--->Travelogue #43: My Hot, Sweaty, Drippy Korean Summer
In addition to maintaining this blog, I've begun working on a "novel" over the past two months. I put "novel" in quotation marks because I'd feel presumptuous calling it an honest-to-God book when I've written only thirty pages on Microsoft Word. Nevertheless, I'm excited about the project: a coming-of-age account of a college senior stumbling towards adulthood as a "Half-Virgin." What does that mean? I've been answering that question through workshops with Seoul Writers, a spirited group of scribes who meet twice a month to read and provide constructive criticism.
Anyway, I thought I'd provide an excerpt from my work-in-progress. If you've stumbled upon my blog in the past, you might recognize elements from this excerpt from my story "Love in the Night", though I've significantly changed the content to fit into the context of a larger, more ambitious work.
Without further ado, here's the excerpt. Thanks for reading!
I didn't even kiss Elena. Not really, anyway, but I came close in the front seat of her rusted tin Volkswagen Bug, the midnight thrum of jazz through her radio and the two of us...giggling? I was the kind of guy who smirked and nodded but never giggled. Until that night, two years after Rikhi. Until Elena. She was nineteen, freckles across her nose, thin lips light and pink like a secret. Elena.
She had given me a ride to my apartment, yet I didn't want to leave her car. She gave me her phone number and I called it right then, an experiment, stupid, juvenile, but so what?
"You know what I just thought of?" she said into the phone, her eyes cool and blue, "that scene in Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart stares at that lonely lady through his binoculars."
"I remember that..." I said, piecing together the movie in my head, "And she was setting an extra dinner plate even though nobody else was in the room."
"That's it," she said.
I clapped my phone shut and looked at her. "What made you think of that scene?"
"Sometimes I just think of things and want to say them and don't, because they're weird or random, but with you I thought why not."
"Hitchcock is the man," I said.
"He is the man," she said delicately. "Agreed."
I laughed at her.
"You're still talking into the phone."
For God's sake, I'd gone off the proverbial deep end. When I talked to Elena, I didn't think about my feelings. No. My mind buzzed on its own, an electric current that made me goofy with its sparks.
"We're being silly," she said as I nuzzled close to her neck, her blonde bangs like the tips of feathers brushing against my nose. I sealed her forehead with a nub of a kiss, a nub. Barely anything at all.
She was still wearing my coat.
Hours earlier, at the party, she put on the coat and I chuckled at how pillowy it looked against her skinny arms. I stuffed my fingers into the sleeves and we dangled our limbs "like those stuck-together twins from that nutty Matt Damon movie," she said. We didn't know each other too well but still we rocked back and forth in a rhythm that beat only in us. We probably looked like bozos.
It was an apartment party. Everybody else was drinking, jello shots or beers but she wasn't into alcohol. I'd first found her in the kitchen, peering into the fogged window of the oven. She was baking chocolate chip cookies. "Do you prefer the chewy kind?" I'd asked, "or the crunchy kind?" Her freckles crinkled against her cheeks when she said, "chewy, no doubt."
Elena wanted to become an actress. I told her about my director dream and my would-be eyepatched assistants. She liked the eyepatch idea. As for her own skills, she insisted she could handle roles as varied as Queen Elizabeth to Prison Lesbian #5. "Or a combination of the two, which I tried once at an audition for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I thought it was an inspired choice but I didn't get the gig."
We talked about books we never read but should have. "I never touched the Bible," she said, "but I feel like getting into it would be the perfect way to needle my parents, like if I become some super-Christian."
"Why would that piss off your parents?"
She pressed her index finger to her nose. This told me she was thinking about what I had asked her, and I felt a rise because of it. Her thinking and me waiting. It was a little moment but I couldn't shake it. I didn't want to shake it. I wanted to feel it again and again.
"They're bigtime Richard Dawkins people, profs at the state college. No God, no thank you kind of people."
I told her that I was Jewish, that I believed in God but that I didn't go to temple on Fridays, that I didn't keep sabbath, and that I ate pork barbecue sandwiches by the truckload. My parents weren't particularly religious; their only concern was for me to marry a Jew. Their reason was history and numbers. "And your Grandpa Vladimir's wishes," my mom said. "As long as that old conk is still alive."
Before long Elena and I were God-ded out. Decade-old Will Smith songs began to pulse from the living room and we knew the lyrics to every last line. From God to Will Smith, the move felt strangely, impeccably natural. We sunk into a couch with her roommate asleep and drooling at our feet. I hummed shyly but Elena sang, her lithe fingers jousting the air with no irony, with no reason. We were bozos and I loved it. I was smitten by the waft of her peach perfume, by how her cheeks turned pink when she smiled, and by how she looked as if she was blushing even when she wasn't.
"Incredible," I said, offering her a sheepish high-five. Our hands clasped together, lingering, tingling. She looked at me. Stared. I stared right back. The party melted into a blur of incoherent shouts around us. Staring, we kept staring. And then I blinked. "I didn't know we were playing a game," I said. "I didn't either," she whispered.
The music quieted. The party waned. Somewhere in my logical mind I knew it was silly. This all was silly. I hardly knew this girl and she hardly knew me. But that didn't seem to matter. That didn't seem to matter at all.
In the car I wanted to kiss her. I should have kissed her. But she was transferring to a different school, one in her hometown. She wanted to be closer to her high school sweetheart, whom she described vaguely as smart and nice and sweet and "I can't do this," she said after I planted that nub on her forehead. "He loves me."
And so we said good night.
"If it doesn't work out," I asked her. "Will you come back?"
She turned the radio down. "I don't know," she said. And then she drove away.