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Postcard From The Edge


SEOUL, Korea: He was a large man, taller than my six feet. He wore blue jeans and a yellow muscle shirt. And well he should, for he had muscles: his physique was defined and rippling; not that of a bodybuilder, but that of a fighter, a tough man, a man weathered and made lean by years of strenuous exertion. His face betrayed his handsome form. His eyes were too far apart, and they bulged out of their sockets, seemingly held in by the unnaturally large eyelids that yawned forth from the sockets to grip the bloodshot spheres in place. His mouth was too small and too low. His forehead was too high. His hair was black, high, and tight. He was ugly as only the physically powerful are ugly.
She was a small woman, shorter than me by at least a head, and waifish thin. She looked about a foot across at her shoulders, and maybe six inches deep. She had the figure of a rail, topped by huge eyes surrounded by disheveled dark hair that came down just past her chin. Her mouth was thin, and wide, and her wrists were like twigs. She was beautiful as a prey animal is beautiful.
He had her in a headlock, was twisting her arm, and she was shrieking in pain.

We watched from across the four-lane street, Julia and I. She was my local point of contact in Seoul, and we had been to a Doosan Bears baseball game, Dongdaemun market, and Namsan Tower. Now we were at a taxi stop, it was late, and dark, and chilly, and remote, and directly across the street from us at the deserted gas station, an appalling scene emerged. We paid no attention when they drove up and parked. We paid no attention when they got out of their car. We paid no attention when they raised their voices. We paid no attention at the first shriek, nor the second, nor the third, until Julia said, “My God,” and I finally focused upon what was happening fifty feet away.
He had her backed against a retaining wall, and was shouting at her in Korean. She kept trying to flee, dodging left, dodging right, only to meet his powerful arms knocking her back, pinning her tight, and now squeezing her painfully. Her cries carried through the chill night, and even from the distance, I could see her face, sodden with tears, contorted with hurt and fear.
I had been playing with Julia’s cell phone, a pink brushed-metal delight of Korean technophilia. I handed it back to her. “Call the police,” I said, and she did, engaging in an animated conversation in Korean with the dispatcher on the line. I stood and watched and wondered what to do. Passers-by came in a trickle: none deigned to notice, even as the woman cried out. I wondered: crying out for what? For help? Insults? The presence of fellow citizens obviously did not deter the man. The cruel game of cat and mouse continued: she twisted, pulled, and darted about; he batted her back, kept her in place, and laid upon her his crushing grip. “If he starts to hit her, I’ll go over there,” I announced to no one. It was dishonest: what qualitative difference was there between a blow in anger and physical entrapment; between a slap and a painful pinning? I was reluctant to take the strong man on, and at that moment, my sense of self-preservation soundly defeated my sense of honor and its attendant duty. And then he hit her.
It was hardly the blow he was capable of: a mild slap to the side of her head, more a gesture of annoyance than an effort to harm. She moaned, not in pain, but in despair. I looked at Julia: she was rapt upon the scene. I walked across the street and up to the unhappy couple. I crossed my arms and stood there, mere feet away, turned mostly toward the street. The man looked me over, and I kept watch through peripheral vision: I had no chance against him, and I was fully prepared to run, or if flight failed, to fight dirty as soon as it came to blows. Eyes and groin and throat. I was not going to win, but he should, at the least, know that he had been in a fight.
I looked across the street at Julia, who seemed alarmed at this turn of events. She was on her cellphone again, urging the police onward. The ugly man stopped eyeing me and refocused upon his whimpering prey. He lowered his voice and began lecturing her as she wept and moaned. This would do, I thought: he is unsure of me, and that is enough to keep things at a tolerable level until the police arrive.
The ugly man did not wish to wait for the police to arrive. I saw movement from the corner of my eye, and I turned to see him dragging the girl toward the open door of the car in which they arrived. Her cries abruptly increased, and she set her hands against the doorframe. He grabbed the back of her head and forced her skull downward, contorting her neck in an appalling fashion; his other hand was between her shoulder blades, shoving her into the automobile. He was going to escape and finish the job elsewhere. I rushed forward to interpose myself, thought better of it, and began banging on the car. “Hey! Hey! You can’t do that!”
