Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Girl in Da Nang on the Back of a Bicycle, Laughing

  Despite living with Ruth for five months in Korea, only a few memories survived.  Meeting her that first night, he dropped his bag on the apartment floor and stood next to this diminutive troll with hooked beak,  bulging pea green eyes and unfortunate Orphan Annie hair smelling toxic as she chain smoked and flipped the butts over the balcony.   Then with pudgy fingers she signed the Korean alphabet as if he had so much to learn.  “One finger down is ‘OOO,’ two fingers down is ‘YOO.’  Korean vowels are like milking udders on a cow’s teat.  You like teat, fresh boy?”
She patted his cheek and he stood there like a dummy and took it because he didn’t know what else to do on his first night in a foreign country.  Ruth was the head teacher and had already been there a year and she laid a leg across his lap and asked if he liked what he saw.
“Better get used to it.  There’s only two or three of us white women in the city.”  She slide a hand from thigh to mid shin bone, ash falling on the thick unshaven stubble.  “Slim pickens here, unless you go native.”
She blew smoke across his face that wafted over the balcony blackness high above the rice fields out into the sizzling hum of power lines  to the beyond.  “And we hate when our fresh boys go native.”
A week later the other teachers were sitting around the table getting high and getting to know one another and Ruth brought up the subject of love, whoop whooping like she’d just lassoed a pig.  Ted said he didn’t believe in it, clutching a bottle close to his chest like a life preserver.  Sadie was nervous and toyed with a yellow split end.  She was tall and lanky and had just spent seventy American dollars on a white FILA tennis outfit to take to Hong Kong.   Jeff Martin, her older brother’s college roommate, was playing a tournament there.  He’d lost the year before in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and was currently ranked seventh in the world. 
Ruth was poking her.  “You said you always knew you could have any guy if you tried hard enough, you remember saying that?”
Sadie stared at the floor. 
“What about you, Ruth?”  The Fresh Boy asked.  He had been silent most of the night, sitting in the chair tearing labels off bottles.  Ruth’s eyes grew misty and she took a drink, then as if on cue began reciting lines from this absurd movie, popular at the time, about a trio of city men who travel to a dude ranch and drive a herd of cattle through a rough mountain range.  How there was this leader, Rusty or Dusty, he couldn’t remember any more, but the actor spoke in this death drawl of seeing a woman bending over in the garden working, showing the shape God had given her, and how the cowboy had stood there, loving this nameless woman from afar.  Same as that cowboy, that’s what Ruth thought of love.
  At this, the Fresh Boy laughed and said it was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.  “Who quotes a cowboy movie when talking about …?”
Ruth didn’t let him finish, slapping him hard across the face.  Such a smack the room fell winter chill.  Ted, who was putting his bottle on the table stopped, holding it just inches from the wet ring on the wood.  “If you ever disrespect me like that again, I’ll end you.”  The whispered words seethed from Ruth’s lips and the Fresh Boy’s eyes glared back with hate.  For the next four months, they spoke not a single word to one another.
Living in a three bedroom apartment and not speaking was easier than it seemed.  The Fresh Boy counted days, traveled, took a string of local girls home and made loud noises behind his locked door.  Ted moved out.  Others came.  Sadie surprised Jeff at the Australian Open and he lost in the first round.  Then Ruth decided to leave.  At her Going Away party, all the teachers in town came to say farewell.  The number of white faces had swelled to fifteen.  Ruth drank and smoked too much and marched up to him saying, “You’re a prick. You know that?  You’re some prick!”
It had been a long day, full of classes and weirdness, and for a moment he had to restrain himself thinking he would knock out her teeth and crush her nose because, who would know?  All the guests had left and they were alone in the apartment.  But slowly he closed and locked the door behind him and sat on the bed while Ruth slammed her fists against the wall screaming, “You’re the most immature person I've ever met.  You’re not a man. You’re just a boy.  A scared little boy.”
For the longest time he sat on the bed letting her hit the wall.  Then she went to bed and he listened to the hum of power lines across the black rice fields and the next day the Troll left Korea and never returned.
Eighteen years passed.  Eighteen years.  Then out of the blue she wrote to him.  This little troll with the pudgy fingers and bright red hair telling of her high school daughter on the swim team and her husband who drives freight trucks for months at a time.  How she returned to Missouri and hasn’t left the country since.  How Korea was a fond memory except for one thing, that she was wrong and asked if he would forgive her.  She said it was important that he forgive her. 
It’s been a few months now and he hasn't written back.  Too much time had passed and it mattered nothing to him anymore.  Does anything remain from these people in our past more than lines in the dark that hum?  Perhaps only the parts we need.  Enough to write this at least.

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