“We’re almost there! It’s just around this corner…” he said.
“Where are we going again?” I asked.
He smiled and replied, “A mini bar… Someone I know owns it.”
It was a warm humid night at around 11:00 pm and I was following a man that I had just barely met an hour ago named Ho-Young, a 22 year old male rapper, through the streets of Seoul. Before leaving to meet him several hours earlier, I asked three of my study abroad friends to come along with me. I felt that he’d be a nice person, but I was admittedly nervous. The only things I knew about him were the following: He’s an underground Korean rapper. His stage name is Pardro. He was nice enough to let me use his music for my study abroad videos. He invited me to meet him in person through e-mail.
At 10:00 pm, we found the specific spot that he’d described in his text message and waited under a flickering convenience store’s sign. A few moments later, a young man wearing a casual t-shirt and black beanie walked up to us. His eyes darted around between the four of us with a confused expression.
“Which one of you…” he began to ask.
“Oh, it’s me. I’m the one that e-mailed you.” I quickly interjected.
“Oh!!! Okay... It’s so nice to meet you! So you’re the one… Thanks for coming. I see you brought some of your friends.”
After all the introductions, he turned around and pulled out a couple of CD’s from his back pocket. It was his latest mini album. He politely bowed his head and passed one to each of us. He said he genuinely wanted to thank me for supporting his music and thank my friends for coming out so late.
We stood in front of the convenience store and talked with him about our time in Korea thus far. It had only been several weeks since all of us had settled in the city. Near the end of our conversation, he proposed that we stay in the area with him.
“Are you hungry? I want to take you somewhere to eat. It’s nearby… I think you’ll like their food. Someone close to me owns it and it’s popular here in Hongdae. It’s the best time of the night to go there.”
Rain started drizzling on us as we weaved our way through Hongdae’s many alleyways. We walked until we reached a little white sign in the middle of an alleyway. Four white tubes stacked upon one another read:
Between the petals.
Five o’clock until sunrise.
I could see a warm light glowing at the bottom of the slippery stairs as we followed Ho-Young down to the building’s underground level. We slipped through the front glass doors of between the petals, a cozy white minimalistic bar that served drinks and late night snacks. I had never seen anything like it and instantly felt drawn to the intimate atmosphere. The lights were dimmed low and a soft playlist of old school American hip hop songs filled the space. The California girl inside of me and my friends felt at home. At first glance, there wasn’t anything special about the interior of the place. But once my eyes adjusted to the lighting and we sat down, I started to notice the little details of the place. There were small Lego figures along a metal pipeline, an R2D2 figure on a back shelf, Marvel comic books hanging from the walls, and other mini action toys. The long dormant tomboy inside of me awoke.
I was in love.
“What do you recommend we order?” I asked.
“You have to order the carbonara chicken. It’s their best...” Ho-Young said.
Several drinks and nacho chips later, the strange concoction was set in front of us. Carbonara chicken? Lumpy pieces drenched in white sauce. Really? All questions vanished as soon as the sweet chicken melted on our tongues into a rich dance of flavors. Utopia. Heaven. Nirvana. All at once. In disbelief, I looked at my three friends and witnessed excited expressions bloom onto their faces. The rest of the night was full of repetition. We would talk, drink, eat the chicken, go crazy about how delicious it was, laugh, and then do it all over again.
The rest of that night was a blur. It wasn’t a blur because of the drinks or the time, but because of the countless number of topics we went through in our conversations. Music. Culture. Jokes. Scary folktales. Childhood. Family. School. Concerts. Tattoos. Personalities. From between the petals, we moved to a fancy coffee shop across the street called Kona Beans. Another several hours passed as we shared story after story.
I learned a lot of things about Ho-Young and my friends that night. It was around 4:00 am when I learned that Ho-Young had a mother who was dear to him. She had passed away and Stella was her Catholic name, it was also the name elegantly inked on his left wrist. It was the first time that I thought a tattoo could be so simple in design yet weighty in meaning. I also learned that I liked coffee that night. (That’s another love story for another time.)
I don’t really remember all the stories that I told or heard that night. The only thing I do recall and know is that that night was the beginning of that feeling. The intense warm feeling that I started to have every time I walked into an intimately designed space, every time I walked away from a great conversation, every time I read a line in a book that sounded like it was written by my vulnerable alter ego, and every time I realized that I loved something or someone more than I loved myself. That night was the start.
At around 6:00 am, we loaded into a grey taxi and waved goodbye to Ho-Young. I sat in the front seat sleepily directing the taxi driver to the university dorms. The windshield wipers moved back and forth rhythmically as the rain continued to fall.
When we were at the bar earlier, there was a moment where I had walked up the steps to go to the bathroom. The public bathroom was not as dreamy as the bar itself and I quickly took care of my business. I walked back to the owner of the bar to return the key. He was a quiet man with a mustache wearing a black snapback, black t-shirt, and black shorts. He sat at the cashier area looking at his cellphone. I hovered until he looked up.
“So… what’s the meaning of between the petals? Why did you name the place that particular phrase?” I asked.
“I know, it sounds a bit incomplete right?”
I nodded. “Yea, I’ve never heard it before.”
He put down his phone and slowly explained, “If you look at flower petals, you’ll notice how intimately close they are to each other. There’s very little space between them. And even though they’re close, they’re still each their own petal. They connect at the center, holding the flower together… When I first opened this shop, I wanted this place to be a place that people left feeling closer to one another than when they first walked in… ”
I tilted my head back and mouthed a “wow.” I repeated the Korean phrase in my head over and over again. It had such an odd mix of sounds but still rolled off the tongue poetically. Kkot-eep-sah-ee-da. Kkot-eep-sah-ee-da.
I thanked him for his reply and as I walked away I said, “I think you picked the perfect name.”
There were small Lego figures along a metal pipeline, an R2D2 figure on a back shelf, Marvel comic books hanging from the walls, and other mini action toys. The long dormant tomboy inside of me awoke.
I was in love.