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REPLY 1988: My Taek Part 1

I don’t really know when it started, or maybe there was no beginning to when I saw Choi Taek as my possession. Because he was so very quiet and emotionless in the early days when his dad and he first moved into our neighborhood, I saw him as a new toy, sometimes a puppy – mine, of course. So woe to anyone who thought to take my puppy away from me, or bully him, because I would go bat-shit crazy and scratched their eyes out. It turned out though that I was the one who would inflict the most wounds on Taek, because I was too rough in play or Taek would blindly follow me in some mad schemes. He never once blamed me, and would just beam his goofy grin at me as I bawled guiltily over his broken arm, bleeding head, bruised legs on numerous occasions, thinking he was going to die and leave me all alone to fend for myself.

But Taek never left. The other boys sometimes did, because they did not want a “girl” with them. Taek would stay with me and hear me chatter on about all the nonsense in this world at a hundred miles per minute while quietly reading his baduk books, nodding his head even though I was quite sure he wasn’t paying attention. I did not need him to respond though – I just needed him to be with me. When I got tired of talking and looked up, he would instinctively flash that wide smile and say, “Ramyun?” And all was right with the world.

As kids we were like Siamese Twins stuck to each other’s sides, so much so that our parents would always joke, “These two are surely going to be married to each other!” I did not fully understand the concept of marriage then, but knew if it meant staying together forever with Taek, then I was all for “marriage”. Taek was mine, and he needed me to protect him. He was like a helpless puppy – other than baduk, he could hardly feed and clothed himself properly. The gang always teased him for being a genius who couldn’t even use chopsticks, but innately I understood – he was using his brains on things beyond our childish comprehension, and it really wasn’t such a big deal; what he couldn’t do, I could do it for him. Taek once told me, in a rare moment of verbosity, that I was a genius too: I could run the household efficiently, help mom with her housework, open yogurt packs and bags of chips easily and talk non stop even to strangers. And I thought, Taek is Right! I am a genius too! Suffice to say I was happy for a long time.

As I got a little older and had close girlfriends and school was taking up a huge chunk of my time, Taek was still there. His room was my second home and our collective hideout. I was old enough to appreciate and love him for his steadfast selfless friendship, his unquestioning support in everything I did even when the whole world doubted me. Taek was the only one who made me feel safe, and sure. He was like an unchanging rock, a safe harbour, even as my teenage hormones got the better of me and I fell for one guy after another at the drop of the hat, Taek was there through it all, and our relationship never changed.

In return, I remained fiercely protective of his well-being. I nagged at him constantly to cut down on his sleep-aids and headache medications, to eat regular meals, fearing for his health. I forced him to exercise that weak lanky body of his whenever I could. He was spending more time overseas for his international competitions, and I got the chance to accompany him on one of his trips to China only to find out to my great horror and fury how they “bullied” foreign baduk players. They were messing with the wrong people and no one could ill-treat my Taek and get away with it. I cajoled, bull-dozed, and badgered my way through it all to ensure he was in his tip-top condition when he finally entered the competition. He won, of course. How could he not, when his biggest supporter was there with him?

The China trip opened my eyes to something else. Taek was not really the Taek I grew up with. Taek was changing. Under the bright lights of the flashing bulbs of cameras as he stood solemn and tall, I was taken aback by how adult he seemed. I had another jolt when I accidentally caught Taek smoking in his room. My innocent Taek, smoking! Looking all manly and world-weary. At that moment I was awed and frightened of the stranger standing in front of me. Where did he take my beloved friend to? When Taek smiled that all familiar smile at me at the end of his game, I was relieved. I had not lost Taek, Taek was still with me. But it was a turning point in our relationship. Not that I wanted to acknowledge it then. Still an ignorant 18 year-old girl, unsure about her feelings, weak in her convictions

Despite my best efforts, I started to take note of all the changes in Taek, and in myself. When did his jawline become so sharp, and his voice so soothing and mellow? As he lay his head on my shoulders in tiredness, I marveled when he became so heavy, and his grip on me so strong and tight, while trying to curb the budding flutters in my heart. Our glorious day out at the beach when he shielded me from a stray volleyball I had unwittingly wondered aloud, “Whoa, you are so manly!” And he had retorted, in an un-Taek-like way, “Of course I am a man! Am I a woman?” And then lightning struck me. Taek had become a man. The man who was still my childhood friend, but……

I began seeing only the man, while desperately trying to keep my friend. The world turned a little topsy-turvy. Suddenly, Taek was taking care of me, giving me comfort after my unfortunate brush with an ahjusshi flasher, and silently offering his protection when I was too frightened to go to the toilet. He stayed with me as I cried dejected angry tears over my lack of college prospects and frustration at my lack of dreams. After my unsuccessful crushes on Sunwoo and Junghwan, I was no longer so naive as to think having a relationship would not have any repercussions on our life-long friendship and our group dynamics. I also did not want to think that I was so easy that I would jump from liking one close friend to another within the group the minute they did not want me. Were my feelings so cheap? My confidence was already battered. I couldn’t trust myself to know anything about my own emotions, much less the guys I proclaimed to “like”. Still, I could not stop looking at Taek. I could not stop the growing flutters in my stomach every time he smiled at me and said, “Deok Sun-ah!” My worst fears were realized when I started feeling uneasy around Taek – too jumpy, too conscious. I wanted things to be the way they were before. Everything else could change, but not between Taek and I.

