Three

Conflict of Interest

 


After her divorce happened, Aera stopped being Aera again. She was deeply emotionally scarred perhaps, that she soon became disoriented and incredibly insecure than ever before. It was then that the calls started coming, the odd, disorganised meetings, late attendances, missing documents and even constant complaints from other executives and third party contractors. Aera would call him about two times a day; after all, he was just a single digit away.

 

“Do you think i’m not right in my mind?” She would ask him and he’d reassure her that she wasn’t. But the emails sent without the relevant attachments and calendar invites outside office hours seemed to tell otherwise.

 

There were a lot of things that he began to suspect. Maybe her divorce was traumatic for her; a phase of a downfall perhaps, and with a little support, emotionally or even spiritually, she would climb back up again. He had known Aera to be as strong as that. Or else, she was developing early onset dementia. 

 

Just six years older than him, Sung Gyu didn’t think Aera was that old to become clinically disoriented. He tried his best to keep her in place, but at times, things simply seemed to get out of hand. He had to intervene too often, when she walked into the wrong room or even walked into the right room only to forget what she was there for. She’d pause mid explanation sometimes, then fall silent. Sung Gyu would pat lightly on her arm as he passed her on his way to the podium and pick up exactly where she stopped.

 

“I’m getting older” She laughed one time when she realised she’d forgotten to respond to an important email from the designer team. And then accidentally approved a design that had no potential and was previously disapproved by other executives. In a matter of weeks, Aera had made more mistakes than one. When things appeared to be going completely out of control, Sung Gyu decided that he should take matters to his hand. He found her alone in her office that evening, sitting on the plush sofa, her face blank, staring into a corner in the darkened room. He had to knock on the wall a few times to get her attention again. 

 

“Oh, Director Kim” She called him upon seeing him, a little startled, followed by a distracted smile.

 

“Do I have some time for a word?”

 

“Of course” She climbed up on her feet as he entered the room. “Coffee?”

 

He didn’t want to spend too long, so he shook his head and sat down on the sofa in front of her. Aera’s been quite sensitive, what with the sudden, unexpected turn in her life. It was dangerous waters that he had to thread through in this conversation. He had to prepare himself first, make up the entire conversation in his mind before he came here. Even then, he wasn’t quite so sure how to go about. After all, it was a terribly sensitive matter.

 

So he simply started with; “How are you doing?”

 

“I’m okay” Aera replied tiredly, the tone of her voice certainly said otherwise.

 

“Did you manage to find an apartment?”

 

It took a second for her to register his question. She stared at him for a second, blankly, and soon she came to, blinking hard. “Oh, um, yeah...yeah, I did…” She reached for her phone. “The lease is about 8 million won...it’s in Ganseok dong, and-” 

 

As she described the housing and the rental process, Sung Gyu took the phone from her and looked through the details himself. 

 

“You said it's for lease” Sung Gyu asked for clarification as he narrowed his eye at the description given below.

 

“Yes, to be leased”

 

Sung Gyu was glad that he’d asked her all about it before she could go forth with the transaction. He reached out and handed her phone back to her. “President Seo, it does not say anything about a lease; the rent, however, is three point five million won…”

 

“Oh” Aera, if anything, looked completely perplexed.

 

“Did you talk to your housing agent about it?”

 

“We did...we met just last night and-”

 

“Are you sure they said it was Eight million for the lease?”
 

Aera eyes him looking disoriented and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Yes” She nodded. “I’m absolutely sure, in fact-,”

 

Sung Gyu sat up, gripping his hands together. “Let’s go and look at the apartment together then”

 

Aera stared down at her phone for a second, looked up at him and blinked. “Why should we, Director Kim? I have already seen it and it was fine”

 

“It’s not the apartment that’s the problem, it's the lease” He patiently explained. If it was not clear enough, it hadn’t really occurred to her if the monthly rent was to be 3 point 5 million won then 8 million for the lease made no sense. Aera wasn’t in the right state of mind to push a hefty transaction on her own. It simply hadn’t occurred to her yet.

