Holiday time, finally – well, sort of. It was only 3pm; I was an hour and a half away from official freedom, but I could not bear to stay in my office a second longer. Time seemed to be going backwards; once I even checked to see if my clock stopped.
I packed up my bag, locked up and strutted confidently to the school’s exit. As I turned down the passage, I noticed my co-teacher’s office light was still on, immediately turning my strut into a tip-toe past her door. I cursed myself for choosing that day to wear my squeakiest shoes and tip-toed on. I don’t know why, but I stopped at her door to listen for any sign of movement behind it.
“QUACK QUACK QUACK QUACK QUACK.”
My heart stopped. Not only is my message alert tone set on the highest volume, but it is also set on the ‘duck’ tone.
I didn’t need my phone to tell me it was 37 degrees outside. The heat felt like a physical force weighing me down into the ground. I felt its dense heaviness on every part of my body, slowing my movements and blurring my thoughts. Still, the heat wasn’t stopping me. I was off to treat myself to a three-day getaway in Busan.
I booked a cute guesthouse, but I hadn’t paid for it yet. I searched for the nearest bank and spotted a NongHyup bank just down the road from the subway exit where I stood.
The aircon in NH felt like God’s breath on my sticky body. I took my place in the queue, behind two old men. The one who was busy at the ATM had his head centimetres away from the screen and moved incredibly slowly; he seemingly scanned every option thoroughly before he chose one and when he made his decision, a crooked finger painstakingly moved towards his preferred option on the screen, which he had to prod twice because the first time wasn’t hard enough.
I kept my eyes on him as he finally shuffled off. He moved to a corner where he silently struggled with his stubborn wallet. Once his money was safely stowed away, he glanced sheepishly over his shoulder towards where we were queued. I quickly dropped my gaze and pretended I was looking at the floor the entire time. But from the corner of my eye I noticed he shot another guilty look in our direction. This time I didn’t bother pretending to look elsewhere. His slow hands moved down to his brown pleather belt, which he loosened. He then jiggled around a bit so his khaki pants dropped to his knobbly knees.
He looked around again and glared at me, his forehead crinkling amid his frown, as if I was the one exposing my white underpants in the middle of a bank. He then re-tucked his shirt into his pants, which seemed to be the ultimate purpose of pulling down his pants, and fastened his belt once again. As a finishing touch he licked his fingers to smooth down his eight strands of hair before finally heading out into the merciless sunlight, leaving me to wonder whether he saw the bathroom at the entrance of the bank.
I finally had money to pay for my room. I handed it over at reception and dragged myself upstairs to unpack my bags before heading out again. I was the last to arrive in the four-sleeper bedroom; clothes were already hanging in the shared closet and backpacks marked their owners’ beds. I ambled over to the untouched remaining bed and packed away my bag’s contents. Lastly, I took my navy toothbrush to the bathroom and left it in the toothbrush holder mounted beside the large bathroom mirror.
It was time for me to check out the famous Jagalchi Fish Market. Anyone who knows me, knows I hate anything sea-related – from any kind of seafood to the actual beach itself – I can’t stand any of it for reasons unknown even to myself. Which is probably why I still hadn’t visited this pretty well-known market even though I was almost hitting the four-year mark in Korea. But the Jagalchi Fish Market was just one of those things that had to be done, so I pulled myself together and headed off.
I entered the subway and made a beeline for the closest empty seat. At the next stop only one person embarked. He looked like he was trying too hard to look young. Underneath his faded denim waistcoat he wore no shirt, revealing a smooth, hairless chest. His legs looked like they were suffocating in the black skin-tight pants he had on and his shoes had the slightest heels. He had earphones plugged in his ears. I couldn’t see his eyes because they were shut tight, just like his hands were shut tight into fists. He punched the air to the beat of his music and whatever he was listening to had him in a sort of trance; he was alone in his own world with only his music to accompany him, the rest of us on the subway were non-existent to him. He was singing along too, but so loudly that every passenger had their eyes fixed on him. I was getting fidgety in my seat – he was edging closer and closer to me in his trance-like state and the last thing I wanted was to attract his attention.
Then he started dancing, but his dance moves were more like karate moves – jagged and choppy. His hand caught one woman’s shoulder mid-dance. Her head whipped around in alarm and she immediately removed herself, not just from that particular spot, but from the entire car. He didn’t even glance at her as she moved into the adjacent car – his eyes were still shut. People were trying their best to move as far from him as possible, but this was proving to be difficult and inconvenient on the chock-a-block subway. The woman seated next to me shook her head and turned to look at nothing in particular at a spot just above her eye level.
The next stop arrived. The doors opened. The dancing man stopped, opened his eyes, glanced at his watch and walked calmly out the doors. Everyone who ebbed away moments ago from that area taken up by the dancing man flowed back to the now empty space, giving the impression of the subway breathing out a sigh of relief.
When my shoes squelched on the ground, I knew I was in the vicinity of Jagalchi Fish Market. In fact, it was not possible to not be able to find it because all you had to do was follow the pungent stench of sea. My nose took me to a never-ending line of colourful umbrellas, each of which sheltered crouched ajummas or ajusshis. Some shouted out adverts for the sea creatures they sold, some threw out excess water from large round buckets onto the street, some carefully laid out octopuses to dry, and some carefully deboned fish. One ajusshi had all his fish stacked in a pile. The tail-fins of all the fish in the neatly-stacked pile were tied together with a bit of red string. With one swift move using his index finger and thumb, the old man pulled out the entire back bone in one piece and then flipped the fish over, like how you would flip the pages of a book, to debone the next one.
My single pair of eyes was simply not enough for the fish market: there were fish the size of my pinky finger and fish the size of rugby balls, there were so many different kinds of seaweed and what looked like different kinds of sponges too. There were octopuses the size of beach balls and squid the size of golf balls. Reddish white octopuses, not as big as beach balls, lay in lines on tables, their octopus juice dripping rhythmically from their tentacles to the floor. Everywhere I looked dried fish hung from makeshift wire lines like drying laundry. The biggest crabs I had ever seen watched passers by from a rectangular glass tank – watching being the only activity possible for the crabs because the tanks were filled to capacity with them, making it impossible for them to move an inch to their left or right. The smell of the hanging fish mixed with the smell of the dripping octopus juice mixed with the smell of cooking squid somewhere in the distance was exacerbated by the stifling heat and by the people packed like sardines under the umbrellas, and it was all too much for me.
I turned around and headed back to the guesthouse.
It was late when I returned to the guesthouse. It was a bizarre day and my feet were in all kinds of pain. I headed straight to the bathroom to wash up. But my toothbrush wasn’t there. I checked again – maybe someone was kind enough to put it away in the bathroom cabinet or something, but the cabinet was empty. I checked everywhere, even between the shampoo bottles, I checked my bag again, I checked my bed, I checked the other bathrooms in the guesthouse, but there was no sign of my toothbrush.
In my confused and tired state I made my way back down to the kitchen for a glass of water. My roommates were seated in the lounge adjoined to the kitchen, chatting about the day’s events. I passed the kitchen bin and reached for a glass on the sink. Something in the bin caught my eye. Something navy.
For whatever reason, or for no reason at all, someone had thrown it away in the bin. And it was too late to save it because it already had food remnants splattered all over it.
With a broken heart I walked over to my roommates and spoke to them for the first time.
“Hey guys, shot in the dark, but what are the chances one of you has a spare toothbrush?”
“Well, I just bought a toothbrush, actually, and it was a 1+1 special,” piped the one girl. “You can have the extra one if you want.”
And she pulled out a brand new green toothbrush from her bag, handed it to me and said, “today must be your lucky day.”