Life and Liquor

What’s Wrong?

I’ve been living in Seoul for two months. As a foreigner, I face a lot of questions, both from my Korean friends and the kids I teach. They ask if I have a girlfriend, they ask if I like Korean music, and one smart-ass third grader asked me if there was a lot of corn in Ohio.

But of all those questions, the simplest question I get is the one that’s the most jarring.

“What’s wrong?”

On my first day in Korea, after a night’s rest at the hotel, two separate strangers stopped me in the street to shake my hand.

The first said, “Hello.”

The second said, “Welcome.”

I spent a day at an amusement park with one of my new Korean friends. We left the park in the evening and had dinner at a Japanese restaurant. He laughed as I struggled to hold the iced noodles with my chopsticks. As the meal came to a close, he paused and tilted his head.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing’s wrong. I’m good.” It had been a fun day. What could be wrong? Had we not just been laughing about noodles?

“Something’s wrong,” he said with a shake of his head.

After dinner, we walked down the street. We passed stumbling drunks. We passed patients from the nearby hospital casually strolling with their IV-stands. We passed enamored couples sporting t-shirts inscribed with broken English.

“Go get some rest,” he said.

I was sitting on a stool near the desk in my friend Phillip’s apartment. Phillip was the English name he used for his job. His apartment was compact and clean and contemporary. He was sitting on the bed. We each had a bottle of cider, a warm-up for the tall beers in the fridge we would drink later.

Glass clinked and he said, “Cheers.”

We passed his iPad back and forth, sharing new songs with each other. It reminded me of doing the same thing with friends from home. It was calming to have a friend to share the same experience while I was on the other side of the globe. Between songs he paused and looked at me.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

I had thought that part of me, the part that was invisible to most Americans, the part that didn’t even have a tragic backstory to justify its existence, I had thought it was fading away. Yoga had helped. Coding had helped. Therapy had helped. I was working. I was going out on weekends.

I was fine. I was okay. I was good.

I was always telling the kids at school to use more adjectives, it would have been hypocritical not to use them myself.

I do yoga. I code. I go to therapy.

Maybe someday people won’t ask me what’s wrong.


Life and Liquor

Brick Dust

Red Brick DustI tell him not to drill into the brick.

Jon’s new house has a living room with a long brick wall and a disabled fireplace.

He asks why not.

I don’t have a real answer.

“It’s nice brick,” is all I can say. My throat tightens in a knot, and I suspect that maybe there’s something not quite normal about feeling anxiety over another person’s home. I attempt to swallow the knot, but it just rolls over and back into place.

Jon just moved into a new home in Phoenix, an upgrade from the two bedroom condo in Mesa he had been living in since his divorce from his wife.

His two young daughters are still marveling at the new space. It’s a Sunday afternoon and it’s their first weekend in the new house. They slide in socks across hardwood floors and smooth tiles. Jon’s ex-wife will be coming to pick up the girls soon.

“Girl is gonna’ crack her head open,” I whistle. The knot twists.

Jon says if they hurt themselves he’ll fix it. He says that’s what dads do. His dimples beam when he talks about his daughters.

I like to joke that my father renovates his home one room at at a time, and by the time he’s finished, twenty years have passed and it’s time to start over.

The stars have to align for my father to break ground. He not only has to find the perfect materials, the perfect colors and textures and patterns, but he has to find them all on sale. Then, once the materials are obtained, there is a period of anywhere from a few weeks to a few years that the materials will sit, unused, somewhere in the house. A pile of tile in the corner of the family room, a stack of wood in my brother’s room, a stack of paint buckets in the garage. My childhood room has had the same unopened patio doors leaning against the wall for at least five years. This is the planning period, because everything has to be perfect.

It has to be perfect, it has to be perfect, it has to be perfect. Mistakes can’t be repaired.

This is how the brain I inherited works, and I’ve accepted it.

After the planning period of a few weeks to a few years, renovations begin. Dad will spend a few days laying tile or painting or whatever the project was. The old materials aren’t thrown away. This is the part where he finds a place to store them. The broken bricks and scrap wood and chipped tiles are piled into sheds, put on shelves in the basement, crammed into garage corners. They can’t be thrown away. There might be use for them.

