The roads after the hurricane were muddy, heaps of wet leaves and crooked branches blocked the car's passage and the tires skidded on the slippery surface. Beautiful greenery was dunked in the brown sludge and trees looked abused and sad, missing foliage and even with glaring wounds of lost limbs. Tae Soo watched with eyes wide open, silenced by the sight of devastation that one night of hurricane caused.
"We were lucky this time. It was not that bad. Another one will be coming, but for now, we can relax. Hey, have you thought of what you want to see on the island?" Giselle was driving, eyes on the road, while speaking softly to her passenger, commenting on his thoughts, as if reading his mind. "Do you think your house is OK?"
"Don't know." He looked pensive. He was still wearing puppy PJs and was holding a plastic bag on his lap, containing his dirty clothes. Giselle insisted on washing them, but electricity was still not working and she could not use the washing machine. Honestly, he would have just thrown them away, but he had a feeling that it would surprise her somehow.
The rest of the trip was void of conversation, both of them thinking.
Tae Soo was too much in shock to even begin to explain to Giselle that her father placed her under his roof. If he were back home, a woman would feel uncomfortable to move in with a strange man, worrying about what others might say. But this island seemed to belong to a different planet, as far as Tae Soo was concerned. Should he bring it up gently? He did not mind offering her shelter especially after she so generously helped him. But if she were to find out it was her father's idea, he predicted she would flip and never accept his invitation just to spite the old man.
His eyes twinkled under the long lashes with a concealed smile that barely touched the corners of his mouth. The image of Giselle prancing around his house in puppy PJs and blue t-shirts was quite appealing. Apparently, he was not against her moving in at all, on the contrary, he welcomed the thought. Now, he had to find a way to introduce it so that she would not reject him. It would be great – to earn some brownie points with Giselle's father and to have her as a house mate for his enjoyment. Tae Soo was getting ahead of himself…
"It's weird, right?" Giselle was mumbling to herself, not minding the man in the seat next to her. "I have a tree in my living room. I hate it, but I will need my Dad to help me deal with it. There is no way in hell I will stay with him. I should ask cousin Antonia or maybe cousin Jessica…" She glanced at Tae Soo, "Where did you say your house was?"
"Over there, turn to this dirt road," he pointed.
"I'm not sure if it's a good idea." But it was too late, the tires sunk into the wet dirt and the car's engine sputtered, as Giselle tried to push through. "I think we are stuck, we should go by foot from here."
"Let me help with the car." Tae Soo readily got out and, straining, started to push the car back as Giselle maneuvered the wheel and tortured the gas pedal. "One, two, three!"
"One, two, three!"
"One more time." He yelled and gave the last push, his face twisted from effort, long legs sliding in the mud, his whole body's weight pressing on the hood of the car.
The tires whirled and gripped onto the edge of the tracks, car finally let out of the trap and the man wiped his sweaty face, smiling in satisfaction.
"Wow, you are strong, you don't look it, but you are strong!" Giselle was impressed by his prowess yet again.
"I'm OK," he loved the compliment, but stayed cool, flipping his long bangs off the forehead.
"WOW, WOW." Giselle was at loss for words. The property was stylish and screamed big money. The house was of modern design and there were more rooms than needed for one person. It was furnished with taste and simplicity; and this environment somehow organically fit Tae Soo, less his disjointed outfit.
He hurried to change and soon emerged from his room, wearing tight skinny jeans and a casual t-shirt, which showed the slim angles of his body. He was wearing slippers, which made slapping sounds with each step, announcing his location and movement around the house. Giselle laughed, unwittingly, he was so handsome, yet funny with his sexy jeans and homey slippers.
"Do you want a drink?" He went to the fridge, which contained nothing, but a few cans of soda, beer and water.
"Water then," Giselle suddenly felt out of place, while he seemed very comfortable in his surroundings. She sat on the couch, all prim and proper, crossing her legs elegantly and putting her hands together. She imagined that's how a lady should be sitting.
