Tokyo To Tijuana: Gabriele Departing America

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Tokyo To Tijuana: Gabriele Departing America

By Steven Sills

Book One: Sang Huin

"It is probable, then, that if a man should arrive in our city, so clever as

to be able to assume any character and imitate any object, and should

propose to make a public display of his talents and his productions, we

shall pay him reverence as a sacred, admirable, and charming personage, but

we shall tell him that in our state there is no one like him, and that our

law excludes such characters, and we shall send him away to another city

after pouring perfumed oil upon his head and crowning him with woolen

fillets; but for ourselves, we shall employ, for the sake of our real good,

that more austere and less fascinating poet and legend-writer, who will

imitate for us the style of the virtuous man." Plato (Republic)

Chapter One

At Toksugum Palace in Chongno of Seoul Sang Huin (known by his friends in the states as Shawn) felt an empathy as deep as the gods; and the reconstructed walls of ancient buildings that he could see into and imagine long deceased emperors in coronation ceremonies or reading their mandates became irrelevant. Yang Lin, parting from their movement toward the steps that led toward the Royal Museum, began to walk to a distant place where a woman in a western wedding dress stood at a pond posing for a picture with her groom. Near earlier buildings Sang Huin had noticed him looking at them questioningly. He had seen a sad and innocent yearning in Yang Lin as if, after a long search, that creature had found his alter ego in the woman and would not let it go.

After five minutes of waiting alone, sitting on those steps and letting a cigarette dangle limp in a frown, Sang Huin realized that this new friend of his was not just straying off briefly, so he gradually went over there in a circuitous and jaunty stroll as if other things had gained his attention and only by accident was he moving there. Yang Lin told Sang Huin that he longed for her: longed for himself within her beautiful clothes, within her commitment, and within her sex. He had been so sincere. Sang Huin felt a worse form of compassion for him. It was sorrow, the enlightening, sweet venom, and it sank into him. It was deep empathy. It was God. It was definitely something that was not wanted. It stayed with him on the bus.

On a ride from the Nambu Bus Terminal to Chongju, Sang Huin's sleep was spastic like a nervous twitch that would every now and then startle him into wakefulness and he would wonder where he was: Muguk, Chongju, Seoul, or "Miguk." Sometimes at the primary school in Muguk he would ask, "Where are you from?" Then once, in a coaching effort for the pitch of a complete sentence, he had made the mistake of "Miguk...Miguk" ("America...America") and the class was in an uproar. He thought of this in one of his startled awakenings. He looked from the window to flat patches of skimpy forest that most Koreans thought of as so beautiful. The way was straight, south and barren and made him almost yearn for the tortuous roads that appeared near Umsong to be rid of scenery so bland. Although the bus traveled down the highway as a solid, jitterless mass, he jittered into more drowsiness. The contents of his head shook and his mother's voice cried out to him like locusts from the branches of trees. There was a hot sticky childish oozing within him. Within dreams his fortitude was like marshmallows when pulled off of sticks after roasting in a bonfire. He heard voices of he and his sister counting 7 o'clock, 8 o'clock, 9 o'clock rock. 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock, twelve o'clock rock - Ghosts won't find me. Ready or not we'll find you.

Then there were those macabre photographs, at the trial in Houston, of his grown sister's skeleton. The police had looked for his sister's body in the park but obviously not thoroughly in the ravine. In one year they had only searched that park once and in the meantime her body had decomposed. He dreamed of those photographs of skeletal remains and the other photographs of more than a few bones that had gone off from the rest. They were marred too but by the fangs of dogs or other beasts dragging them around before dumping them away from the rest of the remains. He dreamt of these photographs exactly as they appeared from the slide projector and in that sequence as one of those most godless days of that long trial when one's whole body trembled in continuum through bits of the hours with stolid, cadaverous expressions throughout the ordeal. He assumed his parents had also behaved the same. Before the real confirmation of her death, all three had been functioning with such dead but hopeful words and perfunctory gestures which were then ripped out of them as the program, memory, and energy cells can be pulled out of robots and soon they were thrust in their own personal black abyss with none of the three able to see outside of blackness and pain as much as they might have wanted to offer solace to each other.

