Standing Too Close

I was out of water. The tap was full of parasites and no good. So was the GS25, where I got my bottled water. Normally I get a six-pack of two-liters and my workout for a week from the market about two blocks away, but a few friends kept me up playing Splatoon from lunch until the stores closed. I was in a great mood, writing weepy inscriptions for Eidolons, my first published novel, needing to rehydrate but happy, until I saw the cashier.


A woman.


In her 20s.




New to the GS25 family.


Being harassed by an old man in a nice suit, handsome in that way scumbag too often are. Drunk. Angry. Standing too close to intimidate. Buying condoms. A friend behind him, calm but complicit.


She was on the phone.


I walked past the counter, around the island stand of tampons on one side and Skittles on the other, because the angry old man was on the Skittle side tapping his condoms that came in this hard plastic casing on the counter talking in a way that sounded aggressive but to a nonspeaker also normal for Korea. Normal for an older man talking to a younger girl. That hierarchy thing. Normal, but never okay. I didn’t know how long he’d been there, but she was not talking into the phone, just holding it for comfort that this would be recorded.


In the back, by the refrigerator with the bottled water and 815 Cola and dollar soju, rice alcohol, there was a hospital nurse finishing his microwavable ramyeon, ramen, midnight dinner.


By the ice cream display, on this winter night below freezing, was an ajumma, middle-aged woman, staring at the frosted over display, not sliding open to peruse the treats, but occasionally peeking behind her when the man got exceptionally loud.


They were waiting to check out. For him to check out.


I wasn’t going to wait to approach the counter with the angry old man in a suit he should’ve retired when the last South Korean dictator died. I stood too close to that man.


The cashier, still on the phone, tried moving him along with words one more time so he wouldn’t be rude to me, a guest in the country. He wouldn’t go. He kept tapping those condoms. Kept talking, but scooted a bit to the side for me.


The cashier then tried ignoring him to tend to me.


I don’t know much Korean, but I know “Gen-chan-a.” It’s okay. Or as I tried to say, “Gen-chan-a?” Hopefully: is it okay?


She waved me forward. Holding the phone between her head and her shoulder, she used both hands to take the bottled water from me. She said, “Gen-chan-a.”


The man, completely pushed out of his position in front of the Skittles, close to the swinging glass doors with his friend now, taunted me in that tone you probably know from angry people who think you can do nothing about them. “Oooh, understaaand?” It was good English. He got close to me. “Sooorrrryyy.” Students don’t respond to anger or yelling. They know it’s sound and fury signifying nothing compared to their fathers. They respond to silence. It’s uncomfortable. The angry old man found it uncomfortable too.


I was just looking for exact change in my pockets.


“Gen-chan-aaaa?” he asked, that same stretched out stupid tone.


“Ani.” No. Impolite form.


Two police walked in wearing their lime reflector vests and gloves, looked around, looked at me, looked at the friend who was trying to get the angry old man to finally go because suddenly this harassment was not something he could let continue, and the woman said something into her phone, hung up, then to the police, and they let me walk out with my water and receipt that the wind took from me.