I watched Ji Tae pour himself a drink. He'd been in my house for at least an hour and had barely said a word to me in all that time. "Look, I'll be completely alright if my little brother wasn't around but since he is, I don't think it makes any sense for there to be so much tension between us."
He looked up at me. "What tension?"
What the hell? Not speaking to me for almost two days didn't constitute tension? Especially in comparison to the previous days? I scratched my hand. "I'm sure this is all because of the way I reacted to your girlfriend but I'm not going to apologize because I really don't think I'm in the wrong."
He returned the carton of apple juice then shut the fridge. "Do we really need to go over this again?"
"Yes. Because you're making me feel like the bad guy when I'm not."
He sighed. "I've apologized and she's apologized. Is there anything else we can do?" he asked before he took a sip of his drink.
I grunted in frustration. "Stop being so nonchalant about it, okay? Don't be so dismissive about how she tried to make me feel!"
He dropped the glass on the table. "And don't be dismissive about how I feel. I'm in the middle of this and I agree that she was in the wrong but I can't let you treat her like mini cooper."
"Treat her like sh.it? I was far more respectful than she deserved."
"Don't you get it?" he asked, leaving his drink behind and walking towards me. "You can't just say anything you like about her to me." He pointed at himself. "She's really not as bad as you think and I even apologized on her behalf so why couldn't you just let it go? Was it too much for you? As a friend, couldn't you at least respect our relationship?" He stopped walking when he was just a few inches away from me.
"Respect your…?" I asked as I looked up at him. But why did he have to come so close? Okay, he took a shower in the morning but was he so proud of it that he wanted me to smell his soap?
"All I'm saying is that you should watch what you say about her to me."
My not saying that she's a bi.tch wouldn't change anything. "Does it really matter, Ji Tae?"
He shook his head like I'd asked the dumbest question. "This is like one of the fundamental rules of friendship. She's my girlfriend so the least you can do is respect her when I'm around. What kind of guy would I be if I just let you say anything you wanted about her? So watch what you say."
Weird. Weird. Weird. I suddenly had a bitter taste in my mouth. He was telling me I had to censor myself when speaking to him. Wow. In all the time I'd known him, it wasn't that I didn't respect him but I felt I could do anything when it came with us. Any boundaries between us were the ones I'd set up but there he was, telling me that there were lines I couldn't cross. For real?
I glanced at him and it was the first time I really, really saw him as a man, a man independent of our past or anything I'd ever felt for him. It was like I'd suddenly had LASIK surgery and I could finally see clearly. After so many years, I'd only just come to realize that our relationship outside of romance, hurt, whatever, had in fact shifted from what I'd thought it was. We really weren't living in the past. Like, for real. So I couldn't just say and do whatever I wanted and only have to face the consequences that I expected. Maybe I had to really accept that even though he'd been my boyfriend, he was also a grown man with a life that was completely unrelated to me. A part I had no business even thinking about. I'd always known it but I guess I hadn't really known it. Suddenly, I had to think of him in a different way and it was all because of the Rabi.tch. Talk about a kick in the chest.
"Ji Tae, you can't possibly like her that much, right? Or do you?"
I waited for his response but when about thirty seconds later, his lips hadn't moved nor had his expression changed, I had no choice but to interpret his silence as confirmation. Eww. I felt a little sick.
I cleared my throat. "If it's really that important to you, Ji Tae, I'll never say anything negative about her. Besides, I'm already over it. When she called to apologize, I invited her to Jin Soo's birthday party."
"Yeah, she told me."
"Well, to be honest, when I invited her, I'd hoped that she'd have the decency to refuse the invitation but since Jin Soo will kill me if you're not there and I'll probably be the only person in your age group you know, you should bring her along. But please, just make sure she takes her Proza…." Oops. "Yeah, just bring her."
"What are you watching?" Ji Tae asked as soon as he walked into the living room about an hour later. Jin Soo had already finished his homework and was in his room taking his siesta.
