When I was 24, I spent two months living in total isolation in Xi’an, China. Suffice it to say that after this extended social quarantine I was so desperate for companionship that I would have befriend a torn poncho. At least, I felt this way until I met Johann.
Towering over Asia at a spindly 6’4, Johann was Sweden’s very own Weapon of Mass Destruction. I met Johann via the same blameless, arbitrary sort of happenstance that would send an asteroid to destroy our planet. I don’t even think we can blame Karma for this one– sometimes bad things happen to good people.
I was sitting on the floor of my hostel dorm in Bangkok when the door opened and in rushed this pillar of abhorrence, wearing a bright neon shirt that will forever rob me any enjoyment of the color orange. His feet were massive and slapped about like scuba flippers. He was barely two foot slaps into the room when he spotted me typing on my Acer netbook.
“What an inferior machine you have, though I suppose you don’t know any better.”
He squinted at me, like I was a bug unworthy of being squashed.
“Well…” I tried to defend myself, “My MacBook Pro was stolen on a bus in China.”
He gave me a different look then. I was still an insect, but one that was worthy enough to stick a pin in.
“American, hmmm? Not too many of you around here… too busy sleeping around and driving nice cars. Well, I myself own four Apple computers, at my home office, where I work. I work in IT, have you heard of IT? Do you even understand what I’m talking about?”
After my months of self-induced solitude, this was more conversation than I was prepared for.
Johann had absolutely zero interest in the other 7 billion humans on this planet, but was afflicted with a need to constantly engage them. I watched his long limbed gait as he paced the length of the room, swinging and leaning with the stick-like flexibility of a flamingo. He explained how his love for IT was born from his inability to stop thinking. He was thousands of miles from home but still felt the need to carry several laptops, multiple iPods, and what appeared to be the dismembered remains of a robot. His devices were spread across the room, charging and flashing and beeping.
“I hate to be ever waiting on a machine. Unlike persons, you can just have a go at them all at once or move from one to the other without the taboo of orgies or infidelity.”
He rambled on, crouching, bending, and bounding between his machines. He scowled at a screen while balancing on one foot, then dropped to his knee to check another, buzzing around like a construction-cone-colored honeybee. He never stopped talking about his undying affection for IT and how it is so much better than human companionship because it was always improving.
“I only allow a maximum of 90 minutes sleep at night, for I need always to be learning new things, like quantum physics or various uses for salt, or the history of Chiclets.”
He paused in his orbit and zeroed in on my netbook. His gaze was ravenous with lust but his voice was tinged with feigned charity.
“You know… I can install the Mac Operating System on your netbook so it will run like a Mac.”
I was not quick enough with my “No Thanks” as he snatched it from my hands.
“Operating systems are like fine wines,” he declared, “You always want to share them.”
Though this exchange was entirely nonconsensual, it was too late to go back. He dug around the countless pockets and compartments of his massive backpack, spilling chords and scattering flash drives. My netbook, so naïve and virginal, was donning a black DOS screen as he spoke dirty words over it, like…
I watched helplessly as he continued his home-key powered defilement. Suddenly, the door opened. I looked up, praying to be rescued by someone with a computer virus or a jammed disc drive.
A French girl wrapped in a towel dripped water as she ignored us and picked through her backpack for fresh clothing. Johann ignored her as well and began lecturing me on the importance of learning celestial navigation. As French Girl bent over to reach for a hairbrush, her left foot accidentally bumped an external hard drive Johann had left under her bed. Before I could even register what was happening, he was across the room, shoving her to the side and cradling the hard drive like a wilting flower.
“Some people don’t realize how fragile this equipment can be!” He fumed, “It has a wire as thin as a hair on your head, and once broken, it’s irreparable.”
He waved his hand in front of her terrified face.
French Girl fled the room, still half naked.
“Good, let’s see if we can finish before she comes back, stupid girl.”
His face was red and he kept muttering over delicate inner workings, until a tangent struck from somewhere within his mind and sent him into a fit of giggles.
“Eventually,” he crowed, “a micro-SD will hold up to 9 terabytes. That’s enough to hold a video of your entire life!”
He was so excited he had started sweating.
“Tiny! Your whole life contained in something small enough to blow away with a sneeze. Imagine, ACHOO! And your life, it is gone now.”
The hours passed and he had still not let go of my computer. I finally managed to escape his presence so I could take a shower.
“Okay,” he said, “But I must prepare you, I may not recognize you when you return.”
That sounded like a dream come true, but all I did was nod, and say “Okay, Johann.”
“It is nothing of a personal nature, it is only I have no memory for people after 10 minutes, I will not remember your face. Perhaps it is because I fell from a tree at the age of seven.”
Or perhaps it was because he never slept and was a truly horrible person.
“Here let me look at your feet, I will memorize your shoes so I will recognize you.”
I let him take a nice long look, then turned to go. But he was still talking.
“It is disastrous for your love life when you can never remember who you’re with.”
I would imagine that it is also disastrous for your love life if you’re a self-absorbed arse.
“But how can I remember someone else’s likes and dislikes if I can’t remember my own?”
This seemed easy enough: Johann liked Johann, and Johann disliked everyone else.
Later that evening, when he was finally finished doing dirty things to my netbook, he made me an offer that I took as a warning.
“I’ll be in Chiang Mai later this month, at Spicy Thai Hostel, you’d be a fool to stay anywhere else. E-mail me if you’re in the area and I’ll install some security software that would make the CIA weep.”
Three weeks later, after a train, several buses, and two days on a river barge, I found myself arriving in Luang Prabang– a charming city hidden in the landlocked wonder of Laos.
When I reached the shore, I banded together with several other backpackers to survive the rush of tuk-tuk drivers trying to sell us on the merits of the hostels that paid their commission. I didn’t care where we ended up, I just wanted a bed, but when our rickshaw came to a stop outside a building and waited for us to pile out, I saw three words on a wall that made me shudder in fear.
“Spicy Laos Hostel.”
We were in a completely different country, but it had a similar name and that was all it took to reignite the trauma of Johann. I tried to push it away as we filed into our new room and tossed a coin to decide who scored the luxury of bottom bunks. We were a smattering of Europeans and Aussies, with a few Canadians drizzled on top. As always, I was the only American.
The usual debates over economic policies and health care were beginning and I went ahead and surrendered my patriotism from the start, checking out at the first mention of Guantanamo. Out of nowhere, amidst the lighthearted banter, my ears were assaulted by none other than the priggishly posh voice of my least favorite Swede.
I snuck across the room, praying that I was only experiencing auditory hallucinations.
Behind me, the rest of the world abandoned their bunks as well, joining me in my spying. I turned to explain, but saw my fear mirrored in their own eyes as Johann climbed from a tuk-tuk and immediately began identifying all the flaws he could see within the hostel’s courtyard.
In a true moment of world peace and harmony, we united as one, exchanging whispers of a familiar story in different accents.
“He was on my night bus from Phukhet.”
“He was on my trek in Sapa.”
“He was in my dorm at Spicy Thai.”
He had helped us with Jail Breaking iPhones, debugging laptops, and recovering lost files. Mercifully, he was assigned a room upstairs and far out of earshot. Our cultural debate was settled and we were now united as allies, committed to a buddy system bent on braving the wake of Johann.
Have you ever met someone so odd you felt they were a character from a book? Has there been someone you thought you would never see again… but kept running into? What’s the weirdest favor a stranger has ever offered?
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