One thing I admire about my wife is that if there’s a problem that needs fixing, she’s on top of it right away. The other night she said we had to go and replace two of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs in the overhead fixture. I was bone-tired from a day of teaching and would have preferred to collapse at once. But she wanted to get it out of the way since she had to go visit her folks the next morning in order to help her mother make kimchi, an annual, labor-intensive affair that requires the teamwork of all female family members.
She also wanted to give a friend of ours a set of curtains we hadn’t been using in years, but said we should keep the curtain rod in case we decide to move again (make that: in case she wants to move again; I’ve only lived in Korea for seven years and we’ve already lived in four different apartments. The main reason we’ve had to move so many times is we’re dogged by seasonally inflicted water damage. Korea’s monsoon season can take its toll on one’s lodgings. She’s beset by Goldilocks syndrome; I subscribe to the Law of Futility with a shrug; that must be why I’m still married to her).
So I gathered up the clear plastic-entombed curtains from off the bed where she’d laid them, and we trotted up the hill together. I made the mistake of hugging the curtains in front of me and pointed out how it was hurting my back. I hefted them over my shoulder, which was more comfortable. Then Jina offered to carry them for awhile. I relieved her shortly thereafter, and minutes later we had emerged at our friend’s front door. She thanked us profusely for the curtains and we went inside to chat for twenty minutes or so, patting her two flashy outfit-adorned Maltese dogs. (She used to have a Maltese falcon, but he flew away. She wasn’t too upset about it, however, as he was a fake anyway.)
Then we looked for a shop that sold lightbulbs. I hadn’t brought my wallet with me, figuring we wouldn’t have to venture very far. Jina led me into a grocery store and we looked all around, high and low, up and down. No soap. To save time, I suggested she ask the proprietor, but she threw me a glance that conveyed that I must be an idiot to make such an outrageous proposition. When finally she acquiesced and asked him, he said he didn’t sell that model of lightbulb, but he pointed us in the right direction. As I didn’t understand Korean, I had to ask her if we had to walk very far or take the bus.
She repeated the Korean word for “left” to me, saying the place was just down the street. She also said I was “creepy” for asking so many questions. (I guess she must think a journalist who does interviews has the creepiest profession of all.)
The guy in the shop appeared to be a widower, surrounded by all manner of electrical fixtures. Unlike most public places, he had not just one clock but three. Time was on his mind. Like many Korean shop-owners, he had the TV running and was watching it while he helped us. Wouldn’t want to miss anything. When I heard the classic Who song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” playing, I leaned over to make eye contact with the TV, who sat on the floor like a good little boy. I thought I might be rewarded with a scene of the band playing the song, as it was the live version. To my chagrin, it turned out to be the soundtrack for an American TV series, CSI: Miami. I’ve never seen the program before, but I believe “C. S. I.” stands for “Chicken Shit International.” It’s Kentucky Fried Chicken’s new name. Honesty is the best policy.
I was a trifle miffed, as Pete Townshend of the Who had refused to let Michael Moore use the song the soundtrack of Fahrenheit 911 for the closing credits, just after George W. Bush uttered his immortally idiotic words: “Fool me and you can’t get fooled again.” Maybe Townshend was holding out for the TV offer as he knew it would probably pay more in the long run. (Another classic Bush quote: “In the long run, we’re all dead.” Also: “I think we can all agree: the past is over.” How come we couldn’t have had this guy for a third term, or even a fourth? Oh yeah, he’s still in there; he’s just wearing a different mask.)
The lightbulbs turned out to be too bright. Since the interior of our dining area is white, it made the place resemble an asylum. (Appropriate, you say?) So Jina went online, tracked down the place we’d just gone, called the man, and asked if we could replace them with yellow bulbs that matched the remaining ones we still had. He said we could but we’d have to make the transaction tonight. She was going to shlep back over there on her own, but she could barely keep her eyes open. Besides, it’s not necessarily safe for a woman to walk down the street by herself in this city late at night (even though it’s safer than a lot of other cities, thanks to CCTV and the overall decency of Korean people, nocturnal rapists notwithstanding). It was about quarter to eleven, the hour the shop closed.
