"I have to go to work tomorrow," sighed Giselle. "I hate that place. I will smell like chicken again."
"Why don't you get a better job?"
She stared at him in surprise. Was he that naive? "We don't get that many choices here on the Island."
"Sorry. Is not there anything better for you to do?"
"I wish. If somebody offered me a better job, I would take it in a heartbeat, but I have car payments and rent, I have to eat... Since you have money, you may not understand."
With all his money and connections, he would be able to find or even create a job for her, if they were in Korea. But they were in Puerto Rico, where he was nobody and knew noone. Giselle, on the other hand, had this huge family, so he was a bit surprised that they did not assist her.
"Does not anybody in your family help?"
"My family? You must be kidding. My mother is visiting my brother in the states, she is too busy with grandchildren. My father and his wife only concern themselves with me attending church and volunteering at the church and then making sure that they can get to the church, so I drive them. My brother is an airhead, my cousins... I don't even want to go there. Did you know that I have a college degree? It is embarrassing to admit that I work at a fast food place."
"Then what do you want to do?"
"I want to be a writer. I want to publish and make money with my craft."
"That's why you are always scribbling..."
"When do I always scribble? And how do you know the word?"
"I looked it up," he smiled proudly. "If I'm interested in something and want to tell you, I look it up."
Giselle's brows lifted in surprise. The guy was tenacious and obviously knew what he wanted. Either way she had to get ready.
"I will come with you."
"I have nothing else do." He shrugged his shoulders. "I always went to the Chicken place in the evening. I might as well go today."
"As you wish. It is your time you are wasting."
Tae Soo assumed his usual place at the corner table. He wore a baseball cap pulled low to the ears, covering his face. Headphones on, he appeared to be listening to something, but in fact he was watching the worker in the ridiculous red outfit from underneath the protection of his visor.
Giselle found her job amusing for tonight. She requested to be in the front, surprising her co-workers. It gave her a better view of the foreigner at the back of the store. Only now she began to recall that the sight was familiar. Frequently she saw the lonely figure lingering at one of the tables and she believed she probably sold him a few orders. But she never paid attention. How funny life is. One day you are strangers and the next day you are sharing a house together.
The shift seemed particularly long and annoying. Time dragged at the snail's pace and her only pleasant diversion was to imagine that she was somewhere else with somebody else. A dreamy vacation with an exotic certain Asian hottie, far, far, far away from this slice of land that had no future.
She calculated her accumulated vacation time. Twelve hours, thirty seven minutes. It was the most insufficient and treacherous system. The time was counted in some kind of increments, plugged into a confusing formula that only accountants could understand and therefore, nobody could ever really take any paid vacation. It was argued by the management that living in Puerto Rico was already vacation in itself. "You are in paradise."
"Paradise, my ass," exclaimed Giselle and heard laughter. Tae Soo obviously heard her. "Don't you dare!" She formed a small fist and shook it in his direction, making him really burst, holding his stomach with one hand, while covering his mouth with another.
As he watched her, his mind began to wonder. He imagined what it would be like to go places with her. It would be great to have her show him around the island and maybe, even learn a few words in Spanish. But first, he needed to quickly improve his English, since the kind of things he wanted to talk about and to share required more than a limited vocabulary he possessed. He focused on the screen, reading the lesson, while the podcast played in his earphones. Tae Soo got quickly absorbed in his task, moving his lips and attentively repeating the words of the teacher. When he lifted his eyes next time, Giselle was not behind the counter. Some young kid took her place, getting orders from a short line of customers.
He looked nervously around the store. She probably went to use a bathroom or changed up her duties with that kid. But a nagging feeling in his stomach did not leave. He tried to see outside the windows, but it has already gotten pretty dark. Getting up, he rushed to the parking lot, but between a few parked cars and a few bikes, it was deserted.
A thought crossed his mind and he turned the corner, where their first fateful meeting occurred. "Giselle?"
"Tae Soo?" She got up from her crouched position by the wall, her face wet. She was crying.
"Come here," he hugged her softly and stroking her hair, placed her head against his chest. "Kinchana, na yogi isseyo."
