“Do your hangovers ever come with an existential crisis?” my friend G asked me on a Sunday morning on the bus. We were headed home after a night of too much drinking and too little sleep, but I had mainly only drank beer because the other option was Soju, and in my mind that’s basically poison.
“Eh,” I replied. “ISometimes….but not for a while, anyway. I didn’t really drink that much last night.”
Later that day, I sent him a facebook message.
It was after the mild fluttering in my chest had increased; after my slight gasps had graduated to “shortness of breath. “OK…” I wrote. “Maybe a mild existential crisis.”
“HAHAHA,” he replied.
And then the week passed; another Saturday night of too much drinking and another Sunday morning of waking with my head buried under the pillow, my clothes stripped piece-by-piece on the floor in a direct line from the door to the bed.
“At least I remembered to turn on the heat,” I thought, swallowing my spit to try to ebb the heat-induced thirst.
I glanced at the clock–it was 10:30 a.m. A solid six hours of sleep. Not bad, for the girl who had once partied in Busan for three days straight.
But 10:30 a.m. meant I was two hours behind schedule–at 27, with lectures to prepare for and a boyfriend to visit, 10:30 a.m. meant I wouldn’t be ready to head to Seoul until 5:30 p.m. at least–and this to visit the man I hadn’t seen in a month.
Aggghh. I don’t know how to be a girlfriend, I muttered to myself.
I pulled myself out of bed and pulled on a random assortment of tank tops, leggings, sweaters and boots, so that I could leave the house and find the jimjilbang (spa) in my neighborhood–an ahjumma scrub to take off all of the previous month’s grime and dead skin was what I thought I needed.
But when I arrived, the man in reception asked me something in Korean.
“I don’t know,” I said with a laugh.
I shrugged my shoulders too, just in case the message–that I’m 100% A-OK with being unable to communicate in even the most simple capacities, wasn’t clear enough.
Then I walked over to the stairs, pointed downward to confirm that the women’s floor was downstairs, waited for the reception folks to nodd their assent, and then gave them the thumbs up.
Cavalier attitude armor achieved.
In the lockers, I stood there, towels in one hand, jimjilbang pajamas in the other. I couldn’t recall–do I strip then put on the pjs then walk into the baths and strip again? Or do I walk out of the lockers bare-assed naked, brazen like my pussy isn’t out for everyone to see?
I walked out in my pajamas,
but everyone was naked, so I stepped on the scale (60.4 kilos), then went back to the lockers to strip.
But I held my towel in front of me.
I found the ahjumma scrub area, but I couldn’t read any of the services. I stood there for a moment, waiting to be noticed, then I handed the ahjumma my key. She placed it behind a row of others and said something to me in Korean. I let the words wash over me and waited for her to finish, then I asked her how long it would take and she told me “one person.”
I went to the baths and alternately froze and scalded myself for the next hour.
The shortness of breath and fluttering in my chest was building.
I went to the steam room and the salt room.
I watched as the bronze on the neckace that was given to me in a Hindu religious service in Singapore was purified by the salt. I tried to view this as a metaphor. “This is like my journey–ah fuck it.” I got up and went back to the cold bath. I splashed myself with the 19C water as I’d seen Korean women coming from the steam rooms do.
Sharp needles of cold pierced my body with every splash and for a moment all of the different steams of scattered thoughts and unfocused energy froze.
I got back in the cold bath and glanced at the clock.
“Fuck this,” I thought, and went to the warm bath.
Two small children stared at me. “Hi,” I said.
“How do you know English?” one little girl asked me in Korean.
“I’m an American,” I replied, in Korean as well.
“Oh!” the two girls exclaimed.
I stared at the clock again.
The panic was rising and I knew I had to leave.
“If they don’t call me in five minutes…” I told my shortness of breath.
But then I got out of the bath and got my key. My breaths were only getting shorter; my heart only pounding faster.
“Why?” the ahjumma asked me in Korean.
“Er….wait….can’t.” I replied in broken Korean. “appointment….promise…there is….”
“Next time,” she said, looking me in my eyes.
“Yes, next time.”
I dressed and left as quickly as I could find the exit, but not before buying an assortment of scrubs,–I would be soft for this man whom I hadn’t seen in a month, rising panic attack be damned.
I paid, and in the next moment I was out of the door.
It occurred to me that I would have to eat at some point, and so I asked a man for samgyetang–Korean Ginseng Chicken Soup, the closest I would get to my comfort food without making it myself.
He pointed in a direction and said something in Korean, so I thanked him and walked in the direction he pointed.
The ginseng chicken soup restaurant was not more than three yards away; my tired mind sighed and the tightness in my chest pulled just one thread in the direction toward unknotting itself.
I walked in.
“Samgyetang…is there?” I asked.
“Yes,” the lady replied, along with other things like “are you visiting Korea?”
“English teacher,” I said, pointing to myself. “One please.”
She showed me to a table, but I moved toward the window. I tried to ask her the Korean word for window, but she thought I was asking for the name of the restaurant and told me, chest puffed up, that it was named after her.
I smiled and let the conversation die. Then I sank against the wall.
I pictured myself bursting into tears right there, right in that tiny restaurant, where it was safe and warm and smelled like chicken. I pictured the lady rushing toward me and wondered what she would do.
But I’m not the “bursting into tears in random places type,” so I just sat in silence and stared into space, regretting the fact that there was no book, no smartphone to distract me.
Eventually, she brought me the soup and I took my first bite.
It needed salt, but another string in my chest was pulled loose.
I continued salting and blowing the broth. With every bite, the knot in my chest unravelled itself.
“I am not depressed,” I told myself. “My sadness is just a mood.”
Happiness is knowing that your sadness is just a mood, I thought.
Happiness is knowing there is no existential crisis that can’t be met with a good bowl of chicken soup.
Then I thought about how, if my phone were with me, I’d update my facebook status with that thought.