January 1, 2000
Sincheon Boarding House , Seoul
The sun was shining brightly through my window. Opening my right eye I checked my clock to see what time it was. 8:58 am. I can take my time getting up as today is still a holiday. I stretched languidly on the bed and was just about to fall back asleep when suddenly, a montage of last night’s events flashed through my consciousness. I remembered Chilbong coming home, eating ramyun and drinking soju. I remembered laughing and talking to him. My alarm clock buzzed and I was reaching over to turn it off when I saw my stuffed puppy smirking at me.
“Yah, stop looking at me like that,” I said to it accusingly.
Closing my eyes, I tried to fall back asleep. It was then that I remembered walking over to Chilbong and giving him a kiss. Mortified, I quickly covered my face in my hands. As I struggled to get my emotions back in control, images of us kissing by Binggrae’s door reared itself into my thoughts. My eyes snapped open, and I sat up on the bed. And still the puppy sat smirking. “I said to stop looking at me like THAT!”
I was reaching over to grab the toy to give it a piece of my mind when I landed on the floor with a loud thud. “Aishhhhh…” Muttering a curse under my breath, I heard my door open.
“Na Jeong-ah, are you okay?” Omma stood over me holding a spatula. Just as I was about to reply, Appa, Haitai, Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin and Binggrae all came into my room.
“Why are you all here?” I asked.
“We heard a loud noise from the kitchen. What are you doing on the floor?” Appa said. “It’s 9 in the morning and everyone’s awake but you. Get up and get some breakfast! Are you gonna stay in bed all day?”
“I got it, I’m getting up.” I stood up gingerly, rubbing my back. It was then that I spotted someone standing in my doorway taking in all the commotion: Chilbong. He’s dressed like he had just come back from outside. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes were bright.
Omma was making her way towards the door when she saw him. Her mouth opened in shock before she erupted in a cry of joy. “Chilbong-ah!”
At this everyone turned around and Appa walked towards him. “Chilbong? My very own star pitcher? What’s a major leaguer doing in our house? But, is your shoulder okay?”
Our eyes met for one brief second and I looked away. I caught Yoon Jin look at Chilbong, then at me, and felt a flush creep up my neck. Everyone had ushered him out the door towards the kitchen before I could hear his response to my father’s question. As they left I caught my reflection in the mirror. Not believing my eyes, I surveyed myself more closely. My hair, impeccably styled last night formed a frizzy halo around my face. I had a crease on my cheek from my pillow, I’m wearing my oldest pajamas and… is that drool on the corner of my mouth? I stepped back from the mirror, horrified. This will not do… I was the image of a cool woman last night and the first time he saw me this morning I looked like this? I opened my closet, rummaged out a clean pair of clothing and made my way to the bathroom.
“Sung Na Jeong, don’t make me drag you out of bed!” I heard Appa scream.
“I’m just going to wash up and I’ll be right there!” I yelled back as I was closing my door, almost running into Appa who was standing on the other side.
“Gashina, who do you think you’re screaming at right now? It’s Chilbong’s first day back and we’re waiting for you to take our breakfast together!” he said in a stern voice.
“Appa, if you stopped screaming at me and let me go to the bathroom I would be done by now!” I ducked behind his arm and entered the bathroom.
“Aishh… Is Chilbong his kid or am I?” I silently seethed. “And it’s not his first day back. He came back last night! What’s the big deal anyway?”
I quickly washed my face and was drying it when a thought occurred to me. Is he going to remind me what happened last night? Brushing my teeth I wondered if he even remembers that anything happened. Unsure of that answer, I tried to recall whether he too had drunk a lot. What if he says something in front of everyone? I pondered on this while changing my clothes. Shaking my head, I am convinced that Chilbong is too much of a nice guy to do that. But then again, what did he say?
“I’m not the guy that I used to be,” he declared.
“What? What does that even mean?” I muttered as memories of him sucking my lips swiftly came back. “Omo, is he a player now?”
Getting increasingly agitated, I imagined Chilbong surrounded by women chanting, “Chilbong-ah, we love you! Date us!”
I felt my fists clench at my side. Was he just playing around with me last night? Chilbong, you’re a dead man, I thought. With a shaky hand I patted my hair down. Binggrae’s voice interrupted my ramblings.
“Na Jeong-ah are you almost done? I need to use the toilet!” Binggrae said.
“Yes, sorry.” I said sheepishly while opening the door. I rushed back to my room and dropped off my dirty clothes before walking in the kitchen.
My Omma is known for cooking large meals, but surveying the veritable feast on the table, I concluded that she managed to outdo herself today. There was fresh fried fish, noodles, at least five vegetable sides, cabbage kimchi, radish kimchi, and grilled beef. I sat down on the empty chair beside Omma. Chilbong, who brought the dakgalbi to the table, reclaimed his seat to my right. Offering my parents a serving, he put his hand on the table, unknowingly touching the edge of mine. All of a sudden my whole body felt warm and my throat felt parched. I drank my water until my cup was empty. Feeling Chilbong’s gaze directed at me, I avoided his eyes by focusing on his hand instead, the one that was almost kind of touching my hand. How can such strong hands feel so gentle touching me? I was about to daydream when Appa’s voice brought me back to reality.
“Wow, Chilbong I’m so happy you’re back!” Appa looked at Chilbong with a disgustingly loving look in his eyes. “We watched you on television getting interviewed in Japan. Yah, that reporter was pretty! Do all Japanese women look like that? I hope you dated a little when you were there!” Omma nudged Appa with a glare and he smiled at her.
“Yes, Coach-nim, there were some beautiful women in Japan, but none that looked as pretty as Omoni,” he replied. Turning towards Omma, he added, “Omoni, I hope I didn’t trouble you coming home unannounced.”
“Well we were just gonna have some fish and rice, but today’s a special occasion! I feel like one of my sons have come home from the army!” Omma said, smiling at Chilbong. Looking at the moony way my Appa and Omma were gazing at him I am even more convinced he’s become a lothario. He certainly knows how to charm men and women.
