I’m sitting down in a big open space, a café with a drumset in the corner, exposed piping and dusty lightbulbs above, and a respectable disco ball directly at 10:00. The last time I was here, it was for a pop-up dinner put on by Linus Kim, who arguably makes the best smoked swine in the country. He also makes a mean pot of baked beans. You could hardly find an empty seat last time, but today, apart from a quiet and lanky barrista, I’ve got the entire room to myself. It’s just us, the disco ball, and a carrot cake with two slices missing. Make that three slices missing.
Last night, Helen and I went for a haircut and sushi. When she found out how much I was paying for a trim (which is half of what it costs back home), she was shocked. She insisted she take me to her place, where a cut costs as much as a matinee. What the hell, I thought. It’s just hair. We met near the fire station in our neighborhood, and she led me down a dark and dreary street. We must have passed a dozen salons on the way, and I began to think she had other ideas. But we found it, and we squeezed ourselves between four other ladies on the waiting bench. When Helen handed me a style book so that I could pick out a look that I liked, I flipped through the pages, turned to her, and, gesturing to the pictures, I said “Helen, I have complete faith in your judgment, but these are a little 1980’s, don’t you think?” So we settled for a trim.
There is a custom of eating in Korea where you hop to three places and eat and drink a little at each one. Il-cha, I-cha, Sam-cha, it’s called, and it means first time, second time, third time. We sat at a newly opened sushi bar and ate cho-bap, or sushi rice blanketed by raw slices of fish so fresh, I felt like we were committing some kind of crime. I guess there are people in the world who would agree that we were.
We moved on to an izakaya, a Japanese pub, for more beer and snacks. Helen ordered marinated mushroom caps, their cavities full with their own liquid, and skewers of grilled ginkgo nuts. I asked her if she’d ever travel to Japan. Because of Korea’s history with Japan, she said she probably wouldn’t. It’s amazing how we communicate given how limited we both are with each other’s languages. We talked about marriage, commitment, parenting, and teaching. She’s got a husband who adores her and a healthy, well-adjusted son, and she is so aware of her fortune. Yet she’s told me she envies my freedom. At work, Helen makes me feel like more of a human when I’m upset about how the day is going. I thank my lucky stars that we met. We are so different, and so similar.
When we left the third spot, we were both a bit tipsy, and it was cold. She asked me why I wasn’t wearing boots, and I told her I had trouble finding shoes that fit my larger-than-average feet, larger-than-average in Korea. Another shocking bit of information for Helen, apparently. Pulling me aside, she took off her own boot and insisted I try it on. I’d been holding my wallet, and I set it down on a table so that I could untie the laces of my shoe. I mean, why not. Her boot was too tight, and on her, my shoe looked like a ski, an arrow pointing forward from the bottom of her leg. We laughed, switched back, and walked for ten minutes until it was time for her to catch a cab home.
When I dug for my wallet at the door of my apartment building, it was gone. I quickly took an inventory of what was inside, remembering that I’d spent the last of my cash earlier (earlier, I couldn’t figure out how the hell that’d happened, and now I was relieved). I never carry credit cards, and my passport was tucked away at home. Things weren’t looking so bad. Also, my five senses were intact, and that was always good news. So I ran back to the spot where Helen and I had switched shoes. And there it was, my red wallet all alone and gleaming in the moonlight, looking totally untouched. Ginkgo is supposed to be good for memory, but I guess maybe when you pair it with beer, you come out even. Most of the time, even is pretty damn good.