The air was stiff and suffocating with the heat that drenched the night with the memory of the miserable day they both had endured. His shirt glued to his back and sticky sweat was dripping down his neck, leaving no space for the wind to sneak its cooling hand, where he could still feel Giselle's body pressing her soft curves into him.
She would not even look at him, wiping off her knees furiously till the very last grain of sand was scraped of. Tae Soo watched her from above, suddenly acutely aware of his height and that in reality she was quite fragile, so soft and easily wounded, underneath a brave façade. He could sense her crumble inside, teetering on a shaky balance between holding onto her pride and holding onto him, to keep the dignity easily lost in the process. Not at all as strong as she liked him to think she was, but still stubbornly proud.
Tae Soo acknowledged that he liked her this way. She reminded him a great deal of himself. She seemed assured and easy going, but a few offensive words broke her down to tears. Despite what she probably believed made her unattractive, he found this oversensitive and expressive part of her personality to be a gift for their awkward arrangement. It allowed him to show affection openly and to act like a man with her.
"You will have holes in your knees," he poked her shoulder with a finger.
"Ah?" The kiss on her cheek was still sending soft circles of warmth toward her center. She unconsciously covered it with her hand and looked at him quizzically.
"Do you want to go home?"
"Whatever you want," she answered submissively.
What did he want? The wave of anger and hurt at her abandoning him has long passed; relief that she returned has dissipated. The tightly woven clew of feelings started to unfurl. Did he desire some deliberate physical contact or simple tenderness? When he kissed her, he acted out on an impulse, just like every other time with her when he let go just a bit. It felt natural and released some of the carefully ignored frustration at the game they unwittingly began to play.
They have only been acquainted for barely five days. Yet, the rollercoaster of events moved them toward each other with speed that caused all their fears rush and take over along with exhilaration and anticipation of high highs and low lows, making them grasp at each other, eyes closed, plummeting sweetness churning their stomachs.
What did he want to do tonight? He had not thought of what to do yet. He was done punishing her, but he did not want to reward her behavior by being overly kind and dismissing what had occurred. He started toward the shore, picking up his sandals in one hand and unbuttoning his shirt with another, to let the breeze finally flutter at his skin. He did not turn, sure she would be behind.
She followed him like a puppy, guilty of peeing on the floor, not lifting her nose up and keeping her eyes to the ground, loyal to the owner and hoping that all will be forgiven soon. After all, a puppy can have an accident sometimes.
Tae Soo could feel with his back her guilt pushing at him, the heaviness of her embarrassment, topped with the hurt she caused him. Was he too harsh in acting so cold or did it make him looking cooler and more desirable in her eyes? This situation was in his favor. She would do anything, she would not dare deny him, but that thought made him frustrated.
He imagined twirling around to pull her without warning and plant a thick kiss on her lips; her body would tighten and her eyes open up anxiously, showing the same submissive and guilty quality as the words she had uttered. Her lips placid and too accepting, her tongue shy. She might even tear, but not because he was a mind blowing kisser, but from feeling overwhelmed and relieved that the silent fight of bruised egos was over. A beautiful romantic moment he wished to create would be overshadowed by emotions of regret.
He contained a sigh of irritation, instead taking in a deep breath of the moist and salty air. His let his hand trail to the back, his palm opened, inviting her. He stopped and heard her pause just a step behind. If she did not take his hand, it would mean that he went too far. Her fingers slid with a soft tickle and interlaced with his. A smile crept on his face. His shoulders released and his back slouched relaxing from his perfectly stiff posture. He slowly pulled his arm forward, allowing himself the pleasure of her coming up beside him. He continued to walk for a bit as his feelings of excitement settled.
It was then, when he heard her soft breathing match his and her steps were in perfect unison with his, their hands linked and fingers inseparable, that he realized with a slight startle of perfect clarity what he wanted from her – just a comfortable relaxed evening of strolling under the stars, each evening till the end of his vacation. It was the first time the actual meaning of the "end" came to mind. There will be a moment when he will have to say goodbye, wave at her and smile, while holding tears in his eyes. And then... He stopped abruptly and with a pang of future separation stared into her eyes. She questioned him silently and he only widened his irises slightly, unseen sadness capturing her gaze. One of his brows crept up and his lips quivered, but no sound came out.
