Meeting Death While Waiting to Die

Does anyone else feel like they are just waiting to die? Every day just bleeds into the next. I have nothing on the horizon. I’m really just going through the motions. I read books, watch movies, eat, and sleep; really, just waiting for something. But what, I cannot say. This is just a long ramble, the result of boredom and too much late-night thinking.

All my best years are behind me. I’m fifty, single, never been married, I have no children. I don’t even have a dog. Or a hamster. Or a plant. I live alone in a small apartment. The fact that the apartment is small isn’t so negative when you remember I’m living in Korea. Everything is small in Korea. There’s not much room for anything else. And I live in a small town in the Korean countryside. I work as a university professor, and I make around $2000 a month after taxes. My rent is around $280 a month. It’s an easy life, this expat life. And it’s nice to be out of the United States as that country is quickly sliding down hill for anyone who isn’t wealthy. I’m a teacher. Teachers aren’t wealthy.

And that’s the thing: I’m fifty, I have no life savings, I’m just living the laid-back expat life while I can, but it won’t last forever. This is a young person’s game. The sad thing is, there are more and more people my age, who have been doing it as long as I have or longer, who are still out here. You work a few months at an easy job at a university, and Korea has a better social system by far than the United States: health care, low rent, low taxes, low stress. You put in your 15-hour work week with three-day weekends from September to December, then you take your money and you travel. Then you go back and do it again from March until June. This year I traveled to New Zealand and Australia because I had never been south of the equator before. I’ve been all over the northern hemisphere. I’ve been to Europe, Nepal, all over Asia. I even lived in the Sultanate of Oman for a couple of years.

Circular Quay selfie, representing Pittsburgh. Expat teachers get around. Just noticed the weirdo looking over my left shoulder. Creepy.

I’ve had a good run, I guess. I’ve shown myself a pretty good time. I’ve had relationships, and I’ve fucked them all up. My longest one was just over two years. I regret how they ended. I always do. Mostly. And now that I’m fifty, new relationships are non-existent. I’ve been single now for 7 years. It’s hard to meet people over 40 in the expat game. So now, I just do my job, and try to enjoy my excessive amounts of free time.

Here, in May of 2020, we’ve had the added excitement of a global pandemic, which has put some severe restrictions on socializing and travel. I spend a lot of my time now working from home as we do not have traditional classes anymore. And I am thinking a lot about my life, and where it is heading. And my life is heading to the same place as everyone else’s: To the grave. The end. The inevitable conclusion.

And have I mentioned that I’m fifty? I mean, technically I’m not there yet, but time moves so quickly now. My birthday is in November. As they say, days pass slowly but months and years fly by. Then what? 51. Then 52. Then, mathematically, there’s 53. And then 60. And then 75. And then… and I am pretty sure I won’t make it to 75. 60 will be pushing it.

I find myself thinking about death a lot these days. And not in a terribly sad way, just in a bitter-sweet, Those Were the Days, We’ve Had Some Good Times kind of way. And I can reflect on so many points in my life and think about the girls I was dating or living with at those various times, and the friends we had. And I can always say the same things: “Good times. What happened?” Usually, it was me. 98% of the time, it was me.

I’m not getting any younger, none of us are unless you have that weird Benjamin Button disease, which I don’t think is really a thing. My body is aging, as they do. I have a heart thing. I think. The doctors say I might, I don’t know. I have hypertension and I take medication for it. My father died of his third heart attack, and he was 46 when he died. I was eleven. I’ve already outlived my father. My mother has passed on, too. Parkinson’s took her eight years ago. God, has it been that long? My sister still lives, but she’s married and has a family of her own now. She took the traditional route through life.

I ended up in the hospital here in Korea two years ago. It was over Halloween weekend. I was in Seoul, planning to hit up the parties with my friends, and yes, we still do that, we old expats. That’s what we do. Anyway, I had a nagging pain in my sternum, so I went back to my hotel and slept. I woke up the next day feeling fine, but figured as long as I was in Seoul, I may as well pop in and see my doctor at Severance Hospital. Yonsei University Severance Hospital is one of the leading hospitals in the world. I told my doctor about the pain I’d had the night before, she ran an EKG and did some blood work, and the next thing I know, I’m being rushed into the cardio ICU for a few days where they stuck a fiberoptic camera into my heart. It turned out I was fine, but while I was in there, I saw a Korean guy get rushed onto the floor in cardiac arrest. He didn’t make it. I can’t imagine a worse place to die than a hospital. Well, really, I can imagine worse places, but to me a hospital does seem like a bad place to die. Those places feel like vortices where souls get lost on their way into the Light.

