It was summer and everything had fallen apart. But I’d not yet lost hope. It was one of those descents where you feel free almost, so long as you can sense some light somewhere to fall toward. Yoon and I had divorced on account of irreconcilable differences. It wasn’t that I’d been diagnosed as autistic. It was that I was diagnosed and thought differently about everything suddenly and even quit my job because of it, which complicated our plans to start a family. As far as I could tell, no one resented anybody else, save for when it came time to file the paperwork for the divorce visa and Yoon wouldn’t help me. I did it, but all the small print and uncertainty wrecked me.
I ended up in Dobong in this goshiwon, a tiny closet of a room, sharing a hallway-bathroom with people ten years younger than me who were there solely to prepare for whichever entrance-exam. Seoul National University or the Civil Service Cert, I didn’t know. I had some savings and some boxes and my little side-gig designing emojis that earned me cash here and there. It was barely enough to live off of when Kakao featured my designs, which they did sometimes but not regularly.
Like I said, I was searching for some light.
I could have gone back to America, if only there’d been a place for me, or if I had some skill or other to rely on. I couldn’t go back to teaching, I at least knew that. The stress of it was too much. I’d die. Not in these words, but the psychologist said my executive functioning was trash. An autistic with Level 3 support needs, which threw me because I didn’t even know there were levels before getting evaluated. And here I was, the highest one. How lonely could things get, I asked myself, from my goshiwon, among the boxes I couldn’t bring myself to open.
The weirdest part was that, although I was constantly on edge, I wasn’t much registering any specific emotion. It was like the pressure in your ear that you can’t relieve. Something there, but you don’t know what, but it informs every aspect of your life, but you don’t know why. The more time you spend trying to release it, the deeper it gets buried.
I had this sense, in other words, that if I felt something big, I’d know which direction had the light in it. But no, I was just walking and searching and drawing alone in this room that couldn’t fit two people even if I’d wanted it to. The days pressed on.
Later, I did open a box, and did take a book out of it, and did find doing so transformative, though not in the way you might expect. I was not inspired. It was an old copy of a Hemingway translation that I never cracked open because why would I, bought years prior from Found Books in Itaewon. I opened it now and riffled through its pages, which stuck halfway through on a little bookmark I’d not known was there. It had a whale on it, below which was a handwritten note reading, you looked and you found it, then –R, which was my initial, too. I was not in general a person easily swayed by the signs and signals of a knowing universe, but I did find myself treating this bookmark with care and respect, as though it housed something fragile. I’d drawn that entire series of whale emojis, after all. Who, I wondered, found what, hidden by whom, and how did they or you or I know?
I couldn’t sleep at all that night. I was trying to remember when I bought the book and whether I’d been with anybody else at the time. My first year in Seoul, I thought, and maybe my first time in the English bookstore. But I wasn’t sure. I did like Hemingway, moreover, but what did that matter, when Nick Adams was burned out on the big two-hearted river, when I was split down the middle under a too-low ceiling. In the morning, in a daze, I got coffee and hopped on a train heading west. I was trying to plan out which questions I’d ask once I got there, but then before I knew it, I’d arrived in Itaewon and was clacking empty-minded down the sidewalk. Found Books was not only closed, I discovered, but it’d been replaced by a Pilates studio that also sold smoothies.
Just like that, my late-morning went dark.
It wasn’t that I believed this message was the light-filled thing I’d been searching for, but it had been a lead and the trail was cold. I stood annoyed and bored on the sidewalk, until, minutes or hours later, a hand was on me. I looked and there was this woman there, this petite American lady, with black hair and holes in her jeans. Hi, she was saying, she was Rian.
Rian, I said.
Yeah, she said, are you Trevor?
Not by a long shot, but I was late in saying so. It’d thrown me that her name began with an R. She seemed nervous, though, and quickly asked if we should just go to the café down the street, then.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this was a Tinder date I was on, and that I looked a lot like a person I actually was not. Rian’s phone kept buzzing, but she was all courtesy and remained focused on me. It was like she and Trevor hadn’t communicated at all before agreeing to meet up. I just said what was real for me, to which she nodded along and asked questions. Oh, divorced, for how long? Oh, design, what’s that like? She was a voice actor, primarily for educational resources, and also a model, primarily for products that required closeups of fingers on buttons and various controls.
I wasn’t sure, but she seemed lonely. We got our second coffees to go and went for a walk, her model hand enveloped clumsily by my shaky one. I asked her if she liked reading.
Sure, she said.
You don’t have any interest in whales, do you?
Much interest, indeed, she laughed, and then abruptly excused herself. She thought maybe it was her agency trying to contact her. Sometimes they’d overload her like this with urgent messages about auditions and/or gigs. Sorry, she said, and scrolled through.
It was not her agency, of course, it was Trevor, who was confused and waiting. Rian made this face like I should offer her some direction or something. But me, I had none. I suggested we get lunch.
What the actual fuck? was how she put it, before turning and going.
