It was Monsoon season in Korea when Colorado was on fire. Three planes delivered me from Incheon to Denver via Los Angeles via Tokyo.
My friends picked me up in Denver and we drove down to Fort Collins. In the windows the mountains; beyond the mountains the fires. The Poudre River was black from ash. The rain would break the drought and quell the fires that weekend, and in two weeks James Holmes would kill 12 people in an Aurora movie theater.
My friends don’t ask me about life in Korea anymore. For years we talked about my moving back. Now we realize the chances for that get smaller every year. They know I like my life. They’re still my friends and we still listen to each other, but we don’t entertain the idea of living in the same place again. This is the first time I have felt like I have more life in Korea than I do in America. The balance now tips more to the future than the past. I am free of my country and return by choice. Oh, but to get in the car with them and drive to the wedding of one of your oldest friends!
The wedding went the way they do now. There was someone missing. There was someone unhappy. Someone got too drunk. Someone stayed sober. We almost got kicked out of the hotel during the after party. I made a friend I doubt I’ll ever see again.
Here the wind blew everything quiet. To come from Seoul to a farm two miles from the closest town is like having your headphones ripped out of your phone when you’re listening to Girls Generation at full volume. It was so hot you could almost see the corn grow. I had jet lag dreams in the silent farmhouse of maniac bus rides and crowded sidewalks filled with speedy Koreans. I was supposed to be relaxing but the silence made it hard to sleep.
My friends in my hometown seemed calm, peaceful. Not anxious or full of fear, not driven to meanness by city people, by days full of strangers. We ate Mexican food, but not at the restaurant where a guy I knew in high school, who could have been a professional baseball player, made national news for selling meth out of the kitchen the month before. They showed me their babies and their houses. I tried to tell them the best stories I had.
My nephew was showing a 4-H steer in the Platte County Fair and they needed help so we drove six hours to Columbus. I helped him the best I could. I still remembered how to tie halter knots and use a Scotch comb. He won a purple ribbon and made the sale. We got wristbands to ride all the carnival rides we could before it got dark. All the cowboys and farm people were wearing baggy jeans because skinny jeans are only for The Gay.
Our waitress had meth mouth at the Husker House. She did everything wrong and made us all nervous. Anxiety is contagious. The only thing she might have done right was an accident — she brought me a second beer I didn’t order.
We made it back to the farm in time for Oregon Trail Days. I missed a party the night before and all the single people who were home had already paired up. The professional poker player flew in from Las Vegas and we traded whiskey shots at the bar until it closed. The afterhours party got druggy but there some positive people around so we made it through.
There was a lot of talk about corn prices, land prices and moisture. I read a Harper’s article from the kitchen table of our farmhouse that said in 20 years the water underneath me, the water that was being pumped through a well for the sprinklers that irrigated our farm, would be depleted to the point farmers couldn’t get to it.
I was waiting for a shuttle from my hotel in Loveland to take me to the airport in Denver. An older lady from San Antonio wanted to make small talk. Where I was going, what I was doing, etc. I told her I live in Seoul and what I do there. She thought about that for a moment and then she said, “Now, do you have to wear a safety helmet?”
Thirty kids from Colorado Springs, where some of the country’s largest militias have huge stockpiles of ammunition and weapons, sat behind me on the plane. They were on a mission trip bound for Ireland. The leader of the group sat next to me. I’ve learned not to engage even the most innocuous seeming of fellow passengers in conversation. Too many times I’ve sat next to people who I can’t get to stop talking. I sleep on planes when I know I won’t be sleeping where I’m going. But this guy was good. A pro. Bushy, black hair and a soul patch, the evangelical version of Apollo Ohno. Lots of questions.
“Do they give us headphones?” and “Do you fly a lot?” and “What’s your relationship with Jesus?”
“I read the Bible,” I said. “I didn’t think it was that good. I liked the last chapter. That was really it.”
“I took acid in a snowstorm and saw God,” he said. “I went home and read the Bible and then I knew.”
“That was probably just drug thinking,” I said. “I could never read on acid. The words wouldn’t stop moving.”
I finally had to just put my headphones in.
On the A train from JFK, four kids, maybe 15 years old, were wasted at the end of the car. It was early evening, still light out, and as we passed the cemeteries the three boys were talking about the girl who was with them. She had gone quiet and they were acting like she wasn’t there. They were obscene enough to force some of the passengers to find other cars. One of the boys, a Latino in a pink and green-striped tanktop, was telling his beefy, white friend in a grey cutoff shirt that the girl wasn’t talking because they made out the other day and now she didn’t know how to act. His big friend listened by standing up and yelling insults back at him. When the Latino kid passed out the meaty white guy went over and sat down next to the girl and started making out with her. I got off at Nostrand Avenue and walked to my old house on Lexington.
