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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

16

Chapter 16

14

Dongju Choi.

 

There was a yellow container in the fridge with Dongju’s name on it. He pulled it out, peering under the clear lid at the neatly arranged grapes. The label bore his name in Woogi’s tidy handwriting. After a moment, Dongju replaced the container and grabbed some alcohol instead.

 

He shut the fridge, then slumped into a corner, forcing down a surge of excitement. Happiness was a foreign, almost forbidden, sensation for Dongju. It was always accompanied by whispers of, ‘You shouldn’t.’

 

To him, joy was like an allergen—something to be avoided, feared even. The yellow container, the meticulous selection of grapes, his name affixed to the label—it all spelled a kind of happiness that was so palpable that it was frightening. Even a fleeting glimpse made him want to reach out without thinking.

 

The memory of Woogi bustling around while playing music yesterday also scared Dongju. As long as Woogi stayed put, Dongju only needed to control himself. A small slip could be corrected swiftly. But the unpredictability of Woogi coming closer? That terrified him.

 

If the fear was so intense, perhaps avoiding the security office altogether would have been wiser. But leaving wasn’t an option now. It would only lead to him hurting Woogi. Deep down, Dongju found solace in the logic of staying close to Woogi. He justified by repeating to himself that he couldn’t bear to hurt her. This reasoning allowed Dongju to visit the office while maintaining his distance.

 

Getting closer is not an option.

 

***

 

Dongju hesitated.

 

Woogi was on a bench on the ginkgo tree path. It was past her usual time to leave school, yet there she was.

 

She noticed Dongju standing in the middle of the path.

 

Their eyes met. He quickly looked away, pretending to survey the grass and sky instead.

 

Should he just walk by, or acknowledge her? Since they’d made eye contact, a casual greeting seemed appropriate. Something like, ‘Oh, you haven’t left yet.’

 

Dongju approached and sat down three feet from her.

 

“You haven’t left yet,” he remarked.

 

Woogi nodded.

 

Dongju couldn’t think of what to say next. He glanced at her to try and gauge how she was feeling. She seemed to be in a good mood.

 

Despite this, being around her was difficult for Dongju. The thought of the stress and emotional turmoil he had caused her felt like a splinter lodged in his throat.

 

His misunderstanding had left Woogi fretting for days, wondering why he hadn’t been coming to the security office. She had even gone to the extent of visiting the department office and spending half an hour writing him a note. Knowing that he was the cause of her distress weighed heavily on him.

 

Dongju often felt an exaggerated sense of responsibility for his mistakes, a burden much heavier than most people might deem necessary.

 

He wanted to offset the wrong he had done to Woogi. Saying hurtful things and following up with nice comments to alleviate his guilt was no different. He felt he had to do something.

 

What should I do for her?

 

He tried to consider what Woogi might need or like, but his thoughts faltered. He didn’t know enough about her.

 

Catching another glimpse of her, Dongju noticed she was looking anxiously toward the main gate. Following her gaze, he saw a woman in her forties or fifties entering—Jin-young, Woogi’s mother, whom he had last seen on this same path.

 

Jin-young’s eyes also landed on them, her face lighting up with curiosity and delight. Dongju quickly stood up, and Woogi followed suit.

 

Turning slightly away from Woogi and her mother, Dongju exhaled through his mouth and then inhaled deeply through his nose, checking for any trace of alcohol. Reassured, he turned back just as Jin-young approached.

 

Dongju took the initiative to greet her. “Hello.”

 

“Hello,” Jin-young replied.

 

“I’m Woogi’s friend, Dongju Choi.”

 

At the mention of “friend,” Jin-young’s eyes widened slightly. “Oh, nice to meet you. I’m Woogi’s mom.”

 

Though not intending to make him uncomfortable, Jin-young couldn’t help but study him closely. “Have you two been waiting for me together?”

 

“We just met by chance,” Dongju explained.

 

“I see. Woogi and I were planning to go have dinner after her shift,” Jin-young said.

 

“Oh,” Dongju replied, nodding.

 

Woogi’s eyes flicked nervously between Dongju and Jin-young, feeling the awkwardness.

 

Jin-young turned to her daughter. “Have you been waiting long?”

 

Woogi opened her mouth slightly, then closed it and nodded, her discomfort clear with Dongju present.

 

Sensing it was time for him to leave, Dongju began, “Well, I…”

 

“Dongju…” Jin-young said at the same time. “Have you had dinner?”

 

“Oh, I’m planning to eat later,” Dongju replied, caught off guard. Jin-young seemed to search for more to say, prompting Dongju to continue the conversation to keep it from getting awkward. “What are you going to have?”

 

“There’s a Chinese restaurant we often go to. We’re planning to head there.”

 

“You must like Chinese.”

 

“Woogi likes the dumplings there.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“You’ve probably only seen her eat kimbap and inari sushi, right?”

 

“Yes, that’s about it.”

 

“She hates the hassle of figuring out what to pack for lunch.”

 

“Right.”

 

Woogi’s anxious glances continued as the conversation dragged on. Dongju thought about how he could exit this situation smoothly.

 

Jin-young then asked, “Do you sometimes have lunch with Woogi?”

 

“Yes, sometimes.”

 

“I see.”

 

Jin-young’s lips curled slightly.

 

She cautiously asked, “How did you get to know Woogi? She hasn’t really told me about that.”

