I’m twenty-five. Catastrophe leveled my world; dogmatic principles have been vaporized. The future reduced to cinders, all in a moment. I imagine I’m beyond the last horizon where broken dreams and ruined love go to die. I can’t concentrate or sit still or eat. There is only coffee, cigarettes and pacing then coffee, cigarettes and pacing. I’m alone haunting a four bedroom house on a tree-lined suburban street for an eternity. There are ghosts on every street corner. Nights are the worst. Maybe I’m still there.
I move in with my brother, get a job tending bar, and sell my new car. I buy a restored 1964 Karmann Ghia in Texas. One of my regulars and I fly there and drive back to Pennsylvania. Parts of Texas are never-ending; beautiful, desolate wastelands that make one claustrophobic. In their vastness, one could be swallowed up without a trace. It’s an inescapable loneliness. My copilot buys drugs in Memphis. He’s drunk almost the whole trip. I realize I’ve made a terrible mistake. There’s a minor crash while he’s at the wheel and we spend a day at a repair shop in rural Tennessee. The heater goes out. It’s the dead of winter. We stop and buy Carhartt insulated overhauls and layer thick sweaters under our coats to stay warm against the wind that whips through the trunk in front of us and bites at any exposed skin. The engine drones behind us, its warmth wasted.
There is too much whiskey one night. I wake up in jail with loose front teeth and a swollen face. The white of my brother’s eye is red for three months.
I’m twenty-six living in the loft of a friend’s house on Bainbridge Street. Pigeons live in the rafters, and the old bricks cover my Persian carpet with red dust. I still can’t sleep. There’s less pacing and coffee, more alcohol and cigarettes. I sold the Karmann Ghia after I caught someone trying to steal it. I spend evenings eating and drinking around the city with friends. Then I’m alone and sleepless. I often go to an all-night diner to get through the darkness. When the sun rises I go to the park and read. I take comfort in the arms of women thinking it will ease my pain. It allows only a brief respite from the gnawing anxiety.
I wake up in a strange bed between two women. The sheets are covered in blood. The landlord is pounding on the door. I try to recall what happened. The girl’s key wasn’t working in the lock. She said she had complained about it for months. It’s two in the morning. Her friend throws a brick through the window, but it doesn’t shatter like we expect. The girls kick out the broken glass at the bottom of the door, and we crawl through. Some of us are cut.
I’ve had breakfasts at Little Pete’s after being out with a woman. I’m sitting on a park bench reading Dharma Bums when a group of punk rockers offer me a forty ouncer. They tell me they’re bos, which is short for hobo. Not a pejorative the way they see it. They hop trains and travel around the country squatting. I learn about the different types of train cars, which are the most dangerous to ride and why. Their stories are about broken homes, death, drugs, and absolute freedom. A guitar is being passed around. I play a Willie Nelson cover then the booze runs out. It’s still morning. I offer to buy another round but am out of money, so I bike home to get more. Around the corner from my house, someone shouts at me.
“Hey, man stop!”
I do. There are a bunch of women and two men dressed in church clothes. They’re standing next to a hearse. I’m worried.
“Listen, brother, we need your help carrying the coffin inside. God will bless you.”
I tell them I am drunk so I shouldn’t. They say it doesn’t matter, so I carry the coffin up the steps of the Baptist church and into a large room. I ride back to my house and realize I don’t have my keys. I go in through the window.
I meet a girl and fall in love, even though I swore I wouldn’t. We date and get an apartment together. I make her hummus and pita in the shape of a cat’s face. She comes for drinks at The Astral Plane where I tend bar. We ride bikes around the city into the grey light of early morning. We go to Puerto Rico and then to Florida. I think we’ll be married then she moves to Washington D.C.
I’m twenty-seven. My old roommates and my parents go out for dinner to celebrate my last night in the United States. We eat at a restaurant on the park and then have drinks at the Black Sheep. A girl I had a crush on spends the night. I wake at dawn and watch her sleep on the bamboo wood floor of my furniture-less apartment. She’s beautiful in the early morning light but I know I’ll never love her. Later that morning I take the longest flight of my life.
