July 20, 2001
My phone rang as I was taking a shower. Stepping out as quickly as I could, I grabbed a towel and put it around me as I hit the button to answer the call without even looking to see who might be calling. I’ve been on pins and needles all day. I haven’t spoken to Joon in two days, his phone either going unanswered or straight to voicemail.
I scoured the news articles online but found nothing… Only that their team won their game a few days ago. He hasn’t pitched in a few days, but that’s nothing abnormal. He’s mentioned before that they do that when his shoulder starts getting stiff to give him time for physical therapy.
What if he got in an accident? What if something had happened? He only has Jin-ie Oppa there… Who will sign for all his papers?
My heart in my stomach, I gingerly placed the phone to my ear. I heard a male voice speak from the other line.
“Na Jeong-ah,” I heard the voice say. “It’s Jung Jin Oppa.”
“Jin-ie Oppa. Thank God,” I answered, breathing a sigh of relief. “I’m sorry I left you some voice mails…”
“Na Jeong-ah… You left me fifteen voicemails,” he said. “But it’s okay. Joon warned me how persistent you are.”
“Is he sick?” I asked. When I didn’t hear a response right away, I concluded that it was, indeed, that. “The last time he was like this it only took a couple of days to recover. He’s really…”
“Na Jeong-ah, Joon was injured,” Jin-ie Oppa interrupted, his voice somber.
Injured. At the mention of the word, I closed my eyes and leaned against the sink. “How bad is it?” I asked, my voice hesitant.
I heard silence for a few beats before I heard a breath released. As if he didn’t know whether to tell me but has resigned himself to the fact that he needed to.
“It’s bad. He doesn’t know it yet. He passed out after the game and hasn’t been lucid enough to speak to the surgeon.”
“Hold on… Surgeon? What happened to the team doctor?” I questioned, my voice shaky. “Why is he being managed by a surgeon now?” I forced myself to stay calm. Now is not the time for hysterics, I reminded myself.
“He’s in the hospital. I had to call the ambulance when he lost consciousness.”
“Is he in pain still?” My voice sounded strong even though I was panicking inside. Hospitals and ambulances come with very bad memories. I heard him say a soft no before I continued. “I can grab a flight tomorrow. I’ll be there on…”
“You should speak to Joon first, then decide what to do,” he advised gently. “You know he doesn’t like being crowded.” He was silent for a few seconds before he spoke, his voice even lower this time. “He’s awake. I have to go.”
“Jin-ie Oppa, call me later… Or have him call me later. Please.”
“Yeah. Okay. I’ll call you later.” I heard the line end and knew he had hung up the phone.
I stayed in the bathroom, my fingers lingering over my ring listlessly. I wonderered how Joon was doing, what he was thinking. I wish I could just hear his voice and talk to him. I wish that I could hold him close and reassure him it will be okay. But we don’t have any answers yet… We have to wait. Like our lives have been the last few months, we have to wait.
Incheon International Airport
July 26, 2001
I exited the cab and walked through the entrance of the airport. Looking up at the board in front of me, I checked to make sure Joon’s flight landed half an hour ago as was scheduled. After confirming, I started walking towards the arrival gate in quick steps. I was barely aware of the people passing aware all around me I was so focused on just seeing him with my own eyes, of reassuring myself that he’s doing okay.
My heart was nervous, apprehensive. It’s only been less than a week since Joon’s injury, but everything already felt so different. Words from a long time ago… Words that Joon said, came back to me. I don’t know if it’s so much that I love baseball or that it loves me. Like a father, it disciplines me, telling me to work harder and strive higher. Like a mother, it took me into its arms and allowed me to grow. Being good at baseball made me into someone acceptable, someone respectable. It gave me a place to belong. I put my hand to my forehead and tried to rub my worry away. Joon has based so much of how he perceives himself on being a baseball player. All of his plans… All of his dreams… They were all contingent on that one part of his life.
He still hasn’t told me what the second surgeon said, which in itself is quite telling. I hadn’t expected a miracle, having looked up his injury and treatment options online, but I also thought for sure that whatever the outcome had been that he would have let me know. I had been tempted to yell at him about this, but I hadn’t been able to get in touch with him. And when we finally spoke right before he left America, he sounded so… Emotionless. His voice had been flat. It was then that I realized that I had to be extremely careful and watch how I approached him. There’s a time for aggression and there’s a time for understanding, and never having gone through anything like this with anyone ever, I had to walk a fine line between both. I know myself, and I know how I would react, but I am not Joon.
I frantically searched for the presence of reporters, usually the biggest clue as to where he is. When I didn’t find any, I thought I had missed them. I scanned the faces of the crowd coming towards me and my heart stopped when I saw him walking towards the exit, his head down and his cap covering his face. Anger burst inside me when I realized that those same reporters who invaded his life and lauded his abilities when he was on top, were not here to welcome him home. My hands fisted around the handle of my bag and I forced myself to take some deep breaths. I was still calming myself down when our eyes met. His eyes looked empty and lost. A lump formed in my throat… This was not how I thought he would be coming home. I started walking towards him slowly, then my feet sped up to their own accord until I was running. I saw as he dropped his bag and started running too, his strides towards me confident and sure. I didn’t stop until at last, I held him in my arms.
Wrapping my arms around his waist, I held on adamantly even as I felt him resisting and trying to pull away. As if he realized I wasn’t letting go, I felt his body relax and loosen against me. My body trembled and he took a deep breath, as if he’s been holding it in and clutched at me so tightly I could feel his heart beating against my chest. He placed a kiss on the top of my head and when I lifted my head to look over his shoulder, Jung Jin Oppa gave me a small smile. I intertwined my fingers with Joon’s even as we pulled apart. We walked out of the airport together, Jin-ie Oppa following right behind us.
As we waited for him to bring the car around, i finally allowed myself to take a long look at Joon, his face in profile as he stared out, his mouth set in a firm line. His gaze appeared unfocused. My heart squeezed inside me at what he may be feeling, at what he won’t allow himself to tell me.
He’ll open up, I told myself. Give him time. At least he is here. He is home, and I am with him in this. Everything will work out fine.
July 31, 2001
Na Jeong was sitting next to me on the couch, talking on the phone with Yoon Jin. She had her feet on my lap and I leaned back and tried to ignore the pain in my shoulder. I have been trying to decrease my intake of pain medications. I don’t like how they make me feel. I feel out of touch and constantly out of it. Days are passing by without notice, one day blending into the next without my realizing it. I haven’t taken any today and I already feel better. My shoulder hurts but at least my mind was sharp.
I sat down with a blank sheet of paper in front of me. I need to figure out a plan and investigate the possibilities for my life before I make a decision about surgery. Lists always worked for Na Jeong and I started doing it too. Ignoring the twinge of pain even as I lifted the pen, I began writing down things that I could do instead of baseball.
1. Become a pitching coach – Call Hyung and ask for contact numbers.
2. Open a baseball academy – Go to bank and ask for loan
3. Find a regular job
I looked at my list. Surely one of these will work out for me. Na Jeong finished her call and leaned over my shoulder to see what I was doing.
“What’s that?” She asked, popping a grape into my mouth.
“Contingency plans,” I responded, chewing. When she sniffled I narrowed my eyes at her. “You okay?”
“Yeah… I’m just getting over a bug. I finished the last of my antibiotics last night.” She ran her fingers through my hair and looked at me closely. “Does that mean you won’t be getting surgery?”
“I don’t know yet. The rehab will take a lot of time. I don’t have that. I’ll lose my momentum and it’ll be years until I might get scouted by an international team again.” The more I read about surgery, the more concerned I became. The surgery is not foolproof and there’s no assurance that I will be able to go back to playing. She nodded and picked up a strawberry to eat.
“I like your list,” she commented. “But why so short? The sky’s the limit, no?”
“Na Jeong-ah… We’ll start with this list and then go from there.” Putting her feet down on the floor, I stood up and put the list on the fridge, securing it with a magnet. It wasn’t long until I felt her arms hugging me from behind.
“It’ll be okay, you know that, right?” She whispered.
“Yeah, I know.” I turned around and tucked her head onto my chest, cringing as the ache in my shoulder sharpened. She lifted her head and looked at me. “I love you.”
“I love you more. Have you taken your medication?” She asked, eyes narrowed.
“Not yet… You know I don’t like taking it,” I said. “I don’t feel like myself when I’m on them. I can’t think and nothing makes sense.”
“But you also don’t get to be in pain.” She walked over to the drawer and pulled out the bottle of pills. “You don’t have to take two,” she said, reading the instructions. “You can just take one.” She took one pill out of the bottle and went back to where I stood. “If you take this, I’ll let you kiss me,” she said, eyes smiling.
“I can already kiss you,” I responded.
She looked like she was thinking about something. “Hmm, you’re right… Fine… If you take this, I’ll kiss you,” she started, then stood on tiptoes to whisper in my ear. “Anywhere you want me to.”
I grabbed the pill from her hand and swallowed it without any water. Her eyes widened then she reached behind me to the fridge door to open it and grab a bottle of juice. She handed it to me after opening it and I took a big gulp. She took my lips in a kiss before the liquid could even dry on my lips. Her mouth teased mine and I felt her lips suck on my tongue before she pulled away.
“Hey… I never specified my prize yet,” I complained. “That’s not fair… Shouldn’t…”
“Kim Jae Joon… That was for me, not you,” she replied. “You want to claim your reward, you’ll have to catch me first.” Na Jeong ran towards the bedroom, laughing.
With my list on the fridge and Na Jeong’s laugh echoing in the apartment, it was the first time since I’ve been injured that I felt good, normal even. Well… As normal as I could feel without my usual daily regimen.
Maybe there can be more to my life beyond baseball. This was the thought in my head as I followed her to the bedroom. By the time I reached the door, Na Jeong was already sitting on the side of the bed waiting for me. I walked over to her until I was standing right in front of her and she put her hands up.
“Joon-ah… You’re injured,” she said, as she lifted my shirt up over my head. “You just take it easy… I’ll do everything.” I closed my eyes as I felt her lips on my injured shoulder then onto my neck and then down my chest. As her fingers traveled the path her lips took, I thought to myself that this injured thing isn’t that bad.
Na Jeong is still here and she doesn’t treat me any differently than she did before the injury, so it will be fine. For the first time since I got injured, I allowed myself to hope that I could be more than just a baseball player. I never thought the day would ever come that I would need to be anything else, but looking at Na Jeong looking at me so lovingly, I never thought I’d become her man either. Stranger things have happened.
August 3, 2001
I was debating whether to take a walk or wait for Na Jeong to come over from work when I heard my phone ring. After meandering about for a few days, I had made some calls on Friday and left messages to all the professional Korean baseball teams to enquire whether any of them were looking for a pitching coach. No one has called me back yet.
Hyung said that the opportunities were slim, but I still held out hope that they can give me a chance. I know I have no coaching experience, but I’ve been playing baseball for sixteen years. Surely there’s no greater experience on my resume than that.
Pushing the CALL button, I forced myself to sound casual and not over eager before I spoke.
“Hello,” I said.
“Kim Jae Joon-ssi? This is Sun Dong Yol-ssi, from the KIA Tigers. I received your message this morning. ”
“Ah yes,” I said. “I was hoping that you had an opening in your team for a pitching coach, or an assistant coach even. I’m ready to learn, and I am willing to start from any level.”
I hoped he couldn’t detect the nervousness in my voice.
“We don’t have any openings right now,” he said, as my heart dropped. “But I’ll keep you in mind. Thank you for calling.” He hung up the phone before I could ask him any questions. I closed my phone and told myself that it’s okay. I have seven more teams to hear from. It’s only been one day. I’ve contacted all the professional baseball teams but one, and I am putting a lot of my hope on this.
To keep myself from going insane, I grabbed a water bottle from the fridge and decided to take the walk. I shrugged into my sweatshirt and zipped myself up, putting my hood up over my head. I don’t want to be recognized. I don’t want any questions. I just want to clear my head.
Ignoring the pain throbbing on my right shoulder, I walk out the door as I heard my apartment phone ring. They’ll leave a message, I thought. I’m not going to be someone that sits and waits by the phone.
Taking the stairs down, I relished the feeling of moving again. Staying still, not anchored by a routine, a routine I’ve done for sixteen years, is more unsettling to me than anything else. I am a man who flourishes with a schedule. When I finally stepped out, I saw that the sun was shining brightly and instantly I felt better. The birds were chirping and the cars were moving at a constant pace. I’ve missed Seoul… The noises and the smell. I felt a kinship with this city.
Passing by the neighborhood park, I spotted some children in uniforms playing baseball. Unable to help myself, I walk over to the field and sat down on the bleachers. The baseball field has always been my first home. Always the first. Until Sincheon Boarding House, it was my only home. There was no other place that made me feel like myself. Not knowing when I will step onto the pitchers mound again, I felt unrooted and displaced. When I saw the pitcher, a boy of about thirteen years old, take the mound, it brought me back to the first time I was allowed to pitch for a game.
I was twelve when I was finally allowed to start as a pitcher. I can see it in my mind now, how that day was. It was a spring day, the grass was green as I walked to the field. Once I got there I looked around and saw that my teammates were all already there. They barely spared me a glance as I got ready, but I didn’t care. I was one of only two twelve year olds in the team and I was starting as a pitcher. That’s all that mattered.
I remember the way they all looked at me when I first joined two years before.The coach had ushered me into the locker room after seeing me throw in the park. He invited me to practice with the team, said I had potential and I accepted, not really knowing what he meant and bolstered by the pleasure of being acknowledged by someone. I had nothing to do and I would rather be outside playing than go back to Appa’s house. I’m not very good at studying, either, so the choice had been clear.
The other players had looked at me with narrowed eyes, suspicion pouring out of their gazes. I knew what they saw and I could practically hear their minds turning. Little rich boy… I bet your father bought your way into this too… Must be nice to have all that money. Part of me had wanted to disappear into the ground, to hold my hands up and say that I just wanted to be part of something. Whatever it was, just… Something… anything. Yet there had also been another part of me… Defiant and angry, who wanted to be different, who wanted to be special. I trained for two years and pushed my body harder as it grew into itself, long arms and long legs, strong shoulders and back. Rain or shine, I was on a field… Somewhere. Alone, always alone, but it didn’t matter.
It took me two years to get to that mound, to even be allowed to pitch first. I’ve worked hard. I deserved this chance. I remember the way the sun beat at my back, the dust that blew from the ground underneath my feet. I remember tipping my hat once, then twice, and then three times for luck before powdering my hands and grasping the baseball twice. My catcher motioned for a fastball and I prepared my throw… The way I was taught to, the way I always did even now. The ball had zoomed out of my hand and straight to the catcher’s mitt, the bat did not even had the chance to make contact. As soon as I heard Strike, I recognized the thrill of satisfaction. The pleasure in having accomplished a goal for the first time in my life.
I had played the game consistently, my body taking over by instinct, to do what it had been trained to do for two years. I threw for the boy that my Omma left behind. I threw for the boy that my Appa ignored. I threw for the boy whose name came stamped with “divorced parents” and “outcast”. At least, that time, even if it was just for a few hours, I changed from that poor rich boy to the boy who pitched well.
When at last the game was won by our team, I was enfolded in a sea of arms and cheers. It was the first time that my team had included me in anything. I savored the feeling of acceptance for the minutes I was given, and then it was over all too soon. I watched as my teammates dispersed to their loved ones on the bleachers, who were waving banners and cheering for them. I had been so caught up in the game that I didn’t even notice that everyone had someone. Except for me. As I packed up my gear and started made my way out of the field, I felt eyes following me and I almost felt myself transform again, back to that pathetic little boy whose parents couldn’t even be bothered to show up to practice or a game.
I had walked home slowly, replaying the game in my mind and allowing myself to enjoy the feeling of victory. I walked into Appa’s empty house and went to the kitchen without bothering to even change out of my baseball uniform. I looked in the cupboard to see nothing but a bag of rice and some snacks. I dug into the back and saw that there was still one ramyun packet left. Pulling it out, I took some green onions, mushrooms and peppers from the fridge, as well as two eggs. It’s been a good day, and I need to celebrate it some way. Smiling, I thought to myself that this will become my trademark ramyun.
When it was done, I brought the little pot to the table and started eating straight from the pot, blowing on the noodles to cool it down.
“You did well, Kim Jae Joon… You did well…” I whispered to myself with a smile.
I had wondered briefly if this was how it was always going to be, whether my parents might actually care one day that I found something I am good at doing, whether they will ever want to share this with me. Why would they, I asked myself. I’ve seen pictures of them before I was born. They looked in love, happy. But no pictures of them together existed since I’d been alive. At least none that I had been allowed to see. I remembered the fights before they separated, each of them volleying me back, unwilling and undesirous to take accountability and responsibility for the child neither of them wanted, but existed anyway. Appa lost by default of the fact that he didn’t get to leave first. I felt myself getting sad as I ate my ramyun on my own and to bring myself back up, I had closed my eyes and remembered how it felt to be outside, under the sun, being exulted for my talent. I wanted to have that feeling for the rest of my life. Everyone else can have their families. I will be happy with baseball.
