sung is a writer and interdisciplinary artist from Korea. They are the author of What About the Rest of Your Life (Perfect Day Publishing) and Flowers Are for Pussies (Ghost City Press). Their work has appeared in HOMINTERN, Nat. Brut, Kweli Journal, Contrary, The James Franco Review, The Wanderer, and Crab Fat Magazine.
I Had a Profoundly Stupid Conversation with Another Writer About the Concept of Home Where We Asked Each Other, ‘Is Home a Place or People’
Reilly shows me to their guest room and says there’s still pizza in the fridge if I want some. ‘Thank you,’ I say, and I mean ‘I’m sorry.’ They shut the door behind them with a gentle hesitance that always seems to haunt the way they move. I fall back on the guest bed. I crumple up the blankets and hold them close to my body. I’ve been couch-surfing for over a week. I’m too tired to have feelings.
In the morning I tiptoe around spilled cat litter in Reilly’s bathroom and can’t find the spare toothbrush. I do spot their tube of toothpaste, which, like that of everyone else I’ve been crashing with, is squeezed haphazardly from the middle.
Scanning their countertop is a dizzying experience. I am intimately familiar with this type of clutter, one particular to the mentally ill. Jewelry swept to a general area of the counter—much of it scattered next to rather than hung on a set of cactus-shaped stands, nail clippers with the file attachment facing out in position to be used again, a small collection of singed matches, empty mugs, things brought into the room and left behind in a hurry or a depressive haze. There are gestures toward well-being amidst the disarray that I appreciate with great affection.
There’s this thing many mentally ill people tend to do—we leave things out thinking it will save us time getting out the door, save us effort getting out of bed, save us from ourselves.
What we leave out accumulates until the benefit of convenience is lost to the growing heap.
I can’t figure out how the showerhead works so I stand in the tub and take what Bryan used to call a ‘Mexican whore bath’ until I snapped at him to stop. I am ashamed of the men I’ve chosen.
I sit on the edge of the tub and brush grit off my feet to put my socks on. I pick up Reilly’s tube of toothpaste and smooth it out toward a semblance of its original integrity in the crumpled chaos. ‘I’m sorry,’ I imagine us saying to one another.
I pick up a cherry shaped earring and turn it over in my hand. I put it back where I found it, adjust its position exactly as I can remember at its skewed angle.
I stop by my ex-husband’s house to visit my dog, pick up my mail, and grab a few things in my quest to build a life where I never see him again. It’s been three weeks since I’ve had a bed. On my way in I notice a pile of Pall Mall butts by the porch. I infer from this that he’s been leaving my dog on the lead tied to the porch rail to wander the yard while he smokes. I wonder how long it’s been since he took her on a proper walk. I imagine that if I counted, there would be exactly 26 cigarette butts—one for each walk minus the days I’ve been by to take care of her myself.
I fight the urge to count them because proving myself right is so often depressing.
I picture him sitting on the third step with his knees gathered, unshaven, shoulders stooped, anxiously nibbling his thumbnail. I picture the times I’ve offered him nail clippers and how he would refuse them but stop biting his nails, something quietly receding back into him that I didn’t mean to scare off.
The sink has been full for the past three weeks I’ve been gone. The fetid smell of molding processed cheese hangs in the still air. There’s an empty Pringles can and a box of Oreos eaten down to the last three cookies on the counter. The house is littered with half-empty takeout containers, half-empty bottles of cough syrup. ‘I have bronchitis,’ he texts me.
He’s left a stack of junk mail addressed to me on top of the laundry machine next to a plastic bag from Piggly Wiggly full of receipts and used napkins. Half the cupboards and drawers in the house are open.
I throw dirty laundry in the hamper. I scrub the bathroom sink and then the tub.
I wipe soap scum off the mirrored surface of the medicine cabinet with special care—it’s important to look at ourselves as objectively as possible because it’s impossible to see anything objectively. This futility daunts and immobilizes people. Surrendering to it destroys lives. Something as simple as a clearer reflection, I like to tell myself, can contain that hopelessness.
This is the kind of thing I would say to Bryan when loving him still made sense.
I can no longer recognize what love looks like.
As I put things away, shutting drawers and cabinets, I realize I’ve already forgotten what goes where in this house. Relief and crushing dread live side-by-side in this realization. I shuffle papers into tidier stacks, put his DVDs back on the shelf and consider alphabetizing them before deciding that would be going too far. I pick up his cigarette butts. I toss as much trash as I can in the bin and tamp it down to toss some more. I take the garbage out. He won’t acknowledge any of this.
I have lost so much to this marriage. I have lost so much to this man.
He is losing so much to this divorce. He is losing himself.