"It's OK, I'm here," he repeated in English. But her heart understood the meaning even without translation. It was safe and peaceful to hide on his chest, just like every time when he comforted her. This feeling was already familiar and she accepted it with gratitude.
Tae Soo was almost afraid to ask what happened. There was no Mr. Jerk in the vicinity and she was smiling and working just fine before he started studying. He could not imagine who else could hurt her so badly.
"Don't ask me. I finish in half an hour, let's just go home. I want to take a shower and go to bed. Ah, I'm sure you are hungry. We can stop by the supermarket quickly to pick something up. I'll make dinner and then go to sleep." She pulled away and wiped her tears. Smiling, she pressed his hand in a thankful gesture.
"I don't care about dinner," he protested.
"Let me just do that for you," she responded softly.
Tae Soo slowly boiled with anger. There was nobody to scream at or fight with. The silent offender did not exist and Giselle was not saying anything. The kind of thing that should have been fun – going shopping together – was fraught with tension and hurried awkwardness between them.
When they got home, Giselle took a quick shower, while Tae Soo paced back and forth worried about her. What kind of a work place it was where an employee cried in a corner and nobody cared?
She came back, hiding her eyes and got busy in the kitchen, making a salad.
"Are you going to tell me?"
"I'm cooking. It helps me to think. I need some space."
He was not familiar with this expression. He looked around the kitchen. It was spacious and not cluttered at all. Was the chair in the way? Or the bowls? He quickly moved to try to rearrange things.
"What are you doing?" She frowned in confusion.
"Giving you space." And a bonus puppy smile.
Giselle could not help, but chuckle. How could she be sad with this guy around?
"I'm making pork chops, extra crispy. You like?"
"I will try."
Mood somehow improved slightly and the aromas of frying meat had Tae Soo salivate.
During the dinner, Giselle was reserved, and Tae Soo was contemplating on how to make her feel better. "Do you want to go for a walk? It was nice yesterday."
"No, thank you. I'm going to bed early."
Half an hour later, the door shut and lights off, Giselle huddled under the covers in Tae Soo's bed, wishing that he would spoon her and hold her close, kissing her humiliation and pain away. She was frustrated with herself. Instead of taking advantage of the situation, she put up unbreakable walls around herself and was pushing the one person who would make her feel better away. Everything she had done was wrong. She embarrassed herself in front of him, acted all weak and needy, then withdrew and hid behind an excuse. How many times was she going to act like a poor victim for him to rescue her? She got hurt because she was such an easy target.
Well, it was not a big deal, right? She was determined to take care of this issue on her own. She was – she hit the pillow. She could – her next strike had little impact. She will – her fist uncurled and her arm fell aimlessly on her chest. A wave of helplessness and agonizing sense of powerless suddenly washed over her. Tears came easily, her pillow wet, her sobs grew louder and pretty soon, she was crying hysterically.
On the other side of the wall Tae Soo was seating wide-awake in his bed. He was nowhere near sleepy, greatly disturbed by Giselle's condition. When he heard her sobs, he could not stand it any longer. His long legs brought him to her door and he was about to knock... Was it appropriate for him to intrude? He sighed deeply – if he did not go in – he would regret it, but if he did, it might upset her even more. What woman wants to be seen in tears and puppy pajamas?
Another bout of loud wails made him bang his head on the wall in complete frustration. What the f... was he to do?
The door opened with a loud thud, almost having him fall over Giselle who winced at the bright light. She moved Tae Soo aside as if he was a piece of furniture and went inside the bathroom, where she proceeded to cry loudly and yell periodically: "Me? What a joke? I love hard abs and flat chests, not boobs and wide hips!"
Tae Soo lingered by the bathroom door, trying to make sense out of the nonsense that did not make any sense. Why was English such a useless language?
"Giselle," he finally gave up being tactful and polite. His own sanity was at stake at this point. "If you don't tell me what's wrong, I will go crazy."
Apparently, she was ripe for disclosure and looking at him with a red face and swollen eyes, blabbered out, "The crazy bitch that used to be my boss is calling me a lesbian."
