A new decor welcomes my eyes, I turn, and the delicate spine of a short-haired woman says hi to me.
Then I remember how I left the club, too exhausted to take my bike, Ji Hyo, one of the waitresses, offered me a ride, and I ended here at her place.
I have a rule; never sleep with colleagues.
What got into me?
My throbbing cheek recalls the events and the reasons that got me here.
Anger consumed me; she overwhelmed me. I was out of control; I could have killed those men. That wasn’t Jane but the rage I carry around like a Molotov cocktail. Jane became the perfect excuse and alibi I needed to explode. Inflicting pain was my only objective, and I would have continued until I quenched my thirst if she wasn’t there.
A shiver slides down my spine as I recall how Jane grabbed me.
How can she touch a man she barely knows so freely?
Anger and frustration tango in my mind, but I know she saved me from committing the worst.
I turn and rub both my hands on my face, cringing when I pass my cheeks. I shift back and stare at the woman beside me; she’s sound asleep.
Ji Hyo isn’t a lost girl; she’s an anti-conformist, pierced, and tattooed. She sent Korean society waltzing to live free. She’s thirty and works as a waitress at night while she does tats at Hongik in one of the many secluded tattoo parlors of the area during the day.
It’s unexplainable, but I respect her, for she chose her lifestyle, deciding to swim against the currents of Korean standards. It deserves respect. That’s why I call her noona.
I grab my clothes and get dressed; once finished, I kneel, “Ji Hyo noona, I’m leaving.”
“Um, chalga [go well, bye],” Ji Hyo mumbles while she waves her arm randomly in the air without even lifting her head.
Even the way she stands me off forces respect, Ji Hyo assumes her actions, and right now, she’s aware like I am that it was a one-shot. I’m glad it was her. I know that there won’t be any problem on Friday at work.
The sun is shining hard, and the heat makes my cheek beat like a drum. It’s early, and I’ve not cooled off my emotions. With nothing planned for the day, I go home to change into my sports gear and head to the boxing club.
Boxing is cheap, and it’s the only sports activity I kept up with these last few years.
I don’t know why I feel stuffy. My mind is more crowded than usual, and the air in my chest compresses.
I’m angry at myself because this idiot keeps popping up in my mind when I should be thinking of them. I punch, I’ve been boxing for five years now, and the activity has proven its utilities more than a couple of times since I’ve become a bouncer.
The punching ball is bouncing hard as I recall the events, the river, the interview, the club, her hand, her dress, her lipstick, her grasp around my chest.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I keep repeating it like a mantra.
도대체 왜? [what the heck] what the fuck? What’s wrong with me. Abeoji, eomma, Min Ho ya mian, mianhaeyo. Cheongmal mian, [Father, mother, Min Ho sorry, I’m sorry. I’m genuinely sorry].
A feeling of betrayal overwhelms me; I’m tinting their memory with thoughts of this girl from nowhere.
Austen Jane, what are you doing to me?
To spare me and others suffering, I pushed everyone away. Only dedicating my life to my family. I made myself a shrine of their memory, and now this woman treads on my mind.
How dare she, “fuck.”
“Oy, Tae Won, don’t break my equipment.”
I turn to see coach Gong; he too is a former athlete. He used to box for the national team when I was still in diapers. The coach opened this club after an injury, which forced him to retire.
Some rumors say he used to dope himself, and he took bribes on some matches, but I don’t care about that. I just come here to punch. Coach Gong is cool when I don’t pay, and he’s also a good listener.
“So what’s eating you, kid.”
“Well, I think my material begging for mercy will contradict you.”
Coach Gong hands me a bottle of water; I gulp it down at once. Somehow the waters coldness seems to soothe me, cooling the boiling larvae of my interior.
“I can’t pay this month’s fee.”
The coach chuckles, “ya, imma [punk], do you want me to throw you out?”
“I can’t breathe.”
“I told you, take it one day at a time.”
Coach Gong always says the same thing, and it’s annoying because I would like something more consistent, something I can assess and apply. This sentence does nothing for me, every day is the same suffocating inferno, and coach Gong knows it, but he can’t say more because it’s not his role.
He’s just a man who saw this broken kid consumed in flames arrive someday with enough hate to burn down the world. Coach Gong knows I’m a ticking time bomb; he can’t stop me; the only thing he can do is slow down my timer.
“Listen, Tae Won you’re getting older, and time is passing. I’m not telling you to forget, but you have to move on, finish your bachelor’s, find a job, a girl, and settle down. I know what I’m saying will be difficult to accomplish without a family and back up, but you are smarter than I was. I’m sure you can make it. Don’t beat yourself up for being alive.”
My desperate stare must have put some pressure on him for the man to say all that. Suddenly I regret his take it a day at the time sentence is more efficient.”
I head to the shower.
The water slaps my skin while I ponder on what the elder said. Everything made sense, but I can not do all that knowing that their killer roams free while living happily somewhere on this planet.
Unlike what the coach thinks, beating myself up is all I can do because what most people don’t know about the accident is that it’s my fault.
My parents drove to Seoul to surprise me. I had an essential competition the next day, which would confirm my entree on the national team, but it was also my birthday.
They were in that car at that hour because of me, and it makes me regret my birth.
My parents and brother wanted to astonish me, and honestly, you can’t do better than a car going up in smoke.
I hate the driver as much as I loathe myself, and that’s why the gun waiting in the still of my apartment only has two bullets. One for each of the culprits we consist.
I finish up; I’m heading out when I suddenly feel my phone vibrate in my jeans back pocket; I let the call go to my voicemail. I get a few more vibrations and wait for them to stop before calling my voicebox.
“You have three messages today at 10 AM:
“Tae Won daiya [it’s me], I just wanted to hear your voice. I’ll be in Seoul in two days for a competition; I was wondering if we could meet. Please call me back.”
“End of message, press 1 hear again, 2 to delete and 3 to call back.”
I press 2.
“Today at 11:22 AM:”
“Ah, eh, Tae Won, gosh, you must think I’m crazy, eh the competition will be at 5 PM perhaps we can meet after, let me know. Eh, you can come and watch too; Eun Ju has extra tickets. I can ask her to wait for you. I hope you are well. I can’t stop thinking about you. I-- call me, okay.
What can one say to that?
Soo Ae loves me, I have the girl coach Gong wants me to find, but I can’t be with her. I can’t take the responsibility of Soo Ae; I’m unworthy of her. Even though we broke up, we’re still a couple in Soo Ae’s mind though she knows full well I sleep around.
A part of me wants her to forget me, and the other selfish half wants Soo Ae to cling like she’s doing because it’s reassuring to know someone is worried and cares about you.
What’s dreadful is I know she’s suffering, and in her logic, it would be better if we stood to face the world and suffer together. But I can’t force her to do that, and like an SM, I’m inflicting her other punishments.
“Today at 12:02 PM”
“Mr. Kim, it’s Mrs. Myung Se Ra from the Sejong Institute, we have a vacancy, one of our tutors has taken leave, and we’re wondering if you were free to take a few of her hours. Notably, a few lessons to perfect Korean with college students. The lessons are private and not in hagwons also they are very well paid. I decided to call you first since you have one of our institute’s best ratings and rankings. Please call back at the registered number if you are interested.”
I press 1 to hear again, I haven’t got a lot of money, and I don’t want to be sweating when the SNU law will ask me for the first semester’s fees. Also, I don’t want my grandmother to feel obliged to send me money.
I call back.