“Here’s Giselle’s Chinese boyfriend,” loudly announced her Dad.
“I’m not Chinese,” protested Tae Soo, but his words drowned in excited greetings coming at him from every corner of the large backyard.
“Hey, man, welcome.” A tall guy came up to him and offered a strong handshake.
“My brother,” commented Giselle.
“So, Chinese?” Asked a group of some guys, much shorter and much darker than Giselle’s brother.
“Hey, O- re –ga –no!” Exclaimed a very voluptuous woman of about forty, with two yelling kids hanging of her forearms.
While giving her a light nod, Tae Soo whispered, “What is oregano?”
“An herb for cooking.”
“An herb?” he asked louder than he planned.
“Not o-RE-gano, o- re- GA- no,” repeated the woman impatiently, clearly distinguishing between the stress on different syllables. That did not help in the least and Tae Soo just stared at her with a plastered smile.
“You don’t understand? Aren’t you Chinese?”
“Korean, actually,” he repeated himself the nth time, starting to suspect that he will be forever known as “Chinese guy” even if he tattooed the word Korean on his forehead. The nickname seemed to stick quickly and stick well.
“Well, I watch a lot of TV and I speak many languages, so I wanted to greet you in Chinese.” Explained the lady as the kids began kicking each other and she snapped at them in the same fast Spanish he heard everywhere.
Tae Soo did not speak Chinese, but in visited China many times and had some diehard fans there. His ears could distinguish the sound of Chinese language from others and “oregano” sounded nothing like Chinese. Wait a minute, the sounds were vaguely familiar... It could not be...
“Arigato?” He snorted, trying really hard not to laugh in her face.
“Yes, that’s what I said, “oregano”, confirmed the lady and satisfied, left, dragging the kids, dangling off her like some wild monkeys.
It is not enough to be Chinese, she is trying to say ‘thank you’ in Japanese to me? Tae Soo mumbled to himself in Korean, unable to put the words together for Giselle to understand. He was too astonished to be any more surprised. “Is all of your family so... strange?”
“Yep, pretty much.” She sighed loudly. “Believe it or not, but I’m the most normal one of them all.”
“Thank God!” He turned to her with true appreciation, grateful that he was lucky to have met the only ‘normal’ girl on the Island.
Soon enough, the couple was invited to the table, where Tae Soo was exposed to more “Chinese guy” comments and was attacked with questions that were more of a way for others to talk, leaving him with his mouth open before he could respond.
Giselle’s father was a bit nuts, but refreshingly straightforward and had a rough military sense of humor. He was a smart man, but rigid in his beliefs, used to seeing the world in black and white, us against them. He picked the conversation about the North and South Korea, which he started in the morning, suddenly jumping to the stories about his life in the army and frequently hitting Tae Soo on his shoulder which started to feel sore. Finally, the topic landed on food and when the actor heard about BBQ, he offered his services to escape this crazy circus and to save his head from exploding.
“I have to give it to him, he knows how to cook meat,” grumbled the father.
“Uhu,” she nodded chewing and grinning at the same time. “And ramen.”
“Never mind,” Giselle watched the tall man work the grill. She could get used to it. Having him around during the family gatherings was not so bad at all. It was actually quite nice for a change to come and leave with a guy, so that all of her 13 and a half cousins (some were half cousins because of her stepmother), would not elbow her and whisper into her ears about the need to get some action. Usually, she had to find a corner and hug a beer bottle for the duration of the festivities, watching her relatives joke and laugh, drink and eat, a rowdy and happy bunch.
Today, she did not have to retreat and hide, today she became the center of curiosity and attention by everybody.
“Hey, flaco!” Her brother slapped Tae Soo’s back, making the actor cringe and turn in surprise. “So, you are living with my sister?”
“No, no, no….” He tried to protest, but the father chimed in, “Yes, he is not losing any time. I found him in her bed this morning.”
“What?” The brother turned and called out loudly, giving Giselle a shiver down her spine, but not the good kind, “Doing Chino already? Good for you!”
“Shut up, idiot,” she screamed, throwing the first thing she could grab off the table at his head, which he masterfully avoided, having it landed on an unsuspecting target.
“Hey, what’s up, girl?”
Giselle’s mouth opened and her anger at her stupid brother, mixed with embarrassment and all kinds of boiling emotions, was multiplied by thousands. In front of her, rubbing his metallic chest from the impact of an apple was standing none other than Mr. Jerk himself.
“It’s Rico, my friend,” introduced cousin Franco brightly, coming up from the side. “Apparently, he has a crush on Giselle and begged me to bring him along.”
Tae Soo quietly observed the situation, planning on how to deal with it. This was the last person he expected to ever see again, especially tonight. Memories about him touching Giselle and how she reacted flooded him, and his hands involuntarily curled into fists. His throat closed up and a hot flash of anger shook his stomach with a blast of a 5-ton bomb … till Mr. Jerk looked at him with a friendly smile. “Hey, how is it hanging?”