I went with her, even though I’d offered to go by myself so she could get some sleep. She was dragging her feet; I told her I could dash up to the shop, make the swap, and run back to meet her, but she insisted on coming with me. Probably a good thing since I can’t speak a lick of Korean and misunderstandings were apt to ensue, even over such a simple transaction.
When we got back home we screwed the new bulbs in and–voila! Perfect lighting.
Now back to what happened the other day, right after Jina tore her own blouse off when we had an argument about my pay statement from work (for those of you who are interested, the story immediately precedes this post). After she ranted and raged at me, claiming I didn’t understand her and that we couldn’t communicate, she sat down on the sofa in the living room, evidently asking the big guy who art in heaven for forgiveness. Meanwhile, I picked up the laundry she’d dumped on the floor, finished hanging it up, and put on my coat and cap. We’d been planning on going for a walk together, but I was in no mood for her company after such a flagrant display of antisocial behavior.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’m going for a walk,” I said.
“I won’t be here when you come back.”
She’s never followed through on this kind of attractive offer, and I knew she wouldn’t this time. She slammed the door and I went downstairs and out the front door. A couple of minutes later, after I’d progressed half a hundred meters towards the bookstore I was heading for, I thought it wise to call her, just in case she’d decided to do something kooky like ignite the gas stove and set the place on fire for a change. When she didn’t answer the phone, I tried calling her again. No answer.
I sighed and trudged back up the hill, shuffled up the stairs, and unlocked the door to the apartment. To my relief, she was sitting at the computer.
“Why did you come back?”
“I thought you might want to come for a walk. I called you but you didn’t answer your phone.”
“Really?” She seemed pleasantly surprised.
A minute or so later she gave me a hug and said she loved me. I forgave her, as she seemed genuinely contrite, not that there was anything novel about the pattern.
We went for a walk up the hill together. When we saw a friend of ours coming towards us, I stopped and said hello, even though Jina asked me to ignore him and keep walking. After exchanging a few brief pleasantries with our friend, we parted ways and Jina and I advanced towards the local mountain that served as our destination.
“Why did you talk to him?” she said. “I told you not to.”
“Why not? He’s a nice enough guy,” I replied.
“He’s nice–when you and I are together. If it’s just me, he never says anything.”
I told her it wasn’t necessarily virtuous to stoop to his level. Besides, as a Christian, why couldn’t she forgive him and turn the other cheek?
“I can’t be like Jesus,” she said. “I don’t like society, and I don’t like civilization.”
“But you like the members of your church, right? That’s society, isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to live in the city.”
As you can see, Jina and I have a tremendous amount in common.
She griped about how we’d waited too long to take our walk. The sun hovered about a foot over the building-enriched horizon. I did my best to cajole her into coming with me up the wooden steps that would lead to the mountain road where the daily pilgrimage of tourists unfolds. She balked and turned around. I told her to suit herself, then started climbing the stairs. I continued past an insane young Korean man who was groaning to himself noisily despite being ensconced in a headphoned realm. A guy I’d seen from below had been doing squats and stretches. Since I could only see the upper half of his body from my vantage point with Jina, I told her I thought he might be taking a dump. Fortunately this was not the case.
The weather had suddenly gotten uninvitingly cold. Instead of taking a right at the top of the stairs and going the rest of the way up the small mountain, I took a left so I could go use the toilet, hop on a bus, and head for the bookstore–finally. As I was starting to feel a bit peckish, I went into a Korean fast food restaurant and sat down for a bowl of kimchi stew instead.
My phone rumbled to life. When I answered it, Jina asked, “Where are you?” I told her, and she laughed, saying something in Korean to a friend in the background. I asked if she was at our friend’s cafe. She said she was. I told her I’d come and meet her. I left the bowl of stew unfinished, bought a small carton of yogurt drink at a convenience store, and went to meet Jina at the cafe. She told me she hadn’t brought her phone or her keys (I hadn’t recognized the number on my phone when she called), and that she’d followed me up the base of the mountain, then lost track of me.
This is not at all an unusual occurrence in our marriage.
I tell you, they don’t call it holy matrimony for nothing, whoever they are and however much they’re making.