Seulgi never thought there would come a day she would visit the Chosun Ilbo photo department office at night.
Yoonsoo ushers Seulgi into the alluring world of a junior photo editor’s office : the contact sheets dangling from lightboards, the professional equipment, trays and lenses - but mostly it’s the photos themselves that Seulgi is in awe of.
Candids, crime scenes, sports photos, everything that makes up the visual narrative of a newspaper.
Yoonsoo sits at a desk and sets up dinner, a makeshift array brought from home - wrapped sandwiches, bottles of beer. Seulgi breathes it all in, not daring to touch anything and just looking around in fascination.
“Don’t worry, nothing’s gonna break if you pick it up.” Yoonsoo says with a chuckle then helds up a sandwich in the paper wrap. “Want some?”
Seulgi shakes her head(even though she can never say no to delicious foods, this time is an exception.) and picks up a contact sheet and a magnifier. She glances at the pictures and Yoonsoo watches her while arranging the bottles.
“What are your pictures like?”
Seulgi, still distracted by the photos, picks one of them up but her voice is distinct.
“They’re probably not very good. I don’t know.”
Yoonsoo chuckles at her response. “No I mean, what are they? What do you take pictures of?”
“Trees. Birds. Windows.. Anything, really.” Seulgi replies then picks up the camera. “What do you write about?”
“People.” Yoonsoo says and Seulgi looks at him through a camera lens. A pause surrounds them as he looks up at her. And Seulgi lowers the lens, putting the camera down.
“I always feel funny taking pictures of people,” She leans into the desk on the opposite side of him. “Like it’s some sort of..”
“Invasion of privacy?” Yoonsoo guesses as he hands her the bottle after opening it.
“Yeah.” Seulgi agrees as she takes the bottle.
“Yeah but, all of us, we have, you know - affinities for people, right?”
Seulgi doesn’t answer, instead drinking the beer and pulling a face. And Yoonsoo takes it as a no.
“Or certain people. You like certain people, right?”
Seulgi isn’t sure who he is referring to, but she does ‘like’ her friends. So she nods.
“And others you don’t. And you don’t really know why you're attracted to some people and not others, the only thing you know is - you either are attracted or you’re not. It’s like physics - bouncing off each other like pin balls.”
“So you’re also a scientist?” Seulgi says in a playful manner and Yoonsoo shrugs.
“Just trying to explain why I write about people rather than trees.”
“Sounds more like psychology.”
“Physics is more comforting.”
Seulgi pauses for a moment, then grabs a sandwich.
“Yeah, but.. Not everything is as simple as a bunch of pin balls reacting, or..” She exhales a little, feeling a little light-headed due to the alcohol. “And it’s honestly easy to be attracted. By how they look, what they do, how much money they make and even by the scent of their perfume.”
“Then why do you say it’s not simple?”
“Because.” Seulgi puts down her sandwich on the desk, even though she didn’t even take a bite. “Sometimes it doesn’t just end there. And that’s how it gets more complicated. Whether it is attraction or affection, affection or something more-”
“You mean love, right?”
“Right.” Seulgi laughs to herself, not sure why she is even talking about this with him. “I just think it’s not simple because it’s hard to tell which is which.”
“Well,” Yoonsoo folds his arms. “I think it’s complicated because you think too much.”
“Oh, really?” Seulgi narrows her eyes. “Then tell me, is there a way to know, Mr. scientist-who-loves-physics?”
Yoonsoo laughs. “I mean, it doesn’t need science to know. You can just tell by how someone looks at you and vice versa. But if you want facts,” He takes a deep breath. “If you want to know everything about someone, their past before they met you, it’s an attraction.”
He meets her eyes and Seulgi realizes he is actually sincere about it.
“And if you want someone in your present, it’s affection. And if you want a future with that someone, it’s love.”
Frankly, all three sounded the same to her. But her thoughts stop there when Yoonsoo moves toward her, and puts his hand on her shoulders.
“It’s late.” Seulgi mumbles, feeling her body tensing up but for the least romantic reason. “I should go.”
