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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

9

Chapter 9

14

He was definitely still drinking.

 

The unmistakable sound of a bottle cap cracking open, the clink of glass on the floor, the glug of liquid being poured, and the pungent smell of alcohol—all told me Dongju hadn’t stopped. That’s why yesterday’s comment from the guard threw me for a loop.

 

Woogi, isn’t it great staying sober? Your eyes look so much clearer.”

 

That couldn’t be right. I had scoured the security office, finding no trace of alcohol. Curious, I opened the fridge. The top shelf, previously lined with bottles, was now completely empty. But just as I was about to shut the door, a glimpse of green caught my eye. Reopening the fridge, I pushed aside a container of side dishes to reveal a half-empty bottle of soju tucked at the back. Dongju had been hiding his drinking, cleaning up his traces meticulously.

 

Why the sudden secrecy? Was he aware of the guard’s observations? I couldn’t be certain; Dongju always left before the guard arrived. Lost in thought, I disconnected my phone from the Bluetooth speaker. A piano piece Dongju had selected began to play. He only ever listened to instrumental music.

 

I took an almond from a paper cup and popped it into my mouth. As I did, I suddenly wondered how things had gotten to this point. It wasn’t like we had set out to make it this way; it just naturally evolved over time.

 

I propped my chin on my hand.

 

I thought about how I typically behaved around people—always watching or being watched, or realizing someone was noticing me. Yet with Dongju, it was different. When our eyes met, it felt like he could see right through me. Snapping back to reality, I turned away.

 

Just like he’d done that day.

 

Ms. Kim ignores the students’ questions. People are asking why she’s even here if she just ignores everyone while being paid with their tuition fees, and that she clearly doesn’t care about her job. Is this true?”

 

“It says male students are often called to the security office to chat, as if the security guard wasn’t hired to work. Did this really happen?”

 

Such remarks shook me from time to time. But I didn’t feel the need to defend myself. These were voices of people I likely wouldn’t encounter again. It was easier to listen and let it slide, not wanting to stir up trouble. I doubted explaining would change any opinions. Better to just endure a little longer and move on.

 

But when I heard those words…

 

How can you not say a word? Are you openly ignoring a professor right to his face? What, you don’t want to talk to us?”

 

Another scene involuntarily flashed through my mind.

 

How can you not say a word? Is it true what the others say? Do you not like acknowledging us because we’re not in your league? Is that why you ignore us?”

 

It was eerily similar. I’d heard the same type of comments, then and now. Why had I remained silent back then? They weren’t people I would never see again. Maybe if I’d spoken up, things wouldn’t have escalated. Why did I keep quiet? I believed… I believed it was better to be alone, that there was no need to try to fit in.

 

Then why did it hurt so much? Why did I need so many excuses, so many consolations to dull the pain?

 

It’s because… Because…

 

I couldn’t finish my thoughts. Shadows within me stretched out, threatening to engulf me. I felt the urge to flee before being consumed by the darkness. But perhaps, a part of me thought, being consumed might be easier. As I sank deeper into these thoughts, Dongju’s voice pulled me back to reality.

 

Clinging to his voice, I surfaced from my reverie. I had a feeling Dongju had done it on purpose. He seemed to have sensed my turmoil and intervened to prevent me from spiraling further.

 

Of course, it was just a feeling. There was no reason for him to have done that intentionally.

 

Even though I knew it was impossible, I sometimes tricked myself into thinking that someone might actually understand me. The illusion never lasted, leaving me with a bitter realization—of course they don’t.

 

This time was probably no different.

 

My gaze drifted back to Dongju.

 

Dongju, who had been absorbed in a comic book, glanced up at me.

 

“…”

 

“…”

 

He lifted the bag of almonds, silently asking if I wanted more.

 

…That must be it. It was probably just my imagination. Dongju wouldn’t have done it for my sake. Not him, not anyone. There was no reason anyone would go out of their way for me. Holding on to these delusions would only make my heart ache more.

 

I looked into Dongju’s eyes for a moment, then shook my head.

 

I slowly turned back toward the desk.

 

***

 

“Woogi!”

 

“…”

 

“Hey, Woogi!”

 

My head whipped around at the voice. Mom was here.