I may have only been twelve, but I understood even then that baseball gave me my chance. For emancipation. For redemption. Baseball will be my way out. I will never need validation from my parents or anyone again. I honestly thought that if I just put all of myself into baseball, that it will pay off. And it did. Whatever God given talent I had been born with, the rest I honed on my own with my ten thousand hours… Actually more than that now. Ever since I had been ten years old, all my time had been invested in myself and my future with baseball.
A baseball landing by my feet snapped me out of my reverie. I picked it up and allowed my fingers to wrap around it before throwing it back to the boys who were calling out for it. The ball landed ineffectively not even four feet from me as my shoulder defied me. Cruelly jolted back to the reality of my situation, I tried to tell myself that it will be okay. My life was built on baseball. All the people I have in my life are here because I met them through baseball. I would never have met Na Jeong had I not gone to Yonsei to play ball. Baseball will come through for me… It had to.
I walked out of the field quickly and checking my watch, realized that Na Jeong should be coming home now. I briskly made my way back to the apartment. Once I got there, I allowed myself some time to steady my nerves before listening to my answering machine. I carefully measured the rice and put it on the rice cooker. I leisurely took a shower and dressed myself slowly. Unable to even lift my arm through the shirt hole, I stayed shirtless, dressed only in sweatpants when I finally sat down with a notebook and pressed the PLAY button on the machine.
I looked at my list on my notebook, and quickly crossed off the third on my list. The Kia Tigers are out. There are still seven more… Seven more.
“Kim Jae Joon-ssi, this is Kim Si Jin with the Lotte Giants. I got your message, and I’m sorry to say we’re not looking for a pitching coach at this time,” the message said. “But if you’re pitching again, let me know. Thanks.”
I stared at the paper in front of me and crossed off another name, even as another message started playing already.
“Kim Jae Joon-ssi, this is Lee Man Soo, the manager of the SK Wyverns. Sorry to tell you this, but we don’t have any openings right now. Do you want to come meet the team though? Some of them remember you from Yonsei. Let me know.”
“Mr. Kim… This is Kim Eung Ryeong from the Hanhwa Eagles. We are looking at your resume, and though we have an opening for a coach, it is for head coach and not pitching. The only experience you have is pitching, so I’m afraid we cannot use you. Thanks for calling.”
I crossed off two more teams from the list on my notebook, my ears barely registering the other messages playing. Each message was like a betrayal, as if my baseball family was abandoning me one by one. By the time I got to the last message, six names have been crossed off. All those same teams wanted me to play baseball for them. Back when I was on top. Back when I was wanted. By the time I got to the last message, I had drawn so many lines on my notebook that the page had started to tear. I was about to press the PAUSE button when I saw Na Jeong enter the apartment. She smiled at me and stood next to me before I could erase the last message.
“Have they started calling, Jagiya? The baseball teams?” She asked brightly, putting a palm on my back.
“No, not yet,” I said, the lie rolling easily off my tongue.
“They’ll call,” she reassured me. “After all, you’re Kim Jae Joon.” She pressed a kiss onto my mouth before she turned her attention back to the answering machine. “Look there’s a message now,” she said, pressing the PLAY button.
“Ahh… Kim Jae Joon-ssi, this is Ryu Joong-Il from the Samsung Lions,” he cleared his breath even as I held mine in. Last chance… I thought. One last chance. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, but I had just gotten back to the office. Are you available for an interview on the 9th? I will be making a trip to Seoul that day from Daegu and I can meet you at The Ritz Carlton at Bongeunsa-ro in Gangnam-gu, let’s say 7 p.m. I’ve made reservations at the Hanazono restaurant. Please let me know if this is convenient for you. I’m looking forward to your call.”
“See? I told you it would work out!” Na Jeong said next to me as she wrapped her arms around my waist. I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief even as I started writing all the details down.
“Jagiya, should we go out tonight? To celebrate?” I asked her.
“Aigoo… Let’s celebrate when you get the job, hmm? We need to start saving up some money till then.” I nodded and she lifted two bags of groceries. “Besides, I already went to the store and got us something to cook tonight… It’s samgyetang! You like it, right?” She walked towards the direction of the kitchen even as she continued to speak. ‘Wait til you taste mine…”
I pick up the phone and leave a message with Ryu Joong Il-ssi’s secretary about the appointment. This is going to work out, I told myself as I listened to Na Jeong talk about her day. That night when I fell asleep with her arms wrapped around me, I allowed myself some measure of peace.
This has to work out.
August 7, 2001
I sat on the couch listening to the television absently as Na Jeong took a shower. I got up and hid the paperwork that I got earlier when I had gone to my appointment. I hope she doesn’t remember that I was supposed to be there today.
Sitting back down, I watched whatever program was on tv, but my mind was restless… I was still trying to wrap my head around what I was told by the bank when I enquired about the possibility of obtaining a loan for a baseball academy. The loan officer had looked at me with sympathetic eyes as he looked at the papers and financial reports that I’ve brought with me.
“Kim Jae Joon-ssi,” he had said. “Your past income and records were great. But unfortunately we have to base your creditworthiness on not only your past history but your present and future income as well. Looking at all your documents, most of your properties cannot be converted to cash quickly. And though you have investments, they are in long term bonds, they haven’t matured yet and you cannot withdraw them for at least five more years for you to even get any profit. You have less than 1 billion won in available cash. The only collateral you have that we can accept is your apartment in Gangnam-do. I’m assuming that is your primary residence?” When I nodded, he continued. “Baseball is a seasonal business and setting up an academy based on that would be risky for both the bank and you. Honestly, if that fails, you will lose your home. You have no present income, but what about projections?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I had responded uneasily. I thought about my CFs, which are still generating some income at the moment, but realized that those will be up for renewal soon and it’s very likely I will lose them too. My phone doesn’t ring as often with offers as it used to.
“… Your image is an invaluable asset. But you on paper is what we call an ‘unstable investment’. You have no real credit history or known success with a business. This could very well change if you had a co-applicant, one with a proven track record. You wouldn’t by any chance have anyone you can apply with, would you?” When I shook my head no, he perused me with searching eyes. “Mr. Kim… Your father has been a loyal customer of this bank for many years. He has a well-established portfolio. The loan process will be more favorable to you if you were to apply with him.”
“No,” I vehemently responded. My father didn’t even pay for my college education. I earned that Yonsei University scholarship on my own. I had thought about how my father would shake his head at me and say I told you so before holding this over my head for the rest of my life. I shook my head again before I responded. “No… I am doing this on my own.”
“I know you haven’t drafted an official business plan. I have, however, seen other baseball based business proposals and most of them have failed. Baseball, unfortunately, does not have quite the same following here as it does in the United States or even Japan. I’m not entirely sure how profitable it will be in this country, but I am sure that your start-up costs will eat up most, if not all of your available cash. The rental cost in Seoul for a facility is expensive and the key money alone will be more than what you have currently in your account at the moment. Not factoring in equipment cost, utilities, staff salary if you were to hire people… The list goes on and on. In essence, if you were to apply now, I’m afraid your application would not even pass through the next step. Your name is well known, but as of present, it cannot pay a loan back. I’m sorry.”
My right shoulder throbbed angrily, making my eyes water in pain. I looked up to see Na Jeong watching me from the hallway, her eyes worried. Her hair was still wet, and she wore one of my shirts with a pair of leggings. Grabbing my pills from the cabinet and a water bottle from the fridge, she then walked over to me, her phone in her hand. Sitting herself on the coffee table in front of me, she placed her phone, the bottle of pills and water down before she took my hands in hers.
“Jagiya… Your hands are so cold,” she said, meeting my eyes. “Are you in pain?” When I didn’t say anything, she opened the bottle of pills and handed me one to take. I took it and a drink of the water she brought. She smiled at me and placed a kiss on my forehead. Lifting my left arm, she climbed onto the couch and put it around her. “Joon-ah…How… How did it go at the bank?”
I swallowed more water before I answered her. “It was…” A disaster. “It was fine.” She didn’t say anything else but just nodded. I enjoyed the feel of her against me and the smell of her hair before she stood up. “Should I start dinner?” I looked at her then and not really having an appetite, I wanted to tell her not to bother. But she brought her face close to mine before saying, “The kkakdugi we made should be ready.” She placed a peck on my lips before sauntering away. I smiled as I watched her walk off and wondered what I would do without her.
Her phone buzzed on the table and I picked it up in time to see the preview of the incoming message. I put it back down after I read it.
Na Jeong-ah… Same time, same place Wednesday? Oppa.
I looked at her getting the table ready in the kitchen and debated asking her about it. It’s not that I don’t trust her. I don’t trust him. I have no doubt in my mind that he would try to get her back if he saw that we were struggling in any way. Does she still love him?
To this day, she still hasn’t told me exactly what went down. Did he break up with her? Or did she break up with him? I don’t know why but this matters to me. If she broke up with him, then it was her choice. If he broke up with her, then it’s very possible that she didn’t want to break up and she may still have unsettled feelings. I bet he’s just waiting for me to mess up… Just waiting for me to show that I can’t be the person that Na Jeong needs me to be before he swoops in and takes her back. He never gave me back my baseball, either.
“Jagiya, dinner’s ready…” She called from the kitchen.
I stood up and walked to the kitchen, taking her phone with me. I put it on the table and waited until she sat down before I spoke.
“You have a message,” I said. “From Jung Gook.” She smiled and picked up her phone. Reading the message swiftly, she put it back down on the table. “Same time? Same place?”
“Yeah, we meet every Wednesday for lunch,” she responded.
“Since when?” I asked. Every Wednesday? While she’s working?
“Since you left for America.”
“The first time or the second time?”
“Joon-ah… Does it matter?” She said, putting her spoon down. “I told you when I visited that he asked about you.”
“Why do you meet so often?” I asked. I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice, but it wasn’t working.
“Because we’re friends. We grew up together… We were…”
“You were together for a few years.” I said. Her eyes became cold as she looked at me.
“Joon-ah, what is your problem?” She asked. “I understand that it’s uncomfortable knowing that I have a friendship with Oppa still, but how do you think he feels?”
Are we playing this game again? Is this where we are again? Anger ran through me so quickly I was staggered by it. I felt myself wanting to get up and walk off, but I fought to keep myself sitting down. We are just having a normal conversation.
We ate in silence, with me not wanting to start a discussion and knowing that we will end up fighting, and her not having anything to say. Na Jeong and I have never ran out of things to say to each other. Never. We never found it difficult to talk about anything. But this…
This injury has made me paranoid and oversensitive. The pain medication makes me feel unbalanced and off guard. How do I erase everything that I remember from the past sixteen years? From my parents to Na Jeong… All those memories clashed in my head.
After dinner, I excused myself and went to bed. She didn’t ask why and I didn’t offer an reason. I went under the covers and prayed for a dreamless night. I just want to fall asleep without nightmares about my childhood, nightmares that have started since I’ve been home. I asked Jung Jin Hyung about it, but he said it might just be from stress. I don’t want to talk to Dong Joon about it… He will worry overly much and I would have to pretend that it doesn’t bother me. I always have to pretend. No one can know how dark my thoughts really go. They’ll look at me funny, look at me with pity.
I watched the lights flickering outside my window, unsure whether Na Jeong will be joining me in bed. I expected her to yell at me and draw me out, but she didn’t.
When I woke up again, I was in Sincheon Boarding House and it was snowing. It was snowing… I was standing on the balcony, watching Na Jeong walk up the porch crying. I wanted to call out to her, to make her notice that I was there, but she kept on walking, all the way into the house. I walked into the upstairs sitting room then down the stairs to her room. I peeked into her room and saw her clutching a picture close. His picture. Always his picture. I watched as she smiled at it now. “Oppaya, I love you. I have always loved only you.” The window cleared up and it was daytime. Na Jeong is in a dress… Her legs stretching for miles. Her yellow cardigan shone brightly like the sun. Her hair was short again, pulled halfway up with a clip. She was smiling to herself in the mirror. Was she going on a date with me? I almost smiled until I remembered. No… She’s going to a musical with him. Her steps light, she skipped to the front entrance… By the gate, before she took his hands and walked off.
The season changed and now it’s raining. I held an umbrella over her head as we walked together. Should I hold her hand? I thought to myself. Does she know how much I love her? Her mouth was smiling but her eyes were somewhere else. He approached us and she went under the rain to stand under his umbrella. Their arms linked together just as they always were. Just how everyone thought they always would be. She never looked back. Not even once. I’ve disappeared. I closed my eyes as somewhere inside me my heart cracked. When I opened my eyes again we were laying on the floor. There was a radio program on and it was dark. I laid on my side and watched her smile. Is she happy to be here with me? Hope awakened inside me until I saw her look over to her left with a secret smile. The smile is not for me. It’s for him, always him. Bitterness rose inside me and I’m unable to stop it. I wanted to scream at her, to beg of her to see me. But she wouldn’t turn. She doesn’t want to turn. I’m no one.
I blinked and she was sitting in front of me, pointing to my glass. Pour it up to here, she said. She’s mouthing words about heaters and floor mats. I listen to her speak because it’s the only thing she will allow me to do. This is enough, I think. I’ll be happy with this. The snow fell heavily now…and we were outside. I put my cap on her head. She doesn’t refuse. We walk home in silence and I ask her to consider dating me… In the future if she’s alone. I realize in an instant that she will never be alone. She will always have him. Always. In my mind I ask her to say no. She doesn’t. Instead she tells me to take care. She holds my hand and her fingers linger over mine. I want to ask her to let me go, but my traitorous heart grasped her hand and told me to hold on just a little bit longer. How long is longer? Maybe forever…
It will never be you, I heard her whisper. Never. At least not by choice. She smiles at him… Not the way she smiles at me. She was marrying him. Until he broke her heart. I would never have broken her heart. Not then. “I love you, Joon-ah,” her laughing eyes said. Why now? WHY NOW? WHY NOW?
I woke up, feeling like my shoulder is being stabbed. I hold it close to me, my body being the only thing that’s ever been my own. My breath is coming in gasps, and I had to force myself to breathe deeply into my lungs.
I glance to my left and see her face, asleep now, next to me. She’s here. She’s still here. She chose me, dammit. She chose me. In one instant, desperation clawed at me as I take her mouth in mine, my tongue meeting hers even as I knew she slept. Her eyes opened, confused, but her mouth softened against mine in surrender. I bury my head into her neck, my mouth devouring her taste and I felt her pulse jump wildly against my tongue. I’m lost and I’m drowning, my body tense with anger, tense with bitterness. I need to prove that she’s mine. I lifted her shirt up over her head, my mouth seeking her breasts. She ran her fingers through my hair even though she trembled, a moan escaping her mouth.
I close my eyes and let my body speak, unwilling to let her in even as I touched her. Don’t look at her. Don’t look at her. She can never know what you’re afraid of. Even as I pushed her underwear off and she opened her legs to allow me into her body, I closed my eyes. I could feel her watching me. Her worried eyes bore through me. Her fingers grasped my shoulders nervously, as if she was unsure that she was doing the right thing, before she tightened her hold and dug her fingers into my skin. The pain was comforting. I would have had her draw blood if she could. Even with our bodies joined, I felt like I was outside of myself, watching as she took me into her body, yet feeling like I was a million miles away. I kept my pace fast, wanting to finish this as quickly as possible. This was not an act of love, but possession. Even as I felt her contract around me and as I emptied myself in her, I felt no satisfaction. I felt nothing, nothing but guilt.
Aware that she would put her arms around me and ask me questions, I pulled away before she had the chance. I lifted myself off the bed and went to the bathroom without looking at her. Once I was there, I put both hands on my head and washed my face. I looked at myself in the mirror, and dull eyes stared back at me. Who are you? A little voice asked. What have you done? How can you do that? She loves you. I’ll make it up to her, I swear it. I’ll make it up to her.
I went back to the bedroom with heavy steps, not knowing what to say, but knowing that I had to say something. I climbed back on the bed only to see that she’d gone. I ran out of the apartment dressed only in sweatpants and down the elevator, panic eating me up. I saw her standing by the entrance, her face in profile. She was touching her ring. My mind chanted with the words I longed to say.
By the time I walked over to her, she had already gotten in the cab.
Forgive me, Na Jeong-ah. Forgive me.
August 8, 2001
By the time I realized what was happening, Joon was already on top of me, his mouth devouring mine in a way that I’ve never experienced before. There was no tenderness in his kiss, his tongue plundering mine. This is wrong, I thought. I feel no love coming from him. But even now my body betrayed me. Hungry for his touch, I responded instinctively, all of me begging for him to claim what’s his.
As he lifted my shirt over my head, his touch moved over my skin roughly, branding and marking everything he touched. I felt his mouth on my breasts, sucking in gulps, as if he needed me for his sanity. As if he needed me for life. It occurred to me then that I was powerless, even to this side of Joon. Even with this darkness my body trembled for him. Only for him.
As he joined his body to mine, I opened my eyes and looked at him. Expecting to see him watching me, like he always has, like he always did. I needed the connection… The unspoken words. A reminder of every promise he and I have ever made to each other and to us.
