Before my neighbor and I shared the affection of anonymity, but now that he’s yelled at me in my apartment for longer than it takes to nail a hammered mind into semi-consciousness, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like me.
I was in a great dream that I wanted to get back into—maybe there were Pokemon? Yeah, and I had 1.3 gigabytes of international data charged to my phone and I owed $30, which I had in Korean won, but not in my US Bank checking account so I had to transfer money from my Korean bank—why was I trying to get back into that nightmare? It was better though. But Prickle Butt had woken me up by burrowing through the newspaper to get away from the intense breeze of the air conditioning and then she kept scratching the bottom of her pink box and I’d been up late crying with a friend about my problems and his so I’m ashamed to admit I yelled at the little hedgie, “Please be quiet,” before trying to get back into that dream.
But maybe I’d been yelling at another noise. I heard an alarm get incorporated into the dream. You know how it happens. And dream-me recognized it as a transcendental alarm and like an adult, I ignored it.
It was a piercing two-tone beep that came with persistent rage then disappeared among muttering before returning with some door rattling as they knocked then tried the handle.
I was (ding-dong) naked. Jumped into shorts, struggled to find a (ding-dong) shirt as I was before the peep hole—which worked both ways for some (ding-dong) reason. It’s definitely a tiny blurred version of me (ding-dong) they’d be seeing but hopefully the horror of my happy trail scared patience into them. Ding-dong.
The grumpy old man so desperately trying to reach me dropped his rage to behold a foreigner, then he unleashed his prepared assault on me. I was listening very intently to this old guy with gold teeth but I’d just woken up and he didn’t seem to be saying handsome, cute, trash, or candy—my nine-year-olds only taught me so much.
My apartment had leaks when I ran the boiler or used it to turn the floor into a big radiator during the winter, so I thought maybe that again. “Mul?” I asked miming water trickling from the ceiling.
Instead of lessening his rage as I understood his plight, he seemed angrier as he yelled, “Ne! Ne ne ne!” and he barged past me, polite enough to leave his leather strappy sandals at the door.
He checked my living room, a mess of water bottles and coins spilled from a glass, but a dry mess. He flicked on the light to my bathroom where the dry shower head rested in the sink and a hard water line marked the toilet bowl. And finally my bedroom, which wasn’t that big, but he inspected several parts like when he kicked through the dirty clothes pile at the foot of the bed, swung open the door to peer at the wood shavings behind, and then he spread his venom to the culprit--my air conditioning unit.
AC in Korea worked a little differently than I was used to in the States. They were wall-mounted units instead of centralized vents. In my last apartment, its hose fed into a bucket that I’d empty every morning. This apartment’s hose dripped out the window. To seal the window from heat and bugs, they caulked it up so that sliding pane no longer slid.
That angry old dude didn’t care. He took his frail liver spotted fingers and yanked at the edge, his shirt jostling around his saggy arms as it was three sizes too big like his mom bought it in preparation for growth spurts, and I was looking for my phone amid the mess of books, comforters, and cereal boxes I slept next to, and when he yielded to the power of the caulk, he slapped the glass pane. I dialed Not-Mom Boss’s number.
And he left.
The phone was still ringing my savior as he stomped out, putting on his leather strappy sandals, complaining in Korean so loud I could hear him even three floors down.
Maybe Not-Mom was asleep too and I was waking her because it took her a minute to understand.
“Not the air conditioner repairman, but a neighbor complaining? I think? It’s leaking? Maybe?” I relayed what I understood but it was too surreal so I was turning everything into questions like “Did that really happen?”
“But your neighbors are a woman with her sister.”
I didn’t have an answer for her.
The guy came back with reinforcements of a guy even older so his hair wasn’t just streaked like the gold-toothed man but full silver and they just opened the door and came in. The gold-toothed man was still yelling, seemingly at whomever he aimed including his friend, me, the A/C, the bowl of coins I’d spilled last month that were still sprawled across the floor. But neither would yell into the phone where Not-Mom was. I was even saying “Hanguk-eo” (Korean language) as I pointed at the landline attached to the curly cord. But they seemed as confused as I had been when all this started and took a minute standing in the midst of my messy living room as I threw the phone their way before the new guy said anything.
Not-Mom and new guy talked. The first guy kept going into my room where the AC was turned off. He even kicked aside Prickle Butt’s box from under the AC where I heard her go boosh! into spikey bean mode. (Immediately after they left, I put her in the laundry room where she’d be hidden.) He yelled, “… jeongmal… jeongmal…” The only bit I understood was “… very… very...” as in “Naneun jeongmal gwiyomi” which is “I am so very cute.” I know I should bone up on useful vocabulary, but my practice partners up to this point only wanted to laugh at the silly things I’d say.
