Rowan Smeth had just started a new job teaching Korean elementary school children at a language “camp” in the city to appease his tenaciously acquisitive Korean evangelical Christian wife Yemin, not that he wasn’t overworked enough yet for her satisfaction. (Later, when he returned from his weekend school trip, she seemed serenely defeated, as if the old adage about absence making the heart grow fonder had mellowed her, unless she was just shoring up fuel for the next immolation. The cloud around the silver lining was that she hadn’t decided to cancel her plane ticket to the states to join him at the tail end of his upcoming vacation trip.)
Speaking of hearts, Rowan was privately battling heart disease, at least that’s what he thought it was. He didn’t have time to go to a doctor and besides had misplaced his laminated medical card; he found it bleakly amusing that disorganization and procrastination might literally be the death of him, an apt epitaph for a man who could never quite get his act together.
He also knew that his survival hinged on a clean break with his wife, even though he likewise realized that the mandatory abandonment of the marriage (or abolition thereof, if that wasn’t too strong a word) would lead her heart to break. This was hardly his intention, despite the resentment that had built up between them over the years, but neither was he ready for the non-sequitur of his own death.
Not to say that he didn’t hate life as often as he loved it; his feelings about it were annoyingly inconsistent enough to infuse him with a regular dose of inexhaustible bewilderment: how could something be both so irresistible and so repellent? It didn’t make sense. He reckoned it was probably his own fault for being so poor at playing the game, due to maladroit oversensitivity and the clumsiness that ensued whenever he tried to ingratiate himself to others. By going so far out of his way not to hurt other people’s feelings, he’d managed to mutilate his own.
Regarding the problematic heart condition, he had to take ibuprofen for an unrelated ailment, which exacerbated the cardiovascular assassination in slow motion, since it was the only over the counter medication he’d found that addressed the pain in question. Naproxen sodium was just dandy for hangovers and the occasional back pain, but Rowan hardly ever drank anymore anyway, due almost exclusively to Yemin’s pathological distaste for the smell of alcohol on his breath. (She claimed the chemical also changed his personality, but he only noticed a slight augmentation of the depression factor when he awoke from a night of even moderate drinking, the heightened mindfulness no doubt a by-product of his spouse-enforced flirtation with sobriety.)
During peaks of self-pity, Rowan sometimes grew spiritually ponderous and wondered if perhaps he hadn’t been some kind of holocaust-engendering dictator in a past life to have earned such hardcore punishment in the shape of a nasty marriage. Since he didn’t believe in past lives, he figured perhaps instead his decision to tie the Gordian knot with Yemin had stemmed from masochistic guilt over the other hearts he himself had broken (besides his own, metaphorically, through many a foray in the suicidal battlefield of unrequited love) on his way to the (heart-shaped) bottom–of his wife, that is.
As for breaking her heart, which he’d probably already done by refusing to have children with her (knowing if he did he’d be surrounded by little born-again demons), he thought her mind was already broken, so if her heart broke too, she could wear it on her brain like a tentacled bathing cap, mixing gray matter with red meat, and make a startling fashion statement to a perplexed world.
Rowan believed with the late Whitney Houston that the children had no future–unless he was getting the quote wrong–especially now that the North Pole was a puddle and U. S. President Biraq Osama–or Snoopy to his friends–was setting the stage for the country to become the military dictatorship it had always dreamed of being, ever since its divorce from Mother England (in the late Oedipal stage of its development), which had freed it up to become the slaughter-happy force that inspired the rest of the world to cheer–on pain of death if the terrified international audience refused to comply.
Not that the United States, in Rowan’s view, was alone in its decision to flush the whole planet down the toilet. Terracide, as an observant journalist had dubbed the procedure, required teamwork, and that of a league of nations, instead of just one hot-headed bully with a thermonuclear chip on its shoulder.
As part of his new job, Rowan joined a busload of children and other adults for a trip to a water-themed park in the southern part of the country, waking up no later than he usually did during the week to ensure punctuality and continued employment. He’d brought few clothes with him, including two pairs of the camp’s T-shirt, which constituted its minimalist, perfectly comfortable combed cotton uniform, and a paperback he knew he wouldn’t have a moment to read amid his insuperable duties.
As the bus got under way, Rowan and his ten-year-old seat mate settled in to watch the computer-animated film The Ant Bully. Although it was mainly standard Disneyesque Hollywood fare for children, and produced by Tom Hanks to boot, Rowan found the movie compelling enough to hold his attention just about throughout. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a movie–six months?–so the novelty of being able to watch it helped him get through the sappy patches and the inevitable fusillade of cliches. He later patted himself on the head for recognizing the voices of Nicolas Cage and Paul Giamatti (whose character also physically resembled the actor, providing a conspicuous hint).
The film was followed by a series of Zen-like cartoons, also “drawn” by a computer, about a hapless yet determined polar bear known to Koreans as Backkom. Rowan kept his eyes on the screen for much of these animated hijinks as well, thinking it would give him something to talk to the children about later on at the water park. Although the cartoons and theme song were relentless and interminable, they held his attention for at least an hour as the bus waddled along through an equally endless traffic jam.
(Later, when Rowan alluded to the cartoon while speaking to one of the Korean class assistants, she thought he was referring to David Beckham; she corrected his pronunciation, saying it was more like “Peck Comb.”)
To be continued in the near future, when aquatic festivities galore n’ more will ensue.