Written by Michelle Rae
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Please credit the author.
This is not a happily every after story.
This is me, looking back on my life and the one person I loved and the struggles we endured to keep that love.
No, this is not a happy story. But it is a love story.
There is nothing as life changing as standing in a cold empty courtroom and being sentenced to three years in jail for breaking and entering. Previous convictions I brushed off as reputation builders and used them to climb my way up the social ladder. Little did I realise the impact this would have once I turned eighteen. Now I faced court as an adult and this became a wake up call.
Adelaide was a quiet, dull city, yet it was anything but; for me. The northern suburbs I grew up in were full of misfits and criminals. Our small area in a suburb trying to reestablish itself was rife with delinquents. From an early age, I became familiar with the view from the backseat of a police car. My parents attempt to guide me were met with resistance. I was foolish with the confidence of a kid who could never did wrong. If I listened, I doubt my life would have been any different. However my parents might still be on speaking terms with me; rather than pushing me out of their lives completely. With no family to support me and friends I associated myself with already in jail or hiding from the police - I was on my own.
It's only now, as I look back at my life do I realise - I messed up. I was a fool who disrespected authority and blatantly cast aside those who should have been the most important in my life. Regret - how it slowly grows within the depth of one's soul when life comes to a close.
Escorted from the courtroom by a middle-aged police officer who walked with a limp and grunted when he step on his left leg. The movement of his body and the sound he made within the few feet we walked grew on my nerves. A part of me wanted to lash out, say something vindictive and nasty but I knew when to hold my tongue. Led into the small unfurnished detaining room, the white walls in need of a paint were dirty from feet and hand prints at two distinct levels. My lawyer, a welfare paid scum with no outstanding features, said nothing, as he followed us in. The rear door to the room, locked from the outside, opened. Another officer, younger and more inclined to accost me if I gave trouble, handcuffed me and escorted me to the waiting van. I never spoke a word, and I never saw the lawyer leave. I went where directed, all the time thinking - there had to be more to life than this.
On my arrival, I discovered I would be in the low level facility within the complex tucked away within the outer suburbs. The thought I wouldn't be bunking with a hardened criminal who might consider me their property was a relief. Instead, I shared my cell for the next three years with a Korean-born boy called Woo-Jin Lee, who went by the name Lee.
Lee's parents emigrated from Korea several years after Lee’s birth. In his youth, Lee's involvement in a street gang, one in which I never knew existed, made his stories cringe worthy. I thought at the time I had a better life then his - which was laughable. We were the same age with similar criminal histories. Lee served three months of his three-year term before I arrived and knew how to look after himself. We got on surprisingly well and learned to stick together and have each others back. Also there for breaking and entering, Lee was resentful at being caught for stealing manhwa, a Korean term referring to manga or graphic novels. Lee loved manhwa, especially the suspense / horror types, and it was always a sore point it was this that got him caught.
Lee spent all his time drawing and writing his own manhwa during our time together. It kept him out of trouble and they became our source of entertainment. With Lee's arrest he lost his entire collection and drawing his own help him to resolve anger issues. Lee's collection had been his pride and something he swore he'd replace once he got out. Occasionally, Lee received manhwa through the post. Written in Korean, Lee translated them for me to past the time. I never knew who sent these but was grateful for the distraction. Then there was the odd Japanese manga that came our way. Neither of us could translate these but we made up our own dialogue, which I remember fondly.
Fluent in Korean and Mandarin and with little else to do, I asked Lee to teach me. Lee agreed if I helped him to graduate high school. Under the new skills scheme, Lee was eligible to get his high school degree. We made a deal. I'd help him to graduate, and he'd teach me to read, write and speak Korean.
In our second year, Lee graduated and went on to study for his teaching degree in languages. I chose the same degree. I didn't consider it would get me anywhere after I got out but I had the time. Together, Lee and I studied. We both chose Japanese as our preferred language and through online tutorials, videos and hard work we translated the Japanese manga.
In our third year, we spent a lot of time studying and speaking Japanese at the annoyance of everyone around us. I will not say being in jail was easy. The hardships we endured often tested our sanity. Often in fights, there wasn't a time Lee, or myself, didn't find ourselves in the infirmary. But the friendship we formed was strong. We offered each other a comfort we made work when sharing a room for three years.