The ugly man turned. I stood up straight. “Everything is okay,” I said, “Ahnyoasayo. Everything is okay.” Nonsense phrases to calm the beast. But the beast was not as he appeared. His fierce visage relaxed, and his bulging eyes widened. “No,” he said, “No. Okay. No problem.” He gestured toward the girl, still braced against the car. “She is mine. No problem. She is mine.” Pidgin English versus pidgin Korean. “Kamsamnida,” I replied. Thank you. Having thus exhausted my entire Korean vocabulary, I searched for more conciliatory gestures. “Okay,” I said, “okay.” “Okay,” he repeated, “she is mine.” He gave a half-smile and held up his hands. She looked at me with the eyes of a doomed doe. I stepped back and crossed my arms. The ugly man turned and began lecturing the girl again, but he did not resume the attempt to force her into the car. A wave of relief washed over me. The ugly man’s stomach for violence only encompassed — for now — those upon whom he could visit it with impunity.
Within a minute, a police car arrived. Instead of coming directly to us, it drove about aimlessly in the parking lot, wandering as if uncomprehending: where was the scene of violence that was reported? I yelled at Julia to cross the four lanes to help me coax the squad car over. She hurried across, and shortly the car pulled up alongside me and the now stone-still couple. Inside was an old cop and a young cop, both in smart black pants, crisp blue shirts, silver reflector harnesses, and bareheaded. The former was short and balding and had the comical aspect of an east Asian comedic straight man; the latter was tall and vigorous and looked every inch a clean shaven keeper of the peace. It was the latter who leaned out the window and asked what the problem was. Julia responded in rapid-fire Korean, gesturing toward the couple ten feet away, both of whom were staring at us and listening intently. The young cop grunted, and the old cop said something to him.
The ugly man abruptly released his prey, dashed to the driver’s side of his vehicle and hopped in. He shut the door. The woman took a few aimless steps away from the door she had recently been forced into, looking about in an apparent daze. Both cops emerged from the squad car and strode to the rolled-down window in which the ugly man’s face was visible. Julia and I stood silently as the cops engaged in a brief conversation with the ugly man; and we watched as they, without moving from that man’s side, shone their flashlights on the wide-eyed woman and asked her some questions. The young cop came over to us and said something to Julia. “He says she says she wasn’t being hurt,” said Julia. The old cop yelled a question in our direction. “He wants to know if we saw her being hit,” she said. “Tell him yes,” I said. “Neh,” replied Julia. Yes. The ugly man yelled a single word out his car window. “Bullshit, he says,” said Julia.
The young cop asked Julia a question. “What kind of hitting was it?” she translated. I mimicked the man’s actions on Julia as best I could: “He had her pinned like this — and hit her like this.” The young cop snorted, and his meaning was clear enough: that’s not beating your woman. “Tell him she was screaming in pain,” I urged Julia. She and the young cop went back and forth for a moment. She turned to me: “He keeps saying she says she’s fine, and there’s nothing they can do.” Out of ideas, I spoke directly to the young cop: “You can’t question her in earshot of the guy. You need to get her away from him.” He looked at me in incomprehension and shrugged. I looked over at the couple’s car. The ugly man was staring directly at me, his bulging eyes flaming with hatred. The woman, clearly not fine in the slightest, contrary to the cop’s protestations — and her own — had wandered in front of the vehicle, her slender silhouette illuminated by the headlights.
The old cop walked over, his face a cartoonish mask of annoyance. He ignored me, jabbing a stubby finger at Julia and lecturing her. She protested to him, and they went back and forth in rising tones. “What’s going on?” I asked. Julia continued to stare at the old cop, who continued to speak, and answered: “He wants to know why we’re wasting his time. He says they can’t do anything, and we should mind our own business. We’re the ones with the problem. The girl says she’s fine.” The old cop looked at me, spoke, and vigorously slapped his chest. “He asks what you want him to do,” said Julia.
“Julia,” I said slowly, “Ask the girl directly if she wants a cab. We’ll pay for her to go anywhere in Seoul. Ask her.” Julia looked past the cop and shouted toward the girl, who looked surprised and embarrassed to be addressed. I glanced toward the ugly man, still ensconced in his car, still glaring at me. The girl walked toward us with a trembling smile on her tear-stained face. She bowed slightly and replied in a tiny, tremulous voice. “She doesn’t need a cab,” said Julia, “She says she’s fine. They were just having an argument.” The old cop gestured toward the girl, looked at me, and said something in Korean that needed no translation: See, this is not our problem. “That’s pretty goddamned pathetic,” I said to the old cop. I urged Julia to emphasize to the girl that we would give her money. “She does not want a cab, Josh,” she replied, and I knew we were done.
The old cop said something, and Julia translated, “He wants us to move along.” I walked past the cop, to the girl, and held out my hand. She took it, and I pressed her tiny hand in mine. She looked at me, then at the ground, and her lower lip began to tremble. I let go and turned around to walk away. Julia walked to the taxi stand. The cops walked to their car. The girl walked toward the ugly man who sat silent with a beckoning glower, and toward an evening the horrors of which we had witnessed were now, thanks to our intervention, mere prelude.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 11:30 PM | Permalink

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