Who could offer solace when the conclusion of life as an evil and godless place had solidified into consciousness like Death etching her name in wet cement? Back then, it had been obvious that the trial, a pantomime of the mute for justice, could never be allocated to the dead under the best circumstances, and this particular trial was going nowhere. The conclusiveness of the evidence and motive had been defaced with time that had entirely decomposed her form. There had been theories. Plenty of circumstantial evidence had been presented. Her employer had done it to her as conclusively as a feeling could testify. Then and now there was plenty of indication that she had been pregnant with his child. Twenty years ago Sang Huin (Shawn then) had swung a golf club into her eye and the blood had splattered everywhere. On that day, as a boy, he had thought nothing could happen worse than that; but back then there was blood and back then there was composition. He woke up and once again knew that even in sleep there wasn't always repose. Sometimes, without finding a way of sealing memories in tidy body bags, one's inner voice was as active in sleep. He said to himself that he shouldn't be surprised by such restlessness when life's conundrums were so horrific. The passage of a few years, and the passage through a thousand times of falling asleep could not even restore one's equilibrium in something so horrific. He shook off his sleep like a dog its wetness. He tried to think of Yang Lin whom he had left: that mild voice so slow and deliberate in its intensity, the morbid and thoughtful eyes like an ocean containing its ecosystem, the muscular young body that had an orange hue like a Chinamen who had sucked up too much sun.

After the revelation he had listened to him repeatedly talk about wishing that he had been born a woman; and except for once of saying, "Well...I understand, but" (and stopping not knowing what to throw in as the "but"), he had been silent with eyes of empathy. It was painful to see a perspective; and Sang Huin broke out of his skin like a reluctant and tortured snake but accepting the inevitability. He just stared at the fountain for many uncomfortable minutes hoping that the mouth of the fountain could articulate a statement that would solve the situation as well as ease his discomfort.

At the fountain, in silence, he had thought of rigid Texan horses and the lazy meditative cows of his home state in warm fields at mid-afternoon--creatures of the gods with no sense of the vile practicalities behind their domesticated state. During his times of stress long ago they had often seemed to Sang Huin as so aesthetic that one could wish to slip within them for an hour or a bit of the day; and surely after having done it one might instantaneously wish for the freedom of whatever was beyond the fence. Maybe, he had thought to himself, something like this was how Yang Lin felt.

He had suddenly blurted out, "You commented that the pigeons and the fountain in the pond are beautiful. Maybe they are." He had hesitated feebly. The coarse words and tone had surprised both of them. "I hear that doctors can now make a man half pigeon if he dares to have a mixture of pubic hairs and pubic feathers; or if you prefer a beautiful fountain-surgery a continual waterfall can come from your ass." Sang Huin had not known where the words came from. His gentle imagination had rarely formed such an aggressive flare of thoughts and yet he had felt that he could not let this stranger--this recent buddy--this someone he had slept with--save up money on the assumption that he could be made into a beautiful woman. Twenty years from now he did not want him to be made into a hybrid mess from a lifetime of painful surgeries... hormonal confusion...mutilations.

But had he not mutilated four months earlier? A video "pang" girl [the clerk at the video room where he had watched a movie with his friend, Yang Kwam] tracked down the friend's license number, and then the friend's telephone number, and began to inundate him with a flood of messages. It was quite flattering and Sang Huin finally returned the calls. He was curious. At that time he wanted a girlfriend. From an erection, a yearning, an ejaculation, and more than he wished, knowledge of his own virility by the conception, he proved the very essence of manhood. She aborted at his request but nature aborted and mutilated: still-death, genetic defects, and miscarriages. Human beings were rifted apart from each other by circumstances of separation and death despite love. The life of a being, itself, was nothing but different transparencies miscellaneously tossed onto an overhead projector. No, he thought, maybe that was just his own life. The transparencies of most humans were in order--the last of which would be old age and decay but what was written on them was meaningless. His transparency recently had been to prove his manhood by having sex with a woman and it had all gone awry.

