The following post is a fictionalization of the story about how I created a character and then became him in order to make him as believable as possible for my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary. The following recount is based on actual events, though some of the details have been altered to protect identities. Most of the dialog is almost word for word.
SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING POST DESCRIBES MUCH OF MY NOVEL AND REVEALS SOME SUSPENSEFUL ASPECTS OF THE STORY. IF THAT'S COOL WITH YOU, READ ON. IF YOU ARE READING MY BOOK OR ARE PLANNING TO AND YOU LIKE SURPRISES, COME BACK TOMORROW.
Although Roland liked most of the regulars from the Byward Market pub, he came in primarily to see Naomi. The attraction, he figured, was that she always displayed an outward happiness while trying to conceal an inward sadness for the situation of her relationship. Just as Roland wanted to be happy but had not shaken the cobwebs of his past.
How could he? How could anyone get beyond the devastating tragedy of a loss such as his? The loss of his family would haunt him for the rest of his life.
"You need to move on, Roland," Naomi would tell him. "You're such a nice, smart, kind man. You deserve to be happy."
Her words would sometimes be thrown back at her to help her deal with her boyfriend, Jeff, a drug-addicted, depressed manipulator. Any time she tried to have that talk with him, to tell him that the relationship wasn't working, that she couldn't cope with his drug habit, he would break down into tears, tell her that he was nothing without her, that he would kill himself if she ever left him.
One particular, dreary evening, Jeff, high on heroin, screaming and wailing about how he was going to kill himself, held a knife to his throat and threatened to sever his jugulars if she tried to have another one of these serious talks.
Neighbours, who could hear Jeff's rantings and ravings, called the police.
"I can't take it anymore, Roland," Naomi sobbed, "I lose sleep, afraid that one day he will kill himself, and it will be my fault."
The police knew Jeff, had had some run-ins with him in the past. For his suicidal antics, he spent some time in the Royal Ottawa.
"It is not your fault, Naomi. It's never your fault. You have one child to take care of, not two. With Jeff in the Royal, now's the time to make a clean break. You're moving this weekend: leave him behind."
"It's not like he doesn't know where my new house is. He's been there."
"But don't bring any of his belongings into the new place. Don't give him a reason to think he belongs."
Roland's advice, while well-taken in the pub, was never executed. Not fully. Naomi didn't move Jeff's scant possessions into her new home, but she never refused Jeff's visits. Let him stay the night.
And yet, Roland continued to lend her a sympathetic ear, would always offer words of consolation, of compassion, of comfort.
"I would leave Jeff for you, Roland," Naomi once said, her eyes firmly fixed on Roland's.
"In a perfect world, that would be nice," replied Roland. And at that, I cringed inside. In the real world, I was not interested in Naomi in any romantic scenario (my being happily married aside). Yes, she was extremely attractive; yes, she was smart and funny; and yes, sometimes we could talk for hours about other subjects that took hers and Roland's thoughts about their troubles.
But Naomi was not my type: she was always stressed about money and other conflicts with her parents and siblings, and with her daughter. And she smoked.
I felt bad. This woman opened herself to Roland, shared her personal life, her life's problems, and told him that she had feelings for him, that she would be with him if only he would ask. In return, I gave her the persona of a man who was an empty shell, who had nothing more than a depth of a fictitious life.
I enjoyed our conversations, enjoyed supporting her, through Roland. And I appreciated the opportunity she gave me, unwittingly, of adding personality to my book's main character.
One day, talking about Roland's wife and daugter, Kristen and Laura, Roland broke down into tears. "I loved them so much," he choked on his words, Naomi held his hand, "that there was nothing that I wouldn't do for them. I'd do anything to have them back."
The flood of emotion that backed the words about a fictional family surprised me. I was moved by my imagination. It didn't surprise me to get saddened and upset as I wrote the story, but it did shock me to know that the emotions could be stirred in speaking the words.
I wanted to keep this relationship going. I wanted Naomi to continue to have feelings for Roland, but I definitely needed to establish boundaries, needed to create a way for the two to be close without having anything physical between them.
Roland went to Scotland for Christmas and New Year's, staying for more than a month. When he returned, he had a girlfriend.
His sister, Siobhan, threw a first-footing party for Hogmanay, and Roland hooked up with Siobhan's best friend, Fiona Hill.
(ASIDE: I came up with this name because I liked the name Fiona ever since I read Len Deighton's Game, Set, & Match trilogy. The main character, Bernard Sampson, was married to a Fiona. My Fiona was going to be a lawyer. The Scot's word, law, means hill,as in Berwick Law. Hence, Fiona Hill, the lawyer.
Shortly after creating the name, I remembered that I went to high school with a Fiona Hill. Total coincidence.)
Roland had his girlfriend and I had a way of avoiding any risks of Naomi's desire to get close. But Naomi still let Roland know she had feelings for him.
Which made it all the more difficult when Naomi eventually learned the truth about Roland. And uttered three words that haunt me to this day.
"You disgust me."
But I'm getting ahead of the story.
Roland and Fiona's relationship was a long-distance one. Luckily, Roland could afford to visit her often. "Airport to airport, it's only eight hours," Roland told Naomi.
I checked airport schedules. Made sure I had times correct. Because Naomi asked, wanted to know about Roland's life in Scotland. I had to learn the First Rail train schedule between Edinburgh and North Berwick. I all but memorized the map of both towns. I became so much of an expert of Roland's home town that I knew how long it took to walk from his home to his watering hole, The Auld Hoose. I knew that it took between 20 and 30 minutes to ascend Berwick Law years before I actually climbed it, in 2010.
On a perfect day, it took about 22 minutes.
Fiona allowed me to be less stand-offish with Naomi. I could afford to give her hugs without implying anything. There were boundaries. It didn't prevent Naomi from expressing her feelings for Roland, after she and Jeff finally split up, though their breakup was an off-and-on-again situation. Naomi wanted to leave Jeff for good, but as long as she didn't have someone to go to, like Roland, there didn't seem to be a rush.
Me, I found it hard to respect her situation. Naomi continued to cry her woes over not being able to shake Jeff, while refusing to sever the ties. Roland was forever supportive, but his sympathy was beginning to wane. And so he got away, back to Scotland.
I took a break from the pub in November 2009. But when I left the pub on that day, gave Naomi a hug and wished her the best of the upcoming holidays, little did I know that it was the last time that I'd be leaving it as Roland Axam.
To be continued...