January 17, 2000
I was surprised when we came home to see an impromptu party set up in the upstairs sitting room. Haitai was still out, but Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin and Binggrae were all there. Though I was still reeling from earlier, I couldn’t well refuse to celebrate my own birthday. So I sat down and pasted a smile on my face when they sang me a birthday song and presented me with cake. To wind down, we sat around drinking as we always do.
An hour and a half later, Na Jeong was already winking at me. Yoon Jin sat across from her, her eyes half closed. I was about to ask Samcheonpo to help Yoon Jin to her room when she opened her eyes and started pointing at Na Jeong.
“Yah, you bad girl. I know you’re dating. I’m your friend… How can you not tell me? Don’t even try to deny it. I see you giggling to yourself like… Ten… No… A hundred times a day,” she said. Na Jeong didn’t answer but merely rested her head on the sofa.
Even with my horrible mood, I couldn’t help but feel the rush of undiluted pleasure upon hearing that. I was trying to hide my grin when I heard Samcheonpo speak.
“Dating? Ahh… She must be talking to Sseureki Hyung again.” Directing his gaze towards me and Binggrae, he added in a conspiratorial whisper, “You know I just found out that they never really broke up? So that means they’re technically still engaged. I wonder if they’ll actually go through the wedding this time.”
Upon hearing that, I felt rather than saw Binggrae’s concerned look. Saying nothing, I took a shot of soju. Binggrae quickly changed the topic and pretty soon he and Samcheonpo were talking about something else. I stayed silent while I attempted to digest this bit of information. Wondering if this was why she never talks about Sunbae, I questioned if Na Jeong has seen or spoken to him since she returned from Australia. I have so many questions, but all were left unanswered.
Soon thereafter Samcheonpo helped Yoon Jin to her room. I asked Binggrae to help Na Jeong to hers while I cleaned up. Gathering up the empty bottles, I went to the kitchen. On my way back to my room Binggrae grabbed my arm and asked, “Are you okay?” At my silence, he continued. “I’m not sure exactly what is going on with you and Na Jeong, but I do know something is going on. You didn’t know?” I shook my head no. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. This time might be different. Talk to her.”
I couldn’t say anything in response. “Joon-ah…”
“I’m fine, Dong Joon.”
“I got this. Let it go,” I interrupted him.
Seeing that he was about to say something else, I quickly went into my room. Once in the safety of my four walls I sat on the side of my bed. My thoughts jumbled, I was transported back to four years ago.
Na Jeong and I had made plans when I found out that the cold noodle shop we wanted to eat at was closed. Trying to kill some time, I went to a record shop. I was on my way to meet her when I saw her standing across the street. Her eyes looked panicked, upset. I wasn’t sure what was wrong so I stood before her, concerned that something had happened. She burst into tears and wrapped her arms around me. I could do nothing but hold her as she cried. I thought for sure that this marked the deciding shift in our relationship. I felt hopeful once again that she felt more for me than just friendship and that I may have a chance in winning her heart.
Later on while eating, I found out about the department store collapse. Na Jeong was unreasonably anxious, eating too fast then complaining about an upset stomach. I had gone to the pharmacy to get her some medicine but before I can even give it to her she was gone. I saw her happily getting ready for a date with Sunbae and practically skipping her way out to meet him. Her face held an expression that she never had while looking at me. My heart fell as quickly as it rose. The hope that just so recently bloomed inside me floated away so quickly I was convinced I had imagined it.
I know Sunbae. I liked Sunbae. He had lived in the boarding house with Coach-nim, Omma and Na Jeong since they moved from Masan. I thought that he and Na Jeong were siblings until the day I found out they were not. It didn’t matter to me, not then anyway. But as my interest in her grew, I started noting signs that all was not was it seemed. So many times I watched her while she was watching him. Though aware of them, Sunbae showed no signs of reciprocating her feelings, and always behaved like the Oppa that she had grown up with. Out of respect, I told him about my confession. I saw the glint enter his eyes and knew for sure that my road had just gotten rockier. He said that he does like Na Jeong and that he would let her know. Resolve unshaken, a challenge between us was issued.
That they would date was a foregone conclusion. I had hoped that they would date and Na Jeong will recognize that I was the man for her. That didn’t happen. If possible I saw her grow more in love with him, but my path was already set and it was too late for me to back off. Not because I saw her as a prize worth winning, even though she was, but because my heart was already lost and taking it back was no longer an option. I would have been perfectly happy to let it go if I was assured that through being in love and loved by him, Na Jeong would grow. I didn’t see that. Na Jeong in love was passive, unlike the version of her I fell in love with. Na Jeong in love with Sunbae always sacrificed, for reasons way beyond my understanding. Even so I watched and waited, ready to protect her heart, catch it, or do whatever the situation called for.
The last time I saw Sunbae I brought with me a ball. Not just any ball but one that represented my journey as a man. It had been the winning ball from a game against a team I previously lost to. It had been my way of entrusting him with what I treasured most in my life. First baseball and now Na Jeong. I wanted to let him know that whether near or far, I will be watching. Not because she needed a protector, but because she deserved to have a champion. I wanted to make my message loud and clear. Treasure this like I do. Love her like I do. Or else I will take them both. The ball and the girl.
When news of their engagement reached my ears, I fell apart. But by allowing myself the luxury of mourning the end of my first love, I was able to feel liberated once the rubble had cleared. I felt ready to embark on a new future without worrying about my past. Fully prepared to embrace this change I let Na Jeong go from my heart.
First loves are called “first” for a reason. It’s because a second, a third and however many more are expected to follow. When it ends, whether it had been returned or not, it is expected to leave a mark. I welcomed all of these thoughts, comforted by the fact that though the pain had been real, it was not by any means a solitary experience. Everyone has had their heart broken at least once. First loves end every day, in every part of the world. Call it a human rite of passage. A test for one to realize and recognize how much pain a heart can endure if it has never felt that particular brand of pain before.
But now it feels like I am right back where I started. I was naive to believe that I would just see Na Jeong and feel nothing. I was foolish to think I can get involved and be able to walk away without a second glance. I am realizing more and more that though circumstances change people essentially stay the same. I was still lost, forever haunted by my childhood, looking to belong somewhere. I was still lonely, surrounded by fame and success but without anyone to love. I was still broken, picking up the the pieces of my heart while I traveled a path I had been on before. And Na Jeong…
Na Jeong was still someone who valued family over anything else. She was still someone who preferred ramyun to steak. She was still someone who appreciated consistency over change. Given the choice to revert or advance I already know her answer. All at once a woman and a girl, she was a walking contradiction. I know that she won’t intentionally hurt me, but she won’t be able to help it either. Just like that winter four years ago, she will injure me unknowingly, perhaps making it significantly more cruel. The only difference is this time, I will not be caught unaware. I realized that time is running out and made the decision to confront the question head on, whatever the answer may be.
With a heavy heart I looked towards the direction of her door. Am I willing to forge ahead knowing that the odds are still against me? Am I willing to take this chance with my heart? This may very well be the biggest gamble of my life. The characters in the game are still the same, but at least now I am fighting fully cognizant of the probabilities. I have to take this last chance because the reward is great. And if I lose, I can walk away knowing that I had given it my all and finally lay to rest any hope for a future with Na Jeong. I can move on for good, without what ifs and regrets littering my way.
I laid down on my bed and closed my eyes. It was another hour before I fell into a dreamless sleep.
Later in the morning…
Dangling the keys to Appa’s car in front of Haitai and Binggrae, I see them walking off and making excuses as to why they can’t take a drive with me. I am a great driver, I’ll have you know. Or at least I am sure I will be once I get on the road. I heard the door close behind me and brightened. Joon.
I narrowed my eyes for a moment, taking him in. He was still handsome as always, but there were bags under his eyes. Did he not sleep well? After last night’s kiss, all I can remember is being in the sitting room when I woke up this morning. I smiled and ask him if he would come with me. Without hesitation he agreed.
As we walked outside Joon remained unnaturally quiet. I asked him if he was okay, and he just nodded. Not wanting to rock the boat, I accepted his answer at face value. As soon as we settled in the car, Joon turned to me and spoke.
“Have you driven before?”
“Of course! I practiced driving when Appa wasn’t home,” I responded, confidently tapping the steering wheel.