Tae Soo swallowed hard and unwittingly glanced at his crotch, where the zipper was snug and closed. What the f…? What is hanging? Where? Having made fool of himself in an instant and already angry, his handsome face expressed such rage and disgust that Mr. Jerk stiffened for a second when he met his gaze.
What was he supposed to do now? Play dumb and pretend that they’ve never met? Have a confrontation in front of everybody? Have another fight? But about what? Thoughts jumped and clashed in his mind, while he tried to contain himself. He did not recall ever feeling that way, never in his life his emotions reached the point of almost uncontrollable rage.
The boys noticed his slip up and laughed, rapidly starting in Spanish, obviously making fun of him till Giselle appeared quickly and interrupted the idiocy fest.
“How can you even show your face here?” she asked with apparent disdain.
Mr. Jerk had no qualms, since he had no consciousness to bother him. He smiled and gave her a sexy wink. “I just miss your pretty face and…” he ransacked her figure with his slimy eyes, “your delicious body.”
She just huffed and turning on her heels came over to Tae Soo. “I think this party stinks. Let’s go home.” She grabbed his elbow.
“Is not it rude? Your father invited us.” He hesitated as a big part of him was not done with Mr. Jerk and walking away would have felt like defeat.
“I hate his smug face.”
“He is not very good,” Tae Soo suddenly whispered into her ear, his warm breath tickling her and making all the bad feelings disappear instantly. “He does not fight very well. He only knows a couple of punches. I can totally take him on.” And he put his arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer and turning toward Mr. Jerk. His triumphant smile met surprise on the other end.
Giselle’s heart thumped loudly. Although Tae Soo put on quite a show last time, she did not want to have a “fake” kiss with a “fake” boyfriend. She wanted the next kiss to be for real, just for the two of them, not for demonstration that she was taken. But the way his arm lay on her shoulder and his fingers softly clutched at her forearm did not feel like pretense. There was a genuine feeling of care and she felt protected in a way that was not fake at all.
“You don’t have to prove anything. We don’t have to do anything.”
“I know. If you want, we can leave.” And still not letting go of her, he put down the fork he was holding and looked around the crowd for her father.
“We are leaving,” he announced, pulling Giselle along. “Sorry, I could not finish cooking. Thank you for your hospitality.” A small bow of respect and he looked at Giselle, “Let’s go.”
He rushed to undo his hold on her as soon as they were out of sight, pulling his arm away so quickly, it almost hurt her feelings. But then she remembered the “no touching” rule and sulked quietly, biting her lower lip as the neon sign “stupid” flashed repeatedly in her mind.
“I did not mean to hug you. It’s just...” Tae Soo sounded very apologetic and there was worry in his voice. “I promised to follow the rules. I already made you upset once today. If you don’t want to stay with me any more...” He hung his perfectly straight shoulders, rolling them forward with the pull of his head, his long bangs covering his eyes in defeat.
“Forget it. I know why you did it. We were not in the house, anyway. I guess, the rules are only for the house.” She responded casually, and the slight hesitation in her voice was covered by a conveniently placed sound of her clearing her throat. She could not believe herself again. She already found a loophole and talked about it as if she had planned it all along. Will he notice her desperation?
“Oh. Great.” He chuckled and lifted his head. “Then outside of the house rules don’t apply?” He sure was a quick learner. Giselle smiled herself, but very unnoticeably. She did not want to be so obvious and if not for the darkness that covered her face, Tae Soo could have easily read her eyes, which were as joyful as his, even more so.
But what he did next made her want to take her words back, because the same difficult blend of desire and constraint had to be tackled again as with every touch she had to withstand calmly and hidden from Tae Soo. He held her hand – a simple gesture of comfort or friendship between friends, which became much more when his hand came into contact with hers. “Then it means I can do this, when we are not inside the house?” Then he pulled her along and toward the car and opened up his free hand as if expecting something. “Your keys.”
Her fingers trembled as she fumbled through her pocket before pulling out the key chain. “Why?”
“You can drive? Do you even know where?”
“To the ocean.”
“It’s the sea.”
“To the sea.” He repeated in that velvety soft voice of his, making her melt in a very center of her heart. Tae Soo started to take control and she began giving it to him.
Tae Soo could not wipe a radiant smile off his face. The corners of his mouth stretched out gently to the sides, poking dimples on his cheeks as permanent reminders of this memorable night. One would think that something splendid, life changing and mind blowing had happened, like he won a lottery or signed the most lucrative deal, or maybe, he proposed to his long time girlfriend and she said ‘yes’. It had to be that big! He lifted his hand close to his face, looking at it attentively, turning it palm forward and back, making his smile grow even wider; he chuckled to himself and content, closed his eyes.