"Do you remember Ki Won's fiancé, Ha Jin? This is her drama," I said, pointing at the television.
He picked up a throw pillow then sat next to me. "It's still on?"
I nodded. "Yeah, it's a daily drama. It's actually quite interesting. I think I'm going to keep taping it even after I go back to work."
After giving Ji Tae a quick summary of the show, we watched it for a few minutes.
"You know something?" he said. "I didn't realize that she was this pretty. She's so much hotter than I remember."
Men were such suckers. "Just back off Ki Won's woman – she doesn't want you."
He chuckled. "I'm just saying that if I'd realized she was this pretty, I'd have paid more attention to her at that party."
"And what exactly would that accomplished? If the choices are you," I said, raising my left hand, "or Ki Won," I raised my right hand, "you pretty much have no hope."
He raised his left brow. "Are you sure about that?"
Okay, so I'd walked right into that one. I glared at him and the deeper my frown got, the louder his laugh became. "God, you're so annoying," I said, shoving him. I put my finger against my lips. "Alright, no more talking. Let's just watch the show. And please, drool in silence."
I was lying in bed when I heard a knock at my door.
"Noona, it's me," Jin Soo said as he opened the door.
"Come in." I put the fashion magazine I'd been reading down and sat up. "Let me guess: you want to sleep here tonight?"
Still holding the door handle, he nodded.
"Then come here," I said, patting the other side of my bed. Every few days, he asked to sleep in my bed and I always let him. I turned on the television and went back to my magazine.
"Noona," he said a few minutes after getting under the covers, "if I pray, do you think Umma will come to my party tomorrow?"
I exhaled, dropped my magazine on the nightstand then turned over so that I was facing him. He hadn't spoken about my mother for a while so I'd hoped that he was getting more used to her absence. "Jin Soo, she's in Heaven so she can't come."
"But why not?" He rolled over to me. "You said she's with God and God can do anything. So why can't He let Umma just come tomorrow? It's my birthday."
"Sweetie," I said, caressing his face, "you know what it means when someone dies, don't you? You never get to see them again."
"I know. But you said that she's in Heaven with the angels and I always hear people thanking God for answering their prayers so why won't He answer mine? I've been praying everyday. Did I do something wrong? I just want to see Umma on my birthday. It doesn't have to be the whole day – just during the party."
"Remember her funeral? You remember that we buried her human body. It's her spirit that went to Heaven and we can't see her spirit."
"But my friend said that God can do anything He wants and that he always answers all prayers. So do you think he's not allowing Umma to come because he doesn't like me?"
Crap. Was it time to talk to my father about this? I'd never been religious and the entire conversation was getting too much for me. Looking at his downturned eyes, I tried to come up with a wonderful, logical explanation but my brain wasn't cooperating. I reached across and pulled him to me. "Umma will come but you just won't be able to see her. Don't you think everyone will be scared if a dead person just showed up in front of them? But that doesn't mean she won't be there, okay? Even though you won't see her, she'll be celebrating your birthday with the rest of us. It's a special thing to have spent eight years on this planet."
The worst state a person can awake in on an eight year-old's birthday party is horny. As in horny with a capital H. As in stuck on a deserted island for twelve years kind of horny. The first thing I thought of when I woke up wasn't that I had to get up and prepare for the guests that would be arriving later in the day or that I had to wish my brother a happy birthday. Nope. The first thing I woke up thinking was that I wished that I wasn't so pathetic that not only was I in the middle of an extremely dry spell, I didn't even have a buddy I could call up at times like this. Then it dawned on me that even if I did have a buddy, since I was in my parents' house, I wouldn't even be able to use him. Then Jin Soo rolled over and I remembered that he was sleeping next to me. And I was horny. Ick.
An eight year-old's party with unlimited alcohol? Yes, because it was a Kim Hee Soo type of party. But then again, other than Jin Soo, Han Bi's daughter, Eun Hye and some of my little cousins, everyone else was an adult. I set Jin Soo's room up with toys and a lot of finger food catered to little kids like cookies and chips while the living room had cocktails and far too expensive hors d'oeuvres. Even though the kids did have their own assigned area, they still tended to wander around so Mi Soo grudgingly took the job as their caretaker.