Japan? Beautiful women? That’s it, I decided. I hate Japan. Not feeling much of an appetite, I pushed my food around on my bowl. I had just taken a big spoonful of rice when I heard Haitai’s voice.
“Na Jeong-ah, did something happen? You’re not eating, you look flushed and your lips kind of look weird,” he commented.
I started coughing, choking on my rice. Covering my mouth, I felt Chilbong patting my back. I waved his hand away and spoke to Haitai.
“What? I’m fine. My face is fine and my lips are fine. What do you mean weird?”
Haitai paused before responding, as if thinking of the right thing to say. “I just meant that your lips kind of look swollen. And with your red cheeks, it could be an allergic reaction or something. I knew someone before who got stung by an insect and their lips swelled up so badly they couldn’t eat for days. You should get checked out by a doctor if it doesn’t get better.”
I glared at him and gave him a swift kick under the table. He mouthed “what” at me as I stood up to get some more water. Standing by the sink, I felt Chilbong behind me. He casually placed his hand on my shoulder as he reached over me to get a cup for himself. All at once I felt prickles of awareness where his touch had been. Then just as casually, he walked off and went back to his seat without speaking to me. What’s with that? He’s really become a player.
“But Chilbong, when did you get back? I didn’t see you this morning when I got up” I heard Samcheonpo ask.
“Ahh, I came back late last night,” Chilbong responded as I sat down. “I ran for two hours this morning. It’s off season but can’t really slow down with my training.”
“So you and Na Jeong were together last night then? She didn’t go with us to Jongno. What did you guys do?”
“If by together you mean that we were in this house then yes, okay, we were together! ” I answered vehemently. “I don’t know why you’re all so nosy this morning anyways! You don’t hear me grilling you about where you were, who you were with and what you were doing!” Everyone around me looked on with a curious stare. Yoon Jin kept blinking at me, as if wondering if I’d gone insane. I refused to meet her eyes and carried on eating.
“We talked, ate ramyun and went to bed.” Chilbong calmly said beside me. Changing the topic, he turned to Omma, “Omoni, how did you know radish kimchi was my favorite?”
“Binggrae mentioned it to me before when I was trying to figure out what to send you in Japan. He said you love your mother’s radish kimchi, so I already made some to send to you. But now you’re home so I don’t have to. Eat a lot!” Omma replied.
“Oh that reminds me, wait a minute…” Chilbong stood up, went to his room and came back with two boxes. “Omoni, this is a chocolate cake. Please have it. I remembered it was your favorite.”
I was about to tell him to stop sucking up but then I saw him smile at Omma. Seeing her reaction to his thoughtfulness, I felt myself soften towards him. Even if he was a player, I can’t deny that he makes Omma feel loved.
“Coach-nim, this is yours.” He presented my father with a liquor bottle.
“Twenty-one?” he asked, unimpressed.
Chilbong held up three fingers and replied, “Thirty.”
Appa broke out into a wide smile and started kissing the bottle as Chilbong went back to his seat and resumed his meal. Omma happily stood up and put her cake in the refrigerator. Chilbong sure knows how to make my parents happy. I suppose that’s something to be commended.
“Joon, do your parents know you’re back yet?” Binggrae asked as he sat down next to Chilbong’s chair.
Ah thank God. Binggrae, the voice of reason, is back. I can finally eat in peace.
“Yah Yoon Jin, did you drop this last night?” Binggrae said. Uninterested, I helped myself to some fish and kimchi.
“No, I don’t have earrings like that.”
Spoon halfway to my mouth, I looked over at the object in question. Surely, it can’t possibly be… As calmly as possible, I put my spoon back down and resisted the urge to scream. Maybe no one else will know it’s mine? There are two other women in this house and maybe Omma won’t recognize it.
“No, that’s Na Jeong’s.” Omma said, looking at the earring and then back towards me. “Remember how your aunt sent you that for your birthday? Oh! You’re wearing the other one on your ear now.”
“Did she? Am I? I must have forgotten.” I quickly grabbed it, took off the other earring and put them in my pocket. “I must have dropped it on my way over just now.”
“That’s not it,” Binggrae replied, shaking his head. “I found this right under my doorway before you woke up.” He turned to look at Yoon Jin and continued, “That’s why I thought it was yours, Yoon Jin. Because you and Samcheonpo went into my room before we left. Na Jeong-ah, did you come to my room for something?”
When I looked up, everyone but Chilbong was waiting for my answer. Before I can say anything, unwanted images again flashed through my mind: Chilbong’s hands on the wall… his hand on my neck… his lips devouring mine… Feeling embarrassed and not a little out of control, I finally lost my temper.
“WHAT! DID YOU THINK I WAS DOING SOMETHING BAD AT YOUR DOOR OR SOMETHING? I DON’T REALLY KNOW WHY EVERYONE IS INTERROGATING ME. EXCUSE ME, I AM A GROWN WOMAN AND I LIVE HERE. IF I WANTED TO KI… DROP SOMETHING AT YOUR DOOR, I SHOULD BE ABLE TO!” I stood up and yelled at a stricken Binggrae. Looking all around the table I realized that everyone had gone slackjawed. Next to me Chilbong started coughing violently. Good. Finally a response.
“Na Jeong-ah… of course you can drop anything anywhere you want. Or don’t want. I was just asking.” he said quietly.
I felt sorry immediately. Miserably, I sat back down and wondered if I had really lost my mind. Is it too late to go back to Australia?
“Na Jeong-ah,” Chilbong finally spoke to me for the first time. “Is everything okay? You seem a little on edge.”
“Maybe you are getting sick or something. You’re not acting like yourself,” Appa said.
“Will everyone please get off my case already?” I said through clenched teeth.
At that, everyone resumed eating. Thankfully, no one else asked any more questions. In fact, no one even dared look at me. Except Yoon Jin. I caught her concerned look but turned my eyes away.
The rest of the meal was eaten in silence.
After breakfast I went back to my room. Feeling a little out of sorts, I tried to calm myself down. When I started the day, I thought I’d gone crazy. Well, at least now I know that I’m not wrong. After this morning’s debacle, I’m pretty sure I can find, oh well, at least seven people who will agree with me.