Seulgi doesn’t know why she lets Yoonsoo kiss her. Of course, she doesn’t kiss him back because all this already felt so wrong. Yoonsoo, noticing her remaining very still, steps back and Seulgi looks down wordlessly.
“You shouldn’t have.” Seulgi says quietly.
“Why? Did you mind?”
“No.” Her voice sounds unfamiliar to her ears, almost lifeless.
“Would Jeongmin mind?”
Seulgi, realizing she didn’t even think of her boyfriend, only feels more horrible.
“Probably.” She reaches for her jacket. “I have to go.”
She hastily gathers her things and walks to the door.
“Come back tomorrow?” Yoonsoo asks a little hopefully. “Or Wednesday?”
“Maybe.” Seulgi shakes her head, still in a daze and puzzled because of what just happened. “I don’t know.”
And she just wants to know which of the three is it, thinking of a particular woman she hasn’t been able to take her eyes off since the first day and now, can’t even take her mind off of her too.
“I have mine.”
Minjun has brought Irene home from the party. And while Irene fishes for her keys, Minjun reaches into his pocket and produces his to open the door.
“Thanks. And thanks for staying sober and driving me home.”
She lightly kisses his cheek as a goodbye.
And she is about to go inside the house but Minjun gently stops her.
“Irene.” He says in a hushed but pleading tone. “Come to my parents’ house for Christmas. We had a nice time tonight.”
“It was one night, Minjun.” Irene says calmly, not wanting to upset him and wake Yeri up who is probably asleep in her room.
“I don’t like the idea of you being alone.” Minjun says, not backing down.
“I’m not alone.” Irene reassures him. “There’s Yeri, there’s J-”
She stops herself but she senses by the crestfallen look on his face that he knows what she was about to say.
“Joy.” He says with a strained clench of his jaw. “There’s always Joy.”
“Joy and I were over long before you and I were over, Minjun.” Irene says, looking straight into his eyes because it’s true. Joy was never the reason for their failed marriage. It was herself. “I’ll have Yeri packed and ready for you at four on Christmas Eve.”
She starts to step inside the house, ending the conversation but apparently it won’t end until her ex-husband decides.
“It shouldn’t be like this.”
And it does hurt her. Minjun will have no idea how much.
“I know.” Irene manages to reply and quietly shuts the door on her ex-husband.
The corridor is dark and quiet as soon as Irene closes the door. And when she makes her way to the living room she sees Yeri asleep on the sofa ; June, sitting on a chair next to the sofa, smiles at her in greeting.
“She wanted to wait up for you.” She whispers as Irene squats down beside her daughter.
“She’s my special girl.” Irene mumbles, brushing a strand of hair away from her eyes and cannot help but smile seeing her daughter’s thumb stuck between her lips. She gently picks her up and carries her out of the room and up the stairs.
Later, Irene lifts a holiday blanket from a small platform in the living room. And she sees the assembled train set, set up behind a couch. She switches on the train and watches it begin its slow route along the tracks as Irene sips at a nightcap.
She stays that way for a long while, thinking nothing but keeping mind of everything at the same time.
“Where’s this place in Gangnam?”
Jeongmin, who is waiting with Seulgi for Irene to show up with her car, asks.
The street is not crowded at all even though it’s early Sunday afternoon. And even though she has only been standing at the entrance of Gwanghwamun Square for ten minutes her cheeks are dusted pink because of the cold.
“The country, I think. I don’t really know.”
“My uncle Sal lives there and he claims it’s pretty dangerous out there at night-”
“I’ll be fine, Jeongmin.” Seulgi says, a little annoyed by how her boyfriend often treats her like a helpless damsel. “I have my cell with me so if anything happens I will call.”
Jeongmin holds up both his hands in defeat. “Okay, okay.”
“Oh, there’s my ride.”
Seulgi immediately holds up her hand after she spots a familiar car coming from the distance.
Jeongmin accompanies her to the car, even opening the door for her and Seulgi gets in, shuts the door, then rolls down the window. He leans down to kiss her goodbye.
“Eight o’ clock?”