I open the fridge and reward myself with imperceptible bites of his leftovers as I judge him. I’ve been having fun and drinking too much. My heart is breaking.
Jack tends to perch like a bird when he hugs me and I wonder if that’s more to do with him or me. I am staying alone at his place while he’s off on a trip to New York. A small cabin with an enclosed porch that the University owns. Surrounded by tall trees, little shocks of wildflowers scattered about the grounds. I am housesitting and feeding his cats for the week and the tranquility of the locale pushes sharply against the pressurized anxiety I wake to each morning—that I won’t survive on my own, that I am unworthy of kindness, that his cats will run off and be struck by a car. I keep considering the cost of a motel room. I keep considering an overnight road trip back to Chicago. I keep saying ‘I’m sorry’ when I mean ‘Thank you.’
Jack’s bathroom has impeccable lighting and I wonder if he fully appreciates it. I can see myself in it. I can bear to look at myself in it. His sink is reasonably orderly, like the rest of the place. The toothpaste has been squeezed and beautifully rolled from the bottom. I breathe easy in this bathroom.
I sort out a routine over the next week. After feeding the cats and refreshing their water, I scoop the litter and step into the shower. I start religiously flossing and applying my retinoid serum before bed again.
My third night at Jack’s I have a suicidal meltdown in his bed during which I talk with a hotline operator for 47 minutes. I am glad he’s not a superstitious man because I fear I must be leaving some ghostly remnant of sadness behind.
Lately I feel that I lose something of myself whenever I enter another person’s home and leave with a heavier burden of guilt.
Jack and I thank each other when he flies back into town. What I mean is ‘I’m sorry.’ I imagine what he means is ‘You’re welcome.’
Bryan comes home to me lying in bed. I have been lying in bed all day and can’t say what I’ve been doing or thinking. This happens frequently, I lose time. There is a difference between losing time and wasting time. I brood quietly while he eats something out of a noisy paper bag. He asks what’s wrong and I tell him I don’t know because he’s such a small part of it. I tell myself I don’t know because I am such a small part of the world.
Bryan comes home to me chatting with my friend Moose. We’re always on my bed because I never leave my bed. For months now, the only way I can socialize in person is when a friend visits my place. We’ve been watching YouTube videos of things being destroyed by industrial shredders and hydraulic presses for hours. I say I want to get into a fist fight. Moose says she wants to get into a fist fight. We say we should fist fight each other. We never will.
Bryan sits on the corner of the bed and can’t seem to wedge himself into the conversation. I am alarmed by the fact that I, in fact, prefer this failure and that I, in fact, have no desire to accommodate his entry. Moose and I will talk about this night on the phone after I move to Tuscaloosa for grad school but we won’t mention Bryan being there.
When Moose gets up to leave, a wave of doom rears up. I do not have the language for this feeling yet and can only manage to articulate it to her this way: ‘I’ll miss you,’ ‘Text me tomorrow,’ ‘Love you, bye.’
I apologize to Bryan if he feels left out around my friends and he tells me he’s glad I have friends because he doesn’t. I have nothing to say to this. He tells me about his day. I am listening. I am doing my best to want to be here. I nod and behave as though appropriately interested. I remind myself that this is what people do. The room seems to shrink around us. My senses dull. The color is bleeding out of everything.
Bryan comes home to me sitting up in bed with my computer propped up on a lap desk. I feel a cold jab of panic when he stumbles over a word. I ask, ‘Did you have a drink today?’ and before he answers, I follow up with ‘Never mind. It’s not my business.’ My therapist will have plenty to say about this once I’ve announced my divorce months down the line. I scroll through Twitter and read the exhaustively detailed synopsis section of a Wikipedia page for a film I’ve decided not to watch but would like to be able to discuss. He undresses and I study his body as he circles the room readying himself for bed. In this moment I think that bodies are a failure of the spirit, that his body is just some body and like mine it is shitting and pissing and dying all the time, that sex is a horrible experience I feel compelled to keep pursuing because it’s what people do and keep sharing with him because it’s what married people do.
He climbs in next to me and falls asleep right away. His snoring is disruptive so I put on headphones. Even with my music turned all the way up I hear him. I push him and he rolls over without much resistance. I am in what he and his father call one of my moods. I keep shoving him to stop the noise and suddenly discover he’s not snoring anymore. I can’t even stand the sound of him breathing.
My friend O is at work. I’ve been crashing at O’s place for almost a week. I don’t remember what’s so enraged me but I’m looking for a healthy coping mechanism. I can’t keep chain-smoking in church parking lots and screaming ‘fuck’ over and over. I would rather not make a habit of drinking before noon or taking more than my one-to-two-daily-as-needed dose of Klonopin. I turn on sad music and pace O’s one-bedroom apartment faster and faster. There is a comic juxtaposition between the languid rhythm of Nina Simone’s ‘He Needs Me’ and my breathless scuttle. It will be funny later, as many things are.