He stared for a second or two, regurgitating the words in his head. "Can you repeat it again, please," he asked a bit uncertain if this was appropriate, considering how incensed she was.
"Let me spell it for you, L- E- S –B- I –A –N. Me. A lesbian. That crazy bitch!"
He frantically typed the word into the phone and went "Ohh... OHHH!"
"Aha, Oh-oh." She nodded. "Not that there is anything wrong with actually being a lesbian, but that is not what it is about. It's about making me feel like there is something wrong with me. Trust me, I would make a great lesbian, if I were one."
Her face was fierce, but somehow in her puppy pajamas, her hair all messy and tangled, she looked less then dangerous and rather comical. Yet, Tae Soo did not dare to even begin to smile.
"Do I look like a lesbian to you?" She pursed her lips tightly and frowned with all her might.
"Ahh... No..." He stammered. He really did not know how lesbians looked. Actually, he thought they looked like... women. And she sure looked like one.
"That's what I'm saying. I mean. That is preposterous!" She was fuming, her eyes glaring in anger, while Tae Soo stood by her, arms dropped at his sides, clueless look on his face. This problem was beyond anything he had expected. He had no idea what to say to make it better and wisely decided to just let her rant and rave till she herself would calm down a bit.
"Why are we in a bathroom?" She mumbled to herself, noticing that the counter was covered with crumbled pieces of toilet paper she used to blow her nose, and shamed by the mess, collected them into a trashcan. "I did not want you to see me crazy." Her tone apologetic and discouraged.
"It's OK," he waved off energetically. "Just calm down and get some rest."
Too obediently for Tae Soo's taste, she put her head down and dragged her feet back toward the bedroom. Then she sighed very loudly, stopping. Then another very loud sigh as if calling for attention with the shoulders deliberately pulled to the ears before she plummeted them down with yet another exacerbated sigh.
"Do you want to talk?" He tried, just in case that's what she was trying to convey.
She turned quickly, finding an audience, her eyes filled with tears of humiliation, anger and frustration and her voice choked up with a mix of self-pity and aggravation at the same time. She grimaced, mimicking her co-workers, conducting one-actor play in front of a real actor: "I know this might sound crazy, and I know you will be upset, but I got to tell you, the night shift supervisor is saying you are lesbian because you've never brought a boyfriend around." She stared at Tae Soo to get his response.
A smile crept on his face because she was so adorably incompetent in her acting abilities, but the humiliation she went through was pretty insensitive and ultimately cruel.
"I'm sorry," he put a hand on her shoulder, "you had to deal with this."
She continued her reenactment, "Of course, I know you are not that kind of girl, but the guys are already talking."
He listened attentively, unsuccessfully seeking words of comfort in his mind.
- Hey, Giselle, how is it going?
- I just heard someone is spreading rumors that I'm a lesbian.
- Gasp: NO! Who told you that?
"By tomorrow, the day shift supervisor will hear and then the manager. The shift workers will talk and pretty soon their friends and relatives will be gossiping. My town is like a little village." She sped up, eating up words, as the tears squirted out of her eyes from this awful embarrassment and anger.
Tae Soo had neither vocabulary nor ability to comprehend all of her rapid English overlapping with Spanish speech, but one thing was clear – he failed to take care or her and protect her and she was crying so pitifully that he wanted to squash those horrible people like bugs and burn the whole Chicken place down, with night and a day supervisors, workers and managers - all of it going up in flames as a small token of revenge.
He took her hand and led her inside the bedroom. He made her get in bed, covered her with a blanket and brought a box of Kleenex. As she continued to paint dire scenarios of her family calling to set her up on dates with girls, and her father accusing her of catching a gay bug from all the stupid reading she's done, and the good churchgoing neighbors offering condolences to her parents, Giselle's tears slowed down and through exhaustion, she realized that maybe, it really was not such a big deal. She had nothing against gay people. If she really was a lesbian or a regular heterosexual female, it had nothing to do with anything, but what really got her all twisted inside was that her coworkers judged and invaded her private life.
"Should I come to your work and introduce myself as your boyfriend?" offered Tae Soo.