 

I glanced around once, then back at her, wondering what brought her here. Picking up a broom, I walked toward her.

 

“What are you doing, cleaning?” she asked.

 

I nodded. It felt awkward talking to her, maybe because we weren’t at home.

 

“What about lunch? What did you eat?” she probed, even though she knew I always brought sushi rolls.

 

I nodded again, answering only her first question. But Mom wasn’t one to drop it so easily.

 

“What did you eat?” she repeated.

 

“…Inari sushi,” I muttered, barely above a whisper, as if I had no choice.

 

Then it seemed to click for her.

 

“Ah, right. What time do you get off work?”

 

“I finish at four. It’s always the same,” I replied.

 

“Ah, right.”

 

“Why are you here?” I asked.

 

“I was on my way home from the market and thought I’d check in on you,” she said.

 

I nodded.

 

Then, taking a step back, I urged, “You can go now.”

 

“Sheesh, alright. Hey, aren’t you curious about what I bought?”

 

“I’ll see it when I get home.”

 

“I bought shoes. Yours, too. You’re a size 250, right?”

 

“No, 40.”

 

“Size 40? Do shoes even come in size 40?”

 

“What are you talking about? Obviously I meant 240.”

 

“Hey, I’m just kidding.”

 

Ugh. I opened my mouth to respond, then paused. My gaze drifted toward the bench.

 

“…”

 

Dongju was sitting there. My heart kicked like an old truck starting up. The moment our eyes met, I looked away. But the damage was done; he’d seen me looking.

 

He stood up from the bench and walked across the lawn.

 

“Was that not funny?” Mom chimed in.

 

“No…”

 

“What should I make for dinner? Kimchi stew?”

 

“…”

 

Suddenly, any energy I had to engage with Mom evaporated. I felt drained, unable to muster the will to respond.

 

“Just go, Mom.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You should go now…”

 

I turned around and started walking away.

 

I heard Mom calling out to me, but I didn’t look back. My feet moved of their own accord while my head spun with thoughts.

 

Did Dongju hear any of that? Even if he hadn’t, we had made eye contact; he must have seen my lips move. Could he have missed it because we were too far? No, the distance wasn’t that great. Over and over, I replayed the expression I’d seen on his face.

 

Was it disbelief, anger, disgust, or perhaps… indifference? Could it have been hurt? I tried to figure it out. What did my own face reveal at that moment? Surely, the face of someone caught red-handed, avoiding eye contact as if desperately clinging to a sliver of hope that he hadn’t seen anything.

 

A memory flashed through my mind.

 

What do you really think of us?”

 

“I thought maybe you had your reasons for staying quiet, but you can talk. I’ve heard you on the phone with your mom.”

 

Like darkness sweeping over the sea, a wave of fear surged within me. Was it going to be like that again? Just like last time…

 

You knew how to talk all along. How could you trick me like that? I cared about you…

 

Would I end up hearing those words again? Did this kind of thing always have to follow me? It felt like a curse, destined to haunt me endlessly.

 

I kept walking.

 

I never meant to deceive anyone, neither then nor now. I only ever spoke to Mom. Others always interpreted it in their own way.

 

Why should I feel so burdened, like I’d actually deceived them? Why should I be so conscious about not speaking?

 

I bit my lip. My breathing became rough, and I felt my composure slipping.

 

I tried to calm myself down by silently telling myself, There’s no reason to be this scared or feel wronged. Dongju Choi is just a guy who comes and goes with his drinks. He doesn’t have any impact on me. It doesn’t really matter what someone like that thinks about me. What do I have to lose?

 

But even as I thought it, my heart remained unsettled.

 

It didn’t matter. I could ignore this slight unrest. Turning my back on those nagging feelings, I stopped in my tracks, turned around, and made my way toward the security office.

 

***

 

I stood in front of the security office door. The scene in front of me seemed to ripple like waves.

 

Placing my hand on the doorknob, I gave myself one last pep talk, like an athlete before a big race: Treat Dongju the same as always. Just stay quiet like before. We never had any real connection, so there’s no need to make a fuss. Dragging it out will only make things harder.

 

With that, I opened the door and entered. I walked straight to my seat, passing by Dongju, who was engrossed in a comic book. Whether he was deliberately ignoring me or not, it wasn’t for me to decide. My only task was to continue as I always had.

