Tommy Graham


Looking in the mirror, and all I see is a rat. I once knew a man who said he’d seen everything there was to see and did everything there was to do, and then he died. I guess he was right.

“Gin and tonic,” I said snapping outta my little trance with the mirror that posed as a wall on the other side of the bar. As I waited for my second drink since coming into the place—which would probably be more like my 20th of the evening—I took a hazy look around the Korean drinking establishment.

The bar room was kept occupied by Seoul’s native women trying to sponge off several U.S. Soldiers and their drinking habits. An elderly woman tended the tiny, empty bar while six or seven younger, more attractive women, also known as drinkie-girls, posed as patrons sitting in the four booths by the door encouraging the soldiers to drink as much as possible. I suppose the drinkie-girls got a percentage of whatever the men spent on alcohol while being entertained by their broken English and fake giggles. The men were trying to get laid. The women were trying to get paid—huh, how poetic.

Like the soldiers, I had a mission tonight too. My mission was to write a letter to my so-called girl back home, but I’m not sure if this bar has enough booze to drown her out and wash in a clear mind. My refrigerator certainly didn’t. I have so much to say to her, my fucking love, but there’s no way I can stomach talking to that fucking bitch on the phone. I can’t even seem to write her. I’ve had god knows how many drinks, but still, every time the pen touches the paper I look up at the mirror in a panic like some phobic nut-bar reacting to needles or water.

Outside was a red-light district—to give it a fancy name. The streets were full of the chaos, hookers and the thrill of another drunken night in Korea’s capitol. The bar was so quiet in comparison. A typical set up for a hole-in-the-wall bar that was easy to ignore by howling and cackling passers-by. The place felt comfortable to me, and I was content to just be alone and drift away in thought and a self-interview. I suppose doing that gave me company—a conversation with myself. I think I needed the feeling of being surrounded, but also the solitude of the tiny bar. And really, I don’t feel like interacting with a single fucking person—just watching them all in disgusts—like apparitions or extras in my play.

I took another drink as I stared through the mirror and drifted away in my self-interview. In the past, I’d stand naked in front of a full-length mirror and admire myself—sitting at home, getting ready to go out with friends, making sure I looked my best, clean the way I was supposed to be and thinking to myself how any girl, or guy for that matter, would have to be attracted to me. They’d all want to fuck me. I was what a model should look like. I looked like a movie star—the perfect body with the perfect face.

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not stuck on myself, or the way I look. I’m just aware, but realize that I could easily get into a car accident and lose that image. It’s so easy. In two seconds, my life would change. People wouldn’t look at me the same. I’d lose everything and why—because of circumstances I can’t control. It’s pretty ridiculous just how fragile everything is and how easily it can all change. We base our whole lives on exterior. Just like the way I look now, it’s not me; it’s something I can’t control. The sad part, or bullshit part at least, is people perceive me as somebody they want to hang out with or get to know—why—because of the way I look. The way they perceive my image, and you better believe I’m gonna take advantage and fuck as many girls as I can, which is what I did for awhile before I met her. I guess that’s my advantage, or my life’s work; my way of expressing sex and aggression I suppose. I think that’s what Freud said life’s all about—sex and aggression.

I think it all has a lot to do with society shaping you and molding you into a personality. Perception molds you. Maybe that’s why pets look like their owners or vice versa or whatever that’s about. I really believe there’s truth to stereotype, and it can be explained in appearances. That’s why blonde women are thought of as dumb and slutty. They also tend to be attractive. Since they were 13-years-old, every boy has been trying to fuck them—lavishing them with attention regardless of their personalities. Blond women fuck and act cute and ditsy because that’s what got them attention in the past, and later in life, they just don’t know any better. Or like ugly-skinny guys who wear glasses and the way they act smart. Hell, if they’re not getting laid or scoring touchdowns, the Sci-fi channel’s looking pretty good I guess. That’s their escape, and what they identify with.