Loneliness can influence life choices and being together day in, day out, we overlooked the things that might never have crossed our minds. At some point the topic of same sex was discussed. It came about after one on the manga’s Lee received was a Shounen-Ai - a same sex story. I don't remember what the story was about or what became of it after Lee received it but in those months after, Lee and I became lovers. We never discussed it, never became intimate, or showed 'love' towards each other. Only in the early hours of the morning when everyone slept, Lee would come to my bed and we'd take care of each other.
It took longer before we considered anal sex and although neither of us said anything, we accepted it. One for one - this system worked. We formed a bond during our time together so strong those ties would never be broken. It became our demise.
On the day of Lee's release, there were mixed feelings from the both of us. There was an awkwardness about our goodbye and something else I couldn’t place at the time. We had both come a long way. Half way through our teaching degrees, Lee hoped to finish his once he got out. My own plans were vague and I thought to play it by ear. Stuck with a criminal record and becoming a teacher in languages seemed unlikely. After Lee left, depression until I ever knew weighed down on me. I lacked concentration to study, found myself in more fights and almost feared I wouldn’t be let out. I couldn't explain at the time what I was going through. All I knew was – those last three months I was always agitated and angry.
Three days before my release, Lee came to visit. The overwhelming feeling of happiness when I saw Lee was crushed when he told me of his return to Korea. Lee applied for a special visa to return and with duel citizenship, and after the paper work done, the Australian Federal Police allowed him to return to his home country. At the time I was happy for him. It wouldn’t be until much later would I realise how devastated I would become at not having Lee around.
Lee planned to continue his studies in Korea and teach there. He told me once released his old gang friends tracked him down and assumed he wanted back in with them. But Lee found a new path and leaving the country seemed his only choice in making a clean break. I knew the decision he made was a hard one and the right one.
When I got out in April, if I thought I could start over new, I was wrong. Much like Lee's situation, the people I once called friends tried to hook up with me again. When I tried to explain about going back to school and getting a job, life became hard. They acted like I owed them, but where were they while I spent three years in jail. Not watching my back, that much I know.
But unlike Lee, I couldn't leave the country. So I did the next best thing. I moved interstate. I arrange my parole to be transferred and when the paper work came through, I was on the first bus to Melbourne.
In all this time I kept in contact with Lee. He'd enrolled in a university in Seoul, living in a one-bedroom apartment he managed by working part time at a local grocery store. He had met a nice girl and life for him was good.
Life for me continued to be a struggle.
I found temporary accommodation while finding a half decent paying job was difficult. My parole officer was able to help me out with a job at a local steel manufacturer cutting pieces of tube. The work was repetitive and the pay lousy. But I needed the money to get a better place and enough to finish my degree.
When I'd scraped together enough money I found better accommodations but the change of location didn't change my frame of mind. I continued to struggle with loneliness but with Lee still keeping regular contact there was hope when hope was hard to find.
It took another year of loneliness and working long hours to save enough money to consider going to university. In November, a year and a half after my release, I visited Melbourne university and inquired about finishing my degree. I filled out the applications, included the courses completed while in jail with my scores and other information required. As I needed only to complete courses I hadn't done, places where limited. I had to attend an interview with the course lecturer to decide if I would get a place. By now, my depression left me with no self-esteem. Confidence in my ability to speak the languages learned was gone and failure hovered close to my heart.
The desire to give up grew, but I didn't.
Lee was my inspiration. He had never quit. I understood how hard he'd work to turn his life around and so would I.
From that point on no matter what happened I planned to do everything I could to do well in life.
The day of my interview is one I will never forget. Weeks of anxiety and bouts of depression weighed heavily on me. Lee continued to support me over the telephone, talking in Korean and Japanese. Yet, the emotional ride I was on was going nowhere but down. As I sat in the air-conditioned foyer waiting to be seen it was easy to question my miserable existence but difficult to understand why I refused to give up.
The nametag read, Margaret, I remember because she stood out like a beacon. Short in stature, with a large beehive hair dyed bright red. Margaret's red glossy lips matched her hair, but it was her long fake eyelashes and evenly longer nails that drew my attention. With a voice that reverberated in the small foyer, Margaret commanded any room she was in. From the group of plastic chairs pressed hard against the wall, I stood carrying my personal information in a folder under my arm. Margaret indicated to follow, and we walked silently down a carpeted corridor towards my interview.
"You can go in, Mr Sheldon." Margaret said at the open door.
"Thank you," I replied.
The room was no bigger than the jail cell I once occupied. Furnished with a small grey square laminated table and two chairs, the lecturer conducting my interview rose from the seat opposite me. An older petite Japanese woman stepped forward as I entered and closed the door behind me. She bowed, and I returned her bow. We sat opposite each other and as she looked me over my anxiety grew.