"Noona," Jin Soo said, tugging at my shirt, "Mi Soo Noona won't let me have any of those sandwiches." He pointed at some grilled leek sandwiches on a tray in the kitchen. I'd ordered them from a restaurant and they were on hand as emergency food if we ran out of everything else. Otherwise, they were going to end up in the trash.
"Mi Soo…?" I sipped the wine that wasn't helping to calm my hormones. What the hell was wrong with me? I'd just been speaking to my only aunt's husband and instead of listening to what he had to say about why REITs were such a godsend, I was thinking that he looked quite cute when he smiled. What the hell was wrong with me?
"This kid is so greedy," Mi Soo said, shaking her head in annoyance. She was in the middle of studying for her exams so pretty much everything anyone did annoyed her. "He doesn't want to eat any of the food back there because he thinks this one is better. And this one," she said, tapping Eun Hye's shoulder, "just copies everything he says and does." She rolled her eyes. "At what age do kids develop a brain for themselves? One of them is bad enough but two?!"
I shrugged. "What's the big deal?" I downed the rest of the wine in my glass and picked another one up. "Just let them have it. When they realize that there's a reason I didn't bring any out here, they'll run back to the hot dogs."
She nodded and took their hands.
As I watched them go to the kitchen, Ji Tae came over to me.
"Hey," I said as he picked up a glass of champagne from the table and stood next to me. "Where's Tae Hee?"
"She had a prior engagement."
I sipped some of my wine. Stalking another ex?
"Anyway, how's Jin Soo doing? Does he like his party?" he asked as he peered into the kitchen.
I shrugged. "He's doing fine. He's always fine as long as Eun Hye is around."
"Yeah, they are so meant to be," I said dreamily.
He laughed. "How old is she? Four? Five?"
"Five but so what? Is that too young to meet the man of your dreams?"
Ji Tae grimaced at my admittedly corny words. But they were so cute together.
"Besides, it'll be good to form an alliance with the Kangs, don't you think? And since Yun Ah has stolen Han Bi Oppa from me, we'll have to leave it to Jin Soo and Eun Hye."
He frowned. "You can't be serious. You don't honestly give a sh.it about that alliance business."
"Of course not," I admitted, "but I think it'll be the cutest thing."
He shook his head. "But isn't it—"
My Halmonis interrupted him by joining us.
"Oh my God! Little neighbor Ji Tae? You've grown up this much? It is you, right? The boy from next door?" Country Halmoni gushed.
"Good afternoon, Halmoni. Yes, it's me." He bowed to her.
"My, you've grown so much," she said, feeling his arm. "You're a man now."
City Halmoni rolled her eyes. "He wasn't exactly little the last time you saw him."
Country Halmoni turned to her and frowned. "Back then he was a boy in a man's body but now he's a man in a man's body. Or you can't see the difference?"
"Is that so? And why are you acting like you haven't seen him in such a long time? He greeted you at the funeral," she replied.
Country Halmoni looked away and blinked a few times. She fought and won the war with the tears that attempted to escape anytime my mother was mentioned or even referenced. "As you know, I can't remember everything from that day."
I saw a bolt of regret shoot across City Halmoni's face before she wrapped an arm over her friend's shoulder.
Before we could all soak in the dampened moment, my cell phone rang. I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at the caller-id. "It's my friend, Hyun Su," I told the three of them. "Please, excuse me."
"Thanks for my brother's gift. You really didn't have to," I said as I escorted Hyun Su down the hallway.
He shrugged. "No big deal. I'm sorry I can't stay for the party."
I smiled. I'd casually mentioned the party to him so I'd definitely not expected him to show up. "It's more than enough that you dropped by. Thank you so much."
We walked in silence till we arrived at the elevators. "So have you thought about what we talked about the other day?"