“Eight o’ clock.” Seulgi repeats and Jeongmin looks into the car, holds up a hand in polite greeting to Irene sitting on the driver’s seat.
“Hello. Bae Irene.”
Jeongmin leans across Seulgi to shake her hand.
“Lee Jeongmin. Glad to meet you.”
“Likewise. Seulgi speaks very highly of you.”
And Jeongmin seems quite pleased to hear that.
“Well, that’s swell. So you’ll.. get her back safe and sound?”
Irene just smiles, and salutes her assent. Seulgi is slightly embarrassed, feeling like a child who is sent on a field trip alone leaving her worried father behind.
He leans into the car and touches his girlfriend’s chin lightly.
But Seulgi has already rolled up the window as the car starts to go.
The two women make their way across town, as a cool wintersun combs through the car windows.
To Seulgi, the world inside Irene’s car is a revelation, from the tan leather upholstery and mahogany dashboard to the effortless style and elegance of its driver. The sound around her - even Irene’s occasional chatter - have been replaced with the gentle piano playing all Christmas carols and the sound of air and light.
The presence of this older, sophisticated woman, who wears silk stockings and expensive perfume, is intoxicating and unnerving in equal measure. Even Irene’s purse, which rests beside Seulgi on the seat, is quite unlike anything she has seen or examined so closely, full of make-up with brands Seulgi can never afford and fragrances. From there her eyes wander down to Irene’s legs, clad in silky stockings. Glancing down at her own legs, wrapped in sensible wool tights, Seulgi wonders if she will ever be the kind of woman who owns such a car and wears such clothes and make-up.
“I think I see snow.” Irene says out of the blue, looking straight ahead. Then she briefly glances at Seulgi with a smile. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
And Seulgi, her clouded thoughts suddenly gone, smiles back.
She finds herself watching Irene again, from her expensive fur coat to her hands smoothly moving the wheel.
“I love the snow.” Irene says. “Makes it feel like Christmas, don’t you think?”
To Seulgi, Christmas was just another busy day in the department store. More picky customers, more wailing children sparing her no mercy.
But now, she is looking out the car window, wondering if it will snow soon and hoping it will. And indeed, it does feel like Christmas. The soft carol, afternoon sunlight just warm enough for her to not feel threatened by the chilly air and most of all, those soaring wings of butterflies in her stomach, giving her an unknown feeling of anticipation like a child waiting for Santa Claus.
“Yes.” Seulgi finally replies, looking out the window and thinking that even this old city would be a pleasant sight to see if covered with snow. “It does.”
It’s a shame she doesn’t notice Irene has been staring at her longer than three seconds as the car enters the tunnel, and even the green fluorescent lights surrounding the dark made it feel like Christmas.
At a Christmas tree lot, Seulgi sits in the car loading her camera with film. She looks up after she’s done and spots Irene outside, helping a man tie up their tree, a large Doug Fir.
Without thinking, Seulgi pushes open the car door, instantly feeling the cold washing over along with the snow but she doesn’t mind it at all. Leaving the car door open, she holds up the camera, aiming it at a particular woman who just finished helping and rearranging her coat. The camera shutter clicks but Seulgi still holds the camera, trying to take another shot, too absorbed in the view in front of her to realize she just took a picture of a person for the first time.
Irene briefly looks at her before turning away, then flips her wavy hair that was almost covering her face due to the strong gust of wind. She runs her fingers through her hair, trying to tidy her disheveled hair and Seulgi clicks her camera again as she does.
She thought Irene looks more beautiful that way.
After half an hour, they reach Irene’s house, with the Douglas Firlaid across the front and back seat between Seulgi and Irene.
Seulgi loves the feeling of the needles against her skin, the way it smells, the way she knows that Irene is beside her even though she can’t see her properly.
The car comes to a halt in front of the house. And just as Seulgi guessed, it’s a big house, a bigger house than Seulgi has ever been. Irene turns off the engine.
“You still with me?”
“..Yes.” Seulgi replies after a short pause, her eyes still glued on the grand house as if she’s in an amusement park.
