STEAM IRONS OF PUSAN
We all have our tribulations – those of us who live far from our native lands. We all want to square what we feel is just and fair with the human nature on display around us. Mostly, though, we just want to understand. For months now, for instance, I’ve been trying to figure out what Koreans do to their steam irons on the weekends. I don’t know what they do, but I believe they must grievously mistreat their steam irons on the weekends. The situation is this: My phone number is 8-6-1-1. The phone number of the Philips people – the Dutch company that markets quality steam irons here in Korea – is 8-6-6-1. (I won’t burden you with our three-digit Pusan prefix. And I get my share of phantom rings and crank pranks these days as it is.) Every Monday morning I receive at least one wrong number phone call. It’s always somebody who wants to talk to Philips. Or Pee-leeps, if you like. It’s always a guy with a hoarse hungover wheeze or else a housewife-sounding lady in a state of near panic who wants me to connect them to the Steam Iron Repair Department. This is as much as I care to get out of them. I tell them I’m a foreigner – Way-kook saram imnida – and then they hang up. Sometimes they call right back again with the same routine and sometimes it takes them just the one shot to figure out who I’m not. I’m not the Philips Steam Iron Repair Department. Never was. No connection with them at all. Of course nothing of this speaks to my original perplexity, which is what Koreans do to their steam irons on the weekends. Quite frankly I’m baffled. I know this is another culture and I’m not supposed to question their ways. Their ways are just as beautiful as my own – only different. But they are doing something to their steam irons on the weekends that is probably not nice. Maybe I should call up the UN. Maybe they could refer me to some do-gooder NGO that handles missions like this. Or maybe I should just shut up and mind my own business. It’s just that on Monday mornings I like to start the week right. I like to get off on the right foot, so to speak, on the first morning of the new week. Especially after the things I do and don’t do on the long, lonely weekends here in Korea. And I don’t even own a steam iron here in Korea. I don’t have one, which upon reflection may lie at the root of all my bewilderment.
So I go out and buy myself a Philips steam iron. A nice one. Top of the line, in fact. A Philips Propavore Aurora Mistral 4000 with a Karezza™ soleplate, nine heat settings, continuous steam output of up to 40g/min as well as a 90g Shot o’ Steam™. I even buy an ironing board to set this baby on. One of those Asian-style ironing boards that sits just a few inches off the floor. One of those ironing boards that look like they’re designed for legless amputees or other unfortunates. The weekend rolls around and I wait to see what’s going to happen. Friday night. Nothing. All day Saturday and then Saturday night. Nothing and again nothing. Sunday morning and then Sunday afternoon. Ditto. Nada. So it’s Sunday night. My new Philips Propavore Aurora Mistral 4000 sits there on the ironing board with its four stubby legs like some sort of prehistoric earth-hugging creature mounted on its mother’s back. Good, I decide. At least something’s happening. In my imagination, anyway. Of course Sunday nights are lonely times for bachelors like me. All the pent up frustration of a thousand misspent weekends begins to seethe. The sense of wasted life. The intimations of a profound and nameless disconnectedness and despair. I plug the steam iron into the wall socket and crank it up to the Heat Setting Nine because I am fed up with feeling so damn lonely on Sunday nights. I want what people call an “objective correlative.” Some damn object out there in the world that feels what I feel. That knows and shares my solitude and isolation. The steam iron starts to get hot. Hotter. Cocked back on its haunch now, it’s even heating up the room. I mean it’s really cooking. I wet the tip of my finger with a film of saliva and touch the steam iron’s smooth underbelly. YOWCH! That’s HOT! So hot and yet so smooth too. I stroke the steam iron’s smooth underbelly again, this time without the protective film of saliva. It’s HOT as HELL. I mean it’s really HOT. With a blistered fingertip I press the Red Button on the handle of the steam iron and marvel – SSSSSST! – at the sheer primal force and energy of its 90g Shot o’ Steam™. But it’s not enough. It’s just nowhere near enough. I want to touch the damn thing in a way no steam iron has ever been touched before. I want the smooth underbelly of the damn thing tonight and I don’t care what happens to either of us. Steam irons of course are not designed for this sort of relationship. This sort of household ménage. They are designed for ironing clothes. And not even all kinds of clothes. Certainly not for the kind of thing I have in mind. Not for the kind of thing that seems to me, now, suddenly, inevitable. I unplug my Philips Propavore Aurora Mistral 4000 and let her cool down, let her slip deep into the untroubled dreamless sleep of unplugged home appliances. Helpless now, she rides there on the back of her ironing board mother like some forlorn species of fabulous sleeping snail beast that time forgot. I reach out and pluck her off, cradle her iron shell in my aching arms, and hiss into her smooth soleplate my basest secrets, my crudest yearnings, my purest and most unspeakable human animal needs.