But as I looked up, my heart dropped. His eyes were closed. He’s already put the walls up against me. He was inside me but I was already losing him. And the worst part? I’m not losing him to another woman… Or anything else. What can you do when you’re losing the man you love to some inner demon he won’t even let you see?
Fueled by need, I did the only thing I could. I clutched at his shoulders and grabbed at his skin and held onto him like he was the only thing anchoring me at bay. Willing him to stay. Willing him to be here with me. Right now. As if this moment was all I had. Unthinking of the future, for the first time since I loved Joon I was willing to settle for whatever he could give me.
When we were done, he turned away and lifted himself off the bed. I watched, shame filling me, as he went straight to the bathroom without saying a word.
The next thing I knew, I had curled up in a ball… Wondering if this will be how I will lose him. In pieces. Over time. Silent tears come out and I muffle my sobs with the pillow, not knowing if I wanted or didn’t want for him to hear my cry. I felt humiliated… That my desire for him was so great that I willingly opened my body and my heart to an act that was not done out of love but of anger. Because that’s what it was. Though unsure of what he was angry at, I felt the rage simmering inside him. Even as he was inside me.
I cannot do this, I thought, as I lifted my body off the bed and gathered my clothes to get dressed. I threw what I could into my bag and made my way out of the door, my shoes in my hands. I was gone by the time he came back from the bathroom. I was already in the cab when I allowed myself to look at my phone. It was then that I realized that he never called me to come back.
August 9, 2001
I sat myself down on the floor mat at Hanazono. I straightened the papers out in front of me and looked at my watch. Wanting to make a good first impression, I got here fifteen minutes early and waited for Ryu Joong Il-ssi.
While waiting, I thought about the last few weeks. It has felt like I was losing my grasp on reality. Plagued by nightmares at night, I barely slept. Na Jeong doesn’t stay over with me anymore either. She barely speaks to me. After what happened two nights ago, I am lucky if she even meets my eyes. I can’t bear to look at her and see the disappointment on her face. I’ve tried to say I’m sorry but she wouldn’t even look at me long enough for me to be able to say the words.
The pain medication I take makes my stomach queasy still and I cannot eat. But given the choice between not eating or being in pain, I’d rather not eat. The pain, once intermittent, is so bad now that I can barely lift my right arm over shoulder height. I know, as the days go by, that the chances of being able to live like this without having surgery are disappearing. Pretty soon, I will have no choice but to have it.
Maybe, if I can get this job, I can take Na Jeong somewhere for the weekend, just the two of us. Maybe we can reconnect and I can show her that I am just as committed now as I was when we started. It’s just… It’s just that somewhere along the way, my ghosts found me and I got waylaid. I had managed to get away from them before… I can do it again.
I stood up as I saw a portly man enter the tatami room. Extending a hand, he took mine warmly before taking off his jacket. I waited until he was seated until I sat myself down. I was waiting for him to start the interview when the server, dressed in a kimono, came and took our drink orders. Wanting to be as professional as possible, I only ordered a glass of water while he ordered some sake. I looked on curiously but didn’t ask, but I did wonder if it was standard practice for baseball managers to hold interviews so casually.
When our drinks came, he took an appreciative sip of his sake and finally spoke. “I heard about your career with the Giants,” he started. “You had a pretty good run with them?”
“Yes,” I answered. “I would have liked to have continued playing for them had I not had my injury.”
“How bad is your shoulder?”
“I have a couple of tears that will require surgery at some point. I don’t think it will affect my ability to coach,” I responded. I hid my hands under the table, feeling them become clammy with nerves. I reminded myself that my career playing baseball abroad is nothing to be sniffed at. “Ryu Joong Il-ssi, I have been pitching for sixteen years, and I have been successful for most of them. I believe that I am an asset to any team.”
“I believe you,” he said. “I think so, too.” I felt a wide smile form on my face until I realized that he hasn’t even asked to see my resume or asked for any references. Maybe he did his research and he already knew everything he needed to know. The internet tells people everything nowadays. Uneasiness crept inside me when I realized that this seemed a tad too easy. I saw him looking at me before he smiled. “I didn’t realize it when I first came in, Jae Joon-ah,” I narrowed my gaze at the use of my name informally, “but you don’t look like your father at all.”
“My… My father?” I stammered. “How do you know my father?”
“His company was a sponsor for many of our team’s charities over the years. He’s never shown up to a baseball game, however, or even asked for any autographs from the team,” he said. “I was curious to meet his son.”
“My father is not interested in baseball,” I said quietly.
“I gathered as much. He couldn’t even remember what team you played for when he called asking for a favor.”
“My father called you?” My heart started hammering in my chest with anger and anxiety while I waited for his answer.
“Yes, he called… Maybe a week ago? He said you were in trouble, and if I can find a spot for you in the team, that he would continue his very generous contributions.”
“And if you didn’t? What would have happened then?”
“I didn’t ask. Your father is not a man to cross, Kim Jae Joon-ssi.”
“Can I ask you something?” I ask quietly. He looked at me, a question in his eyes. “Was there even any part of my resume that you saw worth considering? Was there anything that I’ve done that would allow me to be something without my father’s name?”
“Mr. Kim… You had a very prestigious career. It was like a dream, right?” He asked. “You are very talented… Were very talented. But you are a pitcher. Not a coach. If I were to tell you what credentials you would need to become one, you would have already started preparing even before you graduated university… Ever heard the saying, those who can, do? You were one of the doers. You can’t possibly teach anyone how to hold lightning in their hand. You can’t teach anyone how to perform a miracle.”
I stayed quiet and let his words register in my mind. I’ve just been told something that I already knew. I can never be anything else but a baseball player, and I’ve failed at that, too. I grabbed his shot of sake and looked at him challengingly. I down it in one swallow before I got up from the table, got my stuff together and gave a stiff bow.
“Thank you for your time,” I said.
“Are you walking out now? We haven’t even discussed the terms of your contract. Aren’t you interested to hear what we will be offering you, or when and where you have to show up for your first day?”
“I don’t want the job. I have never relied on my father for anything, sir, not since I was young. And I am not about to start now.” I gathered what was left of my dignity and walked out of the room.
Once I was in the car, I look at my phone to see if there were any missed calls or messages from Na Jeong. There were none. After last night, I don’t blame her. I drove around for a couple of hours, knowing that when I went home she will not be there waiting for me. She may never come again. As I drove, memories came crashing back of one of the few times my father actually taught me anything.
“Jae Joon has no Omma!” One of my classmates called out.
“You’re so ugly! Your Omma ran away so she didn’t have to look at you,” another one screamed.
They all surrounded me by the exit at the school. The teachers are nowhere to be found, they’re all in the classrooms cleaning up. I tried to walk past them and close my ears to what they were saying, but someone pushed me in the back. I walked faster, trying to get home as quickly as possible to get back to the safety of my room, but they kept following me with their taunts and their insults.
“Your Omma ran off with another man… Because she’s a…”
I lifted a fist and connected against a face before I could even help myself. I felt several pairs of hands pushing me and shoving me to the ground. I felt small and helpless and tears formed in my eyes as I registered the scrape on my knees and hands as I fell to the concrete.
Lifting myself up, I ran and ran and ran until I couldn’t breathe anymore, until I reached Appa’s house. I say Appa’s house because this is no home. I’ve been to other kids’ houses and they lived in homes. There was always food smells from their houses, the sweetness of their Omma’s perfumes in the air. There were flowers at their houses. And noise. People talked and laughed. Not here. There was no one to talk to here. No one laughed here.
Opening the door as quietly as I could, I held back a cry when I saw that I was bleeding. I wiped my tears with the sleeve of my shirt, praying that Appa is not home. I heard his voice before I saw him.
“Jae Joon… I see you. Come here,” he boomed.
I walk slowly towards him. When he saw me I knew he wouldn’t notice my bleeding knees and hands. I knew he would notice my tears first.
“What did I tell you about crying?” He asked. “Real men don’t cry. You’re so soft, Joon-ah… What happened?”
I stood quietly, trying to make myself smaller. Trying to disappear into the ground. I held back a sniffle. But I’m only eight years old… I’m only eight. Not a man. I want Omma. I want my Omma back.
“Some… Some…” I couldn’t continue, choking on my tears, on my words. “Some classmates said Omma left because of me. They said she’s a …”
“You shouldn’t care what people think Joon-ah. Their approval doesn’t matter.”
I don’t know what he’s saying. He’s not the one who has to go to school with them.
“… Success… That’s your real revenge. You won’t need love if you have success. Love will just come to you then. Become successful and you’ll be loved,” he said bitterly, taking a drink of dark liquid from his glass.
My vision blurred and I swerved to avoid the oncoming traffic. I swallowed the bile that rose up to my throat even as I pulled over to the shoulder on the road. I tried to take a few calming breaths to find my bearings, but as I breathed deeply, the panic that had been building up inside me boiled over and I put my head down on the steering wheel before I had a full on breakdown in the car. When finally I looked at where I was, I realized that I had driven myself to Yonsei University…I had driven myself back to the baseball field where the happiest of my memories took place.
I get out of the car slowly, my feet taking me back to the field. The gate was unlocked and the lights were off, and I entered the stadium with measured steps. Once inside I sat down on a bleacher and closed my eyes. I can almost hear the crowd cheering as a breeze touched my cheek. I can almost feel the tension… In me and around me in the silence. The thought that never again will I hear the crowd yell out my name broke something inside me.
Na Jeong, too, would never see me the same way again. When I look at her, she looks like a wounded animal anticipating my next blow. Tears fell down my face as I realized I know this and yet I am powerless to stop. Driven by something bigger than me, I keep throwing stones, wanting her to be the first one who gives up.
It was there… In the shadows of the place I once loved, that I cried for the weakness in me. The weakness I tried to hide but am unable to anymore. My father was right.
Without success, I will not have love.
Without success, I will never permit myself love.
August 11, 2001
“Why can’t I do that?” I blurted out when I heard her answering that she needs to save up quicker so that I do not have to pay all the time.
She stayed quiet and I knew why. Because she didn’t want to say what I know she was going to say. You have no prospects. You have no job. You have no options. Your money is going to run out, just like your fame, just like your baseball ability. And I can’t count on you anymore.
I watched her as she avoided my eyes, and I felt like something was eating me up from the inside out. I felt like I was going to implode, so I pushed my chair back to leave the kitchen.
“Joon-ah… Are you coming to the baby’s 100th day celebration later?” She said quietly. “Samcheonpo and Yoon Jin are expecting you.”
“I can’t go. Apologize to them for me.” I said curtly.
“They’re your friends too.”
“Given the choice between me and you, they will always choose you over me. I would never have become a part of your gang had I not insisted on living at the boarding house.”
She kept her head down, tracing her chopstick over her bowl. She met my eyes over the table and said that one word, “Okay.”
As I walked off to the bedroom, I realized that she had no more fight left in her. She didn’t think this was worth fighting for anymore. She has already given up on me.
Closing that door behind me, I walked to the bed and sat down. I looked at the picture of me and Na Jeong on the table, noting that she hardly looks at me that way anymore. The expression on her face nowadays makes my heart drop. I know that expression… I remember it from a long time ago. It had been another face, just as beautiful to me, but the resignation is the same. My mother had the same look for months before she left my father. I didn’t know it then, but I did after she left. Lying down on the bed, I closed my eyes and though I didn’t want to, my thoughts automatically went back to that day when I discovered she was gone.
I had known as soon as I walked in the door that Omma had left. The house was quiet… Really really quiet. I didn’t hear her voice talking on the phone when I entered. She’s usually on the phone with Eemo, complaining about Appa.
Appa wasn’t home yet… I was by myself. I had sneaked into the room that Omma used now. She and Appa don’t sleep in the same room anymore.
I looked her table for her jewelry and her tubes of beauty products and it was devoid of anything that used to be here. I searched in the drawers only to find them empty, nothing was to be found. I opened her closet, expecting to see rows and rows of her dresses and bags, but nothing there as well. No pictures of her on the tables. Nothing. It was as if she was wiped out from this house. Panicked, I had gone to the bathroom to see if she could be there, my young mind unable to comprehend how a person can just disappear. When I opened the door and she hadn’t been there, I started calling for her, my voice increasing with each Omma that I uttered.
With my heart heavy, my lip trembling and tears slowly falling from my eyes, I had walked over to the refrigerator and saw that there was still a big container of radish kimchi. I didn’t like it that much, but Omma always asked me to help her make it so I did it, just to be able to spend a little time with her.
I used to sit next to her on a little stool in front of two big buckets as she threw ingredients into them. Then she’d take my little hands in hers, and guide me into the buckets so that we can mix it together. Even though I had known to do it myself by heart, it still felt good to have her hands on me, so I pretended not to know.
Omma’s hands had been soft and smooth. She always smelled nice. She didn’t yell at me when we made radish kimchi. She smiled a lot. At least when we made kkakdugi. Sometimes she’d even feed me a little bit and I kept my face pleasant lest she think I don’t like it.
In a haze now, I walked out into the kitchen of Appa’s house and was surprised to see a little boy dragging a stool so that he could grab a bowl from the cupboards. Careful, I wanted to say, as he balanced precariously on the stool, but he managed just fine, as if he’d done this a million times before. Understanding then dawned on me. Of course he had… That little boy was me. I watched as he spooned rice onto the bowl then went into the fridge and lifted the container of radish kimchi from the fridge. His face crumpled as he held it close to his chest, as if in doing so he could have his Omma again. My heart beat painfully inside my own chest, remembering the feeling all too well. He reverently set it on the counter before putting just a few pieces of it on the rice then placed it carefully back in the fridge.
Only the kitchen light was on in this quiet and empty house, a stark contrast to the luxuriousness it exuded. The house was made even more lonely by Omma’s absence. He crouched down on the floor with the fridge behind his back and brought the spoon to his mouth. As soon as the taste hit my tongue, I realized that the little boy was no more and he was now me. The tears started falling, constantly now and my stomach rolled inside me. Still I kept eating. Even as the tears fell silently, I kept chewing and swallowing. Even as the tears were trying to choke me, I kept eating. This was all I had left of her. She’s gone. She left.
I looked up to see that I was no longer in Appa’s house but my own apartment. It was not Omma’s kimchi I was eating but Na Jeong’s. The bowl dropped from my hands as I ran through the rooms, looking for her. Her toothbrush on the sink, still, always next to mine. Her slippers, which were usually by the door, were gone… Her makeup were not on the side table… Her clothes were gone… I stared at the empty drawers that I pulled out. She was gone. She’s disappeared. Only remnants of her was in this house.
Na Jeong-ah, I wanted to cry out but no sound would come out. Na Jeong-ah, please… Don’t leave me… DON’T LEAVE ME.
My eyes shot open and I sat up on the bed, my shoulders shaking, racked by silent sobs. Sweat poured over me while my shoulder screamed in pain. I didn’t even realize I had fallen asleep until the nightmare inserted itself into my memory.
Still unnerved I laid back down. I had eaten Omma’s kimchi then, thinking it was the least I could do. Thinking it was enough. It had been my penance for her seven year sacrifice to have me and raise me. Fear lodged itself on my throat as I wondered whether Na Jeong would rather be free of me too… Just like Omma… I looked over next to me to realize that Na Jeong was sleeping next to me. She came back. She’s still here.
I turned to my side and watched as she slept peacefully, unaware of the demons that were threatening to destroy me. I wondered if the time came… If I would be able to protect her from this darkness… If I would be able to protect her even from me. Hesitantly I put my arms around her and at least in sleep she still accepted my touch. I breathed her in even as tears fell from my eyes. “I love you, Na Jeong. Please don’t leave me. Please…” She shifted to her other side facing away from me and I released my hold on her. It’s done, I thought. I’ve already lost her.
Like a dead man walking, now all I can do is wait.
August 12, 2001
I had gone to Yoon Jin and Samcheonpo’s earlier for their baby’s 100th day party. I hated lying to our friends, but how do I explain whatever Joon was going through when I didn’t know myself? He won’t talk to me. He just shuts down whenever I ask what his plans are and I noticed when his list had disappeared from the fridge. Day after day, even though he is physically beside me, he seemed to be getting farther and farther away from me. I tried to be encouraging, but afraid that he would take what I say the wrong way and too exhausted to fight, I kept my mouth shut. I stopped staying over at the apartment as much, afraid that my temper will get the better of me. He’ll get over this soon, I keep telling myself. He has to. There had been no apologies or mention of any of our tense conversations, or even that night. I don’t need his apologies. I love him just as he is. He needed to realize this sooner than later.
I came home from the party to find Joon asleep on the bed. Not wanting to wake him up but unable to stay away, I laid down next to him and watched him sleep. We’ve done this so many times before… Fallen asleep together. Always together. My eyes narrowed as I gazed at the shadows under his eyes, his impossibly long lashes resting innocently on his face. My fingers reached out to smooth the frown between his brows, but I stopped myself before I made contact. I didn’t want to disturb him, as he doesn’t sleep well nowadays, so I scooted as close to him as I could and continued to watch him until I fell asleep.