"Kinchane-yo?" he snickered, covering his mouth.
"Why?" She had already learned the meaning of this one word 'OK' and responded naturally, without even thinking.
"You are…" he could not find the English word. She looked so stiff. "You don't like it here?"
"No, I do. It is very nice. And very posh."
"Posh? Like Victoria Bechkam?" British, cold, skinny and bitchy.
Giselle immediately forgot about her lady like manners and burst into contagious laughter, loud and gregarious; she rocked, holding her stomach, finally bending over, with her head hanging low, her slick ponytail touching the floor.
"What? What's so funny," he did not understand, crouching by her feet and trying to find her face.
"You… you… are too…funny. We have got to teach you some English," she shuddered through the laughter, trying to stop herself. "You need to study."
"I don't like to study." He answered honestly without thinking much. This girl made him real, open, with all his flaws and shortcomings. He did not mind it at all.
He stared at her like she was some kind of special breed of a human being. "Hmm," he said with respect. "I see."
"I can help you. We can practice."
"Sure," the prospect of spending time with her studying or doing anything, it really did not matter, as long as they would hang out together appeared very appealing.
"The view is astonishing," commented Giselle, distracted by the picture in front of her. The glass wall was impressive.
"You like my house?"
"Yes, it is amazing. You must be rich or something," she said, realizing that it was rude. "Sorry, I did not mean it that way."
"I have money," he responded shyly, "is it a bad thing?"
"Not for you." She sighed. "It must be nice to live in a house like that. I lived here my whole life and never had a house with such an amazing view."
This was his chance, and he took it, "Would you like to stay here?"
"Yes, I would love to. l don't have to work tonight. So we can hang out for a bit."
"No, I meant stay here with me. Your house is broken by the tree." His awkward English made her smile again.
"My house is not broken, repeat after me: My house is damaged by the hurricane."
"My house is damaged by the hurricane." He repeated with a cute accent. She seemed to have missed the point that he invited her to move in till it was safe for her to return home. But he could not have been more wrong.
"Did you seriously just casually invite me to live with you here? Is it Korean way?" she scoffed at his bravado. This man had some balls! They have not even kissed for real and he already…
"Yes. I did." He smiled widely and nodded vigorously. "Stay with me. I have many rooms. Pick any you like." He made a wide gesture, as a host would, showing his guests around his home.
"Look, I don't know what you think of me, but just because that jerk…"
He hurried to interrupt, "A guest, only a guest. Separate rooms. I would love to have a roommate." She continued to glare at him, as if not believing his innocent intentions. "I'm bored," he admitted. "And lonely." Here, he said it, a sad truth about his overly secluded and much relaxed vacation.
Giselle blushed, lowering her eyes, as if she dragged something private out of him without his consent. Why was she protesting so loudly? She knew why – because she would have loved to share the same house, be under the same roof and breathe the same air as him. She was just scared of what might happen. Because she could not trust herself around him. He was too delicious to look at and adorable in so many ways, she lost count.
"OK." She lifted her eyes hesitantly, swaying her legs, back and forth, as she balanced on the edge of the couch, leaning forward in embarrassment.
"OK?" He crouched, placing way to dangerously close to her face. "OK?" Hopeful and excited. "You will stay with me? We will have fun!" And to her horror, he grabbed her for a hug, almost lifting her off the couch, and ready to swirl around. He was that happy!
She tensed inside into a tight ball, heating rapidly from his proximity, red gloss shining on her cheeks continuously as she tried to cool her senses with massive pressure from her floundering will.
"Yes, I will," she pushed him off abruptly, "Now, let's set some ground rules."
