02
“What?” Lara hollers, almost frightening the flight attendant passing by. “And she agreed to date you? You suck, Junghoon! You really suck.”

“Hey!” I snap at her. “I was young, and lonely at the time.” Lara gives me a suspicious glance, and immediately, I add, “Okay, fine. I did suck, but I did get her.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t manage to keep her,” she shoots back at me a painful message. She must have seen my reaction to her words for she quickly remarks, “Sorry, I was too harsh.”

Yup. This little Lara is just like Jikyung. Blunt. Very, very blunt. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard of Jikyung apologize for her insensitivity, and I don’t know how many times I’ve told her that it was okay. Then, she’d behave well, too well until she exploded with her cruel phrases. Sometimes, I wished she would release her frustrations slowly. If she had told me what bothered her, she’d never have to apologize and I’d never have to forgive. Maybe, we would have lasted longer like that, but . . . if she’d changed completely, she’d not be the Jikyung I came to know. 

“It’s fine,” I reassure Lara with a soft grin. “You’re right. I didn’t manage to keep her.”

“Why not?” Lara chirps. “I thought you loved her a lot!”

I stare at Lara, and let out a sigh, “Sometimes love just isn’t enough.”

I tried everything I possibly could. I let Jikyung pick our first date; she wanted to visit a museum about the history of Korea. That probably was one of the last places I’d want to explore in Seoul. Honestly, I was expecting to treat her to some romantic, Italian cuisine on a boat or maybe we’d go ice-skating and hold hands together, but no, she wanted to look at history. And why with me?

“None of my friends would want to see exhibits with me,” Jikyung answered me as I paid for our admission. “So, that’s why I invited you. Sorry about that.”

“Oh, no,” I accidentally blurted, “it’s fine. I’m sure it’ll be fun.”

Luckily, I was awarded with a sweet, and rare smile of hers. I’ll always remember her eyes closing half-way while her lips flattened to reveal her perfectly straight teeth. If she’d smile like that all the time, I’d say yes to her every request. It was too bad, though, that whenever she focused, she’d have a somber stare, which was more like a glare. At first, I had no idea she was just concentrating on one of the artifacts, which happened to be the king’s robes. I thought she was mad.

“You okay?” I walked to her side and wondered aloud. Even after a few minutes, there was no reply, and she had moved on to examine another item. Hastily, I followed her, and tapped on her shoulder. She gave me that confused look of hers, where she tilted her head to the side and pouted her lips. 

“Is something wrong?” she questioned.

“Are you mad . . . at something?” I uttered.

Scratching the side of her head, she replied, “No. Why would I be mad?”

“It’s just . . . well, you looked like you were mad.”

She started to laugh, and this laugh would have gotten us thrown out of the museum had there not been a few kids fooling around behind us. Then, Jikyung teased me with that haughty smirk of hers, and surprisingly, dragged me by the hand. This was the first time we held hands, and all I could say was that she had dry ones. They weren’t particularly soft nor were they extremely rough. They were simply cold, chapped, and small. They were the sort that made me feel like I could hold onto forever until . . . she abruptly turned at her heel, and declared, “You’re funny, Junghoon.”

“Really?” I sputtered. “No one really says that about me.”

“Well, I just did,” she retorted, “and that was cute of you.”

“C-c-cute?” I was almost at a loss of words. How in the world was I even cute? Cute was for puppies, and I, for one, was not a puppy.

“What?” she scoffed. “What’s wrong? You don’t like being complimented? Sheesh, I thought I’d be nice, and this is—“

“I love them,” I interrupted her, “but I just don’t get why you’d say that.”

Jikyung ventured ahead, and gawked at a long sword in the glass display. “Because I felt like it, and it’s not like I don’t think these compliments through,” she told me. “Just because I don’t say it when you do something doesn’t mean that I haven’t been thinking about it.”

And she was true to her words. Jikyung would occasionally throw out a few compliments here and there about me, and I had learned to enjoy these sorts of surprises. Why? To be frank, I thought I was special until I realized that I was just like any other guy friend of hers. How’d I know? Simple. I just asked her.
The two of us were sitting in a diner for brunch waiting for our orders. This was a typical date of ours all because Jikyung loved to have early breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. She’d eat at seven in the morning, then again at ten, and finally five in the evening. Since we agreed we’d get to know each other better, we settled on having brunch at 11 am. This time, she wanted to try the raspberry waffles while I settled with the typical pancakes paired with maple syrup. Already, she had given me that scornful look because I didn’t want to savour a new dish like her. I was a coward in her eyes, but I wasn’t going to be one anymore.

“Jikyung,” I declared, “do you treat every guy the same?”

