Truly, there have been better, happier, more restful months than the last.
The primary sorrow was the loss of my 24-year-old cousin, whom I’d just gotten to know pretty well in the last year, when I stayed with him and his parents in Columbia, SC, on a weekly basis. He was on a medical mission trip to Peru weekend before last, went hiking, fell into a ravine, and died. His body was discovered, if not recovered, two days later. I don’t think it’s been shipped back to the US yet. There’s all sorts of bureaucratic red tape to get through when you die abroad. It’s also state, national, and even international news. A reporter approached me online asking for commentary. I simply responded that while it was a commonplace for a bereaved family to think of all sorts of virtues, real and imagined, of the deceased, he was in fact a solid guy. My cousins (his parents, particularly his father) were more articulate, expressing thanks for the years he’d spent with them, and what he’d accomplished, spiritually and temporally, in his abbreviated lifespan.
More than three weeks ago, I contracted horrible insomnia. Perhaps the high level of work (I'm in the classroom four hours a week more than regular for June and July and a bit of August, and there is of course considerably more planning time added to that) contributed to this. But in the meantime, Susanna was coming to Seoul, where June and I had agreed to meet her.
“I hate to travel,” I complained to my British colleague. Amused, she pointed out that I was currently on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. But there are some trips I dread disproportionately, and this was one. I’ve perhaps never looked forward to a trip less. Having had little sleep for more than two weeks, I was rocky and definitely on the antisocial end of the conviviality spectrum. The previous week I had not gotten sufficient time alone. I had wanted to retreat to my house and write (and maybe watch a couple of K dramas that I hadn't had time to start), but when I hadn't been desperately trying to doze off, I'd been planning for classes, or teaching them. I hadn't even had much time for editing, which is not only a valuable supplement to my income, but provides a kind of a mental relaxation for me, as it uses a completely different part of my brain than classroom management and teaching. All I wanted to do was to stay home and clutch my pillow, and now I was not only looking at a one-night (!) trip to Seoul but at meeting up with Susanna, who was full of energy and thoroughly-researched plans and was sweetly using her entire vacation travel halfway around the world to be with June and me.
I was not a good hostess. I fell asleep on the tour bus after lunch in Itaewon Saturday. I was so tired. Afterwards, we picked up the considerable number of items that Suzanne had brought for us from the US – lots of clothes and shoes, plus toothpaste and other odd toiletries and such that had been stuffed in among them, and hauled these with our own overnight bags down to the nearest bus stop.
Foreigners are toxic. Such is my explanation for the remarkable unwillingness of many Koreans to sit near us in public. At the Jeju airport waiting for the plane to Seoul and on the limousine bus back across the island (It's new, did not stop in any of the hotel cul-de-sacs--sparing us the nausea from twisting and turning--and even let us out less than a two block walk from my house. Talk about perfect door-to-door service!) we were given a wide berth (one woman actually seemed to go out of her way to avoid sharing a seat next to us). We didn’t smell that bad.
It was absolute misery trying to find the Seoul Airbnb apartment after dark. Every map app we consulted on our phones placed the address in a different location, and when we finally decided which bus to take, and triumphantly rode it to within 10 minutes’ walk of the destination, we were surrounded by high-rises and stairs and gates and no street signs. In the courtyard of one complex, we did meet an American woman wearing a Clemson t-shirt who teaches kindergarten on the US base, but her husband acted like we were about to kidnap her when she offered to show us to a likely spot nearby. He defensively hailed a cab for us, which drove us around the block to the correct building. The loft apartment was microscopic but extremely clean, and the bathroom was practically the biggest room. We slept comfortably.
It took us almost two hours Sunday to find an available luggage locker and get to the metro station to meet Susanna for a walking tour of the Seoul city wall. Only, when we emerged from the station, we were in Russia. We could read all the signs, which were in Cyrillic. Everything was locked up tight, and there was no sign of Susanna, who turned out to be at another station which shared the same name. We forewent the tour and decided to meet later. I don’t remember what we did before we went to the airport. I was preoccupied with concern about my cousin, who I had learned had gone missing on a hike in the Andes.
I learned of the discovery of his body Monday morning. Betwixt my preexisting fatigue and this new sorrow, and my really incredibly heavy workload, I was on the verge of falling apart.
“You need a boyfriend!” had been Albert’s unsolicited advice. He had accompanied me as my interpreter to the doctor a week earlier so that I could obtain a prescription for sleeping medication. The doctor himself had been completely unhelpful, attributing my severe insomnia to “being far away from home,” and “living by myself.” It was a very Korean diagnosis. I LIKE living by myself, and had in fact had an almost intolerable amount of social time in the previous week. And I have not been homesick. It’s almost impossible to be homesick with the communication technology nowadays. At least the doc consented to give me a weeks’ worth of sleeping medication.
When I’m tired, being an older single woman is harder and harder. Albert was a person I might cheerfully date if I knew he were a believer, but as far as I can discern his Catholicism is merely nominal. Furthermore, he is divorced (and one of his two Facebook pages describes him as “married”!). And he didn’t understand about my OCD diagnosis, which I was forced to transmit through him to the doctor—talk about letting relative strangers into your most intimate business! I don’t know whether his “you need a boyfriend” idea was his panacea for mental illness or insomnia or both, but it certainly was clueless BS, however well-meant. And he did mean well—he pulled up a list of foods reputed to help with insomnia on his phone – many of which I am already eating! And he said he would take walks with me every day.
