? Surely they could do nothing so extreme, David believed. And if a bunch of women could endorse such behavior, or at least not disown their western boys for it, well then how could David walk away from his best friend Thomas for his endorsement of that same behavior? Certainly David could not do that. No question about it, unless of course, as an old philosophy professor had once announced during a lecture back in Ann Arbor years before, so many of life’s certainties were questionable into infinity.
“Alright. I’ll have one more drink,” David said, his resistance broken down by his own tortured logic.
“Great,” said Robert. “Where’s Monk? There he is. Hey Monk, over here you Korean beatnik. I’m buying a round for me chums.”
Monk, who was talking to a table of foreign men, each with his own Korean date, looked over when he heard Robert call his name, which wasn’t his real name remember, but the name of the famous American jazz musician after whom he had named his bar. Well accustomed to responding to that appellation which sounded nothing like his real name, Ryu Gi Ho, Monk politely excused himself from the table of foreigners with the Korean dates after taking their orders without writing anything down and then walked on over to the table in the back of the bar where David, Thomas, and Robert were seated after giving the order of the other foreigners to one of his young waitresses.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said courteously. “How about the music tonight? Good enough for you, Professors?”
“Those guys are laying down a real fine groove. Blowing hard like real professionals,” Robert said. “Outstanding for a bunch of Koreans.”
“There are plenty of fine musicians in Korea, Robert,” David said. “These guys are as good as any quartet I’ve seen back home.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen these guys in here before, Monk,” said Thomas.
“That’s right, Professor. Tonight is their debut at Monk Jazz Bar,” Monk explained. “My wife discovered them in a small café in Seoul last month when she was visiting her sister who attends university in that city. My wife liked them so much she invited them to come down to Pusan to play in our club. We are so fortunate they agreed. They’re going to headline for us for the next two weeks.”
The three foreigners and Monk all stopped talking for a few minutes and silently listened to the music as they watched the four Koreans on stage blast out a superb rendition of Ray Charles’s Greenback. The quartet jazzed up the bluesy melody so capably that it was easy to look past the piano man’s heavily accented and comically incomprehensible interpretation of the lyrics.
“Your wife has a fine ear for talent,” said Thomas. “How is Mrs. Monk these days?”
“Cho Hee is doing fine. See her behind the bar working so hard for the success of our family business? She is a dutiful wife.”
The four men looked across the half-empty dance floor to the bar and saw Monk’s wife pouring several drinks at once while she seemed to be lecturing a couple of young waitresses who David recognized as his students from his class last semester.
“She’s a real looker, Monk,” Robert announced. “How old is she?”
“Never mind that,” Monk laughed. “Cho Hee is my wife, not yours.”
“You’re a lucky man Monk,” Thomas said. “Looks like you’ve got everything you need here. This fine bar. A lovely wife working hard for you. A hot quartet and the hippest haircut in South Korea. What else could you ask for?”
“Thank you so much for your kind compliments, Professor,” Monk said as he ran his fingers through his long black hair. “You like my bar, Professor? That’s wonderful. I am happy to see you are so pleased. I want you to enjoy yourself at my place. It has taken my wife and I a long time and much hard work to make Monk Jazz Bar a success, but when I hear compliments like yours it makes all of our hard work worthwhile. Have a good time here.”
“It’s hard not to,” said Robert. “Why, tonight we’ve been having a roar of it over here, haven’t we boys? Packing away the Hites, listening to the cool sounds, conversing and discoursing over the beauteous females of your native land.”
“He means we love the place, Monk,” said Thomas.
“I’m glad, very glad,” Monk continued. “You know, when I first opened Monk Jazz Bar over seven years ago, I had to borrow most of the capital from two uncles and three cousins, and even then I barely had enough to pay the rent and stock the bar during our first year in business. It was a rough and difficult start. I only just finished paying my relatives back this spring. Now business is great with all of the English teachers coming to Pusan these days. Finally all of my debts are paid off and my wife tells me I should be saving our money so I can put a down payment on this building.”
“Maybe you should listen to her Monk,” suggested Thomas. “You’re in the clear, and she’s obviously got a good head on her shoulders. Just look at her over there behind the bar dishing out all the advice to your waitresses.”
They all looked over to the bar again and there was Monk’s wife, still lecturing Davis’s former students.
“She certainly can dish it out,” said Robert, “Must come natural to her, she’s such a dish herself.”
“That’s right Professor,” said Monk. “But remember please, sir, she is my wife, not yours.”
“Don’t worry about him Monk,” said Thomas, “Your Mrs. Monk is out of his league, several classes above him, or my name isn’t Thomas Finely. You’ve got nothing to worry about. You’ve got it all worked out Monk. What are you now, only thirty-three or thirty-four? I’m probably older than you and you’ve got everything you need while everyone knows I’m just a miserable old grunt in your bar with thirty grand in student loans to pay off and no hope of doing that any time soon on an English teacher’s salary.”
“You’re not miserable or old, Thomas. You’ll pay off the loans some day,” said David. “And you’re not an English teacher. You’re an English professor. Remember that.”
“Professor. Teacher. What’s the difference? We’re all grunts and we know it.”
“Speak for yourself,” David said.
“That’s right mate,” said Robert. “We’re real professors, aren’t we. Says so in our contract. Students call me Professor Bob, don’t they?”
“I wasn’t talking about you Robert,” said David. “And remember who got you that contract the next time you’re down on Texas Street.”
“I am thirty-five years old and my wife Cho Hee just turned twenty-nine,” said Monk. “It was not easy for us to get where we are today. Fortunately we were young and vigorous and we could work our fingers to the bone without losing our minds because we decided together to put all of our whole hearts into Monk Jazz Bar. Believe me, Professors, it’s been no walk in the park as the Americans say. But all of our struggles and sacrifices have paid off. There are almost as many English teachers as there are GIs in Pusan nowadays, so business is good and we don’t have to worry that much about fights between our patrons. I haven’t kicked anyone out of here or called the police in over four months. Monk Jazz Bar is always full enough to keep Cho Hee and I busy, working hard like we always do six nights a week. We’re closed on Sunday so that gives us a little break, but usually the girls and I don’t finish cleaning up this place until four or four-thirty a.m. We don’t go to bed sometimes until dawn and quite often we don’t see the sun for a week at a time. Almost we live our lives in total darkness, like a couple of vampires, sleeping through the day so we have enough energy to take care of the bar at night.”