Giselle searched his face to understand what had just happened. She clearly felt that things have calmed down between them and she returned to her normal, albeit slightly anxious next to him, yet happy self. But why did he look at her like she was about to drown in the sea and he was not able to stop her?
Tae Soo attempted to pull his hand back and she let it go, not amused, her fingers flushed cold without his warmth and tingling to be wrapped around by him again. His arm slung around her shoulder in a strong and possessive gesture, his eyes held her still, ordering her to never leave his side, making her overwhelmed with shyness again. He began walking, keeping her against the slight curve of his ribs narrowing toward where his pants punctuated his middle, and she dared to slide her arm across his waist, gripping at the corner of his front pocket. His hips moved and her arm followed. Somehow, this confirmed both his worst fear and his biggest hope – if they had to separate it would be painful and that they both wished for these walks to never end.
The tighter he held her, the more she clung to him and soon, she was so close, she could feel his hip bones protruding through the fabric of his pants and into her side. She felt a certain desperation in his hold, his long fingers dug into her shoulder harder than needed. After a few minutes, he seemed to have gotten enough assurance that she would not disappear, and his palm landed softly on her shoulder, his fingers sliding across her skin to pull up the short cap-sleeve in gentle stroke, which was less about ownership and more about tenderness he had always exhibited around her.
"I'm not angry with you any more, if you are wondering," he said as if sharing his thoughts, rather than starting a conversation.
"You don't have to be like this..."
"Then how should I be?"
"I am," she murmured, finishing a sentence in her mind, "Not."
Giselle had to straighten her own head and her own feelings. Sometimes they seemed like friends, sometimes like lovers, sometimes she could not quite determine the dynamics of their interactions. After how badly she had wounded him by just walking out without much explanation, she had to be on her best behavior. Only she was not clear on what constituted such state. Flirting and coy? Subdued and submissive? Spunky and energetic?
His fingers did a circle dance on her shoulder, giving her goosebumps of pleasure and making her slow her breath, which started to run away ahead of her walking pace. She could feel something was changing between them, her reluctance to move forward was surrendering to the soft touches of his fingertips. She suddenly felt a strong urge to have him kiss her hard, maybe, to throw her down on the damp sand and put his weight on top, claiming her mouth. A hot sensation spilled inside her chest at the image and she turned away as if he could read her not so innocent desire on her face.
But Tae Soo either was truly oblivious or not wanting to admit what his simple gesture of affection was doing to her.
"I want to go home," she said, voice a bit hitched. "I'm tired." Annoyance seeping through the last words and he glanced at her surprised.
At home, Giselle felt even tenser, and her body like the times before when he stopped hugging her, was bothered by the interruption. A worry entered her heart that possibly, he was not into her as much as she hoped he would be. Maybe, for a hot guy like him such little gestures were so natural he did not give them much consideration.
In her bedroom, she turned the light on and sat up in bed. That nagging feeling of uncertainty became prevailing once she was alone. A disappointment at how appropriate and polite he was, rose out of the need to feel wanted. If Mr. Jerk had a chance, he would be already coming through the door right now disposing with the formalities of the made up rules of no touching.
"Yak!" she shook her head in disbelief she went there. All of her curvy assets unused, she felt as sexy as the pillow next to her. Giselle sighed. She was determined to test her feminine charms on him tomorrow and see whether he could keep his cool after she pulled a few tricks out of her sleeve.
"Tae Soo-shi, this is how you would call someone respectfully, if you don't have a more familiar relationship. If you are ready to become more casual, you have to actually ask to change the level of language. Otherwise, you are perceived as very rude. And we don't want that, do we?"
"Tae Soo-shi? So since I only know you for a few days, I should call you that."
"But we live in the same house and we spent a lot of time together. We even slept in the same room once," she slyly checked on him blushing. "You made breakfast for me. I saw you without your shirt." Another sly look, she was obviously trying to rattle him and was quite successful at that.
"Yes," he nodded softly, now feeling like his cheeks were set on fire. She was embarrassing him on purpose. What did she want?
"In a situation like this, just for the purposes of cultural learning, would it be reasonable for me to request to speak to you less formally?"
"Theoretically, I suppose, it would be."
"Then what can I call you, Tae Soo-shi?"
"Yes. That is my name."
"No nicknames are appropriate?"
