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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

19

Chapter 19

18

The screen of Dongju’s laptop displayed search results for ‘Henri Matisse.’ As he scrolled, a puzzled expression took over his face. To him, these paintings looked no different from the ones he’d scribbled in kindergarten.

 

Despite his confusion, Dongju was busy typing notes into his phone’s memo app: “Fauvist French painter. Among the greatest artists of the 20th century, alongside Picasso. Notable works: Dance, Icarus, Nadia…”

 

He could almost picture himself standing in front of one of these paintings, muttering, “Ah, Icarus... I’m finally seeing it in person,” and chuckled at the thought.

 

Putting his phone aside, he turned back to his laptop to search for the museum’s location. He zoomed in on the map, exploring nearby restaurants and cafes.

 

This cafe is right next door, so it’ll probably be crowded. Might be better to go somewhere quieter, even if it’s a bit of a walk. We can have dinner near the cafe. She mentioned she likes dumplings. I should look up a couple of good Chinese places…

 

Dongju pressed ‘Find route’ to check the directions. He imagined walking along the mapped path with Woogi, hearing the cars, feeling the wind and the chill on the tip of his nose, squinting in the sunlight. As they walked down the narrow sidewalk, their arms would brush against each other, then separate. She would look up at him, smiling in a way that only he would notice…

 

Suddenly, Dongju realized he was blushing. It was the first time they were meeting outside of school, which probably explained all his daydreaming. What would she wear? What could he say to make her laugh? How close should they walk while looking at the paintings? And how fast? Would it be awkward to eat facing each other? If so, what should he say? What should he ask to learn more about her? Would they end up sharing something more personal?

 

Lost in these thoughts, Dongju spent the evening picking out clothes, looking at his phone, and brushing his teeth, occasionally chuckling to himself.

 

***

 

“I’m heading out,” I said, opening the door and making a beeline for the entrance. I could feel my mom’s gaze scanning my outfit from her spot on the sofa.

 

“When will you be back?” she asked, her voice pitching slightly higher than usual.

 

“Probably after dinner?”

 

I tried to sound nonchalant, as if I was used to such questions.

 

“Have fun.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

I quickly put on my shoes and left the house. The cold air hit me as I stepped out of the apartment building. It was refreshing, like the clarity that comes when biting into ice with one’s back teeth.

 

The sky was blue with scattered clouds. Taking a deep breath, it felt like the edges of the clouds were tickling me from the inside. I glanced down at my outfit while walking: light jeans, a beige sweater, a coat thrown over it. Despite last night’s fashion show, I ended up in something not much different from my usual attire. Only my spotless canvas shoes screamed newness. I hopped on the bus headed to the museum.

 

I wondered how to greet Dongju. Would he arrive before me? I doubted I could meet his gaze directly. What would his reaction be when he saw me? Would he smile, tease me about my shyness, or pretend to be engrossed in his phone?

 

I realized I was smiling slightly while staring into space. I quickly straightened my face, hoping no one had noticed.

 

“This stop is Gyeongsong Art Center. The next stop is…”

 

I got off the bus, and there was the museum, right in front. I looked down at the ground, up at the trees and the sky, then back at the ground, repeating the cycle as I walked.

 

A ticklish feeling bubbled between my ribs. Where should I look? If I spotted him too soon, it might be awkward.

 

Just act natural. It’s just someone I see every day. No big deal…

 

But as I neared the museum, my heart raced faster. Then, there he was, leaning against the railing, hands in his pockets and staring blankly at the pavement. I clenched and unclenched my fists as I approached. He seemed lost in thought, not noticing me until I was right beside him.

 

What was he thinking about? Was he pretending not to see me because he was shy?

 

I reached out to tap his shoulder but hesitated, my hand suspended in the air. A faint smell of alcohol drifted from him. Had he been drinking just before coming here? A flicker of unease stirred within me like a small candle flame, and slowly, my hand lowered.

 

I tried to calm myself. He’s always drinking anyway. Has there been a day he hasn’t? He probably just had his usual amount today.

 

“You’re here,” Dongju said, noticing me at last.

 

He looked different than I’d pictured on the bus—pale, with no trace of a smile, his eyes tired.

 

Instinctively, I took a step back.

 

“Let’s go,” he said without looking at me.

 

I stood frozen, staring at his back as he spoke again.

 

“You’re here, let’s go.”

 

His voice was flat, the words chilling me briefly.

 

Why did I feel so cold all of a sudden? Nothing seemed different, yet there was an icy feeling enveloping me. I forced myself to move, following him into the museum, though each step felt heavy.

 

Inside, the museum bustled with visitors. Dongju didn’t pause to look at the paintings or at me; he just walked straight ahead, his pace steady like he was on a conveyor belt. His mind was clearly elsewhere. Maybe he was eager to finish this and go somewhere else.

 

I tried to focus on the artwork as I hurried to keep up, but the paintings blurred into splashes of color. I couldn’t remember a single one.

 

A nearby conversation floated over to us.

 

“Hey, do you like this one? It’s just red and blue.”

 

“No one else was using color so innovatively back then.”

 

“There must have been a reason for that.”

 

“It says here, ‘Showed a genius sense of color.’ Read it.”

 

I glanced at Dongju’s face, wondering if he was bored being here with me. Spending hours looking at paintings without sharing any thoughts couldn’t be fun. A knot formed in my stomach.

