She sips her coffee like a lady, and then downs her whisky like a champ. Her name is not Alice, but that is what I call her, because her Korean name is hard on my tongue and she doesn’t like to hear me mispronounce it. Her hair is brown, the kind of brown that you call black until you get close enough to her to get it caught on the sides of your mouth, close enough that in the morning, you find strands of it on your pillow. But the lights in this place, strung high, blue and red, they make her hair look blonde. Christ Jesus, they lie to you.
She says, “Don’t go to Itaewon.” Her English is good. Much better than my Korean. She tells me this on the nights when she’ll be working.
And I tell her I won’t. Even though I will.
Those are the only words we share at dinner. I keep turning to the waiter and saying, “Yugio.” And he keeps coming over.
I keep saying, “Coffee.”
And he keeps saying, “커피?”
And I keep saying, “Whisky.”
And he keeps saying, “위스키?”
And we drink our 커피 and our 위스키 until eleven. And then it’s time for her to go home and for me to go someplace else.
I meet Kidu in front of the place where the taxis gather like fat blue fish, lazy and overfed. He has a beer in each hand. One for me and one for him. From the torso up, he is dressed like a clown. His waistcoat is purple, his felt porkpie hat is red, and the tails of his black-and-white checkered jacket are long enough to brush the sidewalk. The tails will look better when he straps on the stilts, more natural. He pulls his cigarettes out of one pocket of his jeans and sticks one between his painted lips. In the dark like this, the white and black greasepaint makes his face look like an inkblot.
When he gets close enough to me, he plucks the cigarette out of his mouth, cocks his head to one side and buzzes his lips. He sounds like a kazoo.
“Cute,” I say. “I thought we were getting dressed in Itaewon.”
“I got it out of the way,” he says. “You’ve got the stilts?”
Both pairs are sticking out of the top of my backpack, stark and obvious like the stolen bones of some enormous and forgotten animal, and I know he can see them so I don’t answer.
We hail a cab. Kidu tells him where to go. When we are together, Kidu talks, and I am silent. When I am with Alice, it’s the same way. In Korea, I don’t ever have to talk to anyone.
Once at dinner, Alice told me, “It isn’t like the States. It’s not something that nobody does; it’s something that everyone does. Women expect it. Men don’t even think about it, they just do it.”
“That’s just so fucked up,” I said.
She wrapped a piece of barbequed pork in a piece of lettuce and slid it into her mouth, occupying that space so that she wouldn’t have to respond.
“You’ll get hurt,” I told her. “Don’t you have a pimp or something?”
“I have a boss,” she said. “A female boss, by the way. Not a pimp. Some girls have pimps. I have a boss. I’m not a slave.”
That was the first time I’d ever talked to Alice about what she does for a living. We haven’t talked about it since. Alice is just this girl I know. A girl with whom I’ve had sex a handful of times—silently in my bedroom, the window open, letting in the sound of a language I can’t understand and she can, because when it’s closed the streetlight catches on the frosted glass and turns the window into a sparkling eyeball—because it was something to do, and because we like each other enough to do it. She lives in Itaewon six days a week, and spends the other day in Hopyeong with me. I’ve never paid her. It’s not serious.
We get out of the cab in Itaewon and dump our empties on a ledge outside a restaurant. The streets are jammed with people. The nightlife here is maybe thirty percent native. Everyone else is a lost boy, a wandering girl. During the day, this place is a multicultural center, packed to the gills with Africans and Brazilians and Iranians and Japanese and Greeks. They open restaurants and barbershops and bars. They build communities. Some time before I was born, they found their way to Korea and carved a groove into her face where they could hide, a clubhouse from which they never had to go home. At night, it’s overrun with English speakers lost in a strange and magnificent country, frightened by the alien traditionalism of the towns where they work and live, desperate for a slice of home where the other expats on the street are common enough to be ignored. This is Foreign Town, a filthy Epcot Center, a small-world-after-all that smells like fried food and cigarette smoke. Nobody stares at me here. They all stare at Kidu, because he’s dressed like a clown.