Identity really is found in the way people look. It’s the way they’re perceived, and they just slide themselves into that perception. What if Malcolm X was born white, or if Adolph Hitler was born of Jewish decent or if he was born with no legs. Where’s their identity then? Everybody wants love too. It doesn’t really fit into that sex and aggression mold, but it’s true regardless. We all search for that one person to put us above everyone else, and they also seem to become part of our identity, perception or purpose.

Fuck it—I just can’t figure out why—now—I seem so ugly. I’m stuck here… by myself… just stuck… sitting in some refuge bar in the middle of a Korean-Adult playground, and I don’t want to play. I just wanna be able to write this fucking letter, but I can’t focus.

I slammed my empty glass against the wooden bar surface, breaking contact with the mirror and looking down at my feet as I pretended to smile in that drunk-fake smile sort of way. “I can’t believe I’m stuck here,” I lipped to myself as I looked back into the mirror and gave myself a Charles Manson look and began to replay my story in my head.

It’s only been 16 days here, and I feel like I’ve had collision with a Mac-Truck. I left everything back there—everything being Jessica—”my girl.” I really do love her, and I left her and for what—to be a journalist in Seoul reporting military and American affairs through Stars and Stripes. I just couldn’t believe at 25, I’d actually have a chance to write for Stars and Stripes. I just figured there’s a reason why successful and famous people aren’t known for being the best fathers or mothers or husbands or wives. They have dreams and they follow them. And I’m right there; I’m so close to getting my name on some real publications. I just needed more time and international experience would be perfect. When it comes down to it, my life is what’s important… not ours… not Jessica’s and mine. I wasn’t gonna put her above everything else, but then again, I know now that I already fucking did. I just didn’t realize it till I left her back there. Before I left, I figured this would all be a test. “You can’t put your life in someone’s hands,” I said.

And now I’m here; I’m stuck here on assignment for 16 months—just fucking stuck with 16 months of the smell of Kim Chi and the people who eat it. When I first saw the city, I thought it looked nice—kinda like a major east-coast city back home just with a lot more Asian people. But riding the subway for the first time, I noticed the entire population reeks of this nasty-rotten-cabbage shit that they scarf down like their fucking McDonalds’ French-fries or something. They eat this garlic lettuce garbage and it seeps through their pours and stinks up the country. I remember looking around the crowded train disgusted and longed for the lovely smell of a New York or Philadelphia subway. These fucking people make winos smell like spring flowers.

That was when I first arrived. That was my first impression of Korea. Before that, I was too busy sitting in my airplane chair during the 14-hour flight, thinking of her and thinking of what I had done.

The long distance thing… The long distance thing… Fuck the long distance thing. I knew it wasn’t gonna work so we never tried. Or I should say, I never tried. I know better, but as soon as I stepped on the plane leaving from Philly, I realized my mistake. I found my seat and closed my eyes and tried to hold down this churning, nauseous, anxiety in my stomach. I went back and forth from ripping through a magazine to trying to watch the in-flight movie but couldn’t close out her pleas for me to stay. I couldn’t focus on a fucking thing—only picturing her frantic shaking as I held her in the terminal.

At one point, I couldn’t sit anymore. I jumped up like a burn victim and walked toward the back of the plane. I needed to move. I needed to do something to shut out the panic and the guilt and walking toward the back felt so wonderfully surreal, until I saw this couple—this pretty Asian couple—standing—just standing close together looking out a window in the back section of the plane where all the bathrooms were. I’m sure all they could see was the blue water of the Pacific Ocean, and I was kind of surprised at how long they could just stare down at nothing but water—just standing close and touching and staring. Those stupid fucks just stood there and held each other engaged in some quiet dumbass conversation that I couldn’t make out, but I’m sure it was conversation that they’ve had a 1,000 times before. “Fuck them,” I screamed to myself eye-balling the couple. “Fuck their happy little world and fuck Jessica.” I swallowed hard trying to take the bitterness out of my mouth and out of my mind but could feel the nausea getting stronger in my stomach. I walked quickly to the bathroom, locked the door and hunched over the sink running water over my face for a minute before looking up at my refection.