Sang Huin sighed. He took off his shoes in the bus. He stroked his feet, in short white sports socks, across the vinyl of the back of the chair before him as if he were giving a massage to the person seated there. He needed sex. He needed to lose himself in a pleasure that would reduce his headache and release him from worries even if it was an illogical frenzy far removed from reality and only lasted for a few minutes.

He tried to rest comfortably in his seat, absorbing himself in Time and Newsweek. Then someone yelped at him in Korean, pushing him out of his sympathies toward the bondage of the Afghan population under the theocracy of the Taleban and the tattered infrastructure of the country. There was no way to catch even a word or two of it and this balding and middle aged man gave Sang Huin a look as if he had wasted his time talking to the world's biggest dummy. Sang Huin gave his typical defense of "Miguk sarem" ("American") which would bring on a confused and critical look--in this case, it was a closer examination of Sang Huin and a slanting of the man's face as if he were ready to give Sang Huin a big fat kiss. Sang Huin picked up his book bag on the spare seat near the window and sat there.

It was complicated, in a sense. If he had been less temerarious perhaps to not have the support system of this whole chain--family, city, state, nation, and racial identification-- might have posed a problem. To have lived all but the first few years in America, and so existing as a Korean only by birth and race definitely made him American in every way but a legal one. Most persons under such a scenario would have clung to the country that had made up nearly all of his experience. At least that was what he told himself. Effrontery and cowardice were two sides of the same coin. He loved his mother and she was alone on the American continent as he was in Asia. They were indeed alone in the world.

Even though he cared about family (what was left of it with both his father and sister now dead) it did not deter him from leaving America. To be on a traveler's visa with his own Korean passport did, however, seem to be a bit strange but he could not think of a situation in life that was not confusing. Relationships were confusing although he had never possessed one for very long. When he had the ineluctable sympathy for another person, it deflated all the romance. He didn't mind that so much. To embark on a deep friendship with strong personal commitment and devoid of the bouts of infatuation and frenzy like seasickness seemed the right course; but all partners of the past seemed to him to have wanted only to cast a romantic aura around him as if scared to see the real person inside, and scared to look at beings that were also banal and in continual suffering. Reflexively jumping into pleasure like a lifebuoy, as a human did, what could one expect? One thing was sure: he had experienced a deep pain that his fellow humans wouldn't even give the briefest of stares if they could avoid it. Besides, no one wanted his enlightenment that the world was a bad place when each was trying as best as he could to find an entrance into Disneyland to which there where no security guards to force a departure.

He searched though his billfold for a calling card. He went to the front of this high-tech bus and made a call.


"Yoboseyo. Yang Lin bakwa chuseyo."


"Yang Lin or Antonio. Ku nun manhi irum ul cajigo isumnita.

I sarem i wanhamnita." He threw in both names that the little guy went by and the telephone clicked off.

He called again.


"Yoboseyo. Yang--"

"What do you want with him?"

"I'd like to talk with your son. I am an acquaintance of his. He helped me to get to Toksugum Palace. I want to thank him. I'd like to talk to him again." Yang Lin had told him that his father suspected all male callers and that Sang Huin would have to give a defense of his acquaintanceship but Sang Huin felt awkward in his misrepresentation. Here he was playing with a man's reality concerning his son. He did not feel good about himself.

"Well, he isn't here. He's never here!"

The telephone clicked off. Sang Huin felt hurt. He felt a morbid clarity behind how people always left his life. He thought about what he "knew" of this Chinese friend, Yang Lin, if he knew anything at all: he was adopted and lived in America; that those parents died-- his mother first and then the father in a drunk driving accident; that he was readopted by Korean parents; that his father despised him and suspected his son was gay; and that Yang Lin felt that his English level was the same as his Korean. Abstract ideas must not have existed in his head at all. In short, he "knew " very little and the scanty but pathetic information he received might, for what he knew, have been nothing but a mendacity. Sang Huin had a great empathy; but now another friendship had just bit the dust.