For the renovation to be complete he has to take part in the final stage of analyzing the work, and convincing himself that he made the right decisions. The pattern of the tiles works, right? That was a good choice in door. Maybe a lighter shade of blue for that wall would have been better.

“It’s just brick,” Jon says. He wants to drill into the brick to hang up family pictures. He has walls and shelves that can hold family pictures. I don’t see why he needs to drill into this nice brick.

Jon and I have shared a mutual attraction since I met him over brunch with friends. Aspects of him that I should find attractive: his stable career, his beautiful home, his smart daughters, these don’t match with someone like me, someone who has considered leaving Phoenix since his arrival, someone who isn’t sure if a stable career is a thing that is ever going to exist for him. It doesn’t fit.

Jon asked me out during a group outing with friends. We were at a bar with go-go dancers, dance music, and cheap drinks. He was whimsically drunk. He said he wanted to go to this new restaurant in Arcadia. He said he liked that I was normal for someone my age, which seemed weird for someone barely six years older than me. I told him to think about it and ask me out sober the next day. I was stalling. The timing wasn’t right. The timing was never right.

The next day I received an invitation to go to a movie with him and the usual group of friends, no mention of his invitation from the night before.

Now we keep our distance through a series of warning shots.

“I don’t think I’ll be in Phoenix too long,” I’ll say at a local arts festival.

“You and my ex-wife would get along,” he’ll say during a hike up a desert mountain.

We leave a minefield of passive-aggressive comments and subtle innuendos, our poor friends left to navigate tone and subtext with no explanation.

Jon drills holes into the brick wall and I watch the red dust fall to the floor. The knot in my throat swells. I wish I had remembered that thing on Pinterest with the Post-It notes, the little trick to keep dust from getting everywhere while drilling. Now there’s a mess.

The doorbell rings and the girls run to greet their mother.

Their voices are filled with glee as they exchange greetings of “I missed you” and “Come see our rooms.”

“Mom, look!” they say with glee, their voices echoing off tiles and hardwood.

I hear the friction of socks on tile.

“Girls stop it!” I hear his ex-wife shout from the kitchen, “You’re going to get blood all over your father’s new floors.” I laugh.

“I love her already,” I say.

Introductions and small talk are made. Jon and his ex-wife talk about the girls’ schedules and behavior and the location of the Barbie DVD that keeps going missing.

As they focus on their parental duties, I take a hand-broom and dustpan and begin sweeping up the brick dust. It’s everywhere. It’s a mess. I should have laid paper down, or done something.

But before the knot in my throat can choke me, all the brick dust is collected, a red desert in the dustpan, harmless.

Goodbyes are said as Jon’s ex-wife and the girls leave.

I ask Jon if he wants to keep the brick dust for anything and he looks at me like I’m a crazy person, his eyebrows arched in skepticism.

“Why would I keep that?” he asks.

I shrug in a way that suggests I don’t even know why I asked.

I take the dustpan into the kitchen and hesitate.

“Are you sure?” I call. My voice echoes off granite counters and hollow walls.

A “yeah” echoes back. The “yeah” has a slight rise to it, as if its confused as to why I would even ask again.

I pour the red dust into the bin, and it makes the sound of an hourglass running too fast.

It’s taken years, but the knots in my throat visit less frequently now. I’ve found methods to keep them away. Now I can throw away clothes I don’t wear without worrying that I’ll need them back again. I can write in the notebooks that I was waiting to use for … whatever it was I was waiting for.

The fear of dismantling my life and making changes has subsided and changed into something new, to the point where I can pack a bag and fly to the other side of the world and figure it out from there. I didn’t stop fearing the renovations, the inevitable changes that come with existence, but I worked to add a few new feelings to make them more enjoyable. I’m more capable of keeping what I like and scrapping everything else. Some of the time. When the knot in my throat doesn’t find a way to sneak back in.

I stopped being afraid of the dust.

I see a picture online. It’s Jon and his boyfriend, his ex-wife and her boyfriend, and both of the girls. The girls are taller now. When did they get so tall? All six of them are covered in technicolor powder, the aftermath of a charity color run where participants sprint through a storm of bright clouds of pinks and yellows and blues. Their smiles gleam white.

For a moment I’m relieved that they aren’t afraid of the dust.

But Jon is the type of person who was never afraid of the dust.

Instead he runs right through it, knowing he can wash it off later.