Something warm on my neck woke me up. For a moment I was disoriented, unaware of where I was. I felt Joon’s arms around me even as my eyes stayed closed. He hasn’t touched me like this, not since that night. Afraid to break the moment, I kept my eyes closed. It took me a minute to realize that Joon wasn’t just holding me… He was clutching me tightly. As if he was drowning and needed something to hold on to. His body, always so strong, always so steady, was shaking uncontrollably. I was about to open my eyes and ask him what was wrong when I heard him choke on a sob. “I love you, Na Jeong. Please don’t leave me. Please…”
I know what will happen if I opened my eyes now. He will put his mask on and turn away from me. As he had every other time I’ve tried to reach out to him. Feeling the tears burn the back of my eyes, I did the only thing I could. I turned to my other side.
My heart begged for him to continue holding me, even for just a few more minutes, needing his presence… Needing a reminder of what we are fighting for. I felt his arms break away from me as my own tears fell. Again I was surrounded only by the coldness and the silence of the bed. My heart cracked inside my chest even as I willed the tears to stop. We can’t continue living like this. I cannot love him like this. Something will have to give… And it will have to be soon.
August 16, 2001
“Jae Joon-ah… It’s Appa. The Tigers’ manager just called and left a message mentioning that you refused the job? What were you thinking? Do you know how much I had to donate to even secure that spot for you? I even made them let go of the current pitching coach…” His voice grew louder with the last words. He let out a deep sigh before continuing in a softer tone, “I was only trying to help. What are you going to do now? I called one of my business contacts and they said they’d give you a job if you needed it. Call me back. Oh… And you…”
I pressed stop on the answering machine before he could say more. My father knew just what to say to make a shitty day feel even worse. I’ve spent all day looking through the jobs section of the classified ads in the paper as well as online only to be told repeatedly that I have no experience, that I’m not qualified or that my shoulder being out of commission will prevent me from doing a job properly. I hid the newspapers away as I perused my list, all items now crossed off. Angry now, I crumple the list in my hand and walk over to the garbage to throw it out.
It was just as well… I threw it out just in time for Na Jeong to come into the apartment and go to the kitchen without so much as acknowledging me. I watched from the living room as she unpacked the food she brought and set the table. When she was done, she called my name and sat down before I was even in the kitchen. How many times have we shared a meal like this? In my mind the number was enormous, memories of eating while holding hands and our legs intertwined flashing back all too quickly. And now…
You can cut the silence on this dinner table with a knife. Na Jeong sat stonily in front of me, putting the food in her mouth in automated motions. She chewed mechanically, her eyes betraying no emotion. She bit her lip even as her eyes stayed focused on her plate. She looked like she was waiting to say something and I wished she would just come right out and say it.
“I found your list,” she said, her voice strained. She reached behind her and pulled out a piece of paper, trying to straighten it as she placed it on the table. The last time I saw that list was when I had crumpled it in my fist. I could have sworn I threw it in the garbage. Is she going through the trash now?
“What are you doing?” I asked. Trying to remind me of my failures? Trying to show me my inadequacies? Looking for a reason to leave?
“What does it look like I’m doing? Why was this in the garbage?” I met her eyes and wondered what exactly she was getting at.
“Na Jeong-ah… You’ve seen it. You don’t see that all of it has been crossed off? It’s official. I’ve run out of options. There is no life for me outside of baseball,” I said, putting my chopsticks down.
“I thought you said the interview went well?”
“It did. I didn’t say I took the job.”
“Joon-ah.” I heard it in her voice then, the tone of resignation. “What will you do?” Not what will We do… But what will You do. My stomach in my throat, I searched for a response even though I don’t have one. “Will you have the surgery?”
“I’m still thinking about it. I can’t just go under the knife… There are too many variables. There’s no guarantee it will work either. I don’t know what I’ll do.”
She stayed quiet, her mouth set in a firm line. Her silence is killing me. I started tapping a finger on the table to calm my nerves. When she still said nothing, I pushed my chair back. I got up to put my plate in the sink when she spoke.
“Joon-ah…” She hesitated briefly before continuing. “Do you want me to ask Appa if they have any openings on his team?”
My hands shook in anger and I tried to tamp down my annoyance before I allowed myself to turn around and look at her. “Why would you do that?”
“When have I ever asked you for help? When did I ever say I needed you to fix this for me?” She stayed sitting on her chair, not meeting my eyes.
“Maybe you should ask for help, Joon-ah. You don’t have to…”
“I don’t have to what?” I interrupted. “I don’t have to live like this? Are you tired of this? Tired of me?” My voice was raised as I asked the questions, the answers to which I may not be prepared for. “If you’re giving up, Na Jeong, just say so.”
“Stop putting words into my mouth,” she said, a warning in her voice. For a second I felt the hope bloom inside me that my Na Jeong was back, and I braced myself for the outpouring of words from her mouth. But just as soon as I heard the fire in her tone, it disappeared. “I was just trying to help.” She sounded meek… Defeated.
“I don’t need anyone’s help, or anyone’s pity. I can handle all of this on my own. I have handled everything else, every other time. How did you think I lived before you? I managed just fine.”
“Joon-ah…” she said, lifting her eyes to mine, looking hurt.
“Na Jeong, I don’t want to hear it… Do you want me to look even more pathetic to your family?”
“Joon-ah… You know they won’t think like that. Appa and Omma love you. They only want whats best for us.”
“You mean what’s best for you…” I responded. “I bet they’re wishing now that you married Jung Gook.”
“Why… Why would you say that?” Her voice shook. In anger? Good, finally. I get something more than pity.
“Did you see him today?” I asked her. “When I was calling you earlier… Were you with him?”
Steely hazel eyes met mine over the table. “So what if I did? Are you going to tell me who I can and cannot eat a meal with nowadays?” Her tone was steady. She closed her eyes as if trying to calm herself down and when she opened them again, she had a smile pasted on her mouth. “Oppa was with his girlfriend, Joon-ah.” Of course he was. He wouldn’t want to be so obvious. I stood up and was almost at the door when I heard her speak again. “Where are you going?”
“I’m taking a walk,” I answered, putting my shoes on.
“Do you want me to come with you?” She asked, now standing and leaning against the wall.
“Do whatever the hell you want,” I responded, not looking at her.
Even as I know I have become intolerable and that I was pushing her away on my own accord, I waited for some sort of reaction… In fact, any sort of reaction from her will be good… Something that tells me that Na Jeong is still somewhere inside the woman that I shared a meal and bed with. That there was more beneath the polite smile she gives me.
I waited by the door for half an hour.
But she never came out.
August 17, 2001
I stopped at the store to get something to make for dinner for tonight. I also stopped at the pharmacy… My period is late. I didn’t even realize that until I looked at my pills and discovered that I had already started on a new pack even when I haven’t had my cycle. I’ve been running on autopilot mode since Joon has been home. I’m exhausted… I haven’t slept well in a month and it’s catching up to me.
I took a deep breath when I got to Joon’s door. I wasn’t sure which Joon was going to greet me when I came in. Sometimes he seemed okay, but more often than not, he was sullen and in pain. He’ll snap out of it, I keep reminding myself. I know I should be more concerned about the probability of being pregnant but I wasn’t. The timing is not right, but we’ve discussed this before. Joon and I are just going through a rough patch, but we’ll make it through this. I punched the code to Joon’s door and fixed a smile on my face.
I walked into the apartment, and the place was as I left it last night. The blinds were still drawn and I had to watch my step to make sure I don’t trip on anything. I put my bag down on the counter and put the groceries away. I was walking towards the bedroom when I heard activity on the living room. I approached the sofa and saw Joon asleep on the couch. His head was thrashing from side to side, his brows drawn into a frown. My heart squeezed inside me as I watched another of his nightmares take over him. Not wanting to alarm him, I knelt on the side of the sofa and took his hand. Tears fell from my eyes, feeling helpless and unable to do anything to make his pain feel better or make his demons disappear. I quickly dried my eyes. Stay strong, I told myself. Once I was sure I was composed, I shook him gently and said his name. When he didn’t wake, I started shaking him harder and yelled. I would have done anything to break him out of his nightmare.
“JAGIYA, WAKE UP! Wake up!”
His eyes shot open and he looked around before his eyes landed on me. “I’m okay… It’s nothing…” He mumbled, and I took his hands in mine.
“Bad dream?” I asked and he nodded. Seeing that his expression had already become hooded, I didn’t push for an answer. Don’t crowd him, I told myself. Give him some space. Nevertheless, I put my arms around him in a tight embrace, something I do so rarely now, then went to the kitchen to prepare our dinner.
I felt his eyes on me as I walked away. I took out what I needed from the fridge and started preparing dinner. I decided on sundubu-jigae earlier today, because I knew it would be quick. If I didn’t cook, I’m sure Joon would just not eat. He’ll sit here in this dark apartment and stay in bed all day.
A wave of nausea passed through me and I went to the bathroom to empty my stomach. Dizziness came over me and I held onto the wall to keep myself steady. Sitting on the floor after, I put a steadying hand on my forehead. I stood up and washed my hands in the sink, then splashed some cold water on my face. The reflection on the mirror surprised me. I looked gaunt, like I’ve lost weight. There were shadows under my eyes. I was pale, and my hair was pulled from my face in a tight ponytail. I heard my phone ring from the kitchen.
“Joon-ah, answer that for me, will you?” I called out. It’s probably my parents, or one of our friends. I suddenly remembered that I had taken the pregnancy test out of the grocery bag and placed it in my purse, and I rushed out of the bathroom. “Forget it, Joon-ah… I will answer…” My voice trailed off when I saw him standing up by the counter holding the box in his fingers.
“What is this?” He asked softly. All color faded from my face and I tried to keep myself from panicking. Unsure of what to say, I stayed silent. “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?”
“Jagiya,” I said, trying my best to stay calm. “You’ve looked at it. What do you think it is?”
“Answer my fucking question, Na Jeong.” His voice was tense and strained. His eyes spoke with an unnamed emotion and for another minute I thought I was going to throw up again.
“I’m late,” I replied, lifting my chain. If I didn’t I was afraid my lips would tremble and I would start crying. “Three weeks late.”
“Are you joking?” He looked dazed, anger lacing his words. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Does it look like I’m joking?” What part of this does he think is a joke?
“I thought you were on the pill.” His voice was accusing, suspicious even. I had to back up against the counter to keep myself up.
“I am on the pill. But I’ve been sick… Not that you’ve even noticed. You’ve been stuck in your own world for the past month. Antibiotics mess up birth control pills all the time. Nothing is 100% Joon-ah.” My voice was small, hesitant. “Would it really be so bad if you and I have a child together? We talked about this before you left… You don’t remember?”
I saw his eyes, lost, as if thinking of a memory. His gaze softened as he looked away, and I hoped that he would be roused from whatever darkness he was in. Instead when he looked back at me, all I saw was rage. For the first time since he’s been home, I was genuinely afraid that he’s reached the point of no return.
“Times have changed. I no longer have a profession or a career. Don’t pretend you don’t know. What the hell kind of a father do you think I’d make? How can I have a child when my own life is falling apart? Na Jeong, wake up! Love alone will not feed you. It won’t buy you a house or provide anything else for you… I know the outcome of this story. I am the living example. I AM the outcome of this story.”
I know what he’s talking about… I know about his childhood. I know about his contract not getting renewed. I know that it’s been tough… But he’s a good man. I think he would make a great father. “That’s not true,” I said. “Love makes up for a lot. If this is about baseball…”
“That’s easy for you to say… You grew up surrounded with love. You grew up in a family where everyone loved you and you knew it.” I saw him clench his jaw before he spoke again. “Sung Na Jeong… The pearl on her Appa’s palms, the apple of her Hoon Oppa’s and Jung Gook Oppa’s eyes, and now I am twirled around your little finger…”
Feeling the color drain from my face, I braced myself for the unleashing of cruel words. I knew that he had been at his breaking point. I am the only one here. Of course he would lash out at me. I took a step back, hoping that some distance would clear his head.
“And don’t you even dare to mention baseball to me… Aren’t you the one who always said I should be doing something else? Didn’t you always say you wish I never left? You wanted THIS and now you have it.” Even though I expected it, his words still wounded deeply. My hands started shaking and I felt my eyes fill with tears. “Do you even know what it’s like to not get everything you want? To wait for so long, to work so hard… To be willing to practically do anything to get it?”
“Joon-ah… Why are you doing this? Why are you saying this stuff?” I walked towards him, wishing he would just tell me what he really means and tried to grab his hands, but he pushed them away and backed farther away from me, still stabbing me with his words.
“I suppose not. You wanted Jung Gook and you got him. You wanted me and you got me too. I wonder though, if I would have been half as attractive to you, had I still been that pathetic Chilbong from years ago. Probably not…”
Unable to stop myself, my hand went up to his cheek before I could even stop myself. How could he say that? He knows I love him because he’s him. His gaze darkened even more with anger when he looked back at me.
“I touched on the truth, right? That’s why you slapped me. Because it hurts to hear the truth. Believe me, that’s how I felt. Every. Single. Fucking. Time. YOU. Rejected. Me.”
I felt the tears falling down my cheeks and shook my head. “You don’t mean what you say. You’re just angry and hurt. You don’t mean it,” I looked at him and for the first time, it felt like I didn’t know him at all. “WHO ARE YOU? WHERE’S MY JOON? I WANT MY JOON BACK!” Before I knew it, my hands have balled into fists and I was pounding them on his chest.
“Didn’t you know? This was the person inside me the whole time.” His voice was so cold. I don’t believe that. This is not how my Joon is. This is not him… But I’ve had enough of this. I straightened my shoulders and grabbed my purse. “Where are you going?”
Trying to make my voice as steely as possible, I made myself calm down before I responded. “Kim Jae Joon-ssi… You’re a hypocrite and a coward. You ask me to be myself with you when the whole time you hide yourself from me. Are you scared that I won’t love you if I found out who you really are, or that I would? You keep hiding and you keep running from who? From me? I’ll save you the trouble. I’ll leave before you say anything else that you won’t be able to take back.”
“Of course you would be the first to leave.” He said this with relief, as if he was glad to be right about me. As if he’d always thought this about me.
“I may be leaving now, but you abandoned me long before this. Remember that. Make no mistake Kim Jae Joon-ssi. I love you, but I love me too. How long did you think I was going to let you talk to me like shit? You obviously don’t want me here, so I will give you what you want. And if I am pregnant, don’t worry… I won’t be needing any Major Leaguer money to support my child.”
I turned away before I broke down in front of him. I had to get out of here. I had to leave before we hurt each other any more than we already have. There are words that though they are not said out loud that you know to be true. And then there are words that though they are said out loud, you can’t help but feel like the words are just used to hide what’s really going on inside.
Putting my shoes on, I walked out of his apartment without looking back. After I closed the door behind me, I close my eyes and I think of what he would be doing. Would he go back to bed, defeated? Would he be putting his shoes on running after me, like my Joon would? I turn around and lean my forehead against his door, my hand on the handle. I stayed standing there, separated from him by merely a door, but feeling like the chasm between us is so much further.
The sounds coming from the apartment startled me. I heard something like glass smash against the wall, closely followed by something else. Within a few minutes I heard the neverending cacophony of things being broken, things being shattered. Wanting to do something but knowing that Joon has to go through this on his own, I stayed outside his door, wanting to be there for him in the only way I knew how to. People, like things, have to break sometimes so they can be put together again. I should know… I was broken too.
“Joon-ah…” I whispered. “You can’t hear me or see me right now, but I’m still here. I love you. Come back… Please come back to me.”
When finally I heard silence, I released the breath that I didn’t knew I holding. I gathered my composure and made my way home. It’s just another bad day. Bad days have to happen for good days to seem even better, right? This is what I tell myself even as I took the elevator down, my heart heavy.
Waiting for the bus to come, I couldn’t help but think back on his words. Slivers of pain bore through me, his words raw and biting in my ears. I tried to keep my composure intact, but I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s really how he saw me.
Does he really think that I’ve had it easy all my life? I could never claim to have worked as hard as he’s had to, but I certainly didn’t get my life handed to me either. I know I’m lucky. I know that. But can I be with someone who thinks so lowly of me?
As I sat down on the bus, I thought that he was over what happened six years ago, but I guess a part of him still hasn’t forgotten. At least he’s talking now. At least he’s finally speaking up. I can handle his anger. Even his rage. It’s preferable to the uncomfortable silence that we’ve been living in for weeks. Taking one step forward, but always two steps back.
Can I do this? Can I really do this? I thought about whether he was intentionally trying to hackle me. Whether he was knowingly pushing me away. Is this still part of the test? Was this what his mother meant, months and months ago?
November 17, 2000
I stood at the door that led to Joon’s mother’s house, unsure of what to expect. I shifted the weight of the two shopping bags on my hands, silently wishing I had triple checked her list. I would hate to have to go back out… she said she only had a couple of hours to spare.
I slowly push the doorbell to inform her of my arrival. Wearing just a plain shirt and jeans, I hope that maybe she will look at me a little friendlier than the first time we met.
She answered the bell within five minutes. Greeting her politely, I stepped into her home in hesitant steps. She pointedly looked down to the floor when I got to her entryway. I spotted a pair of new slippers and realized she must want me to wear them while I’m here. Getting the hint, I quickly untied my laces and slipped my feet into them.