 

“What’s wrong with the lease?” Aera tiredly pushed on. Sung Gyu remained quiet for a second, and he quietly observed her. The usually elegant, impeccably dressed Seo Aera’s hair was strangely oily and unkempt, and for the first time he realised that her earring didn’t go well with her pants suit. This was not the Aera that he’d known.

 

“Tell me” He started as he leaned forward towards her. “Are you feeling okay?”

 

“Right now?” She raised her brows. “I am”

 

“You called me and asked me if you weren’t right in you head President Seo”

 

“That was just-,”

 

“Twice” He replied with more emphasis. “And frankly, I am very concerned”

 

Aera fell quiet, her expression unreadable, her eyes distant which worried him even further.

 

“You haven’t been quite yourself the past few days, President Seo” He went on, his voice quiet, concerned if he’d step on the wrong foot. “It’s not only the calls-,”

 

“I’ve just had a divorce, Director Kim” Aera interrupted with a heavy sigh. “I had to leave my house, move in with my parents, move around so much; i don’t know how you expect me to be all through that”

 

He pressed the back of his hand on his lips, looking away. Sung Gyu didn’t think he could understand her, put himself in her shoes and imagine what she was going through. He could remember everything she’d told him that night in Taipei, and he wondered if he’d been wrong about her all along. Seeing her like this, lost and broken and so unlike herself; perhaps the strong and fearless Aera that he’d always known was nothing but a facade. 

 

“It must have been tough for you these days” Aera went on in a heavy, distant tone. “And I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that”

 

He lifted his head and looked over at her. “About what?”

 

Aera finally turned to him and rested her hands on her knees. There was something about the way that she looked at him which didn’t exactly rub off him the good way. 

 

“There’s a job opening”

 

“A what?” He blinked, and for a second, his heart stopped.

 

“Do you know the AP group? Where Mise en scene hair products are from?”

 

“And?”

 

“Their Managing Director is stepping down, and they’ve been having inside politics for a while that they want an experienced outsider to take over”

 

“And why are you telling me this?”

 

Aera was  expressionless when she replied. “I want you to take it over”

 

Sunggyu’s hunch was right. Yet he was confused, why all of a sudden? Why now?

 

“But I didn’t say I was interested” Sunggyu replied sternly. “And nor did i say I wanted to leave”

 

“It’s not you” Aera told him and looked away. There was a moment of quietness, of uncertainty, his thoughts oscillating between anger and fear. “I’m going to sell the company, Sunggyu” She told him in the end. “And I know it’s selfish of me but I don’t want you working here under somebody else”

 

For a second, Sung gyu thought that he wasn’t hearing right. “Sell?” He repeated, leaning in as if the proximity would help him understand her better. “The company? But why?”

 

“You know perfectly well, the reason” Aera replied, carrying herself with a surprising amount of calmness as if what she’d said made perfect sense. Sung Gyu, frankly, didn’t think he could keep sane after hearing that. Ten years of her hard work, ten years of commitment. Was she truly about to throw it all away? Just like that?

 

“No, I don’t know the reason” Sung Gyu replied, not ready to give in. “I understand that it’s been a rough patch for you, but the company’s been doing so well, what is the need for it to be sold?”

 

“So I can finally rest, Sung Gyu” Aera answered tiredly, her eyes dark, exhaustion ever so prominent in her otherwise fine features. “If I sell the company for a good offer, that would be enough for me to last for the rest of my life. I can finally stop running, settle down….have a life”

 

“Is this because of what happened?” He asked her cautiously.

 

“Not only that” She sighed. “You saw how things were the past few weeks...I think there’s something wrong in my head”

 

Sung Gyu pressed both his palms to his face and remained quiet for the longest time. He didn’t know how to respond to that. It was a fact that not only him but so many of the company that had closely worked with her had realised. Her PA had to reorganise everything from the scratch and send constant reminders for her to attend meetings, carry the right documents, and be present on time. From Aera’s side, true, things were pandemonium. But what if it was just a phase? Just her mind reacting to loss, to the sudden changes in her life, compensating to her sleepless nights and relentless thoughts? It should be a natural reaction, should it not? Perhaps, with time and the right amount of support, she could climb back up on her feet again. Until then, Sung Gyu would be more than happy to take over behalf of her, patiently anticipating her return. She was right, everyone needed their break and so she did too.