"I like my name," he explained even softer. This girl was going to be the death of him. She was truly enjoying making fun of him. She was devious and devilish, why on earth did he like her so much?
"Well, lucky for you, I like it also." She did the same thing he did to her before: twisting, she managed to move her head sideways to get in front of his face, her eyes pinning him. "Tae Sooito," she smiled with her eyes while her lips moved magically rolling the sounds deliciously with a punctuation mark at the end. Tae Soo gulped, his Adam's apple moved hard, his lips parted and his eyes moistened from the rush of feelings. Teasing him? Or was she testing him? "Taecito?" She pestered.
"I prefer Tae Soo-ya," he finally mumbled with completely dried mouth, as Giselle slowly moved away, giving him space to breeze. He was still a bit blurry in his vision, but his mind already found an escape route. "Want some water?" He practically leapt off the couch before Giselle could answer and only at the kitchen counter turned to her.
"Yes, with some lime." She felt a mix of guilt of making him so jumpy and also pleasure to confirm at how much she affected him. It was nice to know. But if she continued while still operating under the house rule of no touching, she would be crossing into a more emotionally charged territory, causing more distress for both of them.
They both carefully avoided the topic about her work and the situation there. She was yet to tell him about the problem made worse by Mr. Jerk. She did not feel it was right for her to bring this up. She was not lying; he simply had no need to know. She took a couple of sick days, which were given without a question. Tae Soo did not press her to do anything, but she felt obligated as a host of her motherland and as somebody who was on a mini vacation from her unpleasant reality to make use of the time.
Soon they loaded a cooler into the car and after a quick argument about who would be driving, Tae Soo conceded. He quickly discovered the perks of being a passenger, such as gawking out the window and taking pictures, while Giselle maneuvered on patchily paved road and up the mountain to the entrance of the El Yunque Rainforest park.
Despite the heat, the heavy canopy of trees gave enough shade to hike comfortably. They climbed up a steep, but short trail to the waterfall, finding the place deserted during the week. The cool mist in the air was refreshing, and they parked by the rock, getting out snacks and water.
Never much self conscious about her body before, Giselle thought twice about what to wear. She was not slim by any measure, but her softness distributed nicely along her frame. She had a bit of a stomach, rounded about the edge of her bikini and her top showed off her full breasts quite vividly not to find such sight delicious.
She contemplated whether to stay in her shorts and t-shirt or get it over with. She sucked her stomach in as much as she could while still breathing and keeping her shoulders to the back, slowly pulled the t-shirt off.
"I'm going to cool off," she announced, turned with her back to Tae Soo, who was not prepared for such quick reveal, thinking they were just about to eat, not go swimming. Her shorts slid off and she dipped her feet in the cold water, much colder than the air, shivering. She pulled her hair up, clipping her ponytail at the top and bended to touch the water. "It's freezing," she reported, all the while tensing at the idea that he was studying her body and forming probably a negative opinion about what he saw.
She wanted to dunk herself beneath the surface and hide from his prying eyes, but her body refused to be shocked into cold abruptness. She glanced back at him with a twist and surprised, froze in that position. The man was not checking her out. Instead, he got up himself and was removing his clothes in one swift motion. He ran his fingers through his bangs, his profile showed a smile and finally turned to her, he asked, "Do you need help?"
"Yes... No... I guess."
His very familiar by now hand took hers and he let out a light yelp as the cold mountain water bit his calves.
"Should we jump together?"
She stared back, eyes widening in anticipation.
"I won't let you go," he assured, grounding her with his doubtless look.
She closed her eyes and yelling jumped forward, pulling him with her. They both flapped frantically, getting used to the cold bath, finally adjusting to the temperature and realizing the pleasant chill the water provided against the heated sun burning their heads. As promised, Tae Soo did not let go of her hand and swam up next to her, chuckling and blinking against the harsh sun.
"I love swimming," he pronounced. "Do you want your hand back?"
He masterfully moved with some powerful strokes toward where the waterfall created strong ripples in the pool from the strong cascades falling from above.
"Giselle, it is very pretty, come," he waved, happily.
She watched him from afar. The last thing on her mind was how she looked like in a bikini. Her anxiety about it and what he thought was nonexistent. He somehow managed to make this fun and easy, giving her confidence back. Whether he thought poorly of her appearance or not, he was not letting on, still his cheerful self around her, still playful.