She led me to the living room and asked me to take a seat after dropping off the groceries on the kitchen counter. I sat down and pulled out my notebook.
“I’m about to make an important call, but I won’t be long. Please make yourself comfortable,” she said as she walked to another room with her phone.
I sat still for about two minutes before I started looking around from where I was sitting. Her apartment was very clean, very nicely decorated. It could be in a magazine… But then thinking about Joon’s mother, dressed in a shirtdress and looking beautiful, could be featured in one too. There was something off though.
I haven’t seen Joon in days, not since the dinner at Samcheonpo’s. He hasn’t shown up at the house or answered any of my emails still. If I was someone else I probably would have taken the hint, but I’m Sung Na Jeong… Which is why rather than listening when he says we have no future together, I am here at his mother’s house trying to feed my way back to his heart. Great plan, right? Hey… I never said I was brilliant… Just persistent.
Restless now, I stood up and walked around the apartment. I looked at all the books in their neat little rows. I studied some nature landscape pictures on the wall. And then it hit me. What was off with this house. As beautiful as it is, it felt… Clinical. Cold.
Everything was in place to make it appear like a home. But it didn’t feel like anyone actually LIVED here. Once again I was struck by how different this was from my own home. My parents have kept all the drawings both I and Hoon Oppa made in school. They kept pictures of us in frames, displayed all over the house. There were no pictures of Joon here. Nothing from his childhood… And nothing from recently either. He’s told me before that his family is not like mine… But it never really hit me how different they really were. Until now. A lump formed in my throat unexpectedly.
I sat back down on the sofa and waited for Joon’s mother to come back. I was still trying to get a handle on my emotions when I heard her voice coming from the kitchen.
“Na Jeong-ssi, are you ready?” She called out.
I stood up and joined her in the kitchen. I opened the bags I brought with me. I felt her eyes on me as I lifted the ingredients from the bag.
“Na Jeong-ssi… I only have one son,” she said drily. “Are we feeding a dozen people?”
“No, Professor Park. I was afraid I would mess up so I brought two of everything. Just in case,” I responded sheepishly.
She looked over all the stuff I brought and then said, “I don’t remember asking you to bring ginger. You don’t need it.”
“My Omma always uses ginger in all her kimchi. So I thought I will try it too.” I took my pen out and started crossing off the list that she gave me as I perused the items on the table. Once satisfied that I had everything, I turned to a blank page. I am so nervous with Joon’s Omma studying me. I cleared my throat and waited for her to begin. She handed me an apron and she put one on as well.
“The first thing we have to do is wash the daikon and then slice them,” she instructed, pulling a colander out of her bottom cupboard. “You need to scrub…”
“Yes, Professor Park. I know how to do that part.” I gave her a small smile as I walked to the sink with the radishes. Thankful for the sound of water to cut through the silence, I focused all my energy in making sure they were fully scrubbed and cleaned before transferring them to the colander.
Seeing that she already had a cutting board ready, I lift the knife and started slicing them into little discs, then into small cubes. Professor Park watched me quietly and I kept my eyes on my knife. I don’t want to slice myself accidentally and mess up her spotless home. Feeling self conscious, I carefully placed the cubes on the two bowls she had put out and waited for her next instruction. She handed me the salt.
“Sprinkle a bit of salt on it and then toss and coat all the radish in it. We have to wait half an hour to drain them.”
“Okay.” Half an hour? What will we talk about for half an hour? I was thinking about safe topics to talk about when she spoke again.
“We can mix the rest of the ingredients while waiting.”
Grateful to be doing something, I mixed the rice powder and water and put it on the stove to low heat. While waiting for that to be ready, I quickly minced the salted shrimp, fresh shrimp and garlic. I grated the ginger and put it aside. Seeing that the paste was done, I set it to cool on the side. I was looking for anything else to do when Joon’s mother spoke.
“You seem to know your way around a kitchen, Na Jeong-ssi,” she commented.
“My Omma runs a boarding house,” I responded. “I usually help her make meals for the boarders.”
“And your father?”
“He’s a baseball coach,” I answered, checking to make sure the rice powder paste had adequately cooled by putting a little bit on my hand. Satisfied that it was, I started mixing the other ingredients into it, leaving out the fish sauce and gochujaru, wanting to adjust those to her specifications. I was about to ask her how much to add of each when I turned and saw her looking at me. Joon’s eyes, I thought nervously. Those are Joon’s eyes. It suddenly hit me, the lengths I’m prepared to go through for him, and my heart squeezed inside my chest. “How… How much do I add of these?” I stammered.
She lifted the gochujaru and handed it to me. “You’ll need at least 2/3 cup of this. Don’t be shy. Joon likes his radish kimchi spicy,” she said briskly. “But you only need two tablespoons of the fish sauce. That’s the clincher. I’m glad you bought the brand I specified. That’s what makes the difference.” I nodded and followed her instructions.
“How did you meet my son?” She asked, her tone curious but polite.
“Binggr… Ahhh, Dong Joon moved into our boarding house when he started at Yonsei. Jae Joon helped him move in,” I said, draining the radish cubes on the colander again. “That’s when I met him.”
“You must have known who he was, surely,” she said. “He made big news when he was recruited by Yonsei University Baseball.”
“No, Professor Park. We moved from Masan right before I started going to university. And I didn’t follow baseball.” I had to bite my tongue from admitting that I follow baseball now, but only because of Joon. So basically I follow Joon. Like a stalker. I cringed at myself even as I donned the gloves from the side of the cutting board, ready to mix the daikon and paste together. I shifted my attention to the bowls of radish and added the paste and the scallions. She watched as I meticulously spread the paste onto all the cubes. “I didn’t even know how popular he was until he ordered burgers one night for the team.”
“And how did you know that radish kimchi was his favorite?” She asked. I didn’t meet her eyes as I answered.
“We were…” I started then cleared my throat. “We are friends.” I think. I wasn’t lying… I am his friend… Yeah, a friend who’s in love with him that he once loved. And we were friends. Friends who have kissed. Friends who kiss. I blushed and kept my eyes down. I began placing the radish into the big jar I brought with me.
“Does he know your feelings for him run deeper than just friendship?” Surprised by her question, I lifted my hands from the jar and looked at her questioningly. “I am a woman Na Jeong-ssi, and I know my son. He’s not one to open up and share information about himself easily. And I certainly have never had anyone just come up to me and ask to learn how to make his favorite dish before.” I closed the jar tightly. “So, does he know?”
“Yes. I’m not one to hide my feelings,” I admitted. She raised one eyebrow at me. “He’s been in my life for so long I didn’t realize it six years ago, but I have fallen in love with him.”
She looked away, removing the gloves from her hands before heading towards the sink. “Convenient then, that he is now a success,” she said, her back to me. “I suppose that success does make a man more attractive.” It took me only a few minutes to process what she said and I felt myself tense up at what she’s implying. Trying to control my temper, I was searching for the right response when i heard her proceed. “I don’t blame you, Na Jeong-ssi. My Jae Joon is a catch indeed.”
“I don’t care what Joon does or how much he makes,” I said, my voice low. She still had her hands under the sink and I fought to keep my voice from rising.
“You appear to be a fairly intelligent woman,” she said, turning the water off before drying her hand on a towel. She turned to me and met my gaze. “You must know that he won’t be playing baseball forever.”
“So what does that mean?” I asked, feeling my face flush in anger. I know what she’s getting at, but I want to hear it from her mouth.
“Don’t get angry. Na Jeong-ssi. I’m only trying to determine if you understand that his glory days won’t last forever. He’s naive, really, to bank his whole life on a profession like that. But foresight has never been one of Joon’s strengths. His baseball days will end and he will be back to square one,” she said. “If he ever loses that shoulder, he will just be another has been, thinking about his almost success.”
I felt my hands ball into fists on my sides. “Why are you telling me this?” Indignation tore through me and my gaze darkened. I cannot believe his own mother would talk about him this way. Does she talk about him like this to other people too?
“All I’m saying is this. Woman to woman. If you were looking for a life of comfort, Joon is not a sure bet. You’d be better off pursuing a doctor, or a lawyer.
“I already said I wasn’t interested in Joon’s money. I have a degree and a career of my own. Your son is worth so much more than baseball. His worth is not determined by that. Those things aren’t important. Not to me.”
“Jae Joon is not an easy person to get to know. He was a very quiet child, very introspective. He’s used to being alone and on his own. As an adult, he seems a bit like a sleeping lion. He has a horrid temper when it comes out,” she said.
“So do I.” I sighed and looked at her. Joon may be used to being alone, but it doesn’t mean that he liked it, thinking back on how he used to enjoy his time at the boarding house, surrounded by all of us. “There really is no reason for you to point out Joon’s shortcomings to me. I love him, whatever those are. I already know a few and if I find out the rest, I’m positive I can handle those too.” I turned around and took my gloves off. Noticing my shaky hands, I tried to steady them as I lifted the jar onto the bag I brought. I was about to thank her for her time and leave when she said my name.
“Sung Na Jeong-ssi… Have you ever seen a man defeated?” Turning back to her, I saw that she was watching me very closely. “Have you ever seen a grown man break down and question everything in his life?” When I didn’t respond, she continued on. “Ever since he was young, Jae Joon has done a fine job of hiding everything and carrying everything on his own, but I fear that one day everything will fall apart and he will crumble from the weight of it all. Are you prepared to handle that?”
I took a deep breath before responding. “If he wants me, I will be by his side through whatever he goes through. If he accepts my heart, I will never let him go.” I paused before proceeding. “If he feels weak, I will hold him up. And if he falls, I will catch him and support him until he can stand again.”
“And if he won’t get back up?” She met my eyes directly, her gaze unyielding. “Men are not like…”
“THEN I’LL CARRY HIM IF I HAVE TO!” I responded, a bit louder than I had expected. “You’re wrong about him… He is stronger than you give him credit for. No matter what happens now or in the future, I will never let him go. I knew what I was getting myself into. I am my Appa’s daughter. I am very well aware that his profession comes with conditions. My love for him does not.”
I thought I saw a look of approval on her face but then it was gone. Her gaze finally relented and she gave me a small smile. “I will hold you to that, Na Jeong-ah.” At her use of my name familiarly, I looked down, not knowing how to respond.
“That doesn’t matter anyway. He doesn’t love me.”
“Really? And still you came here and did this?” She asked, gesturing over the kimchi jar.
“I didn’t do this for myself. I’m not even planning on telling him I made this for him.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow your reasoning. What’s the use of doing all this work if you don’t get credit for it?” She asked, genuinely puzzled.
“People do things out of love all the time just because. He loves your radish kimchi, so I made it for him. To me, it’s just that simple. It doesn’t matter if he knows it was me or not.”
“He’ll know,” she said, the smile still on her face. “And it may not matter to you, but it will to him.”
Confused by her certainty, I washed my hands and dried them before speaking again. “Either way… I did this for him and not myself.” Looking at the clock behind her, I realized that I’ve been here half an hour longer than she had intended me to be. “I’m sorry Professor Park… It seems that I’ve imposed on you longer than I realized.” I picked up the bag from the counter and said, “Thank you for your time and the recipe. I’ll be going.”
I walked towards the door and was changing back into my shoes when I saw her in front of me. I stood up and she held her hand to me.
“Na Jeong-ah, let’s meet again sometime.” I took her hand and shook it gently.
“Professor Park, I don’t really see how we’ll ever have the opportunity to meet again. But thank you anyway,” I said.
“Oh, I get the feeling we’ll meet again,” she answered. She gave my shoulder a squeeze before opening the front door. “Good luck.”
The miracle had happened. Joon never stopped loving me. Can I make it happen again? Can I love him in a way that he can understand? I rested my head against the bus window as I made my way home. My heart continued to search for an answer. When it found none, I wrapped my arms around myself. I rode around on the bus a few times around before I finally allowed myself home.
August 20, 2001
I stared at the pregnancy test and wondered If I should laugh or cry. It was negative. Not pregnant with Joon’s baby. I should have felt grateful, thankful that I wasn’t pregnant. The timing is not right and with the way things were right now between me and him, I should have felt overjoyed that I had escaped the possible clutches of a child joining my life with his for as long as it lived. Not that it mattered. My life is already connected with his with or without a child. Nevertheless, I should be happy. I am happy. I’m relieved.
Then why is my face wet? I feel tears running down my eyes and I closed my eyes. Silent sobs overtaking me, I am unable to hold back as I cried for what could have been. A little boy, with Joon’s face, with his smile. That’s what I would have wanted. A little life with his eyes and his laugh. A chance to undo the sins of the past.
I knew what I was getting into. Joon’s Omma had told me. What I didn’t know was how big an impact his childhood had on him. I have underestimated its impact. My heart felt heavy in my chest as I thought of three nights ago. I’ve stayed away from him, hoping that soms distance would draw him out. Instead he seemed to pull further back in his shell.
Hugging my knees to my chest, I felt helpless and powerless, unable to banish the demons that are haunting him. He may think he’s going through this alone, but does he not know that my life is now intertwined with his? My heart is interwoven with his. Whatever pain he’s feeling, I feel it too. Every cut and every tear. Every single time. My hands are tied together… I can do nothing unless he reaches out to hold them in his. I choked on a sob, wanting nothing more than to erase his suffering. I lay down on my side and opened my eyes to see the picture of us at the park in front me. I looked at the way he was gazing at me, the way his hand rested lovingly on my hair and recalled how his mouth upturned into a smile.
His words echoed in my ears loudly, angry and bitter, accusing and untrusting. They broke through my consciousness… But there were others too… Other memories, fighting and begging to be remembered. Visions of Joon since I’ve met him, before I loved him. The night at Samcheonpo, the first night he kissed me. The day I thought I lost him, the day of the Sampoong Department Store collapse. The night before he left for Japan, his hands so warm holding mine, his face hopeful but accepting. New Year’s Eve… The night that changed everything. The words on his letter blurred my tears…
I am in love with you. Be happy. See yourself the way I’ve always seen you.
The way his heart always beat under my palm, the way his eyes always looked at me… Wary, vulnerable, in love. The way he said my name almost reverently as we kissed in the rain. All the times we made love… The way his hands strummed my body into a melody only he and I knew. The look in his eyes as he said goodbye. “I will always find you. I will always come back to you. I am always yours.” The way he kissed his ring tenderly at the game as he stood alone. The way he pressed his forehead on mine, the day I left San Francisco, before everything shattered and broke. I lift the frame up and held it close to my chest as I curled into myself, sobs overtaking me, the sounds escaping from somewhere inside me. Past and present collided in my head, my heart overwhelmed by pain and love, both in almost the same quantity.
Lost in my own thoughts, I didn’t even realize that I was no longer alone. I opened my eyes to see my mother standing hesitantly by the door, watching me in sympathy. She walked slowly towards me and I felt my shoulders shake, unable to control the cries, unable to stop. Wordlessly she sat on the side of my bed, as if looking for the right words to say and unable to find them, climbed onto the bed and took me in her arms, like she did when I was little and would cry out for Hoon Oppa. I clutched at her, wanting to feel something tangible and real, and her hands tenderly brushed my hair and rubbed my back, even as she stayed silent. My tears intensified when it hit me that Joon never had this. He’s never known this. I cried for the little boy who’s always stood alone. And for the broken man who still couldn’t accept love because he’s never known what it really meant.
“Omma,” I said brokenly, not knowing where to start.
“Shhh,” she said, softly. “Cry it out. Let it all out. Omma’s here.”
“I… I don’t know what to do… Joon… He’s hurting and I can’t do anything,” I said. “I feel like I am doing nothing but make his life more difficult. Nothing I’m doing is working. What do I do? What can I do? This hurts. I don’t know if I can handle it.”
“If it hurts that much, then let him go,” I heard her say sharply and I lifted my head up to look at her face. Her eyes were veiled and she was watching my face closely. “If you can’t handle it, then give it up. Life only gets harder once you found the one you love.”
“I’m scared to do anything, afraid to hurt him, afraid to say something that might wound him in some way. I’m a coward.”
“Love makes cowards of us all. Having things to lose, having precious things, having things that matter, makes us all afraid. Even the most courageous and most valiant… In the face of losing that which he loves most, will fall to his knees. The key… The key is to not let fear take over,” she said, looking at me directly. “Do you love him?”
“Omma, you know I do,” I said.
“I know you think you do. And I know you feel it. But do you love him enough to go through this with him? Because that’s what he needs from you. Not your pity. Let me tell you something… A man will take pity from everyone… Except the woman he loves.” She paused and took a deep breath, her hand on the side of my face, before continuing. “You need to love him enough to fight for the two of you, even if it means fighting him. Are you ready to do that? Because if you’re not, the battle has already been lost and you’d do well to let this go before you two hurt each other even more.”
I thought on her words even as the tears continued to fall. “I will never let him go. If I let Joon go, I will regret it for the rest of my life. For me… For me, it’s Joon. No matter what.”
