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    Time passed slowly. Until I prepared for the flight to Rome, I responded a beat late, as if I were someone under a spell. Two full days went by in reality, and on the morning I was to head to the airport, I replied to Han Jae-yi’s message as follows:

    [Landing at 1 p.m.; hotel is Libero Rome].

    The downside was that the layover was only one day. I would have a full day of rest before flying back to Korea the next afternoon. In that one day, it’s doubtful that I’ll be able to give him the answers he’s looking for.

    I discussed the flight plan with another captain assigned to today’s flight and the three co-pilots who would be handling the PM for the entire 12 hours. Due to a code share with a partner airline, half of the passengers were foreigners. The weather at Incheon Airport was good, and there were almost no delays with the preceding flights.

    The A380, which had flown on time and without incident, was cruising along at good airspeed. Taking over in the second half, I switched with the first captain and strapped myself into the cockpit. The co-pilot sitting next to me looked exhausted. It was only natural, considering we had been flying for six hours already.

    “Co-pilot, take a quick nap. I have control, I have radio.” (call sign used when taking both control and radio channel.)”

    “Oh, thank you, just 30 minutes then. You have radio.”

    The Co-pilot lowered his headphones and leaned back in the cockpit, his eyes immediately closing as he drifted off to sleep.

    Commercial airliners are required to have two pilots awake by default, but under unavoidable circumstances, single-pilot operation is allowed. It’s wiser to take a few minutes’ nap than to risk making a mistake due to drowsiness. The duration varies by company policy, usually set between 30 minutes to an hour; I remembered it being 30 minutes for our company.

    Everyone was asleep. Even the flight attendants, who come and go once or twice, have stopped coming and going. It’s time for most passengers to roll down their windows and fall asleep as well.

    The plane was flying just above the troposphere at 32,000 feet. It was a calm section with almost no air currents, so I took a moment to look away from the instruments and gazed out the window. Flying is addictive. It’s one of the hardest experiences to give up once you’ve had it.

    Perhaps it has something to do with the rarity of the experience. The fact that I alone could enjoy a view that not everyone could see provided a sense of catharsis. The sun was shining in a way that I wouldn’t dare look at with my bare eyes. Our plane was traveling backwards in time, so the sun was setting slower and slower.

    * * * 

    We left Seoul at 8 AM and flew for 12 hours, but when we landed at Fiumicino Airport, it was only 1 PM, barely five hours later. A stair car and two buses arrived alongside the A380 as it approached the end of the runway. Since there were not enough boarding bridges at the airport, the buses were there to transport passengers to the gate.

    “Good job, everyone.”

    The three pilots who had finished their checks also exited the plane. We got on the last waiting bus and headed to the terminal entrance. From there, we took a monorail and walked a long distance to reach the immigration area. Several landing times overlapped, and even staff from other airlines joined, making the queue at the crew-only immigration counter quite long.

    “I have an appointment, so I’ll go first.”

    I bid them farewell with a slightly apologetic heart.

    “Huh? Captain, aren’t you going through the process? This line is faster, though.”

    “Ah, right. You’re an EU member.”

    “Yes, that’s correct.”

    I made my way to the empty member state automated immigration line, not in the mood for camaraderie where it would take more time when I had no reason to go out with them anyway. In just three seconds, I was cleared and out the door, and I opened my phone. The chatter of the crowd overlapped with the airport announcements.

    I touched the last message I sent and called. Han Jae-yi answered almost instantly.

    -Are you out?

    “Yeah. I’m on my way out of the terminal now.”

    -Do you see the bus stop ahead?

    The noise in his voice was familiar. I could hear the engine of the bus in front of me over the phone. I glanced to my right for a moment.

    -Not that way.

    Turning to the opposite side, I took my phone away from my ear. There stood Han Jae-yi, leaning against the airport wall, looking at me. Wearing reflective sunglasses and holding a phone in one hand, he was smoking a cigarette of the brand we used to smoke often.

    I walked toward the familiar smell. When he saw me coming, Han Jae-yi put his phone back in his pocket. He flicked out his cigarette and blew out the smoke. The rebellious Han Jae-yi I knew stood there.

    Despite wearing a suit and tie, he looked like he hadn’t been home in three days. I slipped my hand casually into his inside pocket and pulled out a cigarette. Han Jae-yi automatically lit it for me. I didn’t want to argue about whether he had quit or not. I already felt like I had him back.

    “What’s with the tie?”

    “Oh, this.”

    Rolling up his wrinkled shirt sleeves, he loosened the tie.

    “I got off work late yesterday and drove all night. Made it in eleven hours.”

    “You drove all the way here?”

    “Yeah.”

    “You’re crazy.”

    “Just figuring that out now?”

    He laughed and blew smoke from his cigarette. Our conversation hadn’t changed. His attitude towards me remained the same. Sharing a bottle of water I had brought from the plane, we headed to his car, which he had driven for eleven hours to get here.

    It was his Porsche, which I hadn’t seen in a while. The same air freshener scent lingered inside.

    “Did you check in?”

    “Yeah, I just got the key.”