"No. I'm not going to fall into this trap. I will sleep it off and pretend like nothing had happened. Who I like is none of their business. Whether I like men or women or both, it's my private life and I'm not about to share it with them."
"OK. Then rest." He gave her a warm and concerned smile and got up ready to go when she clutched his arm. He turned to Giselle, surprised.
"Can you stay with me till I fall asleep. I feel better when you are around." She explained bashfully.
It was the nicest thing he's heard the whole evening. Of course, he would stay. He sat beside her and leaned on the headboard. Giselle tossed a bit, finding a comfortable position and ended on her side, facing Tae Soo. He arranged the blanket around her shoulders, tucking her in and she smiled, finally feeling safe from the mean and malicious world behind the walls of this house. He pulled out his trusty headphones and closed his eyes, listening to something, when he felt a tug. "Not sleeping?"
"What are you listening to?"
He placed one of the headphone lines into her ear, keeping another one. A hopeful ballad played softly, some acoustic guitar and jazzy accompaniment on the background with a male singer riding the waves of the harmony skillfully, making her heart coated in sweet longing.
"What is this word Sarang he keeps repeating?"
"How do you say I love you in Korean?" She asked in her sleepy and tired voice.
After taking a long pause, he responded very softly, "Sarang-hae-yo." Saying these words to her came uneasy and he did not feel comfortable using them in vain. He never liked to speak casually about feelings and although this was just a simple translation, he got a lump in his throat as if he crossed an imaginary line with her that he should not have. At least, not yet.
"It's pretty. In Spanish, it's Te Amo."
"Te Amo is also pretty. Go to sleep."
A few days ago, they stopped by Giselle's house. The damage looked pretty bad and while she was upset about potentially losing the only nice place she could ever afford to rent, he secretly was thanking hurricane gods for their handy work. Hopefully, it would take a while to fix. In fact, two to three months would be a good start. Maybe, another hurricane or at least a storm would hit, and who knows – the house is old...
But the gods of the hurricane like all the gods had a cruel sense of humor, they liked to play with human lives like they were pieces on a game board, shuffling them around whether the actual storm was coming or not.
The morning after Giselle's break down, she woke up with a puffy face, headache and nasty mood. After last night, her embarrassment only grew worse, as she shuddered at recollection of her babbling, crying and snotty tissues piling up on the bedside table. The man she was attracted to had to wipe her nose and put her to bed. There was no way she could show her face in front of her roommate today. A quick escape plan was the only option. She called her brother to pick her up with some excuse.
Tae Soo was already making breakfast and listening to his English lessons podcast. Wearing dark glasses and a hat, she came out, mumbling that her family needs her and that she will see him later, and slipped away, while he was stunned to confusion with the spatula in one hand and a frying pan in another.
"I'll call you later." And she ran out.
He waited patiently for her call. Does she know my number? Because he did not know hers. They never bothered to exchange their contacts because they spent all the time together. His resolve waned as the day progressed. He kept busy, and even tried to go for a swim, but the sea was patchy, the sand was too hot and Giselle was not next to him.
"Oj, Chinaman." A tall Latino waved at him with a friendly smile.
Tae Soo ignored him on purpose.
"I'm talking to you, Flaco."
Again, he did not turn.
"Hey, don't be such a hardass. I'm just playing. Tae Soo, is it?"
"Yes, Tae Soo."
"I'm Jose, Giselle's brother. My Dad wants her to stay with him for a couple of days. They need a ride to church and then to the doctors. She sent me to let you know not to worry."
"I remember you. Is Giselle not coming home tonight?"
"Did she tell you anything?"
"No, she is taking sick days so that she can help my Dad, she said."
"Ahh. Can you give me her number?"
"She has a prepaid phone. It does not work all the time. I will give you the house number."
"At least give her mine, if she wants to call."
The man quickly typed it the digits and affirmed, "I will." He turned, waving goodbye.
Mr. Jerk was not kidding around. His thick biceps taut, he grabbed unsuspecting cooks by the collars and dragged them outside. Kicking, they screamed, but he was strong and hardheaded as a bull. He only saw red and charged to destroy those who were tainting Giselle's image. "Why would she be a lesbo when she has me?" He yelled punching them out simultaneously.
