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    The child was wearing pants that looked like they had been modified from leather trousers, with a large kangaroo pocket around the chest. I took out a bill from my wallet and handed it to the child.

    “Do you want to put this in your pocket?”

    “Yes.”

    He took the money and tried to put it in his pocket. He didn’t know how to fold it, so it crumpled and kept sticking out of his pocket. Careful to avoid touching the child as much as possible, I took the bill back, folded it into quarters, and put it in his pocket.

    “Buy a dinosaur figure.”

    Whether he understood or not, the child began to immerse himself in playing alone again.

    After a while, the male owner came back into the store. He glanced at me and my son sitting side by side, faintly smiled, then tried to go back to the kitchen, so I quickly called him to ask for the bill. I paid him a sum much less than half of what I had given to his son and left. The sun was fully up, and it was a bright morning.

    I was getting into my parked car and starting the engine when my cell phone rang. A German number starting with 49. I had no idea who it was, so I cleared my throat and answered the phone.

    “Yes, this is Schmitz.”

    -It’s me, Maxi.

    I was taken aback by the unexpected voice. It was Gisella calling me. While it wouldn’t have been difficult for her to find my number, I couldn’t guess the reason for her call.

    -Were you asleep?

    “No, I’m outside. What’s up?”

    -I need to talk to you, alone. We have dinner plans anyway. Can I see you alone for a minute before then?

    “Today?”

    -Yes, today. If not today, I won’t have time.

    I racked my brain trying to guess her intentions, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure out why I was afraid of Han Jae-yi’s fiancée asking to see me alone. Like a guilty person, I tried to find ways to refuse in my head, but I failed each time.

    “Okay, should I go to the hotel an hour earlier?”

    -Yeah. An hour should be enough. Keep it a secret from Jae-yi

    “Is there a reason I should?”

    She chuckled softly over the phone. And then she gave me an answer I could never laugh at.

    -Do you want me to confess something in return? Maxie, don’t take me for a fool.

    All the way home, I thought about Gisella Weber’s words. Words I’d heard on the phone a few minutes earlier and words I’d heard a whopping 11 years ago.

    “Maxie, are you gay?”

    I don’t know how many times I had a proper conversation with her when we were in school, and I didn’t realize that she had dated Han Jae-yi before, but I didn’t think anything of it. I wondered who she was, that she recognized my feelings before I did.

    The road was filled with cars speeding by. It took twice as long to return as it did to get there. I hurriedly entered my house and headed to the bathroom. I wanted to calm myself down with hot water because my body was trembling.

    I stood there for 10 minutes with the water falling on my shoulders. I thought about it intensely, but I couldn’t come up with an answer. Seven hours after I got out of the shower, the result was the same.

    I left the house wearing a shirt with a discreet design and black denim. All sorts of thoughts raced through my head, but the conclusion I came to before facing her was: unconditional denial.

    “Hey, you’re here. Have a seat. I’m sorry, I had to ask to see you on short notice.”

    We exchanged a light hug and squeezed ourselves into a corner table at the hotel cafe. She turned her head completely, letting her long ponytail fall. Despite the distracting bright red lipstick and large earrings, she seemed a bit tired.

    “Do you have any idea why I asked to see you?”

    “Well, sort of.”

    “Tell me.”

    “I think you’re misunderstanding.”

    “What?”

    “Jae-yi and me.”

    Her laughter burst out immediately, refreshing and clear. It was the moment when lies lost their power.

    “Maxie, why do you think I came to Korea?”

    Her stated reason was an excuse. It would be awkward to pursue a melodramatic plot like coming to catch a runaway fiancé. I found myself in an unfair situation where I had to prove Han Jae-yi’s innocence.

    “I know Jae-yi used me as an excuse to come to Korea, but that’s not all. There were also family problems to resolve…”

    “What family problems?”

    She waited for my response as if it were amusing. I quickly changed the subject. It wasn’t my place to disclose Jae-yi’s private matters that she hadn’t shared with her. When I told her to hear it for herself, she laughed again. You two really make people tired.