"Rules?" Of course, as a woman she would want some assurances. He realized belatedly that he was way too enthusiastic for a casual friendly invitation. He did not even notice himself how his reactions swung from neutral to the more obviously elevated emotional level. His heart was steadily beating at a faster pace as soon as he secured her agreement. And his outburst with a hug, what was that? Despite feeling very familiar with her, he was still acting too unceremonious for the type of relationship they had. If they were to speak in Korean, they would still be far from casual language, still firmly on the formal side. But with English, it was easy it slip into a less constrained zone of communication, both verbally and nonverbally. "Please, don't misunderstand."
"I won't." She truly hoped that she did not, because it looked to her that he really wished for her to be here. Be it boredom, loneliness or what she really wished to come true – attraction. At this point, she was not hiding from herself the fact that this hot Korean guy somehow managed to hit all the right points on her infatuation list.
Tae Soo was a gracious host; or maybe, it was his natural charisma that made his lazy strutting around the house and pointing at different rooms so swoon worthy.
"My bedroom. Guest room and another bedroom. Which one do you prefer?"
"Sure," she mumbled, still busy attending to a fuzzy feeling of euphoria which took over her insides.
"Sure what?" He frowned in confusion.
"With what? Giselle, is something wrong?"
"No, everything is right," she murmured dreamy. "Perfectly right." And giggled softly, covering shyly her mouth.
Despite what Tae Soo initially announced, there was not multitude of rooms, like she anticipated. Just the choice of two, on either side hugging his bedroom, which was stuck in the middle. He said something about the view and the beds. There was a mention about the closet. One room had a desk and another did not. She let it slide by, words, entering her ears, only to float uselessly, without settling some place where she could use them for decision making. For her, it did not matter, because she would be just a wall away from him, and that made her anxious and happily expectant at the same time.
The man awkwardly avoided staring into her eyes directly, because he was worried she might read into his and understand how desperate he was to please her with this simple set up. He could only study her and interpret her incongruent remarks to the best of his ability at this moment. His usual talent to understand and read people eluded him around this woman right now. All he could tell, this was not the girl who walked into his house half an hour ago. While he turned away, some bodysnatcher swapped spunky, opinionated Giselle with this strangely agreeable person, making Tae Soo wonder whether he did something to cause this transformation. Should he try harder?
"If you don't like any of the rooms, you can take my bedroom," he offered, smiling sheepishly.
"That would be great!" In her mind she was nuzzling her nose in the pillow that smelled like him, falling asleep into the sensual dreams waiting to tantalize her at night.
"Ah…" his mouth dropped. He was not expecting the answer, but then again, she was different now. His room was the biggest and the most comfortable. He liked to sleep well. The comfort of his bed was something that he treasured. But without another minute's contemplation, he was willing to give it up for Giselle if she would be more comfortable. Such eagerness surprised even him.
He will make do in the kids' bedroom. It had a bunk bed and it reminded him of his childhood when he had sleepovers with his cousin, fighting for the upper bunk, because it was more fun to stare at the ceiling than at the sagging mattress under another boy's behind.
"Well, since it is settled," he smiled softly and added, "Just one more thing. I only have one bathroom. You must share." In the perfect world, he would have phrased it in a nicer way, but this damned English was not coming out when he needed it. Just like in school, when the teacher would ask, he would freeze and forget his homework he had diligently studied. They called it test anxiety. So, he felt as if he was being tested by Giselle? Or was it simply anxiety that tied his tongue?
Giselle did not make any condescending remarks, although he was sure she noticed. I bet if his English was better, he would have asked more politely. She was ready to write it off, beginning to accept his main shortcoming. She mentally created a list of all the pros and cons of Lee Tae Soo. So far his language skills were the only item on the con side, while the other side was overflowing over to the next page.
He waved for her to follow and opened up the door to a large bathroom with a see-through shower stall and a large hot tub to the side. Just like the front of the house, the outer wall of the bathroom was made out of glass, opening up to a secluded jungle view and the beach to the side. The design was stunning, just like the rest of the house. Although she was worried about privacy, the angle of the room was such that there was no way for anybody to see from the outside.
"I like it."
