전 종 석: He
“Lie to yourself until it’s true.”
-Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes
Jeon Jong Seok [전 종 석]
Jeon Jong Seok couldn’t exactly decide whether he should blame the bumpy plane, the elated air pressure, or the random stranger flipping the pages of their book loudly two seats away from him, but he just had to hold someone responsible for the discomfort he’d been feeling in the last seven hours.
He’d been feeling queasy and uncomfortable; that annoying uneasiness you get when someone has been staring at you from afar or when you want something you just simply couldn’t explain. Maybe it was the whirring sound coming from the engines, possibly the luxury seat, perhaps the beef casserole he had for lunch; Jong Seok wasn’t sure. It was simply aggravating not being able to get a peace of mind even for a minute. And adding the fact that his best friend and companion, Jay, had been staring out the window and not giving him any kind of attention or concern despite being the one accompanied to the whole other side of the world, was NOT helping at all.
Restlessly tapping his fingernail against the plastic molding of his armrest, it was Jong Seok’s turn to be the person everybody on the plane was irritated with; his quite jittery pattering against the seat was making people look over at him and lose their minds. Eventually, someone complained, and before he knew it, Jong Seok had an attendant in cerulean looming over him, grinning in a ‘I don’t know you, but if you don’t stop drumming those fingers of yours, I’ll cut them and throw them offboard’ way.
“Is there something I could do for you, sir?”
Is there? Jong Seok didn’t think so. Whatever he was uncomfortable about, he was sure the flight attendant had nothing to do with it. He didn’t even know what he needed help with. How as he supposed to tell her? Jong Seok fidgeted, eyes wandering from the attendant’s fraud smile to his friend sitting right behind him. The judging look from the people staring at him made Jong Seok feel sick to the stomach. He knew that look. He knew those stares. They were what he had to endure after what happened, after all. Those were the gazes he had received after he stated what he did in front of the court. It was also one of the reasons why he chose to go with Jay even though he knew it would just all happen again once everyone found out about him.
To be honest, the only reason Jong Seok and Jay flew back to South Korea was to find hope. Or to be more specific, to forget the last few months. To start afresh once again. This ‘trip’—or ‘vacation’, as his parents said—wasn’t solely for Jay. It was for both of them. Jay wasn’t the only one affected by the whole ’incident’; it was all of them. The whole lot of the students who were in that ball in Stanford University in California. All those people who were there, all 2,857 of them.
Those three people who were shot.
That one person who died.
All of them.
It wasn’t just Jay.
Jong Seok now knew what he had been unconsciously fidgeting about.
Personally, Jong Seok thought Jay had been too overacting. Jay hasn’t been shot, unlike Taejun, their friend, nor run over by the students on their way out, unlike Jong Seok. The only thing that happened to Jay was he watched her die. He wasn’t gunned down or trampled over, yet he had the cheek to swim out in the ocean and drown himself out. He had the audacity to kill himself, when all he did was watch Jong Seok’s girlfriend whom Jay liked—no, loved—die.
Jong Seok felt angry and disappointed. Was Jay really that weak? Or was Jong Seok just really hopeless and numb, to the point he couldn’t feel sorry for himself, much less miss his own dead girlfriend? Was he, Jeon Jong Seok that great of a liar that he managed to convince himself that it wasn’t his fault, that he had nothing to do with everything that happened to them?
He knew it wasn’t Jay’s fault. Jay was only being human about the whole situation. Jong Seok, on the other hand, was pretending to be fine and unaffected, when in reality, he thought he was the most marked upon by everything. Jay was being normal. All the things that were happening to him was what his brain thought would be more appropriate for him to accept whatever he saw. Jong Seok was just insistent on, well, imagining as if it never happened.
He was no crybaby; Jong Seok wasn’t weak like Jay. He would endure it till the end, acting as if it wasn’t his fault, that he never said those three damn words that changed 2, 587 lives forever. He, Jeon Jong Soek, could put up with ignoring it.
He jolted. Jong Seok completely forgot that an attendant was talking to him. He cleared his throat, still aware of the eyes that swiveled from their seats to peek at him in curiosity. He sat up, clearing his suddenly dry throat.
“No, I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong.” Looking up at the flight attendant, Jong Seok smiled sheepishly.
“Alright, sir. If you could just—?” She made a hand gesture that told him to stop with the nail-tapping. “They’re quite bothering.”
“I will, sorry. And thank you.”
Two-year-old Jeon Jong Seok never realized before that the spacious space around him was actually called a ‘bil-DING’ in English, or simply geonmul (건물) in Korean. His noona* had been teaching him that word since they arrived in the bil . . . bil-DING, continuously trying to make Jong Seok say the word without stuttering as his father spoke with the man in grey suit. They conversed in Korean, which baffled Jong Seok; it had been weeks since they came here, and yet it was the first time he heard his father speak their language to another man in this foreign country. If his father was just going to speak Korean all this time, why did his noona had to teach him English by throwing random difficult words at him?
“Jong Seok,” his sister warned in a dangerously low and irritated voice. He figured it was only seconds before he would be told to stand at the corner. “Focus. Repeat after me: Buil—”
“Building,” Jung Seon completed, chin and eyes lifted in anticipation.
