"I hope that sandwich is for you," I said to Ji Tae as I watched him bring out luncheon meat from the refrigerator.
"Oh," he said, glancing back at me, "did you think I was making it for you?"
I rolled my eyes. "I'm serious. I already let Jin Soo have some cookies so he shouldn't eat anything else till dinner."
He turned around and leaned against the counter. "Hee Soo, I know you're watching your weight but you don't have to be so strict with him."
"This has nothing to do with my weight." Jeez. "But he shouldn't be eating between meals. Haven't you ever heard the rhyme about the vulture who eats between his meals?"
He shook his head. "I don't think I've heard that one."
"I'll tell it to you then:
The vulture eats between his meals and that's the reason why
He very very rarely feels as well as you or I
His something something,"
I paused. Why did I always forget that part? I continued:
"…his head is bald, his neck is growing thinner
And that's a lesson for us all to only eat at dinner."
He laughed. "I see," he said as he went back to making his sandwich. "So you get your parenting tips from nursery rhymes?"
"Not exactly, but there must be some truth to that rhyme. Regardless, just don't give any of that to Jin Soo. Okay?"
He shook his head then chuckled. Then the chuckle turned into a full-on laugh.
I watched his shaking shoulders curiously. "What's so funny?"
"This," he said, turning around to face me. He waved his knife around. "This almost feel like déjà vu."
"Dude, you're still speaking Greek to me."
He dropped the knife on the plate and gave me his full attention. "This conversation just brings back memories. When I was in high school, not long after I started tutoring your sister, I came to this kitchen to make myself a sandwich. So I was still holding the bread when your mother walked in and told me to sit down and that she'd make the sandwich for me. Of course I protested but she told me she'd kick my ass if I didn't let go of the bread," he said, smiling. "So I ended up sitting I think where you're sitting now," he said, pointing at my stool.
I still couldn't see the joke. "Go on."
"So as she was stacking the bread, she started asking me about school and after the usual small talk, she started talking about her school days and other random things."
My cheek still hadn't moved a centimeter. "Continue."
He sighed and picked up his knife again. "I guess it's really not that funny... it's just that she told me not to give you any of my sandwich. So I guess you just reminded me of that."
I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, that's was so hilarious," I said dryly.
He frowned. "Well, I guess the difference was that she said that if I took food to your room, you'd never leave it. Then she went into a long rant about youtube."
I covered my suddenly open mouth. "What? I didn't realize she knew I was goofing off." I chuckled. And I'd thought that I was really slick. So all those times I'd gone to my room to study, she'd known I'd been watching Jaeho/Lost/Xman videos? "I honestly didn't even know that she knew that you could watch television online."
He laughed. "Yeah, I'm sure she didn't say anything because of your grades. If they'd started to slip, she'd probably have stopped you. But back to the sandwich story, do you know what the worst part was?"
Back to that? I stifled a yawn and shook my head.
"When I went back to your room, I actually defied your mom and offered you half of my sandwich but instead of accepting it, you scrunched your nose and said something along the lines of 'yuck' sort of like how could I even think that you'd want to eat something I'd touched?"
"No, I'm not. You were so rude that I wanted to strangle you. So that was the last time I disobeyed your mom."
After we'd both recuperated from laughing, he went into another story.
"So I was in the study… I think this was right after you kicked me out of your room."
"I kicked you out?"
"Yeah, it was after you played your music really loud to piss me off."
I giggled. I couldn't really remember it but it sounded like something I'd do.
"So your Umma came to talk to me… actually, I wasn't in the study. I think I was in your room."
I rolled my eyes. "Okay, you were somewhere on Earth. Just get on with the story."
He opened the fridge about brought out a jug of water. "Anyway, she knocked at the door and let herself in," he started as he poured himself a glass. "I quickly sat up in my chair and greeted her. But before I could say anything, she said, 'So you like my daughter, huh?'"
Yikes. "What did you say?"