When I was in high school and I refused to go to school, my mother would tell me that I had Peter Pan syndrome, that I didn’t want to grow up. Boy, was she right. I was never ready to grow up. That’s why I never settled down. First off, I never had the courage or self-esteem to go after the girl I really wanted to be with. I went bald at the ripe old age of 20. How cruel is that? Right at the age when we can almost drink legally in bars, when young men and women are starting to come into their own, I was afflicted with a genetic disorder that killed any semblance of body image and self-confidence I may have possessed, and I never possessed much in the first place. I always ended up with the girl that had the same issues I did. The safe bet. And I never had enough financial security to think of marriage as a realistic option. In and out of relationships, in and out of university, managed to get a Master’s in the worst major possible. Anything in the humanities is a waste career-wise. When you take out a student loan, they should ask you what course of study you are taking, and if you write in “English Literary Theory and Criticism,” they should stamp DENIED across your application in big, bold, blood-red lettering. They should also take your driver’s license away if you have one. After completing my master’s, I completed all the coursework for my Ph.D. but never completed my dissertation. I decided to work for a few years and take a break from paper-writing while I fleshed out the idea I had for a dissertation, which was basically just to expand on my very successful master’s thesis, Conspiracy Theory as Literary Theory. Since the recession was just getting started and there were no jobs in the USA, I took a job as a teacher in Korea. I dated a bit while traveling and living overseas. My longest relationship here was with a nice Korean girl, but the cultural differences proved insurmountable. I need humor in a relationship. My sense of humor is the only thing I really like about myself. And I have always said the two main qualities I look for in a partner are a sense of humor and the intelligence to back it up. Someone I could really laugh with. And she was very smart, but there’s a saying in the ESL game: Humor doesn’t translate.

And so here I sit, alone in the midst of a global pandemic the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since maybe 1918. We still don’t know the extent of the disease, or even how serious it really is because in the age of information, no one can get their stories straight. I’m fifty with no prospects, no savings, and no plans beyond tomorrow. I’m not afraid of the virus. I don’t think it’s very dangerous to someone like me. Aside from my heart thingy (if it is indeed a thingy), I’m in good health, and as far as I know, I’ve already had the virus. I did come down with some mild flu-like symptoms for a few days back when this outbreak first hit (and it hit close to where I am in Korea, at that wackadoo church cult in Daegu where the first major outbreak occurred here), but I feel fine now. Still, it is said to be very dangerous for people with other pre-existing conditions, or just old people in general, so we self-quarantine to try to prevent the spread because WE CARE ABOUT OTHERS. Like Jesus told us to do.

This isn’t about the pandemic. It sort of is, because now that I am spending all my time at home, I have more time to think and to write gibberish like this. And it’s the thinking that gets you. I never thought about life beyond a certain age. And I’m not prepared for it. I can keep doing this teaching gig for as long as it lasts, but it won’t last forever. I can’t see myself doing it for more than two more years, maybe. And then what? Back to the Persian Gulf to teach in that heat? Or go home? Go home, see friends and family, reminisce about the good old, good old days, buy a pistol, find my way out into the desert or up into some mountains and take a lead pill to the heart? I would shoot myself in the heart in case the consciousness needs time to leave the brain undamaged. I’ve thought about this. And besides, that way I kill the heart before it can attack and kill me, to steal an idea from Norm MacDonald.

Loves me some Norm.

And I would do it someplace where my body would likely be torn apart and devoured by scavengers and decomposition before anyone found it. That’s the way the old Buddhist Monks used to do it. When a master died, they’d leave the body in the wilderness for nature’s clean-up crew. I do not like the idea of being autopsied, pumped full of chemicals, and sealed up in an aluminum box. I mean, a corpse is a corpse (of course, of course), and it is not me. But I still have a strange affinity for my meat-shell. I’ve had some good times in this thing.

I’m hoping I will just fade away, and people will remark as a passing thought, “Say, I wonder whatever happened to that guy? I haven’t heard from him in a while. He was nice.” I don’t know what happens when we die. I have my theories, of course. I like to believe in reincarnation, for instance. Truth be told, though, the thought of actually dying scares the hell out of me. I think it is important to be in a good mood, even happy, when we die. If this is the path out that I take – and it looks more and more with each passing day that it will be – then it won’t be a sad occasion. I want to go into it with the same laughing, excited attitude I had when I first tried LSD or mushrooms. It would be nice to try ayahuasca before I go. I’ve heard incredible things. My heart probably couldn’t take it, though. Even if it could, after that Halloween thing, I’d probably spend the entire trip in near panic, thinking, “Am I having a heart attack? Is this it?! Is this how I go out — sitting in a Peruvian jungle, tripping my balls off and laughing like a maniac?” Honestly, there are far, far worse ways to go.

Still, I will try to see death as just moving on to the next thing. Hopefully, however I go, it will be fun.

I let this writing exercise get morbid, didn’t I? Well here’s a morbid tale for you. I’ve been watching those glitch-in-the-matrix videos on YouTube, you know the ones? The videos about weird, strange, and creepy things people have experienced? Doppelgangers and time-skips and the like? They got me thinking about my own strange tales. I’ve got a few. I’ve lived a life and seen some things, and ever since my youngest days, I have been aware of something else, all around us, that people don’t talk about in school. Here’s a creepy story for you:

This was fairly recently. Last summer, in fact. I was visiting Seoul, and was hanging out in Haebangcheon, an expat community near the touristy nightclub district of Itaewon. All of the expats know Haebangcehon simply as ‘HBC.’ It’s a thriving expat community, and if you’ve frequented it, you know a lot of the same people. We all go to the same pubs there that are owned by other expats who decided to open a pub, and there are some excellent restaurants where you can get really good western-style food. HBC has a main road that winds up the hill towards Namsan Tower, and if you go up and over that hill, you end up in Jonggak and Gwangwhamun, the state capitol where the President of South Korea lives in their Blue House.