 

I raised my hand slightly, hesitating as one might when unsure how a gesture would be received. After a brief pause, deciding it was alright, I lightly tapped Dongju on the arm. He turned to look at me, and I pointed toward a chair in the center of the room. He nodded, and we both sat down.

 

The painting “Woman with a Hat” hung before us, the woman’s gaze piercing as if she could see right through me. I felt a stir within me, a sense that if I did nothing, the day would just pass by. I wondered if I should do something to engage him.

 

Casually, I stretched out my legs, the tips of my new canvas shoes catching the light. Dongju glanced briefly at the movement but then quickly looked away, his attention fixed on something in the distance.

 

I’m sure he saw it…

 

Suddenly, my heart ached. In truth, it had been heavy for some time. I tried to shake off the feeling, convincing myself there was nothing wrong, that everything was fine. I pulled my legs back and settled my feet in their original position.

 

I stood up abruptly, and Dongju followed suit.

 

Leading the way, I focused on the paintings, trying to distract myself from thinking about him. I tried to focus on Henri Matisse. At one point, standing before a painting I particularly admired, I managed to forget about Dongju completely, which brought a slight relief.

 

After we’d seen the last exhibit, I walked out of the museum without waiting to see if he would follow. Dongju trailed behind silently.

 

“Do you want to go to a cafe?” he asked abruptly.

 

A cafe…?

 

The suggestion took me aback. I had assumed we would simply part ways after the museum. Was he just asking out of obligation, because it seemed like the polite thing to do?

 

I paused, debating whether to ignore it and agree to his suggestion or politely decline.

 

But if we ended the day here, it would feel unsatisfying. Maybe we could make up for the awkwardness at the cafe.

 

Finally, I nodded.

 

I heard the sounds of the city—the cars, the wind, and felt the chill on my nose as I squinted against the sunlight.

 

Following Dongju had become natural by now. Perhaps he always walked like this when he was with someone. At first, his pace was leisurely, but it quickened suddenly, forcing me to nearly jog to keep up. Finally, he veered into a cafe.

 

I followed him in.

 

We chose a table by the window where a square of sunlight was cast across the surface. I resisted the urge to put my hand over it to form a shadow.

 

Dongju headed to the counter to order our drinks, and I took a deep breath, the exhale longer than the inhale. I closed my eyes briefly, and when I reopened them, a wave of weariness washed over me. A sudden uncertainty about how to spend this time settled within me. Not that I wanted to go home just yet.

 

I wanted to be near him. As long as we were together, a small hope lingered. The hope of seeing his smile…

 

Dongju returned with two iced Americanos. He carefully placed one in front of me. This cautious, considerate gesture comforted me a bit. I took a sip, pulled out my phone, and typed ‘It’s okay’ in the memo app. Then I promptly deleted it and replaced it with ‘It’s good’ and showed it to Dongju.

 

He nodded, then quickly turned his gaze back to the window.

 

Around us, the cafe buzzed with the sounds of both lively and subdued conversations. It was a place of socializing, of talking with friends.

 

Only silence reigned on our table.

 

I wondered if Dongju envied the others. Did he wish he had come with someone he could talk to? I felt sorry for being there. I opened the memo app again.

 

What are you looking at?

 

“Just… people.”

 

Do you like people-watching?

 

“Not really.”

 

After his short reply, he looked away again.

 

I decided to just sit in silence.

 

Ten minutes passed, then twenty, then thirty…

 

Dongju didn’t initiate any conversation.

 

I swallowed my rising emotions, suppressing the lump in my throat. I studied Dongju, who was still stubbornly staring out the window.

 

He was right in front of me, yet he felt so distant. I could technically reach out and touch him, but somehow, he seemed unreachable. I wondered if this person sitting before me was the real Dongju Choi. The distance felt infinite.

 

My eyes stung with tears. The thought of going home was unbearable—not when I could sit here a little longer, just to be near him.

 

But it seemed I was alone in that desire. I tapped out a message on my phone, staring at the words before showing the screen to Dongju.

 

Should we go now?

 

“…Sure.”

 

I gave a small nod, followed by a more vigorous one, then busied myself with gathering my things. Dongju stood silently and went outside first. I followed, pushing the glass door open behind him.

 

He scanned the area and asked, “Where’s your bus stop?”

 

I pointed to the road on the right.

 

“Let’s go.”

 

I didn’t move.

 

“I’ll walk you there,” he offered.

 

I shook my head.

 

Dongju looked at me for a long pause—maybe five seconds, no, it felt like eight—before he finally said, “Alright then.”

 

He started walking to the left. I watched his back, following his figure until he turned the corner at the end of the street. He never looked back. I lingered for a moment longer before slowly heading right.

 

***

 

-When will you be home?

 

-Probably after dinner?

 

After a few hours at the playground, it was 7 p.m. It felt a bit early considering I had planned to eat dinner out, but it was still a reasonable hour to head home.

 

Mom was on the sofa when I walked in.

 

“You’re back?” she said, sitting up.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Did you have dinner?”

 

“Yeah, I told you I would.”

 

I took off my shoes and placed them neatly at the entrance. I sensed my mom rising from the sofa, perhaps to say more, but I pretended not to notice and headed toward my room without looking back. As my hand touched the door handle, her voice trailed behind me.

 

“Did you have fun?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

I opened the door and went inside.

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