short story and art by Finn Harvor
Opening shot: under the surface of the ocean, late day.
The water is murky, its murk accentuated by the fading light that shines, muted by water, from the far sky. Every now and then, a fish — or group of fish — comes into view. Then all disappear, startled.
Over the sound system we hear the amplified hiss and violent gurgle of someone off-camera breathing through scuba gear.
And who knows what he was looking for, small lost fish? Who knows what in this vast sea he was hoping to find?
The jarheads are mainly gone now, but the signs of the bars, half-Hangeul, half-English, still litter the streets, like flotsam and jetsam bobbing in a freighter’s wake — a seagull’s dinner.
This is Itaewon at low tide; this is Seoul from the deep.
He walks up the street, limping again, past bars with names like Star Butts or Texas, when a petite prostitute wearing hot pants, a sweater and glasses emerges from one of them and grabs his arm.
“I just want to talk,” she says, pulling at him both gently and insistently.
He knows he should (and could) pull away. He knows he could wriggle free. But as she pulls on his arm, he finds he likes it; likes the sensation of someone needing him, wanting him with a greedy desire that would amount to genuine emotion if it weren’t motivated by — greed.
“I don’t want sex,” he says.
“It’s okay. We just talk. Come on!”
The woman has a small, intelligent face. She might be his age, the man thinks. She appears older — or less hard — than the other women who work this area. With her glasses she looks almost studious. But there’s nothing collegiate about her manner.
“Let’s go,” she says. Like a fisherman, she realizes that by now she’s got her catch firmly on the hook and she positively reels him in. Her gentleness disappears. She pushes him through the door leading to the Iroquois Club.
Inside, four other hookers sit at a table. The place — like so many in this neighborhood — has a faded look. It’s unpretentious. Or just built on the cheap. There are red lava lamps on the tables. The hookers are stout. One smiles at the man with what looks like real sweetness. All of them are amused by the first catch of the day.
“American?” the petite woman says as she leads him to a booth.
“Miguk andey-yo,” the man says. I’m not American. “Canada saram.”
“Ahh, Canada. You live in Seoul?”
“Incheon essa wasey-yo.” I came from Incheon.
The woman smiles. Then, quickly: “Buy a drink.”
“I thought we were just going to talk.”
“Buy a drink and we talk.”
“Okay,” the man says. He can see where this is going. He’s almost inclined to say to her, “I’m religious,” but doubts that will release him. She’s already got one arm around his shoulder, and he, lonely fish, is reeled in a bit further.
“Okay. One drink,” he says.
“One for you, o cheon won,” she says. Five thousand won. “One for me, ee man won.” Twenty thousand won.
The man can’t maintain his facade of amused disinterest any longer. “What?! Pee-sa!” In English, it sounds like a child’s rude pun; in Korean, it means expensive.
“Me drink, ee man won,” the woman insists.
“An-nee-ee-yo,” he tells her. No. “Cho neun song seng nim. Not richeh.” I’m a teacher. I’m not rich.
“Okay. Man won.”
“Ah-nee-ee-yo,” he still refuses.
She simultaneously sighs and places one hand between his crotch.
“Okay. You no buy. But you buy me,” she says.
“Uh, how do you say, ‘I don’t think so’?”
She’s not smiling, but she gets it. “Man won. We just talk.”
“All right,” he says. She smiles and walks to the bar then returns with a drink.
His willpower seems to simply dissolve — octupi ink — into the Iroquois Club’s liquid atmosphere. Maybe his increasing lassitude is the result of the way the woman, sipping with one hand, reaching toward him with the other, is playing with his snorkel. As he gets hard, his spine gets soft; every man, at heart, is a jellyfish.
One drink turns to two and soon they’re kissing. He likes this. He misses kissing. The last working girl he met refused any facial contact This time it seems almost tender.
The inevitable happens. They negotiate and agree on a setting (“yogi-oh” — right here). Because he’s getting a discount, she looks at him with the sharp manner of doctor and says, “Hurry up. Five minutes.”
While the two of them are taking off their shirts, he glances at her, hoping that she, with professional lack of interest, will not glance back. But she does.
“Mwa-shim-ni-ka?” she says, genuinely surprised, and drawing a finger over the scar on his chest, just above his heart — a shark’s bite, a sword-fish’s stab.
He musters a smile. “Gwen-chana.” It’s okay.