I find myself picking up scraps of garbage off the floor and straightening up O’s books. I storm into the bathroom and pile toiletries on the windowsill as I scrub the sink clean. I wash a tube of something, toss an empty something else, I clean the glass O stores toothbrushes in and arrange everything in neat rows after rinsing. I am still itching with restlessness. I grab paper towels and a sponge to scrub O’s stove. I can neither count how many of O’s ex-girlfriend’s hairs I come across in the process, nor explain their odd hiding places. I organize the refrigerator and stack a months-old package of cookies she bought on top of O’s chocolate bars so they’ll finally be eaten. This gives me the same low-level satisfaction I would desperately seek to shatter the boredom when I worked various service jobs, rotating the older items to the front—flipping vegetable containers at a sandwich shop during the midday lull, stocking grocery store shelves from the back while facing them during close.
People like O hoard old things thinking, on some level, that the keepsakes themselves can honor a memory, but leave them gathering dust and forget about them anyway.
This cruel characterization is symptomatic of a ruthlessness I have not yet outgrown.
Later O will hand me a note from an ex-girlfriend and glibly say, ‘I need you to throw this out for me.’ When I instinctively tear it in half O will gasp. Later I will watch O delete old video clips of several exes with a gleeful sadism that shocks and frightens me. It will make me wonder if I am still ruining lives. I will choose the moments in which I scrutinize O’s reactions carefully, but not carefully enough.
Later I will say, ‘You died in this place’ and O will nod in silence. Later as O admires my detachment from objects I will nod in silence. I will remind O and by extension myself that it’s not a healthy instinct to throw everything away. It’s not a healthy habit to sell all your possessions for drugs. It’s not a healthy outlook to see everything—your possessions, memories, relationships, and ultimately your life—as expendable products of circumstance.
After rage-cleaning O’s apartment, my hands are coated in a thick film of grease. I step into the bathroom to wash up. I am compelled to do one last thing. I pick up O’s tube of toothpaste and carefully squeeze it back into shape, rolling it out from the bottom. I know O will squeeze it from the middle again. Later when I say, ‘This isn’t about you. This isn’t for you,’ I will hope O believes me.
Bryan and I are visiting his father in Decatur, Illinois. He takes much pleasure in showing me where he came from, driving us around his old neighborhood. This is his childhood home, that was the neighborhood pedophile’s house, this is the house he broke into with a friend of his when he was twelve just to get naked and jump up and down on the bed.
He takes me to the run-down mall where half the shops are long-closed and we eat the same cheese popcorn he ate while walking around stoned as a teenager. We take pictures in the photobooth and I don’t remember whether or not I’m smiling in them but can say with certainty that any time I’ve looked at them since, I’ve felt a pang of regret and resentment. He is going to relapse again, the night after this trip.
He points out LaGondola Spaghetti House where his family would eat after church.
He takes me to the Monical’s he spent hours at in high school to show me their cracker pizza, which he likes with sticky-sweet French dressing.
He walks me through the dismal ruins of a zoo where he nursed a burgeoning pipe dream of working as a wildlife conservationist one day.
He buys us skillet scab burgers at the Krekel’s Kustard on Main Street, closest to Lake Decatur—he calls this location ‘the good one’—which we eat in his car by the shore as sunlight mercilessly skims the surface of the water and battered old row boats bob by the docks.
As you get closer to the lake, away from the cul-de-sacs, the air grows thick with the stench of soy from the processing plant nearby. Everything soaks it up, including the burgers. Bryan grimaces when the breeze passes through the open windows. I tell him I like it, it reminds me of my mother’s cooking.
‘I could see myself living in Decatur,’ I say. ‘We could buy a trailer. Make a little life for ourselves.’
I am thinking about how we’ve moved every year for the past four we’ve spent together. I am thinking about how I moved almost every year from birth to seventh grade, one time seven thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean.
Bryan shakes his head and wipes his hands on a crumpled napkin. That napkin couldn’t possibly soak up any more grease. ‘I could never come back to this place,’ he says. ‘All I used to do is get drunk. I don’t think I could be sober living down here.’
He tells me this town was always nothing but shit food and bars, but now it’s shit food and bars and even more bars. And video poker.
‘It’s home,’ he says. ‘But that’s about it. Besides, you’d get bored. You couldn’t stand living in a small town like this.’
I think in this moment that he doesn’t understand the language of my boredom.
I think in this moment that I would trade everything for the luxury of calling something home and throwing it away.
I think in this moment that we are doomed.