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Please Don't Talk to Me by bbangduksi. A shy woman is hiding behind a tipsy man holding a bottle of soju.

Please Don't Talk to Me

11

Chapter 11

17

Everything looked bleak. The unmelted snow cast a pallor over the season’s barren face.

 

Dongju walked the ginkgo tree-lined path, now draped in shades of gray so deep, it was hard to imagine they had ever seen the vibrancy of spring or summer. In this tranquil landscape, only Dongju seemed out of place.

 

He paced the length of the path, stopping occasionally to take deep breaths. Memories of that day flickered in his mind, including scenes he wished he could erase. In his imagination, he viewed himself from a CCTV camera above, looking detached and shameful. His own crying, self-pitying and disgraceful, echoed in his ears despite his attempts to block it out.

 

Why did I do that? Why did I behave like that? These questions kept running through his mind.

 

Why did I do that? That can’t happen again.

 

But Dongju couldn’t trust himself anymore. There was no guarantee he wouldn’t repeat his actions. Like the thickest ice that eventually melts at the arrival of spring, Dongju feared his own nature might betray him. Abruptly, he stopped walking and stared at the security office.

 

It felt wrong to go inside. Woogi was there—the person who had provoked his most loathsome aspects. Dongju knew he should stay away to keep his promise to himself. It seemed so clear, it barely required thought.

 

However…

 

Not all memories from that day were terrible. There were also moments of serene quiet, like being encased in ice, the draft from a slightly open door, the thawing of something within him, the relief, Woogi’s face on the dim screen… These memories mingled, creating a bittersweet ache in Dongju’s heart.

 

Like the memory of a spring night’s air, the remnants of that day caressed his skin. Dongju dared not indulge in these sensations, not even allowing himself to acknowledge them. He simply let them scurry past like a mouse, fleeting and unnoticed.

 

But what Dongju didn’t realize was how deeply these feelings were embedding themselves in his heart, shaping his thoughts and actions like a longing for a long-lost home. Even now, his actions betrayed his internal conflict. Faced with the clear choice to avoid the security office, he found himself drawn to the more difficult path.

 

I shouldn’t drink so much in there again.

 

With renewed but fragile trust in himself, Dongju headed toward the security office.

 

***

 

Woogi stretched her arms far back, a familiar gesture that somehow seemed different today. Dongju watched, feeling a slight tension as he accepted a paper cup from her. He peeked inside cautiously as if verifying the contents of a secretive exchange. It was kimbap, the same as always. Egg, pickled radish, ham, spinach.

 

“Oh, I don’t eat carrots.”

 

He had made the comment the first day Woogi brought kimbap for lunch, returning it without taking a bite. But since then, Woogi had made sure her kimbap was carrot-free, and Dongju had eaten it without fail, never noticing the change. How had he missed that?

 

Now, holding the kimbap, Dongju hesitated. It would have been strange not to eat it, especially since he always accepted food. He chewed it slowly as if tasting it for the first time. His gaze drifted to the slippers.

 

They were neatly aligned, positioned perfectly for slipping on when heading out. Dongju had never been the one to organize them; he habitually kicked them off in different directions upon entering. Yet, they were always orderly when he needed to go out. He had never considered why.

 

In that moment, Dongju could easily envision Woogi, diligently arranging the slippers each day. He saw himself, foolishly slipping them on without a second thought.

 

He suddenly felt like a drink.

 

He took a bottle of soju from the fridge and picked up a glass from the top, which was upside down among other glasses. As he tried to pour the soju, he hesitated.

 

Looking at the glass in his hand, he noticed the water droplets clinging to it.

 

He realized he had never washed this glass himself. Glancing up, he saw Woogi’s back.

 

Setting the glass down, Dongju felt a sense of helplessness, like ice slowly melting before a fire. He almost wanted to confront Woogi, to ask why she was doing this to him.

 

He didn’t want to know more about Woogi’s thoughtful acts, yet he couldn’t ignore them. His awareness of her actions had sharpened, making everything she did seem amplified, as if under a microscope. Every movement Woogi made—opening a drawer, turning her head, twirling a pen—captured Dongju’s full attention.

 

Feeling overwhelmed, almost seasick from this rush of sensitivity, Dongju curled up and lay down. He pondered how Woogi, who disliked being disturbed, turned out to be so considerate in such quiet ways.

 

How long had he been lost in thought? Woogi picked up her phone, adjusted the volume, and seemed to assume Dongju was asleep. She gently placed the phone back on the desk, typing softly, making sure even these small actions were silent.