Namsan Tower in the distance. Down that road and off to the left is the little road that runs up into HBC (photo by Ape)

Seoul is a huge city. Anyway, I was in HBC seeing friends, and there’s this one guy I always used to see. I used to always run into him while we were all out drinking on the weekends, and I am terrible with names, so I just think of him as Snappy, because every time he would see me (or anyone else he knew), he would shake hands in that raised-hand, lock-fist handshake that “bros” do, and somehow he could snap his fingers around your hand. Like, literally snap his fingers. I would try to snap my fingers in the handshake, but I could never get it to work. I could make them touch, but I couldn’t get them to snap.

Anyway, it was after midnight, and I was walking up the winding street toward one of my favorite pubs, and I see this guy lumbering down the street towards me. I recognized him immediately as Snappy, and was mentally preparing myself for the inevitable handshake, to try to remember to get the snap right this time. As he drew closer, I could see he wasn’t walking quite right. He seemed shaky, off-balance. When we were close enough to talk face-to-face, I asked him if he was drunk. He said, “No, I’m just, I think I fucked my back up.” I looked at him. He looked janky, twisted. He didn’t look right. I figured maybe he just needed a little realignment. And I am by no means a doctor, nor a chiropractor, but I figured, hey, let’s switch places so I’m slightly farther up the hill from you, and I can try to crack your back. I explained my plan to get him to stand in front of me, his back to me, cross his arms over his chest, and I would grab him under his elbows, and lean back, and being at the higher point on the hill, I wouldn’t topple over with him on top of me, fucking up both of our backs in the process. He said, “Alright, thanks. That might help.” And so we got into our respective positions.

And I lifted him a few inches off the ground, his back arched against my torso, and I could feel things inside him cracking and popping. I could feel his spine crackle, and I thought, maybe some ribs? His head rolled as I lifted him. He let out a pained “Agghhh!” so I set him down again. He rolled his head back into position and turned to me, rubbing his shoulder.

“Thanks, man. I don’t know if that helped, but it’s appreciated.”

I looked at him, a bit more worried now. He really didn’t feel right. I mean, he had mass, I could feel his full weight. I could barely lift him. I was worried about his back. He didn’t look straightened at all. But he just said, “I think I just need to go.” And with that, he turned and continued walking down the hill. I stared after him, thinking he kind of looked like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. I hoped he would be OK, but I had people to see.

I saw him again, not thirty yards up the road, at a three-way intersection just before the main road continues up over the hill and into Seoul Station and Jonggak. He was lying by the side of the road, and there were people gathered around him. Two people were kneeling down beside him. More were running down the hill. There was a cab pulled over and the driver was standing beside his car talking on his phone in a rapid, gesticulating way. An ambulance made its way down the hill through the traffic blocked by the scene (the road through HBC is a busy one). I just stood there, and I can’t describe what I was feeling. I was just in shock, maybe. My whole body was tingling with goosebumps. I tried to think… who did I just see? Who’s back had I tried to crack? It was definitely him. That same guy, same face, same clothes, lying right there on the side of the road. I watched as the paramedics went to work. One opened his eye and shone a little pen light into it. The other pulled out a collapsed stretcher and set it on the ground next to him. Everyone watched as they placed him gingerly on the stretcher and loaded him into the ambulance, one of the other expats got in the back with him, and off they went, siren blaring.

I continued into the pub, sat at the little bar in there, and just said, “Vodka, please.” And they know me there, so I soon had a nice big double-vodka-tonic in my hand, and I sat there as the world moved around me, just staring at the bar and the gigantic poster of Bob Dylan on the wall. I had Dylan running on a loop in my mind: When you’re standing on the crossroads that you cannot comprehend, Just remember that death is not the end.

I didn’t talk to anyone. If people said hello, I didn’t respond. I didn’t hear them. We were all in shock as the news spread. We heard later that Snappy had died. The cab driver had been taken in by the police. He had been driving like a maniac coming down the hill, people said, but we also wondered if he would face any charges or what would happen. We were all very upset about our friend. I didn’t tell anyone about the back-cracking incident. I could barely talk to anyone all night. The next day, as I rode back to my small Korean town on the train, I couldn’t get the image of him, shuffling off down the hill, off to whatever awaited him, out of my mind.

It had to have been someone else that I had met, that I had lifted off his feet, felt his weight, felt his body against mine as I struggled to lift him a few meager inches off the ground, right? It had to be. And yet I know, in some weird way I can’t really identify, I know that was him. That was Snappy, after Snappy had been struck and killed by a taxi in Haebangcheon.

I’m going to go to bed now. Tomorrow’s another day. And, as The Pogues sang, “Tomorrow will be just like the day after.” And after that, it may be my time to follow poor Snappy down that long road to whatever lies ahead.

The Pogues – “The Sun and The Moon.” Check it out on YouTube, along with a lot of weird videos about glitches in the matrix.


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