The next morning, using the term loosely, I shower, shave, and put on the white linen suit hanging in the closet, which it turns out is not such a bad look for me. I survey the sea outside my window, flipping through the aquamarine postcards of my past—Cancun, Ko Phi Phi, Bali, Kaanapali, the Amalfi coast, Mikonos—and begin to feel a little nostalgic for home.
I pass another hotel guest in the hall who greets me in Spanish, though clearly not her native tongue. I take the elevator down to the lobby and find the restaurant where brunch is being served. The maitre’d seeing me, bows impressively, and says konichiwa without the least trace of an accent. I consider setting him straight, to say that I am not Japanese per se, but Korean-American. Not that it matters here.
“Konichiwa to you too, hermano.”
He shows me to an empty table by the window, and out of habit, I start scanning the scenery for clues as to where I might be. There’s nothing in any of these advertisements, street names, or passers-by but a vague suggestion of somewhere cosmopolitan.
It dawns on me that there isn’t a wait staff, just people bussing recently vacated tables. After another few glances out the window, I casually make my way to the buffet spread in back. I pile on the bacon and pick at it in line for a made-to-order omelet. There is freshly squeezed carrot juice sitting out for the taking and a barista brewing artistic lattes.
After brunch, I decide to pick up a pair of sunglasses and a guidebook in the hotel gift shop after confirming that there is a credit card in the wallet. Signing the receipt, I think, Today I’m Grant Koo, which seems not such a bad name for me really.
This being my first time in Barcelona, I decide to go out and do the tourist thing. I figure you can’t go through life watching pay-per-view, emptying the minibar, and ordering room service. There’s a limit after all to the amount of time you can measure by the growth of your beard.
I consult the guidebook and make my way to Parc Güell where there’s a winding road near the entrance to the top of a vista point overlooking the city. Butterflies flutter by, et cetera. I admit it’s nice. A couple of musicians are playing Brazilian bossa nova at the base of the tower while their dog lazes next to the open guitar case for donations registering every coin. I climb the tower, and of the half dozen or so different languages I encounter on the way up, English, the US varietal in particular, is easily the brassiest. Everyone seems to be from somewhere else, and I’d almost feel like I fit in except that, as usual, I’m the only one without a camera. I stand off to the side, trying to stay out of other people’s shots, but inevitably my image will get circulated, globally if unnoticed, in the backgrounds of other people’s memories.
I descend into the city, order tapas and wine in a crowded restaurant near the massive unfinished basilica I had wondered about at the top of the park, ramble through the gothic quarter avoiding the pickpockets and prostitutes, and emerge on a tree-lined promenade teeming with caged birds and flower stalls, sidewalk sketch artists and living statues, but most of all fellow tourists, for a late dinner at Els Quatre Gats before heading back to the hotel.
The day had taken its toll, and I fall asleep to the hallucinatory architecture of Gaudi’s reptilian dreams sheathed in Mediterranean mosaics.
The quote unquote next night, it is the fairy-tale domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral projected onto the backs of my eyelids; the night after that it is the clot of red bicycles on any given corner in Beijing; and the night after that the dust and light settling over a residential street in Mexico City after a soccer match.
I’ve been away for what feels like a thousand and one Arabian nights.
The last time I tried contacting people back home turned out to be an impressively poor pantomime of the past with clearly no place for me in any of their futures. It’s no good, began the persistent lesson unlearned, if no one believes the one thing you can’t explain.
I’ve had my fill of shows, museums, and restaurants, of lounging under parasols with books, of engaging strangers at bars in stray bits of conversation, and of stumbling through the red light districts.
I’ve climbed the Egyptian pyramids at Giza, rafted down the Amazon, dined alone in the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center.
Once, inspired by the spirit of experiment, I managed to hop on the rail and pee on the bulletproof glass protecting the Mona Lisa. Not that I have anything against the Renaissance or women or even the French for that matter. I made it halfway out the Louvre, and paid my dues with a night in jail. The next morning, in a comfortable little bed and breakfast just outside Baghdad, there was no mention on Al-Jazeera of anyone giving da Vinci’s masterpiece a golden shower.
Oh, yes…there is a rather cosmopolitan air about me.