“Practice? What about in the city?” he asked, a concerned look marring his face.
I smiled at him confidently and told him it was my first time. He should feel lucky I am allowing him to share this with me. Looking in the footwell I had to remind myself which pedal is the accelerator and which one is for brakes. Not realizing that he is now looking at me with something close to horror on his face, I forged ahead.
I started driving very slowly. Afraid to make a mistake I gripped the steering wheel tightly. To his credit Joon sat quietly while I tried to get us to our destination. I thought I was doing quite well until he pointed out that I was close to the curb. Quickly I steered left only to have him tell me that I should be signalling when changing lanes. I noted from the corner of my eye how he discreetly placed his hands on the rail by the door. Ha! I’ll show you that I can be good at this too! I passed my test the first time! Distracted by my thoughts, I didn’t realize that the stoplight was turning from orange to red until I heard his voice practically yelling at me.
“Na Jeong-ah, brake. BRAKE!”
Convinced we were going to crash, I quickly slammed on the brake. The car stopped about two inches from the vehicle ahead. My heart pounding in my chest I was still nervous when we started moving again. Somewhere in the car a handphone started ringing. Reaching into his coat pocket, Joon was about to answer when I yelled at him not to. He complied without much protest. Trying to be helpful, he tried to give me some water to drink and I pushed his hand away. I noticed him about to turn on the radio when I yelled at him to stop. Doesn’t he know that I need to concentrate on driving and the radio will distract me? He looked at me and stopped mid-reach. His hands made their way back to the rail, where they stayed for the remainder of the drive.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Gangnam. I didn’t realize I wasn’t going to take to driving like fish to water. Cautiously Joon suggested that I repark the car. Embarrassed I finally looked at him. Noting the greenish tinge on his face, I wondered if he was about to get sick. “Joon-ah, I’m sorry.”
“Hey you can’t help it! It’s your first time driving. You’ll get better with practice,” he assured me.
“That’s right! I did well for my first time. I bet when you start driving it will take you even longer!” I said teasingly. Saying nothing he merely smiled at me and I took his hand. “Are you staying here tonight then?”
“Yeah, I need to get some stuff from my room before I leave. I’ll take the bus back in the morning.” At the mention of his fast approaching departure my face fell. I forced a smile on my face and nodded. Afraid of driving home by myself we decided that I take a cab instead. Holding my hand, Joon was attempting to flag a cab down when my handphone rang in my bag.
“Na Jeong-ah where are you right now?” Omma’s voice sounded funny, like she was trying not to panic.
“Yes hello? Did you arrive safely?”
“Go home, change and go to the hospital.”
“Why to the hospital?” I asked. I saw Joon looking at me with a worried look on his face.
“Your father got drunk and fell in a manhole. He got hurt badly. His leg and nose are broken. He needs immediate surgery but he has no guardian, so he can’t be operated on. You have to go fast. FAST!”
“Okay, I got it!” I hung up the phone and turned to Joon.
His face concerned he asked, “Why? Did coach-nim get hurt?”
I felt my eyes fill with tears. “He fell in a manhole and got hurt. There’s no guardian at the hospital. What can I do?” Looking around I scanned for a taxi, getting more frantic by the second. “Why are there no taxis around now?” Getting more and more upset, I started yelling, “TAXI! TAXI! Aish… Why is there no taxi around? What will I do about my dad? TAXI!!!!”
After a brief hesitation, Joon grabbed my arm to get my attention. “Na Jeong. Na Jeong-ah… Give me the key.” Puzzled I looked at him as he held out his hand. “Hurry.”
Annoyed and a little mortified, I watched as Joon expertly navigated the Seoul streets.
With a look of concentration he guided the car in and out of lanes seamlessly. His left hand confident on the steering wheel, he maneuvered the gears like a professional. I couldn’t help but be impressed. What is wrong with me? Be mad, Sung Na Jeong. He made me think he didn’t have a license! And that he didn’t know how to drive! But… But it’s so… Sexy. How can he make driving look so attractive? When he stopped at the stoplight he turned to see me looking at him. He grinned at me sheepishly and I pretended to glare at him.
“Well, you know, Na Jeong-ah… I was… going to tell you…” Not answering him I feigned annoyance. His right hand hesitantly tried to grab mine when I pushed it away.
“You… Let’s have a talk later.” At his crestfallen expression I gave his still extended hand a squeeze. I can’t help it. I can’t stay angry at him.
When we arrived at the hospital he instructed me to go in and check on Appa whild he parked the car. At the reception they directed me to the waiting area outside the operating room. When Joon came rushing into the hospital I grabbed his arm and we went to wait. I paced back and forth impatiently while he stayed standing on one side of the wall. I felt his concern wash over me and I tried to give him a reassuring smile. After what seemed like forever, the surgeon came out. He signaled for me and Joon to come over and waited until we were both in front of him when he finally spoke.
“The surgery ended well. His nose is probably going to be higher than before,” he said, giving a little chuckle. “He also needs to get a cast for his leg. Because three of his ribs and his pelvic bones are fractured, it would be a bit hard to walk around for a while.”
We thanked the doctor and watched as he disappeared back behind the doors. I finally felt like I could breathe and my knees almost buckled with the relief of hearing Appa was going to be okay. Joon was there before I fell and I felt his strong arms support me.
“Na Jeong-ah. Are you alright? Let’s sit down for a bit,” he said while guiding me to the nearest seat.
Sitting down, I rested my head on his shoulder. “Aish. I was scared.”
“The doctor said it’s okay. It’s a good thing he went into surgery immediately,” he reassured me.
Realizing something, I lifted my head and directed my gaze at him. “Now, tell me.”
I know what you’re doing, Joon. You’re pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about. Putting my hand out, I said, “Wallet.” Watching him fidget and hesitate, I say more demandingly, “Give me your wallet.” When I saw him looking for an excuse, I fastened my glare on him. “Hurry up…. HURRY UP!” Frustrated at his hedging, I started hitting his shoulder repeatedly until he gave in. Finally giving me his wallet, I open it to see his driver’s license staring back at me.
“Sorry. I was going to tell you. I really was going to. But since the mood kept being driven in that direction. I missed the timing,” he said hesitantly.
“There’s no bigger lie than this. Why are you making people look stupid?” I asked.
“Then what am I supposed to do? I have to go to America in less than three weeks. There is no time.” He paused, as if he was weighing what he was about to say. “That’s right. I did it on purpose. On purpose. I… I just wanted to spend more time with you.” Looking flustered for the first time since New Year’s Eve, he changed the topic. “Na Jeong-ah, do you want to drink coffee?”
My answer was interrupted by the sound of my handphone ringing.
“Hello? Omma?” Looking at Joon, I mouthed ‘coffee’. I watched him walk away, his strides confident, then focused my attention to my call.
“What happened? Did the surgery go well?” I heard her ask.
“Yes. It just ended. He went into the recovery room.”
I heard Omma breathe a sigh of relief. “Why in the middle of the night? Where were you though? You got there fast.”
“I was in Gangnam today.” A little apprehensively I added, “I was with Joon in Gangnam when you called. He drove me here.”
“Is that so? Aigoo… How fortunate that Bong-ah was next to you. How were you two together?”
“I know. Ahhh, it just turned out like that.”
“Na Jeong-ah, buy something for Bong-ah to eat at least. I am so thankful to him. He’s like help from heaven.” Omma hung up the call as Joon made his way back to my side. I could do nothing but look at him with gratitude.
Half an hour later Joon and I walked to the elevator. For the longest time I just looked at his face, worry and concern for Appa etched in his beautiful features. Silently I thanked God that he was with me when I heard about the accident. His calming presence soothed me and made me feel like I could handle anything. His eyes held mine for a few minutes, intense and direct, until the ding of the elevator arriving interrupted us.
We turned to enter the elevator when a familiar face greeted us. Leaning against the elevator door, Jung Gook Oppa’s eyes met mine and I almost stumbled from the shock of seeing him. I saw him look at Chilbong before he looked at me again. I haven’t seen him in two years, not since he drove me to the airport. I haven’t spoken to him in a year since he told me not to come home for his mother’s funeral. All of a sudden it felt like I was the Na Jeong from 1994, when I first fell in love with him. The feelings, overwhelming, came back in a rush and I found myself shaking at the encounter. The elevator closed again, but it was too late. My heart had already started breaking all over again.
