Today, they went to a pub called “Baekhwadang” because Min-soo wanted to drink makgeolli. Despite its rustic name, it was well-known for its delicious potato fries.
The place was filled with boisterous laughter under the dim lighting. At night, after drinking makgeolli, eating corn dog, and drinking beer, everyone’s vision was somewhat blurred. Jeong-yoon’s military service story had long disappeared from the conversation. Instead, discussions revolved around final exams and gossip about peculiar professors.
Jeong-yoon was a heavy drinker. Thanks to that, he was still quite sober unlike the others. He was leaving for the military in a little while. He wondered if he would still be able to hang out with these guys after he returned to school. Such thoughts made him unexpectedly melancholic. He pretended to be indifferent, but the idea of starting a new life in a different place made him feel uneasy.
He rested his chin on his hand and looked around. Chae-heon, who had a smile on his face, seemed to be bantering with his classmates. His beer glass in front of him had been full since a while ago, at least as far as Jeong-yoon could remember.
‘Come to think of it, have I ever seen Kang Chae-heon drunk?’
He pondered but concluded that he hadn’t. It wasn’t that he was a heavy drinker like Jeong-yoon. It appeared that he just didn’t enjoy drinking.
Then why did he come here? Jeong-yoon checked the time; it was almost midnight. It was about time for the drinking session to disperse.
He sighed and ordered another beer. After today, he would have to stay away from Kang Chae-heon for a long time. Suddenly, he felt very thirsty.
“Sir, please take him to Hansol Apartments in Gireum-dong.”
Jeong-yoon handed the taxi driver a few ten-thousand-won bills and pushed his swaying colleague into the taxi. His colleague was insisting on staying and talking, even though he needed to close the door. Jeong-yoon didn’t know if it was meant as comfort or teasing.
“Hey, sober up and take care, alright?”
Jeong-yoon lightly patted his colleague’s cheek. His colleague chuckled and nodded. From what he could tell, at least his colleague wasn’t going to lose his wits inside the taxi.
The back of the taxi moved away from the brightly shining signboards as Jeong-yoon closed the taxi door. It was the last friend he sent after the drinking party was over.
‘Ugh, my shoulder hurts.’
The guys were heavy and unwieldy, like sacks of salt. Carrying those guys on his shoulders and loading them into a taxi to take them home was bound to make his shoulders sore. Jeong-yoon rubbed the back of his neck and swung his arms around once.
While he was doing that, Chae-heon approached. He had come back after sending another guy off in a different taxi.
“Thanks for covering the taxi fare for the guys… Even though they gathered because of me”
“I’m fine, so I’ll go on my own.”
Jeong-yoon said with a smile. Chae-heon, who had been staring at Jeong-yoon’s face, shook his head.
“I’ll give you a ride.”
“Because I didn’t drink.”
‘You’re giving me a ride? Why? Is that the last bit of sympathy you can give a guy who’s going to the army?’
Jeong-yoon wanted to ask why but eventually just nodded. In truth, although parting like this felt somewhat regrettable, he was truly grateful for the offer.
This was the second time Jeong-yoon had ridden in Chae-heon’s car.
Jeong-yoon stared blankly out of the car window. The colorful lights of the bustling night streets were flashing and shining brightly.
There was no conversation between them, but the atmosphere was not unfamiliar. They had experienced this silence during the four-hour drive to the farm during the agricultural excursion. It was a familiar quietness.
As they passed through the busy streets and onto the straight road of the residential area, Jeong-yoon’s neighborhood came into view. It had been built about 30 years ago but was still considered a relatively comfortable place. He could see familiar bakeries and coffee shops.
Jeong-yoon gazed at the familiar scenery outside the car window and then turned his head to look at Chae-heon.
“Kang Chae-heon. Do you still live around here too?”
Jeong-yoon had encountered his high school classmates multiple times when he went to the bathhouse in his tracksuit or to Starbucks on weekends. It was expected since he lived in the same area. However, he couldn’t recall ever seeing Chae-heon.
Chae-heon replied as he turned the steering wheel.
“No. I moved and lived alone.”
“Where did you move?”
“Near the school. The view apartment.”
