Archive for the ‘Love and A Lack Thereof’ Category

This is the trailer for the first Korean movie I ever saw. (Or was it Shiworae?) Its commercials looked sappy, but I found the theme song addictive. 

A Millionaire’s First Love 

I know a lot of you are shuddering. But goddammit, it made me cry.

But I do have some good films waiting in my apartment. And I’m looking for more KDramas. Any recommendations?


I had just finished shopping with Shelly in Dongdaemun and was sitting on the train when an elderly man turned to me and asked me why I was speaking in English.

At first I was startled, and pleased, because I still don’t understand what people are saying most of the time. But languages and nationalities are covered in the first few chapters of my Korean textbook, so I told him that no, I’m not Korean, I’m American.

He said my face looked Korean, so I added that I’m also Filipino.

“She’s an American,” he said, gesturing towards Shelly.

“No, she’s British,” I said.

Then he asked why I was speaking English. “Korean language, small,” I said in Korean. “Very sorry.”

“So many foreigners come to Korea,” he said. “People from America, Canada, France, Africa, England . . . and they don’t know Korean. They only speak English. Why?

“And you’re face . . .” he added, waving his hands over his own, “it’s Korean. Korean people, Filipino people, same-same.”

He didn’t address Shelly. This happens quite often, especially out of Seoul. Even after I tell people I’m a Filipino-American, they keep talking to me as if I’m a local, all while ignoring my non-Asian friends. And a few of my white friends actually have a better grasp of Korean than I do. It’s embarrassing sometimes.

“Speak Korean,” he told me. “Your English is so loud. My ears . . .!”

“I’m sorry, Grandfather,” I said, bowing.

“Did he just tell you off?” Shelly asked after we stepped off the train and caught a cab.

“Yeah,” I said, near tears. It wasn’t the first time I’d been lectured by an elderly person. A few months ago a little old woman told me not to date a Korean. “You American, you Filipino,” she’d said. “Go, marry, same man.”

But this was a little more troublesome, because it had occurred in a public place. And the truth was that in the past few weeks, I hadn’t studied the language. I’d been so busy with work, the new teacher and yoga that I had neglected my textbooks. I felt guilty.

“That was rude,” she said after I told the cab driver to head for Wal*Mart. “He didn’t know us. What if we were tourists?”

“Yeah, but he has a point. A lot of people don’t make an effort to learn the language or the alphabet, and it can be an inconvenience to others. Even if we were tourists, we should know enough to travel out of Seoul.”

We stopped near E-Mart. “This is the wrong place,” Shelly noted.

“No, they just changed the name,” I said, getting out of the cab. “This used to be the Wal*Mart Supercenter.”

It saddened me–when I first arrived in Korea, one of my first big outings had been to Wal*Mart. Going there had also been the first time I’d taken the bus all by myself.

It was the same shopping center, just with a different name. But Wal*Mart had been a link back to the states. Something western, in a sea of east.

“You look shattered,” Shelly told me after I’d taken a cart.

“I had a dream about my Taekwondo instructor last night. I don’t remember exactly what happened . . . just a lot of talking. And he spoke American English.”

“Why don’t you just see him?” she asked.

“Because it took me weeks to get over him, and I don’t want to put myself through all that again. We can’t date, and I can’t be friends without feeling torn up about it.”

“But you know enough Korean. I saw you talking to that old guy on the train for five minutes!”

“I only understood snippets of what he said. And I only know basic stuff, like how to order in restaurants and ask where the bathroom is.

“Look,” I snapped, “He made me happy. He made me happier than anyone in this entire country. And I still think about him. I . . . I still miss him. But it would be stupid to pursue any kind of relationship!”

“Okay, okay,” she said. “But I just think you underestimate yourself sometimes.”


Yesterday we held another birthday party for the students. I sat down and held Cathy in arms, while Sammy pat my back. Elly threw her arms around me and June tugged on my elbow.

“Teacher is my box,” Sammy said, resting his head in the small of my back. Tears filled my eyes, and I reached over to rub his hand.


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Had a great time at my first wine and cheese party. It wasn’t as “adult” as I feared–everybody brought their own coffee mugs.