 

Dongju replayed these moments in his mind, slowly, meticulously. He turned away from Woogi and lay facing the wall. His eyes were open, staring blankly.

 

Fear crept in. Dongju worried that witnessing Woogi’s kindness could make him vulnerable again, possibly even lead him to another emotional outburst. He realized he shouldn’t treat Woogi the same way as before.

 

***

 

“I couldn’t have cried in front of anyone else. But with you, Woogi… there’s no one else like you. So quiet. You stop whatever you’re doing, being careful to stay quiet for my sake. You don’t even look out the window if there’s a disturbance. You never show any surprise. It’s like you’re not even here…”

 

Dongju Choi was surprisingly observant. How did he notice everything I did even while drunk crying? It seemed like he wasn’t paying any attention, yet he caught every little thing. He even seemed to deliberately overlook what Professor Kang said last time, as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. Maybe… Dongju Choi had picked up on it all along.

 

“Thank you.”

 

That “Thank you” resonated deeply within me.

 

Was that really something to be thankful for? I was just being still…

 

I thought back to what I had done.

 

I tried my best to be unobtrusive, so… I guess that was something to be appreciated.

 

But no one had ever thanked me for that before. Probably because I never spoke up, they assumed I was just being quiet.

 

How did Dongju manage to express his gratitude for something like that? He really was something else. Not just sharp or smart, but… different.

 

I wondered exactly what was different about him.

 

“Woogi Kim, come out here, please!”

 

My mom’s voice came from the living room.

 

Suddenly, I remembered what Dongju had said.

 

“I was like that in middle school, too. When I wasn’t speaking to my mom. ‘Ah, just leave me alone.’”

 

“Definitely, when you’re annoyed, it just comes out.”

 

When I was in middle school, I found my mom particularly irritating. As I grew older, I understood why she acted that way, but at the time, all I felt was annoyance.

 

I stared at the door, hating the fact that I had influenced my mom to behave a certain way. She could be warm and gentle, and I didn’t want to believe she spoke like that only because of me.

 

A tingling pain spread through my chest. I felt like I needed to see her.

 

I got up and went to the living room.

 

Mom was sitting in front of the couch, painting her nails. She looked up and said, “Gosh, I called you a while ago and you’re just coming now? Come here and help me with my right hand.”

 

Seeing her ask for help so casually was a relief. I sat down, propped her right hand on my raised knee, and began to paint her thumb.

 

Mom seemed surprised. “What’s this? You’re helping so willingly?”

 

She studied my expression.

 

I pretended to focus on applying the nail polish and kept my head bowed. “Is there another color?”

 

“Hey, buy one for your mother and then talk,” she teased.

 

“What, I bought you one last time.”

 

“When? Did you really?”

 

“…”

 

As usual, I struggled to respond.

 

Mom’s voice softened. “Tell me, I really can’t remember.”

 

“Never mind,” I said, my voice weaker than normal.

 

“What’s wrong?” Mom asked.

 

I just wanted to be honest.

 

“You don’t have to do that anymore.”

 

Mom looked at me, puzzled.

 

I felt awkward saying it. “I’ll speak.”

 

“What’s with you? Is something wrong?”

 

Mom seemed half worried, half curious. I didn’t want to worry her further.

 

“I’m not a middle schooler anymore. There’s no need to annoy me to get me to talk,” I said.

 

Mom chuckled. “You knew?”

 

“Someone told me.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Someone at school. They said that when you’re annoyed, you want to talk the most. They also said that when they were in middle school, they wouldn’t speak to their mom unless it was just to say, ‘Leave me alone.’”

 

It felt awkward to refer to Dongju as “someone at school.”

 

Mom seemed briefly surprised by the mention.

 

“Do you see this person often?” she asked.

 

She sounded nonchalant, but I could tell it was forced.

 

I answer dryly, “Not often.”

 

“Hmm. Are you close?”

 

“Not really.”

 

Mom’s lips curled up.

 

I wanted to tell her something more pleasing. It almost sounded like bragging.

 

“That person… was doing something. So I stayed quiet so that I wouldn’t bother him. He actually thanked me for it. He appreciated that I didn’t make a sound so he wouldn’t get distracted. He said there aren’t many who would be that considerate for just one person.”

 

I felt a bit embarrassed after speaking and lightly blew on Mom’s nails.

 

Mom’s response was enthusiastic. “That kid really understands. Yeah, there’s no one like you. Usually, when people are considerate, they do it to be seen, to be thanked, and ideally, to be recognized. But you, you do your best even for just one person without any show. That’s really special.”

