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    Drinking with Alain was enjoyable. We chatted for about two more hours before heading outside. When he asked again if I really wouldn’t go to the club, I declined once more. We called two taxis in front of the hotel. He headed to Itaewon, and I squeezed into a taxi going home.

    I was only drunk enough to feel good. The taxi’s radio was playing a story from a listener, and I found myself laughing out loud. The driver, apparently pleased that his passenger was enjoying the radio, turned up the volume. It had been a while since I felt this way, with no negative thoughts clouding my mind. I smiled and closed my eyes. It seemed okay to enjoy this moment a bit.

    “Is it alright to stop here?”

    “Ah, just a bit further to the convenience store, please.”

    I realized I was out of cigarettes and stopped the taxi in front of a convenience store. It was around 11 p.m. when I paid the fare and got out of the cab. I opened the door and went inside the convenience store and asked the now-familiar clerk the same thing I always do. Come to think of it, I had lost my lighter in Rome and needed to buy a new one.

    “I’d also like a lighter, please.”

    I pulled out the same card I had just used to pay the taxi fare from my wallet for the payment. Accidentally, I dropped another card. As I bent down to pick it up, a familiar voice came from beside me.

    “One more of the same cigarettes, and put it all on this.”

    Oh. Sometimes I forget that he lives in the same neighborhood. I hadn’t thought about him at all since the flight to Japan. I slowly stood up and turned my head.

    “Captain, you keep losing lighters.”

    Co-pilot Cho Min-woo, dressed in a company uniform, looked at me and smiled.

    “Did you have a flight?”

    He looked tired. His usually waxed bangs were falling out in places.

    “Yeah. I was on standby, but I had the misfortune of traveling to Jeju Island.”

    “Domestic?”

    “Yeah. I’ve had a lot of bad luck.”

    He handed me my cigarettes and lighter, which he had casually paid for. We walked out of the convenience store and stopped in front of a small ashtray. I naturally ended up smoking with him.

    “I didn’t know landing on Jeju Island was that hard, I’ve only heard rumors.”

    “It’s an island, and one of my seniors did three go-arounds and eventually ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing, but that was a while ago.”

    I didn’t want to talk about anything else with him. I kept asking questions to find the most appropriate topic we could discuss. Fortunately, Co-pilot Cho Min-woo was far more eloquent than I am, and his answers were always excellent. Sensing my effort, he continued to share more stories about flying.

    The company had received two more A350s that had been ordered. With long-haul flights increasing, direct flights to North America were becoming more common. The newly received aircraft were also going to be used for these routes.

    Co-pilot Cho Min-woo knew many people and was well-informed about what was happening within the company. If only he hadn’t said unnecessary things, he would have been a good colleague. The more I thought about it, the more unfair it felt. It’s not like I was the one who first revealed my sexual orientation.

    “…Anyway, so I tried calling on the guard frequency, and finally, they responded.”

    “That’s good. If it had resulted in a loss of communication(where the tower has determined that it cannot communicate with the aircraft), it would have been grounds for disciplinary action.”

    “Exactly. I was sweating bullets.”

    He blew out a puff of cigarette smoke as he recounted the incident that happened today. Apparently, one of the company planes had lost contact with the tower, causing quite a commotion.

    If an airplane doesn’t respond to the control tower’s calls several times, it’s considered a loss of communication situation. This is quite troublesome, because fighter jets are dispatched immediately to prevent terrorism. The plane’s fate then diverges into two paths: responding to the fighter jets’ warnings and making a safe guided landing, or, if unlucky, being shot down.

    To avoid such a worst-case scenario, controllers try to communicate with another plane from the same company nearby. Most airlines have an emergency contact method in the cockpit. Through this, fellow pilots can inform the control tower that they are being sought. Most issues are resolved at this stage.

    “Anyway, it wasn’t even a long-haul flight but a domestic one, and they were away for so long. I was kind of dumbfounded. I almost pretended not to notice. Haha.”

    I laughed, agreeing with him. I was momentarily distracted.

    Han Jae-yi’s call from Tokyo had left me with a lot on my mind. Throughout the return flight, I responded to Cho Min-woo’s questions with short answers and didn’t really engage in conversation or make eye contact. He probably thought it was because of him. Having declared surrender with both hands up, my cold attitude might have hurt his pride.

