After, Chae Won finds the phone and drops it under the shelves.
She cracks the screen. She finds out later and it will be the only thing that her mother-in-law will let slide.
Her husband answers the phone, panicked: “What’s happened now?”
Chae Won holds a hand to her mouth.
This isn’t relief.
It shouldn’t have been her first call.
Chul Goo is a mess.
She knows it’s because she knows and because his mother is still very much his mother. She remains manipulative and aggressive. Their bedroom has not been their bedroom for a very long time and the older woman makes it known. She barges in, teeth grinding, flustered and angry.
But Chae Won says nothing.
“What can I do?” he asks her, later, and they sit next to each other on the bed. The blankets are pocketed around her and Chul Goo remains at the end of the bed, as if he were etched into it. He is afraid of her. He seems to know that much.
She doesn’t like the feeling though.
He continues: This is my fault,” and her hands turn into fists. “I want this to be better. I want us to be better.” There is no can we or even a sliver of confidence. “So what can I do?”
“Nothing,” she says quietly. She will not give him this: I want this to work. They aren’t young anymore. She knows she cannot love him after this. Her knees slide to her chest and she pulls the blankets closer. “There is nothing you can do,” she says. “This is between your mother and I. It always has been.”
He rubs his eyes. “I’m supposed to protect you.”
Chul Goo meets her gaze. He’s flushed. Then he pulls at the collar around his throat. She can remember him handsome, she thinks. But those are the memories that feel the foggiest. You can swallow the irony.
“We need to clear the air,” she tells him, “before we have a fresh start.”
He brightens. “Seriously?”
Chae Won looks away. “Yes,” she lies.
He meets her at the café.
She calls him, or he calls her – this has stopped mattering. She still means it too: you are a warm-hearted man and Se Yoon seems to be both amused and confused by her assertion.
“How are you?” he asks.
She remains hesitant, pulling at her jacket. “Fine,” she says slowly.
“That’s a lie,” he counters.
She flushes. Her hands press into her cheeks. She rubs the heels of her hand into her skin. She wears a blue dress. He’s already smiled at her; he won’t tell her that she’s pretty though.
“Maybe.” She shrugs. Her fingers brush over the rim of her coffee. “I’ve involved you enough as it is, right?”
He laughs. The sound is a little thicker than before. She watches his mouth purse and open as he exhales, shaking his head.
“Tell me,” he says, and it’s comfortable.
It’s odd, how she feels herself start to relax. Her fingers uncurl. She turns her gaze back to the window. She watches for the odd car. She means what she had said to Chul Goo before. She doesn’t trust anyone. It makes this lonely. But with her memory back and clear, it isn’t anything new.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” she admits. Her fingers push her hair back. “I don’t know what to tell anyone,” she says too. “I want to go home. I want to be with my family. I don’t want to give them the satisfaction and I don’t want to be this vindictive. Why am I like this?”
There’s a smaller laugh. He leans across the table. His hands are too large for his frame, she thinks. But she likes it. She likes how Se Yoon is not shy of space, regardless of what he feels.
“You’re angry,” he says.
“But you’re responsible.” The corners of his mouth wrinkle. “You feel responsible and you want to finish it your way. It’s noble.”
“Is it though?” her fingers press against the back of her neck. “Is it really?”
“Have you decided for yourself?”
She looks down. “My head’s still a mess,” she murmurs. “Even though I remember. I’m angry. I’m so angry.”
“You have to know it’s going to get solved.”
“That sounds so easy – too easy, really.” She chokes on a sigh, rubbing her eyes hard. She blushes too. “But from you,” she murmurs. “It –”
He holds up a hand. “Stop,” he tells her.
She wrinkles her nose. He reaches forward. He’s not thinking – she’ll obsess over it later, again and again. His fingers catch against her jaw. Then they push forward. He flicks them against her nose.
Chae Won looks at him, startled.
“Clear your head,” he says.