    Han Jae-yi had no luggage. After work, he jumped into his car and drove across Switzerland on the Autobahn at 200 kilometers per hour to reach Rome. It was a harder push than my 12-hour flight. I was worried about his physical condition, but he just laughed it off, as if it was nothing.

    In our younger days, we had visited Rome twice. Each time, we set grandiose goals. Our ambitious plan to pick up two women like Monica Bellucci and have a wild time always ended with us sitting on the Spanish Steps eating panini.

    We would guess the nationalities of passersby for fun and occasionally quarrel with noisy Russian tourists. We took photos for shy Japanese couples who were nervously looking around and exchanged SNS accounts with Korean-speaking college students. We were so broke that we often sat by the fountain in the Pantheon Square, eating poorly cooked pizza.

    “Brings back memories.”

    Han Jae-yi muttered with a smile as he drove. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one reminiscing.

    His car navigated through the streets of Rome and easily arrived at the hotel entrance. After handing over the car and entering the lobby, I suggested he go up and rest first.

    “You’ve been up all night. I’m tired too, so let’s rest and meet up later.”

    “Alright, let’s do that then.”

    After finding out my room number while I checked in, he headed up to his room first. At the time, I thought I’d be able to wake up in about an hour.

    After coming into my room and taking a shower, I collapsed on my bed and couldn’t get up. Only when I opened my eyes like a fool did I realize that four hours had passed. In the meantime, Han Jae-yi had left two missed calls and one message.

    [Don’t worry, just rest].

    I didn’t listen to him and immediately pressed the call button. We agreed to meet in the lobby in 10 minutes, and I got dressed. It was 7pm, but it was still bright outside. Han Jae-yi, who had changed into comfortable clothes because he had an extra set of clothes, was sitting on the couch in the lobby.

    “Let’s get dinner. The restaurant here is good, or we can go to a nice dining place nearby. We can drive there quickly.”

    “Um… I don’t really want anything fancy.”

    He smiled and said he understood what I meant. We left the hotel and walked around. We bought pizza from a shop with a decent line of locals and stopped at a wine shop to buy a bottle of red wine and two large glasses.

    I folded my sunglasses and hung them on my shirt. Just before walking through the touristy center to the Vatican, we turned into a small alley. Next to a café filled with locals, moss-covered stone steps stretched upward.

    I gave five euros to the street musician playing the bandoneon below. We sat down halfway up the stairs and poured red wine into wine glasses. We split the pizza, which had cooled a bit and was now reasonably edible. Cheers. Our glasses clinked together.

    Finding the position uncomfortable, Han Jae-yi moved his long legs a step lower. Meanwhile, I tasted the wine. It was cheap but made from a good variety, with a decent acidity. We chatted about light topics. Han Jae-yi talked about his job for the first time in a while, and I enjoyed hearing his voice.

    “…so Thomas had no choice but to go to the Ferrari headquarters and work there for a week.”

    “That’s exceptional customer service.”

    “Yeah, but the problem was Piero Ferrari was at the headquarters that day. You know, the infamous guy.”

    “I’ve heard of him.”

    “What he hates the most are employees with poor fashion sense, employees who don’t wear suits to work, and employees who hang their suit jackets on their chair backs.”

    “That’s detailed.”

    “Uh-huh. At Ferrari headquarters, jackets must be hung on hangers, and poor German Thomas was working with his hanging on his chair. Piero found it and yelled at him to get the hell out of his company.”

    “So, no deal?”

    “No deal. Italians care about that stuff. If it’s not beautiful, it doesn’t mean anything.”

    “That’s why Ferrari cars look like that.”

    “Yeah. They serve no function and are very beautiful. Haha.”

    He seemed to enjoy just telling such stories. We had already finished our second glass of wine. The pizza was gone, and we wiped our hands with three hastily grabbed napkins. A brief silence followed. I wanted to have a real conversation with him.

    “I got a call from Chris.”

    Instead of answering, he sipped his wine with a heavy smile. When I asked if he was okay, he shook his head.

    “I’m not okay at all. I feel like I’m in the crisis of my life.”

    Han Jae-yi kept his eyes straight ahead.

    “As you may have heard, Gisella asked me to reconsider our marriage, and we talked about it a lot, and the more we talked about it, the more I felt like I didn’t deserve it. Because for whatever reason, it’s my fault that she’s struggling with those thoughts.”

    “Those thoughts?”

    “Yeah. Ridiculous thoughts.”

    He turned his head and looked at me. I found it hard to look him in the eye because I knew the reality of those “ridiculous thoughts.” This time, I drank the wine.

    “I felt like I’d been punched in the head, and I was like, wow… I can see how you might think that.”

    Han Jae-yi said that and smiled weakly. That was it. I couldn’t ask more, and he didn’t seem inclined to tell me more.

    After we finished off a bottle of wine together, I began to feel the effects of the alcohol. The sky turned red as the sun set. Unlike me, Han Jae-yi seemed unaffected and took my wine glass, putting it into a paper bag. The whole way back, we didn’t speak. Only the sound of our shoes hitting the stone floor could be heard.

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