"Good then." He lingered in the doorway, as if making final determination; his fingers played with his lower lip and he casually swept his bangs to the side with a usual quick jerk of the head. "Then, we are officially roommates."
He proceeded pulling out some clean towels and moving his toothbrush to the side to make space for hers.
Only now Giselle pondered if all of this was way too easy. She just took over his bedroom, where he already had all of his stuff. Would not he protest a little at least? Usually guys were territorial, their "man caves" were untouchable and to have a girl invade their precious testosterone laden worlds was not something she had seen any of the males in her life allow without a fight.
Fine, even if he was not a typical macho Latin man, which she already figured out and liked, Tae Soo looked way too much relaxed. And comfortable. She was confused. Was not he breaking out in spontaneous expressions of physical affection, such as a sudden hug, just a few minutes ago? How come he was so casual about her sleeping arrangements? Did not he care? Tae Soo did not seem to exhibit any signs of nervousness or hesitation. A man has a woman sleep in his bed, stay in his room and feels nothing?
If she had only known the fracture of the effort he put to appear this way. After a quick internal discussion, he decided that he absolutely had to act cool and indifferent from now on, so that she would not run away. He was actually a very reserved person, shy even. He was taught that it was impolite to be too loud and too expressive, and as an actor, he recognized the impact a powerful display of emotions could have on an audience.
With his friends, he mainly liked to goof around, tease and joke. When he dated, he preferred doing things, rather than talking. Something lighthearted and fun, like a karaoke session or a game of tennis, maybe riding bicycles together or watching a movie. If he felt like being more passionate, well, there were ways to express it through actions… Yet, Tae Soo was well aware that, in general, his strong emotions just stirred inside, never quite making it to the surface. He was not ready for Giselle to find out how much he's gotten fond of her over the short time they've spent together. He was cautious with his heart, because it was not used to these kinds of feelings.
Since they will be living together, he would have to be extra careful and calculating. But it also meant that he did not have to worry about when and how to see her again. Naturally, they would spend time together, and he hoped that his heart would figure out what it wants.
Giselle snapped out of her la-la land excursion and was back with her feet firmly planted in reality. She plopped on the bed, jumping a bit to test the firmness of the mattress, satisfied, she went around, taking a sneak into the closet, just to see the size and then turned to Tae Soo. "Last chance to change your mind."
He snickered. She was back to her usual self and it made him truly at ease. "You are a lady, so I will gladly give my bed to you. The other room is OK."
"Fine, don't beg to give it back, later," she winked at him. "It's all mine now," she made an all-encompassing gesture. "So, ground rules."
Tae Soo had laptop ready and she opened it up, prepared to create a long and detailed list of all the dos and don'ts, so that he would not get any ideas. Actually, it was more that she would not get any ideas. The rules would help her stay within the imaginary lines she drew for herself, the lines that should not be crossed, like sleeping in the same bed again or engaging in accidental hugs, and of course, no pretend kisses to ward off unwelcomed suitors. She wanted to have clear delineation about physical boundaries, so that she did not have to tense up and jump from her seat every time he neared her. Yes, that's what she decided she needed.
However, another part of her hoped that Tae Soo would not be keen with such ideas. She actually wished for him to adamantly oppose the "no touching policy", while she would coyly insist, for now, at least. She was not that kind of girl.
Her fingers touched the keyboard, but some strange markings showed on the screen. "What is it?"
"Korean," he said, as if it was expected. Only now she looked more carefully at the keyboard. "Is this how you write in Korean? Cool!"
"You like? I can teach you," he got super excited and just like last time, got really close, so that she could almost feel the movement of his lips creating the waves of the air, hitting against her ear. "It is a very easy language to learn to read and write. For a smart person, like you, one day is good." He placed his hands on her shoulders and pressed lightly as if to give encouragement, but then quickly undid his fingers and stepped away.
"Aish," he mumbled. He did it again. Touching her. What's with all the touching!?