He returned the jug to the fridge but with the fridge door still open, he got animated as he continued his story. "I was so taken aback by the question that I was stunned into silence.'So, do you?' she said. Feeling that I could save face by pretending that I didn't know what she was talking about, I mentioned something about how tutoring Mi Soo was a pleasure or something." He laughed. "Maybe I shouldn't have gone overboard by actually using the word 'pleasure' in reference to tutoring Mi Soo."
I chuckled because I knew exactly how frustrating teaching Mi Soo math could get.
He continued, "Anyway, she growled and said that she was talking about her other daughter. So I was faced with a dilemma –say yes and get kicked out or say no and get kicked out for lying."
I readjusted my butt on the stool. It was fascinating to hear about the little discussions my mother and Ji Tae had had in my absence. "Which option did you choose?"
"I decided to be truthful so I told her that I honestly didn't know if I did. I mean, this was right after you'd been so bi,tchy so I was already pissed off."
I laughed out loud. "You are making it sound worse than it was. So what did my mother say?"
"Her exact words were, 'Why would you like her? She's so stubborn!'"
I hung my head down in shame. Gosh. Why was my mother such a traitor? I would have preferred if she'd turned into one of those other mothers who'd have warned him to stay away from me.
"Then," he continued, "she said that I shouldn't get too mad at you because you were just a troublemaker and that if I can get past all your bullshit that it must mean that I can really see you – the real you."
I could feel my eyes tearing up despite the fact my mother had called me a troublemaker.
"Then she said that you were probably getting on my nerves because you wanted my attention."
I shook my head. "That was so not true."
He laughed. "Then she went on to say that I should hang in there because it'll be worth it in the end since you're a special person."
"My mother really said that?" I asked in a choked up voice.
"Hey, are you crying?" he asked, as he quickly walked over and caressed my shoulder.
I pushed his hand off me. "Am I not allowed to cry about my mother?"
He smiled. "Of course you are," he said gently. "And it's a good thing too. You should cry as much as you like. I was getting worried when I didn't see you cry at the funeral because I know that you cry when you miss someone."
He reached across to touch my cheek but I moved my head. His sweetness was edging on crossing over the border of 'ex-neighbor' and I really didn't even want to think about that at that moment.
He stood back and stared at me. "I didn't mean to make you sad. I'm sorry."
I grabbed a tissue and wiped my eyes. "I'm not sad, though. Well, not entirely. It's just that I took all that time we had together for granted. Maybe I could have been a different type of daughter, you know, a more loving daughter. I can't believe I complained about having to come home biweekly. I guess I always thought that she'd always be there. I don't think I can ever leave Appa now."
A few moments later, he went back to grab his sandwich then sat next to me. "I'm surprised Jin Soo hasn't yet come out to get us," he said as he bit into one half of his food.
I laughed. "He's probably fallen asleep. But speaking of mothers, how's yours doing?"
"She's fine. She returns to the States tomorrow."
"Really? I wish I could have seen her under different circumstances."
"Yeah… but she's been hanging out with my Dad. It's a little odd." He shrugged then took another bite of his sandwich.
I raised my brow. "They aren't getting back together, are they?" How odd would that be especially as according to Ji Tae, his father had a longtime girlfriend?
He shook his head. "No. I guess after they got over the hurt and pain, they realized they are friends. I think it's hard to be married to someone for twenty years without being friends underneath it all. But anyway, my mom always asks about you. I'm dropping her off at the airport. Do you want to tag along?"
Both of us dropping her off would only be inviting her to start talking about the plans she and my mother had made for us and I really wanted to leave the past where it was… with friends underneath it all and all that great stuff. I shook my head. "Just send her my love."
After taking the sleeping Jin Soo back to his bed, Ji Tae and I went to the study to finish up some work. Thirty minutes and a few internal battles later, I decided to take the plunge and ask him a question that had been on my mind since our last conversation.
He looked up from his computer. "What?"
I took a deep breath. "I know that this might sound like a weird question but why did you like me?"
