Contact – Chapter 1

Originally posted here

-1-

The sun was still warm on his cheeks as Park Dong Hoon returned to his twelfth floor office. The team was already seated at the meeting room. Was he late? It was such a beautiful afternoon, he couldn’t resist taking a detour along the Chunggye stream instead of the underpass. Taking his seat at the head of the table, he nodded at Team Leader Song to proceed.

“We visited the Ganeung-dong site yesterday and made the following findings. One, the soil condition …”

I’ll buy you a meal. Something delicious.

He shook his head, trying to focus on the site plans on the screen. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t heard her voice in his head over the past year, at one point it was nearly impossible for him to concentrate on anything else. But just seeing her again after so long—he had no idea what to make of it and more than anything else he felt nervous, and that made him deeply uncomfortable.

I just really wanted you to be happy.

Her large, baleful eyes, fearing him, then softening as he thanked her. The same cautious eyes that watched him as he stood up, wondering if he still recognised her, lighting up when he did. They never needed words and yet seeing her again, the only thing he wished he had was words. The right words to express how he felt seeing her again. And what had he done? He asked for a handshake, when what he really wanted was to pull her in for a hug and say Well done, Ji An. Well done. You’ve done so well.

“Are you expecting a call?” Team Leader Song’s voice cut through his thoughts. He hadn’t even realised he was looking at his phone.

“Oh—yes, I was wondering about the Hanil Construction bid.”

Team Leader Song glanced at Manager Kim, then back at him.

“We won the bid yesterday, Teppyo-nim. I sent the report this morning.”

“That’s right. I met with CEO Choi from Sunghwa over lunch.”

“What did he say? He’s your college friend, right?”

What had he said? After bumping into Ji An, he had forgotten all about his chat with CEO Choi. They had talked about friends they knew, their family and kids—and he had given his usual spiel about how well Ji-seok and his mom were doing in Boston. Had they even discussed the Hanil bid?

“It’s not certain yet,” he answered vaguely. “I’ll let you all know.”

Team Leader Song and Manager Kim exchanged another look. Had they caught on? He thought about telling them about Ji An. They asked about her from time to time, but he always pretended he knew nothing, even though Saman’s Chairman Jang continued to update him whenever they met. The last time had been over three months ago, when they met over New Year. Oddly enough, he hadn’t mentioned anything about Ji An then, and there hadn’t been an appropriate opportunity to ask. A beep sounded from his pocket and he took his phone out.

Omma bought too many melons. Come by Jeong Hee’s later to pick yours up.

It was Ki Hoon. He turned his phone to vibrate mode and slipped the phone back into his pants. His team members were staring at him again.

“Right. Where were we?”

“Do you think we should proceed?”

Proceed? Proceed with what? He glanced at the screen, a lateral diagram of the building with a table of numbers, and started making mental calculations. It was what calmed him, steadied his minds even during the most trying periods. Unlike people, numbers obeyed their natural law.

“What’s the weight load?”

“Three.”

“Three?”

“You can’t increase it unless we tear down the whole structure.”

“We’re structural engineers. We just make recommendations.”

“So we tell them to add more columns?”

“Haven’t you been doing this for fifteen years?”

“Yes sir.”

“Anything else?”

He glanced around, wondering why the room was silent. His phone vibrated against his thigh and he resisted the urge to take it out.

“You’re not just Manager Song, you’re Team Leader Song now. You don’t need to check back with me on every single small detail.” He changed tack, softening his tone. “Good job guys.”

As soon as he was back in his office he took out his phone. He closed the door behind him, turning his back to his colleagues.

Appa. Can I use Snapchat? Omma says no.

Listen to your mom, he texted back, even though he wasn’t quite sure what his son was talking about.

But she has an account!

He sighed and settled into his chair. The world of teenagers and social media was so foreign to him, it was like a different language. He didn’t understand why Yeon Hee insisted on moving to Boston with Ji Seok, but he had to admit he was glad she was there. Sending Ji Seok to America at such a young age—he was uncomfortable with the idea from the start. Every month or so it seemed like there was a high school or mass shooting and it always made his heart jump when he saw the news. It was a good thing for Ji Seok to have his mom by his side, especially at this age.

All my friends have one. Another message arrived.

Do you want an account because you need it? Or because all your friends have it?

Appa!

He decided he would download Snapchat later and try it out before responding further. Assistant Cheong, the office manager, knocked on the door to pass him his mail. He waited till she left the room to take out his phone. Just to check if he had missed any messages. But there was nothing. He scrolled to her name and pressed the message button.

I’m not sure if you have the time, but, he typed. It sounded too casual, so he deleted and tried again. Would you like to come by Jeong Hee’s tonight? But it seemed like she had her own life now, with her own friends, and her own plans.

Deleting his reply, he put his phone in his briefcase, determined not to look at it again. Then he turned to his computer to check his e-mails. A group e-mail came in from Manager Kim.

Team dinner tonight! We’ll meet at the usual place at 7pm.

The sky was turning orange when Manager Kim knocked on his window. Outside, the team was all packed up, ready to go. He turned off his computer and picked up his briefcase, joining them at the door.

“Let’s go.”

“If we win the Samsung bid we should move, Teppyo-nim,” said Team Leader Song as they waited for the lift along with every other office worker on their floor. The first lift arrived, but it was packed. The doors shut and Manager Kim pressed the lift button again.

“Why?”

“He misses the lift lobby. And the pretty reception girls,” Manager Kim joked.

“You can always go back to Saman.”

“Yes sir—I mean absolutely not sir.”

“Would you rather have a bigger bonus or a faster lift?”

“Yes sir!”

An empty lift finally arrived. They reached the ground floor and exited their office, heading towards the restaurant in twos and threes. It was a short walk, a grilled octopus restaurant in the back alley just two blocks from their office. Team Leader Song ordered soju and they downed their first shot. They didn’t have to but everyone knew Yeon Hee was no longer around, so they made the effort to have team dinners at least once or twice a week. He didn’t mind. They had grown close, especially after what he had gone through at Saman and setting up the new business together. They were almost like family.

“I wonder what happened to Lee Ji An.”

The mention of her name brought his attention back to the table. It wasn’t directed at him, they didn’t ask him about her anymore. But Manager Kim’s curiosity was making him uncomfortable. The words lingered at the tip of his lips, but he held them in. Not yet, not yet. He wanted to keep the secret to himself a little longer.

“I heard she’s back in Seoul. Teppyo-nim, you haven’t heard anything?” It was Hyung Gyu, of all people.

Daebak! And she didn’t call us? I’m devastated.” Manager Kim pounded his chest. “I thought we at least meant something to her.”

Dong Hoon picked up the sake bottle and poured him a shot. They clinked glasses, Manager Kim turning away as he drank. The urge to retrieve his phone was killing him, but he resisted. The octopus arrived and Assistant Cheong began grilling it. What was it she had said earlier? I’ll call you. He gave in and took out his phone, trying to keep his face as composed as possible.

There were six missed calls. One from Jeong Hee, three from Ki Hoon, and two from Sang Hoon. His heart skipped a beat as he saw the sender. She had texted him after all.

Do you have plans tonight?

The next message was from Ki Hoon.

Where the hell are you? She’s here!!!

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