On Thursday my coworkers bought me cake.
We were decorating the school for the monthly activity event, so we didn’t get to celebrate that night. We had five minutes to pose for pictures and sing.
The lights went out, and I was left staring into the candles.
“You blew the candles fast,” C told me after I began to slice the cake. “What do you wish for?”
Two nights later I was celebrating my 25th birthday at an Italian restaurant. I was surrounded by my three dearest friends, their boyfriends, a co-teacher I could barely stand and her adorable son, and two admirers.
I tried to chat and entertain everyone, but I went out of my way to avoid T, who sat to my right. I didn’t know why I invited him. I suppose I wanted The Instructor to be at my side so badly, and any guy would do.
When he wasn’t looking, I stole a glance. Attractive, true–but in the cocky way I could barely tolerate. He dressed and carried himself off like he was from SoCal (he wasn’t), and for some reason that bothered me the most. After he professed his loyalty to the Lakers, though, I sat back and relaxed. Surely I would not fall to the charms of a Kobe fan.
He caught me staring and smiled. I swung my eyes in the opposite direction and frowned. He responded by buying me a drink. As I checked my cellphone for messages, he noticed the DVDs in my tote bag.
“You bought The Lover,” he noted.
“Yeah,” I said with a little laugh, embarrassed by how corny it sounded.
“I love that movie. Jane March was so intense as a fifteen-year-old.”
“I guess. I bought it for three bucks today.”
“You were here early, weren’t you? What did you do in Gwangwhamun?”
“I went to a cafe and read “Love In The Time of . . .”
“Yeah. You’ve read it?”
“Yeah. I enjoyed it.”
I sat up and leaned forward. “Have you read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?”
“You should. It’s easier to get into. I tried to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it was too far out there.”
“Yeah, but I think the best books are like the best actors. A little eccentric.”
I sunk back in my seat. How pretentious! Pushing my plate back, I drawled, “I ate before coming here, and now I’m full. You can have my pasta.”
He’d already finished a whole pasta dinner, and I still had a half of it left. Truth be told, I was still hungry. But I wanted him to get sick.
We locked eyes, and I smirked a little, nodding at my dish, which weighed the same as a liter of water. Finally he shrugged and took my bowl.
“You never told me if you were still engaged to that naval officer,” he said after he finished, holding his stomach and wincing a little.
“One, he was a computer programmer. Two, I was never engaged. I only told you I was seeing someone to spare your feelings after I left you waiting in the bathroom on New Year’s.”
D, who’d been chatting with her boyfriend, threw me a disgusted glance.
T laughed, and I colored. “I must be more drunk than I thought,” I mumbled.
After we left, half the group had to catch the train back home. “Be easy on the poor guy,” M said after she pulled me aside. “Even after you ditched him on New Year’s, he still likes you. And you’ve been a righteous little bitch, to everyone, for the past few weeks.”
I hugged her tight. “I’m sorry, M. I just–”
“I know, darling. But you have to put all that behind you. You only turn 25 once! Just have fun . . . Try not to think so much.”
After they left he offered to carry my cake. I let him carry my tote bag instead.
“You aren’t worried I’ll run off with your money?” he teased.
“Cake is more important,” I said softly, hugging it to my chest. “It’s very sweet.”
As we walked to an ice cream shop, he said, “I wanted to apologize to you in person.”
“You? What for?”
“For ditching you and Z that night. I really wanted to eat breakfast at Gecko’s with you.”
“It wasn’t a big deal.”
“I didn’t sleep with her, you know. She kissed me at her apartment, but then it was really awkward, so I left.”
“You idiot. She was cute.”
“Believe me, I know.”
I shrugged. “Well, cute but not that pretty, really. Her accent made up for it. I guess I should apologize, for calling you a slut. I’m sorry. I guess.”
He nudged me with his elbow. “Let me buy you an ice cream and we’ll be even. They’ll sing and dance when you tell them it’s your birthday . . .”
I didn’t want to intrude on D and her boyfriend, so we slept at Z’s place that night. Z offered his bed, but I dragged a sleeping bag on the floor. “I’m more comfortable like this, really,” I insisted when T laid down across the sofa next to me.
“Did you have a good time?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, and it was the truth. It was, for the most part, a drama-free birthday. It had been rather nice talking to him–we have more in common than I’d suspected. We want to be writers (although I didn’t tell him that), think the Killers are awesome but way too overplayed, believe exercise is essential for the mind and want to travel through all seven continents.
I felt myself warming up a little.
Then, in the dark, he said, “Pia, did you date anyone here?”
“That’s a surprise.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“You just look a little . . . uh, sorry . . . lovesick.”
I chuckled, careful not to wake Z up. “No, I haven’t dated here.”
“And you seem different. Do you still want to convert to Buddhism?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seriously thought about it for a while.”
“You seemed really happy about it when I met you. And how are your Taekwondo lessons?”
“I gave him up. Uhhhhhh, it. I gave it up.”
“Because I just had to,” I said through my teeth. I nudged his knee with my foot. “Anyway, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m way stronger than I look.”
Sniggering, he asked, “How tall are you?”
“Tall enough to kick your ass.”
“Just tell me this: Was he Canadian? American? The guy you fell for?”
“You mean, my fake naval officer-computer programmer-boyfriend?”
He laughed softly. “The guy you’re in love with.”
I rolled over, turning my back to him. “I have to wake up early.”
“Korean? Hey, Pia,” he whispered, reaching over and pushing the back of my head. “Was he Korean?”
I buried my head under my blankets and feigned sleep.
He shoved me one more time before giving up. “Happy twenty-fifth,” he said.
“You wished for him, didn’t you?” M had asked me on Thursday night. We’d had a drink at a little pub near our apartment, and I was gazing up at the sky, holding on to her for support.
“No. I wish I could speak Korean.”
“You know enough to get along.”
We sat at a bus stop to rest our feet for a moment. She pulled me close and I rested my head on her shoulder.
“I put my gold shoes away,” I murmured as the sound of frogs and insects enveloped us. “You know, those ballet flats I used to wear all the time. He loved those . . . every time he saw them, his eyes would light up.
“‘Pia!'” I laughed, lowering my voice, “‘Shoes! Pretty!’ And he would give them two thumbs up. That always made me laugh. Like, I couldn’t understand why these shoes were so amazing. And then I wore them so often, the paint came off, and now they’re this shitty brown . . . but even as they faded, I wore them for my classes everyday, just to see him smile.
“And now I can’t wear them anymore. I’ll probably throw them away with tomorrow’s trash.”
“Just give them away,” M said.
I swung my legs back and forth. “I need to give myself away.”
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