I took a deep breath in. I'd practiced my speech a few times and hoped that it came out right for the real performance. "The thing is, you're a nice guy…."
"So, I don't want to make the mistake of letting go of a nice guy… but on the other hand, you deserve better than someone who's so unsure."
He folded his arms and leaned against the wall. And something about the way his profile looked against that wall made him look damn hot.
"Who's ever sure of anything?"
"No one," I said, biting my nails. If I pushed him into the elevator and had my way with him, would that be bad? I inhaled deeply and decided to proceed as planned. "The thing is, if it turns out that we can't make it work, I'll feel so bad for wasting your time. But if it turns out that I made a huge mistake, then it's my loss, you know?"
He nodded. "I see."
Since he didn't seem to be getting annoyed, I decided to add the line I'd debated on. "And I know it's cliché but this is really not about you. It's about me not having any sense at all."
He chuckled. "I won't say that I didn't see this coming…."
"I'm so sorry," I said sheepishly. "I'm sorry for wasting your time."
"Eun Jung is going to be so upset."
"She didn't do that badly. She picked the right guy. It's just that she picked the wrong girl," I said, looking down and pouting. When I looked up at his face, I was glad to see that he really wasn't hurt.
He stood up straight and shrugged. "I guess it could have been worse."
I stretched my hand out. "See you around?"
He arched his brow. "A hand shake? The least you can do is give me a hug," he said as he pulled me into him.
He made one hell of a bad move because my nose ended up buried in the side of his neck and I had no choice but to take in the scent of a mixture of cologne and sweat. I glanced at the elevator which was looking more and more inviting.
I adjusted my body and hugged him tighter but only because it was so good to feel a muscular body against mine. I tapped his back but I really wanted to let my hands slip down and cup his butt. I just needed to feel some hardness. When we started to separate, I turned my head and gave him a soft but quick kiss on his lips.
"What an interesting way to say goodbye," he said, obviously taken aback.
I nodded. Yeah, if he substituted 'horny' with 'interesting' he'd have a more accurate picture of the situation. It was a horny and very shameless way to say goodbye to a guy I'd just rejected but I was so damn proud of myself for managing to keeping that kiss very brief and as nonsexual as it could possibly be. Was there an over-the-counter drug I could take?
"So I'll see you around?" he said as he hit the down button of the elevator.
I nodded. "I'll see you around Shim Hyun Su."
After all the guests had left, my father, Jin Soo and I, sat in the living room and opened all his presents. After unwrapping a countless number of toys and clothes, Jin Soo reached for a small box. "This one is from Ajusshi," he said as he ripped the multicolored wrapping off. Opening the box revealed a cute cell phone. It was one that had just come on the market and if the ads were to be believed, had so many features that you could probably program it to take you on a trip to the moon.
"There's a letter too," Jin Soo said, picking up a blue sheet of paper.
"What does it say?" my father asked.
"Noona, you read it," he said as he handed it to me.
I took it from him. "Happy Birthday, Jin Soo. I know you said you liked my phone but this one is better. But since you're still too young to have your own phone, there's only one number in it. So if you need to talk to me at any time –day or night— you can call me on this phone and I promise that I will always try my best to answer. I hope you have a great year. - Love, Hyung."
Jin Soo picked up the phone and stared at it in awe. "This is mine?"
I nodded. "It looks that way."
"Yay!" he cheered as his ran around the living room.
"Jin Soo, stop that! Call to thank him before you start running around the house," my father said.
A few minutes later, after Jin Soo had spoken to Ji Tae, I took the phone from him. "Hey Ji Tae—"
"Who's this?" he interrupted.
What da…? "It's Hee Soo."
"Exactly, so this isn't your phone. This phone is only for Jin Soo."
"Are you kidding me?"
"He can't share his present on his birthday of all days. Call me on your own phone. I'm hanging up now."
"Are you happy now?" I said as soon as he answered my call.
"Yes. Anyway, it was a nice party. Good job."
"Thanks. And thanks for helping." No accidents, no bad spills, smiles at the end of the day? I definitely considered it a success.