 

“…”

 

“…”

 

Dongju and I didn’t speak at all. I thought he might be angry with me, but then I realized that anger is a sign that someone matters to you. There was no need for him to waste energy on being mad at someone insignificant. Maybe he chose to simply ignore me, or maybe he didn’t even give it that much thought…

 

Hiss.

 

Hiss.

 

I felt a cold dampness on the back of my neck. Wiping it with my hand and smelling it, I realized it was deodorizer.

 

What the…

 

Did he just spray that on me?

 

Clack.

 

Clack.

 

Two almonds landed on my desk. I glanced back and forth between them, unsure of the meaning behind this gesture or how I should respond. Dongju remained silent, too.

 

Was this his way of showing he was upset with me?

 

I had no choice but to look at him. I hesitated, not knowing what I might find in his expression.

 

I slowly turned my chair around.

 

Dongju was staring right at me. His eyes seemed to be saying something.

 

I swallowed hard.

 

“Woogi,” he said.

 

“…”

 

“When is your shift over?”

 

“…”

 

“Three, right?”

 

“…”

 

“Five?”

 

“…”

 

My eyes flickered nervously.

 

My shift? The thought kept echoing in my mind.

 

I remained silent, unsure what Dongju was aiming at with his question.

 

He cast a brief glance at a corner of the ceiling before asking, “What are you bringing for lunch tomorrow?”

 

Lunch?

 

Why was he asking about lunch now? He had to know it was either sushi rolls or kimbap. A strange sense of déjà vu washed over me. I stared at Dongju with a puzzled expression.

 

Suddenly, Dongju’s eyes sparkled as he said, “I look pretty good, don’t I?”

 

Silence filled the security office. I couldn’t understand why he was acting this way.

 

“So that’s it?”

 

“…”

 

Dongju leaned back against the wall again, returning his attention to his comic book. I mulled over the string of questions he had thrown at me. No matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t figure out his motives. Noticing my persistent stare, Dongju seemed compelled to clarify things and closed his comic.

 

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

 

He shrugged one shoulder as if shaking off someone’s hand.

 

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

 

Dongju then reopened his comic book.

 

I was momentarily stunned, struggling to grasp the full implication of his words.

 

Then, like a needle prick, I felt a sting inside.

 

“Boil over medium heat until the meat is cooked.”

 

“What’s after boiling?”

 

“I’ll tell you after it boils. You’re going to ask again later anyway.”

 

“Tell me now. I need to know what’s coming.”

 

“We add the seasonings.”

 

“What seasonings?”

 

“I’ll tell you when it’s time.”

 

“Can’t you just tell me twice? Is it that hard?”

 

I turned around and looked out the window. The landscape was half-covered by the dry, clay-colored lawn. I didn’t want to dwell on how Mom spoke to me. It was easier to write it off as her just being annoying. Despite sensing a deeper intention behind her words, as if she was trying her best to communicate with me, I chose to act like I didn’t notice. Pretending ignorance felt more comfortable; it was easier to think I was merely accommodating her. That’s why I deliberately ignored it.

 

But…

 

My eyes fell on the two almonds lying scattered on my desk. How did Dongju know about the things I had kept hidden? He hadn’t been watching my mom and me; he only caught a brief exchange between us. How could he possibly know the reason behind her manner of speaking?

 

I glanced back briefly.

 

Dongju was leaning back, flipping through his comic book. Normally, he seemed oblivious to everything except alcohol, but at moments like this, he seemed to understand far too much. It was like he could see right through me, which was sometimes unnerving. He appeared indifferent, yet he was quick-witted, his mind filled with rapid thoughts and maybe a hint of cleverness. Suddenly, various assumptions about Dongju popped into my head.

 

Maybe the times I felt comfortable around him were because he noticed things and acted considerately. Even the way he would drink and tidy up afterward without me prompting him hinted at this. Could it be that he’d been accommodating me in ways I hadn’t even realized?

 

“What?” Dongju said without looking up from his comic book.

 

Startled, I turned my head away. I absentmindedly picked up the two almonds.

 

Right. I guess he really was quick-witted.

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