This is the reason that I very rarely lie. The universe has a way of making you pay. On the upside, it couldn’t have gone in any way worse than it did. So from now on, it can only get better, right?
What did I do wrong anyway?
You lied to him, a small voice in my head said.
He’s the one who kissed me!
After you kissed him first.
He intimidated and challenged me!
I hated it!
“Aren’t you on my side?” I burst out.
“Na Jeong-ah, are you in there?” I heard Yoon Jin say from outside my door. When I didn’t respond she said, “I just heard your voice. Can I come in?”
I ran to the door and opened it. She quickly grabbed my arm, sat us down on the edge of my bed and looked at me.
“Sung Na Jeong, what happened last night?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I answered.
“So… You mean to tell me that you were like that this morning because nothing happened.”
“What was I like? ”
“One word: psycho. And you kept zoning in and out of the conversation. Almost smiling one second and mad the next. When I asked Samcheonpo to check on you just now, he shot it down because he was too scared to come in! Now what IS wrong?”
I am finding it hard to say the words to Yoon Jin. Humiliated, I stuff my face into my pillow and said, “Chilbong and I kissed.”
“I think I can just about make out what you said,” she replied, taking the pillow off my face. “You and Chilbong kissed?” I nodded.
Yoon Jin just looked at me. “It’s not like you have never been kissed before so what’s the problem?” That was not the reaction I was expecting.
“Well… IkindofliedandtoldhimIwasdrunkandkissedhimfirst.” Again I covered my face.
“WHAT?” Yoon Jin practically yelled. “Why would you even need to lie to kiss Chilbong? It was New Year’s. You could have kissed him without explaining yourself. What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t thinking. It was a spur of the moment thing. I got caught up in the memories!”
“What else?”she asked, narrowing her eyes at me. “You’re not telling me everything.”
“I may have asked him to date me. I think.” I admitted. “But that was only because I saw him walking away from me and I felt like if I didn’t I would die!” Well that was a bit dramatic.
“What are you going to do now?” Yoon Jin asked.
“Nothing. He didn’t answer me. So yeah, we will just forget it. Yes, we WILL forget it.” I waved my hand dismissively. “See? Forgotten already. I am perfectly fine with the way things are. Chilbong and I…” I was interrupted by Chilbong’s voice.
“Coach-nim, Omoni, I’ll be back tomorrow!”
With Yoon Jin still watching, I ran to my balcony and saw Chilbong heading out. Omo, is he leaving? He can’t leave! Feeling panicked, I ran out of my room to catch him before he leaves. I was almost out of the house before I realized I had forgotten my coat.
“CHILBONG!!! WAIT A MINUTE!” I screamed as I grabbed my coat from its peg and ran out the door. Once I stepped outside I looked around and he was nowhere to be found. Following the path that led to the street I spotted him not too far from me. Running towards him, I was almost breathless when I finally caught up to him.
“Yah, Chilbong…” I started, grabbing his arm. He turned around and looked at me surprised. He took his earphones off.
“Na Jeong-ah…” I see him take in my slightly disheveled appearance. I followed his eyes to my feet and realized that I was still wearing slippers. Grimacing inwardly, I took a deep breath and spoke.
“Chilbong-ah, is there anything I need to apologize for? I was drunk last night and I don’t really remember, but if I did anything, I’m sorry.”
He looked at me with an unreadable expression and said, “Nothing happened. So there is nothing to apologize for.”
“So nothing happened? Really?” I responded, narrowing my eyes at him.
“Yeah. Nothing happened.” He took off his gloves and put his hands in his pockets. Giving his gloves to me, he continued. “Go back inside. You’re going to freeze out here.”
Brows furrowed I turned on my heels and started walking back to the house. However my feet seem to have a mind of their own, and I found myself marching back to where Chilbong stood waiting for the bus.
“Are you sure nothing happened? Because I’m remembering things and it’s freaking me out!” I insisted at him.
“Na Jeong-ah, tell it to me straight. What exactly do you think happened?”
“Like I said I don’t remember exactly. But I seem to recall… You… Me… Kiss…”, my voice went softer as I spoke till I was practically whispering the last word. “You kissed me last night! You don’t remember?” The sudden thought that he might have deemed our kiss forgettable made me indignant and I struggled to keep my temper from flaring.
“Hypothetically speaking, IF I kissed you last night, why are YOU apologizing?”
“I think I kissed you first.” I met his eyes directly. “I was drunk,” I added lamely.
“You were drunk?” He looked at me quizzically. “You weren’t winking at me. And you definitely weren’t biting. Are you certain you were drunk?” There was a light of amusement behind his eyes.
I’m convinced he’s laughing at me. The dam finally broke. “Fine I wasn’t drunk!” I crossed my arms in front of me. “I panicked! So I pretended to be drunk! So what? Let me tell you something… I remember EVERYTHING and I just realized YOU should be apologizing to ME! Also were you ever going to bring this up? Or were you just going to let me make a fool of myself?”
Looking around him to make sure no one was looking, he leaned towards me until our faces were almost touching. “Na Jeong-ah, don’t get yourself all worked up,” he said in a low voice. “If you remember everything, then you probably also remember that you insisted you were not yourself and asked me not to use it against you. I did as you asked. And I will never apologize for anything I’m not sorry for. I’m not sorry for kissing you.”
I tried to form some sort of response but my heart latched onto his last line. Dazed, I just nodded in response. Understood. His lips were this close to mine. From this angle I realized that if I just moved my face one inch I can probably kiss him again. Biting his lip, he didn’t change his position. I noted the proximity between us and my body started humming. How is it possible that one kiss had changed our whole dynamic? I was still pondering this thought when I heard the bus approaching.
“Do.. do… do you remember what I asked before you kissed me?” Seeing that he was about to protest, I amended my question, “Ah… I meant… I meant before the kissing started. Do you want to date me?”
The bus came to a stop. Chilbong took one step onto the bus before he turned and gave me a reply.
I watched as he made his way to his seat and sat down. The bus rolled away before I even had time to process his response. I put Chilbong’s gloves on as I walked back to the house. They were still warm from his hands. I couldn’t contain the fluttering in my heart thinking that my hands are where his hands were.