We foreigners come here for the same reasons. You can talk about the innate drive to teach, or service to your country, or the rich pursuit of collecting stamps in your passport, but that’s just the paycheck, or (at its noblest) the PR. That’s just what you do when you’re not running away from the person you were back home. Everyone who leaves home wants to be a different person when they get off the plane in Incheon; everyone wants to find some definitive and primal force to help them become a better and more interesting human being.
I found some tricks. See, Kidu has this book that he won’t let me read.
We duck into a convenience store, buy two more beers, and then lock ourselves in the bathroom. I get dressed, put my street clothes and Kidu’s jean into my backpack, smear on my greasepaint, and then we strap on our stilts and hobble out of the bathroom, ducking to make our way through the convenience store. Now we are both clowns. Korean clowns, the kind with stilts and long pantlegs, our war paint angular and precise and only whimsical in theory. As we emerge, the guy behind the counter—the wrinkles in his face granted added depth by the harshness of the overhead lights—smiles and claps and says, “Ah! Ah! Very good.” I hand him my backpack, and he stows it behind the counter without being asked. I buzz my lips at him. I sound like a kazoo.
I introduced Alice and Kidu once. Alice hated Kidu.
This was three months after I’d gotten into the country. Three weeks after I’d met Alice, and only one week after Kidu had found me wandering at night, looking depressed with my hands in my pockets, squinting at the neon lights and trying to read them as though the words would make any sense to me, even if I could read the alphabet. Which I couldn’t. Kidu the clown, with his giant black plastic clown shoes fastened to the end of his stilts, staring down at me and buzzing his lips. A night clown, as complete a non sequitur in Korea as me.
I said something stupid. I didn’t know he could understand me.
He said, “Go fuck yourself, elitist. Fucking Americans are all elitists. Too cool to smile. Well, who needs you?”
His English was good.
I apologized. I bought him a drink. And then he bought me twelve more. And I guess we were friends after that.
On the day I introduced him to Alice we were hung over. Kidu and I, not Alice, who never gets drunk. I was having lunch with Alice on the terrace of some café that served sandwiches that almost tasted American, and I saw him walking by on the street, his hair longish and cut jagged beneath his low-slung BoSox cap. I called him over. We talked. We laughed. He said goodbye.
And then Alice said, “I fucked him once. Your friend.” And then she sneered and rolled her eyes and took a drink of her coffee. Then she said, “I’m going home now.” And she left.
I don’t know when I became a night clown. Not long after that day, I suppose.
We set up shop in the sloping alley behind the Hamilton Hotel, where the shops and bars loom and cast down their lights and damn the narrow corridor to perpetual daylight. We have our megaphones in hand, and our pockets are full of salt. Kidu has a book that he won’t let me read, and it says that you need to fill your pockets with salt and that your fingers mustn’t ever brush through it. So we keep our hands where everyone can see them.
The foreigners are pointing to us and laughing, many of them too drunk to remember we were ever here. One guy—big and white with a bristly scalp that folds beneath the elastic of his ball cap, military if I had to guess—grabs me around one stilt and hugs it tightly. He says, “Clowns, baby! Time for clowns! Time for clowns, baby!” in a broken, drunken falsetto.
There was a time when I would have stumbled, when I would have fallen on my face and broken my nose and left a smear of grease paint and blood on the cobblestones. But that time is not now, and so I lean down and buzz my lips at him. Then I snatch his cap off his head and kiss him on the forehead. Then I focus on the salt in my pockets, and I whisper, “You will dream of having wings, and in your dreams, your feathers will be plucked out.” For a second, he looks solemn, like his knees might go out and he might start crying. Then he laughs, mocks disgust for the benefit of his friends, and backs off.