Had it been a month ago that Sung Ki had left him. Sung Ki: even now the name sounded musical. After the video pang girl's attempt at marital entrapment, this neighbor boy had been most alluring in their nightly rendezvous of two months. The sister who fed him rice and Korean pizza and the father who wanted to introduce him to his native country by teaching him the sounds of Korean letters were glad to get the youngest child an English teacher. Little did they know of the pleasurable respites from pain Sang Huin was getting in the back bedroom. Homosexuality was so taboo there that nobody believed in its existence. In that respect, free of discrimination, one was free to be gay in Korea. Then the18 year-old boy was told to meet the masculine and the vicious just as his country dictated. Right after getting his letter from the military, Sung Ki laid out Sang Huin's blanket in a different room. He talked of needing a girlfriend. It hurt; but, Sang Huin rationalized it was what Sung Ki needed so why shouldn't he talk about it? Superiors in the military often beat a man if they felt that he didn't have a girlfriend evidenced when no letters and photographs were forthcoming. Then one day he was gone and soon thereafter Sang Huin lost the address book and key chain from the souvenir shop at the history museum Sung Ki had given to him. He lost both by leaving them in the locker at the mokotang (bathhouse ). "We lose our friends," thought Sang Huin, "and then we lose the things that our friends give to us." It felt less harsh to make the idea applicable for all mankind.

There had been no real reason for him to go to Seoul this time. There were no private lessons there. His reactions toward Umsong also did not have much of a rationale. Occasionally, even when there were no private lessons in that area he sometimes got up around 4 a.m nonetheless; took an hour long bus ride to that small town he had once lived in; walked near bowing rice and corn; crossed the bridge around a thin circular lake at a small park; and stared at the Korean moon bolted tightly against the Korean sky. He wanted for the night to capture him somehow--for a drunk motorcyclist or a lazy trucker to whisk a wild adventure and physical intimacies upon him and yet, in full wistful innocence, he equally wanted what he would always go there for: to hear nothing but birds and a whisk of wind in the tranquility of that sleepy town in one of its most tranquil hours. Nothing of the former ever happened and he would always come from the impulse to a feeling of loss. His impetus to go to Seoul this week had come from a dominant feeling of disconnection experienced by one who knew the extreme violence of the world, who knew the madness of hope for anyone, and felt being buried alive in that one perspective that the world was an evil place-a perspective that was not ethereal but solid as a coffin even if it did spill over into other things. A further disconnection of any significance would cause such an individual to let a numbness and deadening of the concept of self to take place. The day before his fleeing to Seoul, his platonic friendship with Kim Yang Kwam had gone awry and he found himself floundering in suffocating despair as that time years earlier at the trial. Yang Kwam was asleep with his hand in his underwear when Sang Huin awakened. Sang Huin touched him. It was the end of the closest Korean friendship that had been his life support in the six months he resided in this foreign country, South Korea, which was his birth home and the source of his nationality.

Now it was Kim Yang Kwam he kept thinking about in the bus. Sang Huin was labeled as dirty a few nights ago: the way he walked on the floor with his shoes instead of taking them off at the door; the half open window that allowed any insect an easy passage; the fact that he didn't have any rubbing alcohol to cleanse the mosquito bites that his friend gained while sleeping in Sang Huin's room; the fattening mess of pancakes with half burnt ridges in place of rice which Sang Huin prepared for him despite the criticism; and then came questions about the nature of his relationship with Sung Ki.