When I went back to my room, Yoon Jin was still where I left her. Looking me up and down, she merely raised her eyebrow at me. I smiled at her and sat down.
“Yah, chinggu, I’m cool right? Did you see how I ran over to Chilbong and confronted him?” I put my hand over my heart and said smugly. “Wow, Sung Na Jeong, you’re an impressive woman.”
Yoon Jin asked, “Did you tell him that you weren’t drunk?”
“Of course I did. I also demanded an apology!” When Yoon Jin looked down, I said, “Yah… it’s okay. I wasn’t too hard on him so don’t think I hurt Chilbong’s feelings.”
When she lifted her face, I saw that she was shaking her head at me. “Na Jeong-ah. Tsk tsk tsk. Did you eat something bad in Australia or something? You just practically admitted to the man that you were making excuses up to kiss him. Aigoo, I thought you were a cool woman!”
“Yoon Jin-ah I didn’t!” Thinking back on the conversation, I am not entirely sure I didn’t not admit that, but I would just about say anything to erase the look of abject disappointment on Yoon Jin’s face.
“Well at least you didn’t ask him to date you again.”
I think I might have? At my silence, Yoon Jin inferred that I must have done exactly that. Still shaking her head, she stood up and made her way to the door. Before she left the room she took one more look at me with pity in her eyes.
Cringing at myself, I lay back down on my bed and wondered how it could be that my life has been flipped upside down while Chilbong was still so collected. It used to be that I could read him by just looking at his face. Now it feels like I am dealing with a completely different man. I’m not sure if that makes me happy, but I can’t help but wonder what he’s thinking. Maybe he doesn’t want to date me… but then again he didn’t say he didn’t. Maybe he doesn’t like me anymore? But he didn’t say that either. My inner monologue was interrupted by Omma’s voice.
“Na Jeong-ah! You have a phone call!”
January 2, 2000
Chuckling to myself I thought of Sung Na Jeong as I drove to Wonju. My high school hyungs are playing a game and I have been invited. Thinking that I probably needed time away from the boarding house, I agreed to see them play. The two hour drive gave me time to think and reflect on the ongoings on in the last two days.
I woke up at 6 am yesterday with a smile on my face. With barely three hours of sleep I paced back and forth and waited for the sound of Na Jeong’s door opening. During that hour of waiting, I had to stop myself multiple times from knocking at her door. Not wanting to appear over eager I decided to go for a jog instead. I had so much energy that my intended hour jog turned into two.
Arriving back at the boarding house I noticed that no one was around. Tiptoeing my way to her room, I was surprised to see everyone gathered there. I had planned on speaking to her first before anyone saw me, but that possibility went out the window with everyone congregated around her. I hadn’t even said good morning before I was ushered away.
Being back at the boarding house is the closest I have ever felt to be a part of a family. The way Na Jeong’s parents treat me makes me feel valuable and loved. Samcheonpo, Haitai and Yoon Jin are like siblings I never had. And Binggrae is my closest cousin… he and I have always had a special relationship since young. I knew that no matter the circumstances, he will always have my back. I loved all of them, but at that moment I REALLY wanted to speak to Na Jeong alone. I wanted to dispel any feelings of awkwardness before they even surfaced.
Before breakfast, Haitai went to my room and gave me my cap. He didn’t say anything, just that he found it on the stairs but it was enough to bring back memories of Na Jeong pressed up against me with her lips on mine. Feeling a little shaken, I was unsure of how to proceed with her at breakfast. But when I saw her swagger her way into the kitchen, I felt the need to rattle her a little bit. I can’t help it. Na Jeong looks adorable when frazzled and befuddled. And so I kept quiet, only directing conversation with everyone but her. When I accidentally touched her hand, I had to place mine firmly on the table to keep it from shaking. When I saw her getting more water I dropped my then empty cup onto the floor to make an excuse to get a clean one from the kitchen. Finding an excuse to touch her I reached for the farthest cup on the shelf so I can place my hand on her shoulder for balance.
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be the reason for Sung Na Jeong’s mental breakdown. At the breakfast table. With everyone watching. She has always had a bad temper, but during that morning, she tore apart anyone who even asked her a question. I almost choked at her reaction to Binggrae asking her about her earring. I thought she was gonna grab him and shake him as she was yelling. I made a mental note to buy Binggrae something extra special for his birthday this year.
It’s not that I’m sadistic and enjoy seeing her in obvious distress. It’s just that in all the years I have known Na Jeong, this was the very first time I have seen her completely unraveled. Not even when she was pursuing Sunbae did I see her this out of control.
Giving myself a mental shake, I remembered walking out the house with my headphones on. It then surprised me when she showed up at the bus stop. Hair mussed from the wind, cheeks pink from the cold, it took everything I had not to grab her and hold her close. I had to put my hands in my pockets just to ward off temptation. It didn’t surprise me that she was still insisting she had been drunk. When she knew she wasn’t. And I knew she wasn’t. And I’m pretty sure she knew that I knew she wasn’t. But Sung Na Jeong is nothing if not stubborn and I had a feeling she was going to stick to her story until the end. Looking endearingly flustered she said the word kiss like we had done something illegal and asked me again if I wanted to date her.
I heard someone say once that ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result every time.’ I am far from being insane, so the new me will approach this thing with Na Jeong with a different strategy. Throw her a curveball when she’s expecting a fast ball.
What am I to her? Am I a spur of the moment decision? Am I her rebound? Not liking the direction of my thoughts, I was relieved to see that I’ve arrived at my destination.
As I exited the car I saw a familiar face in the parking lot. “Jang Hoon hyung! Long time no see!”
“Joon-ah!” He greeted me warmly with a hug. “I heard you were back from Japan. Did Sang Min call you too?”
“Yeah. Where is he anyway? Are they in the locker room already? ”
“No, that’s their bus pulling up now.”
I watched as the Daejeon Hyundai Gullivers’ bus came to a stop. One by one the players started filing out and Sang Min hyung came into view. He saw me and waved.