"Are you coming?" He jumped up in one sleek movement and flipping head down, dove, his feet dangling above, till all of him disappeared. She laughed at his boyish antics. She waited for him to emerge, but what seemed like a whole lot longer than a minute later, his head still has not popped up, and she looked worriedly around. A swirl swept from underneath her and a strong arm grabbed her middle. She screamed out in surprise, pushing it off, instinctively, as he showed up spitting water and sniffling. "Did I scare you?"
"Yeh!" She smacked him on forehead, looking kind of mad.
It only elicited an impish laughter and he grabbed her waist again, their chests almost touching under water. Giselle did not fight against him enjoying his forcefulness. His licked his lips, looking shamelessly at her nervousness.
Her lips parted and eyes filled with confusion and excitement. Her hands tentatively hooked onto his hips and her body stilled, trusting him to keep her above water. He was kicking with his legs just enough to keep them steady, while still holding her, unwilling to move away. His head tilted forward, he was panting and his eyes glistened with something she could not read for sure, making her swallow a lump in her throat. Their foreheads touched and noses brushed, she slowly closed her eyes, expecting a kiss, but instead her nose twitched and her eyes blinked uncontrollably as he blew a few soft puffs at her.
Her eyelids fluttered open and she saw him grinning from ear to ear, satisfied with his trick, she darted a disapproving look for playing such a prank on her, but he looked way too cute, innocent and happy for her to hold a grudge. Seeing that he was forgiven, he laughed, making her laugh with him.
His eyes locked with hers, Tae Soo picked her up, pushing her higher, and she chained her hands behind his neck. Giselle felt relieved at last to pass the tense moment and his firm hold on her was both comforting and promising. If this man could look at her and hold her like that, then she could see a future for them, at least a future for more closeness.
"Aren't you tired? Let me down. I'm too heavy for you."
"Not at all." He winked at her, "We are in the water."
"Oh," she blushed and turned.
"Giselle, I like holding you."
She looked back at him, their eyes finding each other again.
"Don't look for problems, let's just have fun." He said, for a moment growing serious, and then quickly turning up his bright smile.
She was grateful for his beautiful smiles. They were like little diamonds, sparkling in the midst of her bleak existence. She smiled back relaxing in his arms and allowed herself to enjoy the sight: Tae Soo was luminous. His dark wet hair shone under the bright sun, the droplets of water reflecting the light from every angle on the surface of his skin. More blinding, than absolute perfection of his face, were his eyes. It was not the first time she was drawn inexplicably into the dark center of the chocolate colored irises with the hint of auburn picked out by the sun's touch. As he let her glimpse inside, the sincerity of his intentions and the tentative fragility of his heart exposed.
"You are a very handsome man, Tae Soo-shi." She added the suffix at the end, just like he taught her.
"I know," he said, not even batting an eye. "But I'm glad you think so." He lowered his eyes before saying the next phrase, as if weighing whether it was right for him to do so, "I think you are a very beautiful woman."
She heard him, but it was hard for her to hear it. She dropped her gaze, her mouth curled cautiously in a timid smile and then she looked up as if checking he was not playing a joke on her.
"Your eyes. They are so expressive and alive, and your nose is so cute." He continued and stopped before going any further. If he started talking about her scarlet dark and wet mouth and the narrow groove above her upper lip which let a water droplet rest between its edges; and then the sweet stretch of her smile, punctuated by the cutest ever tiny birth mark just next to it on the right side... He realized that he was moving closer, cutting the distance between them, his lips searching for hers...
"I'm cold," she said, clinging to him. Indeed she had goose bumps covering her shoulders. "Let's get out."
Although uneven, the trade off between a kiss and a close skin on skin hug was acceptable for the moment. How soft she was against his muscles, how wonderful the weight of her chest fell on his. How nice it was to feel her stomach tremble softly from the cold against his taut abs. How strong and masculine she made him feel in the most natural way by trusting him to make her warm in this cold pool of icy mountain water, his fingers pressed against her lower back, his arms wrapping her.
The kiss will come. "OK, let's go," he whispered into the wet mess of her hair close to her ear, making her tremble again from his hot breath.
She was shaking, even in the sun, and he quickly pulled out a large towel, covering her whole length and rubbing her back and arms with it. "Better? Warmer?" He kept asking, as her teeth were chattering and her bluish lips were shuddering.
