My own little slice of hell.
It’s the morning business rush; the 9am-ers position themselves along the platform, discreetly eyeing the competition.
The train wheezes into the station, and all order is lost. Herding themselves in front of the door, they commit the cardinal sin of train travel: Never impede passengers trying to exit. Those poor saps barely escape before the herd lumbers on, in search of fulfilling their primal need to sit down. The tense scuffling of feet, exasperated sighs, desperately roving eyes and sudden acrobatic manoeuvres at the sight of an empty seat… I have to admire the organized chaos.
In summertime, add in oafish commoners with ill-fitting cheap sunglasses who lug too much baggage onboard, along with their cross-eyed hyperactive children. Solo travellers scurry on to find an empty pair of seats, plop down, then protectively seat their hardside luggage next to them. I walk by, and they avoid eye contact.
It’s a 15-minute ride. I think I’ll survive if I stand.
I try to read, but I’m distracted by the flutter of conversation around me. Banal conversation, rehashed. Kids, weather, job. I burrow deeper into my book.
Suddenly I catch a whiff that offends my senses, emanating from the miserable latrine. My nostrils are burning. Good God, have these people no shame? Passive-aggressive territoriality at its lowest. How dare they subject the rest of us to the injustice of smelling their beastly morning constitution? Is this what freedom looks like? Forcing others to suffer the indignity of inhaling their ungodly coffee-fueled evacuation…
We approach our destination, and these bovines elbow discreetly toward the door. Self-important squares need to be the first off the train. Underlying message: “I’m more important than everyone else here.”
Indeed, we are at the center of our respective universes. Every morning at 8:24am, there are a hundred supremely-important universes fighting an imaginary battle for a prime position on the livestock transport line.
The herd shuffles forward, hooves clacking in the urgent rush. A self-herding mass, headed straight for the abattoir.
My heart bays: I don’t belong here.
April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
Memories, circa 1995.
I had an “overactive imagination” that fed ravenously on anything mysterious or taboo.
I was morbidly fascinated by the true-crime and conspiracy programs my dad would watch late at night. I’d sneak out of bed and get a peek of the television; wide-eyed, I’d take mental notes about potential warning signs: creepy white guys and alien tracks were at the top of my list. Did you know that a distinctive stone is produced in the spot where an alien falls to the ground?
(I just tried Googling “alien leaves stone on ground where it falls on its butt” to find the original clip on Youtube. No luck.)
I would get a cold thrill when I heard the dramatic music of America’s Most Wanted. John Walsh’s composed newscaster-like persona told sinister murder stories with a detached, factual demeanor that totally creeped me out. I was haunted by the composite sketches and mugshots they’d display at the end of every dramatized murder re-enactment.
Immediately thereafter, I’d run to the bay window overlooking our front yard and rip open the heavy curtains to look outside. All I would see was the same orange streetlight glow reflecting off car windshields. Quiet suburbia. A little too quiet, if you asked me.
Thus was born the conspiracy-driven investigative fixation of my childhood.
I was ever-vigilant, on the lookout for crazed murderers in our suburban cul-de-sac. I also set intricate traps in my bedroom to thwart potential extra-terrestrial room invaders. Webs of yarn strung like a spiderweb, marbles on the carpet to make an intruder slip and fall, my toys placed with painstaking precision so I’d spot any slight disturbance or irregularity in their arrangement. The only intruders I ever caught were my poor parents trying to tuck me in.
Fast-forward to adulthood.
I’m a notorious fraidy cat. I don’t enjoy watching horror films, or any media with extreme, graphic violence. However, I’m still fascinated by grisly stories, true-crime cases, and creepy unsolved mysteries.
Hearing a true scary story around a campfire is way creepier than watching fictional dramatized storytelling on a big screen. A mental image is vibrant enough, and even more terrifying than someone’s attempt to visualize a “scary” image. Our imagination fills in the dark cracks with those terribly personal innermost fears, those secret things that take hold of us in our nightmares. Our own intimate fear triggers that make our pulse quicken and give us chills when we’re alone in the dark of night.
As for me, I don’t set alien traps or supervise neighborhood surveillance anymore. But I always lock my doors, keep my eyes open, and take an extra cautionary peek over my shoulder. Just in case.