“Joon-ah, I’ll talk to you after the game!”
“Okay hyung! Fighting!”
I followed as the other spectators went into the stadium. While waiting for the game to start I noticed a few familiar faces in the crowd from our university days. Being here brings back memories of Na Jeong and her devotion to Lee Sang Min. I had to hold back a laugh remembering how I had called the hyungs with the hopes that Na Jeong may speak to him and she clammed up and hid. I looked up as soon as the players entered the court. Then a familiar voice rang in my ears.
“OPPAAAAAA! NA JEONG IS HERE! GULLIVERS! GULLIVERS! OPPA! SANG MIN OPPA!”
For a moment I wondered if I thought of Na Jeong so much I am now hallucinating her voice. But when I followed Sang Min hyung’s gaze to where the commotion was coming from, sure enough there she was: Sung Na Jeong. This game just became more interesting.
Throughout the first quarter I alternated between watching the game and watching her. Her ever changing expressions amused me to no end. She was magnificent. She showed so much passion I couldn’t help but be captivated.
In the middle of the second quarter an overly vocal fan of the opposing team started insulting Lee Sang Min. I watched with concern as Na Jeong stood up and started screaming with more fervor. I worried that she might get herself into an altercation and I might have to intervene. When I heard her voice crack on one of her screaming rants, I decided that enough was enough. I knew what I had to do.
By the time the halftime was done, I had already changed seats. Before she could even begin her relentless cheering I tapped her on the arm and handed her a loudspeaker that I had borrowed. She muttered thanks without even looking at me. I handed her a bottled water while the players were on timeout. Still, she didn’t acknowledge me. There had been a time when I would have killed to get her to cheer for me this way. Alas, Na Jeong is very loyal and she only had one idol.
When the game ended she handed me back the loudspeaker and finally looked at me. I feigned a frown and saw her beautiful eyes widen in shock as her mouth formed into a cute little “o”. She gave me a sheepish smile as she said, “Bong-ah! What are you doing here?”
Ahhh I’ve missed this. Being in a basketball court, watching Sang Min Oppa play… It takes me back to some good memories. As soon as I saw him step onto the court it was as if a switch turned on and I was just Na Jeong the fan girl. Free from the repercussions and responsibilities of adulthood.
My throat was hurting by the time the third quarter began. There were some especially loud fans here tonight for the home team. Don’t worry Oppa! I will cheer you on! I was so focused on the game that I didn’t even bother looking at my Samaritan when they handed me a loudspeaker. I was nudged and a water bottle came my way. My fan girl friends really are the best. We take good care of each other.
After the game I turned to my right and handed the loudspeaker back to my friend when I saw Chilbong looking at me with a frown. Trying to contain my shock at seeing him here, I closed my mouth and smiled.
“Bong-ah! What are you doing here?”
He took the loudspeaker and said, “I was invited. What are you doing here?”
“Why else would I be here? Lee Sang Min Oppa is here.” I put my coat back on and was about to join the crowd departing the stadium when Chilbong took my arm and made a path for me through the throng of people. He held out his arm and pushed people back so I can pass freely. “Yah… How long have you been here?”
“I was here the whole game. I saw you as soon as I heard your voice.” He looked down at my face. “You didn’t even look my way once. Did you think a stranger would give you a loudspeaker and water?”
“I thought it was one of my friends who came with me.”
“Your friends left on the second quarter. When your screams got even louder.”
“Ah, is that right,” I said. Embarrassed, I looked up at him as we exited the stadium. I can’t believe he’s here. “Bong-ah where did you go yesterday? You didn’t come home.”
“I had to go to my Dad’s. My parents didn’t even know I was back yet. I came straight to the boarding house when I came back to Korea.” He smiled at me. “Why? Did you miss me?” he asked jokingly.
“Yes.” I responded. I had already walked ahead a few steps before I realized he wasn’t by my side anymore. Looking back I saw him standing still as if frozen. I walked back to him and took his arm. “Don’t look so scared. It was a joke.”
Inwardly I felt a pang. Does he not want me to miss him? I was speaking honestly but seeing as he seemed uncomfortable I made it into a joke. But I wasn’t joking. Suddenly insecure, I was about to pull away from his arm when he grabbed my hand and placed it securely in his.
We continued walking towards the bus stop in comfortable silence and I found myself wishing it was further. His hand felt so big holding mine. So warm. He loosened his grip and I could feel the callouses on his palm. These hands are amazing, I thought. So much strength, but so gentle as well. So like Chilbong. Yes, I like his hands. When arrived at the bus stop, I felt myself wanting to spend more time with him. There are so many unanswered questions between us, but I am too nervous to ask. As we stood holding hands, I alternated between rejoicing that he’s here with me and worrying as well. Was he coming back home tonight? Was he coming home ever?
“Na Jeong-ah, do you want to…”
“YES!” I answered a little too loudly. People around us turned to look.
“Do you know what I’m even about to ask?”
“It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, yes.”
Linking his fingers with mine he led me down a different street. We finally stopped in front of a restaurant and I looked up to see its name.
“You like crabs right? Let’s go eat.”
Sat across from each other, we waited for our order. Under the table I can feel his knees touching mine and I felt a giddiness sweep over me. I looked at his face and tried to read his expression. I found myself staring at his lips. They look so soft. When I lifted my eyes to his I saw that he’s been watching me watching him. That focus was back in his eyes and I felt my mouth go dry. Will I ever get used to seeing Chilbong this way? Will I ever be able to sit with him and not feel my heart race?
I don’t know how long we sat looking at each other. There were no words spoken but it was almost as if we were talking. Again I felt the familiar hum start on my spine and it made me feel lightheaded. The moment was broken when I heard his phone ring. Thank God. Another minute and I was afraid I would have climbed over the table into his arms. He stepped out to take the call and I pondered how embarrassed I would have been had it been anyone else who caught me at my fangirling best during the game. I was expecting Chilbong to berate me and give me a lecture like everyone else, but he supported me instead. I felt a small smile form on my lips. When he returned, I asked, “How did you get a loudspeaker anyways?”