“You’re a regular workaholic Monk,” said Robert. “Can you believe this guy David?”
David shrugged his shoulders. “We all work hard,” he said.
“Hard work makes a happy life,” said Monk.
“And an early death,” said Robert. “Your Korea is full of guys like you Monk. Work six days a week, fifteen hours a day, then sleep all day Sunday just to recover because you’re too tired and can’t get up even to say hello to the kids, let alone to give your wife a proper shag. That’s not living.”
“Robert,” David said while looking directly into the handsome young Australian’s blue eyes. “Korea and Australia and America and the entire world is full of people who you might refer to as workaholics. Bar owners, taxi drivers, lawyers, doctors, factory workers, even English teachers. Few people are lucky enough in life to get something for nothing, so we all have to work work work until we are old enough to retire and take our well deserved rest.”
“And then prepare to die. It’s a bloody shame I say,” Robert declared. “I’ll not be such a sap. Mark my words.”
“So what are you going to do get out of working?” asked David.
“I never said I could do that mate,” said Robert. “I suppose I’ll have to work till I’m gray like the rest of you chumps. But be advised mates, when I’m on holiday I’m on holiday, and not like some brain dead middle-class square either, but like a real live man in the prime of my youth. I’ll never be too tired from work to turn away a woman. From time to time I may be too poor, but that’s another story.”
“You won’t be young forever,” said David.
“I’ll always be younger than you,” Robert said, “In spirit and in fact.”
“You think you’re so invincible,” said David. “You ought to know you’re not. No one is invincible. Everyone dies. You’ll die some day too, just like the rest of us. And what do you want the world to remember about you when you’re gone? Your little Texas Street escapades?”
“And why not?” Robert asked with a scornful laugh. “And don’t you go believing there’s anything so little about them either friend.
“You’re a real piece of work,” said David.
“I’ll never work as hard at anything as Monk and his wife here. I promise you that my boys,” said Robert. “I bet the poor grunts don’t have the energy to give themselves a needed bit of pleasure after they close down this place for the night and flop down on the bed just as the sun’s a rising. Isn’t that right Monk? When was the last time you and the Misses had yourselves a decent screw?”
“I always work hard, but I can see my wife every night here in the bar. We are never apart. When we go home she makes me very happy during our private time, but that is none of your business” said Monk.
“Well, I guess your case is different Monk. Like Thomas said, you’ve got everything you need,” Robert conceded. “But don’t you ever get sick and tired of all the hard work, even sometimes? Don’t you ever just want to give it all up, close up the joint, and go on holiday?”
“Never,” said Monk. “I would not trade my life for someone else’s, not even if I could trade places with anyone in the entire world.”
“Did you hear what he said Robert?” David asked. “He said he wouldn’t trade places with anyone else in the world. Now that’s true contentment.”
“I wouldn’t trade my life for another’s either,” Robert boasted. “I’m content to be what I am.”
“And just what is that?” David asked. “What is it that you are, Robert?”
Robert didn’t answer. He frowned for a moment while the others endured the pause in the conversation by listening intently to the quartet. They were playing an old Billy Taylor tune now, as flawlessly as if they had composed it themselves. Suddenly, inexplicably, Robert started laughing quietly to himself while David glowered at him convinced of his own superiority. Thomas meanwhile was momentarily oblivious to the divergence of personalities and ethics that threatened to bring his two friends to blows. Instead, he brooded and agonized, as he was apt to do, until he reached a state of heightened excitement. He continued to brood over the obvious differences between Monk’s life and the life he himself had been leading ever since he came to Korea on David’s advice two years ago and started working as an English professor at Pusan National University.
“I would trade places with Monk here in a second,” Thomas burst out loudly after slamming his fist on the table and breaking the silence.
“You would not,” said Robert. “I can’t believe my ears listening to you. You always say you’re not keen on living here in Korea,” said Robert. “You bitch and moan about Korea and Koreans more than anyone else I know. You would trade places with Monk the Korean? I think not, Thomas. Not that I myself wouldn’t enjoy playing husband to Mrs. Monk for a few nights if you know what I mean, but I’d never want to live a Korean’s life with all of its outdated rules and prohibitions. Tradition they call it, culture they say, but I say it’s more like blinders, a gag, and a bloody tight pair of handcuffs that everyone’s forced to wear.”
Hearing Robert’s statement with some concern, Monk stared blankly at the handsome but disrespectful and impertinent Australian for a few moments. Then he looked over at David as if to seek some guidance from the man he instinctively trusted more than the other two. David only looked back at Monk with wide eyes, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head while quickly making a motion with his hand that said never mind, pay no attention to the confrontational barbarian. Monk announced that it was time for him to take the order for the drinks. Robert handed him some bills and told him to bring back four vodka and tonics. Monk asked why four drinks when there were only three of them at the table. Robert said he wanted to take advantage of the special and promised he would drink the extra one. Monk walked quickly over to the bar and the three foreigners again watched his hair bouncing to the jazzy melody from the quartet. Meanwhile Thomas continued to grumble about his desire to trade places with Monk.