She is about to get out of the car along with Irene who opens the door. Then she sees the front door of the house open with a groan and a little girl sprints out with her maid beside her.
“Hello, my darling.” Despite Irene’s petite figure, she lifts the small girl in her arms, giving her a light peck on the forehead. “Guess what I brought you. I’ll bet you’ll never guess.”
“Is it blue?” Yeri asks curiously and Irene shakes her head as they make their way inside. “No, it’s green.”
And Seulgi follows, already feeling the warmth inside the house.
Much to the maid, June’s dismay, Seulgi insists on preparing their tea and cookies since she felt bad she came empty-handed.
She can hear Irene and her daughter’s chatter coming from the living room as she pours hot water in the small silver kettle and even though she still feels a little overwhelmed by how vast this place is, it feels welcoming. Warm and peacefully merry.
Seulgi picks up the tray and goes over to the table where the cookies are on the plates. She puts down the tray to grab a few cookies and chances a glance over the living room, watching Irene set up a ladder beside the tree.
“Where’s the star?” She gently asks her daughter and Yeri roots around in the pile of ornaments and easily finds it, proudly holding up a shining gold star.
“This one, mommy!”
“That’s my girl.” Irene says with a soft laugh and ascends the ladder to place the star at the top of the tree.
“What do you think?”
Yeri, quite serious about this matter, carefully looks around the tree then up to the gold star.
“Good.” The girl confirms with a satisfied nod. “But I think we need.. This one’s bright.” She picks up a glittering red ornament with a small cone on it. “And we can put it right here.”
Irene descends the step ladder and joins Yeri with a dramatic gasp.
“Now that is the most beautiful Christmas tree in the whole wide world.” She takes Yeri into her lap, admiring the tree glittering red and gold.
“And now.. what comes after the star is placed?”
“More stars!” Yeri chirps and Irene tickles her with a grin.
“I dont.. think.. so!”
Seulgi realizes she has been staring for too long when June steps in the kitchen.
“You find everything you need, miss?”
Seulgi, startled, turns to see June standing at the rear of the kitchen near the back door.
“Gosh, you scared me.”
“I’m sorry, miss.” June says politely but she doesn’t sound sorry at all. “I’ll take that through for Mrs. Bae.”
And June picks up the tray, walking through to the living room leaving Seulgi behind.
Evening comes quickly after they had their tea and while June is reading Yeri a bedtime story, Seulgi sits at the piano. She silently admires the sound of fire crackling in the fireplace and the rustling sound of Irene trying to wrap the train set seated under the tree.
Then Seulgi starts to improvise, jumping from one bit of a tune to another, playing a gentle melody. A half-empty bottle of white wine and a couple of glasses standing nearby.
“Were those pictures of me you were taking? At the tree lot?”
At that question, Seulgi stops playing, silence staying between them as she turns her gaze from the black-and-white keys to the woman looking at her questioningly.
“I’m sorry. I should have asked.” Seulgi says in concern, her hands on the piano automatically held down and gathered in shame.
“Oh, don’t apologize.”
“I've just been trying to..” Seulgi nervously puts her left hand back on the keys, not being able to look at Irene while talking. “A friend of mine told me I should be more interested. In humans.”
Irene giggles softly, amused by the way Seulgi says ‘Humans’ as if they’re other living beings different from herself.
“And how’s that going?”
“It’s going well, actually.” Seulgi says with a small grin.
Seulgi puts her other hand back on the keys and starts to play ‘Easy Living.’. Her father used to sing that song when he was in a good mood, swaying left and right, singing the lyrics he knew by heart.
‘Living for you is easy living. It’s easy to live when you’re in love.’ He would hoist six-year-old Seulgi up and spin her around. ‘And I’m so in love. There is nothing in life but you.’.
Seulgi still remembered her father looking ever so jolly and happy and when it snowed at that moment, it all felt like a present.
That song became one of her favorites after that. As soon as she learned the piano, she begged her teacher to teach her to play this song. And she would always play for her father whenever she came home. Even to this day.