“Thankfully one of the coaches recognized me and let me borrow it. You should be thankful too… I just saved your voice.” Ice broken, the amusement returned to his eyes and I almost breathed a sigh of relief. My ever growing attraction to him makes me feel like a bipolar person. Yoon Jin still shakes her head whenever she sees me.
“I wish I knew how to drive. It would be so much easier to travel to games if I could take myself there. I was almost late today! When I received the phone call yesterday about the game I was convinced I wasn’t going to make it.” I am not sure if it’s nerves but I am determined to keep this conversation light. Stay cool Na Jeong, I reassured myself. It’s not like you’re on a date.
The food arrived and I was about to tuck in when Chilbong pushed my hand away. Taking one of the crabs, he opened it and put it on my plate. I softened as I watched him serve me first before himself. How could I ever have taken this for granted? Memories of a certain time, with someone else, came to mind. Pushing those thoughts away, I cleared my throat and said, “Bong-ah, should I take the driving test? The place is two hours away so maybe Yoon Jin can come with me… Ah no, she has that internship. Maybe Hai Tai? No he’s working too… Samcheonpo?”
“I’ll go with you,” he interrupted.
“Really?” Unable to contain my excitement, I smiled at him. “You won’t regret it! Just think, we’ll both get our licenses!” He just smiled back, shaking his head. He looked closely at me and crooked his finger. I leaned forward over the table and my heart started beating at the sudden proximity. Omo is he going to kiss me right now? I was about to lick my lips in anticipation when I felt his hand brush off a stray piece of crab stuck on my cheek instead. Looking at me like he knew exactly what I was thinking, I sat back down and drank a shot of soju in embarrassment.
The rest of our meal was spent talking about our experiences; his in Japan and mine in Australia. He mentioned that his friend In Sung and his university baseball manager, Mi Soo, stayed in contact with him during his time away. I told him how hard it was to adjust to Australia. While talking about my time abroad, I caught myself about to mention my broken engagement. Not wanting to delve into that topic, I steered the conversation a different direction. Though his eyes narrowed when I almost mentioned Jung Gook Oppa’s name, he didn’t ask, and I was more than willing to avoid the issue altogether.
We walked out of the restaurant holding hands and waited for the bus back to Seoul. He didn’t let my hand go once, not when we were boarding the bus or when we took our seats. Leaning on his shoulder, I thought how of how nice it was to to be here with him. Feeling myself relax, I fell asleep next to Chilbong while he traced circles on my palm.
Sometimes the best things happen when you least expect it. In trying to avoid Na Jeong at the boarding house I ended up meeting her anyway, somewhere unforeseen and unplanned. Feeling the weight of her head on my shoulder as we travelled back to Seoul, I felt contented. I looked at her hand, tucked into mine, and my heart constricted. She is asleep but there’s a small smile on her face, and I fought the urge to run my hands down her hair.
I looked out the window while she slept. Even while seeing towns and cities pass by I felt like time stood still. I thought back on our conversation at the restaurant and felt a coldness seep into my veins. As I listened to Na Jeong speak of her time in Australia, I saw a shadow pass over her eyes. I waited to hear her mention Jung Gook sunbae’s name. I should have felt relieved that she was so unwilling to speak of that time, but instead I felt only dread.
You don’t have much time left, a nagging voice inside my head insisted. You have to leave again soon. I quieted the voice down and told myself to just enjoy the moment. There are no guarantees in anything, and we’re just having fun. Or so I kept reminding myself.
When we finally arrived home, I gently woke her up. As we walked she held on to my hand tightly. I couldn’t stop myself from stealing glances and taking in how happy she looked. I reluctantly let her her hand go, and tried to send her into the house first. “Na Jeong-ah, you go in first.”
“Aren’t you coming in?”she asked, brows furrowed.
“No. I have to do something first.” I don’t suppose I should mention that I had driven my father’s car to the game and that I now had to take the bus back so I can drive it home. A man has to do what he has to do. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Na Jeong looked at me suspiciously, as if she didn’t believe I’d be back. “I’ll come home later, I promise.” I said.
Afraid she was going to ask me what I had to do and unwilling to lie, I turned away quickly and started to walk away.
“Bong-ah, wait,” Na Jeong said.
I turned around just in time to catch her as she flung her arms around my waist. Surprised, I could do nothing but hold her close. I smelled her hair and felt her warm breath on my chest. I tightened my arms around her and savored the feeling of her body against mine.
“Thank you for today,” I heard her muffled voice say as she burrowed into my coat.
As she was pulling away, I looked at her still sleepy eyes and breathtaking smile. For a brief moment I forgot where I was. I had to remind myself to breathe and I could feel my heart pounding. I quickly snapped back to the present and bid her goodnight quietly.
Even after her shadow faded and I saw her bedroom light come on, I stayed standing at the same place. Gazing at her window, it felt like somewhere inside me something shifted. I realized at that moment that despite my best effort to protect myself, I had already headed down the slippery slope. Spending time with Na Jeong and being with her only brought to light the fact that I never really moved on. In fact, those feelings have only gotten stronger with time. With one last look towards the boarding house, I quickly left.
I was preoccupied as I waited for the bus back to Wonju. You worked so hard for so long to forget her but now this? After one day? Whatever happened to keeping it cool? I silently scolded myself. How can you fall in love with the same woman twice? Maybe you really are an idiot.
January 16, 2000
Sitting on the bus back from Jeonju I thought about the last two weeks. As he promised the night of the basketball game, Chilbong did come home. I don’t know what he had to do that took so long but I had already fallen asleep by the time he returned.
I had to stop myself from giggling out loud recalling how his hand sneaked under the table to take my hand at breakfast. I was perfectly happy to eat with my left hand the whole meal. Following that, he often knocked on my door in the morning before his jog to ensure I’m awake for work. On one occasion, the morning after I mentioned that I had forgotten to eat due to work, I found a few rolls of kimbap placed in my bag with a reminder not to forget to finish them. We sneaked hugs when we thought no one was looking and sat together whenever the opportunity presented itself.