“I’m not saying I would ever want to be a Korean,” said Thomas. “You all know that I certainly have no great love for this country and don’t seem to get on well with the natives. When I think of the food which makes me positively ill, I mean they eat dogs for God’s sake, and the traffic, the smog, the drab depressing uniformity of the artless architecture, the xenophobia, the way I’ll always be a foreigner and so never fully accepted by the Koreans, the fact that I don’t have a single Korean male friend except for Monk here and he’s probably friendly because he wants me to keep coming to his place and buying drinks, when I consider all these things I know it’s only my job that keeps me here. No, I wouldn’t want to trade places with Monk so I could become a Korean and live a Korean life. I’m talking more about his bar and his career, the fact that he is a real entrepreneur, autonomous and free, his own man with no worries about pleasing some boss who demands you kiss his ass five days a week. I should have opened up my own place back home after I finished college so I could be as independent as Monk here. I never should have wasted my time with graduate school. What was the point in slaving away for three years for that worthless master’s degree when it hasn’t gotten me anything better than my pitiful English teacher’s job in Korea?"
“What’s so pitiful about it?” asked David. “You’ve got what you need, a decent place to live, two months of paid vacation and enough money to eat out and enjoy yourself whenever you like. You did the right thing getting your degree. Don’t second-guess yourself.”
“It was a waste of time. I poured thousands and thousands into that piece of paper, and just look at me now. I’m a goddamn exile, stuck here in Korea and couldn’t find a decent job back home if my life depended on it. And it’s not like you say it is here, David. Sure the vacation is nice and I’m not starving, but you know as well as I do that the roach infested campus apartments we live in wouldn’t be fit for a welfare queen back home.”
“He’s right about the apartments, David,” said Robert. “Mine was flooded up to my ankles last winter when the water pipe burst. Professor Choi waited three weeks before he called the bloody plumbers and I had to sleep in a yogwan. Cost me a fortune to pay for the yogwan, so I wound up sleeping on Thomas’s floor for the better part of a month.”
“Robert, you don’t realize how much Professor Choi has done for you already just by hiring you. But if either you or Thomas is unhappy here, well then maybe you should just go home. It’s not written that you have to stay in Korea for the rest of your lives. Thomas, with your intelligence you could be doing anything you wanted to back home. You could be doing a hell of a lot more with yourself than you are here too, if you stayed away from the certain questionable influences.”
Robert knew exactly what David was talking about when he spoke of “questionable influences,” but he held his tongue beginning to wonder if David really was considering saying something about him to Professor Choi that might jeopardize his position at Pusan National University. Robert knew those two, David and Choi, were as thick as molasses. The young Australian understood and even accepted his own faults. He knew David believed he was brash and impudent. David was right, Robert acknowledged to himself, when he criticized him for embracing all forms of risk. Sometimes Robert was in fact utterly foolish to the point of absurdity, like when drank excessively and then slept with whores without a condom. All of this was true, but Robert could live with it and was even proud of it in his way. What he wanted to know as he listened to David preach to him was what gave David Marks the moral authority to judge him the way he always did. Who in the hell did David think he was, his father? One father like that son of bitch who had beat him and his mother almost daily back in Brisbane during his youth was more than enough. No one has the right to pass judgment over us, Robert thought to himself, not after what we’ve been through, me and Mum. Not me for my whores nor Mum for her brilliantly sordid affairs. He resented David for his pomposity and he sorely wanted David to know his mind. But he was perceptive enough to sense that his job might be on the line and he was smart enough to know when to leave a challenge from David unanswered.
“I’d be wearing a Starbuck’s apron back home, slinging yuppies’ cappuccinos and mochas, and you know it David,” Thomas continued.
“Don’t be such a grouse,” said David. “Give yourself some credit Thomas. If you don’t want to be a grunt the rest of your life, and I’m not saying I agree that you are a grunt, I mean you’re a professor at a national university for goodness sake, not a measly hagwon institute teacher. But you seem to think you’re a grunt and I’m telling you that if you really think that way then you should take the next plane home and do what you have to do to open your goddamn bar. Why, you could open up a place back on our old campus and milk the undergrads on cheap American beer until you’re richest man in Ann Arbor.”
“Easier said than done,” said Thomas. “I’ve got no capital.”
David started to answer, but then he pondered Thomas’s last statement for a moment and reconsidered his response. “Capital. That’s right. You do have a problem there.”
“Go to a bank mate, “Robert suggested. “Simple as that.”
“I can’t do that,” said. “My credit rating sucks. Screwed it up with credit cards when I was in grad school. At one point I had five cards maxed out at once. That was over ten years ago and I’m still paying for it. No bank is going to give me a loan.”
“Here are your drinks, Professors,” said Monk who had just returned from the bar with the four vodka and tonics and had been standing with the drinks long enough to overhear the foreigners talking about capital for a bar in America. He handed one drink each to David and Thomas and slammed two of them down on the table in front of Robert. Then he turned to face Thomas and spoke. “Borrow the capital from relatives like I did,” he suggested.
“You might want to consider that,” David said.
“Why? So I could lose all their dough? They would never forgive me for it.”
“How do you know you’ll lose the money,” David asked.
“Because,” Thomas said.
“Because why?” David asked.
“Just because I know I will,” said Thomas. He picked up his vodka and tonic and proposed a toast. “Here’s to all pipe dreams,” he said.
“Here here,” said Robert. All three of them took a drink, Robert taking his from both of his two glasses. As the foreigners drank Monk continued to speak.
“If you want to have your dream you have to chase after it fearlessly. Once you decide to pursue your dream you can never look back.”
“Listen to him, Thomas,” said David. “He knows what he’s talking about.”
“Look around you, Professor. You see my place? You like Monk Jazz Bar? You like my lovely wife behind the bar? Do you envy my freedom and independence? All of these things you can have too if you chase your dream with persistence.”
“I don’t know, Monk. I don’t know if I have it in me. Maybe I’m like Robert and don’t think I can work as hard as you.”
“You have it in you, Professor. Everything you need is there inside you. You just don’t know how to find it yet.”
“Where is the everything I need. Please tell me, Monk, because I’m dying to know. I’m not like David here. I don’t want to be an English teacher in Korea the rest of my life.”
“Why not? You don’t like Korea?”
“No offense, Monk, but I’m not exactly crazy about your country. And teaching English can be a real drag sometimes.”