Sometimes… I really feel like there is a God. Even if there is no God, there should at least be something called fate to explain what’s happening now. There are times I feel like that. This miraculous coincidence, a great timing and an exquisite twist. There has to be a reason why Chilbong was the one by my side during some of the most difficult times of my life and why of all times my past decided to catch up with me today. Perhaps my fate is playing a joke on me right now.
I felt Chilbong looking at me and I could not look back at him. Silently I walked towards the stairs, my hand against the wall for support. With trembling fingers I tried to grab the door handle to the stairwell when he grabbed it and opened it for me. I exited without a word and he followed me, not saying anything, until we reached the bottom of the stairs.
“Na Jeong-ah…” he started.
Through my haze of tears I tried to look at him. Though I was looking at Chilbong, it was Oppa who invaded my thoughts. Oppa kissing me outside the hospital. Oppa taking me out on a date. Oppa proposing. The memories came so swiftly I was powerless to stop them.
“Na Jeong-ah,” he repeated. “Are you okay?”
“Yes… No… I’m fine.” I answered. “I’m fine.”
I felt strong arms envelop me in a tight embrace from behind. I tried to pull away but then he just held on tighter.
“Yah, Sung Na Jeong. If you say you’re okay then I believe you. But even if you don’t want a hug, what made you think that I didn’t need one? Just let me hold you like this for a few minutes until I feel better okay? Don’t even think for a minute I’m doing this for you. I’m doing this for me,” Chilbong whispered in a teasing voice.
Even through my tears I had to smile. I turned around and lifted my eyes to his. I saw worry in his eyes, but his voice was light. Keeping his arms wrapped around me, he gave me a small smile and brought his lips to my forehead. I thought about what to say before I spoke. “Chilbong-ah… I don’t really know what to say, but…”
“Na Jeong-ah, you don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to explain anything to me. I wasn’t trying to get you to talk… I just wanted you to know I’m here. That’s all,” he said.
I nodded gratefully and wrapped my arms around his waist. Resting my head on his shoulder, I put my hand on his chest and closed my eyes. I felt his heart beating under my fingers. Strong and steady, it wasn’t long until I regained a semblance of control.
We walked hand in hand to the hospital parking lot in silence.
January 18, 2000
The day started out gray. I rose from the bed and looked out the window. The sky was overcast and I felt an uneasiness inside me. Shaking it off, I got dressed made my way to the kitchen where surprisingly Na Jeong already was. I stood in the doorway for a few minutes watching her. My heart clenched as I saw her sweep a lock of hair off her face. She was still in her pajamas but she took my breath away. She was doing something I’ve seen her do so many times; stirring something in the pot, taking banchan from the refrigerator, and still I felt like I was looking at her for the first time. I walked towards her and stopped just a feet shy from where she stood. I cleared my throat to let her know I was there and she turned around, almost dropping a spoon in surprise.
“You’re up?” she asked. Closer up I noted the shadows under her eyes. She looked tired, like she didn’t get any sleep. “Breakfast is almost ready. Go sit down.”
“Have you been awake for a long time?” I walked to the table and noticed that the plates have already been set. I was rearranging the side dishes on the table to make room for the stew when I heard her speak.
“Yes. I woke up early anyway so I thought I’d make breakfast. Chilbong-ah, can you call the others to come down please?” I stopped what I was doing. Just yesterday I was Joon, and now I am back to Chilbong. Having received that nickname after a particularly successful game, I associated it with only positive things. Except with her. I thought that she just made a mistake last night, but it seems that’s not the case. Quickly tamping down the burst of anger that bubbled inside me, I forced myself to remain calm.
Don’t pretend you don’t know, the voice inside my head said. You were there. You know what happened. I remember how shocked she was seeing Jung Gook again. I observed quietly when her hands trembled and her eyes filled tears. My heart sank when I acknowledged the possibility that my role has once again been reset in her life. The thing is, I don’t think she even realized what she said. Slowly I turned and looked at her. Looking pensive and distracted, she was spooning up rice into bowls.
I walked over to where she stood, took the bowl that she was holding and set in on the counter, then lifted her chin so I could see her eyes. Its now or never… I took a deep breath and proceeded.
“Na Jeong-ah, I know this is horrible timing, but… How do you feel about me?” I said softly. She looked at everywhere but me. I’m trying to be understanding but I can feel myself losing control.
“Chilbong-ah…” I felt a stake go through my heart. Stop calling me that! You know my name… Don’t call me what strangers call me. When will you see me? Really see me? I’m here, standing right in front of you. How much longer, Na Jeong? How much more do I have to do?
“Breakfast looks good! I thought we’d have to buy breakfast today since Omma is in the hospital.” I heard Haitai say as he, Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin and Binggrae piled into the kitchen. She pulled away, turned her back to me and resumed what she was doing without giving me a response. I looked at my hand, which just a few minutes ago was holding her, now just holding air. The pain sliced so sharply that I had to close my eyes. With one more look at her, I quickly pulled my hood up and started walking towards the door.
“Chilbong-ah, you’re not eating?” I heard Samcheonpo ask behind me. I paused mid step.
“Na Jeong-ah are we expecting a guest? There are seven plates here,” Haitai asked.
I didn’t wait for her response before I left.
I busied myself making breakfast this morning. After a fitful night of sleep, I needed something to keep my kind occupied. Since last night I haven’t felt well. I spent most of the night replaying the scene by the hospital elevator. Tossing and turning in bed, my mind was racked with memories I thought I’ve long buried. Seeing Oppa again has broken through my self-imposed amnesia. Memories came flashing back instantly as soon as I closed my eyes. I remembered the moment I realized I saw him as more than just the Oppa I grew up with. I remembered the day he took me to the musical. I remembered the first time he kissed me. I remembered the tears of joy that flowed freely from my eyes as he proposed to me and of sadness when I left. I remembered trying and failing to make our relationship work. I remembered everything and overwhelming sadness poured over me. Fighting the tears, I tried to convince myself I am okay.
Putting some soup into my mouth for a taste, I heard someone clear their throat behind me. I turned around in surprise. Chilbong. Dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants he looked ready for his run. “You’re up?” Lifting my eyes to his, I saw him studying my face. I quickly diverted my eyes, afraid of what he might see. “Breakfast is almost ready. Go sit down.”
“Have you been awake for a long time?” he asked. I heard him walking towards the table then some dishes being moved.
“Yes. I woke up early anyway so I thought I’d make breakfast. Chilbong-ah, can you call the others to come down please?” I started spooning rice into seven bowls. I have done this so many times I can do it in my sleep.
I didn’t hear anything from him, but next thing I knew he had turned me around, placed the bowl I had been holding down on the counter and lifted my chin up towards his face. “Na Jeong-ah, I know this is horrible timing, but… How do you feel about me?” His voice was so soft I struggled to hear what he said. I couldn’t read the expression in his eyes. His close proximity handicapped my ability to think. My heart started racing, whether in anxiety or anticipation I am not sure. Unable to meet his eyes I looked everywhere but him. All the times we shared, not once did he ask me how I felt for him. Why now?
“Chilbong-ah…” I started, unsure of how to proceed.
“Breakfast looks good! I thought we’d have to buy breakfast today since Omma is in the hospital.” I heard Haitai say. My thoughts jumbled I saw the rest of the boarders enter the kitchen and almost heaved a sigh of relief. Quickly turning away from Chilbong, I continued what I was doing.
“Chilbong-ah, you’re not eating?” Samcheonpo said. I glanced behind me and saw Chilbong making his way to the door. He stopped at the question but didn’t turn around. I brought the rice bowls to the table and was getting ready to sit down when Haitai spoke again.
“Na Jeong-ah are we expecting a guest? There are seven plates here.”
Momentarily puzzled I mentally counted how many people were here. Me, Chilbong, Haitai, Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin, and Binggrae. Why would I put out an extra plate? I searched my brain for a minute until the answer came: Oppa. Startled, I looked to see if Chilbong heard Haitai’s question. The front door closed and I realized he had left.