The other employees have already poured out into the parking lot, joined by the curious customers, forgetting their hunger and orders in favor of a spectacle. A sober fight in the middle of the day at the Chicken place – does not happen often.
The cooks were not shabby themselves and pretty ticked off, they jumped Mr. Jerk, throwing some serious punches his way. Obscenities as strong as blows rolled around along with the sweaty men in the dirt.
Mr. Jerk with his eyes blinded by rage yelled, "Come out and face me like a man!", getting into the manager's face.
"Break it up." A day manager spat on the ground before kicking the mess of hot bodies apart. "Who the fuck are you?"
The cooks growled like dogs, lunging and finally some men in the crowd stepped forward to hold the fighters apart.
"I'm Giselle's man. Do I look like a fucking dike to you? She is no fucking lesbian, you queer dick-sucking asshole."
"What?" The manager foamed at the mouth and jabbed Mr. Jerk before he could finish the insult.
The man just shook it off, stubbornly. "Hey! Bring that bitch to me. The one who started the rumor."
"Who?" The manager looked befuddled.
"The one, who called Giselle a lesbian."
"Are you calling me a bitch?" A woman stepped forward, with a grimace of disgust. "So what? Did I make her cry? The rumor has been going around for a while. I just said it. What? What did I do wrong?"
"You! I don't care if you are a woman. If your open your ugly bitch's mouth again, I will slap you." He shook off the men holding him and charged forward. He was restrained quickly, while still yelling.
"Have you lost your mind?" Giselle was beyond upset. He managed to create havoc in her life even after she kicked him out. To see his face was as pleasant as listening to the nails screech on the board.
"I heard all about the rumor. My sister's girlfriend's brother's wife is a friend with the area manager and she heard it from a few employees in the office, who were gossiping. Apparently, there's been talk for a while, but you just found out yesterday."
"What? How long?"
"I don't know. A month? You were in line for promotion, but the night shift supervisor kept spreading rumors and they did not want to have to deal with that, so they switched her. Anyway, I just felt like I had to do something."
"Damn it! Beating up my co-workers is not going to help me."
"That will shut them up!"
"You are not my boyfriend! Got it?" She glared at him. How many more times should she tell him? How much more clear can she make herself?
"Look, just give me a chance." He called in exasperation. "I want to win your heart. I know a stupid jerk like me does not deserve a nice girl like you, but at least, don't hate me. Have you little summer fling with the tourist, I'm cool. I don't care if you sleep around, I'll be here. I'm not going anywhere."
This twisted confession was sincere, yet still revolting. Giselle was speechless. Despite how much she despised the guy, she could not bring herself to be hurtful. In his own macho selfish way, he was trying.
"Forget about me, Rico." She looked at him almost as if he was really a human being.
"I like you. I always have. I just... I get horny and the girls... With you, I wanted to wait, I wanted to make you feel good."
"Is that your excuse?"
"Sometimes sex is only sex. It has nothing to do with my heart," he said dimply. Mr. Jerk looked dejected. "I may seem like I'm all about sex and stuff, but it's not true. I may act like a jerk, but it's because I thought you wanted me for exactly that. All the women go crazy over me. I can't help it. So I thought you wanted me for the same reason. Was I wrong?" He looked up at her, genuinely wondering if his sexual tension radar was broken.
He was being honest, was not he? And if she really thought about it, she did want him not for his beautiful mind, but for his body and for the horny dog he was.
"I guess, thank you for beating up those guys, but I don't need your help. And Rico, don't come around anymore."
"I will wait till your boyfriend leaves, because he will."
That stung. Coming from him the truth stung even more. Even a mindless gorilla like him could see that her fantasy romance with Tae Soo would be going nowhere. When he leaves, her world would be so empty... Just a few days with Tae Soo had already brought her more excitement, warmth and happiness than a whole year of a dreaded uneventful life she led before she met him.
Was it worth it to run away and hide because Tae Soo saw her vulnerable? Giselle mentally looked at the pages of the calendar she drew in her mind. There were less than a hundred days in summer. Whatever will come after... She decided she will spend them with the person who made her happy. Whether it would be a steamy romance or just an innocent flirtation or something in between, it did not matter.