“I see. I love my Korea and I think you have a great job as a professor. But I understand what you are saying. You would rather do something else in another place. So I think you had better go someplace else and find your real dream.”
“Where can I find it, Monk? Where did you find yours?”
“I already said. Everything is inside, ” Monk said
“Yes. I already said that.”
“Inside your balls,” said Robert, a drink in each hand.
Thomas looked at David to see how he would respond to Robert’s remark. David raised his eyebrows but looked like he was thinking it over. Monk was laughing.
“That’s right. That’s right,” Monk laughed as he pointed to his crotch. “It’s all inside here.” The Korean ran his two hands through his long hair, picked up his serving tray and moved on to the next table to greet his other patrons and take their orders for drinks.
David, Thomas, and Robert all watched Monk as he left them and politely greeted the next table of foreigners in the same friendly manner he had used to greet them. David scrutinized the foreigners at the next table. They looked young, so very young, like they had just finished school this year or the last. One of the foreign men at the next table had a Korean date with whom Monk exchanged a few words in her native tongue, but the two male companions of the guy with the Korean girl had young western women as their dates. The western women were quite attractive blondes, looking very hip in their tight jeans and t-shirts which revealed firm bellies and the outlines of western-sized breasts, however, neither of the shapely western women were as striking as the thin Korean who was more elegantly dressed in a loose fitting coordinated white blouse, jacket, and slacks. The three western men reminded David of Robert, with all of their vigor and punch as they laughed at each other’s jokes and chortled and guffawed as Monk amused them with stories of the irredeemable drunks he met in his bar. David thought the three foreign men and the two foreign women must be hagwon or institute teachers, they all looked so young, and he assumed the elegant Korean was her date’s student. David noted that the six smiling youngsters looked exceedingly jovial as they chatted away with Monk and ordered their first round of drinks. The gaiety of the group of six contrasted so sharply with the somber lull Thomas’s bellyaching about his future had imparted to the conversation at his own table that David suddenly felt impelled to say something, anything really, to cheer Thomas up.
“Thomas. Maybe it’s not your job that is the problem. I mean, forget about having your own bar and stop comparing yourself to Monk and all of his entrepreneurial independence for a second. Ask yourself, Thomas, what is it that’s really missing from your life? What is it that you really need and don’t have?”
“Balls?” asked Thomas, still ruminating over the conversation with Monk and still feeling jolted by Robert’s insolent quip.
“No no,” said David. “Forget about all of that for a second. I want you to forget about your bar owner fantasy, forget about your job and your career, all of your professional goals and aspirations, your bar, your dreams of independence and self-sufficiency. I’m not talking about any of that. I’m talking about something else, something entirely different, the thing that’s missing from your life and from my life and even from Robert’s life as well, although I doubt the little chimp would acknowledge it in a thousand years.”
“David,” Thomas said, “What the hell are you taking about?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about Thomas.”
“No, I don’t, David. I haven’t the slightest idea.”
“Sure you do. Just think about it for a second, Thomas.”
“Think about what?”
“About what is missing from our lives.”
“David,” Thomas said, “You had better speak more plainly because right now this vodka and tonic is going to work and I’m in no mood to solve any riddles.”
“Look over at the next table,” David said. “See those young hagwon teachers talking to Monk?”
“Yeah. I see them. So what?” Thomas asked.
“Don’t they look like they’re having a good time tonight, more fun than we are?” David asked.
“We’re having a good time David,” asserted Robert. “I’m having the time of my life drinking with me mates.”
“I wasn’t asking you, Robert. I want Thomas to answer the question,” David said.
Thomas looked over at the next table, just in time to see one of the shapely blonde western women put her arm around her date, pinch his cheek and kiss him on the lips. The Korean woman smiled and blushed, looking as though she wanted to do the same to her date. Of course she could do nothing of the sort in public Thomas thought, since she was so obviously no Murphy’s girl but instead looked to be an ordinary Korean college student. So she just sat there and looked down shyly with her hands in her lap while her boyfriend smiled at her admiringly and knowingly.
“They look like they’re having a decent time,” admitted Thomas. “So what? There are plenty of young college grads over here in Korea having a good time. We see the little brats out partying all of the time. What’s so special about this bunch of kids?”
“Look at them again,” said David. “Tell me, what do they have that you and I don’t have.”
“I don’t know, David. Why don’t you just tell me?”
“It’s not a trick question, Thomas. The answer is simple.”
“Well then, what the devil is it? Youth?”
“No, not youth,” said David. “Women.”
“Women?” asked Thomas.
“Yes,” David said. “Women.”
“Why, that’s nothing so special,” said Robert. “I can find a woman for each of us in under fifteen minutes so long as I’ve got 100,000 won in my pocket. And mind you, the women I find won’t need any sweet-talking before we get them to the yogwan. There will be no such sugary nonsense with such girls as I prefer, and neither will there be any complaining or protestations on the part of my willing wenches. They’ll aim to please my boys, and believe you me, they’ll have all the talent and proficiency to do just that.”
“I’m not talking about those kinds of women,” said David. “I’m not talking about Texas Street bargirls and whores. I’m talking about a real honest genuine lover for Thomas or myself. Neither of us has had a steady girlfriend for years.”
“And what good is one of them such girls?” asked Robert. “What kind of happiness can a lover bring? She’ll just monopolize your time and demand your loyalty. With a steady girl you can just about say goodbye to anything resembling freedom. It’s the old ball and chain I say, you blokes know the old story I’m sure. I’ll have none of that, mark my words, not while I’m young enough to spread meself far and wide and have meself a new girl every time I feel the taste for it. Aren’t I right, Thomas. Am I preaching the truth or not, my brother?”
