Pyongyang Night, Pt. 6

When Lou awoke, it took him a moment to notice that Matt wasn’t there, a few seconds more to conclude that he had most likely snuck off to meet some guy, and a few seconds further to realize that although this hurt him, he was by no means surprised. He got out of bed and walked to the bathroom, where he turned on the light and stared intently at his reflection in the mirror above the sink.

“Nobody has the right to make me feel this way, “ he said aloud. Through the very act of voicing these words, he felt resolve like a fire blanket – delicate yet strong – envelop his whole being, and stifle the flames that raged angrily within.

*

As Matt walked back down the street, sounds echoed all around of drunken southern Koreans, singing along atonally with the women performing regime songs in the show-pubs.

He walked until he reached the other end of the Drive, where on the opposite side of the junction there was a small park consisting of a fountain and a few benches. He collapsed upon one of the latter, and stared up at the stars scattered across the navy blue. He didn’t know what was going to happen in the future, but in that moment at least he could sit on a park bench in Pyongyang, and appreciate the night sky.

Pyongyang Night, Pt 5

Secured in the darkness of the room, unclothed under covers, Lou sidled closer to Matt. Yet no matter how he tried to negotiate his body against his, he received no response. Eventually, with a deep breath he rolled over, swinging his feet to the ground with a thud.

“What is going on?” he said, angry and confused, as he stalked off to the bathroom.

“Lou -” said Matt, to the slam of the bathroom door. Lying there, he didn’t know what to do, but he felt a strong impulse to commit himself to some course of action. A single word raced across his mind in yellow neon.

He reached out to the bedside cabinet and grabbed his phone.

“You know Comrades?” he typed out, to his most recently made acquaintance.

*

Alone in the bathroom, Lou sank down against the wall to the cold tile floor. He sat staring at the Korean text on the wastepaper bin label, his eyes following the angular lines and squiggles. He felt the scattered jigsaw pieces of his new reality come together in his head: the three years him and Matt had shared together were coming to an end.

After a long five minutes, he returned to the room and got into his side of the bed.

“Lou,” started Matt. “I’m sorry.”

Lou paused, before uttering calmly,

“Do you want to end it?”

“Lou, I just feel so confused at the moment with my job, and with me living down in London -”

Matt let the sentence hang there, the words suspended in the darkness. Lou sensed for the first time that Matt didn’t know himself what he wanted to do. But he couldn’t deal with any of this now: he felt exhausted, and found sleep to be gently pressing his eyelids shut.

“Let’s talk about this tomorrow,” he said, turning his body to face the wall, where the amber of an outside streetlight reflected dimly.

*

When Matt was sure that Lou was no longer awake, he got out of bed, put his clothes back on and left the room, completing all these actions as if he was on autopilot.

He felt a surge of excitement as he exited the lobby and headed out into the night. Soon, the brightly lit shop fronts of America Drive were flooding his senses. As he reached the seedy end of the Drive, a girl tumbled out of a doorway.

“Hey, you want massage?” She screeched, giggling.

Matt didn’t turn to look at her. Walking with purpose, he reached the alleyway and saw there a lone silhouette, exhaling cigarette smoke that rose slowly up past yellow neon.

“Hi,” said SyunJoo, in a voice loud and confident.

“Hi,” replied Matt. He noticed that SyunJoo wasn’t as tall as he had expected.

“He your boyfriend, in Soho bar?” asked SyunJoo, chucking his cigarette to the ground where it smoldered.

“Yeah, yeah he is,” replied Matt.

“Really?” replied SyunJoo, laughing.

The laughter made Matt feel uneasy. But the mention of Lou reminded him of why he had come here. He took a step closer to SyunJoo, so there was barely any space between them. He smelt the tobacco on his breath; he looked into the eyes that stared curiously back behind glasses, then down at the lips, slightly cracked, and began to move his own mouth forward to meet them.

But as if a force outside his control was pulling him back, he suddenly took a step away from him. When he looked in those eyes again, SyunJoo was startled to see how fearful he looked.

“You okay?” asked SyunJoo.

“I’m fine, I just – I can’t do this.”

Almost tripping over, Matt stumbled back down the alley and out into America Drive.

Pyongyang Night, Pt 4

Matt had been shocked to receive a photo of SyunJoo’s erection. Firstly, because he hadn’t asked for it: he had always felt that the penis lost all erotic appeal when shot in isolation. But more crucially, because Lou had seen him using Grindr again, which could only further increase the tension between them.

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, the food arrived. The two of them made attempts at conversation on various safe, abstract topics: the lag in development between Korea’s south and north, Hillary’s chances of getting a second term in the upcoming US elections. Lou also showed Matt the demilitarized zone leaflet, and they decided that they would make a trip there the next day if they got up early enough.