 

But if he was ever to work here without Seo Aera by his side, Sung Gyu didn’t think he’d have the ability to function anymore. They were unhealthily dependent on each other, though neither acknowledged that. Their relationship was the foundation to the entire organization, and without that, everything would collapse.

 

“Did you ever consider seeing a doctor? Or therapy?” Sung Gyu asked out of his desperation to find a better solution.

 

“I will...once everything settles down” 

 

“What do you mean by everything?”

 

“The company...once we’ve found a potential buyer with a good offer-”

 

Sung Gyu wasn’t thinking straight when he abruptly climbed up on his feet. “Quit it, stop saying that, you’re not selling the company”

 

“But Sung Gyu-,”

 

He walked over to the vast glass panels overlooking the city down below. On fine afternoons, the sky was a breathtaking pastel blue, a tinge of yellow of sunshine which refracted through the glass, creating a beautiful kaleidoscopic effect inside. Standing in that white light, Sung Gyu had often seen her dark, lone silhouette, lost in her dreams. At that moment when he realised that it was possible that he wouldn’t find that mesmerizing sight of her in her room again, he also understood that perhaps he was being heartless, selfish. The biggest reason why he couldn’t let her leave was because he would miss her, he would miss that most significant person in his life.

 

“You could have talked to me” He told her finally, not once moving his gaze from the view down below. “We should have talked about it, like we always did” He finally turned to glance at her, his hands in his pocket. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”

 

Aera still wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Because I knew you would say no” She said.

 

“I probably would,” He agreed. “But we could have talked about a better solution, looked for possible alternatives, anything-,”

 

“I don’t need other solutions, Sung Gyu” Aera exclaimed all of a sudden, her voice breaking, and when she looked at him, finally, after so long, he could see the moisture in her eyes. “Do you think this is an easy decision for me? I’ve thought about it day and night, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t breathe. I felt suffocated, and every time something went wrong, I would blame myself. Every time I see how you had to clean up the mess after me, I hated myself...do you think I could live like this any longer?”

 

“And so you’re ready to give up on everything you worked hard for?” He hit back, throwing his hands in frustration. “Just like that? Aera, this is ten years of your hard work, ten years of brainstorming and sleepless nights and commitment, how could you-?” He held himself back at that point, because he knew that, the more he’d say, the more hurt she would be. Sung Gyu knew Aera way more than she knew herself. He understood her, although he would never know how she felt. She wasn’t the kind to change her mind easily. If she’d decided on something and set her mind onto it, there was no going back.

 

And for Sung Gyu too, perhaps, it was time that he quit being selfish, quit trying to hold her back. He had always feared if she’d come to a breaking point, ever since the first time that she wanted to sell this away all the many years ago. But now, it has finally come.

 

“I have to do this, there is no other way” Aera said in an endnote. Sung Gyu decided that he too would give up trying.

 

“Fine” He sighed, ran his hands through his hair and closed his eyes. “Fine...do as you please” He walked over to the front door, prepared to flee from the incident. Just as he was about to pull the door open, Aera’s voice held him back.

 

“That’s not what I thought you would say, Director Kim” She told him, and he could almost hear the disappointment in her voice. “Whatever you do, I’m with you. Shouldn’t you say that to me?”

 

Sung Gyu stared down at his hand holding the doorknob, his knuckles turning white. He knew that she would tell him this; because she was right. There was hardly any decision she’d made that he opposed. Because he trusted her, he trusted her with his life.

 

And perhaps, even now, even as they stood on the cliff’s edge of uncertainty, he still did.

 

“You know that I will” He sighed, glancing at her for just a passing second. “Whether I tell you or not, you already know”


 

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