She stared at the screen, unable to look at him. Slowly, so that he would not notice, Giselle swallowed a tingling feeling, rising up in her throat and said, "Maybe, we should just write the rules on a piece a paper."
"I will get it." Tae Soo left, soon emerging from his bedroom, which was technically now hers, with a pencil and sketchpad. He was smiling, ready to further sink into this roommate commitment they had made. Not a worry wrinkle on his forehead.
She realized that her idea of how romantic and wonderful living with Tae Soo would be, if they only followed a set of simple rules, was just a figment of her imagination. She set a trap and got caught in it herself. If he fought with her about physical boundaries and she gave in, would not seeing him every day and having him touch her like that cause her more turmoil than happiness? If she already reacted that way to a simple friendly touch, how could she be herself around him? How silly it was of her to envision a platonic coexistence, when his touch made her only want more!
Giselle sighed sadly, her chest tightening. It was all her, he was just a guy who wanted a friend. That's why he was like that. Oh well, she was used to one-sided infatuations. Why would this rich and handsome guy think of her any other way? No wonder he so readily offered her to sleep in his house, in his bed. No wonder…. Her mood quickly plummeted and a sour expression pulled the corners of her mouth into a pout.
"What's wrong?" he approached again with a warm and caring smile. "What did I do wrong?" He could not help but exclaim, opening up for her to see that he cared more than let on. Lucky, or rather unlucky for him, she did not interpret it this way.
Her face crestfallen, with a lightly shaking tone, she explained, "Nothing. You did nothing wrong. Maybe, me staying with you was not such a good idea after all. You are still a man and I barely know you…" She gulped. "Is it because we fell asleep together last night? If I were a Korean girl, you would not do that, would you?"
He opened his mouth, carefully weighing the words. She was offended. Inadvertently, he made her feel cheap and misunderstood. The cultural divide, which did not seem like a big obstacle, loomed above their heads, growing in size, like a storm cloud, about to discharge when it reached the high point of saturation.
Here it was, the moment of truth. She is going to back out and tonight he will return to an empty house and stare into the dark ocean, wondering about where she is sleeping and who is lucky enough to share his evening with her. A wave of trepidation rose in his stomach and his beautiful face reflected unhindered regret. "I knew you would change your mind. I'm sorry. You think I want…" he searched for English words, grasping at his mind, which did not hold any answers, murky, like waters after a hurricane.
A dysphoric mood floated around the room; atmosphere changed so quickly, they both barely adjusted to the feelings roused within them. She gestured to his pocket, where he usually carried his phone. "Your phone, type and translate," she suggested.
He wanted to explain in great detail that he was reluctant to stay with her last night because of exactly this outcome. He wanted to tell her that sleeping with her was sweet and waking up with her next to him was very special and that he was grateful she was not a Korean girl, who would take it the wrong way. He was truly glad to be around someone so different and much more free with their feelings. He wanted to tell her that he kept touching her because he was excited like a kid and was not able to hold back, where he once had no problem to control himself. He wanted to share that he was trying really hard to maintain his distance and that he would never have thought of inviting her to stay over, but after her father suggested, he could not think of anything else and the possibility itself made him incredibly happy.
No, he would not do it with a Korean girl, because none of them were her, none of them were Giselle, a beautiful and wonderful girl from Puerto Rico, who liked ramen and invited him over to her home during the hurricane. None of this actually mattered.
"I won't be disrespectful. Please, stay, Giselle. I want you here. I will protect you."
As she read, her lips quivered and her heart trembled like a scared little bird with a broken wing, which was just offered safety. His words were warm and reassuring. Maybe, she should try this and see where it leads. He is a good man and he likes her enough to ask her to stay. She should be more brave.
"OK. But no touching. We are just roommates," the words jumped out of her mouth and she wished to catch them midair, but it was too late. He looked at her with something she would qualify as disappointment, and nodded in agreement. "Of course, roommates."