Into my megaphone, I say, “Clap your hands! This is a magic show!”
Into his megaphone, Kidu says the same thing, only in Korean.
Everyone claps and cheers.
I say, “Of what is a man made? What are his ingredients? Is there some part of him that is permanent, some part that is important?”
Kidu says this too.
Someone says, “My cock!” and everyone cheers.
I smile and look at Kidu. He smiles too, and his face paint makes his dimples into deep, dry riverbeds.
We hold our hands together, his left, my right. His on top, mine below. Then we pull them apart. We focus on the salt in our pockets.
The book that Kidu won’t let me read taught us how to do this.
Now there is a little man between our hands, a puppet, a cartoon character made three-dimensional. He is naked, and brown, and sexless. His eyes are absurdly big, and green, and they shine like glass. He looks out at the crowd and waves. He says, “안녕하세요! Hello! I am made of wood! Are you made of skin? Wood burns! It keeps you warm! If you burned your skin, would it keep me warm?”
Then we close our hands around him, and the little man disappears. And the crowd cheers. I know how they feel. There is a filter in your brain, something designed to reject things like this. The trick is to slip through it, to infiltrate. Magic is an addictive animal, and it only takes a little taste. After that, you want more. You crave it. You will follow it into the crevasse and fall for years just to brush the tips of your fingers against the rough, unfriendly bristles over its shapeless spine. They’ll do whatever we want now, if we promise them another chance to stroke that great feral eyeless cat.
We walk, shouting into our megaphones, “End of Days! End of Days! End of Days Parade!”
When I had known him for three weeks, Kidu told me about the book. He said, “If you knew all about the end of the world, you would do what?”
I stole one of his cigarettes and lit it with his lighter. “Get drunk,” I said, because I was drunk.
He laughed, but it sounded fake. Then he said, “No. I’m serious. Pretend you know all about the end of the world. You do what?”
I groaned and let my head fall back against the back of the booth. Then I thought about it. “I don’t know. Try to stop it, maybe?”
“Bullshit,” Kidu said. “That’s the wrong feeling. That’s the wrong….” He looked down and pounded lightly on the table, searching for the word. “The wrong attitude.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay, Kidu. Enlighten me.”
“What does this mean?”
“It means tell me what you’re talking about.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, and filled my glass with another shot of soju. “The world is ending. Every day, it’s ending. All of the universe is eating itself until it is gone. There is chaos like a blister beneath the skin of the world, and the blister is…. What is it…it is bleeding. And soon it will burst completely.”
“Fancy words, Kidu! Impressive.”
“They aren’t my words. I read them in a book I have. Where was I?”
“Bleeding blister, end of the world, etcetera.”
He snapped his fingers and then pointed at me. “Good. Yeah. So what you will do? Try to stop it? No. This is foolish to think. What you will do is, um…enjoy the ride.”
“Okay,” I said. Because I was drunk and I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“In the book I have,” Kidu said, and drew with his finger in the condensation on the table, “it says that the only thing to do is drink the blood of the blister. To be drunk on the…taeryo…the ingredients…beneath the skin of the world.” He looked suddenly sheepish and childlike, staring up at me from beneath the uneven fringe of his bangs. “Do you want to do that with me?”
I said, “Kidu, I don’t understand what you’re–”
“This is your only chance. You can be someone special. Someone better than anyone else. Or at least you can feel that way for a while.”
We locked eyes then. I couldn’t look away from him. He looked like he might cry or maybe reach out and grab my face and kiss me. Behind us someone shouted something at the soccer game on the bar TV.
“Fuck it,” I said. And we clicked glasses and took our shots. Then I said, “Sounds like a hell of a book. Can I read it?”
“No,” said Kidu.