Though I am used to taking over housekeeping duties when my parents are not around, the last time I cooked breakfast for the boarders had been a few years ago. My parents had gone to Masan for my brother Hoon’s memorial and Oppa was still living with us then. Oppa had helped me cook that morning while I mourned my brother’s death alone. Long before I even knew Chilbong existed, I had Oppa. Every memory from my childhood was tied to him. Every memory I had of my youth included him. I thought for sure that every memory I would have thereafter would be made with him. I thought we were a special couple. Turned out it took no more than distance and time to tear us apart.
I quickly chalked up my mistake to confusion. Chilbong never came back to eat breakfast and the boarders, perhaps noticing my silence, ate quickly and left.
Once alone my thoughts turned to Chilbong. Why would he ask me that now? Why not last week? Why not even a couple of days ago? Why of all times now? I don’t want to hurt him, but I’m hurting too and I don’t know how to make it better. Feeling helpless, I put my head between my hands and closed my eyes. I was still lost in thought when I heard footsteps approaching. Hoping it was Chilbong, I turned around and tried to paste a bright smile on my face. Yoon Jin stood before me instead. Silently, she looked at me with worried eyes and I promptly burst into tears.
Yoon Jin held my hand as I cried, occasionally patting my shoulder in comfort. She didn’t ask for an explanation or clarification, but I suspected she was waiting for me to get the tears all out before asking. A few minutes later we sat with cups of tea before us and I was calm enough to actually speak coherently.
“Yoon Jin-ah, I’m sorry,” I said, the last syllable coming out in a hiccup.
“Yah, why are you apologizing? That’s what friends do, right? Even though someone would doubt that we’re friends right now with all the secrets you’re not telling me. I would hit you if you didn’t look so miserable already,” she said, narrowing her eyes at me. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on or am I going to have to beat it out of you? Because you know I can do that…. I’m small but I’m scrappy.”
I chuckled and took a sip of my tea. “What do you want to know?”
“Chilbong walked out of here earlier like his ass was on fire. You hardly ate and didn’t talk at all during breakfast. Plus I know what happened at the hospital last night. ”
“How… How do you know about that?” I stammered.
“Binggrae was at the hospital too. He saw what happened. He asked Haitai how you were doing and of course Haitai had to ask why. Binggrae told Haitai, who then told Samcheonpo… you know how fast word travels around here. How do you feel about seeing Jung Gook Oppa again?”
“I feel a lot of things. I feel angry that he and I are supposed to be family and we had to meet that way. I feel guilty that Omma and Appa haven’t seen him since we stopped talking. I feel disappointed that we couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. Mainly, I just feel sad. I feel sad about the whole thing.”
“Are you still in love with him?”
“I… don’t know. I’m still not quite sure as to why we broke up. To be honest I haven’t allowed myself to think about that in the past year. I love him… I think part of me always will. Am I in love with him? I don’t know. Seeing his face again just brings up all these memories and feelings and I can’t think. I keep remembering all the times we spent together. It hurts too much to think about it. But I miss him. I’m not sure if I miss him as my boyfriend or as my Oppa but I do miss him so much.” I shrugged my shoulders.
I saw Yoon Jin nodding her head in understanding. “I can see why you’re upset, but what about Chilbong?” Perhaps sensing that I was about to protest, she started speaking again before I could open my mouth. “Na Jeong-ah don’t. I’m not stupid. I know that you two have been sneaking around on dates. I see the way you look at each other. Except for Samcheonpo, all of us know… But we were waiting for you two to tell us.”
“What about Chilbong? We’re not a couple,” At the look she gave me I continued. “We’re not a couple, not really. He hasn’t asked me and we never talked about it. He’s leaving soon and he hasn’t said anything about wanting to continue anything after he leaves.”
“But how do you feel about him? Do you like him?” She paused, as if hesitant to ask me the next question. “Do you love him?”
“I don’t know. I care about him. I want him to do well and I want him to be happy. Do I like him? I think so. Do I love him? I really don’t know. It’s a totally different feeling as compared to how I felt for Oppa. How would I know if it’s love?”
Yoon Jin didn’t have an answer and neither did I. We sat in silence for a few minutes. My handphone rang and I stood up to answer it when I felt her grab my hand. She stood up also and spoke.
“Na Jeong-ah, they’ll call again. Just listen to me for a minute. I’ll say one thing about this and I won’t say anything more okay? You’re my best friend and you do know no matter what, I’m on your side, right?” When I nodded, she continued. “I love you but you’re a mess. You’re not in any position to be getting involved in any relationship until you figure out how you feel.” She stood up and gave my shoulder one last reassuring squeeze before she left.
A few hours later, I found myself walking towards a cafe. Tugging my coat more tightly around my body I couldn’t help but feel anxious and nervous. Jung Gook Oppa called earlier while I was speaking with Yoon Jin. Hearing the message he left I was so surprised I almost dropped the phone. He had one request: that we meet up and talk. My first instinct was to ignore it and pretend that it wasn’t something I needed to do. However talking with Yoon Jin just made me realize that there are things I may not want to do but I must do.
Chilbong never came back after his run. When I asked Binggrae where he was, he was unable to meet my eyes but just said that Chilbong had some appointment. I know he and I need to have that conversation but even just thinking about it makes me nervous. After all the time we spent together I am still not sure what I am to him. I am finding out more and more that there are things about him that I have no clue about.
A bell rang when I opened the door. Scanning the people at the coffee shop I didn’t see Oppa. I was directed to sit and as I took off my coat I fought the butterflies present in my stomach. I sat down and prepared to wait. A few minutes later I saw him appear at the entrance. I watched the man I thought I would share forever with enter the coffee shop. His eyes met mine and he gave me a small smile in acknowledgment.
He sat down across from me without saying a word. I suppose he must feel just as anxious as I do. I find it ironic that he was someone I had grown up with yet we are now finding it difficult to even say one word. In childhood, he had been my brother Hoon’s best friend. When we lost Hoon Oppa, my parents started treating him as the eldest child in the family. He was always a good Oppa to me… The best brother a girl can ask for, until I didn’t see him as a brother anymore. It took us some time to start dating but once we did everything happened pretty quickly. When I was younger, my dream had been to marry him. I was overjoyed to even think that that particular dream was now coming true. Until we both realized that real life doesn’t defer to dreams. Real life doesn’t make room for hesitations and complacency to still allow a dream to become reality.
Looking like he didn’t know how to start the conversation he continued to look at me while I clasped my hands together to control my nerves from showing. After what seemed like forever, he finally spoke. “Have you been well?”
Unable to meet his eyes, I nodded. “Yeah. What about you, Oppa?”
“Yeah. Me too,” he said, looking away. Afraid to meet his gaze directly, I merely nodded in response.
Our conversation continued in the same awkward vein as we spoke about trivial matters, such as my job or how he is doing with his studies. I noticed him sniffling and coughing and concerned, I asked him if he was ill. He dismissed my worry by saying that he’s okay. When I asked about his father’s surgery, he told me that he was fine and not to worry. As the conversation went on, the little puzzle pieces of why our relationship fell apart started finding its way towards one another. Has it always been like this for us? Has it always been this way? Me worrying and him diffusing my concerns by underplaying the seriousness of the matter? Trying to tamp down the pain that I am feeling, I sat in silence before he spoke again.
“I’m sorry, you worried a lot right?”
Feeling something inside me break I said, frustrated. “What are you sorry about? Is that your fault? Oppa, to me, do you have no other word to say than sorry? To me, why… Why do you feel sorry?” I could feel tears forming in my eyes. Oppa looked like he was also about to cry. “I’m.. I’m a little sister to you. A little sister to whom you only wanted to give good things. Pretty things and show happy things. That is what a family does. Oppa I… Didn’t know the reason why we broke up. I thought that just like other couples, we got tired of each other and had a hard time. I thought that was the reason why we broke up. But I know now… Why we broke up.”
We were a special couple, or so I had thought. Because of that specialness we spent twenty years like brother and sister. Oppa always had to be Oppa. I always had to be a little sister. I always felt desperate and grateful because I fell in love with him first, but now he loved me back. We felt insecure about starting a long distance relationship and felt guilty that we had to postpone our wedding. We were always sorry, thankful and cautious, not quite believing that we were together.
