After, when this is all over, she’ll be better for it.
It’s just sex, she thinks.
Pleasure is distant, like a plane ride home.
She sucks her hands. Her hands smell like sperm.
Paula wakes up.
A foreign country.
It’s question of gradations, of habits and increments. If she isn’t home, she isn’t home.
What if she woke up back where she started? - wearing a paper uniform, frying potatoes in oil, serving them in thick cones of newspaper.
She isn’t pretty like all the girls here must be pretty.
She gets out of bed because she has to. She pulls on a skirt, a blouse. She’ll tell her class about oil spitting, summer jobs wearing orange pants that don’t quite fit. It’s about growing up. It’s about learning another language. It’s about going away a girl and coming home a woman.
She’s teaching English to unblinking businessmen in ten minutes.
She checks her watch.
She thought she’d be back once a year, at least. Christmas. Or Thanksgiving.
The money was good, but she’s a spender.
Then the currency dropped. Everything she had was worth nothing except for right where she was.
She’s stopped eating.
She pushes herself through the streets, through stares like half moons settling.
So what? She’s been out in the country, did it behind a bush with religious significance. The bugs here are different. Her father is old. She misses him.
Her hair is a mass of blond snakes.
One guy fucked her behind an ancient temple.
Check your watch.
French fries, she tells them.
She checks her watch.
On break, Lucy from Australia touches the pit of her back. Paula startles, spills thin brown gruel, their nasty version of coffee.
Tonight’s the night, Lucy says.
All the men want to have sex with her. They sit in the class room and imagine what it would be like.
She calls home.
It’s me, she says lamely.
Oh my god. Honey. Paula honey. Is that you?
Her Mom sounds more enthusiastic then worried. It’s one of those places where you go in and they give you a booth and you make your call. Paula hears the people in the booth next to hers, the octagon syllables. She’s picked up a few simple words. She tries one out on her mother.
What? her mother said. What did you say?
It means Hello, Paula yells. Everybody in the phone place is yelling. Ten booths of relatives screaming over shoulders. It means, How are you?
Well isn’t that nice, her mother laughs. I’m real fine honey. How are you? Honey I’m so glad you called. Everything’s alright, isn’t it?
Ah sure Mom. Everything’s great here. Everything’s fine. They play basketball here, and a game like dominoes only with more pieces.
Paula shifts the phone, throws the pill in her hand down her throat. She coughs.
What did you say, honey?
People want it all summed up. They want it funny and snappy and true to life. They have words here just like we do.
At the end of class she turns her back to them, scratches letters on the black board.
She talks while she writes.
Thank you, she says.
It’s funny how easy it is to just make things up. You tell them you’re getting married. You tell them you’re from Scotland. They shake your hand.
Once, two business men took you to a restaurant where a woman dressed in a black negligee fed each of you hot pieces of beef boiled in a spicy cabbage broth. This went on for hours. You weren’t supposed to touch anything. If you picked up your glass to have a drink, she rushed over and grabbed it. The look on her face - like you stabbed her.
The two men sat on either side of you. You told them you were a heiress, that your father owned Disneyland, that you were thinking of their country as a future theme park site. You told them that back home you were maybe wanted for murder, but that your lawyers were working on it. They laughed, put their hands on your knees. You sucked a fruit that tasted like nuts, bit down on the server lady’s finger. Her smile didn’t waver. You went to the bathroom and swallowed two pills, they looked yellow in the light.
When you got back, the men were gone. The lady stroked her perfect hand through your tangled curls, gave you the bill. You could tell she felt sorry for you.
After school, Paula takes a taxi back to her one room apartment, even though it’s only a five minute walk. She’s shaking.
She’s tried octopus and cuttlefish and sea weed. It was supposed to make her feel adventurous, but it just made her feel sick. At the bars, the men drink beer and gnaw on dried chunks of squid. Their breath smells like leather. Their faces get red. Their dicks are smaller then she’s used to.
She lies on her back in her underwear. Her chest in reluctant intervals. She’s trying different ways to understand what’s happening to her. The way it is versus the way it should be.
But nobody speaks her language.
Fuck me. Harder. Harder.
She’s eaten everything. She’s eaten jellyfish.
Walking, the girls seem huge compared to everyone around them. Paula’s in the middle, all she can see is cleavage and elbows, all she hears are the clatter of heels on a shiny smooth surface. They push through the doors to the banquet hall. Paula feels an anticipation in her, a light headed anxiety, as if anything could happen even though everyone knows exactly what’s going to happen. It’s like writing a letter home, she thinks. They tell you: take responsibility. They tell you: make a decision. A group of slate-faced men do you from behind, ties grazing the grooves of your spine. Later, they depreciate the currency. They fuck you, then shake your hand.
Her purse slaps against her hip.
She’s in an evening dress, which doesn’t surprise her.
If there was a ceremony, they’ve already missed it. Like always, people turn to stare. It’s worse, because they’re late. They stand at the back of the room, shy giggling giants. Paula checks her watch. Her wrist is bare.
On stage, a man does karaoke. Another man - the MC - wrests the microphone away, says something that makes the crowd laugh. All at once, they’re surrounded by short men in tuxedos, their black hair shining in the light, patterned sequins snowing off the disco ball. Paula is offered a can of Budweiser. She accepts, lets herself be spirited away. The man laughs like he understands. Paula thinks about her class, feels a wave of tenderness for her group of blank businessmen. Everyone talks to her, shakes her hand. Paula drinks from a bottle of Heineken, swirls her tongue against the sour fizz. The men climb up on stage, belt out duets. The bride sits off to the side in a voluminous white dress. She smiles and avoids eye contact. Then the MC again. Lights go out. Spotlights swirl. Paula feels a hand trail through her thighs. She closes her legs in a trap. A huge white cake floats on to the stage shooting firecrackers and trailing a cloud of smoke. The air is crinoline. Spot lights swirl. The bride bows in multiples, her single gestures slow and perfect. Everybody seems overjoyed, determined to carry on. Paula keeps putting a hand over her mouth, to make sure. The MC yells in another language. Fingers grazing the soft spots. Paula leans back, lets it happen, needs it to happen.
Then she’s flying home, her mother has her in a bear hug.
So how was it? she wants to know. How was Korea?
She checks her watch. She’s late for the funeral.
I’ve never been to Korea.
Visit Hal Niedzviecki’s website at: www.smellit.ca