(Originally posted 9 Mar 2014 on tumblr)
On Sunday morning, Hyo-shin takes the elevator up to the thirty-second floor, where Rachel and her mother live in their Dogok-dong penthouse. Both of his hands are full, so it takes a little juggling to press the buzzer at the door, but he manages.
A maid answers the door, and Hyo-shin passes the large fruit basket to her the instant she offers to take it. He follows her at a sedate pace from the entryway to the sitting room, which allows him to study a small portion of the place that Rachel lives. The house itself is brightly lit and filled with the luxuries that are common in the two highest social classes at Jeguk—original modern artwork, priceless vases, gorgeous flower arrangements, designer furniture—but there is an almost-chill to the air that has less to do with the temperature and more to do with the sterility of arrangements. It feels more like a set than it does a home.
Rachel is alone when he enters the white and gold room, and she stands to greet him. Her forest green dress ends precisely at her knees, and the gold belt around her waist draws attention to her figure. He relaxes a little, relieved that he did not overdress for the occasion with his slate gray suit and dark blue tie. The formality of their dress reminds him that he is here as someone else’s proxy, not because Rachel wanted to invite Lee Hyo-shin into her house.
(He took a selca before he left the house and sent it to Tan with the caption You’d better appreciate the effort I’m putting into this.
Are you sure you’re not trying to seduce me? Tan sent back. Or her?)
“Please, have a seat,” Rachel says. She gives the fruit basket an appraising glance before signaling the maid. The maid whisks the basket and its organic, out-of-season, tropical fruits away into an unseen part of the penthouse. “Thank you for the fruit.”
Hyo-shin sets the gift beside him on the couch. “You’re welcome. It’s nothing much—just a token for inviting me into your home.”
And he used his own money for it. Even though Tan told him to keep whatever he liked of the five million won as a convenience fee, Hyo-sin spent all of the money on Rachel’s gifts. It seemed wrong to touch any of it, especially when that money was the only effort Tan made for Rachel.
Even if he could use that money to buy himself a new camera.
They go back and forth in a round of polite small talk, because Rachel must play the part of a good hostess, and Hyo-shin can’t simply drop off the engagement gifts and leave straight away without insulting her or appearing to be nothing more than Tan’s errand boy. He asks about projected sales for her mother’s new winter clothing line now that autumn is officially underway, and Rachel asks about his grandfather’s retirement and if he knows who will be appointed in his place.
(Hyo-shin smiles at that, laces his fingers together to keep them from curling into fists, and lies that he isn’t sure.)
After the maid returns with a selection of sliced fruit, Rachel says, “I didn’t know that you and Tan were such good friends. When did you become close?”
“In L.A. this summer. I went to an English language study program, and Tan reached out to me. We hung out a lot since he was on break as well,” Hyo-shin lies. He hasn’t even explained to Tan about why he sought him out before he attempted suicide. He’s not sure he can put those feelings into coherent words anyway.
Rachel spears a piece of mango with her fork. “How is he doing?”
The question takes him by surprise, mostly because it implies that Hyo-shin is the one who spoke to Tan most recently. That thought settles uneasily in his gut. Hyo-shin swallows the last of his kiwi and sets his fork down. “He has made some friends in L.A., and they spend a lot of time at the beach.”
He keeps his discussion of Tan superficial, carefully steering away from the melancholy and the loneliness that leak through their SNS messages. Rachel never looks eager or upset, but she does ask questions, and when he answers, her eyes never leave his face. She is focusing so much on the conversation that she eventually stops eating and just rolls the fork between her fingers.
Hyo-shin eventually finds a point in the conversation where he can smoothly excuse himself. He hands over the bag with the gifts to Rachel, and she accepts it with both hands.
Her fingers ghost over the tissue paper that peeks out of the top of the bag after she sets it carefully on the table. “Thank you for bringing this.”
“It wasn’t any trouble.”
“Still. It means a lot to me that you would deliver it personally.” She stands when he does and escorts him to the door instead of letting her maid handle it. As he’s slipping his shoes back on, she says, “Good luck with the test this week.”
“I can’t focus,” Hyo-shin tells Jae-sung that week. “That’s not—I mean, all I can think about is failing the test. Not failing.” He clenches his hands, takes a deep breath, and tries again. “I have to get first place again.”
“Because that is what I always get,” which is a simplistic answer, but Hyo-shin doesn’t want to have to admit that his mother took his video equipment away, like he was a misbehaving toddler. Instead, he forges on ahead, because he doesn’t know what else to do with these desperate feelings. “I have the skills to do this. Hyun-joo has been a great tutor. I am the best at this, I know it. But I couldn’t sleep last night. I just kept thinking about what would happen if I couldn’t get to first place again or if I fell even further in the rankings.”
“What would happen?”
I’ll never get my equipment back is ready to fall from his lips, but Hyo-shin clenches his jaw and refuses to let it spill out. Instead he says, “If I can’t sleep the night before the test, I’ll just bomb it again.”
Jae-sung is quiet for a few moments, but when Hyo-shin doesn’t answer his question, the therapist takes a different approach. “Would you like some suggestions on how to deal with your anxiety about this?”
Hyo-shin is certain that when Jae-sung suggested going for a run as a strategy to get rid of some of his pent-up tension, the therapist did not have a pre-dawn escapade to Jeguk in mind, or at least not the kind where Hyo-shin sneaks out of his home with a can of white spray paint tucked away in the runner’s bag on his back. The run gets his heart going, but Hyo-shin doesn’t really start to breathe deeply until he climbs over one of Jeguk’s ornamental walls.
The moment his feet touch the cement on the other side, Hyo-shin is reminded of sneaking around in the museum with Myung-soo. That anticipation of getting caught is there again—the twisting in his chest, the prickling along his spine—but now it’s even more intense. Chairwoman Jung, Tan’s mother, is an intimidating woman, and she would tear him to shreds if she caught him defacing her precious school. He ought to be scared; he half hopes he is caught instead.
His ridiculous bravado doesn’t keep his hand from shaking when he paints the body outline right in front of the main doors.