“That’s my girl.” Omma looked at me and smiled, then brushed my tears away with her fingers. “My beautiful daughter… You’ve grown up a lot. We were worried, for a while…”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’ve always been kind and loving, but for a long time you had your head up in the clouds… Growing up after losing your Hoon Oppa. You were once so afraid of changing that you stayed firmly in the past. So afraid to take chances… So intent on staying the same. Looking at you now, I know that you’ve really grown. Loving Joon made you into the woman I always knew you would be and I couldn’t be more proud… And I know Appa is too.”
“Omma,” I said. “I can love him… But I can’t do it if he won’t let me.”
“He loves you. Perhaps even more than he loves himself. I knew it years ago, but I know it even more so now. I’ve seen the way he looks at you when he thinks no one’s looking… I’ve seen the way he smiles at you. There will be no one else for him. And I could never have asked for a better man for you. He brings out the best in you. He encourages you to be better. He makes you question yourself and challenges you to look at the world differently. What more could I possibly want?”
“I’m not sure if he and I will make it through this. I don’t know if we’re strong enough.”
“This is but another trial that you two need to get through. You’ll look back on this one day and realize that this is the moment that decided your fate. Saying I love you is very different from actually making the decision to love each other, no matter how much it hurts. You’re doing it consciously, making that choice. That’s what makes the difference.” She held me close for a few more minutes before she spoke again. “Now that you’ve cried, you need to dry your tears. He needs you now more than ever and you cannot… You must not waver. Remember this, my daughter, only love will make a man show both the best and worst of himself to a woman. Sometimes at the same time. Everyone can accept the best, but if you can’t accept his worst, then what’s the point?” She gave me one last reassuring hug before getting up. She was almost at the door when she turned back around to address me one more time. “Joon forgot something though…”
“What did he forget?” I asked quietly, looking at her.
“He forgot who he fell in love with. Uri Sung Na Jeong… You’re made of the good stuff. The strong stuff.” She paused and smiled before proceeding. “Joon is, too. He will realize it soon enough.”
She walked out of my room and closed the door quietly behind her. Once alone, I stayed sitting up with my legs close to my chest. I looked out the windows and hugged my puppy close to me. I stayed like that, in silence, thinking about what Omma just told me.
“I cannot waver,” I told myself. Joon promised me he’ll always come back to me. I will fight for him, just like he fought for me all those years ago. This is my choice. Our future doesn’t have to be dictated by his past, or mine. I pulled my notebook out and did what I always did when I was unsure and confused. I developed a game plan.
August 22, 2001
I heard the ring-tone coming from my purse as I was just getting up. Exhausted, I was tempted to let it go straight to voicemail, but in the unlikely event that it was Joon, I found myself getting up from the bed only to see an unidentified number as the caller. I picked up the call and placed the hand phone to my ear before saying a quiet hello.
There was hesitation on the other end of the line before I heard a hesitant voice come on. “Hello, Sung Na Jeong-sshi. Na Jeong-ah… This is, uhmm, this is Joon’s Omma. Jae Joon’s Omma.”
Surprised I was quiet for a moment before I found my voice. “Ahh… Yes, Omonim,” I said, trying to make sure my voice sounded pleasant and welcoming. “Is everything okay?”
“That’s what I was going to ask, Na Jeong-ah. I called Dong Joon’s Omma this morning and was informed that Jae Joon was back. How is it that my son has been back for a few weeks and I am the last person to know?”
“Omonim… I’m sure Joon would have called you… But this return home was a bit unexpected,” I explained. Unsure of whether it was my place to fill her in, I decided to wait for her questions instead. The last time I saw his mother wasn’t exactly the most cordial of meetings.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on or am I going to have to guess?” She asked, concerned. “I’ve called Joon’s phone several times today to no avail. And he is not replying to his voicemail.”
“Omonim,” I started, before taking a deep breath. I have to tell her. The country will know soon enough and even as little as I knew of her, she would feel hurt if she was the last one to find out. “Omonim… Joon was injured. In San Francisco. The Giants won’t be renewing his contract and he’s still weighing his options.”
“Is it his shoulder?” She continued. “If it is, then he’ll have surgery. That’s fixable.”
“It is his shoulder. But Omonim, he doesn’t want surgery. It’s his body. He should decide what’s best, right?” I tried to keep my voice neutral even as a part of me wanted to ask her not to make any decisions for him. Joon is his own man. “If he doesn’t want surgery, then he should be entitled not to.”
“You can make him have it, Na Jeong-ah…”
“I can’t make Joon do anything.”
“On the contrary. You are, perhaps, the only one that can. Joon will hide and run, trying to avoid the issue for as long as possible.”
“That’s already happened, Omonim,” I said resignedly. “I am probably the last person Joon wants to talk to at the moment. I’m not going to keep trying to push my way onto him…”
“Why not? You do it with everyone else.” I felt my hackles rise at the implication when I heard her chuckle. “Na Jeong-ah… My son is very difficult to handle when he’s like this. I understand that.”
“Omonim. Even at his worst, he’s still the best man I know. I haven’t changed my mind about him.”
“I was just making sure you remembered,” she responded. She stayed silent for a few minutes before speaking again. “So, that means you’re not giving up on him, right?”
“I’M NOT!” I said indignantly. It felt good to feel the spark come back inside my chest. It fueled my courage to say whatever was on my mind. “I told you I am never going to give up on him! I’m marrying him! Don’t forget!”
She laughed outright then and I felt myself warm up to her. She reacts to me the way Joon always does, the way Joon always did… Before any of this happened. “Point taken. Na Jeong-ah… I think I understand now, why my son fell in love with you. When he first mentioned you to me six years ago, I thought that you couldn’t possibly be as brave and lovely as he described.”
I thought back on what she said before it registered. “Omonim… I… I thought you said Joon never mentioned me.”
“Did I?” She asked, amusement in her voice.
“Yes… Yes you did. When I went to your class the first time.”
“Well, you said that uri Joon didn’t love you either. So we’re even.” I held the phone away from my ear to mutter how is it possible that this family was so competitive when I heard her laugh again. “Na Jeong-ah, I can still hear you,” she said as I put the receiver back to my ear. “I’m glad he has you, you know.” Her voice was quiet now, thoughtful. “I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger and I was afraid Joon was going to pay for them for the rest of his life.”
“I followed your suggestion and started watching his games and reading news articles online. And despite my errors, it appears that you’re right… Uri Jae Joon has grown up to be a remarkable man. Thank you for loving him.” I was still searching for an appropriate response when she proceeded. “I have to go, Na Jeong-ah… I have a class to teach and it seems I have to track my son down. I think it’s about due time he and I spoke, don’t you think so?”
“Yes.” Afraid I was going to start bossing her around, I left it at that. Whatever I think they should speak of, I already mentioned the last time I saw her.
“I’ll call again, Na Jeong-ah… Since we’re going to be in laws and everything.” She chuckled again and hung up the call before I could respond.
Not entirely sure how to react I sat back down on the bed. I think a talk between Joon and his mother would be nothing if not beneficial. Reminding myself to call him later, I looked at my watch I saw that I was running late so I quickly readied myself for work. I must stay focused.
August 22, 2001
I was slipping a sweatshirt over my head when I heard the pounding on my door, accompanied by the endless ringing of the doorbell. Seeing that it was Dong Joon, I walked over and opened the door silently.
He walked in, trying not to step on anything that was still on the floor. I saw him shake his head at me before stopping in the middle of the living room. I reclaimed my position on the couch and sat down. I stopped taking the pain medication days ago. My shoulder ached and I’m confused.The last few days have been miserable but it finally feels like the haze is lifting.
The apartment feels even more exceptionally empty without Na Jeong. I haven’t seen her in five days, haven’t heard from her in just as long.
I closed my eyes as my mind automatically went back to the last time she was here, hurt and anger was written on her face. The last five days without her made me realize that I needed to have a plan before approaching her again. This issue wasn’t just about us… I recognize this now and I need to resolve some things first. I owed her that much.
“Yah Chilbong-ah… When are you going to clean this mess up?” I opened one eye to see Binggrae motioning around the apartment. “How long has it been like this?”
“Calm down, Dong Joon-ah… It hasn’t been that long. And I thought something was wrong. Were you trying to knock or ring my door down?”
“This is dangerous! There’s glass on the floor!”
“Why are you here?” I asked. “Is it to lecture me?”
“Your mother has been blowing up my phone. She said she can’t get a hold of you,” he responded, picking up a wrapper of some sort from the couch before sitting himself down. “Where’s Na Jeong? I’m surprised this place is a pigsty. She’s obsessed with cleanliness.”
“Na Jeong left me,” I said with a strained voice. “I don’t blame her… I’m an asshole.”
Dong Joon looked at me for a few minutes before speaking again. “What did you do?”
Accused her of loving me for my money and success. Brought up every mistake she’s ever made with me. Held the fact that she grew up loved by her family against her. Rejected the possibility of a child together. At this last thought, my heart throbbed painfully inside me. “What didn’t I do?” I ran a frustrated hand through my hair. “I fucked up.”
“Well at least you acknowledge this. I’m surprised that I didn’t hear about you guys fighting. She usually tells Yoon Jin everything, who tells Samcheonpo, who tells Haitai, who tells me…” His voice trailed off and he smiled. I was about to ask him what was so funny when he spoke again. “That’s good. That’s a good thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it. So what’s going on with your shoulder?” He asked casually and I surmised Na Jeong must have told him. As if reading my mind, he said, “Your season’s not over and you’re home. You’ve been guarding your right side since I came in. I am a medical resident. All the years of studying is not wasted, you know.”
“I have a couple of tears on my shoulder. It’s going to derail my career and my life.”
“That’s a bit dramatic, Joon-ah, even for you,” he answered.
“I was thinking of proposing to Na Jeong before this happened. And now… How can I? I’ve tried to look for other options, only to be told I’m an ‘unstable investment’. How would you feel after being told by everyone that you have no value beyond what you do?” I looked at him directly. “It’s thrown me off… And I’ve been having nightmares, too.”
“About your parents?” He asked. When I nodded, he looked contemplative before proceeding. “That’s understandable. You have pretty much avoided dealing with that since we were young. I should have made you talk about it then. But you’re stubborn as hell and now it’s come back to bite you in the ass. You know what you’re having?”
“An existential crisis. Everyone will go through it at one point in their lives. Questioning who they are… Questioning what they’re worth… Questioning where they belong… It’s normal, under the circumstances.”
“So what do I do?”
“Deal with all the things that are bothering you. Address your issues one by one. This whole defeated thing… It’s just not you. You’re the guy who doesn’t give up. Despite the odds. Despite what others say. You don’t give up.”
“Baseball did that. It was always my motivation.”
“Baseball didn’t do that. You did. You need to stop putting so much of what you’re worth on baseball. Baseball may have helped you along but growing up the way you did… Becoming the person you are… That was all you,” he said, his eyes never leaving mine. “Give yourself some of the credit at least. Especially when it comes to Na Jeong. It was due to your persistence and hard work that won her eventually. So get your shit together before…”
I know what he’s telling me. I understand what he’s getting at. “I know, I know… Get my shit together before I lose her for good.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling. “Before she takes matters into her own hands and beats you senseless. Yah… Do you still not know your woman? Na Jeong will never give up on you… But she is not above in making everyone suffer to get what she wants… And that includes you. But more importantly, that also includes us!” I looked at him questioningly as he continued to laugh. “Aish… Do you know what happened the last time you made her mad? After you left for San Francisco without a word? We couldn’t eat ddukbokki for months! We got yelled at for not telling her that your flight landed safely and we could never mention your name for fear she would blow up! We always changed the TV channels when your CFs was playing and hide all the papers or magazines articles related to you. Samcheonpo made the mistake once and mentioned your name… Once! And she beat him up with a pillow! A pillow! And Yoon Jin even took her side! Don’t even get me started on the silent treatment she gave us when she found out that we knew about your weekly phone calls to her parents. She didn’t talk to any of us for a week! You have no idea how scary that woman can be.”
I smiled for the first time in what felt like forever in spite of myself. Uri Na Jeong-ie is really something else. “That was before this though. She doesn’t speak much nowadays. I can barely get a reaction out of her.”
“You should feel flattered. You’re not the easiest person to deal with when you’re like this. She’s probably trying to be understanding… Giving you some time. Do you know how unnatural it is for her to leave things be and stay quiet? It’s even scarier than her blowing up…” He shuddered as he spoke.
“When did you get so perceptive about women?” I asked.
“I have a wife now. And she reads those magazines. I bet Na Jeong reads them too, right?” He gave me a knowing look. “How to deal with a depressed partner: Give him space. Let him think about it. That’s what those magazines always say. They don’t take into account that you’re not just any other man. And Na Jeong… Well, she’s obviously not just any other woman. To be honest, you’re a brave man. For taking her on.”
“What do you mean?” I don’t care if he’s my cousin… If he’s talking shit about Na Jeong…
He put his hands up in surrender before responding. “Don’t get angry with me. All I’m saying is that she is a little hard to handle. Most men would not be able to handle her temper. They’ll either try to suppress it or let her get away with everything. But she listens to you. You’re probably the only one who can calm her down just by being around. We risked our lives and limbs just to stay in contact with you… That’s how angry she was. Now YOU have to suck it up and do the same for us. We all have wives and Haitai has a girlfriend. If you and Na Jeong don’t make up, the women will take her side and us men will be living in tyranny for the rest of our lives. She has this crazy influence with them…” He paused then looked at me. “Do you really want all of us to die?” When I didn’t respond right away, he said, “Don’t be an idiot. Make up with her. If you care for any of us at all. And I don’t think it would be that much of a sacrifice for you anyway.”
“It’s not that simple. She… She might be pregnant.”
Dong Joon looked surprised for a minute but not alarmed. “So what if she is? You’re going to marry her anyways… Admit it. That’s the direction you’ll be heading at some point. Besides, you two will make great parents.”
“How can you say that with certainty? Knowing what you know of my childhood? And how can I support her and a baby without a job?”
“Joon-ah… I know your childhood. But I also know her. And most of all I know you. YOU. ARE. NOT. YOUR. PARENTS. As for the job thing… You two will find a way to make it work. You of all people should know that money doesn’t fix everything. Money can always be earned. But love? Happiness? You can’t buy either of those. Well, maybe some people can but you don’t want those bought anyway. Not when it’s already rightfully yours.” I watched as he stood up and started making his way towards the door. He turned around when he was almost there and spoke again. “I almost forgot the reason I came for. Your mother wants you over at dinner at 7 p.m. sharp… Which is in two hours. She said to let you know that this was not a request and if you don’t show up… It’s MY ass on the line. I guess you should probably get cleaned up because you’re looking rough.”
He opened the door and walked out muttering under his breath, “Aishh… Why are the women in your life so bossy and so hard to deal with? Aishh… Why in the world do they take it out on me? Do I look like an easy target? Aishh…” His muttering ended when the door closed behind him.
I’ll think about what he said when I get home later. Right now I have to meet my Omma. I think it may be time to actually deal with some of my issues head on. That’s what uri Na Jeong-ie would do.
August 22, 2001
I stood at the door to my mother’s place and waited for someone to answer. I wondered for a moment if Ahjusshi was going to be here. It’s not that I didn’t like him… It’s just that I barely see my mother as it is and I really need some time alone with her if she and I were going to have a talk.
When she finally answered the door, I saw my mother dressed in a short sleeved blouse and skirt. She must have just gotten home from work since her hair was still tied up. She never ages, my mother… She always looked the same whenever I see her. She still looked like the mother I had in my memories, before she left me and Appa. Something was different about her tonight though and I was taken aback when I realized that she had her arms around me in a warm embrace.
“Omma,” I said uneasily. “Is everything okay?”
She pulled away before looking me up and down. “Can’t I hug my only son?” She asked with a fond smile. I narrowed my eyes in suspicion and she chuckled. “Come in… Dinner is almost ready.”
I changed into slippers before following her into the apartment. She detoured towards the kitchen and I made my way into the living room. Sitting myself down on the sofa, I looked around absently, noting that she still kept her place the same as always when I heard her call out from the kitchen. “Joon-ah, do you want something to drink?”
“Omma… You don’t have to do that. I’ll make it myself.” I stood up and was about to walk towards the kitchen when I saw the framed picture hanging on the wall. I’ve never seen this picture before. This wasn’t here the last time I visited. It was a picture of me in my Giants uniform, holding a baseball in my hand, looking at what I am assuming was the batter, getting ready for my throw. My heart beat uncomfortably in my chest as I pondered how and when she got this, as well as why it would be hanging here now. My mother has never shown any interest in baseball.
I was still thinking about it when she walked into the living room balancing a tray on her hands with a teapot and some cups. “You didn’t answer me so I thought I’d just make us some tea,” she said then motioned for me to sit back down on the couch.
I wanted to ask her about the picture but I didn’t know where to start. To this day, I still find it hard to speak to my Omma. I always feel like a little boy around her. I watched as she poured the tea, measuring just the right amount of sugar into my cup without my telling her.
“How are you?” She asked, her eyes not meeting mine.