“You know what I’m talking about Thomas. Don’t you?” said David. “Haven’t you had enough of those Murphy’s girls who just want your money and suck you dry like a bunch of leeches? Don’t you want something more now that you’re getting a little older. You’re thirty-six now and you spend all your time chasing whores with this stupid kid here. Do you think that is going to solve your problems for you? And what is the real problem with your life anyhow. Is it Korea? Is it your job? All of Professor Choi’s demands? Or does your real problem, the one you absolutely must take care of to be happy, doesn’t it have more to do with your personal life, your essential solitude in this world?”
“I don’t know, David,’ said Thomas as he continued to watch the young hagwon teachers persist in their flirtations at the next table. “Maybe you’ve got a point,” he said as he wondered at the same time whether his friend David knew what the hell he was talking about. What did women have to do with anything when what Thomas really wanted was to get the hell out of this God-forsaken country and make a life for himself back home by opening up his own place, or somehow or other starting a small business for himself? No fucking capital, that was his real problem. Maybe David was just drunk and talking garbage now. How did he know, for instance, that the young foreigners at the next table were really all college grads and English teachers? The men could be GIs and the blondes could be Russian prostitutes instead of western English teachers for all Thomas and David knew. The two foreign women were tall, thin, well built blondes who looked just like the dozens of other Russian whores Thomas had seen catering to the Russian sailors on Texas Street. The elegant Korean in the white outfit did not fit so neatly into the picture, if it was in fact the case that the blondes were out for hire, but perhaps she too was just another Murphy’s girl trying to play it up all innocent like to her foreign boyfriend so the drinks, and the free meals, and the clothes and the jewelry and the whole gravy train would all keep on coming.
“Just think about it Thomas,” said David interrupting Thomas’s train of thought. “If you had a lovely little girlfriend or even a wife right now, you wouldn’t be so down on Korea all of the time and you wouldn’t spend every waking minute thinking about how much better things are back home. You would just live out your life here every day and have something to look forward to when you came home every night. All the innumerable aggravations of an expatriate’s life would seem more tolerable, the food, the way people stare and point at us on the street, the way our students look at us like we are aliens from outer space, all of those daily hassles would be more like minor inconveniences if you had someone over here to devote yourself to.”
“Well, maybe you’ve got a point there, David, but…”
“Bullocks to all of that,” Robert shouted. “I know just what you need Thomas, and it’s certainly not some old witch to whine and nag at you all day long and keep you from drinking with your buddies at night just so you can stay at home and spend quality time with the Missus watching videos and falling asleep on the couch before 9:30 because you’re so damn bored with your life. What you need is a few more stiff drinks and then let’s you and me cab it over to Murphy’s find us some high-class Korean tail the easy way.”
“Maybe you’re right, Robert,” Thomas said. He was drunk now and really could not decide which of his two friends was making the most sense. He looked again at the young English teachers who he thought might really be GIs and their prostitutes and he felt very confused and indecisive, like a small child attempting to take sides between two parents arguing.
“Don’t listen to him, Thomas,” said David.
“Don’t believe a word he says, mate,” said Robert.
“Right. Right. You’re both right,” said Thomas. “I won’t listen to either of you.”
All three of them took a drink and looked over at the hagwon teachers and watched them flirt with their dates. The women looked so lovely and the kids were having a ball. The young women looked positively beautiful now and Robert could barely contain himself, he wanted to go over there and talk to them so badly. Somehow he restrained himself and his urge to hit on the young women. Mainly it was the size of the young men that dissuaded him from approaching the females. Strangely, his urge to make a play for the girls found an outlet through his mouth, the one organ he used more frequently than the one between his legs that he valued far above all others.
“Now my boys, now that we’re talking about women once again, this reminds me that I never finished telling you my story about the time I came back a winner from the Casino at Soraksan. Remember now, as I was saying earlier tonight before the good old Monk paid us a visit here at our table, I was standing there in front of Pusan Station without a clue as to what my most appropriate course of action would be. If you will remember correctly mates, as I was telling you before, I had two equally alluring and apposite choices before me. I could succumb to my most immediate urges and respond to the potent call of necessity by heading directly across the road for to find an inexpensive Texas Street girl, or I could play it cool, take a deep breath, quell the impulses of the moment, continue to bide my time so to speak, just as I had done on the train from Seoul and then flag down a cab for Murphy’s and lavish meself with an altogether more satisfying and consequently more dearly priced total erotic experience…”
“Robert. Please. There’s no need to continue,” David said dryly.
“Come on now David. Don’t be such an old crow. Let me finish me story. You’ll die when you hear the end of it.”
“We don’t care,” continued David, “Whether you had your whore in the back of an alley or in the best room at the Hyatt.”
“Don’t be that way, old chum. Thomas, you want to hear the end of my tale, alright? You’ll hear me out, won’t you?”
“He doesn’t want to hear the end of your story either,” David said.
“Let him speak for himself,” demanded Robert. “What says you Thomas? Don’t you want to hear the end of my tale?”
Thomas looked at Robert, then at David, then over at the table with the attractive young foreigners. He looked over at the other table for a long time, for so long that the elegant Korean noticed he was staring and whispered something to her boyfriend who laughed it off because he thought Thomas was just another sorry drunk. Thomas continued to stare at the other foreigners, looking like he was thinking hard about Robert’s question, but actually not thinking much and focusing most of his energy on just looking, mainly at the girls of course.
“Go ahead, Robert” Thomas said as he suddenly returned his look to his drinking buddy, much to the relief of the disconcerted elegant Korean with the foreign date who was either a GI or a hagwon teacher. “Go ahead and tell us where you ended up.”
“That’s more like it, Thomas old boy,’ Robert said gleefully. “Well, like I was saying, it was indeed one of the most indecisive moments in my entire life. I was standing there stupefied and bedazzled in front of Pusan Station where there was a slight breeze and I imagined I could literally smell the foul but alluring scent of Texas Street snatch wafting by in the wind. I wanted to march right on across the street to get me my fill, but I had nearly 500,000 won in my pocket and hence you understand my hesitation….”