They follow us up the hill, we the pied pipers, they the rats and the children of this place, hooting and singing and weaving around our stilts. We perform tricks for them as we walk. Little things to keep them entertained, to keep them interested. I summon up a magpie from my mouth, eight inches tall, its black and white wings wet and folded to its sides, its white chest heaving with new breath, and it flies out of my mouth, frantic and afraid, and down Kidu’s throat. Kidu turns his hands into blue fire, and I buy a sausage from a street vendor, and we roast it over his hands and hand it to a pretty girl at our feet. We recite the scripts we’ve written, translating each other, trying to sound gigantic and theatrical, actors playing actors playing soothsayers playing clowns. Night clowns. Non sequiturs.
We stop in front of a seafood restaurant with giant blue fish tanks stacked up outside. Up there to our left, up that alley where the lights are high and pink, is where the brothels are clustered like a honeycomb, each sticky-sweet door leading to essentially the same place. The crude colloquialism of Itaewon’s expats declares: Hooker Hill. The Zoo. We’ll catch the lonely ones, the shame-faced first- and second-timers and the stony old veterans, give them another show, a better one.
I pull a balloon out of my pocket, careful not to let my fingers slide through the salt. And I blow it up.
Kidu says something in Korean. I don’t understand, but I know what he says. He tells them about the blister beneath the skin of the world, the chaos boil ready to burst and flood the streets of man. Any decade now. I catch the word taeryo. Ingredient. Those under the world, or those inside our skin.
The crowd is growing. Moment by moment, the crazy abandon, the celebration, leaks out of them and is replaced by wonder and fear. We’re a car wreck, a fistfight, a house fire, a crime scene. They drink us down.
My balloon is red and crawling with a lattice of veins. An excised tumor, an organ shuttering in my hand. It pulses. It squirms. Blood sloshes beneath translucent rubber skin, backlit by the spinning barber poles and pink neon lights of Hooker Hill, cast into silhouette. Into the megaphone, I say, “A deception has been committed by we, your humble night clowns! This is a magic show, but not a free one! This is the Itaewon Eschatology Show! Pay your admission! Love me! See me! Give me your eyes and your attention! Know me! This is the End of Days Parade! So march!”
I present the balloon to Kidu and he pops it with a needle. Bang. A flurry of butterflies. They rise toward the casino-colored lights, enough of them to cast a shapeless shadow onto the faces of the open-mouthed drunks below us. There is silence. A woman in a tan halter-top says, “I hate clowns. I always have.” She is crying a little.
There’s a girl back home. A girlfriend, I guess. A fiancée. Okay, yes, a fiancée. Someone waiting for me to come home, someone whose face I see once a week on the computer screen, an illusion. Her voice sounds different from the way I remember it. She’s changed her hair since I last saw her. She asks me if I’m having fun, and I tell her I am. She is brunette, and her face is too thin, and she seems shy and cautious when we talk, the way she was when we first met, before we became comfortable with one another. We’ve regressed. She tells me about her week, and I listen. And then she tells me she loves me, and I tell her I love her, too. She does most of the talking.
Last week she said, “Your mom asks about you.”
I said, “Oh?”
She said, “Yeah. I saw her at the pool. You’re a terrible pen-pal.” Then she laughed as if it were a joke. And then we both got quiet for a while.
With the crowd chanting, “End of Days Parade! End of Days Parade!” and dancing around our feet, with the thump and zap of a dozen nightclubs frying the night air with their noise, with the drinks spilling and the cigarette smoke swirling, we pass out the tal. Traditional Korean theatrical masks, made from alderwood, painted and lacquered. We pluck them from the air, perfect and solid, hidden behind open space, and hand them around. Everyone ties them on. I say, “Become someone else for a while! Change your ingredients! Remake yourself! Fashion yourself in wood, and burn! This is a magic show! When else will you have the chance?”
Kidu says this, too.