The next night, for lack of a better term, I fall asleep to the mad cacophony of jungle birds, the death and forgiveness along an endless desert road, the press of bodies in the bazaars of Kolkata.
The morning begins with a bewildering explosion of awareness as I jerk my body out of bed. The very presence of this person sleeping next to me seems a direct violation of some “immutable” law of physics, or maybe metaphysics, neither of which I claim to make heads or tails of.
It is startling when she stirs. She mumbles something in her sleep and rolls onto her side, revealing tiny angel wings tattooed under her shoulder blades. It isn’t until she quiets down that I remember to breathe.
I peek past the curtains, noting almost immediately the change in scenery, and though I suppose that’s only to be expected, it seems ominous somehow.
I’ve gotten so used to this bizarre string of holidays with nothing in between that I consider quietly collecting my things for the day, as if it were all just a matter of tiptoeing out on this inexplicable aberration before it has the chance to develop into its own puzzling pattern.
She rolls gently onto her other side.
I freeze, and for a moment, let my mind go zen. I hear the non-sound of a hypothetical tree falling in a forest I’m not in.
In the end, I realize my decision to stay is arbitrary. It’s not even avoiding the cliché of sneaking out on a woman before she awakes. I just want to see what happens next. That’s when it occurs to me, in afterthought, that she and I might have something more than waking up in the same bed in common.
I look around as if to identify an external source for the high-pitched tone in my head, and conclude that there’s really no telling whose room we’re in.
She was very good-looking though, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. Like maybe in a toothpaste or airline ad. I find the recollection I’m stuck with of joining a cult in Kolkata last night unfortunate, but not unfair since being free to choose our memories makes as little sense as being free to choose our own futures.
More than likely, she’ll turn out to be like everyone else, bullied along by the natural flow of history, and accumulating and spending in ways that have nothing to do with me. I try to imagine myself into what she might remember of last night, knowing how impossible decent conversations were with anyone who thinks you’re crazy.
I turned on the TV, lowering the volume to barely audible. It seemed the most natural thing to do given the circumstances. I stared at the television screen and thought about how things would go when she awoke.
“Good morning,” she says with deliberate sleepiness.
“Yes,” I agree. Turning off the television uncovers a silence.
“What time is it?” she asks, finally.
“Almost one,” I say.
We look at each other.
“Did you sleep alright?” I ask, not at all sure what the circumstances called for, but figuring that a little politeness couldn’t hurt.
She nods appreciatively.
“It’s dark,” she comments.
“I’ll open the curtains.”
Sunlight floods the room.
We observe each other in the sunlight.
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
She shakes her head, and takes in the room as if seeing it for the first time.
“I’m a little thirsty though.”
“Let’s see what’s in the fridge,” I say, jumping to my feet. There were two bottled waters, a can of cola, a can of ginger ale, and an orange soda.
I stretch to hand her the bottle, and watch with interest as she breaks the safety seal, untwists the cap, and lifts the bottle to her lips. She empties the bottle in a single swig, not taking her eyes off me. She puts the cap back on the empty bottle, gasping for air, and all of a sudden, she seems on the verge of tears.
“I don’t understand,” she confesses, “what’s happening.”
I suggested a walk along the Han River for some air. It’s brisk, briny and good. I picked up a bag of butter roasted squid and a couple of beers from one of the stalls.
“I’m sorry about the crying earlier. I just felt like I was losing my mind back there.”
“Happens to everyone.”
“I must be homesick.”
Some women in matching track suits jogged by. A young couple in high school uniforms walked past us in the opposite direction holding hands. Another guy my age sat on a bench absorbed in the opening pages of a thick book. Everyone seemed engaged in activities that presumed tomorrow would be a continuation, a build, of today.
“Where are we again?” she asks.
“How long have you been on, um, ‘vacation’?”
“I’m guessing several years.”
“At least,” I say laying the false modesty on thick, which she doesn’t find amusing, and to be honest, neither do I.
We both thought our separate thoughts as the sun continued to shine.
“I woke up in Vegas once, and rented a car,” I suddenly remembered. “I was only about five hours from home then.”
“How was it?”