When they left Kim’s Matt felt that the ambience between them had recovered sufficiently, so to keep things going well he suggested that they go to Bar Soho for a second time. The bar was located in the less reputable end of America Drive, surrounded by pay-by-the-hour hotels, and shop fronts with frosted windows, with words like ‘Thai massage’ and ‘relax salon’ legible on A4 printouts stuck to the inside of the glass.

When they entered the door with the little rectangular rainbow flag sticker discreetly stuck in the small peep window, the bar owner Oscar looked genuinely pleased to see them.

“Oh, handsome British boys have come back,” he said to the two patrons already there, in his near perfect American English accent.

The warmth of Oscar’s greeting matched the bar’s cosy interior. Covering the walls were posters of Broadway shows and photos of Oscar taken two decades previously during his years spent studying in New York, which he had told Matt and Lou all about on their first visit to the bar. Matt looked at these now as Lou chatted with Oscar. Some were taken in daylight, of a younger Oscar in a bomber jacket, smiling in front of various American tourist attractions: the Statue of Liberty, the White House, Times Square. Others were taken at night, in clubs, of Oscar either topless or in a vest, surrounded by other muscular Asian guys, posing moodily for the camera whilst tensing every muscle.

“What would you like to drink?” Lou asked. As Matt turned around to answer him, he caught sight of one of the other customers.

It was SyunJoo. He was looking straight at Matt.

Trying to hide his surprise, Matt hurriedly sat down on a barstool on the other side of Lou.

“Are you okay?” asked Lou.

“Yeah I’m fine,” replied Matt, unconvincingly.

“So what will it be, guys?” asked Oscar.

“Oh one of your Long Island Ice Teas, of course,” said Lou.

“Yeah, same for me,” said Matt. SyunJoo had meanwhile resumed conversation with his friend.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” whispered Lou. “You seem kind of on edge.”

“So you never told us,” asked Matt, looking at Oscar, trying desperately not to look in Lou’s eyes or at the other end of the bar. “How did you get to study in New York in the first place, wasn’t North Korea really strict about letting people out?”

“Yes, but I am not from North Korea, you know, I am originally from Seoul,” he said. “Quite a lot of gays came to the North, because the South, so much homophobia there. Here, nobody knows, about gay or lesbian things, so there is no homophobia, and we can do what we want!”

He let out a boisterous laugh, before adding,

“There are a few gay bars in Pyongyang, you know, not just this place. There is even a gay sauna just off America Drive.”

“Really?” asked Matt.

“Yeah it’s called Comrades, it’s down an alleyway on the left side from here.”

“So, is it like a brothel?” asked Lou. “Where guys pay other guys for sex?”

“No, no.” said Oscar. “Not like that. Guys don’t pay each other, they pay to enter, then they do it with other guys there. It is mainly US army guys who go there, but tourists and some locals go as well.”

Neither Matt nor Lou said anything.

“But you don’t need to know, right?” Oscar added hastily, laughing. “You two are good boyfriends together, right?”

Matt felt SyunJoo’s eyes on him again, as if he had sensed the awkward turn their conversation had taken, so he stared resolutely down at the varnished wooden bar top.

Conversation then meandered from one topic to another, largely lead by Oscar and Lou. Matt chimed in intermittently, but remained nervous throughout as to where the slightest glance to the right may lead him. However, as they were leaving and saying their goodbyes to Oscar, he gave in and looked at SyunJoo. Their eyes met, and they exchanged a glance that seemed to Matt to be full of possibility. But before he could give it any thought, he was out in the street with Lou walking back to the hotel. Down a side alley, he caught sight of a yellow neon sign branding the word ‘Comrades’ into the night air. Maybe it was the conflict that seeing this arose in him, that made him grab Lou’s hand as they sauntered back along America Drive.

Pyongyang Night, Pt. 3

Matt walked past the old man in reception watching TV quiz shows broadcast from Seoul and into the narrow street, darkened by tall apartment blocks looming on either side. After a short walk he was soon at what the guidebooks called America Drive, a street lined with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and bars, all aimed at tourists.

He walked past the stores selling old military uniforms and other genuine regime paraphernalia, now discarded by locals. There were corkboards outside full of hundreds of lapel pins, showing the smiling faces of the once Dear Leaders in soft-focus. He walked past the show-pubs, where women in traditional Korean dress performed choreographed song routines from the regime days. Many of them would have done this in at least pretend earnest at various official events prior to reunification.

He soon arrived at Kim’s Diner, a place Lou and him had noticed on their first night here as they had journeyed by taxi from the airport, deciding then in their jetlagged state that they would try it out during their stay. The place was done up like a typical 50s-themed diner: black and white chequered floor tiles, the walls painted red and covered with framed vinyl records and shelves full of random Americana. However, displayed amongst these were also casual iconoclasms that would have been unthinkable here only a few years before, such as old propaganda poster-portraits of the Kims, with moustaches, glasses, and stitched-up scars daubed across their faces, in thick swathes of black calligraphy ink.