 

Her words sped up as she spoke, and a flutter of excitement tickled my stomach.

 

“Oh, really?” I said nonchalantly.

 

“Wow, that friend of yours really appreciates it. That’s no small thing. Most people would overlook it, think not much of it. There aren’t many who would go out of their way to say thank you for something like that.”

 

I nodded.

 

Now I understood why Dongju felt different from everyone else.

 

***

 

Squeak.

 

Dongju Choi was here.

 

I felt a faint smile forming for no apparent reason. Maybe it was because he seemed amusing, or maybe it was his quirky vibe. I had this feeling he’d crack a pointless joke or say something absurd. Was that why I was already chuckling to myself?

 

Dongju was looking at his phone. He usually didn’t spend much time on it, but today he seemed so absorbed that he didn’t notice my arrival.

 

I was tempted to pull a prank on him. I imagined he’d tease me back playfully. For a moment, I thought it would be fun to share a lighthearted moment like that with him. But I hesitated, feeling awkward about starting something I hadn’t done before.

 

I looked down at Dongju’s slippers to arrange them, but they were already neatly placed. He’d never taken off his slippers like that before. Had he arranged them himself knowing I would care?

 

I sat down. I took out a lunch box from my bag, removed the kimbap, and placed it in a paper cup. I initially put only two pieces, but after a moment, I added two more.

 

I extended my arm. But… before I even fully stretched out, the paper cup was snatched away. I replayed the sensation I had just felt in my hand.

 

He’d never taken it like that before. Was he preoccupied with something and just swiped it without paying much attention? Maybe he was having a bad day. Or was he just really hungry?

 

I wondered if I was being too sensitive. To think so long about such a minor thing… But an uncomfortable feeling lingered. It was hard to ignore.

 

I fiddled with my fingers.

 

“…”

 

“…”

 

Dongju was unusually quiet today.

 

Was I overly attentive? It had never been this quiet before… Did this silence have anything to do with him crying last time?

 

Dongju’s face was obscured, which only added to my frustration. I decided to feign needing something from the cabinet and turned around.

 

“…”

 

“…”

 

Dongju avoided my gaze. I tensed up. Trying to appear casual, I stood up and walked over to the cabinet. My head felt like it was buzzing.

 

Why did he avoid my eyes? I was sure I hadn’t imagined it. Was it just a coincidence? Yet today, not a single word was spoken, and earlier, with the kimbap… It didn’t seem like all coincidences…

 

A foreboding feeling settled over me like a damp fog. I needed to return to my seat.

 

As I turned around, I wondered if I should look at him again. Would we make eye contact this time? Would that help me figure out if his avoiding my gaze earlier was just a coincidence? But what if he looked away again? I stood in front of the cabinet for a moment.

 

No, it had to be a coincidence. I was probably just worrying too much. There was no reason for Dongju to behave like that.

 

I wanted to shake off this ominous feeling quickly. I turned back and looked at him. Dongju was peering into a bag of almonds.

 

I kept watching him as he fiddled with the bag, pulling out an almond, then replacing it, grabbing a peanut, then putting it back as well. It seemed like he was deliberately waiting for me to look away.

 

I returned to my seat, feeling a cold wave crash into my heart. I couldn’t understand what I had just seen. Why was he avoiding me? What had I done wrong?

 

I tried to gauge the atmosphere in the office, attempting to sense any feelings or attitudes Dongju might have toward me. Was he really avoiding me? Did he feel disappointment or discomfort toward me, or had I perhaps misunderstood? Maybe I misinterpreted something… I searched for clues to all these possibilities.

 

But still, I couldn’t be certain of anything.

 

It was hard to accept that he was deliberately avoiding me. Even though I had seen it with my own eyes, it still felt like I might have gotten it wrong. I couldn’t settle on a conclusion without concrete evidence.

 

I paused to think, unsure of what to do next.

 

Then, I opened a window.

 

The cold air of midwinter rushed in, instantly chilling the office to match the frigid temperatures outside. I clasped my right hand with my left, then switched hands.

 

“…”

 

“…”

 

Time seemed to slow.

 

Dongju said nothing.

 

He was usually quick to complain about the cold. If the window was left open even a little too long, he would start grumbling.

 

My nails dug into my palm. It felt like a frost was forming from the bottom of my heart.

 

I waited a bit longer.

 

It might not be cold yet, I thought over and over, probably for a full minute.

 

Maybe he thinks I’ll close it myself—also for a full minute.

 

Should I just wait a bit longer? Just one more minute…

 

As it began to feel pathetic to keep counting the minutes, I closed the window.

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