Glancing out of the window, he pulled out a pint of "ooyoo" (milk) from his sack. His throat was not dry or hurting but for some reason he felt the need to caress it with what he drank as well as with his fingertips. He drank his milk, attempted memorizing a few words of Korean, and then went back to sleep. He had a strange dream of some inconsequential happening in Seoul. The dream was not much different than reality. In the dream the subway (Orange Line, number three) stopped and he noticed a young blind man with a dog getting into one of the cars. Sang Huin quickly moved toward that door. Then he found himself walking through one car after another since the blind man and the dog passed through the inside doors. He woke up and thought of the dream in the context of himself. He was drawn to beauty and carnal activity but also to those captive in some imperfection for within them sensitivity, existential and knowledgeable of suffering, would be complete. He yearned for the deep intelligence that knew such things. His imagination swelled with the thought of this individual just as it had when he actually encountered him in Soul. Sang Huin was always traveling--especially when he was in the States. He was discontent and was seeing himself falling further and further away from the normal path. He had nothing but a college degree, no specialty, no ambition for money, he couldn't really think of a field or discipline for himself, family was a deep life altering wound that made the thought of gravitating himself around a wife and children unbearable, and even his hobby of playing a cello was as a musical dilettante. He looked out of the window and smoothed out his hair. The bus was becoming full now. Still, no one was standing.

Maybe, he thought, he should have been proud at the restaurant. Instead, when Yang Kwam said that he never wanted to see him again Sang Huin said, "I understand," but was thinking "Well, then why are we eating together?" Yang Kwam's eyes were stern. Indeed, it was the end. He felt stunned at that table: to lead a person to a restaurant so that he could not talk to him and then at the inquiry on if he was upset-- Oh, what did it matter? Sang Huin's head hurt thinking about it. He put his hand on his forehead and looked out of the window. Sang Huin said nothing to the statement of "Don't ever call me." They both ate sparsely in thorough silence, Yang Kwam paid the bill, and then he was gone. Sang Huin's instinct was to follow his former friend to the ends of the earth on the public bus system and to harass him in the bus by making him feel miserable for his declaration that he was a dirty person. No, he told himself, he had handled the situation the best that he could. After sitting at the table for a while, he had withdrawn to his home passively. On what seemed like an eternal trip, cramped on a seat in the bus, disconnection was making his mind jittery, soft, and rolling like a ball away from him. He tried sleeping but his mind kept trying to imagine what really took place between his sister and her boss at the park if indeed it had been really him at all. The jury years ago had not thought of the evidence as being conclusive. In sentencing a man to a life of imprisonment it couldn't be done on a feeling.

He felt lost and loose. He still felt stunned. He remembered that he had only touched him by barely stroking his hair and his hand and then touching his underwear. It only lasted a minute and then he turned on his side away from him and his own instincts. It was an insignificant minute in one's life and he could not figure out why it became such evidence of the accuser that he was dirty-the charge of homosexuality not being directly stated. He asked himself why, even now, he was staring at moving forest and long stretches of road with this yearning for love. He opened another pint of milk. He sipped and then rested its opening to his bottom lip. Why did human beings end in such closure? Why did they gain worth and awareness of their being only in personal interactions? Was he nothing but the composite of other people's impressions of him? These impressions--these judgments-- could not be real. They were based on brief outward gestures and the judges had nothing but their own usual experiences of their petty and selfish lives to compare others with. In Japan women who left their children locked up in hot cars were rarely accused of the crime of manslaughter; and in Korea the handicapped, he had seen, were left to crawl like worms, pushing their carts and singing their songs as traditional music blared forth. He died every time he saw one of them. He yearned for the love and the language where he could befriend someone who was handicapped and he chastised himself for only being able to lay money in some of their cans. Once he put his hand into the hair of such a man. He stroked the hair around his face. The gesture lasted only a couple seconds. The man screamed out something and a security guard began moving toward them. Sang Huin placed money in the can and went away. Then he began to question himself. Maybe it was loneliness that had compelled him to do that. After all, the action was undoubtedly bizarre in the sense that no one else did such things. He was not wearing a monk's robe. Another man's fate was none of his business. This type of action just was not done; and yet, he was not the same as others. Suffering the paralysis that would not allow him to make a full smile and finding the eyes x-rays that could go, for the most part, beyond pleasant countenances to a suffering innate in other beings, it was no wonder that he was peculiar. It was no wonder that at Christmas parties or barrooms he sat and drank in silence feeling like a buffoon for not acting like one. In ways he was a buffoon: his taciturn ways that thwarted the lighthearted frivolity of a world conceived out of motion was the substance that often caused contemptuous laughs.

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