Upon entering the diner, a young woman in her 20s with a short stylish bob emerged from the kitchen, grumpily showed Matt to a table and gave him a laminated menu, all without saying a word.

Connecting to the wifi using the password on the menu, Matt found that he had received a message from SyunJoo.

“Fun? ;(”

Before Matt could work out what the unhappy winking face meant, the phone buzzed one more time.

“*;)”

This made Matt smile himself.

“More pics?” he typed back, so as to forestall yet not completely turn down the suggestion.

*

“Hey,” said Lou as soon as he entered the restaurant.

“Hey,” replied Matt, putting his phone to one side. “How was the Magnolia Tree?”

“Oh you know, loads of tourists,” said Lou, trying to affect nonchalance whilst feeling a sudden hyperawareness of each one of his movements. “I’m absolutely starving though. Are you feeling better now?”

“Yeah, I think I just needed to rest,” said Matt, looking back down at the menu.

The waitress came back over, and they ordered. Then, silence. Matt felt that making conversation with Lou now just as he had been messaging SyunJoo would be hypocritical, so he affected looking around at the décor. Lou, meanwhile, cast his eyes downwards, and began to tap an arrhythmic, nervous beat on the tabletop.

“Yeah,” exhaled Matt finally, mainly because he wanted the tapping to stop. “I reckon I’ll go see the Magnolia Tree later this week. Did you go in the museum too?”

“I did yeah, before the monument,” replied Lou, ending the tapping with a full-palmed clap on the table that knocked the drinks menu to the floor. “It’s interesting, you know, how the collapse of that hotel precipitated the collapse of the regime itself.”

“Deep,” said Matt. He saw Lou’s cheeks flush red as he bent down to pick up the menu. By this Matt knew that his sarcasm had hurt Lou’s feelings, so he added quickly, “Yeah, it must have been like a fucking earthquake when that building came down, it was massive.”

Matt’s phone buzzed angrily. Now Lou noticed Matt’s face redden, as he covered the screen with his hand.

“Who’s that from?” asked Lou.

“Oh, it‘s nothing.”

“It really does show how fast things are progressing around here if the locals are using Grindr this much!” exclaimed Lou, only fully aware of how upset he sounded once the words had been said.

Matt let out a nervous laugh, but Lou only stared at him, hurt singeing his gaze. Feeling responsible for causing such pain, Matt reached an upturned palm across the table. Lou stared at the hand for a second, then felt himself plummet from anger to defeat in a heartbeat as he took it in his.

Pyongyang Night Pt. 2

Matt was roused from his nap by the urgent buzzing of his phone against the bedside surface. He picked it up, to see he had received a response from SyunJoo.

“Hello. American?”

“Hey,” replied Matt. “I am from UK”

“UK very cool! Holiday?”

“Yeah. 1 week”

“Cool. You like Korean guy?”

Matt felt instinctively that a response to this enquiry could lead to dangerous waters. Considering the argument him and Lou had had the night before, he already felt that he was sailing perilously close to mare incognitum by even having messaged this guy.

Conflicted, he exited the app and started flicking through the photos he’d taken so far on the trip. The first in the gallery was a photo of Lou in the middle of one of the city’s broad boulevards, completely deserted of cars. Since the two Koreas had reunified, the roads here were still mostly devoid of traffic. The only vehicles Matt had seen were government limos, army jeeps, and enormous coaches with reflective windows, which took tour groups from hotel, to tourist site or newly constructed shopping mall, and back again.

Matt’s phone vibrated again, this time with a message from Lou.

“Hey, u feeling better? U wanna go for dinner tonight?”

“Yeah sure, Kim’s Diner” replied Matt.

“Lol, burgers in Pyongyang?” wrote Lou.

“Y Not” Matt typed, putting his phone back down and getting up to get ready. He hoped that at dinner at least there would be no arguments.

*

Lou frowned at the curtness of Matt’s last message. He then cast his eye over some of the oddly translated leaflets on display in the rack at the tourist information centre, which advertised the various hotspots northern Korea had to offer.

“Come Visit the former Demilitarized Zone, now a Nature Reserve overflowing with Nature’s Beauty”

Lou had seen online how the former DMZ had remained largely unspoiled by humans since the 50s and was worth a visit. He took a leaflet and shoved it in his rucksack, before heading out the door to make his way to the nearest subway station.

Walking along the pavement outside, he saw a makeshift market stall, with what looked like a selection of household bric-a-brac arranged over the top: old pots and pans, photo frames, little china figurines. A tired middle-aged woman stood behind the table with a skinny adolescent girl, both with hair that was greasy and unwashed. Three Japanese women were on the other side, around the same age as the older woman but with faces that were much fresher. The three of them were wearing lightweight wet-weather gear, with digital cameras hanging from their necks. Browsing the trinkets on display, they picked some of them up to take a closer look, whilst talking and laughing amongst themselves in Japanese. The pair behind the stall stared at them blankly, uncomprehending.