Which also meant she is confident with her skills when it comes to this song. And Seulgi finds herself feeling nervous and giddy, hoping Irene will be somewhat impressed or find pleasure.
She feels like a 14 year old all over again, wanting a particular person to notice her, hoping anything she is capable of will make that someone to feel the same way for her.
Irene listens for a moment, and rises when she notices the grim but determined look in the girl’s eyes and her minutely trembling fingers.
She walks over to Seulgi in a gentle pace, not wanting to interrupt the performance.
But she can’t help but graze her hands on Seulgi’s tense shoulders. As she expected, Seulgi instantly freezes, her hands hovering over the keys, taken aback as she feels an odd shudder run through her back.
And even more strangely, she finds it pleasant.
“That’s beautiful.” Irene says and tries to lighten the moment with two quick to her cheek.
Seulgi resumes playing and Irene listens, standing beside her and flipping through the music sheet mindlessly.
“Is that you want to be?” Irene asks, blurting out a question that has been swimming in her head ever since she noticed Seulgi holding a camera. “A photographer?”
“I think so.” Seulgi says, shyly rubbing her palms on her lap. “If I have any talent for it.”
“Isn’t that something other people let you know you have?” Irene starts over to a table by the couch, opens a cigarette box and takes one out. “All you can do is - keep working. Use what feels right and throw away the rest.”
Irene lights the cigarette while giving Seulgi a meaningful look.
“..I suppose so.” Seulgi replies as she finishes the song, watching Irene sit down on the couch, crossing her legs.
“Will you show me your work?” Irene asks and Seulgi can’t help but drop her gaze, staring at the white keys again.
“Sure but.. I mean, I haven’t sold anything. Or even shown a picture to anyone who could buy one. I don’t even have a decent camera. I did plan on buying a better on but..”
Seulgi blinks, finding this situation too unfamiliar to her, someone listening to what she wants instead of asking for her consent. She realizes she never really talked about this to Jeongmin. It wasn’t his fault of course. But he didn’t really encourage her to tell him more about it because his heart was set on having a future with her.
“I never really thought it would be necessary.” Seulgi says, nervously running a hand over her shoulder where Irene touched. “And I thought it would be sad to throw it away and replace it with a new one.”
Figuring that sounded quite ridiculous, Seulgi gives her a sheepish grin.
“I just wanted to appreciate it more. It’s not the best but still.”
“So you never used another camera?” Irene asks and Seulgi nods slowly.
“Jeongmin did offer to buy me one but it didn’t seem necessary.”
“And you’re going to use it until it’s not capable of taking photos anymore?” Irene asks in amusement and Seulgi laughs at that comment.
“Maybe. I just didn’t want to be like people who always search for something new, something better in others’ eyes.”
Flung out of space, Irene can’t help but recite the phrase in her mind. She is indeed different.
“Now I’m more curious about your photos. In all ways.”
Seulgi smiles. “They’re all at my place. Under the sink, mostly.”
Irene returns the smile, holding the cigarette between her fingers.
“Invite me round.”
Their moment is broken by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. The car door opens and slams, Irene rises quickly and marches toward the front door, barefoot since she had only enough time to pick up her heels.
She comes out of the living room and finds Minjun in the entry, restringing the mistletoe.
“Minjun. What’s wrong?”
Minjun, holding his hat in one hand, frowns.
“Nothing. Does there need to be a problem for me to visit my wife?”
Irene doesn’t answer, only sighing a little as she puts on her heels.
Minjun approaches Irene, reaching out to greet her but stops, spotting Seulgi at the piano in the living room.
Seulgi, not sure if she should greet Irene’s soon-to-be-ex husband, just stares back at him and she decides to keep silent(she would have made herself invisible if she could) by the look in his eyes that isn’t welcoming at all.
He looks at Irene and she looks away. The silent but tense atmosphere is unnerving making Seulgi uneasily swallow.
Then Minjun moves past Irene down the hall and into the kitchen, and Seulgi clocks it all as Irene follows him.
Seulgi browses through a book, alone in the living room as she listens to Irene and Minjun conver