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Monday Night

The class ends and I burst forth from the room, rushing to my bicycle and, then, on it, down the hill and home. The cool breeze softly pours up into my face. My jacket is thick and the buffalo skin shields me from the cool.

On the phone, when she says, “Manaja,” I say, “Eong?” and feel the floor under my back, holding me up five floors above the ground. I feel as if I am in slow flight, or low earth orbit. It’s good.

In the tea shop, a man eyes as we walk in. He looks to me like a Uighur from the Chinese province of Xinjiang, but she tells me he’s a Korean, and the owner of the shop. He has long hair and a beard, wears something that looks like hanbok but different somehow, with a skullcap like some Chinese and many Muslims in India wear. The music is, for a long time, traditional Chinese music. And yet, sitting side by side, we drink the thick “Indo Chai”. It is not the spicy masala-chai I’m used to (and miss) now, but it is heavy in our mouths and wonderful.

As she writes in her journal, I write and cross out line after line. Again, I am reminded, poetry is difficult. Yet she finds some beauty in some of the words. We laugh over a page in my notebook that someone may, if I become significant enough a writer, read someday. Assuming the person can read English and Korean, he or she will wonder at what the hell we were talking about, and laugh at my childish Korean writing.

We have eaten all of the biscuits we were given, breaking them into pieces and soaking them in the chai because they are extremely hard, so hard that the proprietress told us to break them by hand to spare our teeth from being damaged. They’re really good biscuits, but the greatest pleasure comes from the gentle thoughtfulness we show by soaking the pieces for one another, one by one. We are a “talksal keopeol” (a “chicken-skin couple”, meaning a sappy pair of annoying lovebirds) but that’s fine with us. The gentleness of soaking bits of biscuit for one another seems as thoughtful as the way people pour beer for one another in a Korean bar. It’s quite a profound thing to be that aware of the person sitting beside you.

After the chai, suk cha (mugwort tea) cleanses our palates; it is clear and light and very good.

The night air is cold as we walk through a bad part of town. The light from the brothel windows is warm pink, and suddenly I realize, we are in Korea, in Jeonju, halfway to where she lives. When we walk and talk together, I forget where we are, where I live; it could be any city in the world.

She knows who said, “Life is short; art is long.” And I didn’t know until she told me. She shows me something she wrote in her dairy, something I said to her a few weeks ago. It’s funny seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes. And seeing that the person saw you as clearly as you see yourself—however clearly that is— is funny and strange. And good.

The practice room smells of beer from the earlier mishap, where I fell down the stairs, hit my head, and then stumbled through an army’s share of empty beer bottles while trying to reset the circuit breaker in the dark. But once I’m in the actual practice room proper, where the horns and amps are, the music comes fast and clear and with almost no mistakes. The saxes and flute do precisely what I tell them to. I’m especially happy with my soprano sound, the new sharp sweetness to it now that I’m back onto my metal classical mouthpiece. It’s the soprano sound I am used to having, and it’s a kind of relief, a kind of homecoming.

In my end is my beginning, Eliot wrote. That’s true of this day; it ends on my bicycle. I head home by a different road than usual, a far easier and faster road, and the night air is very cool against me. I am wearing a T-shirt and my Tibetan tunic, and the cold shears through those layers to my skin, but it feels good. The wind blows against my face, and the relentless beat of the music in my headphones pushes my feet through the process of pedaling, left, right, left, right, as I sling the bicycle forward over the pavement and down the road home.

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