As Robert continued to tell his story, and without saying a word himself, David stood up slowly and walked towards the front entrance of the bar. He did not excuse himself, and he did not finish his drink. He just stood up slowly and left without looking back to see if Thomas would try to get him to stay because he knew he would not. It was fortunate that David did not look back to seek the slightest hint of contrition in his friend’s eyes, because Thomas did not watch David leave, and he did not say a word to convince him to linger even for a moment. Thomas completely ignored David as he left the bar and instead he gave Robert and his vodka and tonic his undivided attention.
David pushed his way through a large group of boisterous Korean students near the front entrance of Monk’s and only minutes later he was walking up the crowded streets towards the Pusan National University campus. The streets were lined with bars, coffee shops, restaurants, small boutiques, more coffee shops, and multitudes of young Koreans out to enjoy the last free weekend before the new school year would begin. The weather was cool for an evening in early September, but most of the young girls still had on their summer clothes. Rowdy high school students identifiable by their demeanor and the uniformly short haircuts they were forced to wear practiced imitating the college kids as the swarms of young people made their way noisily from coffee shop to bar and back to another coffee shop in a seemingly endless pursuit of good times and laughs on this last weekend of the summer holiday. David walked quickly through all the noisy fuss and commotion, the throngs of youth in all their gaiety and spirited din, until he reached the main gate of the campus, which was set upon a hill overlooking the vast commercial neighborhood that had sprung up around the campus over the years.
Walking more slowly and undisturbed through the wooded campus, David was more alone but not entirely by himself as there were just a few young student couples enjoying a romantic moonlight stroll under the pine trees and along the criss-crossed footpaths. The solitude and near desertion of the darkened campus contrasted so sharply with the neon bright hustle and bustle of the neighborhood just outside the main gate, David felt he had quietly and thankfully escaped into another world.
Once inside his tiny campus apartment, David was in a pensive mood. He was only moderately tired as it was only half past eleven and he was used to late nights out with the boys that kept him up until well past three. Fighting hard against the impulse to numb his overactive brain by switching on the television and trying to catch a foreign movie, he walked past the TV and through the living room without turning on the light. The insignificant living room was really not much larger than the small kitchenette, even though it was the most spacious room in the apartment. In the kitchenette the sink was stacked full with a great pile of dirty dishes that David suddenly felt compelled to clean even though he had been content to leave them soaking in the dirty brown water for the better part of the previous week. He switched on the single insufficient yellow ceiling light and reached under the pile of plastic plates and bowls and metal chopsticks to pull out the stopper, and then he waited several long minutes while the dirty brown water escaped slowly down the drain. He turned on the hot water, soaped up a sponge, and began to scrub away at some crusted yellow fried rice caked on to the plate at the top of the pile.
While he washed the dishes carefully and vigorously until they were spotlessly clean, he took measure of the events of the evening and weighed their significance in his mind. He imagined that Robert and Thomas might still be at Monk’s finishing their last round and just about to catch a cab for Murphy’s, ready to set forth on their improvident adventures. He looked around at his tiny apartment, which really was a pathetically small place of residence for a man of his education and background, and also rather disheveled and dilapidated with the paint peeling from the walls and several great big tiles missing from the kitchen floor. How much longer would Professor Choi permit him to live in this dump, he asked himself. Once the old man found out about Robert and Thomas’s indignities it would not be long before even this shabby little hole would be denied him. He hoped to God that Choi would never find out, but somehow he knew the old man would. He was far to well connected and had friends all over town, even in the most oddly irregular and discrete places. For seven years David had been content to endure life in this grungy closet of an apartment, but before long he would be packing his few bags and looking for another place to live as well as a new job to go with it. Well, he thought, perhaps that was not the end of the world so long as his next apartment would be a step or two above this one, but finding a suitable university with the rank and prestige of Pusan National University, and doing so without Professor Choi’s help was not going to be entirely automatic.
He scrubbed hard at a kimchi stain on a small white bowl as he mulled over his fate and tried to determine whether his mood should be melancholy or one of reserved expectation. He had much to lament in the inevitable loss of his job, but perhaps after all was said and done it was time for a change of scene. He was reasonably confident he could find a job even without Choi’s recommendation, if not in Pusan then someplace else in Korea, and if not in Korea (which was a very unlikely scenario) then certainly in another country like Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, or even Vietnam. Another country wouldn’t be so bad after all, and perhaps it was about time he left Korea behind. He couldn’t stay here forever, could he? Even though he liked living and working in Korea he didn’t want to let himself get caught in a rut. When he first arrived here seven years ago had he really expected he wouldn’t leave until he was old and gray and ready to retire? Certainly not. But where to next, that was the question. Japan? No, too expensive. Taiwan? No, too polluted. Vietnam? No, you couldn’t trust the regime or save any money there. What about Thailand? Now there was a place where a guy could learn how to relax. He imagined what it would be like to be able to head for the nearest beach after class and lay under the tropical sun with the freshest coconut shake in all of Thailand to cool him down. Just as he closed his eyes and believed he could see the palm trees swaying in the fresh ocean breeze, the phone rang. Awoken from his musings, he turned off the water and dried his hands on an old kitchen towel as he wondered who could be calling him at this hour. He did not usually receive calls past ten, even on weekends, so he was almost certain it had to be Robert or Thomas ringing him up to try one last time to persuade him to join them at Murphy’s. He knew exactly what he would say to either of those two baboons and he rushed to the living room without turning on the light to answer the phone that was set atop the television. Considering the fact that he was expecting to hear the voice of Thomas or Robert above the background of a crowded bar, you will completely understand how utterly astonished he was once he picked up the phone, placed the earpiece to his ear, and heard the voice of a young Korean woman.
“Hello. May I please speak with Professor Marks,” the melodic high-pitched voice asked. David could tell right away that the speaker could not be much older than twenty or twenty-one. He guessed the young woman was one of his students since he did not know of any other women who would call him, especially at such a late hour, but he could not recognize the voice or determine exactly which student it was.
