I found myself in a local bar called Panorama, skimming through my work contract. I contemplated my ability to continue this working abroad disaster and considered walking away from a large end-of-contract payment, or perhaps I was simply waiting for an explanation from “God” about why everything falls apart. I read the pages over and over, searching for what I needed to do to end my contract and still get the cash. Panorama was a quaint, local bar that Koreans escaped to to enjoy horrific karaoke and shots of throat-burning Soju, the equivalent of cheap vodka. Americans were not interested, nor did they notice this dingy place.
Tonight, it was fairly empty. Alone on the stage stood a Korean ahjumma, or aged woman. An ahjusshi, or aged man, also Korean, sat in flooded tan trousers on a short stool next to her, holding a large cello. The woman had a gray, shoulder-length poufy perm with a slight purple tint. She wore a hanbok—a traditional Korean dress—her face covered in thick, pasty-white makeup. With clarity, passion, and purpose, she and the cellist performed as no one but me watched. The song had a simple, memorable riff with a reflective chord progression. The woman had turned off the karaoke television screen and sang from memory as the cellist supported her.
She sang as if this were the last song she would ever sing. Her soul flickered between every note, with presence and awe. Like she was going somewhere and would never return. As the woman sang, she reached into the spotlight that lit her, pulling the light closer to her chest—like she and the light had established a deep state of devotion. As the ahjusshi played the cello, hidden in the woman’s shadow, particles of dust floated through the light and disappeared into the darkness, like floating glowworms. I could not recognize her words but recognized the source of them. This woman must be singing to me… I thought. I fantasized about hope as she sang.
The four soldiers sat at the empty bar, near the stage. I sat in an oversized, black leather booth near the entrance. One of the soldiers went back outside, propping the door open momentarily. The glacial breeze returned. The soldier strode back in and took a detour toward my booth, warming his hands. I turned away but could see him approaching from the corner of my eye.
“Ey, excuse me, bro. Restroom around here?” He shivered.
“Behind the bar…” I pointed.
After a few minutes, as I began to pack up, I heard a voice. “Ey, can I sit here? You look normal…” I looked up, confused. It was him again. He chuckled and shivered.
“Yeah, I’m headed out…all yours. Has a good view of the stage.” I snickered to myself.
“Man, this woman can sing. I wonder what she’s saying. I’m Alveré,” the soldier continued, “Alvín in English. What you drinkin’?”
I motioned to my waiter for the check.
“Let me guess. You’re from the West Coast,” he said.
Alveré quickly made it clear that he had plenty of time to chat and was looking for a new friend. He removed his hat, placed it on the table, and rolled up his sleeves; he began flipping through the beer menu. Someone new in my life is the last thing I wanted.
Alveré had a slightly grown-in buzz cut and a naïve presence. He was dressed in army fatigues with coyote brown boots. He was covered in crisp snowflakes; Somehow, I could see the hexagonal and octagonal crystalline structure of the ice. His face was stuck in a half-smile, on the verge of a chuckle. He was nearly six feet tall with perfect posture and the typical, stiff, herculean stance of a military person.
He wore a forearm tattoo on his left arm of an Admiralty ship’s anchor wrapped in chain links. The anchor trans- formed into a thirty-petal rose at the eye of the anchor. There was a hummingbird feeding on the rose, its wings curled in and up.
“Yep, from California—L.A. I’m Ross.”
“Ross from Cali…” He seemed to contemplate this and quickly mumbled something in Portuguese. “Nice to meet you, Ross. I’m from New York, born in São Paulo, Brazil, though.” “Moved here when I was thirteen.” Alveré excitedly corrected himself, having momentarily forgotten that he was now in Korea. “You know what I mean…moved out there.” He laughed.
“Brazil? How’d you get into the U.S. Army?”
“Long story. My unit just got here. I just met these idiots—FML.” He continued. “You military? What are you doin’ all the way in Korea…by yourself?”
“I’m actually an English teacher in a work-abroad program,” I responded.
“You signed up to come here? Who does that?!”
I pondered, squinting my eyes. “I guess I did? What a dumbass.” We laughed. “And I’m honestly sitting here regretting every moment.” I held my contract up.
For the next several minutes, we spoke about the absurdities of Korean culture. Every time I glanced at Alveré to size him up, his eye contact felt like a Cyclops beam, at least for the fraction of a microsecond our pupils met. In these moments, the details of his eyes were apparent. His eyes were thalassic, deep, abidingly blue, with a thin chestnut lining. While intense and notably awkward, something about Alveré seemed familiar, like a puppy’s gaze.
As we spoke, Alveré was wringing his hands on top
of the table. He would rub his hands on the side of his pants and laugh randomly between longer gaps of silence, uttering, “Interesting!” at the end of most of my sentences. One of the other army guys tumbled into my booth.
“Hey, bro!” a drunken soldier said to Alveré.
“Ooh, he’s sexy, Alvin! Did you get his number?” the solider drunkenly joked while reaching out and twisting Alveré’s nipple. Alveré pulled away, embarrassed.
Another soldier interjected, “Alvin, you going tonight, bro? Rampant Korean p*$$y, bro…free flowing like mas agua.” The soldier began to do the robot dance.
“Alvin’s our new resident Brazilian model to attract that tiger pussy… Look at this face.” The soldiers exploded into gut-wrenching laughter, grabbing Alveré’s chin and squishing his lips. “F$g#@t,” one soldier joked. “We’re headed to this joint in Hungdae.” Hungdae was Seoul’s party capital. A night in Hungdae would mean we would be out until 6 a.m.
“You should join us…” The solider glanced over at me. “I’m Connor.” Connor reached out to shake my hand. He continued, “I hear they just let you…” The soldier paused, then wiggled his middle and ring finger around in quick circles. “And the girls just start makin’ out with each other.”
“You wanna roll through or…” The soldiers looked at me as Alveré hesitated. He whispered to me, “Don’t leave me with these idiots. Please, bro, pleassssse!”
I explained to the soldiers that I was an English teacher and that my class started early. They became distracted and began to chatter drunkenly to each other.
“Please, Ross from Cali… Don’t leave me with these douches—we vibin’, right?”
I continued to pack my bag.
“I’ll text you the address. Let me get your number. Just a few hours; never been to Hungdae…”
“Nice to meet you, Alveré, but I’m out…”
“My mom calls me Alveré; friends call me Alvin—you can call me Alví, though, if you want…” He continued. “You can tell me about L.A. I’ve always wanted to go there.”
I laughed. I stared at my contract. My passport looked back at me from the bottom of my bag. I looked back at Alví.
All right. I’m in, let’s go.