By Rachel K. Fauth, ETA ’16-’17
Approaching a corner street deep in Slow City, Doldam Cafe stands out like an X on a map. It simply looks like a destination, even if you meant to go somewhere else. Floor-to-ceiling windows let out an audible yellow hum; the color seeps over the stone wall that closes off the yard. It’s drizzling, and the little moat – a man-made creek that runs through the center of Doldam’s property – reflects white fairy lights strung up above, making the water a sort of glittering boundary between the modern locale and the dark-roofed dilapidated hanok village.
C & I have just reluctantly agreed to get up from the comfort of our regular spot in the cafe, the table next to the outlet (for me) and the cash register (for him). On our way out, I can’t help but notice the stout Christmas tree in the front yard, newly adorned with dried white starfish. I have to look twice. Rural mountains in the background, rimming the distant perimeter of Slow City, and C’s ornamental starfish just don’t seem to mix. The whole ensemble looks extra absurd with my disproportionately small Christmas bulbs hooked on the branches. They’re meant for a tiny shrub and not a tree, and they are rainbow-colored and metallic – murderous to Doldam’s minimalist aesthetic.
I remember decorating it one night after closing. Outside in the pitch-black, biting cold. I watched as C, the 사장님, excitedly unpacked the wrong-size ornaments my mom sent from New York and sang to himself in his limited English. “A small balls, small balls, I have a small balls, for my Christmas tree…” It sent me into a fit of dumb laughter and a subsequent, careful explanation for it. C kept singing anyway, too, just to keep me laughing. At the time I thought, this is what home feels like. And the back of C’s sweater, undoubtedly bought in Korea, glowed in the dark. It’s italicized white print floated around the tree, misspelling BROOKELYN1.
* * *
C’s father interrupts us in the cafe to lead us to the street. It’s cold and wet but there’s no saying no. I get the feeling that whatever he’s about to tell us is something C already knows, and the reason for what’s bound to be an uncomfortable and linguistically impossible occasion for both of us is happening specifically for me. We follow his insistent calls, the beckoning back of a hand that motions behind the old man’s gray-haired head, capped in a neon ski hat with ear flaps and a wobbling pom-pom. The street ahead is lit dimly orange and the rain just little flecks of light. Walking towards the gate, C looks back at me, smiling apologetically in his hexagonal wireframe glasses, embarrassed yet obedient. I step after him with caution, stone after stone on the wet path wondering if one of these days I’ll trip into the moat. I trail the two men, one of whom is trailing the other. C looks big behind his father who walks fast for no reason, like a boy.
Once in the street, a slur of incomprehensible speech is hurled in my direction. I’m unsure if it’d have even been comprehensible in a language I could speak well. C’s father emits a sort of odorous pulsating heat the way drunk old men often do, shifting his weight, gesturing at a giant rock in front of us. It’s a pseudo-ancient hulking thing, a giant glossy grey slab with vertical characters laser-printed into it reading DOLDAM CAFE, rolled right up to the side of the gate marking the entrance. A name that is uncomfortably fitting and tacky, doldam meaning ‘stone.’ Slow City tourists will like it, sure. But I don’t, so perhaps this means I’m no longer a tourist, but an opinionated local? Either way the stone abrasively reminds me that the place I go to every day is meant for one-time visitors. It casts a long shadow into the street that C’s father sways in and out of, leaning back into his hips so far that his body looks like it’s glued into the crease of an open book.
He continues talking, talking, talking at me, stares into me with filmy eyes that I’m not sure want an answer. I notice his nylon blue puffer jacket glistening with rain and protruding at the middle like an early pregnancy. At the very least, I conclude, he wants me to look at the new fake stone. I can do that. He tap-tap-taps my arm with his knuckles, imploring a response. 네 네 네, I “yes him to death,” as my mother would say. 네네, C says next to me, doing the same. The fact that C and I answer his father identically makes me realize that it doesn’t matter if I can or can’t understand what’s being said; whether someone speaks Korean fluently or not, this is not a time to use it. We both must listen to him rave about the stone and say nothing, just take it, then slowly gravitate back to the warmth of the coffee shop where C takes refuge from his family and I take refuge from my lack thereof. C looks at me on the receiving end of his father’s intoxicated soliloquy and then looks away. Points his gaze down the pebble road at the gradient of darkness leading down into their village. “My father, very proud,” C begins and ends, failing to interpret half for his lack of language and half for his lack of interest. It’s technically his father’s cafe after all, despite the fact that every day C works it, stocks it, walks the customers in and out like a bellhop; he even dug the moat and built the roof and the pillowed booth we sometimes sit in.
Admittedly, a series of brief, soju-fueled events make up my impression of C’s father; which, according to his attitude, doesn’t seem to differ much from C’s own picture of the man. He only seldomly stumbles onto C’s pristinely swept floor to ask him about the catfish in the moat and if they’ll make it through the winter. Or he’ll come in to send him to the house next-door and feed the two brown cows that live in aluminum stalls, amidst what looks like a perpetual garage sale in their .10-of-an-acre backyard. These same cows pull his father’s wooden wagon in and out of town, while C works next door making fancy espresso drinks and gelato. But C isn’t rude to him. He gets up from behind his laptop and does what the man tells him to. There’s a nothingness in his attitude towards his father, a nothingness in the huge space between their generations, spanning eons.
“I’m sorry, Rachel. My father always drink.” He tilts his head back as we return to the corner table. C moves his hand through his bangs and lets them flop back down, then he gets up to rinse my empty mug.
That was the first time I’d seen C look away from a person vying for his attention. Seeing him dismiss his father was like watching someone age – like an image loading, becoming more of itself.
I keep wondering how you begin to get to know someone – or how you begin to get to know someone the way they want to be known – without self-introductions. It seems so naked, to just allow someone to learn you without first telling them where to start, allowing them to narrate you without your first narrating yourself. C and I sort of had to do that. Mostly because verbally we just didn’t have the option to do otherwise. Our introductions would’ve been so basic as to have been unnecessary, yet we find ourselves in the territory of familiarity. Maybe it’s just the extensive amount of time we’ve spent together – hours and hours every day. “I hate the new sign,” he professes once we settle back in the cafe, but I already knew this because of the way he turned his face to look down the road. Every small thing he does introduces himself to me. Maybe that’s getting to know someone. First you make a bunch of guesses, then you watch them either hold fast or fall apart and then a person becomes a person you know. And for C and I, there’s nothing needless in between. It isn’t difficult, and it’s patient. Our impressions construct one piece at a time, each interaction as good if not better than a paragraph of speech.