“This is Professor Marks speaking,” David answered. “Who is calling, please?”
“Professor Marks! Hello. How are you? I’m so happy to speak to you.”
“I’m fine, thank you. Who is this please?”
“I’m in Jangjundong near campus with my friends. We’re in a coffee shop now. I’m talking to you on my cell phone.”
“Yes, I see. That’s all quite well, young lady, but who are you and why have you called?”
“Do you want to come here and meet with us now?”
David was incredulous.
“Do I want to go out now at 11:50 and meet you and your friends? That’s a fine question to ask when you haven’t even told me your name yet, or who your friends are, or where you are and why you decided to call me of all people?”
“I’m in a coffee shop with my friends. I want you to come here and meet with us. We want very much to speak with you. That is why I am calling you. Will you come here now and join us, Professor Marks?”
“Young lady,” David said with obvious exasperation in his voice. “You still haven’t told me your name.”
“Don’t you recognize my voice?” she asked sounding very hurt. “Oh Professor Marks, now I am very sad. Don’t you know me?”
“You know, young lady, it’s really quite late. I’m sorry I don’t recognize your voice. You really should have called at a more reasonable hour.”
“I did that, Professor. I called your home several times earlier tonight but you did not answer your phone. Why didn’t you answer when I called you? Were you sleeping?”
“No no. No, I wasn’t sleeping, Miss whoever-you-are. You are a student of mine, aren’t you? What is your name and how did you get my phone number?”
“You were not sleeping. Wow, that is interesting. I thought you were sleeping.”
David heard the melodic high-pitched voice break into Korean for a few moments as the caller explained to her friends in Korean that the professor had not been sleeping when she called earlier.
“Professor Marks,” she continued in English over the phone. “If you weren’t sleeping when I called then why didn’t you answer your phone? Were you feeling very tired and lazy tonight, Professor Marks?”
“No. I was not feeling tired or lazy tonight. Now who is this? You’ll have to tell me your name, because if you don’t I’ll be forced to hang up. I don’t talk to strangers, not this late at night.”
“Oh Professor Marks. I am so terrible now because you do not know my voice. I am very sad. I am your student and I called you many times tonight because I needed to talk to you, but you never answered the phone when I called. Why did you not answer the phone, Professor? Is that polite not to answer your phone for your student? I think you were very lazy tonight.”
“Now we are getting somewhere. So you are definitely one of my students. I assumed you were. Who else would call me at this hour? For your information young lady I am not a lazy person and it is not polite to accuse your professor of being impolite or lazy, whether he is or not. I am not lazy. I was working very hard just now when you interrupted my work with this ridiculously absurd phone call.”
“I am so sorry, Professor. Please excuse me. I do not want to be a rude girl. What were you working on when I called? Were you writing your book?”
David wanted to answer in the affirmative and then tell the student he needed to get back to his writing directly because he had an impending deadline, but even in his state of exasperation he was much too sincere to tell even such a harmless lie.
“No, I wasn’t working on a book. I was washing the dishes.”
“Wow!” the student half shouted and half laughed. “That is very funny. You don’t have to wash your dishes on a Saturday night, Professor Marks. That is not a good time to clean anything. I think you need the girlfriend or the wife to clean your house for you. Professor Marks, I know you said to our class that you are thirty-seven years old but you are not married. Why aren’t you married yet? A man your age should not live alone. Don’t you like women?”
Now she was going to get personal, David thought. He considered hanging up, but then he convinced himself that the conversation, if frustrating, silly, and bizarre, was at least as entertaining as finishing up the dishes would be. So he did not hang up and he continued to try to find out the student’s name so he could properly reprimand her for pestering her professor at home so late when he next saw her on campus.
“Those are very personal questions for a student to ask her professor on a Saturday night. I’m sorry I cannot answer them for you now. I don’t even know your name.”
“I want to tell you my name, Professor, but I am too embarrassed. I never called my professor before.”
“Are you sure about that? Are you certain you did not call another professor from a coffee shop last night and keep him on the line until past midnight? Think about it carefully now.”
“Oh Professor Marks, you are so the funny man. That is why I wanted to call to you. You are the first and only professor I ever called, I promise that is true.”
“Well then, I suppose I should say thank you for the compliment and then good night. I have to get back to work and finish the dishes and then go to bed. It’s been an experience talking to you whoever you are. Good night.”
“Don’t hang up!” she pleaded. “I want to continue our conversation. Do you want me to come over to your apartment and wash your dishes for you?”
David could hardly believe his ears. He had heard of students who aggressively pursued their professors like this one, but he never expected they could be so obvious about it. Needless to say he turned down the offer as he considered what it would look like to his neighbors who were mainly visiting Korean professors and post-docs, if someone saw the twenty or twenty-one year old kid knocking on his door ready to “wash the dishes” at 12:30 a.m. How would he explain that one to Choi when he didn’t even know the student’s name? He told her he did not require or desire her help.
“Really? Are you sure you don’t need my help? Think about it carefully now. I can make your dishes perfectly clean. I am an expert at cleaning, and other things. It’s Saturday night, Professor. You should not have to work by yourself. If you don’t want me to come over and help you then you should come here and meet us in the coffee shop. We are just outside the main gate of campus. It will take you fifteen minutes to walk here, that’s it. Then we can have a serious talk.”
“I’ve already been out tonight. I’m not interested in going out again, thank you. I’m very tired. I’m just about ready to go to sleep.”
“Oh, so you went out tonight already. So that is why you did not answer the phone when I called you earlier. Where did you go, Professor?”
“I went out. I went out with some friends. Well not friends, perhaps. Acquaintances. Co-workers really.”
“Oh really. That is interesting. Who are your friends? Where did you go out to? Are your friends women? Are they beautiful and tall foreign women? Please tell me no, Professor.”
“They aren’t women. They aren’t men. They’re baboons. I just went to Monk’s with a couple of baboons.”