"Rico, will you give me a ride?"
"Sure," he grinned happily. "Where to?"
He did not run up to her, sweeping her in his arms and carrying her to bed to make love. He did not even give her one of his warm and reassuring hugs. He did not even smile at her. In fact, he was not standing in the doorway, like she imagined: Wearing a white shirt, sleeves casually rolled up to his elbows, unbuttoned in the front, because it is hot and because he wants her to see his contoured stomach, what a tease! He did not throw a naughty look behind his long dark bangs or chuckled because he knew how attractive he was right now. He was not even here. The house was empty. It was late and it was dark. Only now she noticed a pair of his sleepers by the door and his sandals gone.
So no grand entrance for her. No fantasy roleplay of her prince welcoming her back to the magical palace of summer happiness.
"Tae Soo?" She still called, just in case he was there. Although his shoes were gone, she still hoped.
The keys in her hand jingled pitifully and she thought for a moment before heading back outside to the secluded beach. The motion lights responded, and the empty space before her made Giselle even more upset. But then, right at the edge where the light and darkness met, she noticed a lonely figure.
"Tae Soo!" She smiled, her heart at peace. So he did not get mad and left somewhere.
She came up and molded to his back, hugging him, her arms wrapped securely at his collarbone. "I'm sorry, Tae Soo." She whispered into his ear. "I'm sorry I disappeared like that. I was embarrassed. A lot. I wanted to come back right away."
He was quiet. And she felt his Adam's apple bump her forearm, him swallowing some hard feelings or maybe hard words he'd prepared for her welcome.
"I said, I'm sorry," she repeated. "I will never do anything stupid like that."
"Kinchana." He finally said. She heard hurt in his voice. But he was soft and gentle as usual.
She leaned more into him and put her head down. She wanted to stay like this for a while. The hugs he gave her, she wanted to pay back with interest. One long and caring hug of apology, since the no touching rule did not apply outside.
Tae Soo was lingering. He liked that, for once, she was the one to comfort him, although she was the one who made him like that. He decided not to move and see how long they could stay hugging. If it was up to him, they should stay on the beach for the night. Would that be a good time to tell her he missed her terribly? To finally kiss her so that she understood how much? But a part of him knew that he could not show her that she was forgiven so easily, that in fact ever since she entered the house, he waited with his heart in his throat thumping anxiously, and that he had to restrain his legs from running to her; and that when she came out, he pretended to just happen to be on the beach.
His back tense, he waited for her approach, wondering what she would do or say. "Don't turn, don't turn, don't turn," he had to chant in his mind and his arms clutched his knees so hard, he could not move. When her warm chest touched him, his heart shook with a small explosion. From that moment on, he had to put a superhuman effort not to turn around and crush her in his arms and then kiss her face and hair and scold her incessantly for making him worried and confused and mostly for making him wait not knowing whether he had done something wrong to drive her away.
His acting skills were impressive and made an impact he intended and then some. Giselle felt guilty and also did not know how else to make it up to him. So she just held onto him as long as she could for as long as he allowed.
He hoped that Giselle would get that she should not take him for granted or treat him like he had such a thick skin. Her apology was simple and sincere. He believed her right away. She was not the kind of person who would be so inconsiderate. But the hurt was not erased completely. It made him only more aware how much he's become attached to her. In the matter of just a few days, he found it difficult to part from Giselle.
Tae Soo's resolve was melting; in his heart he had already let go of the grudge.
"I know you are mad. What can I do?" She was ready to take any punishment. Her voice murmured near, tightening his already stiffened nerves.
Tae Soo bit his lip from saying something too sweet, still giving himself a minute to be tough. Her embrace said all she had to say. He turned slightly meeting her cheek, his skin on hers, his nose nuzzled into her softness. Ever so lightly, he puckered his lips and gave her a kiss of forgiveness. She gasped. The man slowly turned toward her, as she stayed kneeled behind him breathless after what had just occurred.
"So you are really sorry?"
He smiled tentatively and ruffled her hair on the top. "Then you are forgiven. Get up. Your knees will hurt."