I donated a beautiful, plum-colored, fruit-covered cake from Crown Bakery. I should have taken a picture of it, because everyone was sorry to cut into it. We ate it on paper towels. Such is the life of an expat here in Korea.

But just because it was low-key didn’t mean I was going to show up in my yoga clothes. I wore a white, knee-length dress with blue print, a white braided belt around my waist and coral slingbacks. My mother’s diamond earrings (a gift from my father on one of the anniversaries, which I had shamelessly swiped prior to my departure) hung from my ears. I felt young, chic and eager to meet new people.

It took only one glass of fruity wine to loosen me up, as I pressed the virtues of country music to Canadian hipsters, big-city Americans and bewildered Koreans. “Like, the Dixie Chicks just speak to me,” I drawled after the hostess downloaded a few of their songs. “Play ‘Sin Wagon.’ Shit that’s a sweet song.”

I spent most of the night speaking to a young Korean man, who was particularly interested in my views on his country’s pop scene. Or maybe he just wanted to hook up. Who knows–but the more T watched me, the more I talked, my hands flying, my grin growing, my head swimming until I was sure I was going to pass out.

Parties always exhaust me, because I tend to get claustrophobic in large groups. I prefer small gatherings, in groups of four (at most) at familiar coffee shops or restaurants, where I can nibble at food if I don’t feel too charming or interesting.

A little past midnight I suggested we hit a karaoke bar. T stayed behind to catch some sleep. I belted “It’s Raining Men” with all my guts, swinging my arms about, rocking my hips, shaking the the tambourine. “I’m gonna go out,” I wailed, “I’m gonna let myself get / Absolutely soaking wet!”

After the song finished, I sat back and swung back a beer. “T’s a pussy for missing out,” I told Z.

“He has a date tomorrow.”


“Motherfucker!” I shouted the next morning, wrapping a new autumn dress around my waist. “The guy says he won’t give up on me, and then he gets a Korean girlfriend.”

M and Y snuggled on the sofa and laughed as they watched me step into my green heels, bounce on my toes a little, slip into my sandals, bounce again, kick off my shoes, shriek and throw myself between them. “Why am I so fucking short.”

“My poor darling,” M cooed, hugging me.

“How long has he been seeing this Korean girl?” Y asked, picking excess threads from my dress.

“Two or three weeks. Z introduced them. I guess T likes her a lot. Mothahfuckah!”

“You haven’t been very nice to him,” M reminded me.

“But it is good, you’re getting over that Korean,” Y said. “I just don’t know if you should be with a white boy who is weak for the Asian girls.”

“I don’t think I like him-like him,” I mused, leaning against M’s shoulder and resting my legs across Y’s lap. “I just like that he likes me.”

“Why do you have to hate on the white boys?” M asked her husband. “They’re in Korea, who else are they going to date. Besides, Pia isn’t even Korean. She’s a white girl who looks like a Chink.”

“True. But I’d like to talk to him before anything happens between him and Pia.”

“Oh, Dad,” I groaned, rolling my eyes.

“Don’t ‘Dad’ me. If you don’t like him, why are you getting dressed up again?”

“Don’t be too tough on me. I didn’t get that much sleep . . . All that cheese gave me diarrhea.” I laughed, raising my arms as they swatted at me. “Ah, not too hard, I still have gas.”

“You’re lactose intolerant, why did you eat so much cheese?” M asked.

“I always eat too much when I socialize. And, I have my period.”

“You are getting too comfortable around me,” Y sighed, distancing himself and shaking his head. “Remember, you are a lady.”

M and I grinned at each other and rolled our eyes.


Z and T met me in front of my favorite Mexican restaurant in Seoul, eating chocolate. “That is one huge chocolate bar,” he said, taking it from me.

“They sell them cheap at this Indian market near What The Book. Do you want some?”

Looking a little surprised, he shook his head.

D joined us later, as we sat near the bar, chowing down burritos and slurping large glasses of lemonade. “Who’s the girl?” I teased, glancing at T and licking my fingers.

He wrapped one arm around the back of my chair and cleared his throat. “She’s nobody.”

“You’ve been seeing her for three weeks and she’s nobody?”

“What I mean is, I don’t like her that way. We’ve been on a few dates. It’s nothing.”

