NOODLES AND SOCKS
The soup contained exactly two tiny dumplings and approximately three thousand thick noodles. When an Asian tourist sat down beside me and ordered the same thing, I could have warned her about what she’d get—here, suck on this!—but I felt a bit some grumpy. The Korean diners beside her asked her, as they had asked me, where she was from. “Not China,” she said several times. “Hong Kong,” she pronounced slowly, her voice that of the boy Urkel, whom you might remember from a show called Family Matters.
“Ahhhhhhh,” the Koreans said.
Urkel and I small-talked it. She wanted to connect. As we both were alone, why not? I felt kinda sad when she screwed her camera to the end of a shiny steel pole, held it out in front of her and smiled, snapping off some selfies, chopsticks in hand over her steaming bowl of noodles.
I was full, even while chewing the damn things, and said to myself, Why you doing this? Why are you eating these noodles? I simply hated the idea of leaving food in the bowl for the ajumma to see, a real strong statement on what I thought of her cooking, eh? Finally, I could take it no more, and anyway she’d probably recycle the unused portion. That was my thinking, so “I’m too full,” I said in Korean—nomu pebbuloyo—and the ajumma did her magic trick, made my bowl disappear. I paid the 5,000 won. In my thank you I called her agassi, which means young girl. Her face darkened. She said, “Aigooooo,” and told the other Koreans what I’d said. I said, “Look at me, I am a grandfather.”
They looked me over, but no, I did not look like no grandpa to them. Though my hair was silver, my complexion was clean, shiny, a result of discovering sun block in my early thirties during the time I was married to a seventh generation Floridian who knew about such things. I was, in their eyes, chal sengyossoyo, or handsome.
I walked around a ton of a bunch more then, the rain falling down out of the clouds making puddles on the ground that women in sandals stepped into while holding the hands of their daughters, who also wore sandals or colorful flipflops. The rain dripped from awnings, ran in the gutters. I stood upon an overpass watching its raised pattern dance in the Cheonggyecheon Stream that shot off into the distance where eventually it connected with the Han River before finding its way to the Yellow Sea.
I found my way to the subway. Rode the purple to the brown. Was carted to Itaewon where I’d lived for the last two months. I came here last summer too, don’t ask why. My original reasons don’t matter anymore. I just came. Last year I picked a few shells off the beach. All I took home with me were those shells and an empty carton of Seoul Milk. It’s the best milk. I love it. It’s so creamy, so fortifying. Korean cows are fed different foods, or something, I don’t know, but this time I bought some socks to take home. That’s what I was doing at the Dongdaemun Market, searching for socks. After buying a ten-pack of socks scalloped nicely with ocher and navy blue stripes, that’s when I rewarded myself with the big bowl of “Dumpling Soup.”
I got off the subway at Noksapyong Station. I walked up the hill to the room I’d been renting from a black guy from Ohio. Pardon me for mentioning it—that he’s black—but blacks are not always treated so well here. He’d been having trouble finding full-time work, so it pleased me to see him living the good life in his nice Itaewon apartment. He’d taught English in Korea for five years running, and wanted out now, only the prospects back home weren’t so hot. This morning, while he was at work, his Korean girlfriend poked her head out of his bedroom while I was writing shirtless and sweating at the kitchen table. I hadn’t known she was home. I made a small noise of surprise and she paused and I quickly slipped on my shirt and she stepped out and we talked a long time in the subdued light, she leaning against the sink in rumpled shorts and her face a little greasy from sleeping. She had lived in New York City for four years, she said, and wanted to go back so bad. Two days ago she came across a receipt stuffed in a book—it was for an expensive item she bought at the MOMA gift shop for a friend. She’d kept the receipt and the receipt made her nostalgic.
Her leg skin was peeling from a burn she got during a five day vacation in the Philippines. She and her Ohio sweetiepie had stayed at the Shangri-La at three hundred dollars a night—that was for the cheapest room. I saw some of their photos on his Kakao Talk page. Under a picture of them drinking from the same coconut was the caption, “Say yes, please!” and I thought: in the Philippines he proposed. She told him she would consider it, but upon returning she found the receipt. The receipt had sorta made the decision for her, and she was telling me now all about the ex she left behind in New York. In the thing about it, I told her of my ex who’d flown home to Korea from New York to be with her mother who was ill. The mother died, and that was the end of us. Of course there’s more to it than that, but . . . I did not say that my ex had lived in Woodside, the same neighborhood of Queens that she had lived in. Nor did I say that my ex pronounced the word “Woodside,” as did she, without the W—Ooodside—which is to say too cute for anything under the sun. She wanted to exchange contact info. For some reason everybody wanted to connect today.
The Ohioan was home when I arrived, his door closed. I imagined him back there sulking, and was afraid for him. His beautiful, smart, Korean girlfriend with the good English speaking skills was everything to him. A deep well of sadness may have been waiting for him to fall down into and go splash in. I remembered how it was for me, my splash into the sadness. About my sadness, my ex said what she said about all sadnesses of the world, that time solves everything. She was Catholic. We had talked of marriage. When her mother died, there was too much distance between us. Some stuff happened, and now she refuses to talk to me. The closest I could get to her was to visit her house, and take a few pictures of it.
By the door I took off my big-ass shoes, then snuck into my room and pulled out my pack of new socks. The socks looked really good. I envisioned myself coming to love these socks in a very personal way. Perhaps one of my students would remark that I wore the same socks every day, and I would tell the story of how I bought them in South Korea during a pouring rain, then treated myself to a huge bowl of dumpling soup that was mostly just noodles. I was very excited to try these socks on, only as it turned out, they were too small.
John Oliver Hodges lives in New Jersey now. His short story collection, The Love Box, was published by Livingston Press, and his stories are currently forthcoming from White Whale Review, Knee-Jerk Magazine, storySouth, and Compose: A Journal of simply Good Writing. As a graduate of the MFA program at Ole Miss, he teaches fictive and argumentative writing at Montclair State University.