I blankly began to stare into the mirror with my eyes unfocused and pictured the couple looking out the window. Then, I pictured Jessica and myself and remembered how she always had to have the window seat when we flew together, and how I thought that was so adorable. My eyes focused, and I saw my image and realized that was the first time I had looked in the mirror since I left her. My eyes were already bloodshot and pink from holding back tears. I ran some more water over my face and wondered what I had done.

I left her back in Philadelphia. She’s back there probably crying her eyes out because of me—because of my refusal to cash in my dreams for a promise to her. This was my life, not ours, I thought. She wasn’t gonna contain me, I thought. I didn’t want to let my life be controlled by her and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in relationship doldrums, but at that point, I also didn’t want to look at myself anymore. I closed my eyes and felt this unbelievable guilt. The tiny solitude I had in the bathroom felt safe, and I didn’t want to leave. I said out loud to myself, “I hate you,” and repeated it several times. A part of me began to wish for the plane to crash so I wouldn’t have to open my eyes again. I couldn’t remember a time without her, and the thought of moving at 600 mph away from her didn’t seem right. Everything is with her—including my sanity—including my fucking sanity. She made me feel, and I didn’t have to pretend to be something special with her because we were something special. She knew I needed her. She knows I need her. At least, she thought I did.

I opened my eyes and made a gun with my right hand and pointed my index finger down my throat—pretending to pull the trigger. I then gave myself a tough look and thought how beautiful I am and walked out.

I went back to my seat and that’s all I remember—just sitting there and staring.

The plane ride was the worst part, but things haven’t gotten any better. It’s funny how the rain doesn’t always stop with time. I always thought or hoped there’d be a flow—after a storm comes a rainbow, but there isn’t a silver lining here—there are no white horses or funny toasts with friends here, then again—fuck her.

This is where I am. I’m in Korea and not with her. I’m here now. I’m in this bar… surrounded… surrounded by these extras, and all I could do was look down on these fucks—these soldiers and foreign investors and travelers who came a million miles to cheat on their wives. This little six-block radius seemed to attract mostly American soldiers with a few Brits and Germans and Canadians here and there.

‘Where’s daddy, Mommy?’

‘He’s fucking a prostitute in Korea, honey. Doing good things for his country.’ Fucking soldiers, one step above prisoners, but this country needs them I guess—hired thugs with stories. The people need to feel better about their rent-a-thugs, and I’m here to tell their story. They’re story—fuck their story and fuck them. Actually, it is hard to blame these guys away from their wives and girlfriends. A deployment’s kind of like jail or a deep empty pit for them I suppose. All these men stuck in one spot. God created women for a reason, and then somebody decided these men didn’t need their wives anymore. They didn’t need their lives anymore. I imagine if I were to fall in a deep hole with plenty of food and water but no movement, I would eventually lose my personality—kind of like my looks lost in a car accident. These guys fell in a hole and lost their old lives and, I suppose, some of their morals.

What makes prisoners scowls? What makes soldiers scowls? It’s kind of like a chicken and the egg type question or situation, but it’s so easy to sit in an armchair surrounded by friends and look down. That’s where I want to be.

I talked to a friend back home the other day, and he said that Jessica’s been out and about enjoying the Philadelphia nightlife. As he was telling me about her, I got so nauseous. He told me how he saw her drunk in a local hang out in Manayuk, and I couldn’t stop thinking how fucked up it was that that bitch was in a hang out where we used to go to, and she hated it when she was with me. She’d scream in a whiny voice, ‘Let’s go home. I hate it when you’re drunk with your friends.’ Each detail my friend described about what she was wearing and what she was doing made my hands start to shake. I had to hang up the phone. Them kids back home think of me as invincible—untouchable, and I was starting to cry like a bitch. I thought to myself, “She’s mine. My girl. My love. And now Jessica’s on with her life. Jessica’s on with her life.”