And now we are surrounded by the grinning idiot face of Maldduki, the servant, his eyes set too far apart, his teeth sparse and white in his wide-open mouth, his face imposed over the bodies of slump-shouldered English teachers and tattooed air-force guys, of slender Korean rockstar-boys in tailored, open-necked shirts and unbuttoned vests, of drunken party girls in shiny club-wear. People look around at each other, pointing like children, laughing, reveling in weirdness, in silliness. It’s always like this. They’re never totally aware. They never grasp the impossibility of what they see. They can’t. After all of this over, they’ll wake up on buses and subway cars, hung over, remembering only that they passed, for the briefest moment, a pair of night clowns dancing through Itaewon.
It’s worth it. Every night, it’s worth it.
We hold up our hands, Kidu and I, and the partiers become quiet.
We drop our megaphones at our false feet. We won’t need them. We will whisper.
“Now,” I say, and I focus on the salt in my pockets, and the streetlights flicker. “The hour grows late. Or early. The sun will rise, and the night will die. So we have a final trick for you. A farewell present. The grande finale.”
Kidu buzzes his lips. Some people laugh, quietly, appreciatively.
And then we show them how the world will end.
Once, lying in bed with Alice, naked and sweating, our backs to one another, I asked her a stupid question.
I said, “Alice?”
She said, “Yes?”
I swallowed hard, trying to force my homesick tears back down and to leave me alone. This was in those days when I could still feel homesick, when I was still someone else. I said, “Why do you like me? What about me keeps you around?”
She sighed and said, “What an incredibly insecure thing to ask.”
This is how the world will end:
The fish tanks behind us boil and burn bright-white. They hold a spectacular luminescence, an impossible glow that sets every color-catching cone in every eyeball in this narrow corner of Itaewon to blaze with white fire. The fat blue fish in the tanks turn in unison, in synchronized choreography, and they open their mouths. Their lips peel back and their faces wrinkle up like elephant trunks and make them look as though they are scowling. Maybe they scream, or maybe they sing. I don’t know. Kidu doesn’t know. No one here knows. Because whatever they do with their open mouths in those impossible light-tanks, they do it silently.
Let’s paint a tableau. Our little rats, having danced away from Hamlin, a captive audience in sudden awed silence, collected at the mouth of a corridor of bright neon pink whorehouses, masked, standing in a semicircle around a pair of obscenely tall night clowns, night clowns who bow and gesture at the scene between them, the dead-station television-glow of half a dozen angry fish singing the End of the World anthem.
I glance up from my bow, lock eyes with Kidu. Or the clown that is sometimes Kidu. The Kidu of daylight, slender and vain, awkwardly passionate about the stupidest shit, painfully aware of his own oddness, socially crippled by the conflict between his natural openness and the secrets he keeps—that guy is gone. And as for me? I must be gone, too. I’m a memory momentarily recalled by the night clown. My cynicism. My self-doubt. My thinning hair and my gut and my yellow teeth and my shitty alcohol tolerance. Obscured, and finally shut away.
We buzz our lips at each other. We sound like kazoos. Then the tanks crack. And then they shatter.
Then the night drops away, and we are all drowning in nonsense.
This is how the world will end:
It ends in a forest of tentacles rooted deep in slick mucous, waving and twitching and reaching so high that none of us, not even Kidu and I on our stilts, can see the sky, and in the center of each sucker, set like a glittering gem, a glassy blue eye, rolling like a pinball. We run through the forest, brushing past tentacles that reach for us, stick to us, see us with their multitudinous eyes, caress our calves and the napes of our necks, and we pull our shoes out of the mucous, producing protracted sucking noises, a wet percussive heartbeat to mark our footfalls. The club music has followed us here, intense and electric: artificial endorphin music, heart attack music. A chubby black guy with rimless glasses hung on the collar of his t-shirt reaches up and tugs on my shirt. I lean down to him, cupping one gloved hand around my ear. He says, “This is real, isn’t it?”
I say, “Tell me you love me, and mean it, and I’ll answer your question.”
He says, “I love you,” and he means it.