Now they are in the booth wearing nothing but their shoes. She gets on top of him, and he feels her petite heat. He wants to experience that sensation repeatedly: the movement of her smaller thighs over his thighs, the one instant of perfection on a sea-bed of muck; small chunks of garbage — beer bottle caps and crumbled chips and weird stains, like spilled cargo from a freighter ship — strewn everywhere.
He’s been celibate for so many months that five minutes feel like several more. But once the peak — the sweet undersea volcano — is scaled, they sink to a greater depth than he ever thought possible. He looks at the club, he looks at the woman. All he feels now is the pity underlying lust. Who is he to feel sorry for himself? His net only lasts the night. The woman’s is permanent.
The woman looks at him. “Get dressed,” she says without sentimentality.
She smiles. “You come tomorrow?”
“Nae-il Incheon-ey kal-kuh-ya-yo.” Tomorrow I’ll go back to Incheon.
“Give me your phone number.” Now she’s sounding like one of the Christians he’s met.
This was the week before — another neighborhood, another sea of concrete. He’d simply been minding his own business, watching some b-boys do a break dance routine on the sidewalk, when another intense woman — also with glasses and intelligent-faced, but with a more Puritan air — approached him. “Will you come to our meeting?” she said. “I”m not Christian,” he responded, always the spiritual wriggler. The woman was not fazed. She kept looking at him with pointed intensity. “We are body and spirit,” she said. “What do you think happens to us after we die.” He shrugged. “God cares about us,” the woman said.
If she had chosen another verb — such as “love” — he would have dismissed her automatically. But she said “cared”, and the word suddenly possessed such profundity of meaning for him — shelf after sea-shelf, the layers of the deep — that it brought forth tears to his eyes. He excused himself before it was revealed she had succeeded in harpooning him.
Now, in the Iroquois Club, looking at his new-found friend, and sizing her up for slipperiness, the man says, “Cell phone upsey-yo.” I don’t have a cell phone. “It doesn’t work.” This is truthful enough. It had been a hand-me-down from a student. It had lasted two months — not bad.
But the man’s most primal emotions are mixed: nice or flight. He knows the woman will immediately judge his statement as a brush-off. So he says, “You want my email?”
“I don’t know computers,” she says.
The man looks at her face. At one point, maybe she was a schoolgirl trying to pass one of the onerous exams that tyrannize students here. He can’t believe she’s so technophobic she doesn’t use email. But then he thinks maybe it’s true. The social divide here is that great. She’s an aging hooker. She’s been trained to accept one role in life and think no further. If she’s saved her money, she’ll soon open a food stall or become a procuress, managing a place like the Iroquois Club rather than working its front door.
But the man can’t stay. He’s already broken his private rule. On any given night, he won’t allow himself to sprinkle more than sam or sa man won — thirty or forty dollars — uselessly into the water. The man looks at the woman. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
Her face remains impassive. She turns away.
The man leaves the Iroquois Club and walks up Hooker Hill. It’s 2003. It is still populated.
Other women — goldfish dressed in turquoise and silver — emerge from their sea caverns. “Hi!” they call to him. “Come here! Just talk!” “I miss you!”
He’s drowning now. The temptations of sirens, the sexy pull of scantily clad minnows.
He passes a concrete wall that has a large poster of a girl in a slinky dress pasted onto it. The poster is rotting, rainfall after rainfall … a river’s worth of water slowly rounding down its colours. But even this – a dying facsimile on reality – has, like the women in their doorways, an extreme effect on him: waves of need – red waves, hot waves – beam from his eyes, his heart, his groin … even the lobes of his ears. The waves direct themselves at this poster, with its four colour process of ink now reduced to a pale two.
His body, aquarium of pain, reminds him of reality. His chest hurts. His right leg hurts. His injuries are acting up and it’s hard for him to walk with an even gait.
At the top of the hill, the atmosphere suddenly changes. He walks past the huge mosque. A few Muslims dressed in white frocks and black jackboots pass, their heads turned down, a test of willpower as they prepare to walk down the same hill he has just ascended.
The man keeps walking, although it’s difficult now. He wants to sleep. Where does one sleep in a cold titanic sea?
And so, as the buildings turn to coral and the alleys melt to gulf streams, a fish, tiny fish, swims against the tide. Where will he go, sad creature separated from his school? Which larger net will ultimately trap him, and haul him in for good?