The nauseas that I had felt on the plane ride over… The nauseas that had stayed with me ever since—came rushing through my body 10 fold, and I found myself outside the phone booth on my hands and knees throwing up.

It’s amazing the advantage women have over men. They can go out and fuck. They can fuck and fuck and fuck and it’s encouraged until them boys get what they want—then, of course, she’s a slut, but that can’t hurt too badly. We all loved Julia Roberts in her signature role. We love our prostitutes. Hell, I bet half the American population living in Korea is in a six-block radius of me and for what—the prostitutes.

That night I got off the phone with my friend—after I pulled myself off the ground—I went back to my single-room apartment and laid awake in a trace of anxiety—just lying there watching the ceiling that turned into a porno channel staring my ex and ten other guys who I could never match up too. I hoped that that would be my lowest moment. I just assumed I’d snap out of it and things would get better. But they didn’t get better.

The next day I came to the realization that it’s just me. Fuck love. Fuck my friends. Fuck my family. I know there’s some freedom in letting everything go, but I couldn’t feel it—probably because I never really could let go. But to anyone who saw me or talked to me, I was like a plaster of a man—a copy or a mold of myself maybe. My skin even felt rubbery like touching your cheek after you’ve been awake for days. I walked around like someone had just cut out my throat and poured salt in its place—screaming in pain but with no real voice. And the days past, but the pain never really did.

And now, I’m sitting in this bar still screaming and still with no voice. I can’t write this letter. I can’t find the words. I’m a fucking journalist, and I can’t find the words or maybe I just don’t want too. She’s out. She’s on with her life. She’s on with her life after just two weeks and I’m… not. I thought I had that girl. I thought she was suppose to be mine, and now that fucking bitch has moved on after only two weeks. And I’m gonna come crawling back and tell her how miserable I am. She’ll laugh her ass off. Oh, she’ll love that—to hear how miserable I am without her. She fucking lied when she said she loved me. She’s a fucking liar. I don’t even know what the fuck I’m thinking… I can’t write her. She hasn’t tried to contact me, and I’m about too… I’m about to what… I’m not gonna give that bitch the satisfaction. She lost me.

I ordered another drink from the old Korean woman and began to write but not the letter… just ramblings as they came—”Wanna get simple—let’s get simple whore—one—a drink, a fuck—saw a man—disgusting/disgusted—50 years—he stared at himself—down over at the end of that party—screaming for more—let’s get simple—find that pace—that simple grace—disgusting/disgusted—where you at whore—where’s that whore—50-years/50-years and it’s simple—follow her to a cave—cold/dark—forget where you are and fall asleep in black cold”

I smiled at what I had written and looked up. Finally, I was able to write something, and I went back to listening to the people outside—loving and living their fake lives, their fucking simple lives. I envied them. Everyone lives to the best of their ability, I guess. I gave myself a simple simile and wondered what I was so upset about. For a second it all seemed a little ridiculous—looking into this mirror—this fucking mirror that no one is watching but me—just my eyes. I have control. I can be happy, or I can be sad. I can stop the misery.

I kind of pictured my death and what they might say at the funeral. I think at some point everybody wonders who will come, and what will be said, and what’s on the other side, or what’s next. It always used to freak me out hearing commercials on the radio about ‘planning your funeral so your loved ones won’t have too.’ If you’re fucking dead, that’s it; that’s all you get and these commercials are treating it like it’s just something that needs to be planed for—as if something’s gonna follow—like death is just another activity or investment in your life. It’s not. It’s death. Everything you’ve done is over, and you get one last plea for attention—death—it’s all that’s really left—a last plea for love. Another social gathering with you cast as the leading role, but that’s it. That’s all you get. My life and my world, a social gathering—all the love anyone could ever want, but your just lying there cold and lifeless and, there, all your sins are forgotten—Jesus and the people who loved you—they all love you again.