The next morning – Monday morning — I call up Philips and ask for the Steam Iron Repair Department. I talk to a sweet young thing who I imagine is sitting primly at a desk in a cluttered office. Perhaps she is sitting behind a window that looks out on the shop floor. Perhaps she is wearing a name tag that identifies her as “Miss Kim.” In fractured Korean I try to tell her what happened. What I need. She listens attentively, the soul of patience and empathy. She understands exactly what happened. How these things happen. What a client needs. She understands exactly what is wrong. I don’t have to explain. That, she assures me intimately, is why she is there.
(From Pearl 36, Fall/Winter 2006)
WHEN KAFKA WAS THE RAGE
I was disappointed with my final grade so I went to see him in his office. He was sitting at his desk in a bright red dress and a black wig with the bangs cut straight across.
“Have a seat, young man,” he said. “I just want to get this eye-liner on.”
He had long curling lashes like on a cartoon doe.
“Sir,” I said. “About the C you gave me in Postmodernist Anaesthetics.”
“Mmhmm,” he said.
“Sir, I really worked hard in that course.”
“Would you be a good boy and zip me up?”
I hadn’t noticed he was unzipped in the back. So I zipped him up. He had a bra on underneath, but no slip.
“My final essay on Hulga Joy Hopewell-Pointer’s Stumped: My Life Stood Still was 30 pages long. Not counting the footnotes.”
He pushed away from the desk on the casters of his swivel chair. He was wearing stiletto heels too. And nylons that flattened his leg hair against his skin.
“Son,” he said. “In my day a C was known as a ‘Gentleman’s Hook.’ Nobody ever fussed about them.”
This wasn’t going the way I’d hoped. I could see that.
“Ma’am,” I said. “You have the tiniest bit of lint on your shoulder. May I have the honor?”
“Now you’re getting the hang of it!”
So I brushed off the imaginary speck of lint.
“In my day when a young man tapped a woman on the shoulder, he was asking her for a dance.”
So we did a little box-step around the room. He wobbled at first in the high heels, but overall didn’t do too badly. Finally, though, I couldn’t take it any longer and blurted out:
“Sir, why are you dressed up like a woman?”
“At the end of every semester I like to take my students’ minds off of grades.”
“Well, it certainly worked on me.”
“You’re not thinking about your C anymore?”
“No, ma’am,” I lied.
“Not even the teensiest little bit?”
“Well,” I said.
“The truth now, darling boy.”
This was getting interesting. A mind game. A head game.
“Well,” I said.
“Stop saying well!”
But what can you do if you can’t say “well”?
“Well,” I said stupidly.
“Take me home this instant!”
“You heard me! Take me home!”
So I drove her home in my jalopy. But she softened some on the way. By the time I had her in front of her house she was all apology. There were tears of pleading in her eyes.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like to be grading people all the time. A’s and B’s and C’s.”
“Gee, I always thought it would be fun.”
“If it does this to you, maybe it’s not so great.”
“Oh my God,” she cried. “Is my mascara running?”
She jerked my rear-view mirror around and examined herself. Suddenly a little girl came running up to the car.
“Mommy, Mommy,” the little girl exulted. “Is this the new older brother you promised me?”
I looked up at the house and its big picture window. My father stood behind it, glowering, his huge hands clasped behind his back.
“Ma’am,” I said. “Whose house is this anyway?”
“Our house, my darling young man. Now go inside and get to work on those med school applications. I’ll see to it that C is raised to an A.”
I got out of the car and started up our front walk. Somehow I knew I was finally beginning to catch on. Even my father was mopping his massive brow in relief.
(From Mythic Instinct Afternoon, Poetry West Press, 2005)