Looking into his eyes, flashbacks of a time I would soon rather forget came crashing through my mind. Swiftly the walls I have put up against those memories came down and I recalled how we started out trying our best to stay in contact, and our schedules conspiring that we never do. I remembered failed plans to meet up, always believing that distance was no competition to what we shared. I thought back on what had been the final nail in our coffin. When his mother died I had been the last to know. Thinking that my knowing would have just worried me or made me sad, he decided not to tell me instead. And when I called him to console him, he downplayed his sorrow and ended the call abruptly. How were we supposed to share our lives together if we didn’t actually share our lives?
In the end, all we had left was courtesy towards each other, but our hurting hearts didn’t get a chance to heal. We were becoming a less than ordinary couple, but were too naive or complacent to do anything about it. We couldn’t even say ‘I love you’, something couples say so freely and without thought. In the end, we broke up like any other ordinary couple, with everything that I thought made us special vanquished and made small. Emails became scarce and phone calls eventually stopped. We ended up breaking up without actually breaking up, our relationship buckling from the pressures of life and the unforeseen consequence of our previous dynamic.
Tears now falling freely from my eyes, I took a deep breath before speaking. “That time… We… We should’ve just said that we were having a hard time if we were having a hard time. We should’ve just said that we were hurt, if we were hurt. That’s what we should have done.” He sat in his chair, also crying, as I stood up, collected my coat and made my way out the door.
It’s been over a year since all of it happened but my heart remembered the pain as if it was yesterday. Vision blurred by tears, I let my footsteps guide me home. My steps quickened until I was running, my heart wishing that it was as easy to run away from my past.
When I arrived home, there was no one in sight and for that I was extremely grateful. I went into my room and closed the door. It wasn’t until then that I allowed myself to feel the full magnitude of my loss. It had been a relationship I always believed I would always have and in losing Oppa I not only lost the man I love; it also felt like I lost my brother all over again. Grief unlike any I had ever known since my brother’s death came over me. The tears started slowly but gained strength with each minute. Pretty soon I was wailing, unable to breathe. I cried for what we had, what we lost, and what we could have been. I cried for lost dreams and broken promises. I cried for him, but mainly I cried for myself.
I was up on the deck when I saw Na Jeong arriving home. Unable to see her face, I watched her quick steps as she approached the house. Unsure of how to proceed, I went back into the house and slowly walked downstairs. By the time I was at her door, it was already closed. I was about to knock when I registered the sound coming from her room.
I heard soft sobs at first, then gradually getting louder as time passed. Within a few minutes she became hysterical and unrestrained, her breaths coming in desperate gulps. Every cry felt like a separate stab in my heart, her pain echoing inside me. Torn between opening her door and wanting to leave yet unable to do either, I leaned my forehead against her door, my fingers tracing the pattern of wood as a battle raged between my head and my heart. Closing my eyes, I listened as long as she cried, trying to be present and offer comfort in the only way I could. Then I heard her utter one word. “Oppa.”
Taking my hand off her doorknob like it’s been burned, I backed away from her room and away from her. With that one word, in that one moment, I realized that a person can break my heart twice. There was nothing subtle about the pain that washed over me. It was all at once relentless, overwhelming and insistent on being felt. It felt like there was a vice around my heart that was squeezing tighter and tighter until I was out of breath.
My steps shaky, I silently walked back to my room. I sat on the edge of the bed and looked out the window. My jaw clenched, I recalled the conversation I walked into earlier when I came back from my run.
“Are you still in love with him?”
“I …don’t know. I’m still not quite sure as to why we broke up. To be honest I haven’t allowed myself to think about that in the past year. I love him… I think part of me always will. Am I in love with him? I don’t know. Seeing his face again just brings up all these questions that I’m not sure I have the answer to and I can’t think. I keep remembering all the times we spent together. It hurts too much to think about it. But I miss him. I’m not sure if I miss him as my boyfriend or as my Oppa but I do miss him so much.”
“I can understand why you’re upset, but what about Chilbong? Na Jeong-ah don’t. I’m not stupid. I know that you two have been sneaking around on dates. I see the way you look at each other. Except for Samcheonpo, all of us know… But we were waiting for you two to tell us.”
“What about Chilbong? We’re not a couple. We’re not a couple, not really. He hasn’t asked me and we never talked about it. He’s leaving soon and he hasn’t said anything about wanting to continue anything after he leaves.”
“But how do you feel about him? Do you like him? Do you love him?”
“I don’t know. I care about him. I want him to do well and I want him to be happy. Do I like him? I think so. Do I love him? I really don’t know. It’s a totally different feeling as compared to Oppa. How would I know if it’s love?”
There is something to be said about unrequited love. In my head it remained pure and intact, an untouchable memory. Five years ago I only wondered what it felt like to be with her. I never knew the gift of being able to kiss her and touch her freely without the fear of rejection. I was able to walk away with my heart broken but my will intact. After all, I can’t possibly miss something I’ve never known.
I knew when I asked her how she felt about me that I was taking a risk. I thought that if I gave her some space that she will honestly think about it. Hearing her tell Yoon Jin how much she missed Sunbae hurt, but it was expected. But hearing her tell Yoon Jin that she doesn’t know what we were to each other or how she felt about me made me realize that even though I was right in front of her she still didn’t see my heart. Even so I tried to give her time and tried to understand the situation from her perspective. I came home after Binggrae told me she was meeting up with Sunbae, worried for her sake and knowing she would be hurting. I feared that she would push me away should I go in to comfort her but wanted to make myself available just in case. I didn’t want to see her shed tears, especially not for another man, but I unconsciously put her needs above mine.
Hearing her cry out for him couldn’t have made it clearer that I will never be the one she looks for. Even though I am standing next to her, her heart is still with someone else.
There was a little place in my heart, where my hope stayed and my deepest dreams resided, that I had managed to shield from my first heartbreak. This time I fear I am unable to do that. One word, one name. It was all it took to shatter that part of me.
Without a father, without a mother, with just baseball I was plenty busy and warm. I always thought loneliness was just an emotion that found people who didn’t lead intense lives. But one day at age twenty, the day I began to empty out a space for her, that space felt hollow and began to feel cold. That this was loneliness, and that I was a very lonely person – I had only then began to realize. Because I was lonely I missed her and because I missed her I was lonelier. Would I prefer that I be lonely because I wasn’t with her, or that I be lonely standing beside her while she wants another?
I always believed that it isn’t over till it’s over. The last two weeks made me believe that my 10,000 hours of waiting paid off. She made me so happy, happier than I thought I even had any right to be. However, the last twelve hours so quickly negated all of that. How fragile our tie was, that in just one day I was made invisible. I can see myself still trying and still hoping, but what kind of life would that be for me?
When something that gives me so much happiness brings me even more pain at the same time, I have to make a decision. Happiness, as I’ve seen over and over again, is fleeting. It’s a state of mind. Pain however can spread and fester until my whole being is engulfed in it. It can pulverize everything good in me into bitterness. The only choice left for me now is between cutting the source off or letting it destroy me.
With my mind made up, I picked up my phone and started dialing. At the third ring I heard an answer. “Hyung, it’s Joon. I need you to help me arrange something.”
January 19, 2000
By the time I woke up it was already noon. I said a quick greeting to Omma before I left the house to go for my run. By the time I got home two hours later Omma was already gone and Hai Tai, Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin and Dong Joon were making their way out the house.
“Where are you guys going?”
“I have to meet with Jin Yi,” said Dong Joon.
“I’m seeing Ae Jung,” Hai Tai responded.
“Date,” Samcheonpo said, looking lovingly at Yoon Jin.
“Where’s Na Jeong?”
Yoon Jin gave me a sympathetic look before she answered. “She’s still asleep.” Nodding in understanding, I went into the house and quickly washed up.
By the time I got out of the shower, there was still no activity coming from Na Jeong’s room. I knocked on her door and receiving no response, quietly opened it and went in.
She was laying on her side, her arms clutching a stuffed seal. She was still dressed in her clothes from last night, like she had fallen asleep without realizing it. For a few minutes I looked at her beautiful face and a feeling of tenderness came over me. Quietly I laid down beside her. I wondered as I watched her sleep if she was dreaming. Shifting my weight to my right side, I put my arms around her. I felt her stiffen in response before she heard my voice. “It’s me.”
