TRACKSIDED

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케미

“Rice cakes.”

“It’s my grandma who made them.”

“Really.”

Jane’s face glows as though I gave her a valuable gift. She turns to face me, and for the first time since I know her, she smiles. This is an exploit because Jane excels in lopsided twitches and pursed lips.

The expression makes me feel warm, as if someone lights a fire in a cold cave.

You did well, Tae Won; thank you, gran.

“They’re delicious; thank you, Tae Won, please thank your grandmother for me.”

As she eats, her face seems to color, her cheeks flush.

I see myself blush like a teenager. I’ve started to notice things about Jane’s face and features. It’s as though I’m discovering another girl when she’s been there the whole time.

Come on, Tae Won, this is beyond your stature, your not going to melt in front of a girl eating rice cakes, are you?

But I am melting, and I know why. The words my gran pronounced attained my doubts; there’s nothing wrong with our friendship. I’m comfortable with Jane, and she’s at ease with me, I hope she is.

“Jane.”

“Yes,” she replies, her mouth and cheeks plumped up with rice cakes.

“Do you, are you comfortable with me?”

Oh, gosh, she looks so confused that I reformulate the question as I adjust my posture to allow myself to wipe my now sweaty hands on my knees.

“I mean, I don’t embarrass you orㅡ.”

“No, you don’t; I feel comfortable with you, perhaps too much,” Jane says, putting down the rice cake she was going to bite into on its wrapping.

Her face looks grave, as though she is making a difficult choice.

“I shouldn’t; I mean, you don’t know me,” Jane adds, barely holding up her gaze.

“Isn’t it the reason why we meet to know each other?”

Jane frowns, making her eyebrows knit together, “It is. I mean, you wanted to be friends with me, but I’m afraid to be taking up your time when you should be doing other things, essential things.”

“This is important for me.”

The buzzer for our lattés vibrates,” just a minute, I’ll be right back.”

I get up and go to the counter; once there, I look back on Jane. A form of disappointment fills me as I see she isn’t looking at where I am.

“Your girlfriend is pretty,” says the café’s manager, who appears to be about the same age as my mother. The older Korean people get, the freer their tongue is. They say things naturally without worrying too much as they would have if they were younger about their words' perception.

I turn and look back at Jane, “yeoja chingu aniya [she’s not my grilfriend]” I say, I’m not bothered by the remark as I would have been a month ago, but still I don’t want people to misunderstand.

Tae Won, what’s up with you?

“Oh, sorry, I thought, there’s was something between you.”

“It’s okay,” I say and talk the tray with the lattés.

Chemistry.

A lot of people say that about us. No, actually, I’m the one paying more attention to it. I don’t know when it began, but I find myself repeating she’s just a friend.

I’m afraid, and since I spoke to my gran, I’m frightened of something which I shouldn’t even be thinking about because I prohibited it from my life.

I walk back to the table, Jane is tying her hair up, but the hairband snaps as I arrive.

Jane doesn’t leave them out often; when she sees me, she gives up. The mass of hair tumbles on her shoulders; her hair isn’t blonde anymore. They seem a bit reddish.

“Sorry, I must look a mess. I don’t know what to do with this hair anymore; I think I’m going to chop it off.”

“Don’t.”

My quick reply doesn’t come out as I intended, and Jane stares at me.

“Long hair is beautiful; I like long hair; it reminds me, Ariel.”

Jane’s eyes grow big, “Ariel, the mermaid?”

I must be blushing because Jane smiles again. Wow, why does she hide this smile?

“As a kid, I was so obsessed with the sea and ocean life I used to watch anything which had those themes so Nemo, the Little Mermaid, Ponyo, and-.”

There it hits me, the first girls who caught my eye were redheads. I stare at her.

Jane’s eyes beam in amusement, and she tucks her hair behind her ears while blushing. It’s the first time I see her do something that resembles a flirting sign.

Oy, oy, why are you beating more than 80bpm? I’m going to die here.

In the beginning, I didn’t understand why I revealed all these things to Jane, they’re embarrassing, and they don’t make me seem cool. I tell them not just because I want Jane to feel comfortable, but I don’t want things to be unbalanced.

By that, I mean, when someone has problems, people always come on trying to convince the person to talk and reveal themselves when they remain silent. They want to play make-believe psychologists when they’re probably in the same level of existence with as much or perhaps even more issues.

It’s frustrating and annoying, so I say these things I’ve never told anyone to Jane. This way, neither of us is tremendous or on some pedestal. We see each other as we are, naked without thorns of lies. Nothing is built on the mirage of perfection.

Being honest is one of the things I learned from my relationship with Soo Ae. If she showed me her real nature when we were alone, I, on the other hand, always hid.

So yeah, I never displayed fear or worry. My personality was bulletproof, making sure Soo Ae saw me as her knight in shining armor. Now I realize that one of the reasons why I can’t go back is because I’m aware I cheated. I sold Soo Ae this fake personality, which tainted our relationship, and I don’t want to repeat this with Jane.

Jane stares at me as she awaits an explanation, and I pick up what I was saying.

“Eh, my mother had long hair; I used to think she was a mermaid. She cut them when she had Min Ho. Hold on.”

I search in my pocket and hand her a hairband.

She seems hesitant; suddenly, it occurs to me; she thinks it belongs to someone else.

“It’s new; it doesn’t belong to someone. I have a tone of these; I use the bands to hold my bangs when I study. I bought them because my mother promised me she’d grow her hair back. I used to spend my time buying hair bands and other accessories in the hope she would really do it, so.”

I tap my fingers on the table and smile.

Yeah, I love women with long hair. I guess it’s my fetish, and one of the reasons Soo Ae caught my eye. Soo Ae used to wear her hair in a bun; it was huge, but I never pondered about her hair’s length until the day she wore them in a ponytail, and they swayed from side to side as Soo Ae walked. I was a goner.

Nostalgia must be affecting my facial expression, for Jane is glaring at me with an earth-calling-Tae-Won stare.

Blood rushes to my cheeks like volcano larva and erupts on my face as I crumble with embarrassment thinking what image Jane has of me now, and she giggles.

“What’s so funny?”

“I’m trying to imagine you with a hairband and your hair looking like a coconut tree.”

Jane laughs and tosses her head back; people turn to stare. A few weeks ago, I would have been awkward, bowing my head and excusing myself for the disturbance in her stead.

But I don’t want Jane to stop laughing because I like seeing her this way. The sound of her laughter and the way she poses her eyes upon me when she finishes heaving as she regains her breath.

I think of my dad, and I wonder at what moment he fell in love with my mom.

Dad said he knew he was in love when mom put a dish on jjajangmyeon on his table. It was Black Day, and like most singles, he sat down to tuck in all on his lonesome. Dad explained all mom did was smile. I had a hard time believing such a simple gesture could take you hostage. Now looking gazing at Jane, I wonder if it’s really just a tale, these things happen.

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