A few moments later as he was riding down the cool escalator shaft toward the subway platform deep below, Lou felt his mind momentarily freed from all thoughts of Matt. Seeing how that mother and daughter, who had undoubtedly had their lives so closely monitored by the Kim regime, now by necessity were required to put their lives on a very different kind of display, made an impact on him much deeper than that made by the Magnolia Tree. For the first time that day, he fully tuned in to the discordant frequency of the city. He hoped that the mother and daughter had been able to make a sale.

“Pyongyang-Metro-Descent-Puhung” by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen http://bjornfree.com/kim/.

Pyongyang Night Pt. 1

Image courtesy of Nicor.

Image courtesy of Nicor.

Matt blew cigarette smoke over the top of the concrete balcony. It floated up into the early evening spring air, joining the club music emanating softly from a flat across the road. Sitting on the hotel’s flimsy patio furniture, he tried to absorb all the sights, sounds and smells of this side street of Pyongyang’s tourist district. But he felt restless, and unable to get the sensory hit he desired from either the tobacco or the surroundings.

He stubbed out his cigarette half-smoked and reentered the sparsely furnished room. Leaping on the double bed, he grabbed his smartphone from the bedside cabinet and opened Grindr, browsing the guys putting themselves on display nearby, in the little photos stacked one on top of another. Around half of them were army guys from the U.S. base just outside the city: their profile pictures were mainly shots taken in bathroom mirrors of naked, muscular, headless torsos. In contrast to them was the profile of Oscar – the owner of Bar Soho that Matt and Lou had visited on their second night here – which showcased his handsome face, complete with immaculately sculpted facial hair.

Then there was SyunJoo, an apparently local 24 year-old with a broad, open face and toothsome grin. Since Matt had first noticed him a couple of days before, he had been drawn to that smile, and had been toying with the idea of messaging him. ‘Like to meet foreigner. English OK,’ read his About Me section.

Matt found himself emboldened.

“Hey,” he typed in the message box.

He then put the phone down on the bedside cabinet, laid back and let his mind creep slowly upwards diagonally, equidistant between the axes of sleep and consciousness.

*

Lou was ambling around the Magnolia Tree, a commemorative monument that took the form of the eponymous shrub, which featured 64 scarlet red glass flowers sprouting from steel branches. Each flower represented a life that had been lost when the uncompleted shell of the 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel had come tumbling to the ground three years before, the monument standing in the space that the hotel had occupied. The disaster had prompted tensions that had been brewing in the impoverished nation to overflow, and caused what would be dubbed the Magnolia Revolution, which saw the overthrow of the Kim dynasty and reunification of the two Koreas. It had been around that time when Lou and Matt had first got together, when photos of people from the North and South embracing were posted, shared and re-shared across the online world, along with horrifying video footage of mass graves, labour camps, and hundreds upon hundreds of emaciated men, women and children. The two of them had always talked about visiting Pyongyang, and now that they had both graduated and were working and earning money – and getting there had become relatively straightforward since the opening of the city’s new airport – here they were on a weeklong holiday.

It was not just money however, but also hope that Lou had invested in this adventure. His and Matt’s relationship currently felt to him like a boat riddled with holes. Since Matt had moved to London he had seemed distant: not keeping Skype dates, cutting phone calls short, replying to text messages with only one or two words and no ‘x’s. Lou had hoped that spending time together in a place that had such a strong significance for their relationship would enable them to become watertight again.

However, it appeared that things were only getting worse: when they were together there was only either silence or small talk. This made Lou feel and exude a nervousness that he was sure only made things more awkward. He was convinced this was why Matt had spent the entire day alone at the hotel, saying that he wasn’t feeling up for sightseeing.

They had also had an argument the night before over dinner, when he had caught sight of the little orange Grindr icon on the interface of Matt’s phone.

“I just wanted to see what kind of guys would be on it here,” Matt had said.

“Oh you’re such an intrepid explorer, aren’t you,” Lou had shot back.

They’d argued about it from the restaurant all the way back to the hotel, and slept with their backs to one another all night.

He suddenly felt a strong sense that instead of worrying about all this, he should be making the most of being in this city that only three years before he wouldn’t have been able to visit. He stuck out his phone and took a selfie with the Magnolia Tree behind. Looking at the photo, he liked his three-day-old stubble, and the Sun just beginning to set behind him did look good once he applied the right filter. But he looked a little sad, so he worried that the picture would be too revealing if he were to post it anywhere online.

Noticing the time on his phone, he deleted the photo and headed off to use the free Wifi at the nearby tourist information centre, to message Matt about their dinner plans.