I dress, throw my towels in the basket by the exit, walk slowly down the stairs. In a flash of sunlight, I am outside. It’s early afternoon. The sun is high and persistent. It’s a heavy, damp heat no different than the saunas I left behind. How did I get here? Normally at this time of day I am in an air-conditioned classroom, teaching children to say “My favourite food is kimchi!” and “I am from Pusan!”
I push on, reminding myself that I spent many of those days wishing I was out here, on the street, experiencing the city around me. I walk past the electronics shops, the Dunkin’ Donuts and the karaoke bar. Even in the daytime, neon signs flash. Familiar symbols are pasted all over the windows; a year in this country, and my eyes still gloss over the Korean alphabet. A child bumps my leg. His eyes shoot towards mine, paralyzed, mouth agape. Foreigner. But he is fearless. “Hello!” he screams in English. “What Your Name!” And without waiting for an answer the bolts to re-join his brethren. They run into the yellow haze, free from the eyes of adults. I follow at a slower pace, unable to push through the heat as easily as they. It clings to my wet hair, presses me backwards. It coats my lungs and stifles my breath. I manage a few more paces, then turn into the nearest corner store.
There is just enough room for me to squeeze between the aisles to the cooler at the back. Cases of instant ramen and shrimp-flavoured chips threaten to teeter from the shelves and bury me alive. I ease my way through, find a bottle of Pocari Sweat, and take a long, steady gulp. The old woman at the front knows me. My apartment is not far; I come here often for midnight runs of water, beer, and the occasional dried squid snack. I pay her with a 1000₩. I should save one of these bills, I think, for a scrapbook. The woman pushes my money into an ancient cash register. Her face is deeply wrinkled, her eyes shiny and small. Her features ease into a smile but she knows better than to talk to me: I am the mute foreigner. I like her, I realize. I will miss her. As I leave she disappears into a side-room, no bigger than a closet, where I know she keeps a mattress, a television set, and her little pet dog.
Back outside, I clutch my soda. I allow my gaze to swing through the neighbourhood. My apartment is on the left, a brand-new three storey building where the construction dust has barely settled. The patch of land beside it was a vegetable garden when I moved in, tended by a man with tall rubber boots that reached beyond his knees. Since my arrival the vegetables have been removed, the garden dug up, and a concrete skeleton erected for an apartment building identical to my own.
I walk slothfully forward, sweat building on my palm beneath the soda bottle. I linger on my doorstep. My suitcase is upstairs, packed. My apartment is clean and ready for my replacement. She is a literature major from the Pennsylvania; I helped hire her. I have a flight to catch forty minutes past midnight. I sit on the front steps and spend a moment staring at the playground across the alleyway, listening to the rush of hot wind through the trees. A scooter roars past me, kicking up dust. Two boys are playing badminton, using the swing set as a net between them. One of them is still wearing the pleated, navy shorts of his school uniform. The trees surrounding the little park are short and leafy, their springtime blossoms trampled into the summer dust.
I should go upstairs, turn on the air conditioner, gather the last of my things. I can’t fight this heat. It presses me from all sides, like a heavy coat impossible to throw off. I stand up, but my feet propel me in the wrong direction, off the stoop, across the alleyway and past the badminton players. It’s a little cooler in the shade of the trees, their trunks making netted shadows on the concrete path. I walk through the playground in a manner of seconds, the beat of my footsteps increasing, my heart jittery in my ears.
Back in the sun, my T-shirt clings to my back. I cross the road and I’m in the midst of the street market. There are plastic tubs on the sidewalk full of water and squirming octopi. Old people squat beside baskets of spiky cucumbers, cherries, mandarin oranges. I smell deep-fried dough. The crowd jostles me on either side, a warm, pulsing thing. Cheap clothes hang on metal hooks; shoes spill out of a large container. A woman touches my shoulder, asks me English whether I am a Christian. “Do you find Jesus?” she wants to know, a leaflet in her hand, but I can’t stop to speak with her. The din rises as I reach the centre of the market, walking faster and faster until there is no space left to go. The heat blooms between the close-knit bodies, enveloping me until I finally stumble to a stop. I rock in the cradle of the crowd, in the heat and the noise, absorbing it all into the pores of my memory.
Dina Lyuber is a writer and ESL teacher living in Canada. Her work has appeared most recently in subTerrain, and is forthcoming in YourLifeisaTrip.com.