I scoffed and turned to Z and D, who were watching this exchange and looking exhausted. “You don’t have to act so cool around me. You’re crazy about her.”

“I’m not here to date. I’m here to work and travel.”

“And if you get laid, that’s a bonus, right?”

He laughed and removed his hand from my chair. “She’s okay. She doesn’t mean anything. I mean, we can’t really talk about anything. And, I want someone, but if I can’t talk to her, it isn’t going to amount to anything.”

“Wow, that’s so . . . nauseating.”

“Then join us today, if you’re so sure about how I feel.”

I smirked into my glass. “No thanks. Nothing would make me gag more than the sight of you acting like a lovesick puppy.”


“If I’d known he was coming, I wouldn’t have joined you,” D sighed after we sent the boys off in a taxi. “You are so mean to him.”

I was surprised by how disappointed I felt. When he’d invited me to come along, I was hit with the idea that this new girl was taller than me, better-dressed, smarter, funnier, nicer, prettier. I didn’t want to see him hitting on another girl, paying for her ice cream, trying to make her laugh, and trying to impress her with random cinema trivia.

Also, I was disappointed in myself.

I linked arms with D and rested my head on her shoulder, biting into my chocolate bar. “I know I’m a bitch to him. But I can’t help it. When I’m with him, I want to hit him, but at the same time, I don’t know . . . I guess I’m starting to like him a little.”

She rested her head against mine as we headed back to the station. “You scare me sometimes.”


“You’re still hung up on your Sabunim?”

We stopped at the station, and I let go of her. “It’s great that T’s seeing someone,” I said. “I don’t think I’m ready for anyone.”

“Nobody’s ever really ready for a relationship. I wasn’t ready for L,” she said, referring to her boyfriend. “I mean, we met on Myspace. I didn’t think anything would happen, and well, look at us now.

“I just think . . . Maybe you have this idea in your head,” she said after some hesitation. “About who you’re supposed to be with, and how it’s supposed to happen.” Pause. “And maybe you’re just going to end up hurting yourself.”

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Love on the fingertips

While I was visiting an orchard on a field trip, a mother of one of my students collected these flower petals and leaves for me.

The Koreans believe that if you dye your fingernails with these petals, you will receive your true love when the snow first hits the ground.

Because of the language barrier, I don’t know exactly how to do this, but here’s what I remember: Grind the petals in a bowl with a chemical (forgot what it is, but you can get it at a drugstore). Paint your nails with the mixture and wrap your fingernails in the leaves. Wait for a few hours, and when you take the leaves off, your nails should be either a bright orange or pink.

I’ll correct my instructions once I learn more.

(Christ. Even my students’ parents want me to get some.)

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One day after meeting my supervisor’s friends, and one has already sent me six text messages and an email.

I tell myself that giving him a chance might be good for me. I can’t do this lovelorn shit anymore.

So I pined and mooned and it didn’t work out. Whatever. The Instructor doesn’t speak English and I don’t know that much about him anyway.

I need to go out.

On Sunday night I meet Z, T and their coworkers at a bar in Itaewon. I spend most of the night sipping imported beers and chatting up his lady friends. To my delight, there’s a Filipina among them. I haven’t met any since I left Busan.

I knew Maria and I share the same ethnicity when she smiles. Ask anyone familiar with Pinoys and you’ll hear the same thing–we have the same smile. Wide and warm. All teeth.

She’s from Cebu and darker than I am, with bigger eyes and thinner limbs. Like the other Filipino women I’ve met, she works at a bar, as one of those women you pay to sit next to you, drink with you, smile at your stories, let your hands wander and pretend you’re actually interesting.

“I dance too, baby,” she says. “Shiny bra, little black shorts, high boots. Thank god, I don’t have to get naked.

“Before I come to Korea, I can’t dance. When my manager sent me here, I thought I was going to sing. Then the asshole tells me I have to dance. So I learn the sexy dance. Now I dance real good, but shit I hate my job.” We laugh.

“And before Korea,” she adds, “I don’t drink. Really, I was a bad girl in the Philippines, but I never drink there. Then I work and my customers buy five bottles of booze, each! They want me to drink with them and I can’t say no.

“I used to get sick real bad. Now, I can’t work without five drinks.