    “I never imagined, I didn’t think it would happen so close to the wedding. I was nervous, so I’d call him every time I got home from work to check up on him, and then at some point he stopped answering his phone, so I had to see for myself. How stupid am I?”

    I was also responsible for why Han Jae-yi turned off his phone. I should tell her about it. I rubbed my forehead and closed my eyes.

    “It’s a misunderstanding. I asked him to do it. It’s important for me to get a good night’s sleep. It’s not his fault.”

    “It’s okay, I don’t really blame him. Asking me to answer the phone every day at 3 a.m. was a bit much even in my opinion. Yet, Jae-yi never got angry about it. You know, that’s just how he is.”

    She spoke as she stirred the tea she had ordered. The situation seemed more complicated than I had anticipated.

    Gisella told me about the day she first saw Han Jae-yi. She hadn’t been able to do any after-school activities due to her modeling job, but one day she happened to stay late with her friends. She saw him playing basketball that day, and that’s when it all started.

    Contrary to my assumptions that it was a one-time fling between two popular kids, she told me that even though she had a serious crush on him, her pride prevented her from pulling him away first, and she used that brief fling as an excuse to keep in touch with him every year.

    She took a sip of her black tea and smiled bitterly. The cup was lightly stained with red lipstick. These are unfamiliar stories.

    “I didn’t realize it was such an old sentiment.”

    “Haha, don’t misunderstand. I’ve met many men over the years too. I’m not one to pursue relentlessly, so it was awkward to wait for him all the time. In fact, I was more drawn to him because he wasn’t interested in me. Wanting to keep a popular guy around, even just as a friend, is actually quite appealing. Then, about a year ago, when we were drinking together, I mustered up the courage. I could see he was lonely.”

    “And you started seeing each other again from then on?”

    “Yeah. But that was my mistake. Once we started seeing each other, I realized I liked him even more than I thought. Wanting to keep him by my side forever happened in an instant. You know, he’s affectionate. He makes me feel loved.”

    “But you did get a proposal in the end, so can’t we say you succeeded in winning Jae-yi’s heart?”

    “Hahaha. Who said I got proposed to? Did he say that?”

    I stupidly raised my head and looked at her. Gisella spread out her left hand to show me. Come to think of it, there was no ring.

    “I think he was trying to protect my ego, but of course, I suggested we get married. I can’t forget his answer that day.”

    I had a feeling of what that meant.

    ‘…I figured it wouldn’t be bad.’

    At least that’s what he said to me.

    “Well, I was okay with that much. There’s no rule that says marriage has to be based on centuries-old love, right? Above all, my parents really liked him. It’s not an era where we compare who likes the other more, you know? I thought it was right to seize the opportunity when it came.”

    I recalled Han Jae-yi’s hesitant face when I asked him the same question in Jeju. Even if I knew the truth now, I couldn’t even feel relieved because the weight of it was too heavy.

    She seemed to be pouring out a lot of words as if on purpose. I stroked my chin, leaned back, and asked.

    “Why are you telling me this?”

    Gisella leaned back in her chair and tilted her head. Then she looked at me again. We exchanged glances in the air, reading each other’s expressions. She seemed to want something from me.

    “Maxie. I remember him playing basketball with you that day, and the way you looked at Jae-yi was special. I think I asked you once about your sexuality, and you said you weren’t, but you liked Jae-yi, more than as a friend.”

    I chose silence.

    “In fact, I knew you two had something special, but I always thought it was just your feelings. After graduating from school, I never had the chance to see how he looked at you because I met Jae-yi separately. Do you remember what I said earlier? I had to come to Korea to see for myself.”

    “Yeah.”

    “Sure enough, that’s how it was when I checked. Even with me around, seeing him always worrying about you made me really uncomfortable. Even when the three of us were eating together, he only paid attention to you. Of course, he was always affectionate with me, but… I don’t know… it felt like he had priorities. When you showed up, I felt like I was being pushed aside. That’s when I saw my future with him.”

    She cleared her throat.

    “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being jealous of my husband’s friend.”

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