I stopped thought and looked hard into the mirror and gave my best Charles Manson impression. I feel like such a psycho. I feel so small and was trying to make things worse, and—at the same time—remembering how strong I was. “I was once strong,” I mumbled to no one as the old-woman bartender looked up. Now I feel like a thousand dreams falling on empty things.

And at 25, I’m here in Korea. I’ve done so much. My name’s on Stars and Stripes and that’s a real publication. I don’t know what else I’m looking for. I’ve found love, but lost that. Or maybe, it doesn’t really exist in the first place. Maybe life really is just about sex and aggression and we just get confused somewhere along the way and spend our whole lives chasing some Meg Ryan-induced desire. Fuck it—She’s gone. She’s out and looking for something else, and I don’t I want anything else. I’m out of sight and out of mind to her and everyone else who used to view me as invincible and beautiful. I’ve had no real impact. I’ve had no real identity.

I remember reading about a guy named Duell, who was the commissioner of the US patent office in the 1890s and he said, ‘Everything that can be invented had been invented.’ What a tired man. What a tired fucking man.

Although, I think he would’ve been right on if he’d said, every new phrase has already been said, every new religion has already had its steeple and every feeling has already been felt. Everything has been felt. That was it. Writing her is pointless. My little self-interview is pointless.

I looked away from the mirror and ordered another drink. For a second, I forgot I was in a bar. I felt totally isolated, and it felt good. I closed my eyes and pictured a penknife slitting my vision and tears of blood flowing. It was then, I heard someone next to me. I opened my eyes and looked to my right toward the front of the door. Sitting there was a pale man, probably from drinking, who must have just come in.

He had very few other distinguishing features, beside looking and talking like an American. He obviously wasn’t a soldier though. He dressed like a communist—very unassuming, and I had too much to drink to pay much more notice to him. I didn’t even bother to ask where he was from as he introduced himself as Equinox.

“That’s a weird fucking name,” I said laughing for punctuation. He paid little attention and ordered a round for the both of us.

“Gin and tonic,” I said speaking up.

His voice was familiar to me—perhaps like a narrator at the end of a book you’ve read a thousand times before. His manner was over-friendly, but I didn’t mind the company. We each had our drinks and talked about the weather and baseball and the time passed. I felt comfortable with him. I felt as if I was home for a second, like I was back in my armchair—surrounded again.

As time went on and as the drinks were poured the conversation got more serious as it often does with two people drinking way too much—only I seemed drunk and he really didn’t. I told him about Jessica, and he listened like he knew what I meant. I even showed him my ramblings that I scribbled down but introduced it as a poem. I expected a “you’re fucking nutty” comment, but Equinox just scribbled down a poem to rival my own.

It read, “Where will you go when you die and your identity passes you by. It lies in the masses. It passes—it passes you by. Your world—your little fucking world—stay good and be sane today—say hello—die and go”

As he finished, I spit out a sip of my gin laughing. “Fuck off, you morbid prick,” I said with a smile trying to keep the mood light. Equinox just laughed along with me and bought another round. “You are a morbid motherfucker,” I reiterated still half-laughing. I wasn’t quite sure where this man came from or why he was talking to me. He definitely seemed odd now, but I wasn’t gonna give it much thought—especially if he’s buying.

The two of us sat and drank—pulsing and humming our time together. I told him about my love and old life and he told me about his past scars. Equinox said “that if your body and mind where thrown in a pit with the masses they’d fuck or reject each other.” I wondered what he meant, more crazy shit I suppose, but fuck it. I guess this asshole was drunker and nuttier than I was and that’s when, out of nowhere, he laid a thick hemp-rope on the bar surface and lit one of the ends with a bar match.