“I’ve been in Korea for a year. Before, I work in Busan. Boring! Every day I have to work and dance and drink. Then this one girl from Manila gets raped, and my manager gets scared and sends all of us to Seoul.

“I’ve been here for how long, and this is only my second night out. And now I have a boyfriend,” she says, nodding at her Canadian companion. He greets me in Tagalog and tells me has Filipino friends back home. He’s far more pleasant than the usual foreigner who tells me he just loves the Philippines. I approve.

“But now my boyfriend’s contract is finished and he must go back to Canada.” She lowers her voice and leans into me. “Baby, I think I love him. I only had one boyfriend, in the Philippines, and he had to go to the States because his mother hated me, because I was poor.

“Now maybe I lose another boyfriend.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “Maybe you’ll have a long distance relationship.”

“I don’t know. Come on baby, let’s dance.”

Her experience shows: she swings her hips, she touches the floor, she wiggles and grinds. I bob my head, shake my hands and shuffle my feet, struggling not to look too self-conscious.

“No!” Maria cries when a guy places his hands on my hips. “Don’t touch her. Don’t. She is a good Filipino girl. You must dance our style. Filipino style, no touch.” She says this to every guy who tries to paw me, and it’s hilarious and I think I adore her.

We exchange numbers and promise to see each other again. “I will teach you how to dance sexy,” she promises. “We Filipinas gotta stick together.”

She reaches over and runs a hand through my big, wet hair. How does hers stay so smooth and straight? “Remember, baby,” she chides. “Only Filipino men can treat a Filipina right.

“The rest, they all think we’re whores.”


I’ve managed to avoid T all night. Just as well, because he’s been talking up some chipper, clingy Australian. Or he’s just sitting there while she’s stroking him and cooing about everything that’s wrong with Korea.

I feel him watching me. Soon our group has dwindled down to four: myself, Z, T and his admirer. I bring everyone bottled water and he reaches over to touch my wrist. I swat him off like a fly, smiling wryly.

What is so appealing about him tonight? He looks nothing like The Instructor. He’s too tall–six-foot-four–too jock-ish, too big city. And for a while I’ve only been attracted to Korean men. He looks nothing like Sabunim, he doesn’t act or talk or laugh like him in the slightest.

I want to kick him.

At half past four, security asks us to leave. Z wants to go to a PC room until the buses start running. I’m grumpy and hungover. The nightlights annoy me for some reason so I stand on the bar’s stairwell as the four of us talk about what to do next.

“I would invite all of you to sleep at my place,” the Australian giggles, looking up at T, “but my apartment is really small. Like, it’s the size of a closet.”

I blink and nod and smile. “But how nice of you to consider us!”

She chooses to ignore my sarcasm and turns to T. “The ATMs aren’t working. I have money at my place, though, would you mind spotting me. I’ll pay you back tonight.”

I turn my back to her, face Z and jab my tongue against my right cheek twice. He tries not to laugh.

“What are you going to do?” T asks me and Z, sounding a tad bit embarrassed.

“Eat pie,” I tell him.

“Pie sounds good.”

“You can’t find pie this late,” the Australian insists.

“You know, she might be right,” I tell him. “We could always have pie in the morning, after we’re all so well-rested.”

She hails a cab, and T lingers with me and Z, grimacing.

“You should go,” I tell him.

“Well . . .”

“You’re such a slut.” I immediately regret the words as they leave my mouth.

The men stare at me blankly. “Excuse me?” T asks.

Laughing, I tell him, “Oh, don’t worry, I think the world of her. She’s cute and oh so charming. It’s you I’m wondering about.”

Z edges away, babbling about the PC room in the next building. T blinks, confused. He ducks into the doorway, takes my hands and raises them to his chest.

“But I haven’t spoken to you all night. You owe me a dance.”

I stare at him for a moment.

Then I take my hands back and cock my head to the side. “Listen. If you do her, you’re a slut. If you don’t, you’re an idiot.” I pat him on the chest with both hands. “Happy fucking!”

“Oh my god,” he says, shaking his head.

She calls for him from the cab. “The driver’s getting angry!” she sing-songs.