“I’m okay,” I automatically answered. I’m always okay… Or at least that’s what I always say to Omma and Appa. It’s easier. For them and myself. Saves me from having to talk about it and them from listening to something they had no interest in. I rifled through the magazines on her coffee table for something to read, trying to alleviate the uncomfortable silence that preludes these rare meals we share. I had just lifted a couple of the magazines when I saw a big book. Too big to be a novel… It looked more like a photo album of sorts. I opened to the first page to see a printout of an article written about me when I had agreed to go to Yonsei. I flipped to the next page to see an article about the first game I pitched at university. I rifled through the pages quickly, noting that they were all articles about my career… All the way to the San Francisco Giants.
“There would have been more…” She said, her voice sounded nervous and I looked up to see my mother wringing her hands together. Her eyes met mine and she spoke again. “… But the internet only archived your baseball career from Yonsei University onwards.” She lifted the teacup to her lips and I noted that her hands were shaking.
“Omma, I don’t understand,” I said. And I don’t. She’s never followed what I do. Or at least I didn’t think she did. I’m confused. I have no clue what’s going on or who this woman in front of me is.
“Joon-ah… I know I haven’t been the most supportive mother but I’m trying to fix that,” she responded. “You have every reason to be angry with both me and your Appa.”
I shook my head before I answered. “I’m not angry. I know that you both did what you could. I always had a roof over my head and food to eat.” I swallowed the lump that formed in my throat. “I know that neither of you wanted a child… It’s okay.” I looked away from her and hoped that my eyes didn’t betray that it really wasn’t okay. Though every cell in my body told me to bolt, I forced myself to remain seated, because that’s what Na Jeong would do.
“How in the world did you come to that conclusion?” She asked and I looked up. She was gazing at me with an unreadable expression on her face.
“Omma… I may have been a child but I wasn’t blind or deaf. I heard you and Appa arguing for months, before you left. I heard both of you say it. It’s okay… I’m okay.”
“Joon-ah… Those were not easy times for me and your Appa. I’m sure we said a lot of things we didn’t mean.”
“It wasn’t just that. I saw pictures of the two of you.” When she looked at me questioningly, I continued. “Before I was born. You looked happy. But after I was born there were no more pictures.I always knew that neither of you had been happy I was born.” Though saying the words pained me, I forced myself to, swallowing the bitterness that made itself known. All of this had to be said at some point, and what better time than now? It’s not as if I can feel shittier than I already do.
“I was working two jobs and your Appa was working and going to school. We barely had any time to see each other, much less have time together as a family to have opportunity for pictures. And you’re mistaken,” she said and I looked at her. “We were very happy once… Never more so than when you were born.”
“Joon-ah, you have to remember something. We both had you when we were young. We had no clue what we were doing. Too young to be married and certainly too young to be parents. We made so many mistakes with you. Omma is sorry for that.”
“But… You said you wanted your freedom. You left.”
“That was the hardest decision I ever had to make… Leaving you. But the reality of the situation was that I had nothing when I walked away from your Appa. I was penniless. His house at least belonged to his family. I knew he would have provided everything you needed, much better than I could have.” She put the cup down and took my hands in hers. “I’m not looking for absolution. Just a little understanding. Parents are people too… We’re not perfect, and we make mistakes. Though I believe that we made more with you than most. Whatever the case may be, you may not have been planned but you were always wanted. And always loved. Why do you think I only had one child? You were always enough for me.” She gave my hands a squeeze and smiled at me. “But still, look at you. You’ve really grown up well… Even without me. In spite of me leaving.”
I felt tears burn at the back of my eyes and I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “I didn’t grow up that well. Look at me now. Baseball was the only thing I had for a long time and when I was faced with losing that, I fucked up the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“What do you mean?” She asked, her voice concerned.
“Na Jeong… She’s gone… I don’t think she wants to be with me anymore. I don’t blame her.” She stayed silent and I questioned myself for even sharing this with her. She didn’t even know we were together. The last time I spoke of Na Jeong was six years ago, and she’s only met her once. Needing to actually talk about it with someone though, who better than someone who can be objective? “I just shut down… I couldn’t find a way to talk to her. I love her too much. It scared me… The idea that she may not love me as much. I just pushed her away. I think… I think I don’t know how to be happy.”
“I think you and I may be more alike than either of us realized. Everything I ever thought was good about myself I see in you. The persistence… Your focus… Your determination. Even your intensity. You got all of that from me. But I see the bad too.” She was quiet for a few minutes before she continued. “Myself and your Appa, communication was never our strong point. We didn’t quite know how to speak to each other… And much less to you. That’s why we didn’t work.” When she saw the surprised look on my face, she chuckled. “I know it’s hard to believe considering I left and we aren’t friends now but your Appa and I, we were crazy in love once too. Love is never a problem in abundance, only when it’s lacking.”
“Omma… Why are you telling me all this stuff?” She has never spoken so much about anything ever. At least nothing of any substance.
“Joon-ah… I don’t want to see you making the same mistakes your Appa and I made. Not when you don’t have to. Learn from our mistakes. But don’t get so caught up in your past and how you think your present should be that you don’t see the beauty in what you have now. Only you can decide your future…. No one else, unless you allow them to, gets to have a say.” I was still wrapping my head around the fact that I’m actually having this conversation with my Omma when I heard her voice. “As for Na Jeong, I get the feeling you two will be just fine. Once you figure it out.” I was about to ask her how she knew that when she stood up and grabbed the tray. “Dinner’s done. All this talk about feelings has made me hungry. Let’s go eat, hmm?”
I nodded and stood up. My glance landing on the framed picture again, I asked, “Omma… Did you get this picture from the Internet too? You should have told me you wanted one… I could have gotten a professional one for you.”
“That picture wasn’t from the Internet,” she said, her back to me. “Na Jeong gave me that.”
“What? When? When you two made kimchi together?”
“No…” I walked to the kitchen to see my Omma pulling plates out of the cupboard. She turned around and looked at me. “She came to see me again in January, after your birthday… I think after you went back? She said that she noticed that I didn’t have any pictures of you in the house so she brought me one.'” She lifted her eyebrows at me, possibly taking in the shock on my face. “You’ve picked yourself quite a woman.” She shook her head and chuckled, as if thinking of something else. “She also gave me a copy of your schedule too, including a list of the websites where I can watch recaps of your games. ‘Just in case you were interested,’ she said. She didn’t say it out loud, but judging from the look she gave me, I know she really meant, ‘Even if you’re not interested, BE interested.’ She’s not very subtle, that girl.”
“Did she say anything else?” Curious now, I looked at my Omma while she searched her mind, as if trying to remember.
“Well… She also said, ‘I don’t know exactly what happened with you and Abonim, but I hope that you find a way to fix your relationship with Joon. He’s told me just a little bit and he pretends that it doesn’t bother him but I know him and I know it does…'”
I couldn’t help but feel the pride inside me at how perceptive and courageous uri Na Jeong-ie is. My Omma was still speaking but I had zoned out for a minute…
“Oh… And she said she was marrying you and if I wanted to see my grandchildren I would do well to fix things with you first. I got mad but she stood her ground. ‘Our children will not be allowed to go to your house unless they can look around and see how much you love Joon, which I know you do.’ Then she glared at me and left. I mean I know you said she’s temperamental but really…” Omma sat down and motioned for me to join her at the table. “I cannot believe she threatened me, can you?”
“Yes,” I answered easily. Then I started laughing. My mother frowned at me at first but then began to laugh as well. It’s funny because I don’t even think that my Omma and I ever laughed this much together. It felt good, to finally be able to share this with her. I had just put spooned out some of the stew onto my rice when she cleared her throat.
“Joon-ah… What are you going to do about your shoulder?” She asked. “I’m not going to tell you what to do, if that’s what’s stopping you from telling me.”
“Omma… I don’t know yet. I don’t really have a lot of options. I’m still thinking about it.” I didn’t want to say more, thinking that I already knew that she’d tell me to do something else. Just like she had every other time.
“Whatever you decide, I’m here. Your Appa will be too. We are always proud of you.”
That was unexpected. I ate quietly and saw her watching me as I took a bit of the radish kimchi. I was taken back to my childhood, when I allowed myself to just eat a little bit of the batch she left for me every time I missed her, trying to make it last because I was unsure when I’d eat it again. It made me sad then, but it still made me feel closer to her. Even years later, it still made me sad eating it, but it was a comfortable sad. It was a sadness I was familiar with. The kkakdugi I ate now tasted the same, but it no longer held the emotional meaning it did before. I thought about why and I realized it was because I’ve developed a taste for someone else’s kimchi. Na Jeong’s kimchi.
“Well?” Omma asked. “Does it still taste as good as you remember?’
“Omma, of course,” I answered. “It’s still the best.”
“You’re a liar…” She said teasingly. “You clearly said when we spoke on the phone that Na Jeong’s tasted better, before you even knew it was hers.”
“Na Jeong’s tastes different. It’s not just the ginger, either. Her kimchi…” Her kimchi tastes of hope. Whereas my Omma’s kimchi always held a hint of sadness, Na Jeong’s always reminded me of what love would taste like, if it had a taste. God, I miss her. Knowing that I can’t very well say these things out loud without possibly hurting my Omma’s feelings, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “It just tastes different.”
She smiled at me and we finished our meal in comfortable silence, one that I never shared with my mother before. I savored the meal as if I was seeing her for the first time, forgiveness coming easily now that we’ve spoken. When at last we were finished, she walked me to the door before she opened her arms and hugged me again.
“Omma,” I said. “Are we going to be touchy feely now?”
She gave me an affectionate nudge before she responded. “Yah… There’s a first time for everything. I have 19 years to make up. One dinner and a couple of hugs won’t fix everything but it’s a start, right? Plus… I really really want to be able to see my grandchildren.” She winked at me before pushing me out the door. “We should do this more often,” she suggested. “Next time bring Na Jeong along, hmm?”
“Sure, Omma,” I shoved my hands in my pockets. “Thanks for dinner.”
I waited until her door was closed before I made my way down the elevator. Putting my key into the car door, I spotted a store selling baby stuff and unable to help myself, I found myself walking towards it. I stood in front of the display for a few minutes, marveling at how little everything was and before I knew it I had pushed the door open and I was walking down the aisles of baby stuff.
I stopped by a pair of impossibly small shoes and wondered if babies really needed it if they don’t even walk yet. I lift a pair up and saw that it didn’t even cover the size of my palm. My heart in my throat, a vision of a little girl with Na Jeong’s eyes came to me. I’ll just buy this one, I thought. I already touched it. I was already making my way to the register when I realized that I should get one for a little boy, too. You know, just in case. Maybe some socks too… They can’t wear shoes without socks. So I get some with hearts and flowers for a little girl, and some with balls and cartoon characters for a little boy. By the time I got to the register, my arms were filled with baby things, for every unexpected occurrence. I even found a book on pregnancy. The sales person looked at me curiously, and for a minute I was nervous that she recognized me with my cap on but then I realized that I was the only man in the store and they were about five minutes away from closing. After I paid, I grabbed the two bags bursting with purchases and quickly made my way back to my car.
I drove home slowly, passing by the boarding house even though it was out of my way, hoping to even just see a glimpse of her. I sat in front of the boarding house and contemplated going in, but unable to find the courage to, I just drove off after half an hour.
Once arriving home, I took the two bags and put them on the side of the bed. I climbed into bed that night with the book about pregnancy, my mind a little more at peace. I’ll speak to Na Jeong tomorrow, after her work. I might have to grovel, but I can do that. After a few minutes I put the book away in the drawer of my bedside table, under Na Jeong’s picture and thought about whether she will give me another chance. The worst she can do is say no. And then what? And then she’ll just have to fall in love with me all over again. I did with her, so she can certainly do the same with me.
August 23, 2001
I kept my hands in my pockets as I followed In Sung. We walked in silence… Just like we’ve done a million times before… When we were kids. When we were in university.
He had shown up at my apartment not even fifteen minutes ago. Opening the door, I was surprised to see him eyeing me up and down before exclaiming, “Chilbong-ah… You look like shit.”
“Yeah… I’ve been hearing that a lot lately,” I had responded.
“Why didn’t you call me and tell me about the injury and the contract?” He asked me accusingly. “How are you going to let me find out via the news? And here I thought that we were friends.”
“It’s been a little crazy around here. Do you want to come in?” I looked behind me and saw the mess and hoped for a minute he would refuse.
“Put some clothes on. I think you can use some fresh air. Take a walk with me.” He walked off before I could say no. He was probably right. It felt like the walls of the apartment were closing in on me. “I’ll meet you downstairs,” he called out as I was about to close the door.
Minutes later I was downstairs and we were walking out of the building. Unsure of where we were going, I just followed him. I put my hood over my head and kept my head down as we walked.
“What time is Na Jeong coming?” He asked quietly before looking at me for an answer.
“She’s not.” I responded.
“Yeah… Looking at you like this, I expected so. You don’t look good, Chilbong-ah.”
I stayed silent as we walked. When we finally stopped, I realized that we were at the neighborhood park, the same one I went to a few weeks ago. I watched as In Sung climbed the bleachers and sat down, then patted the seat next to him. I went up the bleachers and sat down beside him, noticing that the same kids that were playing baseball that day were back to practice today.
“Yah… How many of those kids do you think will make it to play college baseball?” He asked, keeping his eyes firmly on the field.
“I don’t know… Maybe a quarter?” I don’t know why we’re here. In Sung and I haven’t been on the bleachers together as spectators in a baseball field… Not since we were twelve years old and we would sneak into one just to watch the adults play.
“Of that quarter… How many do you think will make it to play professional baseball in Korea?”
“A handful, at most,” I responded.
“Maybe one, if any.” I watched as the kids made their way into their positions on the field and I could almost see In Sung and I, him with his body vest on at twelve and me with the ball, walking out to play with them. I heard him clear his throat and I turned to look at him.
“Do you remember when we were finally allowed to play together? I’ve watched you throw before and practiced with you before, but I was still surprised at how good you were when I played with you. You almost knocked me down, you pretty boy,” he chuckled then turned his eyes to me. “Though you’re not looking so pretty now.”
“Chilbong-ah… No matter what happens now, you’ve already achieved something most people can only dream of. You’re already someone who’s achieved a lot. Be proud of that, and yourself. All the things that made you successful… All the things that made you so good… You still have it. With or without your shoulder, it’s still in you.”
“Things are different now. I’m not as young and as idealistic as I used to be.”
“It wasn’t youth or idealism that pushed you. It was something else.”
“What makes you think you know me so well?” I asked defensively.
“You can bullshit your way with everyone else, but not me. You and I… We’ve played together for almost ten years. You don’t think I know that you had something to do with me getting accepted into Yonsei, you punk? My grades weren’t that good. And they already told me before you accepted your scholarship that I wasn’t accepted. You think I thought it was purely coincidental that you gave them an answer and all of a sudden they have a place for me AFTER I told you I’d have to go to Korea University? You’re always doing things on your own. I could have killed you… My crush at that time was going to Korea University. After my parents heard that Yonsei accepted me, I had no choice but to go there.”
“Ahh… But you wouldn’t have met Misoo and you wouldn’t be getting married now.” I chuckled to myself.
“Yeah,” he said. “And I wouldn’t have been one of the very few people that can say that I saw Kim Jae Joon grow up from this puny kid who ate nothing but ramyun and kimchi into the Major League Baseball Player that he is now.”
“Major League Baseball Player that he was,” I corrected him. “In Sung-ah… I may never play baseball again. My right shoulder is gone.”
“So?” He asked. “The Chilbong I know would say fine… I’ll play with my left arm instead. If you’re going to quit playing, do it because you want to and not because of this injury.”
“I don’t have another sixteen years to train my left arm well enough to play for a professional team again.”
“You only said you wouldn’t play baseball again, not that you wanted to be paid for it. When we were kids, we didn’t think of how baseball was going to get us paid. I played because I liked it. And you… You played because I don’t think you had anything else.” When he saw the surprised expression on my face he smiled. “You think I’m stupid or something? You didn’t think I would notice that you never allowed yourself to look up to the bleachers until the game was over? I’ve played with you for all those years and you don’t think I knew that your parents never came to any of the games or that you always rushed home when we were kids as soon as the team parents would start talking about going out after?” He took a deep breath before continuing. “You always played baseball with so much intensity… It was amazing to see and be a part of. Every time I saw you on the field, getting ready to throw, I always thought to myself… Wow… This punk. You drew people’s eyes to you. You were a pitcher with a story to tell.” He nudged my good shoulder then. “Yah… You remember, right? How it felt when you played? How it seemed like the world would quiet down just to wait for your throw? It was amazing, Chilbong-ah. Sometimes, it felt so unfair that rather than just watching you play I had to play too.”
I stayed silent, unsure of what to say. Not knowing if I had anything to say. He seemed to consider his words carefully before he proceeded. “But it was sometimes a little scary too, because with that intensity came a little desperation. As if this was all that you had. You were so quiet and soft spoken, but when you played baseball you became someone else. I remember one of our coaches saying it before… How you had so much talent… But you were also always a live wire. Even they felt that there was more going on than just baseball.” He looked away then, as did I, to see the kids huddle together in a pre-game pep talk. “… And he was right. Baseball wasn’t just a game to you. It was your life.”
“It is my life,” I said. “That hasn’t changed. My life is built on baseball and my ability to play it.”