I live in a town with only fifteen other foreigners. I make friends with an Englishman, a Canadian, and a Texan. We explore the town and the surrounding countryside and discover Korean bars stay open as long as there are customers in them. Too many times we stumble out of singing rooms or bars into the light of morning. We’re on the patio at McDonalds eating breakfast sandwiches and mixing soju into our coffees. The Englishman drains the last of the soju, opens another bottle and takes a long wallop. Dawn is breaking over the mountains across the street. The Canadian speaks.
“Let’s climb those beauties!”
After a night of drinking, we think it’s a fantastic idea. Halfway up the Englishman lights a cigarette and turns back. Near the top, the Texan and I stop for rest under a pine tree and fall asleep. The Canadian leaves us. We end up lost in a ravine deep in the woods on the side of a mountain in the Gyeongsang Alps. We wonder if there are still tigers and what kind of venomous snakes live under the rocks. It’s late afternoon when we reach civilization. Our hangovers kick in, and our sport coats and penny loafers are ruined. Cut to shreds by patches of brambles. Everything’s caked in mud.
There are dinners and an endless string of parties. We travel around Korea and to other countries. Some of us imagine we’re a continuation of the Lost Generation, the rightful heirs to something we can’t quite put our fingers on. It’s a hard come down.
I’m twenty-eight on a bus hurtling through the mountainous countryside in the middle of the night. The only light is from the stars. It’s a new moon. The Gundecha Brothers come on my Mp3 player. Sitars drone. The brothers chant. Eternity isn’t time stretching forever but the absence of it. Time is the measurement of entropy, and for a brief eternity, I slip outside its grasp. I see my soul and think there must be a more meaningful name than God.
I’m twenty-nine and on a road trip with the Canadian, Englishman, my girlfriend and a few others. It’s October, and the air is crisp. We’re in the mountains watching the sunset on a place we’ve not seen it rise. The mountains catch fire. Steaming soup is served at our outdoor table then some meat dishes. The next day we’ll hike to the top of the second tallest mountain in Korea. It will take eight hours, and we’ll have to take taxies back to our hotel on the other side of the mountain. We’ll be dirty and exhausted but jubilant.
I enter my thirties. The foreign and exotic becomes commonplace and mundane. I open the first foreign-owned restaurant and bar in Yangsan then close it a year later. The Texan moves to the Middle East. I get married and move to Busan to work as the director of an English language school. I’ll get a job lecturing at a university, and we’ll decide to have a baby. The Canadian goes back to Canada to study law. The Englishman drinks.
Three days before my son is born my brother calls me. My father has died in an accident. I’m on top of a mountain when I get the call. I spend a few hours with my son then board a plane. It’s the longest flight of my life. I tell myself and others I’ll move back to the United States, but I’m not sure I will. There are too many uncertainties. I’m not sure what I’d do. Maybe I’m scared of ghosts, or I’ve slipped into the cracks between countries.
I’m thirty-six. I’m walking in the park with my two-year-old son at dusk in October, his tiny voice seems sharper and to carry further in the autumn air. He speaks of vampires and the books he loves. I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I savor the moment and burn the image of now into my memory. I want this to remain as clear as yesterday, forever. We walk past the elementary school and the beautifully lit Navy club. My son is singing softly, then he shouts.
“It’s the moon! Daddy the moon!”
The wind whispers in the conifers and numinousness descends. A field stretches out in the moonlight. My son silently looks skyward. Suddenly my heart hurts. I want to protect him from all of the bad but realize in the same instant without pain and suffering he’ll never truly understand happiness. There’s a moment of lament that everything before me will turn to ash and clay. I picture myself under the field in front of us. I promise to savor every moment more than I have been. I extend our walk past the stadium and up the hill to the Catholic Church. It’s late, and we’re tired, but I want to hang on to this moment a little longer. I tell myself sleep is for the dead.