With her eyes still closed, a small smile formed her face and her body relaxed. “Joon-ah.” My heart squeezed at hearing her say my name and I fought back a smile in response. “But why are you here? Am I dreaming? What if someone sees?”
“I’m here because it’s time to get up. Everyone has gone out. And does this really feel like a dream?” I nuzzled her left shoulder and breathed her in. Without getting up or opening her eyes, she turned over on her other side until her head was directed towards mine on the pillow. She lifted one of her slender arms over my shoulder and my heart quickened at her touch. Gently I kissed her still closed eyes. “Get up.” I kissed her right cheek. “Get up.” I kissed her left cheek. “Get up.” I kissed her nose. “Get up.” And then I waited. Her eyes opened and she looked at me in annoyance.
“What about the last place?”
“What last place?” I asked, feigning innocence. She pouted and pointed to her lips. “Ahhh…” I whispered, mouth hovering over hers. “How could I have forgotten that last place?” Leaning down I kept my eyes on her when I planted a soft peck on her lips. “Get up.”
Smiling fully now she looked deeply in my eyes. I felt her finger trace my left cheek, her expression becoming more serious.
“Chilbong-ah… About yesterday…”
“Shhh…” I whispered, holding my arms even tighter around her. “Don’t worry about it okay? Forget I asked. It’s okay.” She nodded at me, her eyes wide. “Na Jeong-ah, should we do something today? We’re alone.” I watched as a blush spread on her cheeks. She was so easy to tease, my Na Jeong. She looked like she was actually considering something when I spoke up. “Yah. Sung Na Jeong, get your mind out of the gutter. I meant, since no one was home, should we go out just like a regular couple?”
“Yeah… But I don’t think I’m ready to get up yet.” Closing her eyes and puckering her lips, I almost laughed. She was not at all subtle about liking kisses. I was about to kiss her again when I heard her stomach rumble.
Chuckling, I replied to her, “I think you’re ready to get up. I’ll let you get dressed and we’ll get something to eat.” Disentangling myself from her, I got up from the bed. “What do you want to eat? Ddukbokki?”
She quickly sat up and nodded vigorously. I smiled at her. “I’ll wait for you outside.”
After getting ready she came out wearing a sweater and jeans. There were still shadows under her eyes, but she looked a bit more rested. After wrapping her scarf around her neck, I closed her coat while she fixed her hair.
We walked quietly to the nearest ddukbokki stall. The sky was gray and there was still snow on the ground. With the cold wind blowing against us, we huddled closer together to stay warm. I watched her as she ate with relish and I had to consciously stop myself several times from staring. After we ate, we took the longer way back home. Still holding her hand, I looked at her face in profile noting her distracted expression. Wanting to ease her mind before it goes into overdrive, I spoke.
“It’s nice, right? Being able to do this?”
“Yeah… But Chilbong-ah, about yesterday…”
“Do you know how often we get this chance to be alone, just the two of us? I know you’re still thinking about what I asked. Let’s not worry about yesterday or tomorrow okay? Just for today, we can stop trying to figure out all the answers. I’m leaving soon and I just want to be able to enjoy the rest of my time here with you. So can we do that?”
“Yes,” she answered. Looking relieved, she gave me a quick hug. Over her shoulder I realized we had already arrived in front of the house.
I let her walk ahead of me while I gathered some snow in my hands. By the time she noticed I wasn’t next to her, I already had an orange sized snowball and hidden.
“Yah, Na Jeong-ah!” I yelled. When she turned I threw the snowball, hitting her on her hip.
“YAAAHHHHHH! KIM JAE JOON! YOU WANT TO DIE? AISSSHHH!” Her eyes blazed in irritation even as she was gathering enough snow to make a watermelon sized snowball.
“You keep building it like that and you won’t be able to throw it!” I called from behind my hiding place. When I looked again she was nowhere to be found. I stepped out in the open. “Na Jeong-ah, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you? Where did you go?” I felt something hit my back with a force. I looked behind me and there she stood, her face triumphant. She continued pelting me with snow as I tried to defend myself. I attempted a frown but had to laugh when she stuck out her tongue at me.
I started chasing her, and by the time I had her in my arms we had both slipped so many times that both our clothes were covered in snow. Holding her close, I looked at her face, pink from the cold wind, and her eyes, still bright with joy, and wished I could stay in this moment forever. I leaned down and covered her face in kisses, with her pretending to push me away while at the same time pointing to places I should kiss.
When she put her hands under my coat my heart sped up. Looking into her eyes I wanted to ask her what she thinks she’s doing. Before I could say anything I felt fingers tickling my side. I tried to get up and dodge her probing fingers to no avail. Soon I found myself lying under her, her weight pinning me to the ground. Feeling like a kid again, I begged her to stop. “Fine, fine… you win.”
“What did you say? I didn’t hear you!”
Wiggling her fingers towards me threateningly, I said, more loudly, “YOU WIN!!!” Placing my hands on her hips, I enjoyed feeling her body on top of me.
She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. “I want my prize!”
A few minutes later I was parked in front of the television with a mountain of laundry waiting to be folded while she was on the phone with her mother. She sat down a few minutes later, and looked on at me in amusement. “Chilbong-ah, if you don’t want to play baseball anymore, you can open a laundromat. You fold pretty well.”
“Aish… Stop saying things like that. I’ve been doing my own laundry since I was young.” Folding a shirt meticulously, I continued. “How is Coach-nim?”
“Omma says he’s grumpy. So he must be feeling better.” She bit her lip. “Bong-ah… I’m getting hungry again.”
“Do you want to go out for dinner?” She shook her head no. “What do you want to eat?”
She looked at me and gave me a bashful smile. “Major leaguer’s ramyun. Chilbong’s ramyun.” My heart thumped inside my chest and I had to turn away to hide my eyes. “But we have nothing here. Do you want me to run to the store?”
Finishing up the clothes, I placed them into separate piles then turned to her. “Let’s go together.”
After putting everyone’s laundry away we walked together, arms interlinked, to the corner store. While she browsed, I picked up the ingredients we needed.
“Chilbong-ah, should we get soju too?” she asked, expression hopeful.
I nodded my assent. While waiting to pay I kept my eyes on her. I will never get used to how beautiful she is. Angry, happy, or sad she was the most beautiful woman I have ever known. By the time we left the store it had already begun to get dark. Carrying a bag on one hand, I linked my fingers through hers and noticing how cold they were, put one of her hands in my pocket. I listened to her voice, at times soft and soothing, then getting irate and passionate, as she spoke about different topics on our way home. Occasionally she would turn to me for a response, to which I would nod or shake my head no, as was applicable. I was perfectly content just listening to her.
When we returned to the boarding house I went to the kitchen with our bag of purchases. Putting some water on the stove to boil I noticed her about to sit down to watch television. “Na Jeong-ah, come here.” Looking surprised and pointing to herself, I nodded. “Let’s make it together. I’ll teach you how to make my ramyun.”
She smiled so brightly my heart hurt. Keeping my face expressionless, I set her to task cutting up mushrooms, green onions and peppers to add to the ramyun. I watched her face, furrowed in concentration as she listened to my instructions. Feeling a lump in my throat I made an excuse to go to my room to compose myself. When I came back she was stirring the noodles and adding the seasonings just as I told her to. Taking over on the stove, I heard her set plates out to bring to the dining table.
“Na Jeong-ah,” she turned to me questioningly. “Let’s eat upstairs okay?”
“Okay, I’ll bring some things upstairs while you finish up.” She took some side dishes out of the refrigerator and started climbing up the stairs.
This is good. This is enough, I thought.At least she’ll know how to cook my ramyun. Maybe she’ll remember me when she eats it.
“Chilbong-ah, everything’s ready!” I heard her yell from upstairs. I heard her turn the radio as she waited.
Taking a deep breath, I tried to keep my face blank before I carried the ramyun to the second floor. She gave an excited clap when I lifted the pot’s cover, licking her lips in anticipation. I served some up in a bowl and handed it to her. She blew on the ramyun on her chopsticks before taking a bite. Her eyes closing in pleasure, she sighed.
“Wow, your ramyun is really delicious.”