I swallowed hard and placed my folder on the table as I ran my hands against my black jeans trying to remove the clammy sensation in my palms.
"Konichiwa Shelden-san. I am Tanaka-sensei. I lecture Japanese at the university. Your application tells me you have completed five of the ten units for Bachelors of Arts degree in Japanese Studies. Please tell me about yourself and why you want to study with me."
I took a deep breath and for a millisecond thought to lie. Instead, I told Tanaka-Sensei in my almost fluent Japanese about myself, and why I wanted to complete my degree with her.
"Takano-sensei I will be honest with you. I undertook the first five units of this degree while in jail. I made mistakes in my past but I have learned my lesson. While in jail, I met a man whom took the time to teach me Korean and Mandarin, in return for assisting him with graduating high school. From there we both applied under the skills program a teaching degrees in languages. We chose Japanese as my friend loved Japanese manga and as we were unable to read what copies we had."
The reasoning behind it all now seemed pathetic and my doubts continued to grow. I didn’t belong there. I had no right to request a place at university when there were students who had more prospects than me. Takano-sensei's gaze, although calm, made my anxiety-ridden thoughts tell me I had lost all chance of fulfilling my degree.
"So you speak three languages?" Tanaka-sensei asked this time in Mandarin, surprising me.
"Yes," I answered her back in the same language. "Although I only speak Mandarin, but can write and read both Korean and Japanese."
Tanaka-sensei nodded, then asked, as our conversation continued in Japanese. "Why a teaching degree?"
Why? I'd never questioned my reasons. Lee decided he wanted to and so I followed. But I did not speak these words.
"I think I needed direction. Something I could work towards and know it meant something."
"But you realise even if you get your degree, your opportunities may be limited."
The reconfirmation of what I already knew hurt more that I care to admit. What chance was there for me to use my degree if I got it? I stared into sensei's eyes and answered, "I'm not doing this for anyone but me. Regardless of whether I get work or not, four years ago I had no future, now I do."
"What do you do now?"
I looked confusingly at sensei unsure what her questioned meant.
"Yes, I work six days a week."
"If you are offered a position, you cannot continue to work those hours. Will you be able to study and maintain your current life style?"
Every new question became another blow to my confidence. As my chances dwindled a small spark within wasn't ready to give up. I had every right to a position in Tanaka-sensei's lectures – that's what I told myself.
"No. I cannot maintain my current life style. I would need to find cheaper accommodation and still need to work part time to support myself. I won't let this impacts my chances of getting my degree. I will do my best to succeed."
Tanaka-sensei did not reply immediately. I watched her as she watched me. I couldn't explain the growing unease deep within. Highly strung and my nerves wound tight if I were to snap at that moment I would have been lost.
"There are twenty places in my lecture Sheldon-san and thirty-three applications. Contact will be made by mail within seven days. Thank you for your time."
My interview was over faster than I expected. I stood and bowed to Tanaka-sensei as she too stood and returned my bow. I left the room and then the building. The first thing I did was call Lee.
"Cody, how did you go?" Lee spoke in Korean.
"I don't know. I spoke the entire interview in Japanese like you suggested."
"Was the lecturer impressed?"
"Hard to tell. She asked me about my Korean and Mandarin in Mandarin. That surprised me."
Lee laughed. "How soon before you find out?"
"I have no doubt you'll get a place." The enthusiasm in Lee's voice lifted my spirits.
"I hope but there are only twenty places with thirty-three people applied. I can't help but think the odds are against me."
"No way Cody. I'll pray to god for you."
I laughed, "Thanks Lee. How are things with you?"
"Good man, I've applied to the international teacher's association. I'm hoping to hear from them about a job as translator. My prospects are good."
"Don't tell them about your time here."
"Yeah. Don't know what I would do if I couldn't come back. Don't think I'd have made it as far as you Cody. I'm proud of you."
My heart swelled at Lee’s words. The emotion I have for Lee I couldn't explain and hearing his words made me invincible.
"Thanks Lee. Wouldn't be here if it weren't for you. We're brothers right."
"Damn right Cody. We're brothers. Call me the when you have news."
"Cool. Take it easy and don't stress and I'll talk to you soon. Annyong Cody."
No matter what was going on in my life Lee always made me feel better. I walked over to a nearby seat and sat down, watching the people pass me by. Everyone was getting ready for exams and I wondered if I might be fortunate enough to be attending the following year.
I wanted this to be the turning point for me and a chance for a better life.