“You went to Monk with some baboons? Oh really? That is very interesting. What is baboon? I think I don’t know correctly that word baboon. It sounds so funny. Baboon. Baboon. Babooooon. I think that is some kind of a monkey. Am I right Professor? I need to study harder my English. Professor Marks, you are the great English teacher. Won’t you teach me how to speak English perfectly like you? I want you to teach me very much. You are an expert. You can teach me everything.”
“You want me to teach you, teach you everything, you say. Alright. The first thing I’ll teach you is how to properly introduce yourself when you ring someone up, and especially when you call your professor and keep him on the phone until the middle of the night. You should at least have the decency to inform the person you call that you have a name and what it is. That is my very basic and first lesson for you.”
“I am sorry, Professor. I can’t say my name. I already told you I am very embarrassed. I know you don’t believe me but you are the first professor I have ever called. I can talk a lot on the phone so you think I am so smooth and practiced, but really I am quite a shy and inexperienced girl. I never called my professor before. That is the truth.”
“Well, there is a first time for everything I suppose.” David was resigned to talk to the girl until she got tired, gave up, and let him go to sleep. He wanted to hang up but he was so gracious he feared what kind of emotional scar that might leave on the impressionable young student.
“Professor Marks? I want to know. Why did you go to the Monk with your baboons?”
“I always go to Monk’s with my baboons,” he said before realizing his mistake. Now she would know where to find him if she had plans to stalk him. “They love that place,” he said quickly hoping she would not remember it.
“Why did you come home so early if Monk is so great the bar.”
“Because the baboons got drunk and out of control like they always do.”
It was too late. Now she knew he liked to go to Monk’s and certainly she would be there looking for him next weekend, if he still had his job next weekend.
“Do you want to come out again and meet me at Monk? I will go there without my friends. We can drink there together and have a serious talk and I promise I will not act out of control like your baboons.”
“No thank you. I’ve had enough to drink tonight already. I’m just about to go to bed.”
“Don’t you want to meet me here in the coffee shop? I will tell my friends to go home so we can have our private chat together.”
“That’s quite alright. I think I’ll just turn in after you say good-bye and good night. Go ahead and hang up the phone now and go have a ball with your friends.”
“Professor, don’t you want me to come to your apartment and help you?”
“Help me? How can you help me? You can help me by saying good night now.”
“I want to help you relax, Professor. I am an expert at helping someone to relax. Please let me prove it to you.”
“I’m already relaxed,” David lied to the student and himself.
“I can wash your dishes. I am a good cleaner.”
“The dishes are almost done. There’s only a few left. I could finish them in a minute if you only let me.”
“I will come over and wash your floor. I bet it is dirty and needs to be cleaned.”
“Are you out of your mind? It’s past midnight.”
“Yes. I am out of my mind for you. That is why all of my friends say I am abnormal. I am a crazy wild child. I will bring over a videocassette. We can watch a movie together on your couch.”
“I don’t have a VCR,” he lied again.
“I will bring some CD’s I have in my Walkman and we can listen to your stereo. You can watch me dance. I am a talented dancer.”
David nearly dropped the phone he was so bedazzled by the student’s dogged persistence. So she wanted to come over and help him relax. She was a talented dancer. He knew what she meant. He knew exactly what she was talking about.
“I’m not in the mood for music right now. I don’t want any company tonight. It’s so late, really it is.”
He was determined not to give in and let the girl have her way. Deep inside, part of him wanted to invite the kid over and let the events of the evening take their course. That part of him which acknowledged his needs as a man wanted to trust fate and wake up in the morning with her firm young body lying next to his even though he did not know what her name was, what she looked like, or why in God’s name she was interested in David Marks who was slightly overweight from too much drink and too little exercise and only moderately attractive. But a stronger element within him said that was not the right thing to do. He would not allow himself to use his elevated position and status in the student’s eyes that way. He knew other professors, both foreign and Korean, who would not have thought twice about asking the student to spend the night. He knew married men who would have done so without the slightest twinge of guilt. But to David Marks, the mere thought of such an indulgence flew in the face of everything he believed he stood for.
“Professor Marks,” the student persisted. “I need to see you as soon as possible. I must see you tonight.”
“Why?” he asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Because I need to. I must see you now.”
“Why must you now? Can’t it wait until you see me on campus at a reasonable hour. You could meet me during office hours.”
“It can’t wait until then.”
“Because I love you.”
David did not respond immediately. He had been caught off guard once again and did not know how to respond. The student was silent as well. David did not know what to say next. Again, part of him wanted to tell the unnamed mystery girl to run over to his apartment to throw herself in his arms as fast as her youthful body could carry her. He contemplated saying “I love you too” to someone who was little more than a stranger to him. But that element of responsibility and caution predominated within and he said nothing.
“Did you hear me Professor Marks? I said I love you.”
David again said nothing.
“I do love you Professor. I am pure of heart. I will always love you. You must believe me. I can be a good wife for you.”
“Goodnight,” David said.
“Professor?” was the last thing he heard before he hung up the phone.
He returned to the kitchenette to finish washing the last of the dishes. He scrubbed them hard until they were spotless and then he dried them off with the old kitchen towel before he put them all away in the cupboard. While he put the dishes away, he wondered whether Thomas and Robert had found their girls for the night yet at Murphy’s. He imagined they probably were well past the flirtation stage at this moment and trying to close the deal. He turned off the single yellow insufficient ceiling light in the kitchenette and retired to the bedroom without washing up or brushing his teeth. He lay down on the bed and fell asleep on top of the sheets still wearing all of his clothes which smelled heavily of cigarette smoke from Monk’s. Just before he drifted off to sleep, he told himself he had done the right thing by hanging up on the immature girl. He could have talked longer to her and tried to explain the difference between love and infatuation, but that probably only would have encouraged her to pursue him all the more vigorously. No, he was quite certain hanging up was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, all night long he dreamed fantastic dreams of an illusory world of unearthly comfort where he was enveloped in the love of a single pure heart.