We managed to spend practically every waking moment away from training (his) and work (mine) together. It became increasingly difficult to find places to go where we had no chance of running into Omma, Appa, Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin, Binggrae or Haitai. I would have had no problem with it, but I wasn’t sure how Chilbong would react. So like today, I treated our driving lesson like a date. Whereas I passed all the exams at my first try, unfortunately for him, he failed. Thrice. So we have to keep going back which was a blessing in disguise. The bus seems to be the only place we can hold hands without feeling self conscious. I liked having these hours just between us. When he mentioned to me that he was leaving for the US in three weeks, I knew we had to enjoy the time we have left together.
We were doing everything couples do. Except we aren’t a couple. To this day Chilbong hasn’t said one word about dating. Part of me feels relieved. With him leaving again soon, I felt no pressure to define what we are. It is what it is, I thought. I am done being the person that worries all time about the future. I’ve learned that even with the best plans that nothing is guaranteed.
“Oh! Is this the time now?” I said while glancing at my watch. “I don’t think we will have time to eat. It’s almost time for the movie.” That morning Haitai had informed us about receiving free movie tickets and we all agreed to meet up after our driving lesson. Samcheonpo and Yoon Jin are currently fighting, but Binggrae promised he would be there as well. Hearing my stomach growl, I suggested, “Should we just eat some bread then?”
Chilbong turned to me and shrugged his shoulders. “Sure. There are a lot of bakeries in Jongno.” He paused as if thinking. “Ah right. I found a really good bakery when I came back to Korea.”
“Really? What’s it called?”
“But it has a really unique name, you know. It sounds like some kind of dinosaur too.Ttous…. Ttous les jaurus.” He looked unsure as to its pronunciation and was writing it out on my palm as if to read.
“What was that?” I blinked at him a few times. I have never heard of a bakery that sounded like a dinosaur.
“Well it’s something like that. Ttous les jaurus,” he responded.
“Ttous les jaurus?” I echoed back. “It sounds like it’s from Europe too.”
When we arrived at the bakery I saw its name. Tous les Jours. I almost burst out laughing but controlled my expressions, “Is this it?”
“Yeah… It isn’t called that?” He looked so awkward while waiting for my answer.
“No you’re right. That’s what it’s called. Joon-ah, go buy me some bread there.”
“Na Jeong-ah, what do you want?”
Unable to help myself, I responded with a serious expression. “1 tyrannosaurus, 2 kentrosaurus, 4 ammonites… No, never mind. Just get me a Jurassic Park set.”
“Oh, okay. A Jurassic Park set.” As he walked in I started laughing to myself. Sometimes the old Chilbong I knew still made an appearance. Often in very endearing and amusing ways. A few minutes later he came back out with a bag. “Let’s go.”
“What did you end up getting?” I knew for a fact Tous les Jours does not sell dinosaur shaped breads.
“The Jurassic Park set like you asked,” he said while handing me a piece. I looked at it closely and damn if it didn’t look like a dinosaur. I was still thinking about how he managed to get his hands on this when I noticed people turning towards our direction.
“Yah, Joon-ah, put your cap low. People will recognize you.”
He did as I asked without question. I would have to be blind not to notice that he commands attention everywhere he goes. He used to be recognized, of course, but now everyone knows him. He takes it all in good stride but I don’t want him unable to enjoy his life because people won’t stop bothering him. We continued to eat until we saw Haitai approach us with his girlfriend, Ae Jung.
“Na Jung-ah,” I heard Hai Tai say.
Acknowledging Hai Tai with a smile, I greeted Ae Jung warmly. Hai Tai looked at her with a smug smile, pointed at Chilbong and said, “I told you it wasn’t a lie, right?” As recognition grew on her face she looked at Chilbong in surprise. “I’m a big fan.”
“Ahh. I heard you guys met again before the Millenium,” Chilbong said. “Us too.” I looked at him suddenly. His voice was so casual so I couldn’t decipher if there were any hidden meanings behind it. Did he just compare us to Hai Tai and Ae Jung like we were a couple? Omo. That has to mean something right?
Before I could ask him what he meant, Haitai has already gone into the cinema. When I asked about Binggrae, Haitai told me that he and Jin Yi decided on another film. Chilbong and I followed and we soon took our seats. Sitting with Ae Jung to my right and Chilbong to my left, I noted with a slight tinge of envy how openly affectionate Hai Tai and Ae Jung were. They were able to nuzzle each other and keep their heads close even as other people watched. When will Chilbong and I be able to do that?
I looked over at Chilbong and he was speaking to someone on his left. Huh. I didn’t there was anyone here that he knew. Their brief conversation was so low I didn’t get to hear any words. Soon the movie started. As soon as the lights dimmed I felt a familiar hand grab mine. I turned to him and smiled.
As soon as I felt a tap on my shoulder I knew it was no stranger asking for something random. It had been a reporter confirming that it was me. I tried to be respectful but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about the situation. I don’t mind people nosying about my life. I expected that when I have a well publicized career. But Na Jeong doesn’t need that, and I will do everything I need to do to shield her from it.
Na Jeong and I spent so much time together in the last two weeks that you would think the novelty would have worn off by now. However with each passing day I realize that my feelings have just become more and more serious. I frowned as I thought about my impending departure.
We still never spoke about what we were to each other. I didn’t want to jinx what we had so I didn’t bring it up and she didn’t seem bothered either way. It worried me to realize that I had wanted her to ask. The Na Jeong from years ago would have told me to tell her exactly what I thought of her and where this was heading. But then again the Na Jeong from years ago was in love with someone else. At this thought I felt a heaviness settling around my heart. She still hasn’t brought up that topic. Sometimes even as I held her close, I felt like she was still a million miles away. She used to be the most transparent person I knew, but now there are times when I can’t get a read on her emotions. l tried to ignore it when I see her nervously looking at her phone, or how she turns away when Binggrae mentions Jung Gook’s name. Unfortunately that was an impossible task. Not when the sadness seeps in so suddenly or she clams up and makes an excuse to spend time alone.
I looked at her as she watched the movie intently. I spent the rest of the film lost in my thoughts, unable to concentrate on anything but my fears.
