I waited for him for over an hour outside Hongik station.
Perched on the wall outside, I watched a wheel of coloured sneakers rotate in the shoe shop opposite and smoked so many cigarettes that their butts lay at my feet like a carpet of white and ash.
I was about to give up. Stood up, thinking I’d get myself a solitary beer in a bar somewhere and people-watch young Koreans. Then, with a sigh and probably because he thought it was cute, he plopped down beside me without saying a word.
I feel his presence like a warm blanket. He sits, staring ahead and straight-faced while I scramble for conversation. It’s past eleven and I haven’t eaten all day, and my words sound all wrong and high-pitched in the soupy air. This is going to be one of those dates, I think. Making conversation will be like piecing a wall together, a struggle over every brick.
We went for fried chicken and by the second bottle of Hoegaarden we’re both easing up. The plastic partition rattles in its rails as he pulls it closed and leans forward conspiratorally, long, dark fingers steepled over his beer. He tells me he is one of only six men who can interview escapees from across the border, North Korea into South Korea. He is always on call.
I ask him how far down the pecking order he is, and he laughs and tells me he’s number four. He’s the fourth man they will call in the whole of South Korea if there is an emergency, and that kind of power gets me drunker than the bottle of grapefruit soju he ordered for me, in Korean.
Americans have an easy confidence, don’t they? He doesn’t make a lot of eye contact and he doesn’t laugh at some of my jokes and in this intimate space I feel uncomfortable, unable to relax. He suggests that I should make a toast and my tongue swells and my mind floods blank. I fail this test and he’s studying the bottle opener and I feel confidence leak from me like I’ve got a puncture wound.
He looks – though I haven’t read the book – exactly how I’d always expected Man Friday in Robinson Crusoe to look. Skin as brown as leather, skin so dark it makes mine look almost translucent. When I clocked him first I didn’t think he was handsome, but he has a magnetism that overpowers in this tight, close space. I asked him which ethnicity he’d choose on an immigration form. Raised eyebrows, but he answers: Pacific Islander. In his face there is Hawaii and Japan, Tahiti and Spain. His exoticism draws me like a moth to a flame. Everytime he opens his mouth to tell me snippets of his background I want to crawl inside and taste the places he’s seen.
On impulse we totter down the steps to a late night jazz bar, both of us a little drunk. Then he takes me to his favourite bar in Seoul, the one he says he always comes to alone, to people-watch. Up the snaking staircase his hands flash in the darkness, pulling me along. The bar is badly-lit, cramped and humid. It’s past 2am and an apologetic Korean barman tells me off for smoking where I shouldn’t, as the American soldier brings me another glass of white wine that isn’t chilled and I try not to think about female bodies left desecrated in the dark corners of the world.
Somewhere along the way, with the soju and the beers and the whiskey we dared each other to drink shot-style, we’ve lost our uncomfortableness. He looks at me, I look at him. He jokes that he’s leaving and we should say goodbye now, and his peculiar, jerky snap-back confidence rattles me. He has a habit of firing my questions back at me in a way that makes me feel slightly stupid. He’s coiled, like a snake in a box. Sometimes his retorts to my gentle teasing slice to the bone, and the smile slips from my face.
Vulnerability runs like an underground stream beneath his skin, and I catch glimpses. His mother’s passing. A bewildered nineteen year old who took to the military to uncover a purpose and gain his father’s approval. His pain warms me like a fire, and when our knees touch beneath the table, neither of us moves away.
He tells me, self-assuredly, that he is an expert at reading body language. In response I angle my body towards him and invite him to open me, like a book. I’m drunk and I’m warm with alcohol and the silliness of me being here, in a bar in the early morning in a big strange city with a big strange stranger. He tells me that I’m thinking fifty per cent of him is crazy. Only fifty per cent?
He says that my pupils have dilated, and that the way I’m playing with my wine glass is telling him everything he needs to know. I blush and cover my smile with one hand, leaning on my elbow as a breeze from some cooler part of the city whips my hair around my face. He leans over, and finger by finger pulls my hand from my lips. Crosses the short, infinite space between us, and kisses me.
My hand rests against his forearm. He has an easy, casual strength; I can feel the hardness of muscle like an iron spine running through him. We leave his bar. As I come out of the bar bathroom he is waiting outside the door. He pushes me back inside, kicking the door to a close behind him.
The barman smoking on the stoop avoids our eyes as he returns our goodnight.