“There was a lot of confusion and strange looks. People hadn’t changed a day,” I shrugged, negotiating a sad little smile. My younger brother, who had to cancel a date, sulked all through the impromptu family dinner I’d arranged. No one could understand why I was being so emotional. My dad pulled me aside and asked if I were on drugs. The memory was beginning to crowd out more and more of the present. I hardly even noticed the way she was looking at me. “I guess the difference in context sort of put a strain on the conversations.”
She stopped suddenly, and leaned in for a kiss.
Not bad, I thought.
She pulled away and smiled.
“Don’t ask what that was about.”
We tossed the empty bottles and bag into a nearby trash can and continued on in silence.
It being her first time in Seoul, she agreed to let me show her around. Our first stop was a trendy little sushi place tucked away in the back streets of Apgujeong. The waiter who came to take our orders, spotted us for tourists and amiably began practicing his English, but the whole time it was like we were in on a secret that excluded him. I smiled. She smiled. I admit it’s nice.
After lunch, we headed to the tower at the top of Namsan Park. We took a subway to the cable cars because it was faster than a cab at that hour. She claimed she couldn’t remember the last time she’d made an effort to save time.
The way we held hands in the subway made me think of the high school couple we’d seen earlier in the day. Sadness was coming for us all, but it was easy to ignore for the time being. After all, we were just another ordinary couple waiting for their stop to arrive. Nothing sad about that.
I arranged at the ticket counter to have the cable car to ourselves. The gingko trees were going gold towards the top, less with the memory of autumn, it seemed, than in anticipation of winter. She didn’t like it when I tried rocking the gondola, but it all ended in laughter and a second kiss.
We looked down on the city from the top of the tower, and fell into a conversation about the views from other cities we’ve seen: the Empire State Building, the Petronas Towers, the London Eye, the Jin Mao Building, the tower at Parc Güell...
“I’ve been there,” she says remembering. “I’d like to go back someday. There was something about the mood that place put me in.”
Something about the mood that place put me in.
My mind reeled with déjà vu. For a moment I had the sensation that I wasn’t merely repeating the same day in different cities, but that I was repeating the same moment, here, again and again, with her, and in repeating this eternal moment, I was repeating with it the exact same sequence of memories of other days, other cities, other existences, over and over and over again, here and now.
“Did you happen to stay at the Princess Hotel?”
“That’s right! How did you know?”
“I think we may have passed each other in the hall.”
“Buenos dias,” she smiled in recognition.
After a walk through the palaces and secret gardens at the northern end of the city, we strolled around the art galleries and alleyways of Insadong, crossing the main thoroughfare into the neon-lit backstreets packed with people flowing in and out of restaurants, bars and karaoke rooms. We chose a crowded barbeque place, and ordered a bottle of soju.
“Do you remember anything at all about last night?” she repeated louder to be heard over the din of competing voices.
“I don’t think either of us remember a ‘last night’ happening.”
We clinked glasses using both hands, and downed the ice cold soju. I refilled our shot glasses.
“I was in Kolkata,” I added. “You?”
“Here’s to cities by the sea.”
Pretty soon we were out of soju, and neither of us wanted to be the one to say that tonight could very well be our last night.
“Yeo-gi-yo!” I yawped, adding as an aside that that’s how they do it around here.
“What does that mean?” she said giggling.
“‘I’m here!’” I shrugged, distancing myself from the culture. “Patrons scream it all the time, and no one considers it rude. You should try it.”
Dinner passed pleasantly with that second bottle of soju. The conversation grew increasingly animated as we toasted each other, and then life, and then memories of the future, and then chance connections, et cetera, until we could no longer stand the anticipation, and took a cab back to the hotel.
Afterwards, we lay awake for as long as we could, and settled on our final words.
“I’m glad I met you,” she said.
“Same here,” I said.
“Maybe our paths will cross again?” she asked.
“I’ll be sure to look for you,” I answered.
She let her eyes flutter closed for the night. I listened to her breathing grow slow and quiet. Sleep would have to come eventually. You couldn’t avoid sleep, but forgetting—that was another matter. I looked at her one last time before closing my eyes too, and serenely surrendered all worries of what tomorrow might or might not bring.