Behind the wall there was a woman sleeping in his bed. He held her hand and they walked on the beach, and although he had to let go of her eventually, his hand still kept the warmth of her touch and shape of her palm imprinted on his. He wondered if there was such a thing as a permanent handprint that could be left on a person’s heart, when touched by someone special. He only held her hand, but his heart grabbed onto her and even with “no touching” rule, she was with him, beating in his chest, under the covers, in his bed, with him, not going anywhere whether she was ready for such intimacy or not.
The actor turned out to be a good driver. He remembered the road back to his house well. Her new car, which ate most of her paycheck with the monthly payments, trudged along the bumpy road. And Giselle who initially was anxious to have her expensive baby wrecked, now was settled in a passenger’s seat and could fully enjoy the scenery, Lee Tae Soo’s profile: His aristocratically strong and straight nose and the plump outline of the lips, his neck with a prominent Adam’s apple, and his round cheek, beautifully flanked by the most perfect jaw line she’s seen.
She stared without shame and when he would glance back at her with a light smile, she smiled back and continued to stare, knowing that he was too busy driving, concentration written all over him.
They stepped on the deserted beach. It was the first night when Tae Soo was not admiring the view alone, sitting in his spot by himself, while the sea lazily licked the sand off the shore, which seemed to melt into the water and disappear somewhere back into its depth. This whole Island was one big scoop of ice cream for the sea to feast on, suddenly thought Tae Soo, amazed at this simile.
Giselle took her shoes off and dipping her toes into the sand, dragged a line with her big toe. She waved at him to follow and started toward the water, not afraid of the vast darkness that could swallow her as easily as it ate the sand. The sea, tamed by her approach, wiggled its wet tail and slid away, opening the path to stamp their footprints into the wet and dense shoreline. Water nuzzled up to their steps, biting toothlessly at their heels and tickling their soles.
The air was very warm, humidity was high, and the romance of the Caribbean Sea was lulling the night around them with the soft whispers of the wind and dimmed starlight.
“Does your name mean anything special in your language?”
“Mm.” He nodded shyly.
“Tell me. It is probably something grand and royal.”
“Don’t laugh, please. When my parents chose my name, they hoped to create a lucky future for me.”
“I won’t laugh, promise.”
“Tae means great. Soo can mean many things, such as best or great or life or live long. It could sometimes mean water, river or educate oneself. These are all Sino-Korean in origin. But in Korean, Soo means number, water, excellent and male.”
“Well, they covered all the bases,” sighed with a hint of envy Giselle. “What do you think it means?”
“I always believed it means to live a long and great life. So I’ve been trying. To live up to my parents’ expectations.”
“Is it why you have so much money, because your parents gave you an auspicious name?”
He recalled from earlier, her asking with that certain tone he feared, “So, you are rich?” Silence was heavy as Tae Soo laid his eyes on the feet unable to look at her. She was smart and quick. There it was. He could not avoid telling her now. Naturally, she will gasp and make this weird expression that everybody does: A mixture of shyness, astonishment and admiration. Then voice and mannerisms inevitably change and girls start batting their eyes at him turning to show their best angle. And then...
“Sorry, you probably don’t know the word ‘auspicious’. Give me your phone.” She simply interpreted his silence as lack of English skills.
He stopped and turned to her. She really did not care; she was curious, no more no less. Curious about him, not about his money or his job. She wanted to learn about him and understand him. She was so wonderful, and he had to do something about it immediately, otherwise he might spontaneously combust from the swell of emotions.
Tae Soo threw all the caution to the wind. He braced himself to be yelled at, slapped or possibly rejected... and hugged her. Giselle could hear how loudly his heart beat with excitement and it made her feel happy. She did not fight against his strength and she did not complain about the rules. She already told him the rules did not apply outside. He would be a fool not to take advantage and she decided to enjoy these bits of affection he offered so spontaneously.
“Dang, I wish my parents called me La Buena Vida,” she mumbled, as he loosened his arms, slowly pulling away.
“Giselle, you are so different from anybody I know and I am really glad I met you,” he said with sincerity that was very tender and deeply affected her.
She coughed uncomfortably, not sure if she had to reply in return. She looked intently at his phone in her hand. Giselle typed ‘thank you’ and pressed the arrow to translate into Korean. “Kamsa Hamnida,” she read to him, meeting his gaze with a timid softness glistening behind her eyelashes. “I like you, great Tae Soo, who will live a long and wonderful life,” she thought. “And I hope I will find the courage to tell you soon before it’s too late.”
Did he read it in her eyes? Will he know what she wanted to say with a simple ‘thank you’?
“Then you would not mind, if I did that?” He took her hand, holding it firmly, reaffirming his intention to show her how much he appreciated if she would agree.
She shook her head in confirmation. A warm stream of tender happiness ran down her chest, circled around her heart and nestled right next to it, aching lightly with longing.
“Kaja,” he prompted. “Let’s go.”