Jeon Jung Seon looked as if she was ready to slap a hand on her forehead and throw him off the out the gigantic window beside them. “You know what?” she muttered in perfect English so that Jong Seok wouldn’t understand. “You suck. I give up on teaching you. I hope you at least pass your exams when the time comes.” Then she stood up, brush her pencil skirt, and left Jong Seok by the fountain to join their father, her black heels clicking across the marble floor.
Disappointed that he let his sister down, Jong Seok let his head hang down in shame, fiddling with the Iron Man watch his mother had strapped on his wrist. Oh no, he thought, suddenly feeling the urge to cry. Noona will tell Papa I have another simple thing that I couldn’t do, then I’ll see that sad look from Papa again.
“It’s buil-DING, idiot.” A kid older than Jong Seok by a few years came over and sat beside him, speaking Korean in such a fluent accent. Jong Seok stared at him. “D, as in dugh. Dugh. Repeat after me: Dugh. Dugh. Dung-ing. Ding.”
Hesitantly, he tried once more. ”Gugh. Ging.”
" Dugh. DING,” argued the kid.
“There!” The kid clapped.
“Buil . . . ding.”
“Building?” Jong Seok was overjoyed. He could finally pronounce the word his sister had been teaching him the whole day. “Building!”
“Good job!” The kid handed him a small white plane toy. “This is your reward. My name is Park Jay, but you have to call me hyung** because I’m bigger and smarter than you, do you understand?”
“Okay!” Jong Seok grinned in excitement. He never had a big brother before. “Thank you, hyung!”
Used by a younger male to call an older female friend or sibling. (Literal meaning: older sister)
Used by a younger male to call an older male friend or sibling. (Literal meaning: older brother)
“Mom, I said I’m already in the condo. There’s absolutely no need to nag.”
You would think that being on the other side of the world would prevent Jeon Jong Seok’s mom from persisting that, Seoul is actually a very dangerous place; Jong Seok and Jay should be careful when they get there, and, oh, was Jay back in his new condo now and did Jong Seok bring him there? Jay shouldn’t be left alone; everyone knew that leaving him alone would be the cause of a disaster, she should have bought Jong Seok a condo near Jay’s, why didn’t she think of that before, blah blah, blah, blah . . .
Jong Seok was partially glad that his mother cared enough to buy him his own condo, a black Sedan, and enrolled him in a high school instead of leaving him to do it. The condo was a bit far from Jay’s; a few kilometers of car rides, but it was cozy despite the sleek elegance. It was too grand for the occasion, but he didn’t mind. Grand was his middle name, metaphorically speaking.
The only thing that sucked about the whole ‘vacation’ thing was that it wasn’t an actual vacation. They didn’t come to Korea to enjoy—they came to fix their lives, mainly Jay’s life. A vacation wouldn’t actually consist of mid-semester school-switching in the middle of January across the world, plus a traumatized best friend, would it? Jong Seok admit wanting to visit South Korea—it was his birthplace, after all—but he wanted to do when he was about 25 with a permanent job as the president of his family’s company, along with a couple of private jets and a supportive fashionista girlfriend, not while he was still 17 (18 in Korea) and a 12th grader who barely passed English in a country that basically spoke English in a normal basis. It was just pure bad luck.
“You were supposed to be staying with Jay on your first day back in Korea! I forgot to tell you at the airport. How was the flight? Did you eat on the plane? What did you eat?” Mrs. Jeon continued to ask in worried Korean through the phone, her face peering into the big screen of her iPad, wondering why all she was seeing was a white wall of some sort and not her son.
“The flight was as comfortable as a 12-hour flight could’ve been, Mom. And we ate this soggy piece of meat that I tasted like dad’s burned bulgogi†. I already told you that. You’re just going over and over the same topic as before, Mom.” Jong Seok’s voice was a little unclear through the line. He had been taking out his clothes from the luggage, transferring them to the bed for better adjustment. His phone was laying on the bedside table, screen upturned, explaining what his mother was seeing: the ceiling.
“What? What? I cannot hear you! Hello? Is the line breaking up?”
Jong Seok took it as a chance to hang up from his two-hour call with his mother. He reached over and screeched into his phone; finger ready to slam into the red button that would finally shut his mother off from her never-ending rants. He ran to the silently humming fan and shoved the speaker of his phone into the space where the air comes out to create some sort of sound distortion. “Sorry, Mom, the line’s breaking up—!”
“What? But I can hear you properly—”
“I’ll hang up now, bye!”
Within the millimeter of a second, Jong Seok had pressed the button that would magically (well, not really, but let us say it was) shut his mother up. Then he walked back and plopped down on his bed, his arms shielding his eyes as he breathed a sigh of . . . relief? Exasperation? Tiredness? He wasn’t sure.
Suddenly, the responsibility, the worries . . . everything fell back in place. Jong Seok could feel the heavy bear he was carrying in the past year once more, sensing the unfathomable burden clinging back to his shoulders.
He was tired, there was no denying that. Tired from the flight, tired of his mother’s nagging, tired of supposedly being responsible for Jay, someone who’s three years older than him. He was tired, but he wasn’t sure if he should stop or not.
Jong Seok was tired of pretending, but he wasn’t sure if he should stop.
Maybe he shouldn’t. Pretending became him, after all. He couldn’t afford to lose his cover-up and end up like Jay.
† (불고기) Bulgogi:
-a Korean dish made of thin marinated of beef or pork grilled on a barbecue or on a stove-top griddle.