Finishing a sip of her water, she asked without any hesitation, “What are you trying to ask, Junghoon?”

“I’m wondering,” I mumbled as the waitress placed our orders onto the table, “if you actually like me.”

Too casually, Jikyung replied with a graceful smile, “Of course I like you. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t even be here with you.”

“No, I mean, do you actually love me?”

She gulped down that mouthful of water too slowly. Her tongue even brushed her lower lip before she answered in a hurry, “I-I-I don’t believe in love. I’m sorry.”

Her words hurt more than I had expected. I knew she didn’t love me, but I was wishing that there’d be a sliver of hope that she’d shock me. Instead, I only confirmed that I knew her well, too well now. Did she even understand me? Could she see that I was hurting? Couldn’t she at least lie to me? I ended up chuckling to myself. This was Jikyung. She’d never lie.

Letting out a scoff, I played along with her and agreed, “Don’t be sorry. I don’t believe in love either. It seems silly doesn’t it? To be in love with someone until death?”

She was slicing her waffle into perfect little squares when she responded, “Exactly.” Then, she peered at me with much confidence. “That’s what I like about you, Junghoon,” she complimented too easily. “You’re honest, and practical. And unlike other people, you’d never judge what I say.”

I began to joke, “So how long do you think we’ll last?”

She shrugged her shoulders, and slipped a piece of her waffle into her mouth. “I’m betting until I go back to the States.”

“And if you lose? What will you wager?”

“If I lose, then I’ll agree to whatever you want.”

“Really? And if you win?”

“Then, you’ll have to give me something that you treasure a lot.”

“And why is that?”

“You have to pay for breaking someone’s heart.”

I remembered scoffing and shaking my head, “What if I’m not the one that breaks your heart? What if you break mine and that’s why you lose?”

Her eyes widened, and she even sat upright. “I know I won’t break your heart, Junghoon, and you know why I’m so sure?”

“Why?”

“Because,” she lifted her chin higher as she explained, “players don’t change their ways, and you, Lee Junghoon, are a player.”

Her finger pointed straight at my heart, making me feel guilty, and I had reason to be guilty. I was already experimenting. I had already kissed another woman to see how much I loved Jikyung. I treated several to dinners to figure out how other ladies were different from her. I bedded a couple to see how I’d feel afterwards; it wasn’t about pleasure. It was about love. No matter how many women I tried, it just wasn’t the same. The emptiness that spread all over my skin would never disappear unless Jikyung was there, but even when she was there, she’d rarely focus on me. I didn’t have to ask her to know that her thoughts were all of him, Taeyang, and that . . . that made me determined to win. 

“But, love isn’t about winning,” Lara interrupts my anecdote. “Love is . . . just about caring, and giving.”

“I know,” I whisper as the lights of the aircraft dim for those that sought sleep. “I realized that when it was too late.”

“What do you mean too late?”

“When I . . .”

That day, I thought I’d try my experiment again. It wasn’t hard to find a test subject. I just needed to slip into the conversation that I was a doctor, and immediately, the woman’s eyes would sparkle. A doctor, she’d say, you must be very smart. I’d follow her compliment with an invitation for the evening: “I can teach you how to be smart too for the night if you’d want.” Then, I’d give her a kiss. If she reciprocated, then that was it. I had my prey.

I took the dark brunette back to my apartment, and moments later, we were all over each other. She was teasing me by slowly unbuttoning her shirt in front of me, and I just thought that her body was beautiful. My body grew warm, but my heart was still unwavering. There was no love, and I wasn’t expecting there to be love. I was hoping that passion would replace love. Lust would triumph love, yet I only felt lonelier, and I only missed her even more. So, I developed this bad habit of calling her whenever a woman left from my place, and I became alone in bed.

“Jikyung,” I’d always begin with a pant, “it’s me.”

“Junghoon, is something wrong?” she’d always ask this question.

I’d take a moment to regain my breath, and then answer, “Nope. Nothing is wrong. Just wanted to hear your voice.”

Jikyung would end up scolding me, and usually, she’d note, “Well if you have this much time to call me, then you should really study. Aren’t your exams coming up?”

“Yeah, but I . . . don’t feel like studying,” I’d tell her. What I really wanted to tell her was that I missed her, yet somehow, it was too difficult to say that. It seemed too stupid when I was already . . .

Jikyung would relentlessly sigh, “What am I supposed to do about you? You know that you’re bound to do things you don’t like to do if you want to succeed.”

“I know, I know,” I’d reply.

I’d wonder too if that was all she cared about: work. I was hoping that she’d ask me why I didn’t feel like studying. Instead, she would remind me of success. There was always that competitiveness in her. She had that drive that I lacked, and I never understood what made her so ambitious until that night I lost the bet.

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