New guy and Not-Mom worked it out. She explained to me while the friend told the gold-toothed man that it’d all be fixed soon.
“It’ll take too long to get the repairman back so I’ll send my brother to fix.”
I worked with her brother. He was a bus driver until another teacher quit and then he got a promotion. His English was great, but he was quiet and neither of us had much reason to leave the classroom except for water or bathroom breaks and the halls were so narrow that meeting there was a lot of backing up to let the other through. We said “Hello” and “Good night” most days and he’d poke his head in to drop off vocab tests for a few of my classes but wordlessly. I might’ve taught one of his daughters, but Not-Mom had five siblings and all I knew was that Vivian was a niece, not whose exactly. Once her brother, Kevin, and I ran into each other on the street. I was coming back from GS25 with candy. It was midnight. I’d already slept for the night, immediately passing out after work, and when I got up I just wanted something sweet to remind me of the comfort of childhood. He asked if I had dinner in my black plastic bag and I said yes and I asked if he was just getting off and he said yes like it was nothing because that was his schedule. I went home at 8, maybe 9 if Not-Mom asked me to cover a listening class for her so she could see her daughter who lived in Seoul, and he got off most nights at midnight after cleaning the school for the next day. We hardly knew each other.
He definitely didn’t know my apartment was wrecked.
But I had cleaned for earlier this week with the AC guy. Cleaned to the point that I could politely say, “Sorry for the mess. I haven’t had time to clean,” which was just all kinds of lies.
“It’s okay,” Kevin said.
He inspected the window and the air conditioner and tried to pull the sliding pane open but more gently than the angry guy before him. He couldn’t get a good view of it. “Maybe from the balcony?”
The balcony was the shame most people hid in their basements. When I first arrived, I didn’t know where to put the water bottles for recycling and whenever I went, the boxes for glass, plastic, food waste, cardboard, and something I still don’t know seemed mixed up and I didn’t want to contribute to it. This lasted over a month and each week I went through 6 two-liter bottles so I had about 30. I lived on the fourth floor. It took some effort to make that trip down. I started out great! Taking four at a time, two trips a night, but then lost the motivation as I saw progress, and the bottles kept coming each week. There were still twenty out there. And boxes that had the same issue. So it wasn’t dirty; I always got the trash out, but it was a mess that the few who visited ever had a reason to see—until now.
As he stepped out, tentatively, on a WiiU box from Christmas, crushing Mario’s face then stepping onto the Amazon box for my new laptop, which he expected to sink but instead held and wine bottles inside clinked together, I cringed. “Oh god, I’m so sorry for this mess.”
He put his shoes on. “It’s okay.” Kevin had such a soft voice. Timid almost. As timid as I feel most days, but I don’t think I ever sound it. Maybe rushed and garbled from old speech impediments coming back during panic but I was an ESL teacher. I had to talk clearly. He did his lessons in Korean. Students didn’t get the discipline of learning English through English and often they couldn’t experiment or hold a conversation beyond the fill-in-the-blank sentences they knew. They also just didn’t feel the need to use English in class, but still they showed a marked improvement week to week with vocabulary and the most I was good for with beginners was showing them to put their tongue to the front teeth, slightly sticking out, as they made the th sounds, which we practiced daily but still they said “Bassroom.” “Do you have a knife?”
How many bad months had blurred together since last doing dishes? I started running scissors stuck together by old, hard pork grease under the sink when I saw the frying pan on the drying rack, clean if dusty, and beneath a butcher knife, nicked by a stubborn pepper seed. The first miracle of the day.
He scored the edge of the weather stripping, peeling off some caulk and letting it fall into the corner, then tugged at it, getting both hands on so he had to set the knife down but the only surface within reach was the window sill. It was a large window sill because the window had three layers of sliding panes. The screen, the window, and a semi-transparent privacy pane. It rested flat. But he yanked so near it and so hard, I thought an elbow might bump it. It’d dagger down. Go into his foot. I saw that happen once in Boy Scouts. Guy didn’t feel as it cut a nerve. The tip was both bloody and muddy.
The knife didn’t go into his foot. As the window popped free, he slid it open all the way and leaned out to look at the hose and electrical wires taped together in a white goopy mess of melted adhesive and as he leaned out, his chest bumped the knife handle. And it fell. Four stories. I only heard it clunk as Kevin peered down. “Sorry,” he said.