My suitcase was full of novellas about the Trans-Siberian Railroad I just published but hadn’t released yet. I had an iPhone that only worked in Korea, so I was sending messages to people on Facebook whenever I was around Wi-Fi. I also had a bottle of Colorado whiskey and I drank it with the people I used to live with. Happy conversations in the backyard of a Bed-Stuy brownstone.
The next day I went to meet someone I needed to tell something. It was raining in Williamsburg. Kids ran past McCarren Park smiling, no umbrellas, soaked. I had a little collapsible black thing she gave me last summer when I lived in Brooklyn and we were still seeing each other. She recognized it immediately when I walked in the door of her apartment on Bedford.
We both like to think of ourselves as mature, understanding adults. Two people who have done a lot of living, been in and out of enough relationships to know that there are a thousand different reasons things can go wrong, that often it’s nobody’s fault. But this was clearly my fault. Yet to be in an apartment alone again with someone you dated a year ago and haven’t seen since, someone you left for someone else — no amount of maturity can compensate for the awkwardness.
So we sat at her kitchen counter and drank a bottle of some fancy pink wine with bubbles and I told her what I knew about why I was single again. I told her I was sorry in the most meaningful way I knew how.
Then there were other stories to tell and former coworkers to see and movie tickets to use. We went out in the rain to Maison Premiere for rye and wine and Happy Hour oysters. I didn’t feel better and I knew she didn’t. Modest Mouse was playing in New Jersey but neither of us wanted to go. When I left I thought I was never going to see her again.
In the morning I met a friend I thought I was in love with eight years ago and her boyfriend at Roman’s in Fort Greene. We sat outside and even though I was hungover and it was already in the upper 80s I let them take the shaded side. When you’re single you’re always deferring to the couples, to the families. We ordered coffee and water and Bloody Marys. I could feel the momentum of my trip starting to slow.
Usually when I’m on vacation or traveling, which is essentially the same thing, for weeks at a time, I get hollow in the places I would be filling with work. But not this trip. At that point I had seen more than 50 friends, not to mention all of my immediate family, and I still had another wedding to attend. I was doing plenty of work.
As I sat there drinking everything on the table I liked the boyfriend. He seemed like the kind of guy I would have been friends with if I had grown up in Southern California. It was nice to know that I didn’t still have the kind of feelings for her that would have kept me from seeing that.
Eventually I made it back to the house in Bed-Stuy. The place was like a hostel. No two people were from the same country and they were having a party on the roof. I couldn’t make myself go to bed.
In the morning, my friend from the day before picked me up at dawn with her boyfriend and the three of us went to 68th Street at Rockaway and surfed for most of the morning. It’s remarkable what you’re capable of when you’re jet lagged and then normalized and then re-jet lagged. The surf was glassy, small and crowds didn’t form until we had been out for almost two hours. I was only wearing shorts and eventually I got cold so I went in and sat on the sand. From the beach I watched the two of them catch the same wave from opposing shoulders and ride it toward each other with huge smiles and I was happy for them.
That afternoon I met the girl that lived in Williamsburg for coffee at Bedford Hill. She gave me a bag of bread and goat cheese because she knew I missed it and we sat on a bench outside of the café. She used to bring me things often. Remembering that made me feel guilty and mean and selfish.
“This feels better today,” I said. “But I still feel like an asshole.”
“You still are,” she said. “But you did say you were sorry.”
“I’m stupid. I know that.”
“The only reason you’re even feeling anything at all right now, that you’re even talking to me, is because your other thing didn’t work out.”
A sparrow landed on the door to the cellar next to us.
“Yeah. That’s probably right,” I said.
I gave her a copy of my novella and then went back to my room and changed for the wedding.
Dressed up in a grey suit I had made in Vietnam last year, walking to the G train Classon Avenue stop, a guy sitting on his stoop said to me “Brother, you should just keep on walking right to Hollywood. You look good!”
The wedding, on the water in Manhattan, at Chelsea Piers, was a nice, classy affair. The girls kept pulling me onto the dance floor like it was high school. I drank an honorable number of gin and tonics. I left with a bottle of celebration ale in each hand and fell asleep on the A train. Woke up in Queens.
To say that I was tired would be to say that water is wet. But still I left my keys on the table in the morning, got in the black car and went to La Guardia. I saw everyone and did everything and now I never have to go back again.