“It’s not just my ramyun anymore. You know how to make it too. So now it’s our ramyun,” I said quietly.
She merely nodded as she continued eating. We ate for a few minutes before she spoke again. “Did you know that the day we drove to Gangnam, Samcheonpo and Yoon Jin were arguing?”
“No… Why were they arguing?”
“Yoon Jin was wondering if they were going to get married and Samcheonpo, that fool, wouldn’t ease her mind.” She paused, taking a shot of soju. “But that night when we were at the hospital, he proposed!”
“Well not in so many ways. You know how Samcheonpo is. He basically brought her all of his bank passbooks and told her what they were all for. One of them is for an apartment, the other is for the future and the last one is for their wedding.” I met her eyes and felt my heart squeeze. “So it looks like they might get married soon.” At my silence she continued. “I don’t know when it will be but I hope you’ll be able to come home for it. Maybe you can sing or dance at their reception!”
I scoffed in response. “I don’t know how to sing or dance.”
“Is that right?” She teased me. “I don’t believe you.” She pulled me up to my feet. Overwhelmed with emotions, I was about to refuse but seeing her hopeful expression, I found myself agreeing. I put my right arm around her waist and locked the fingers on my left hand with hers.
The opening melody of a song I haven’t heard in a while breezed through the radio and soon we were swaying slowly to the music.
“Bong-ah, did you know that in America the newly married couple dances in front of their guests?” She looked at me with laughing eyes. “Can you imagine Samcheonpo and Yoon Jin dancing together in front… ” her voice continued but I couldn’t hear her. I tried to imagine what she was saying but in my mind all I could see was a vision of Na Jeong on her wedding day. Walking towards someone else, wearing her white dress, and looking at him in happiness. Promising devotion and love forever. My eyes filling with unshed tears at that thought I closed my eyes and started to speak. “Na Jeong-ah…”
“Yeah?” She answered as she rested her head on my shoulder.
“Make sure you eat well, okay? Don’t work too hard. Make sure to turn off the fan before you sleep else you’ll catch a cold. Always drive carefully and never drive alone.” I felt her nod under my chin. Afraid my voice would betray what I’m feeling, I cleared my throat before I continued. “Have one of your friends go with you to Sang Min Hyung’s games in case you get in a fight. Drink a lot of water before the game so you don’t get a sore throat. Make sure you wear your back brace as soon as you start hurting. Remember to wake up in time for breakfast before heading to work.” My words coming in fast, I tried to remind her of as many things as I could remember. She remained silent and I feared she had fallen asleep. “You’re listening, right?” Na Jeong-ah, please listen. Remember everything I’m telling you because I won’t be here to remind you anymore. Please remember.
“I’m listening. But I don’t need to remember all of that. I’m sure you’ll nag me about it anyways.”
At her certainty my heart struggled to remain calm. Just when I thought I couldn’t handle anymore, she turned to look out the window, then back at me and smiled. “Joon-ah… It’s snowing.”
I could do nothing but watch her as she ran out to the deck. Separated only by a glass door, it already felt like she was a million miles away from me. Behind me the song we danced to played its remaining melody.
Even long after 1000 days have passed, you would still be like that…
Please don’t forget the name of our beautiful love…
In those 1000 days, was it hard for you?
Was there any chance that I hurt you?
Please forgive me…
If that is so, it would be the last time…
After that day, I merely wonder about you
Even in the next life, let’s not meet again.
With slow steps, I joined her outside. She had her hands open to catch the snow as it fell. Her eyes were happy and she had a smile on her face. This was how I wanted to remember her. Overcome with tenderness I turned her around so she faced me. Her eyes looked at mine searchingly and I dropped my guard for one second, hoping that she understands what I’m telling her without having to say anything. She lifted her hand to cup my face as she stood on tiptoe to kiss me.
I watched her, her eyes closing, as she pressed her lips more firmly on mine. I kissed her slowly, savoring the feel of her heart beating against my chest. One of my hands held her neck gently, feeling her pulse quicken at my touch. I pulled her closer towards me and flattened my palm against her back. Perhaps feeling my gaze on her, she opened her eyes and looked directly at me. My mouth leaving her lips, I trailed kisses from her face to her neck. She tightened her arms around me in response and sucked in a breath when my tongue touched her collarbone.
Unlike our other kisses, this one was not demanding or insistent. It was slow, gentle, and lingering. I am determined to make this last and to make sure that both of us will remember this moment. There was snow falling all around us, but the heat between us was hot enough to make me feel like I’m on fire. She smelled like sunny days and tasted like heaven. Her eyes still locked onto mine I returned to her lips. I licked her top lip then her bottom lip and she sucked on my tongue, trying to kiss me deeper. My tongue met hers slowly and leisurely. I saw the impatience in her eyes yet I didn’t give in. I sucked on her lower lip while my fingers grazed her cheeks. I touched a wisp of her hair, soft as silk, as she continued to look at me while I was kissing her. My tongue entered her mouth again, deeper still as my fingers dug into her hips. I felt her trying to get closer to me and pressed her against the glass door. When I felt her fingers touch my skin under the shirt I was wearing, I pulled away even though I didn’t want to. If I had my way I would kiss her into eternity. She looked confused and very much affected. I touched her face and ran my hands down her hair. Soundlessly she took my hand and placed a kiss on my palm. I took her lips for one more kiss before I led us both back into the house.
A short while later we found ourselves sitting downstairs watching television. I had my arm wrapped over her shoulders and her head was resting on my chest. When a baseball commercial came on she stood up in a rush and went to her room. She came back with her hands behind her.
“Chilbong-ah, you’d never guess what I found the other day!” She exclaimed. Putting her hands in front of her I spotted a baseball. “Ta da!” She presented it to me with a flourish. “It’s the baseball you gave me when I went to your game that time!” I could only look at the baseball, disbelieving that she kept it after all these years. “Yah, Mr. Major Leaguer, can you sign it for me?”
I shook my head no. “I want you to sign it for me instead. Write something nice and I’ll take it with me when I leave.”
“What should I write?” she asked. “Fighting?”
“Anything you want Na Jeong-ah. Anything you want.”
“Okay,” she said. Taking a pen out of the table, she started writing, covering the ball with her hands. “Don’t look! You can’t read it until you’re in America okay? That’s still two weeks from now. Maybe I should hold onto it until then.”
“I promise I won’t look. I’ll put it in a box. You can give it to me now.” Giving her my best trust me look, she hesitated for a moment then gave me the ball. True to my word, I took it straight to my room where I slipped it into a small box before depositing it into my suitcase. Something on my table caught the corner of my eye and I grabbed it before I went back to the living room where Na Jeong was waiting.
“Since I took the ball, I have something to give you for compensation.” I held a charm in front of her. “I bought this in Japan, it’s a charm for road safety. You can have it. You can hang it on your phone.”
I put my palm out for her phone and she handed it over. I attached the charm within minutes and said, “It’s to make sure you stay safe while driving.”
“Yah! I’m a safe driver! What are you trying to say?”
“I’m not saying anything. Let’s hope it works for all the other people you have to drive on the road with.” Her face colored and she hit my shoulder until I pulled her onto my lap. “I’m just kidding.”
We sat side by side quietly just holding hands and knees touching when I glanced at the clock. 11pm. The time went by so fast. I looked to my right and noticed that Na Jeong had fallen asleep. As gently as possible I lifted her from the couch and carried her to bed.
Once I put her down, I allowed myself to feel everything I’ve tried to control all day. Looking at her face, I tried to memorize her features: her beautiful eyes, her delicate nose, her high cheekbones, her pretty lips. Running my hand down her cheek, she nuzzled it as if even in dreams she knew it was me. I smoothed her hair onto the pillow and closed her curtains. Then I sat and watched her sleep for a little while, my heart breaking with each minute. I looked at the clock. 12am. Time to go. Standing up, I took one more look at her and tucked her in one last time. When a smile formed on her face as I was tucking her in, I felt my eyes fill with tears. A lump formed in my throat and I knew I had to get out of her room before I wavered. Turning her lamp off, I pulled a letter out of my back pocket, placed it on her table and left the room.
By the time I closed her door, Dong Joon was already home.