“Apartment? Alone? Not an officetel? Isn’t it a bit burdensome to live alone in an apartment?”
At Jungyoon’s words, Chae-heon’s lips curled up slightly, showing a somewhat self-deprecating smile.
“My father gave me a lot of money even though he didn’t give me love.”
Chae-heon’s calm answer made Jeong-yoon feel awkward. He hadn’t expected personal details to come up so suddenly. Trying to break the awkward atmosphere, Jeong-yoon made another light remark.
“So you moved out and became independent when you entered college. You must be enjoying your freedom.”
“I lived alone even during high school.”
“…Ah. I see. You lived alone even in high school.”
‘I’ll just keep my mouth shut.’
That thought crossed Jeong-yoon’s mind, but he had already asked the question. He had attempted to lighten the atmosphere, but somehow, the conversation seemed to keep sinking into a quagmire.
Come to think of it, he knew nothing about Kang Chae-heon. Where he lived, his family background, what he liked. And… whether he had a girlfriend. Despite having a crush for almost four years, all he knew about Chae-heon was that he was unusually neat, good with money, and handsome.
Jeong-yoon’s expression darkened. Not only was the topic he desired out of reach, but he also had no knowledge to build upon. He was becoming increasingly depressed. Soon the car was stopped at a traffic light. Chae-heon glanced at him briefly before returning his attention to the road.
“I’m a child out of wedlock. I lived with my legal family in middle school, but I moved out once I got a bit older.”
“But it’s not like my biological mother had an affair. It’s just that due to family circumstances, she couldn’t get married because of me.”
Jeong-yoon replied faintly. The mention of ‘family circumstances’ made it sound like a storyline from a drama. His thoughts became tangled.
When the traffic light turned green, Chae-heon stepped on the accelerator.
“It’s nothing, so don’t worry about it. It’s not even a secret.”
Since he was told not to worry about it, Jeong-yoon had nothing more to say on the matter.
“I live well, so don’t even pity me.”
The last words were accompanied by a faint smile. Jeong-yoon gazed at Chae-heon’s profile and nodded in agreement. Pity him? How could he? Chae-heon was too capable for that. Jeong-yoon would be the one needing pity soon when he entered the military.
The car came to a stop at Jeong-yoon’s apartment before he knew it. Normally, he would be thrilled to see this sight, but it didn’t feel the same now. Soon, he would exit the car and part ways with Chae-heon. That fact left him feeling strangely melancholic.
“Thanks for the ride.”
Jeong-yoon said as he stepped out of the car. There was a ground-floor entrance just a few steps away. He waved his hand a few times toward the car, thinking that now it was the end. Surprisingly, Chae-heon also got out of the car. He walked toward Jeong-yoon without saying a word.
‘Is there something he wants to say?’
Jeong-yoon stared at him, but Chae-heon didn’t speak. In the end, it was Jeong-yoon who said the last goodbye.
“Thanks. Take care.”
This time, Chae-heon replied.
Jeong-yoon reluctantly moved his feet. It seemed like he wanted to say something more, but there was nothing he could say. It was natural. Because the only words that lingered in his heart were sentences like ‘I’ll miss you’ and ‘I like you.’
His heart tightened again at the thought of never seeing that face again. So could do was stand there. This tiresome unrequited love that had been going on for years was foolishly continuing.
‘Let’s go now. Without regrets.’
Jeong-yoon turned his back. As he walked toward the entrance, he couldn’t hear Chae-heon getting into the car or the sound of the car starting. Instead, when he stopped to press the joint front entrance password, all he could hear was the faint sound of Chae-heon’s subdued voice.
“See you again.”
His voice was tinged with melancholy.
Jeong-yoon hesitated for a moment and then turned around. When he did, he was met with Chae-heon’s downcast face. Unbelievably, Chae-heon was standing there, saying, “See you again.”
Jeong-yoon managed to reply.
His steps quickened as he stepped inside, as if he were being chased by something. His heart was pounding, and he couldn’t stop himself from walking faster.
Jeong-yoon’s figure disappeared behind the glass door.
Chae-heon stood there as if lost in thought, and eventually searched his pockets for a cigarette. He sighed and tucked it back in after looking at it for a moment. The light from the street lamps above was flickering.