“Guwapo,” she texted.
“Maganda,” I replied.
I’m a socially needy person. I know this. When I think about my years abroad, the happiest moments are the ones full of friends and laughter. Living far from all things familiar, however, can be peppered with loneliness too.
It was Christmas morning. I was in bed. Most of my friends had skipped town for the holiday. There would be no potluck parties that year. I half-expected to get some work done. It had been a quiet Christmas Eve the night before. I had walked Gangnam drinking a beer after some piping hot dakgalbi. The pavement was wet and maybe there were flurries. I took the elevator up to my apartment. I called my parents and we talked for a bit. Then I watched a certain yuletide flick containing Muppets on my laptop before drifting off to the land of the sugar plums.
Daylight came in the window. I laid in bed, unsure of what to do with myself. It would be a lonely holiday, I thought. Several intense minutes of loneliness spurred me to do what all men do in these situations. I texted a woman.
A year or so prior, a good friend and I had drunkenly haunted the streets of Daegu after a comedy show. We eventually found ourselves spending the entire night and following morning with a dwindling group of Filipino ladies. It was a fun night of dancing, late night Korean food, and noraebanging. All the hallmarks.
I’ve given up pretending to know what normal, functional human relationships look like, but I never pretended the girl from that night and I were anything more than a one-time nocturnal excursion with the occasional squirrelly Kakao message exchanged afterwards. Every so often after that night, either she or I would initiate a cyber conversation that would ultimately go nowhere. And that was fine.
Now, alone on Christmas day, I found myself thinking of her and wondering what she might be doing. Perhaps not in any romantic sense. Perhaps a twinge. I sent a Christmas tree emoji accompanied with a brief message conveying tidings of comfort and joy.
It was not a markedly different conversation from any of our previous chats. She had already known I was an ESL teacher and I had already known she worked in a factory. She didn’t really like Korea and she missed her daughter and mother in the Philippines. She was a cool person. I quite liked her and I felt bad and guilty and all sorts of emotions when she told me about her troubles.
We talked about wishing we could be in our own countries and see our families. We talked about the cold weather in Seoul and Daegu. We talked about going dancing again one day and she would call me the Filipino word for handsome (guwapo) and I would call her the Filipino word for beautiful (maganda). And emoji after fruity emoji volleyed.
I still don’t really know if one of us was leading the other on. We often talked but we never saw each other again. I think we both knew we were just two silly people in a strange place that wanted someone to listen to us and say pretty things.
Whatever our motives, for a little while on a cold Korean Christmas morning, cities apart, we were humans sharing the warmth of a weird friendship…which, in my experience, are the only sort of friendships you ever really remember.
Originally published for 10 Magazine December, 2015.
Jonathan Stephens returns to “Secret Keys.”