That last was a red flag, as desperate as I am for company; the reddest of red flags was his hovering his arm around me, clasping my waist and shoulder as he insisted on holding an umbrella over us as we walked to and from the car. I knew I was terminally susceptible to charm, even perhaps scattershot charm, and that in my current addled state I needed someone to step in and keep me from doing something profoundly stupid. I do get weary of trying not to be stupid. It seems to get easier and easier to be stupid when I am tired and old, with few people to talk to.
I allowed myself to be taken to lunch after the appointment, although I was practically demented from exhaustion. Lunch was delicious—an entire chicken per person, delivered to the table in a boiling broth of onions. There were side dishes, too, of course, and I didn’t have to resort to the fork which the restaurant owner preemptively retrieved from some place in the kitchen and brought to the table. I felt like it was a skill test, to fish out and debone a chicken using only chopsticks, while barely conscious, and talking with a proficient. Albert encouraged me to put a little seasoning from the tiny dishes on the table on my poultry, and then he proceeded to criticize the extent of my salt intake. During the meal, I asked him point-blank whether his suggestion about the necessary boyfriend referred to himself or someone else. He didn’t respond directly. He did affirm that he was “going to be my helper” every day and so forth, which may have been an assent.
I was frustrated not only by the lack of real communication, and the unsolicited dietary criticism (I found out later that this is a Korean thing, not exclusive to him—as a culture they tend to be painfully blunt about small matters and frustratingly oblique about serious ones), but also by the realization that in my unrested state, even these frustrations didn’t seem sufficient deterrent to possible terminal idiocy on my part. So that afternoon, after teaching my classes, I asked the school assistant director to talk to the guy and explain to him, in a diplomatic manner, that he needed to back off a bit. Albert continued to bring me water and other drinks for the next several weeks, until two days ago he announced that he would no longer be attending the adult English class because he’d decided to enroll in scuba-diving lessons. I am relieved. He would linger after class, and other, older students would tell me (in front of him!) what a nice guy he was, and what a “good helper” he was for me. I was deliberately obtuse, and cheerfully agreed that he was a good student, and that I appreciated his efforts.
I’m sick of being deliberately obtuse when it comes to male attentions, although I admit its necessity in all cases in which I have used the technique. I don’t see the point of dating someone that you cannot marry. But I really wish someone whom I could marry would come along. As I told an elder at a church here, it’s not like I am wedded to the notion of giving birth to my own genetic offspring, which is increasingly unlikely anyway. I would cheerfully adopt children if I could afford it. I just think that children should preferably have a mother and a father. Furthermore, my energy level seems to be dropping by the day. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to physically handle the demands of motherhood of young, energetic individuals if I get too much older. Heck, I’m not sure I can handle it even now, but I’m still willing to give it a go, provided I have a suitable partner in the enterprise. "You need a boyfriend," poo. I would love to get married…to someone who understands the reality of mental illnesses, who doesn't think less of me for my OCD, someone with whom I can have a good conversation, and worship together at church.
Thank God the other doctor I saw at the local hospital for a follow-up appointment was female, but the prescription she gave me barely touched the insomnia, and I continued to struggle for another fortnight. When Susanna came from Seoul to Jeju, she stayed with June in her tiny efficiency instead of with me in my spacious two-room apartment because she didn’t want to sleep on the floor. Given my circumstances, though I was glad of her visit and EXTREMELY grateful to her for serving as our hemispheric pack mule, I was relieved not to have company.
We three did hike almost fifteen miles together over the last weekend. We saw multiple local waterfalls, including a dry one out in the countryside, off a main road oddly bereft of taxis. Near the non-working waterfall, which only pours over the stone cliffs when there has been substantial rain on the mountaintop, there was a rusted sign pointing to the “world’s first kissing cave”; the bottom of the sign begged visitors to limit themselves to locking lips. Or, as I put it on Facebook, “further hanky-panky was strongly discouraged.” The “kissing cave” itself was a damp, unlit tunnel into the rock, and faced with a large heavy square stone entryway like a nuclear bunker. Maybe it actually had been a bunker at one time. Large yellow plastic packing pallets covered the floor to keep visitors from sinking ankle deep in mud. It was not a romantic location. And there were copious mosquitoes boiling out of the brambles that clogged the nearby ravine. We retreated down the hill to the road and waited, fruitlessly, as night fell, for a taxi. After about half an hour we managed to get on a bus back to town.
God has been exactly providing for me in small but notable and fascinating ways in the midst of my somnambulance. Saturday night last I was twenty minutes in to a bad migraine, and we ran into a colleague on the street who happened to have two aspirin and a bottle of water with him. I got a personal message via Facebook from a fellow I haven't seen since high school encouraging me to stay strong in faith (he was voted most likely to become a preacher, and I was voted most likely to become a nun in our senior year public school class "silly superlatives." He is a preacher… I am a nun, functionally, although without the institutional support.) My boss gave me eight hours off to rest when she heard about my cousin’s death. I wouldn’t have made it through last week without this respite. My adult students quietly collected 300,000 KRW ($261 at that day’s exchange rate) to be sent to my cousins to help cover the costs of returning their son’s body to the US. I burst into ugly tears when they presented it to me, and bowed deeply, not realizing until later that the undershirt I was wearing over my loose blouse didn’t fully compensate for the depth of my genuflection. Whoops.