An hour and a half later, we were making our way out of the theater when I spotted the reporter from the corner of my eye. I made an excuse to get away from our group so I could speak to him directly.
“You’re going to write an article about me and her, aren’t you?” I asked.
“She’s your girlfriend though, right?” he asked, insistent.
“Not yet, no.” He looked at me in disbelief. “It’s just me liking her. If, at any point we become official, I will tell you first. So I am asking for your discretion today.”
He looked like he was going to say no first. But then he looked at me in understanding and agreed.
When I got back Na Jeong asked me where I had been. I merely told her I got lost going to the bathroom. I saw the reporter watching us from across the way and gave him a respectful bow. He bowed back in return. Turning back to the group Hai Tai kept wiggling his eyebrows suggestively at me as the girls were talking about getting something to eat. Hint received. Since it was also late, I told Na Jeong we have to go home and to leave the couple alone.
Finally alone ourselves, Na Jeong snaked her arm around my waist as we walked. I put my arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer.
“Na Jeong-ah, do you like the color red or blue?” I asked suddenly.
“I like red.” She paused as if thinking.
“Red?” I questioned. “I thought you liked blue.”
“Yeah, I did like blue, but now I like red.” she said. “Don’t count on that though, I will change my mind again in a few months.”
She was talking about colors, but my heart heard something else. I felt a familiar apprehension at the pit of my stomach and I had to take a deep breath before continuing.
“How about alcohol? Soju, makgulli or sake?” I asked quietly.
“Yah, Joon-ah, are you trying to get me to spill all my secrets? Ah… In the winter I prefer soju. On an autumn day, makgulli is the best and there’s nothing like chilled sake to cool you off on a hot summer day.”
“Do you always change your preferences?”
“I don’t always have to make a choice and sometimes I don’t want to. What I want can change every day. Joon-ah, people are allowed to change their minds.”
Not everyone changes their minds. I didn’t. She seems happy now, but will she change her mind about you too? The voice inside my head asked. I hoped that this time was different, but now I feared that everything was still the same. I became a little boy again, waiting for any sign of acknowledgment from my absent parents. I was transported back to four years ago when falling in love taught me that matter what I do, sometimes it is still not enough. That I am still not enough. I have learned to be happy with whatever was offered to me, no matter how inadequate or small. I was used to being no one’s priority. My parents chose work over me. Na Jeong chose him over me.
But just once I want to hear that no matter the season, the circumstance or what other options were available, that I am the only choice. A long buried insecurity made itself known again. The dread that was firmly lodged in my stomach spread quickly to the rest of my body until I felt almost paralyzed by it.
With Na Jeong unaware of the turmoil inside me we continued to walked side by side on the path to the house when she took my arm and led me towards the back of the stairs, where no one could see us. She took a deep breath and said, “Joon, now that you’re done asking questions, I have one that I’d like to ask. We have spent a lot of time together recently… why haven’t you kissed me again?”
She looked at me directly as she waited for my answer. Surprised by her question I quickly masked what I was feeling. I felt a lump form in my throat and my voice sounded hoarse when I finally responded.
“I want to hear you say it.”
“Say what? That I wanted you to kiss me? I think I just did by asking you, right? Do I have to say it in so many words?”
“Not that.” I paused. “I want to hear you say my name.”
“When? When do you want me to say your name?”
Say it when you’re happy or when you’re sad. Say it when you’re feeling lost or when something amazing happens. Say it when you wake up or when you go to sleep. You can even say it when you’re angry. None of those things matter. As long as when someone asks you who you love, you will just say my name.
Unable to say what was really in my heart, I responded with just one word. “Now.”
“Chilbong,” she started playfully. “Bong-ah.” She stood in front of me and took my cap off. Her eyes growing more serious she started running her finger down my nose. “Joon-ah.” Her finger landed on my lips. “Joon.” Her eyes not leaving mine, she finally said, “Kim. Jae. Joon.”
My lips descended on hers before she even finished speaking. Kissing her with the desperation of a condemned man, I felt her body stiffen in surprise and then soften in surrender. I kissed her for the lonely little boy inside me, the boy whose heart she broke four years ago and the man who is in love with her now. The world disappeared and all I could feel was Na Jeong. I was lost to the smell of her hair and the feel of her lips. She wrapped her arms around my neck and I held her close to me, so close that I can feel all her curves and angles against my body. When I licked her bottom lip she opened her mouth eagerly. I heard her moan when my tongue met hers and a growl escaped my throat when I felt her run her fingers through my hair. Feeling myself losing control, I tried to slow down, but she put her hands under my jacket and I can feel them on my chest, on my back and on my neck. I felt like I was burning up wherever she touched me, and I had to rein myself in when I felt her nails dig into my shoulders. My hands moved restlessly on her back and I felt her shiver when I touched a patch of bare skin on the back of her neck.
I tried to express with my lips all the things that I wouldn’t and couldn’t say out loud. “Na Jeong-ah,” I whispered against her lips. I uttered her name like it was my salvation and my prayer. She tasted sweet, her mouth so giving and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I will never get tired of this. Knowing that I was close to breaking point I forced myself to pull away. When I opened my eyes I saw her looking at me with a shaken look in her eyes. With her hair still mussed from my hands and her lips bruised from my kiss, I could do nothing but look at her. My heartbeat was roaring in my ears and it felt like my eyes were looking through a haze.
All the progress I had made in the last few years dissipated, in one fell swoop. The ground felt unsteady under my feet and I had to lean on the post for support. I felt raw and vulnerable, all my fears pushed up to the surface. I realized that I am standing at another precipice in my life and that in falling in love with Na Jeong again, I just gave her the power to break me.
I retreated a step, trying to get away from her,but Na Jeong just kept coming closer. Looking at her I suddenly wanted to ask what she wanted from me. Am I here for this moment or for her lifetime? Before I could even speak she leaned towards me until her mouth was level with my ear.
“It’s after midnight. Happy birthday, Jae Joon-ah.”
This is enough, I thought, trying to convince myself. For now this is enough. For now this is enough.
R1994: A MOMENT’S CHOICE OST Part 2
COLDPLAY “The Scientist”