When he finally asked me to keep my Saturday free that fateful day, wanting to meet up after his baduk competition, my heart leapt crazily, uncontrollably for joy. I told myself sternly that there was nothing special, we had both been on dates together before, and then I remembered the serious intense look on his sweet face telling me that he had a girl he liked and would confess to her soon. Could it be…? Aniya, I had shaken my head violently as I recalled the fiasco with Sunwoo. Taek and I, we were just best buddies, right? Yet, what was to stop hope from blooming in a young girl’s heart?

When he suddenly cancelled on me, my world came crashing down. Taek NEVER cancelled on me. Regardless of how sick he was, whether he was in another country, Taek always made sure he would make it to all our appointments. Even when things cropped up, he would only be late, but no matter how late, Taek fulfilled all his promises. My heart broke into a million pieces, taking this rejection even harder than any of the other rejections I had previously. Because my feelings for Taek ran far deeper than I wanted to acknowledge. It hurt so much. Even without knowing the reason, Taek had chosen to turn away from me. Was it because he found out I had fallen for him even though I hid it so well? Did I just lose my best friend like that with my careless girlish crush?

I agonized, debated with myself, then vowed that I would put my own pain and unrequited love aside to maintain the status quo in our relationship. I wasn’t going to burden Taek with useless emotions, I would love him silently, by myself, and maybe one day I could see him as a friend again. However, circumstances were not on my side. When he suddenly swept me off my feet in a blistering run when the security guard was chasing us, I felt like I was literally flying. His embrace was firm, powerful, and I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest, so thrilled I was. I had many sleepless nights after that, replaying the moments in my head again and again. And then.....

I never regretted staying back in his room that night. I waited out for him because he had been staying out late so many nights, and we barely saw him at all. I worried he was avoiding me on purpose, and I was worried for his well-being too. That night, his tired, drawn face, so ghastly pale, with bloodshot eyes barely able to open confirmed my worst fears. When he crashed down on his mattress after taking a significant number of pills, there was no way I could leave him all alone. So I sat there quietly, taking the chance to memorize his handsome face, wondering how I never noticed his long eyelashes that fluttered closed against his fair cheeks, his slim straight nose, his masculine lips. Growing sleepy, I lay my head down on the opposite side. Taek must have sensed my presence somehow – his warm hand shot out to grab mine, surprising me. I wanted to pull away, but his hold was so tight and he was still asleep that I soon relaxed and tightened my hold on him in return. His face and his hand were etched in my brain as I drifted off to sleep in a haze of happiness.

Sometime later, I stirred awake, and found myself looking right into Taek’s eyes. Omo, how was I going to explain myself why I was here? Why did I fall asleep? Was it going to be even more difficult to convince him that I wasn’t in love with him in the future? As I was panicking on what to say and do, Taek continued to stare at me intensely, unblinking, not speaking. Then my world changed. Taek closed that minute distance between us and kissed me deeply.

I was shocked, I was thrilled. Never did I expect to receive my first kiss that way. I kissed him back with all my heart, all my soul, ignorant as I was in any art or form in kissing. His lips were insistent, warm and as he nibbled at my lips I tasted his sweet tongue and smelled his sweet breath. I didn’t want the kiss to stop. I wanted to shout, “Taek-ah! Sarang-hae!”

Then his lips stopped moving. Slowly, I drew back, and was astonished he was sleeping again. How could he sleep, when my heart was beating so very fast? When my thoughts cleared and I remembered that Taek sometimes had sleepwalking spells due to his constant use of medication, I crashed down to earth again. Was it just an accidental unconscious kiss?

I left his room quietly in great confusion. Another sleepless night beckoned. Why did Taek kiss me? He had his eyes open, did he not know it was me? Was he too drugged to know what had happened? What if he asked me tomorrow, what should I say? Would he run away if I confessed to returning his kiss? Would things turn awkward? Was I willing to risk our lifelong friendship for a shot at being with Taek as a woman?

I decided I wasn’t willing to take that risk. I lied to him the next morning and in return he broke my heart when he gave that sigh of relief that our kiss was nothing but a dream. I would take that sweet memory of our wonderful kiss to my grave.

I told myself, Sung Deok Sun, forget Choi Taek. He would always only be your friend. Go date other men who want and treasure you. And I did. I was still Deok-Sunnie to him and he was still Taek-ie to me even as we grew into full-fledged adults.
6 years passed this way.

To be continued.....