I say, “That’s the wrong question. The wrong feeling. The wrong attitude.”
Beneath his mask, glimpsed between the comical teeth of Maldduki, I think he smiles, and then he starts to cry. He says, “Thank you,” like a small child, and he runs off into the forest.
This is how the world will end:
It ends in barbershop poles, and they erupt from the mucous ground like mechanical pistons, spinning with fever-heat and seizure-quickness. Another symbol of sex in Korea, like the neon pink lights on Hooker Hill, a signpost directing you onward to the next lonely moment. You see them everywhere in this country, hanging over storefronts with dark windows. It’s not the same as it is in the States. It’s not something that nobody does; it’s something that everybody does. Here, at the end of the world, they stretch higher than the tentacle trees, higher than the sky, turning the forest into a flashing funhouse. Red, white, blue, red, white, blue, red, white. The club music thumps and buzzes, vibrating the barbershop poles, making them shake and click. A Korean woman grabs onto my leg and rides me through the forest, sitting on my oversized rubber shoe. I ruffle her hair.
She says something in Korean, so I carry her to Kidu.
He leans down to her and tells her that if she tells him she loves him, and if she means it, he’ll answer her question.
She tells him she loves him. And she means it.
So he answers her question.
This is how the world will end:
In images. In empty symbolism. In movie magic and nightmares and wet dreams. It ends in chaos, bubbling up from beneath the world, unweaving the natural fabric of the universe, confounding the wonders of law with the travesties of disorder. It ends in scientific criminality. We use it. We use it to succeed where others have failed. We become something special, Kidu and I. We’re night clowns.
The big military guy who hugged my stilt at the beginning of the night, the one who will dream of having wings and losing his feathers, bumps into me and almost knocks me over. He tries to talk, but every time he opens his mouth, he vomits honey through his Malddukimouth and onto the sticky ground. It’s caked onto his shirt and his khaki shorts and his flip-flops. His eyes are gigantic and pleading and afraid and ecstatic. He’s lost his hat. I lean close to him, put my ear on his head, and hear him think, Can I go home now?
I say, “Tell me you love me, and mean it, and you can.”
He thinks, I love you. And he means it.
So we go home. We all go home.
It’s five o’clock, and the sun is staining Itaewon in morning colors. Kidu and I wander back to the convenience store. I fetch my backpack and we go to the bathroom and wash our faces and change. We buy two beers and Kidu buys cigarettes and we walk out of the store feeling tired and sweaty. My calves ache from standing on the stilts all night. I catch my reflection in a dark window. Me. Just me again.
“Where you heading?” I ask.
Kidu says, “I don’t know. I feel lonely.”
“Take a stroll through the Zoo,” I say, joking but knowing I’m not, and I steal one of his cigarettes. He lights it for me.
“I might,” he says.
“I’ll walk with you,” I say, and we head in that direction. There’s a bookstore near there that sells English books. I’ll hang out until it opens and then I’ll buy something short and unchallenging. I’ll read it in an afternoon some day when I’m bored.
We part ways at Hooker Hill, and I sit on the curb outside the bookstore. It won’t open for another four hours, but I don’t care. I have nothing else to do. In the gutter, face down, I find one of our Maldduki masks, and I pick it up, slide my fingers into his mouth.
After thirty minutes, I get bored and I get up to leave. I pass Hooker Hill, and I glance in that direction. I see Kidu coming out of a juicebar. He turns and walks up the hill, away from me. Alice comes out behind him. She is wearing a short black dress and impossibly high heels. She is smoking one of Kidu’s cigarettes. She turns her head and looks at me. She doesn’t wave, and she doesn’t say anything. Her eyes are calluses, thick and tough, and I can’t read them. Mine are American, eyes written in English, and her English is so goddamned good. She looks at me for a long time, and I look at her for a long time.
Then I put on the mask and tie it behind my ears. And I walk toward the subway, grinning with someone else’s face.