    “Captain, you’re going on vacation soon, right?”

    “Yes. Two weeks from next week.”

    “I guess you’ll have to go to Germany, too, because your friend is getting married there.”

    He smiled as he flicked away some ash. At that moment, I felt the urge to tell him something. It was someone else’s life, not related to him at all, but he might be interested.

    “The wedding’s been canceled.””

    His hand, which was flicking ash, paused and then extinguished the cigarette entirely. He slowly raised his head and looked at me. Then, with that familiar peculiar smile, he lit a new cigarette.

    “That’s… really heartbreaking.”

    He used a double entendre as he lit his cigarette. He unbuttoned the top button of his uniform, seemingly feeling stifled. After thinking silently for a while, he muttered in a self-deprecating tone.

    “I told you, didn’t I? Two out of ten engagements end up canceled. Comfort him well. It gets lonelier at night after a breakup.”

    “Is that your personal experience?”

    “Yes. After work, it gets lonelier. I end up going to a farther convenience store to buy cigarettes for no reason.”

    The last words were spoken while looking at me, so I had to figure out what they meant.

    There’s a supermarket below his apartment. The fact that he came all the way here to buy cigarettes felt uncomfortable. The distance between Cho Min-woo and me is fixed. If he stops, I won’t intentionally distance myself, but if he approaches, I will immediately step back.

    “Co-pilot Cho, this may be rude, but I’m just going to ask.”

    I flicked away the ashes from my burnt-out cigarette, put it out, and shoved my hands into my pockets. This indicated that I wouldn’t smoke any more and that I intended to go home after saying what I needed to say.

    “Are you interested in me?”

    He looked up at me. His dimpled smile remained, but his eyes showed a hint of distress.

    “Suddenly asking that puts me in a tough spot. If I say yes, you might avoid me. If I say no, I might never get another chance… If I say I am interested, what would you do?”

    “It doesn’t matter. Because I’m not.”

    I warned him to stay right where he was. Whatever kind of feelings he harbored for me, I didn’t care. It just felt like a waste of time to continually try to confirm it while he skillfully concealed and then revealed it.

    I didn’t want to spend such time with Co-pilot Cho Min-woo. I had no desire to act high and mighty just because someone was interested in me. So I hoped he would give up quickly.

    He was already on his third cigarette. He seemed suddenly at a loss for words, starting to speak and then stopping repeatedly. Finally, he managed to say something that sounded half like a soliloquy.

    “You’re rejecting me so sexily, even though I haven’t confessed.”

    Unable to respond, I remained silent. I hoped this would be the last time I would have to talk to him about this. I didn’t want to have to tell him that I already had someone in mind and that things were going well with them.

    A customer who had just exited the convenience store approached, tearing open a pack of cigarettes. He seemed ready to smoke here. It seemed our conversation would be forced to end.

    “It’s late, you should go.”

    He finally looked up and smiled, the expression of a colleague I had met thirty minutes ago. After saying goodbye and walking away, I glanced back to see him lighting his fourth cigarette. This was the expression of a man who had just been rejected. 

    Even if things didn’t work out between Han Jae-yi and me, I had no intention of dating Co-pilot Cho Min-woo. Keeping our relationship strictly professional was the best courtesy I could offer him. Tonight, I hoped the night owl would cry for him.

    On my way home, I sent a message to Han Jae-yi. Short and to the point.

    [Give me a call]

    I couldn’t take my eyes off my phone because I wanted to hear his voice. But by the time I washed up and got into bed, I hadn’t heard from him.

    I read a book in bed for about an hour. It’s a book about three Polish brothers that I bought at the bookstore last time. After finishing the second chapter, my phone was silent. It was still 5pm in Germany. I told myself it was too early to get off work.

    While still holding onto my phone, I saw a photo of Alain partying at a club. The woman in the photo was very beautiful, making me think he wouldn’t need to meet me early in the morning. I drifted off to sleep, thinking how typical of Alain this was.

    Closing my eyes, I laughed hollowly. It was a lonely night for all of us.

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