“It’s not that easy – ” she starts but doesn’t finish, her gaze glued to his hand again. “I’m not asking for sympathy.”
There are too many stories here. She can see them in his eyes, at the tip of his tongue, and the mix of trust and curiosity that he wears when he’s around her. She’s appreciative. She’s attached. She shouldn’t be.
It’s too easy to make list as it is.
He’s gentle anyway, but she doesn’t know why.
“It’s what you have to do.”
Thinking about him and seeing him is not the same thing.
But she does it.
Her father begs her.
He sees it in her eyes. He sees it when Chul Goo comes to stand beside her, boiling in selfish forgiveness and how his mother stands next to them both, fists clenched in swears. He will continue to beg her, just like he did when he gave her away, marriage and family name.
She has the same answer: “I have to do this.”
But Se Yoon calls her at the park. She comes, listening to his voice on the line. There is a crack (“Connection,” he mutters.) and there is laughter (“I hate kids,” he scowls and she smiles, amused: “No you don’t,” she says.) and the complexity of how their intimacy begins should be startling.
She finds him an hour later anyway.
The park is quiet.
She spots children in the playground. He’s sitting on a bench close by, book opened in his lap with his phone next to him.
She greets him with hesitation still.
“That was fast.”
Her lips turn. “I was out.”
“Getting into trouble, I assume,” and the affection in his voice seems to swing unexpectedly. Her cheeks flush and she bites her lip.
“No,” she says. She sits next to him, swinging her bag into the ground. She squints in the sun, watching the playground. “I like being outside,” she says. “I’ve always been that way.”
He hums and closes the book. She wants to ask him about his life. She feels clumsy; she is never settled around him.
Instead, she attempts to be careful. “You wanted to see me?”
She blinks. “And?”
“I don’t know,” he replies. The smile happens again. A subtle, curious curl of his mouth: “I just don’t like to think of you alone,” he says. “It bothers me.”
“Thank you?” She’s dry.
After, she walks with him. They remain side by side.
“I don’t want to go home,” she says.
“You don’t have to,” he says. “Let’s just enjoy the day.”
It’s beautiful. Winter is crisp. The collar of her jacket is settled against her throat. His elbow keeps brushing against hers. He stands straight and still. He looks at her. He keeps her close. She’s breathing, she thinks.
She almost reaches for his hand.
Maybe this is falling in love.
Revenge is subtle, not calculated.
She thinks about him a lot.
Chul Goo apologizes. His mother steams and hates her.
Her memories still flash and flash again. They sharpen her. Most things are clearer than before and there is some sense of satisfaction in seeing her mother-in-law coiled so tightly she could break and Chul Goo watch his steps.
She thinks about Se Yoon next to her. She thinks about his voice. She thinks about his laugh. She thinks I feel safe. It builds too, you see, and thinking about him breaks through her desires to punish everyone around her.
In her bedroom, that is no longer her bedroom, next to a husband she doesn’t love, and a family she doesn’t want to be in, she lies in bed.
“I can do it alone,” she tells Chul Goo, but gently, almost too gently. He remains unfazed and overeager. “We just need a few things,” she says.
“No, no, no!”
Chul Goo grins too hard. Chul Goo grabs her too suddenly. The market becomes crowded just as quietly; people smile at them, employees are cautious, and she just tries to force herself into hoping that this will just go quickly.
She isn’t meant to see Se Yoon then.
He isn’t meant to see her either.
And then: Chul Goo sees him first, pulls her by the elbow so that she is close and too close to him, his mouth at her ear, murmuring carefully about meats and parchment and utter nonsense that still catches her by surprise. She will keep a steady over their cart and her gaze will remain unfazed as Se Yoon approaches them: slow, cautious, and confident, even as the explanation is cocked against her teeth.
He smiles first.
“I am glad to see you living well.” He looks down. She can see his hand curl into a fist and disappear into his pocket.
She stands straighter.
I want to live well, she won’t say.