"I see that your friend came," he said in what could possibly be interpreted as an accusatory tone.
"Yeah… but anyway, I just wanted to thank you for the gift you got my brother but you really didn't have to."
"Why do you keep saying that? I can do what I want regardless of if I 'have' to or not," he said gruffly.
"Look, I'm trying to be nice and grateful here, okay? So don't spoil it." It had been a long day but there really wasn't any reason to get mad.
He chuckled. "Alright, continue."
"Anyway, thank you so much for it but how long do you plan on paying for his phone bill?"
"Don't worry about it – it's between me and Jin Soo."
"Well, I pity you when he's a teenager and racks up 100,000 Won bills."
He groaned. "Didn't I just tell you not to worry about it?"
I rolled my eyes. "Anyway, thanks for being around these past weeks. I know everyone generally goes away on long vacations—"
"But you couldn't because it was different," Captain Obvious pointed out.
"Yeah, but your being around helped. And you know, it's going to be strange going back to work on Monday."
"Because you've been away for so long?"
"Yes, that and also that I'm not going to be seeing you as much." It was like my daily routine would be taking a 180-degree turn. "It's going to be so weird and definitely hard to get used to."
After a moment of silence, he asked, "Are you saying that you're going to miss me?"
I thought about it. Was it okay for me to miss Mr. Rab.itch? "If I say 'yes' what will happen?"
"It depends. Are you saying you will?"
He laughed. "That's exactly what I thought you'd say. Hee Soo yah…."
"Oppa yah?" he repeated.
"Yes Sir yah."
"Yes Sir yah? What are you saying?"
I giggled. "Nothing really yah."
"Huh? You know what? Seek help."
"Okay yah." I laughed. Hey, at least my jokes cracked me up. "You were going to say something?"
"Yeah, I was just going to say that I can't wait for the day you surprise me."
I switched my television on and began to flick through channels. "You're saying that I'm predictable?"
"In some things, you're very predictable."
"Whatever," I said as I dropped my remote control. "About surprises, I'm really not one for them because they are rarely ever worth it."
"Trust me, in this case, it'll definitely be worth it," he said in a lowered pitch.
I narrowed my eyes. It was so obvious that he was no longer speaking in general terms. "What exactly are you talking about?"
He chuckled. "I knew you were going to play dumb."
I hissed. "I'm playing dumb? Have you forgotten that this is supposed to be a pleasant conversation where I thank you for my brother's birthday present? Why are you getting mean?"
He laughed again. "Sorry about that. I guess you're starting to rub off on me."
I gritted my teeth. "See what I mean?"
"Sorry. Sorry. Hey, look out the window."
I was already sitting comfortably on my bed and didn't feel like standing up. "Why?"
"Just do it."
Who did he think he was ordering around? But I stood up and went to the window. I drew the curtain back and tried to find something interesting. "Oh, it's snowing."
"Yep, the first snow of the season. I guess winter is finally here."
I looked at the falling flakes as they shone against the night light. "Yeah, even though it's still technically fall. Guess what just occurred to me?"
"What? Christmas presents?"
I rolled my eyes. "Not that. It just hit me that we almost never talk on the phone."
"Maybe it's because lately, I've been seeing you all the time. But then again, why would I be calling you? I guess we don't really have that much to say." But his voice did sound nice over the phone. Maybe it was time to find interesting things to talk about?
I turned away from the window and went back on my bed. "Something else just occurred to me."
I picked up the remote control again. Maybe if I kept flicking, something good would magically appear on the screen. "Ji Tae, I think we should have hung up like two or three minutes ago."
"I agree," he said without even a second of hesitation.
"You agree? You should say something like, 'It's so great talking to you, Hee Soo that I can talk to you for days.'"
"Do you really want to hear that?" he asked with his voice losing a little bit of the niceness.
"So what's your point?"
"I have no point – I was just joking." Jeez. "Goodnight, then."
He laughed. "Goodnight, Hee Soo."