I walk past him and out of the building. As the cab drives past, I see him look back at me from the backseat. She’s curled into his side. I grin brightly and wave.

After he’s gone I sit on a bench and watch people stream past. Have I just shamed someone into sleeping with a girl he doesn’t care about? What’s wrong with me?

And I know right away.

I want to spar.

I need to spar.

I smile to myself and cross the street.

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“You don’t know how sexy you are . . . That mole below your eye? It looks like a teardrop.”

What bullshit.

I roll my eyes and take another sip of soju kettle, which tastes awfully sweet and lemony. It’s my fourth glass, and the only reason why I let these stringy foreigners practice their pick-up lines and come-hither looks on me.

This particular guy is the third. Canadian, aspiring artist who dreams of teaching in Latin America. Has a Korean girlfriend who he claims would just love me. Decided the best approach was a “Random Questions” game. I give in because a) I’m tired of pretending I don’t know English and b) it’s better than slapping hands off my ass.

Question number one: “What’s your ancestry?” Every guy asks me this within the first few minutes. “Really, Filipino? You’re mixed, right?” Gee, haven’t heard that one before. Why do people think this question is soooooo flattering?

Question number two: “What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve done?” From the look in his eyes, I can tell he’s hoping it starts with an A and ends with an L. “I ate dog,” I reply. “Twice.” I smile as he cringes a bit.

Question number three: “What do you want to do after Korea?”

“I want to be a teacher,” I answer, surprised at my response, because it’s the first time I really, really mean it.

Another Nigerian locks eyes with me and takes me by the hands. “One dance, pretty girl,” he says. I don’t mind the Nigerians so much, because when you shy away they just step back and laugh at you, whereas other Prince Charmings call you a stuck-up bitch, push more drinks on you and glare at you for the rest of the night.

This one maintains a respectable distance, so I indulge him with two or three more songs. “California Love” comes on, and I whoop with delight, because here in Itaewon, this is my jam. They can play it six more times tonight, and I’ll throw myself on the dance floor every time.

When 2Pac spits “So you know the row won’t bow down to no man,” I just shake harder, faster, because that dead black man speaks to me.

Then that KC and Jojo song, “Crazy,” comes on and I begin to back off, because I can’t stand this song. The Nigerian pulls me close and wraps my arms around my neck, and I’m okay with it because the Canadian is still watching us, and I hate myself for shielding myself from one bastard with another.

My dance partner is trying to catch my eyes, and I look away, past the swinging neon lights, and I see him. The Frenchman. Dancing on the speakers. His eyes shut tight, his arms in the air, mouthing along to the words, his legs spread apart. His hair is as glossy and black as I remembered; his beard hasn’t grown an inch.

For a fleeting moment, I feel a grin spread across my face, and I begin to tear myself away. You found me, I want to weep, you came for me. Just like you promised.

He opens his eyes and looks me over, smirking. I shrivel up and lower my eyes. Just another Muslim.

The resemblance is strong, but he would never stare at me like a piece of meat. That’s what I admired about him, that it just wasn’t about my looks or my innocence or whatever fucked up image men inflicted on me–He saw me for what I really was, for what I could be.

I wake up, stretched across several metal chairs. The girls are laughing. “You passed out for two hours,” M says, wrapping her arms around me and pulling me to her chest.

“I did not just fall asleep at a club in Itaewon,” I groan, holding my head.

“Don’t worry. We looked over you. We took pictures, but we took care of you.”

I lean into her side, safe and warm and full of so much love for her. I fall back asleep.

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 Is it possible to have feelings for someone you barely understand?

Last week I told The Instructor I would not leave my job after all.

“Sabunim,” I said, as his younger students made kissing noises behind his back. “Me, Pia, no go Ca-li-porn-nia.

Pointing at the ground: “Here–yogi–yes.”

I hooked my thumbs together, made flapping motions with my hands, then unhooked them and made an X with my forearms. “Ca-li-porn-nia, aniyo.”

His eyes flickered with recognition and his jaw dropped. “Pia, yogi?” he exclaimed, pointing at the ground.

“Ne!” I exclaimed, clapping. “Korea, yes.” I gave him a thumbs up.

“Pusan?” he asked, mimicking my bird hand motion.