"Look, I'm not looking for an ego boost or anything. I'm just curious. Why did you like me?"
He smiled weakly. "Should there be a reason?"
I nodded. "Shouldn't there be? Even when I was giving you a hard time, you still liked me. Why?"
He took a few moments to ponder over my question. "Do you really want me to get into this?"
He sighed. "Alright, then. Well, for some reason you amused me. And when you weren't being annoying, I found that you made me laugh. And even when you were annoying, I realized that I preferred being annoyed by you to nothing at all. In fact, not only did I prefer that to nothing at all, I also preferred being around the annoying you to hanging out with other people who were being pleasant to me." He laughed. "Funny, isn't it?"
Was that what Hyun Su got from me? Was that what made him want to stick around? Or were those qualities that only the 17-year old Hee Soo possessed? I wanted to ask him if I was still like that but I couldn't dare to because that would just open a door I didn't want to walk through. "Interesting," was all I could say.
"I'm not finished," he said. "I guess what I liked about you was just that you were always yourself. You were certainly not as perfect or as tough as you liked to pretend but in a weird way, you never made any bones about who you were nor did you try to apologize for it. I guess I liked that."
"Hmm…." How weird. It's funny how I'd never asked that question while we were together. I chuckled. Maybe it was because it hadn't really mattered to me then. I just liked being with him and didn't really give a rat's ass why he liked to be with me. The innocence of youth, huh?
"But on the other hand...," he continued.
I sighed. There was more?
"…And it might sound like I'm contradicting myself but I liked that you sometimes put on a front and seeing that never failed to crack me up." He ran his finger in a circular motion over his palm. "The last few weeks of high school were fun," he said to himself. He looked up and narrowed his eyes. "Why are you asking?"
I shrugged. "It's just about me and this guy I'm seeing."
"Yeah…. When we first met, I think I was ready to get into a relationship which was why I went out with him. But now, I wonder if he really likes me or is just with me out of pity. I really don't want him to be with me out of pity."
"Out of pity?" He made a big show of looking me over. "You're really not that bad."
I kicked his chair. "I'm being serious, here. I just think my mother's death might have been a factor. What do you think?"
He averted his gaze from my face. "I think it's weird for you to be discussing this with me. Shouldn't you talk to Yun Ah?" His voice was filled with humor but I could tell that he was being serious.
I raised my hands and stretched. We really needed to do something about the study chairs. "Trust me, Yun Ah doesn't want to talk about this." Even if she were speaking to me. And in all fairness, I really shouldn't have brought it up with him at all. Even though we were cool, I really didn't want him asking for my advice on things related to Tae Hee. "But it's cool. I'm sure I'll figure it out."
"Yeah, I'm sure you will," he said, switching off his laptop and standing up. "But what I'll say is that there's no need to force it. If you're not sure of the way you feel about each other, let it go. There's nothing worse than being in a relationship you're not sure about because the guilt and worry will eat you up."
I nodded. And once again, I regretted opening my big mouth because not only was I no closer to figuring out what to do with Hyun Su, I now knew that Park Ji Tae was in a relationship with someone he was sure about. And although I didn't have any feelings about that, I hoped that soon enough, I'd feel happy for him.
Jin Soo's eighth birthday was around the corner and after speaking to both Ji Tae and my father, we decided that we'd have a small family get-together. So it wasn't going to be about balloons and clowns with half the neighborhood kids playing in the yard (well, somewhere in the complex) but about close family and friends spending some time together celebrating his life and maybe reminiscing about my mother's.
So a little over a week to the party, while I was sitting in the living room, I quickly grabbed a sheet of paper when I heard the rattling of keys at the other side of the door. I opened my mouth to inform Ji Tae that I needed his opinion on the guest list but no words escaped it as I watched Jin Soo then Ji Tae walk through the door. Why? Because holding on to Ji Tae's arm was Ms. Roger Rabbit. What the hell was she doing in my house?