"I-I-I am-am fin-ne," she managed.
"Your hair!" He grabbed his shirt, thrown casually on the rock, the first thing that was within reach, and pushing Giselle's head down, wrapped it as a turban, soaking up all the water from her hair.
"Wait, your shirt," she protested.
"It's not like I can't walk without one," he shrugged his shoulders.
"But I don't want you to!" She blurted out, jealous at the thought of crazy Puerto Rican chicas gawking at him.
"Don't worry. I will wear the wet one. It will dry right away." He laughed at her obviousness.
"Aren't you cold?"
"Not next to you." Wow, he could talk like that? He was surprised at his own audacity. But he was truthful about his comfort. The sun was at the zenith, his head was already steaming and his torso hot, only his swimming trunks were still damp and he wrung them off on the sides. He found another towel in the bag, quickly wiping himself off and checked with Giselle, "Are you still cold?"
Giselle coughed and did not say anything, still shaking like a leaf, a combination of cold, nerves and shyness.
Tae Soo thought for a moment and then pulled the towel off her. "What are you..?" His body blanketed her from behind, his arms softly crossing at the stomach and to her sides, to hold her hips closer, his head hanging down her shoulder, his wet hair brushing her cheek. The warmth coming from within him was so gentle and pleasant that whatever complaint formed on her tongue died right there and then. Her shudders subsided under his shelter and her hands glided across his to stop and hold him.
Tae Soo swallowed hard as they steeled in the cocoon of warmth and loving care. With some belated realization, Tae Soo's awareness of their proximity woke his mind into a more alert state, as he hazily enjoyed the feeling of Giselle's warming up body pressing against him. Thank God for cold water, but a few more seconds and his body would not listen to reason. He begrudgingly lifted his head and nuzzled his nose against her ear, asking, "Kenchana?"
"Kenchana," she answered with a soft exhale and he felt her hands slightly tremble with a feeling he evidently caused. That sent waves from his tense nerves along his spine, and quickly disengaging from her, Tae Soo thanked again the cold swim trunks for their service. He managed to pull out another towel tucked in the bottom of the bag and quickly tied it around his waist. He now felt... more in control.
Giselle still stood there, as if lost in thought, but in fact, nursing the feeling he gave her. There was no question in her mind, he was attracted to her and he kept finding both innocent and not so innocent opportunities to touch her. Reassured in her womanhood, she smiled and turned, straightening. "I'm all better, thanks to you. Although your methods are questionable, I will let it slide since my health is involved," she flashed a coy smile.
Tae Soo nodded and sat on the heated rock. "Lie down here, it will cook you in a minute," he said, padding the flat face of the boulder next to him.
She stretched out on the heated surface, her skin being attacked by the thousands of needles, waking her nerves to the contrast of temperatures and patiently waiting for the dull pain to subside, she relaxed into the very hot and very pleasant heat of the stone. Soon, it became unbearable to tolerate and she sat up, glancing over her shoulder at Tae Soo.
He was looking at her with unmistakable affection. There was softness washed over his features, his hand dropped on the elbow, as he was studying her back, smiling with the corners of his eyes at the curves and dips he discovered. She fiddled with her hair, untangling the wet strands and let is fan out on her back to dry. They stayed silent, soaking up the warmth of the sun and the tranquility of their surroundings. The waterfall hummed in the back and the wind rang with the bird calls.
"It was fun, thank you." Tae Soo turned to Giselle and smiled softly, keeping his eyes trained on her, he added, "I would like it if you can show me more around the island."
"When I have time."
"Great." He would not stop smiling and she could feel the smile in his voice, making her shyness build slowly in the rosy shade of her cheeks and the flicker of her lashes.
There was something languorous in the air. It was thick and slightly sluggish, wrapping around the sleepy island after a long day under the burning sun. There was something in the air that made them both sip it slowly, filling the lungs one slow inhale after another, and throw fleeting looks at each other.
The house welcomed them with the cool of air conditioning, and the weary travelers dragging their tired feet and not having much to talk about simply drank their iced drinks and continued their quiet exchange of smiles and gazes.
These charged interludes they kept having added more spice to the controlled situation in the house. Being inside was a reprieve from heated moments and at once raised their awareness of the tension that was steadily building. A moment when either of them would not be able to maintain the equilibrium was nearing, but not there just yet.