“Pusan, no,” I said, making another X sign. “Yogi, yes.”


“Wonderland, yes.” I made puppets with my hands. “C Teacher and Pia Teacher, talk-talk. Wonderland good! Pia . . .” I gave another thumbs up. “Happy.”

He spun around and told the boys in rapid-fire Korean. I got teary-eyed as their faces lit up. I hadn’t realized they cared so much.

He pointed to my belt. “Pia, red belt.” He raised one hand, and lifting fingers, counted: “July, August, September, October, November–black belt!” The boys recited the months to themselves and nodded. Yes, yes, five months would give me enough time to train for my black belt.

I wrung my wrists. “Black, no.” I bit my lip, wondering how to convey this. “Chun-bee, aniyo.” I’m not ready.

The Instructor and students squinted in confusion for a moment, before a young boy said, “Chun-bee. Ready.” After all these months, my pronunciation of basic words was still awful.

“See?” I said. “My Hangeul, not so good.” More puppet motions with my hands, then a descending thumbs-down.

I locked eyes with my teacher. “I don’t understand you,” I said weakly, and he nodded, his mouth firm.

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When I was nineteen I worked for my university’s cafeteria.

On orientation one of the most gorgeous Filipino (and half white–why are mutts always so pretty? Seriously, someone tell me.) men I’d ever seen sat next to me. He was tall, tanned, lean-muscled and had these large, soft, almond-shaped eyes. I was instantly smitten.

We hung out in different circles, so we never had an opportunity to speak to one another. I was the mousy, albino English major with huge, frizzy hair and buck teeth; he was a bit reserved himself but played for our college’s soccer team—add that to the fact he was good-looking and nice, and you have someone who was confident, well-liked and out of my league.

Day in and day out, we’d pass each other, layering sandwiches, slapping cream cheese on bagels, decorating pizzas and humming along to alt-rock on the speakers.

As I left for work one day, I saw him sweep through the parking lot on his longboard, eating a small bowl of cereal. For some strange reason, that intensified my crush, and I couldn’t get enough of him.

I found myself going to the cafeteria when I wasn’t working just to watch him pour and serve coffee. I pushed myself to engage in small talk with his friends. I even tried to learn how to skateboard (and failed) and caught random soccer games on television.

Unfortunately, he only seemed to see me at embarrassing moments–like the time I spilled a tub of marinade on myself, and the day I cried after a fight with a friend over the phone. And I was always a sweaty mess, with food smeared across my apron and my skin reeking of burritos and coffee.

As the weeks went by, I noticed that I was seeing more of him, without any work on my part. During my early weekend shifts in the ice cream shop, he’d walk in after practices. When I’d gather my hair into a ponytail, I’d find him staring at my neck. He made my turkey subs exactly the way I wanted (heavy on the avocado, Swiss cheese, no pickles, wheat bread).

Sometimes I’d look up just to find him . . . well, looking at me funny.

And although I was extremely self-conscious at the time, I realized that somehow, this Adonis had grown to like me, too. The problem was, we were too shy to actually do anything about it. With the exception of pleases, thank yous, and our one-time quibble over how healthy and yummy hummus is, we’d never had a conversation.

Considering how little we had in common, it seemed like that would never happen. Then, one day, I came to work early, just as he was leaving. A counter filled with plastic bowls of tiramisu caught my eye, and I instantly swerved towards it. Soon we were standing there, side-by-side, spoons in hands.

“We sell tiramisu now!” I sighed.

“But nobody bought it,” he said, surprising me with the disappointment in his voice. “They don’t know what it is . . . it’s all going in the trash.”

Lucky for us: as Filipinos we’re accustomed to consuming vast amounts of leftovers. We cleared that countertop, until all those bowls had been emptied of cheese, ladyfingers and espresso. We washed the dishes quietly, with small smiles on our faces, as if we’d just shared a secret little corner of the world.

It was the highlight of that autumn working in the cafeteria–that half-hour spent eating cakes with a beautiful boy. Soon after, I quit the cafeteria to make time for my studies and martial arts classes. He left as well.

Green tea tiramisu

But every now and then, we would just happen to catch glimpses of each other on campus. And we’d exchange grins–all over an insignificant moment between bowls of tiramisu.

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