“Here’s how this works,”
A friend and I were standing in front of a Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation consisting of two mirrors. We each had a frame to ourselves.
“Now go over there to where I can’t see you anymore,” he said, gesturing for me to step aside, emptying the adjacent reflection. “Then it becomes the saddest thing you’ve ever seen.”
I hadn’t been familiar with Gonzalez-Torres’s work prior to this, but from what I’d already seen that afternoon at Plateau, he dealt with themes of proximity and isolation, stemming from the void created by a loved one’s absence. These are themes that can destroy you, depending on how you deal with extended solitary confinement or the palpability of loss. A lacuna that would later open every postcard and every declaration of “Wish you were here!” to overanalysis. When you’re traveling, you’re always meeting people, but the inevitability of leaving could weigh just as heavily.
And yet you’re never really alone. I wasn’t alone that day, standing next to my friend MK in front of those mirrors. But it felt lonelier seeing that piece as it was supposed to be seen. Or, to paraphrase MK, it just didn’t look right.
I know travel is seen as a pursuit of the wealthy but I don’t know where this assumption fits in after you spend a night outside a closed train station, where you are given tips by a stranger on how to get some sleep without getting robbed. I thought I was doing the right thing, taking the bus to Seoul instead of straight to Incheon from Gwangju. The bus to Incheon wouldn’t leave ’til midnight and would deposit us at the Arrivals terminal at half past 5, which was not enough time to fuck around at the airport bar before my 7 am flight. I guess I expected too much of you, South Korea, because even Incheon probably wouldn’t have a bar open that late/early.
Upon arriving in Seoul, it should have come as no surprise that none of the buses or trains were running, and I would have to take a cab to Seoul station, where–AGAIN–none of the trains were running. At least not ’til 5. The bus to Incheon usually took an hour. The subway would take about half. I guess I expected too much of you, South Korea, because even Seoul Metro does not run 24 hours, and this is how New York and Hong Kong can kick your ass. But here was a mess I’d made by myself and of course I would have to deal with it alone by checking into a PC Bang, where between rows and rows of Korean teenagers playing…Starcraft?…I don’t know anything about video games…I would try to get some sleep and not die of anxiety about missing my flight. Booking another ticket would cost something-something-pesos-I-cannot-afford, but what was worse was I couldn’t handle another bruise on my ego inflicted by my own irresponsibility.
“You’ve been here for what, a month? You’ve probably been subsisting on vapor.” commented my friend Sean after I thanked him for a lovely dinner–which turned out to be on the house after the owner had a spat with all his employees in front of us. This was in San Francisco sometime in May. I don’t know who lost their jobs while we were having our flatbread and salad, but I’m sure in those moments they knew more about subsisting on vapor than I ever would.
It’s the myopia we develop when we fail to differentiate between having nothing and there being nothing to have. I don’t know how much immersion or exposure can fix this, in fact I don’t even know if this merits being fixed. You are what you are, and you close whatever gaps need closing.
“Sometimes I can’t even eat thinking about all the debt I’m in,” said another friend. I can’t eat when I’m poor, but I’m aware of how this too will pass–not as a matter of faith or fate, but work. You can ride it out or claw your way out of there. I only had to claw my way out to survive for a few more days, after that it would be back to Manila, to where I work and drive a car I don’t own, and lay my head.
Back to Seoul: a place to lay my head would have been nice. I thought of crashing on the bus stop bench next to a girl who was waiting for a bus to Paju.
“The buses all get here at 5,” she assured me. “What are you doing here this late?” I asked her. “I’m waiting for the next bus,” she said. It was just a little past 2 am.
I laughed, told her I’d hit the restaurant across the street to get a beer, but before I could get there a man on a motorbike zipped past, made a sharp U and stopped beside me to say some things in Korean, gesturing to my duffel, then to the PC Bangs on the floors overhead. I still have no idea what he was talking about, but the thing they don’t tell you about backpacking and shoestring travel is that you will occasionally get mistaken for a runaway–especially when no one believes you’re 27.
In Austin, I met the first Crowley (there were two Crowleys during that trip) at a bus stop. Chris was 19, and thinking I was younger, had agreed to carry my things for me while we wandered around downtown. The second Crowley was someone I met in Brooklyn – he made money on nude modeling jobs here and there, read a lot of Guy Debord, and taught kids to skateboard. He opened the indoor skate park in Park Slope late one night because he wanted to show off. The park was a wall-to-wall obstacle course, and it would have been more fun had I not worn tights and ballet flats and had I not been so intent on avoiding any kind of injury.
On the subway, he stopped me from sitting on the benches because “Bed bugs!” and I still can’t look at a wooden bench without thinking “Bed bugs!” Not that bed bugs stopped me from sleeping soundly at that joke of a guest house Joe and I booked in Bandung a month later, but still–Bed bugs!
The train arrived and Crowley strolled on without looking back or saying goodbye, because he assumed I would be going back with him to Bushwick. I got on the same train anyway, and when it was time for me to switch, he gave me this look that was somewhere between confusion and disappointment and asked,
“Aren’t you coming with me?”
“Was that the plan?”
“There was no plan.”
“Well, I have to go.”
And back to Seoul: it should have come as no surprise that my bus didn’t get there at 5, so I ran to the train instead, rocked back and forth in my seat throughout the half-hour ride back to Incheon, ran through the airport, returned the phone I rented with all its messages from another friend about Nils Frahm and Bright Eyes and all the lovely discussions about the things and places we loved, ran to my gate in the other terminal. The plane began taxiing as soon as I clipped my seatbelt on, but I made it, trying to console myself the entire time that there are (and always will be) things worse than a missed flight.
Backtrack to New York: We were lost at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and I remember feeling a little more than a tinge of irritation with this guy who’d lived here his whole life and yet never completely gotten the hang of making it to and from the big city to his hometown past the tunnel. We were both tired and irritable from being jerked around and by (what felt like) incompetence from not knowing where the third-party bus lines sold tickets. Sensing the potential for my temper to flare up, I stomped off towards somewhere (or something that escapes me now) before I could take it out on him and embarrass us both. I guess I felt by distancing myself from him for a while, I would get closer to some notion of knowing what I was doing.
But this wasn’t the case, and we were heading for the same place anyway, and thus would stay in this together. At least that’s how it felt when his fingers threaded themselves through mine. We hadn’t known each other long, but in that short span he would form a habit of wrapping his jacket around me whenever he held me close, strangers milling past us, quickly, purposefully, dodging the area of calm we’d created. “Let’s just stay here for a while,” he said, resting his head on my shoulder.
When I was younger, I got in the habit of compartmentalizing my friendships, and with it came the compartmentalization of personas. I could be whoever went best with the person I happened to be spending that specific moment with. It’s become harder to do this, and over time it’s felt more like I was lying to myself by being adaptable; but I’ve been working on it, fixing it slowly on a professional scale to accommodate my work as a teacher. I need to learn to talk to anyone and everyone, and the downside to professionalizing communication is that it becomes difficult to see who you really connect with.
But deep down I know when it’s working and when it isn’t. There are subtle differences between the pieces simply fitting and the sense you make of the picture you’re creating, but these are differences all the same. And I don’t mean to sound presumptious about where my relationships are heading, but some things you just know.
Featured image: Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Perfect Lovers” (1991) from Enough Room for Space
Second image, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled.” 1991. Billboard, dimensions vary with installation. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, New York. Photo by David Allison
Third image, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled” (March 5th) #1 (1991), from here