Nerve.com: Dating Mementos
A Bell on a String
There’s nothing less romantic than bad lighting, but in Seoul, it’s a fact of life. People sit and drink outside convenience stores, treating them like they're self-service bars. That’s where I met Nameless. (I’m not trying to protect his identity or be cute; that’s really what he called himself.) Even though he didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Korean, we liked each other immediately. He was an artist, and a pleasant antidote to Korea’s very conformist culture. We started hanging out often; I chain-smoked cigarettes and we stumbled through philosophical conversations, using over-enunciated words and a lot of miming. Mostly, we spent a lot of time doing things that didn’t require talking — we watched films in French (a language neither of us understood), went to modern-art museums, and drank a lot of wine.
Considering how little we understood each other, he did an amazing job of helping me out. And as a foreigner in Korea, baffled by the language (all those circles and lines; I never could master geometry), I needed help often.
We watched films in French, went to modern-art museums, and drank a lot of wine.
For example, I couldn’t find a full-length mirror. I told him — in jest — that my appearance was suffering. About a week later, he called to say he had a “miller” for me. For a minute, I was disappointed by the prospect of more cheap, light beer (Korea only serves a trio of high-school brews), ‘til I realized he was going to bring me a mirror.
Expecting a plain skinny glass mirror with a tacky white frame, I was a little surprised when he showed up at my apartment sweating, carrying a huge object. He’d taken a mirror, and on its surface, reproduced Bert Stern’s photo of Marilyn Monroe, with the pink scarves over her breasts, complete with scar and mole. We had seen the exhibit of the Last Sitting photographs the week before, and he’d said, “You’re beautiful." Those words were scrawled in wood at the top of the “miller”.
The mirror was functional, but it was also the one piece of art in my tiny light-less room. Especially as my time in Korea began to come to an end, I began to place a monumental importance on the mirror. (There was no way we could continue things from a distance, since we could barely even communicate in person.)
But, like the relationship, the mirror was impossible to take with me — it was too huge and delicate. I decided to give it back to him. What happened the night we exchanged the mirror, from my hands to his, is hard to describe. Nameless led a religious ceremony: he burnt money and put it in a plastic pig, and chanted while I performed prostrations.
By the time I handed the mirror off to him, everything felt different. I was moving into a new phase in my life, first on a trip through Southeast Asia and India and then home. In exchange for the mirror, he gave me a bell on a string to hang over my door at all the dirty hostels I would be sleeping at. He promised it would protect me and drive away monsters.
It’s all I have of him now, but I don’t hang it, for fear it would not only keep away monsters but friends. It’s tucked away somewhere safe. I haven't heard from Nameless since, but I always imagine he's hunting tigers in the Amazon with a black-market pistol or on some other strange adventure.