 

“Oh, I work in the department, and I have to come to the security office often. We met during one of those visits.”

 

“I see.”

 

Woogi, looking eager to leave, grabbed her mother’s arm.

 

“Why?” Jin-young asked her. “There’s still some time left before the reservation.”

 

While saying this, Jin-young subtly observed Dongju’s reaction. Dongju hesitated, wondering if he should leave. But then again, staying might give him a chance to talk more with Jin-young and learn more about Woogi. Yet, Woogi looked distinctly uncomfortable.

 

Dongju felt torn but realized he might not get another chance to speak with Jin-young soon. He decided to continue the conversation, pretending not to notice Woogi’s discomfort.

 

“It seems you two go out together often,” Dongju commented.

 

“Occasionally. She doesn’t really come with me much. Says she has things to do at home.”

 

“What does she do at home? I only see her when she’s working.”

 

“She reads, goes for walks, draws.”

 

The mention of drawing caught Dongju’s attention. Trying to appear casually interested, he asked, “Draws?”

 

“Yes, she’s been drawing since she was a kid. She copies things she sees and also sketches from her imagination.”

 

“What kinds of things?”

 

“All sorts. People?” Jin-young asked Woogi.

 

Woogi hesitated for a moment before nodding.

 

“People from imagination?” Dongju continued.

 

“Yes, but not exactly portraits.”

 

“Oh… Are there artists who draw like that? I’m not very familiar.”

 

“That artist you like… who was it? Matisse?” Jin-young said, turning to Woogi.

 

Woogi looked down at the ground before nodding.

 

“Did Woogi go to any art classes when she was younger?” Dongju asked.

 

“No, she just drew by herself at home,” Jin-young replied. “I used to buy her all sorts of things to play with.”

 

“Oh, but if she’s continued drawing, she must really like it.”

 

“Yes, I suppose.”

 

“What does she like about it?” Dongju asked.

 

“Well, I’m not exactly sure…”

 

Jin-young glanced at Woogi briefly, who looked increasingly uncomfortable. Dongju suddenly felt like he might be prying too much.

 

Jin-young smiled and shared, “Woogi’s always loved imagining things. That’s why she would burst into tears sometimes when she was younger. When asked why, she would say she imagined me leaving her at an orphanage. She said it was just too sad.”

 

Dongju chuckled softly.

 

Woogi looked at Jin-young with wide eyes.

 

Dongju remarked, “You do look out the window a lot. Were you imagining things then?”

 

Woogi, embarrassed, looked off into the distance. Jin-young watched her with amusement.

 

“Any other funny stories from when Woogi was little?” Dongju asked.

 

“Hmm… Ah, was it in first grade? We lived in an apartment, and someone from our building brought her to our door. Her eyes were red from crying. When I asked what happened, the person said he’d found her sobbing in the lift. He asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ but Woogi wouldn’t answer. Then he asked, ‘Where do you live?’ and she gave him her apartment number, so he brought her home. Later, when I asked why she was crying in the lift, she said she was imagining being trapped. Even after realizing it was just her imagination, she still felt stuck. It turned out she had just forgotten to press the button and thought she was trapped. So she’d been crying there for about thirty minutes.”

 

Dongju’s smile faltered slightly, his thoughts drifting to what kinds of things Woogi might have imagined when he didn’t show up at the security office.

 

When Jin-young mentioned Woogi’s red, teary eyes, Woogi seemed to anticipate where the story was headed and covered her face with one hand.

 

Jin-young said playfully, “I have a lot of funny stories from when she was little.”

 

Woogi, pulling on her mom’s arm and shaking her head, appeared mortified. Dongju couldn’t help but laugh at her reaction.

 

Jin-young suddenly checked the time and, with a hint of regret, said to Dongju, “We should be going now. You should come over to our house sometime. You can see Woogi’s drawings.”

 

“Ah, yes, I’d like that,” Dongju replied.

 

“You must come.”

 

“I will,” Dongju said, bowing his head.

 

Jin-young turned away.

 

Woogi glanced briefly at Dongju, then followed her mom toward the main gate. Dongju trailed behind until he got to the gate.

 

He stood still, watching their figures disappear into the distance. A chill wind seemed to pass through his chest, and in that moment, he realized how deeply he had been drawn into the conversation. For that brief time, he had completely forgotten about the constraints he usually placed on himself, about who he was and what he should or shouldn’t do.

 

Why had he allowed himself to be so curious, so pleased, and so genuinely joyful?

 

Dongju was startled by his own recklessness.

 

As they walked away, Woogi spoke to Jin-young. “Why would you talk about that stuff?”

 

“What? It’s cute.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“You saw him smile,” Jin-young said, playfully poking Woogi’s side.

 

Woogi laughed but still said, “No.”

 

“What do you mean, ‘no’?”

 

Jin-young linked arms with her daughter. Together, they exited through the main gate.

 

Dongju remained where he was long after Woogi and Jin-young disappeared from sight.

 

A strange feeling welled up inside him, prompting him to place a hand over his chest. The image of Woogi’s smiling face played through his mind in slow motion—the naturally curved eyes, cheeks tinged with pink, the slight indent of her dimples, her neatly aligned teeth…

 

His chest ached.

 

He hadn’t realized that what he thought were minor details could pierce the very center of his heart. No matter how many times he blinked, Woogi’s smiling face remained in his mind’s eye.

 

Slowly turning around, Dongju thought to himself, I’m screwed.

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