I actually hadn’t seen what had happened. I was standing in the doorway, unsure where to be that was useful without looming or being in the way. With a professional, I could return to my day, albeit clothed, and get on the laptop where I put on a headset covering only one so if the repairman needed me, he didn’t have to poke me. But I had no idea where to be here and I wanted to shrink away.
“I need to get a longer hose.”
He left and I went to retrieve the knife from the patch of grass behind my apartment where luckily no one had been playing or walking or even just looking but I saw a student in the parking lot and rushed inside before they saw me outside wielding a warped butcher knife.
I hadn’t showered at this point. Or brushed my teeth. Or eaten. And it was 1:00 and I worked at 2:00 or 2:30 and I wasn’t sure how far away he’d gone for this hose, if he’d walked or driven, if he’d even be back today. I started cleaning. Specifically the coins in my living room.
I feel I need to take a paragraph on these coins. I had filled a stein for Cass beer, stolen by the previous tenant from a local pub, with coins. 500 won and 100 won pieces. Everyday lately I’d stop into the GS25 and get 2+1 coffees for 4,200 won. So that was 800 won back or four to eight coins that I never had on me when necessary so they kept piling up for months of sleepless misery remedy and late night McDonald’s deliveries and it was the same delivery guy, old and sad who’d usually fumble a coin down the stairwell and go to fetch it with a flashlight because the motion activated lights never stayed on long enough and I couldn’t tell him it was okay to leave it because I didn’t need anymore and I didn’t understand numbers enough via a phone call to prepare the exact change. What was I going to do? Make him wait at the door wanting me to ba-leun, hurry as other drunk customers’ fries went soggy? And that was the mug I kicked over months ago and since I’d piled up many more coins that were scattered about everywhere. You were literally walking on money in my apartment.
When Kevin got back, I had half the glass filled. It looked more suspicious like this.
He cut off the end of the old gray hose with snippers and attached the new bright blue hose then sealed it with electrical tape. It was as ugly as neapolitan ice cream. He threw the other end of the hose to my balcony and walked around going from my bedroom to the living room to the disgusting balcony that I needed a month to clean or else I’d have tried while he was out. I followed him, unsure where to be, until he asked, “Will you hold the other side?”
I never felt like more of a gopher as he asked me to hand him extra zip ties as he secured the hose to the railing. Like when I worked on my car with my dad as a teenager, I did stuff. I was the strongman in a cut-off tanktop loosening things my dad couldn’t but I was also the rail thin kid that could get in where he couldn’t. There were few hold-the-light moments. When I worked maintenance, cleaning air conditioners or heaters around the college campus, Bill, my boss, showed me how to do one then left me alone. Kevin caulked up the window, everything in a good place now, and there was excess so he dragged a plastic zip tie bag across to smooth it out and that was the finesse I wouldn’t know to do, but everything Kevin was doing, I could’ve done—but I never would have.
If my Not-Mom boss had told me the hose was too short so it was dripping into the downstairs apartment, I would’ve turned off that AC and suffered heat stroke before any of this.
As Kevin packed up the supplies, the caulk nozzle punching a hole in the bottom of the bag, he looked around my bedroom. I had my TV and nearby a PS4 with the WiiU on top and controllers and a 3DS on my bed and the old gaming laptop and the new, both with meaty power bricks and aggressive case aesthetics. He asked, “You like games? Me too.”
And finally we were connecting! After months! I’d already said thank you about 10 times before he did anything and another few since he declared the problem solved but it was awkward till now. I had no snack or drink to offer him. I didn’t know any gift idea to repay him, but I knew food was the Korean way, but I had nothing now and he’d probably eaten, hopefully not skipping a meal for my sake, and I’d already finished my coffees from last night, so what? What did he like? He liked games! “Really?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He put his shoes on and got ready to go.
I had meant my response to be like “Please tell me more,” but maybe it had come out wrong tone or language barrier or just personality differences.
By the door was a mostly finished bottle of the $10 house wine from the Koreyo Mart just a minute away that I had used up all the combinations of their offered ingredients and now they were ice cream and cheap wine to me. “I don’t like this brand either.”
That wasn’t why I hadn’t finished it. It was awful, but effective, like soju. I hadn’t needed it all though. So many months of this later and I was still a lightweight that needed to sleep it off and I hadn’t gotten that today, but no one could tell. I took a speed shower though so no one would smell it.