“Are you ready?” he asked. At my nod, he spoke again. “Joon-ah, are you sure? There’s still two weeks left…”
“I’m all packed up. Let me grab my stuff and we can be on our way.” I went into my room, grabbed the suitcase, and made my bed in Sincheon Boarding House one final time. I quickly packed the rest of my belongings in a box and put it in a corner of the room. I made a mental note to send an email to Haitai, Samcheonpo and Yoon Jin when I arrive in America. I reminded myself to call Omma and Coach-nim once I have settled in.
Walking out of the house I finally let the tears fall. Pulling my cap lower to hide my eyes, I quickly placed my suitcase in the trunk of the car. My Manager Hyung was standing by the car and Dong Joon was already in the back seat waiting for me.
“There’s no traffic to Incheon international Airport yet so we should make it with plenty of time,” I heard my Manager Hyung say as he turned on the ignition and pulled out onto the road.
“Okay,” I responded, turning away from Dong Joon, who was worriedly looking at me. When he placed his hand on my shoulder, I tried to push it away. But when his hand stayed and held on even stronger, my silent tears became audible sobs and the tears started falling even harder. I knew it was going to be hard to walk away from her, but I didn’t realize it would hurt this much.
With the shadow of Sincheon Boarding House fading away from my periphery, I bid Sung Na Jeong and my innocent youth goodbye.
January 19, 2000
I woke up to the sound of the television blaring. I had hoped Chilbong was going to wake me up again today like he did yesterday but with everyone in the house I suppose that was impossible.
Remembering yesterday I felt more confused than ever. Getting up out of bed I reassured myself that Chilbong and I had plenty of time to talk things over. Two weeks is plenty of time to figure something out.
Groggily I dragged myself out of bed and walked out my room. Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin and Hai Tai were all in the living room with cups of coffee and bread on the floor.
“What are you all doing here?”
“Breakfast,” Samcheonpo replied. “Omma left early to see Coach-nim so we just decided to eat light this morning. I was watching the news earlier and heard them say Chilbong’s name so we decided to watch. Where is he anyway?” he asked, looking around. Yoon Jin shrugged her shoulders.
“Why would he want to watch himself on television? Does that even make sense?” Haitai asked Samcheonpo. “Besides he’s probably already out on his daily run.”
I looked at Chilbong’s door, which was still closed. I walked over and was about to knock when I heard Yoon Jin’s voice.
“Shhh… They’re showing his picture now. I bet the news will soon follow.” I followed her eyes to the screen where a picture of Chilbong was being shown.
“This morning at 5 am Major League baseball player Kim Jae Joon-ssi was spotted in Incheon International Airport checking in for his flight to the United States. Kim Jae Joon-ssi, who recently signed a contract with the San Francisco Giants was supposed to leave Korea two weeks from now but we were informed by his manager that his departure was moved up. The exact amount of this contract is not known, but it has been widely speculated that it is for over 2 million US dollars. Kim Jae Joon-ssi, a graduate of the prestigious Yonsei University, declined any interviews but did however release a statement thanking his fans and asking for their continued support.”
I stared at the screen, transfixed. I felt Yoon Jin looking closely at me, no doubt wondering if he had told me anything. Just then Binggrae entered the house.
“Yah did you know Chilbong was leaving?” Hai Tai asked him accusingly.
“Uhm… Yeah, I just took him to the airport.” Looking at everyone but me, he added, “He said he’ll let you guys know when his plane arrives.”
“Why did he leave all of a sudden? That bad guy, not even letting his friends throw him a goodbye party,” Samcheonpo bristled.
“I don’t know why he had to leave. He didn’t tell me,” Binggrae replied. “He just said he had to leave.” As he spoke, a shot of Chilbong surrounded by reporters flashed onto the screen, then of him disappearing behind the boarding gate.
“It is impossible to determine when Mr. Kim will will be coming back but it is safe to say that he might wait until his contract is completed. His manager promised us an exclusive interview when he returns to Korea and we will certainly keep you abreast of any developments.
Next, are we going to have another hot summer? Stay tuned for a weather prediction from our resident meteorologist after the break.”
For a few minutes I was frozen in place. I mentally scanned my brain for any clues I might have missed. Yesterday felt like a dream, and now I know why. He knew he was leaving when he woke me up, I realized. Panicked I burst into his room and saw the empty shelves. Frantically I opened the drawers and found nothing. Looking around his room I spotted a lone box in the corner. That’s it. That’s all that is left in the room that proved that he had even been here. I saw a towel on top of the box, and lifting it to my nose, I smelled Chilbong’s scent. I took my hands off the box and walked back out to the living room.
There has to be an explanation, I thought.Something must have happened. Feeling everyone’s eyes on me, I started retracing all the places we were at in the house last night. When my search proved unsuccessful, with rising anxiety I made my way back to my room. From my doorway I spotted a folded piece of paper with Chilbong’s handwriting. My hands trembling and my heart in my throat, I walked over and picked it up. Reading the letter, my tears began to fall. My knees soon gave way underneath me and I fell to the ground.
When Yoon Jin entered my room a few minutes later, I was still crying on the floor.
“Na Jeong-ah…” she started, but paused when she saw my face. This is a dream, I thought.Yesterday was real and this is just a dream.
“Yoon Jin-ah, did Chilbong go for his run this morning?” I asked, my voice not sounding like my own.
I touched my cheeks, wet with tears, and marveled at how real this dream felt. When I looked at her, she was looking back at me sadly. “Na Jeong-ah, no. Chilbong left. He’s gone.” Even as I was hearing her say it, I was shaking my head in denial.This is just a really bad dream.Yoon Jin came closer and tried to put her arms around me.
“Don’t touch me. DON’T TOUCH ME!” I screamed.Please don’t touch me. If you touch me then I’ll know this is real. It can’t be real. Chilbong would never leave me.
I watched Yoon Jin’s hand as she pried my fingers away from the towel I was still holding. At the touch of her hand it dawned on me that this was my new reality and I started shaking uncontrollably, sobs coming in full force. The letter fell from my hands onto the floor and she picked it up to read.
Do you know why I asked how you feel about me? It’s because I sincerely wanted to know if you knew how you felt. I am not the smartest man. There are a lot of things I don’t know. But I know you.
You’re impetuous, passionate, impulsive and unthinking at times. I love that about you but it scares me too. Because when I’m with you I allow myself to be carried away. It’s so easy to get lost with you. But the problem is that you are doing those things without thinking whereas I should and do know better. To you you’re just going with the flow, having fun, seeing where things go while I’m thinking about tomorrow and forever.
I know I made you question how I felt for you too. So this is not your fault. Five years ago I told you I liked you. When you didn’t like me back, I convinced myself that maybe I just didn’t do enough. So this time I thought I would just show you instead of telling you. But no matter what I do, it seems that it will never be enough.
Because here’s the thing. I am just going to say it clearly, so you don’t get confused. I am in love with you. Given the chance I can fall even more in love with you every day. I can do the long distance relationship thing with you. I can do the big wedding and the cheesy dance that you scoffed at if you want me to. I can make you my wife and I can have children with you. I can walk with you through all your life’s journey, as in love with you now and every version of you that you become. I can lay my future at your feet and promise to still tell you you’re beautiful even when we’re old and gray. I can do all that. I can really be WITH you. But the problem is when I go in, I go all in. And I can’t do that when you’re still so unsure about so many things.
If I was still the same person from five years ago, I would have said take your time. I will be right here. Unfortunately I am not that same person anymore. The man I’ve become is greedy, selfish and impatient. I won’t share you. All your smiles, all your tears, your past, your present, your future… I want them all for me.
I’ve loved you for seven years. Even when I didn’t love you, I still loved you. Even if it was just the promise of you, it was still you. I look back on my past and despite all I’ve had to go through, I only remember you. I loved you from the beginning and I love you still. I can keep telling you I love you as many times as you can stand hearing it but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re not ready for everything I have to offer, and I’m not willing to wait. Not anymore. This is as far as my heart will allow me to go,
If I hurt you in any way by making this decision, I’m sorry. The pain will soon pass. Just like time and just like our memories.
We won’t see each other again, but know that I only wish the best for you. Na Jeong-ah, find your way. Make your decisions well. Don’t be afraid to take chances. See yourself the way I’ve always seen you.
Na Jeong-ah, goodbye.