My wife is lucky I don’t have a bad temper. Otherwise, I would have chopped her up into little pieces a long time ago. Don’t get me wrong: I love the woman–at least half the time–but when she’s in one of her moods, it’s hard not to entertain barely controllable homicidal fantasies. Our marriage is so stressful, if I can’t muster the guts to get out of it before too much longer, I’ll be grateful when I’m dead, just like old Jerry Garcia.
You may be wondering how I could have such an acrimonious attitude towards the woman I’m betrothed to, the one I share a crucifix with, the person I’ve ended up with after losing at a game of romantic Russian roulette (to be fair, she’s lost too; at least love doesn’t always have to be a zero sum game).
In order to begin to fathom the deep well of animosity we’ve drilled together over the years, one recent example will have to suffice. I know that “marriage is a lottery” and you can either win or lose big. It’s also conceivable that being the right person might be just as crucial to a happy marriage as finding the right person, or that those of us stuck in our own self-created hells deserve each other. Who knows? Had Romeo and Juliet survived and ended up together, they may have become as ferociously mismatched as a cobra and a mongoose.
Recently I started teaching a thirteen year old boy named Ken who’s the nephew of a good friend of mine named Sue (not their real names; they’re both Korean). Every Saturday at two pm we meet at the same coffee shop for our private lesson, and because she’s a mensch and is also bilingual, Sue interprets for us. Ken is the only child of a “tiger mom” who’s treated me to dinner a few times with her husband at a nice restaurant in the neighborhood. Her fake name is Page.
Page makes Ken read literary classics modified for children–in English–twenty times each, every month. Whenever he protests, she tells him that Kim Yuna, the Olympic Korean figure skater, a prodigy who’s also sold her soul to the devil 136 times by doing that many different ads so she won’t have to take any shit from her mom again, is also the product of a tiger mother.
Ken’s situation is not at all unusual in Korea, and he puts up with it with considerable aplomb, panache, joie du vivre, and other fancy-sounding words. The going rate for private lessons these days is usually fifty thousand won per hour (about forty-two bucks, I think), but since Sue’s a friend I only charge her sister forty. The lesson also comes out to about an hour an fifteen minutes.
Before you jump out of your seat and cry, “But Stew, you’re letting yourself be exploited! You must rise up against the capitalist controllers of the machine,” let me declare that the kid is a snap to teach. In our first class together, which his mother also attended to help break the ice, we shot the shit about Shakespeare for an hour. I riddled him with plot questions about Hamlet and Macbeth and he answered them all, remembering all the characters’ names, including Banquo’s son Fleance, as well as what happened to everyone.
The next week we talked about Heidi, which I’ve never read; the night before he spent four hours writing a synopsis of it for me. I went over it with him in red pen and had him read it out loud.
Two days ago he submitted his book report on the Oscar Wilde story “The Happy Prince,” which I read about twenty years ago while living in Japan, and remembered about as well as the hundred Chinese characters I barely memorized before giving up entirely. Sue, Ken, and I had to go to a different place this time, since our usual cafe was bogged down with customers. We retired to a waffle house for a Korean ice cream and strawberry treat swimming in a pond of ice, known at patbingsu, then went to a Western coffee chain to pay homage to the corporate gods. Sue paid for all the refreshments, as she invariably does.
About forty-five minutes into the lesson, my cellphone rang (just as it had a week before when I was sitting watching a play featuring my neighbor; I’d forgotten to turn the damned thing off; I hardly ever go to plays, and hardly anyone ever calls me, except my wife JIna, who of course it was providing the mortifying interruption). It was Jina. She wanted to know if the lesson was finished (she’d done the same thing the week before, by the way). I told her we’d gotten a late start and still had awhile to go. She demanded I end the lesson and come and meet her at a bookstore in town. Not wanting to raise my voice in front of Sue and Ken, I told her I’d meet her in half an hour.
I apologized for the interruption, parenthetically explained to Sue what was up, and we continued for ten minutes or so before winding things up.
Meanwhile, I ventured in the blistering summer heat (it was about a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, as it remains today) to the bookstore and waited for Jina for what turned out to be hours. I have no objections to milling around in bookstores, but I wasn’t planning on buying anything and hate wasting time on other people’s terms (which is the main reason I abominate going to school or work, and don’t even get me started about church).
When I finally called her, she said she was having troubles with some book she’d ordered on the computer. I went upstairs from the basement-level bookstore to get some ostensibly fresh air and sat down on a low marble wall by some bushes to eat my nuts (not my own nuts–I mean the ones I’d bought earlier).
I retired to a swanky sandwich shop and bought a delicious number with ham and mozzarella cheese for about six bucks, deciding against the five dollar fresh-squeezed orange juice with ice in a plastic cup. I had bought some the other day at another branch (or shall I say link?) of the same chain, and it was scrumptious. Korean store-bought orange juice is generally no great-shakes; it tastes as if it’s concentrated.
When Jina called and asked what I was doing, I lied and said I was looking at books so she wouldn’t be a you-know-what and chastise me for spending money on restaurant food. She said she was on her way and would meet me in the section where she usually browses for Christian self-help books (for those times when the good book just isn’t good enough for you). My search led to the checkout counter, where Jina was berating a cashier for her online-shopping woes. After she finished chewing the poor woman out, she smiled and apologized (the way she sometimes does to me once she’s flayed me to the bone).
I was wiped out and wanted to go home, but she was just getting started. She was also hungry, which meant I had to help her eat another sandwich at the bookstore’s food court. Afterwards we went to the boutique where she’d bought a “one-piece”–a blue dress that didn’t fit–so she could try on several other items while I sat and read about Chinese consumers’ impact on the rest of the world.
We still had to go to one more place so she could buy a camisole, and then she was hungry again so we had to step into a doughnut shop to eat some crap before we finally got to go home.
Finally, as I staggered alongside her towards our domestic destination, she unleashed the artillery and said she wanted me to demand that Page pay me more for my lesson with Ken. She said that the woman is rich enough and should be able to afford to pay me sixty thousand won for an hour and a half of teaching. We proceeded to hurl epithets at each other while the waiters who work at a deli I like to frequent eavesdropped on our fight.
“Look,” I said, after we’d advanced a ways up the hill, out of earshot of the waiters, “I’ll tell Sue I can’t teach the kid anymore, okay? That’s what you want me to do, right?”
Actually, I didn’t say it so much as yell it.
“In Korea you can’t have this kind of business arrangement with a friend,” she said. “It just doesn’t work.”
Well, no–not if you won’t let it.
The reason Jina’s so irrational about this particular arrangement goes beyond her preternatural stinginess–at least I think so–into the demented territory of unwarranted jealousy. She knows what a good friend Sue is to me (and yet she’s Jina’s friend too), and I’m inclined to believe she’s trying to sabotage our friendship.
“So what you’re saying is that you can have marriage or friends–but you can’t have both.”
We survived to go to church the following morning. I couldn’t help noticing that the attractive Korean co-ed sitting next to me, on summer vacation from her university in the U. S., had the phrase “Party Hard” on the screen of her smart phone.
After weathering the minister’s interminable sermon, I grudgingly grunted my way to my feet and joined in with the rest of the conned congregation to belt out the chosen hymn, which helped me develop new dimensions in sonic yawning. Imagine Chewbacca of Star Wars doing a Gregorian chant.
Now I know why God never got married.