“Where the fuck did that rope come from,” I said as the smell of burning dry rope filled the air.
Equinox didn’t answer. He just stared straight with his body ridged—like a soldier or manikin. I also wondered why the old woman behind the bar didn’t say anything to us as I looked past Equinox’s shoulder expecting to see her disapproving face but no one was there. I stood up over my barstool and noticed the young women and horny soldiers weren’t there anymore either. The place was empty. I guess maybe they all went to the back or upstairs to conduct “business.” I started to look around for a door or staircase where they exited, but my focus came back to the burning rope as I sat back down. Instead of the mirror or the outside noise, I just focused on the rope—it was so dry and lifeless.

Equinox called the burning rope the smell of death burning the dry pain. He said, “We’re all a bunch of lusty queers. The place where we exist isn’t real, and the only way to leave is death.”

I had to give him that point as I kept focus with the rope, nodding. The only real way to escape life is death.

He continued—”The time you have doesn’t mean a thing—like your impact. It’s a cycle like some sort of serial heaven.” He described a 1,000 toothpicks falling and us falling in time. It could all be explained by a universal language—he said—a predetermined mathematical solution by which our lives where governed. The toothpicks falling weren’t actually random at all. Each one—judging from the distance and air pressure and the way they were stacked—could be predicted—each individual toothpick’s destination could be predicted, and as group they all could be predicted. “Nothing is random,” he said. “It’s all been determined.”

His words seemed like a god trying to explain existence to an insect or maybe a rat. Chills ran through me, and I quickly shifted my stare to the mirror. My reflection blurred, and I panicked. I closed my eyes and inhaled the smell of the burning-dry rope, and the panic ceased. I felt the sting fill my lungs, but comfort everywhere else in my body. I could hear the echoing and howling chaos outside die down to an eerie silence—the extras all went away and just the smell took their place. With my eyes closed, I couldn’t see the mirror. I couldn’t feel the panic. All I could hear was Equinox’s voice.

“It’s good to suck on a metal phallus of a barrel—letting your tongue probe inward and not knowing what will happened next—life or death—one’s coming.”

I opened my eyes and tried to keep focus back on the mirror, but as soon as I did the panic came flooding in and keeping my eyes open felt like I was trying to swim in some kind of black heavy liquid and to see my reflection was like trying to keep my head above water. The howling returned, along with my distorted face in the mirror, and the burning smell was gone. Then, I looked around the bar, but nothing was there. The bar, the alcohol, the booths by the door now looked like the bottom of a polluted bay where the tide never washed in. The outside howling and cackling turned to chanting that flashed apparitions, imagines and uncontrollable thoughts in my mind… accusations against my morals… my mother and lover fucking… and me standing all alone… I fell down and hit a feces foundation where the bar floor had never washed in. My body now screamed in pain. It felt like every one of the pours in my skin had suddenly opened leaving my body scratched and burned. My vision turned red. I could now actually see and feel the tears of blood flowing, and I closed my eyes as hard as I could to stop the flowing and the panic ceased altogether. I could feel the bar stool under me again, and the burning smell came back along with the silence. Equinox’s voice came back as well, and I felt a beautiful chill and contentment flow through me.

“Own a flock of sheep and hope for the best – a family, lovers and friends—Judas and that whore—

Outside a gathering flock
Hot and choking
As those demons and angels join hands and dance in your absence
The flock bites leaving your body smooth and covered in pain
Scratched and burned
That ordinary flock
Judas and that whore take everything and your Jesus doesn’t show
All that’s left is your shallow-shadow memory as demons and angels join hands and dance on that burning hemp that was existence”

Author’s Note: I’m a former military journalist and that’s kind of what the character in this story is based on--although he’s a civilian. The journalist leaves the love of his life behind and moves to Seoul, Korea to write for Stars and Stripes but is quickly aware that he made a mistake. The conflict is all within him, and his pride is eventually his undoing. This kind of scenario plays out for so many soldiers--although maybe not to this extreme. I thought it needed to be written about. Enjoy

Tommy Graham
April 27, 2005