Not a proud moment for me, but I tried to show her the bookmark before she was completely gone. She swatted at me and said she’d scream. But I thought it was going well, I said to her. Please and sorry, but I’d always been an awkward person. Confused easily and quickly rattled. Lonely. Now here, about the whales, I went on, at which point she screamed.
It was a shame, I felt, but where else was there for it to go? I, big and nameless man, had lied to her.
I got back on the train to head home, but overshot my stop because the voice announcing the stations in English sounded a whole lot like Rian’s. It was intentional in its tone and robotic in that way, but I was pretty sure it was her. My brain began doing its thing where it foregoes all meaning and loses itself in timbre and texture. In taste and detail. Then the train had run its course and I was forced to get off, at this stop that was essentially the countryside. It wasn’t, but compared to Seoul, it was. You could hear insects chirring from the platform, which was above ground.
Outside, I had an instant coffee and failed to find the bathroom. It was hot out. It wasn’t despair I was feeling, so much as it was the usual gnawing ache ramped up slightly. Maybe it was the adrenaline of anxiety balancing me out. I missed Yoon. Or anyway, I thought I did. I missed the warmth of her and the plans we’d had fun making. The way she laughed when I paced the apartment or stared at her how I do. But she thought I was charming. She was older than me by four years. She washed the dishes quietly because she knew I hated the sound. Or she just had me do them.
I still had the book with me and so sat on a bench and leafed through it. My Korean wasn’t excellent, but it was good enough to parse Hemingway, especially if I’d already read the story. In our time, every nothing was something. It wasn’t in the book anywhere, but the phrase sounded pertinent and meaningful. In any case, it was stuck in my head now, among everything else. Whales were being slaughtered into extinction, for no discernible reason. Once the whales were gone, death would slowly trickle down to the rest of us, regardless of where we resided. An unlikely truth, but a truth nonetheless, only nobody cared to see it. It was all tucked away in books that we didn’t read because we were too busy or too tired. A sunny day, a quiet afternoon in the country, with children laughing somewhere in the distance—yet even nothing was something. There was a stream out there, and I rose then to walk beside it.
Streams in Korea meant bikers, meant joggers, meant clearly marked bathrooms every half a kilometer or so. I saw cranes standing on rocks barely breaking the surface of the water. Fish jumped and splashed. Trees swayed. The small birds flew in the wind, and the wind hardened them.
Fish emojis, bird emojis, some other job or work, streams and wind, trees with anxiety, ear protectors, stimming hand emojis, autistic faces, blank stares and confused emotions or emotions that aren’t confused at all, they just register different, and when finally I came upon the familiar white structure with the female-red and male-blue doors, I was awash with relief, because the pee in me was huge. But before I could reach the stairs leading to the structure, a biker emerging from the shade under the bridge not 20 yards away swerved and tore and flipped over his handlebars, crashing face-first and helmetless into the hard turf of the walking path. I squeezed through the heavy moment to see if he’d stand up on his own, which he did not. Like a great creature, he’d fallen.
I was frozen, because this everything was nothing, because there were mosquitoes around me and also strict rules about how to help somebody who’d collapsed. The man was older than me, but not old. But he was old enough for a heart to give out. I had my phone with me but couldn’t settle on a number. Cars passed on the bridge, but beyond that, this man and I were alone. You looked and you looked and you found it, then. You were here at the exact right time to witness something no one else would. The problem with not knowing who you are for 30-plus years is that, when it comes time to be you, there’s a massive pause standing in the way that you have to maneuver yourself around. It’s thick and it pulls and is generally invisible. It was becoming clear to me that moving to Korea in the first place was just a ploy to make this pause that much bigger and safer, for if nothing is ever going to make sense, then at least live somewhere where the senselessness is not on you or your failures as a person. But stop ruminating and act already. I could not tell if he was breathing or convulsing. The minutes felt like hours, and then another biker was along to pound his chest and make the call and save him.
In the bathroom, I melted down. It was dark and damp in there. The pee was all blocked up inside of me, and just when I thought I couldn’t get any more frustrated by it, a bee found the base of my skull and stung me. Not the transcendence I was hoping for, exactly, but it was a hole in me that allowed some measure of light in. I was burning with feeling now. Not that it taught me anything I didn’t already know: I was still a garbage person, a useless and hurt one, a person laughing and crying and trying his hardest. An American person whose English was changed, whose brain was different, and whose scream-song twirled pretty in the deep. I hated bathrooms because I always thought I’d get sick in them. I hated cities because I always thought I’d get sick in them. I hated ambulances, too, but there one was, right by the stream. I could see lights flashing from where I was.
Take me away, lights, but where? Anyway, I wasn’t crazy. I went home and laughed so hard that my neighbors complained. They were trying to focus, they said. I buried my face in my pillow and laughed myself exhausted. I buried my face right there in it, to ponder light not as something to glimpse, but something to taste, or smell, or enact with each new day. Something to speak and you’ve found it, then. The dash-letter-sound you couldn’t make until you reached adulthood. The name I couldn’t articulate until I was learning some Korean and it changed the way my tongue moved. It’s Richard, by the way, though more and more I go by Rick.
Image: Vladimir Kramer vladimirkramer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.