He shook his head at me. “No… Things are different now. You WERE the boy who only had baseball. That’s not true any longer. You don’t just have baseball anymore. You have love and your family.”
“What family? I barely speak to my Omma and Appa. She’s busy with work and her own life… And he’s moved to the country to be a farmer. I wish it was as easy for me to change the direction of my life.”
“It’s not that complicated,” In Sung replied. “And I wasn’t talking about that family. I’m talking about the family you’ve picked for yourself. Didn’t you move out of the player dorms when we were in university, saying you would rather live in the boarding house, even though it actually made more work for you?” When I nodded, he continued. “You thrived on the loneliness… I was a little nervous when you were happy suddenly. I thought it was going to throw you off your game. But then something unexpected happened.”
“You became even better. That’s it, I thought. There’s no stopping him now. I thought for sure you found your confidence, that I wouldn’t have to worry about you anymore. Falling in love, having people around you… You became an even better baseball player. And a better person, too. It was an honor… being the one on the other side, waiting to catch your ball. But an even bigger privilege… to be able to call you friend.” He paused and clapped when an outfielder caught the ball. “But then this injury happened… And I feel like I’m looking at you from sixteen years ago. You look miserable,” he said, his tone concerned. “Misoo saw Na Jeong the other day… She said she was looking tired, like she hasn’t slept for days. I didn’t see her but looking at you I think I have an idea how she must look.” He whistled when the pitcher threw a strike. “You loved her for so long and now you have her. Don’t blow it.”
“I already did.”
“Really? Because she didn’t say anything to Misoo about her breaking up with you. Or did you break up with her?” When I didn’t respond, he looked at me closely. “Did the reality of being with her not meet the illusion of it?”
“No… It’s nothing like that. She’s incredible. She’s funny and kind. She’s perfect. She has these crazy metaphors, they crack me up so much… About cows and pandas… ” I started chuckling, but then a lump formed in my throat as the memory of Na Jeong in the rain came back to me. ‘I love you way beyond more’, she had whispered, her mouth smiling on mine.
“So what’s the problem?”
“She didn’t sign up for this. She doesn’t even like baseball. She wouldn’t understand. ” He wouldn’t get it. Misoo knows baseball and how much work is put into it.
“What?” He asked. “She wouldn’t understand about hard work and losing yourself? You don’t have to be a baseball player to understand that. You just have to be a person.” Well, when he puts it like that… “And she may not like baseball but she loves you. Don’t be too hard on her. She’s not expected to be everything all the time… She’s not always supposed to be able to read your mind. Just like your not being able to read hers. You are okay with that so be okay with her not always knowing what you’re thinking. If she tries… That’s all that matters. For years, you held the illusion of her in your mind… You probably believed that once you two were together, it was going to be smooth sailing. I should have warned you that was just the start. She’s only human, Chilbong-ah. No one can possibly live up to whatever illusion you had in your head. No one should have to. It’s too much pressure and it’s not fair for either her or you.”
“She held on as long as she could, under what could have possibly been the most difficult of circumstances. In the end I just gave her the opportunity to leave before this got real. She took it, and I can’t blame her for it. She shouldn’t have to deal with this.”
“I don’t know Na Jeong personally, but shouldn’t you let her decide what she should and shouldn’t have to deal with herself?”
“In Sung-ah… I did what I could.”
“I get the feeling that you’re running under the assumption that you’ve just proven that you love her more by making a decision that she never asked you to make. Chilbong-ah… There are things in life that don’t always require proof for it to be real. Saying it out loud doesn’t make it more true and not saying it out loud doesn’t make it less real. A dream that never materializes is still a dream. Love that’s not returned is still love. Sometimes you can ask someone to leave, when you’re really begging for them to stay.” He continued to watch the game, his gaze focused on the field. “People are funny that way. We keep testing one another… Always wanting to be proven wrong… Or maybe the more important thing is that we do it so we can say I’m right… What I believed in was always true. It’s comfortable… Thinking that you had it right all along. But it’s also sad, don’t you think?” He finally turned to me then, a thoughtful look on his face. “A little bit of faith goes a long way. Disappointment is a self fulfilling prophecy. Unlike love. That’s a little more complicated. It’s so much easier to have faith in something that’s fixed. Like baseball. It seemed like a sure bet, right? Because how can it disappoint you? But you forgot… Our bodies are not infallible. Chilbong-ah… Even if it wasn’t your shoulder… It might be other things. We will get injured… We will all get old. If it’s not one thing it’s another. But you already won half the battle. You already found the person who will love you no matter what. The rest you can figure out along the way.”
I was still digesting what he said that I didn’t notice the practice was over and that In Sung was standing up. He held out a hand to help me up and I took it. We walked towards the apartment, no words passing between us. When we reached the intersection, he spoke.
“I’ll stop here. I promised Misoo I’d pick her up from work.” I nodded at him and was about to thank him when he enfolded me into a hug. “Chilbong-ah… You’re not an idiot right? Don’t push your woman away because you’re afraid. You might be surprised at how much she can handle. And remember… All the best success stories start in failure and loss. Otherwise they wouldn’t be called success stories. This can be the end. Or you can make it the beginning.” He released his hold on me before he turned away whistling.
I walked back to the apartment on my own and thought about what he said. ‘You’re done doing everything on your own’, Na Jeong had said, taking my hand in hers during our first real morning together. Inside me, I felt a whisper of hope bloom.
Maybe Na Jeong wasn’t the one who gave up.
Maybe it was me.
If so, maybe it’s not too late.
August 24, 2001
I was trying to lie down on the couch when something kept digging into my back. It was only when I reached down that I found my phone under some of the cushions on the sofa. I hadn’t needed it, so I didn’t even realize that I didn’t know where it was until it hit me this morning that I haven’t heard from Jung Jin Hyung in a few days, which was very strange for him. Hooking it up to the charger and powering it on, I noticed that the voicemail icon popped up. Must just be Hyung or Omma, since Dong Joon said she couldn’t get in touch with me. I almost didn’t listen to the messages, but I thought about how much Hyung will yell at me if I didn’t, so I sat down and listened.
I was surprised to hear Na Jeong’s voice on the message line. Her tone angry, she said, “Yah Kim Jae Joon… Are you going to say all those things to me and now not answer your phone? Just wait until I talk to you again… Do you think you can get rid of me that fast?”
Confused and wondering whether she left this message before we fought, I pressed the button for envelope information and discovered the message was left only 5 days ago. So she’s mad? I expected that. I breathed a sigh of relief and pressed save on her message.
“Joon-ah… It’s Jung Jin Hyung. Remember me? I closed the lease on the apartment in San Francisco. I emailed you the paperwork. Uhm… I packed up the apartment too. Let me know when you’ll be home so I can bring your stuff to you. Oh yeah I forgot to tell you, but as of last month I am no longer your manager. Frankly you can’t afford me… I returned my salary from this month to your account. Everything I’m doing now, I do because… Well because you’re kind of my little brother and my friend. Call me. Make it soon though since I have to go back to San Francisco next week. I may have news when I get back.”
I permitted myself a small smile as I listened to Hyung’s message. I’m glad that San Francisco has been dealt with. Hang on… Did he get Na Jeong’s ring? And if San Francisco was over and done with, why would he need to go back? Reminding myself to message him later, I skipped to the next message.
“Chilbong-ah… It’s Samcheonpo… I know you are back in Korea. Why you don’t call us? You have yet to see our baby… Is anything the matter? You didn’t come to the baby’s 100 day celebration. You wouldn’t believe this but he picked up a ball! Yah… It’s unlike you to cut off all communications… Call us when you hear this message.”
Damn… I really should show my face to Samcheonpo and Yoon Jin. I’m going to need a list. I picked up a piece of paper and a pen and started writing down who I need to call back when I heard Na Jeong again, her voice softer this time.
“Yah… You miss me right? I knew you’ll miss me! I read your present that you gave me for my birthday. Do you remember? The one you gave me before I left San Francisco. You miss me all the time! You love me too! Remember? Do you remember that? Well, did you know this? I always miss you more… I always love you more… Are you going to let me win this round?”
I shook my head and stared at the paper, drawing a heart next to Na Jeong’s name, which was first on my list. Wondering what happened that she now talks like uri Na Jeong-ie, I continued listening to the messages.
“Chilbong-ah!!! Why are you not replying to my emails? I saw the news about the contract… Why didn’t you say anything? Are you ok? Let’s go for drinks… I know a place that serves good soju… My treat… Call me!”
Shit… I knew Haitai watched the US sports news. I should go out with him. He always cracks me up. I am in need of some cheering up right now. I heard Bing’s voice next.
“Joon-ah… Why are you not responding to your messages? I didn’t even know that you were back in town until Haitai told me… Yah… Your omma is ringing my phone down… You better call me back or else I will go down to your apartment tomorrow. She’s calling me while I’m in bed with my wife! CALL ME!”
Well that’s one less person to call. I heard the television in the background on the next message, followed by Sook Sook’s voice. I softened when I heard him speak.
“Joon Hyung!!! Noona said you’re back! When will you come over to play with me? Have you forgotten about my sleepover? It’s more fun to eat ice cream with you than with Noona. She always tells me to stop and follows me around with a paper towel… Come over okay? Joon Hyung, I miss you a lot!”
I hope that Hyung also packed up the miniature jersey I bought for Sook Sook. I can’t wait to see his face when I give it to him. Looking at my phone and wondering how many messages are left, I was about to put listening to the rest of it off when I heard Yoon Jin’s voice, with a crying baby in the background.
“Chilbong-ah… Is anything wrong? You’re not communicating with any of the guys… Did my husband piss you off about something? You’ll get over it, just like I do all the time. I asked Na Jeong about you and she didn’t say a word. Did you guys fight or something? She makes me nervous when she’s like this. But if something is wrong, you do know that we are here for you, right? Don’t make us worry too much… Call us…”
There was silence before the next message came on.
“Chilbong-ah… It’s In Sung. Your wife… Ouch! Jagiya, why did you pinch me? Ahh… Misoo is here too. Yah… Are you still thinking of what I said the other day? Stop staying at home too… It’s depressing to keep staying at home. Call us and we’ll take you and Na Jeong out. Oh yeah… You guys getting married yet? Misoo says don’t pick May because that’s when we get married. Okay, I’m hanging up. Call me.”
Listening to all the messages, I was struck by the concern and care interwoven in each. It seems I was wrong. People cared. Unsure of the direction my thoughts were going, I was still contemplating this when I heard Na Jeong’s Omma’s voice, her tone gentle and sweet, just the way she always sounded with me, interspersed with Coach’s voice, which was demanding and insistent, the way he always was with… Everyone. Thank God for consistency.
“Chilbong-ah… When are you coming over for dinner? Tell Omma… So Omma can cook oxtail soup for you,” she said before I heard a tussle over the phone and heard Appa’s voice. “Yah! Chilbong! You get your ass here soon! Don’t make Omma and me worry!” There was silence and I wondered if they were fighting over the phone again. “Chilbong-ah… I also cooked your favorite side dishes. Na Jeong will be bringing them over for you… Even if you don’t come over, you must eat well.” Omma said before I heard Appa screaming in the background. “Yeobo, don’t give him a choice of not coming! Tell him to come! Stop sending food so he will come here to eat… IF HE WANTS FOOD TELL HIM TO COME OVER HERE AND GET IT HIMSELF! Aishhh… You’re so soft.” Omma cleared her throat again before she spoke. “Chilbong-ah… Ignore Appa. I will keep sending food, but as soon as you feel like it, come over. Uhm… We miss you. Take care, okay? You’re not alone in this… You know that, right? Okay… Omma will go now before I start crying.”
Unexpected tears sprang to my eyes as realization dawned on me that all this time, I thought I was alone… When really I wasn’t. The people in my life now… The people I considered family… I realized while listening to their sometimes angry and sometimes hilarious messages, that the focus was never on baseball, but on me. I felt humbled all of a sudden, uncomfortable with the newness of this emotion.
Had I been the one stuck in my past? Believing what I wanted to believe in fear? Did I expect people to prove me wrong or was I constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop… Not only with Na Jeong but with everyone in my life? Not for the first time in the last week, I felt unsettled and ashamed of myself. I don’t like this feeling at all.
Somehow and some way, I had surrounded myself with people who genuinely cared for me, who wished the best for my well-being. They spoke to me as someone separate of Na Jeong but still inclusive of her in my life, as if it was a foregone conclusion that she and I can weather this storm. At the thought of her, I sat down. We might be having a baby. Our child will grow up surrounded by these same people. Our child will always be loved and accepted. The legacy of fear and abandonment ends with me.
Just as soon as hope warmed my chest and I’ve accepted the idea of us having a baby, I heard Na Jeong’s voice on the last message, her tone haunting and upset.
“Joon-ah… You should know that I took the test… I’m not pregnant,” a breath whooshed on the phone, as if she’d been holding it. “It’s good, right? It’s good news. But I don’t know why I’m crying,” she said now, her voice coming out in sobs. “I don’t know why I’m so sad. We’re not ready, right? You’re not even talking to me so how can we have a baby? Still though I feel really sad and alone… I wish you would just pick up the phone. I wish you can hug me and sing me the butterfly song again… Are you sad too? Since you can’t sing it for me, I’ll sing it for you instead. Maybe we’ll both feel better.” I started to cry as I listened to her shaky voice singing, her selflessness and love pouring over me in waves. When she was done, she said, “Joon-ah… I’m scared. We’ll make it through this, right? You promised me. You promised me that no matter what happens you’ll find me. I don’t know what you’ve been living with in the past month, but please find it in yourself to come back. Please come back to me. Please come back for me. I need you. I can’t do this without you and I’m not sure you can do this without me. I don’t want you to do this without me. I love you so much.”
The voicemail cut her message short and I stayed sitting, unable to do anything. I was taken aback by the feeling of loss, over something that never even existed yet. Tears ran down my face and I wiped them off in frustration. This is crazy. Just when I thought the roller coaster of emotions were going to end, life manages to surprise me. Even as every part of me wanted to reject having to think about this, I know that I need to stop avoiding all my issues now. I’m angry with myself for losing perspective. For having believed in that one thing my whole life… That people will always leave.
I know how that came about but I can change. I’ve already changed. I hear Na Jeong’s voice in my head. Telling me that she’s already made her choice. Telling me that with me is where she belonged.
I got up off the couch and started pacing back and forth. I looked around my apartment and it finally registered to me what I’ve done. The shame and the guilt came so quickly I closed my eyes. What am I doing? How long will I let my past dictate what I do? What am I so afraid of? It’s time for me to take the steps I need to take to finally become the man Na Jeong believes me to be. I need to start taking responsibility for my actions and to own my future. Even if she didn’t choose me first, she chose me now. That’s what matter, right?
I don’t have a job? So what? I’ll find one. I can’t play baseball? I’ll try to do something else, even if it meant asking my Appa or Na Jeong’s Appa for help. I am a proud man, but given the choice between my pride and being able to provide for Na Jeong and our family in the future, I will sacrifice that, even if she doesn’t ask me to. I would rather have that than go through my life holding onto the bitterness and trying to pretend that I can’t feel. Forcing myself to feel numb all the time will only work if I don’t want to actually feel anything. But I do want to feel. I want to be happy. I want to love and be loved.
I grabbed my jacket and keys, ready to go to Na Jeong when I heard the bell ring. Looking at the monitor, I saw a face that I never expected to see again. I opened the door slowly to see Jung Gook Sunbae leaning against the doorway. Not really sure what he’s doing here, I just stood silently and waited for him to speak.
“Chilbong-ah… You look like shit.” He smirked at me and I felt all the anger I have been trying to keep at bay rise to the surface. This is your fault. You were supposed to love her. You were supposed to take care of her. I’m not built to do it. I don’t deserve her. My keys dropped to the ground and with the direction of my thoughts dictating my actions, my fist connected with his face before I could think about it.
The bag he had in his hand fell to the ground and I vaguely heard glass bottles clinking. He lifted his head after a moment, rubbing his jaw. “Yah…” He started. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
I didn’t respond right away and just continued to stare him down. “That was for me, six years ago. You should have recognized what you had when you had her. You’re not taking her back.”
“Yeah okay… Maybe I did deserve that. But shouldn’t you be thanking me instead? If I had been perfect, you wouldn’t be with her now.” He was gloating, the bastard. Like the only way she could have chosen me was if he had fucked up. Basically verbalizing all the fears that I had. Saying that Na Jeong didn’t know herself. Oh hell no. She still could have chosen me. “Yeah,” he continued with a pleased tone. “You actually owe me…”
I was on him on the hallway floor with my fists clenched, anger running through me. For his part, he had also started fighting me back. I felt my bad shoulder hit the floor with a thump and I cringed but my fist hit his gut before I pushed him off me. I rolled in time to avoid him launching himself on me and landed on his stomach. We tussled for a few more minutes before I realized I was actually enjoying this. We broke apart when my neighbors arrived at their door, watching us curiously.
As soon as they were in their apartment, he turned to me with a self satisfied grin. I was about to hit him again when he spoke, his hand rubbing his open lip.
“Yah… You feel better now, right? I don’t know how I’m going to explain this to Yoo Mi…”
“WHAT? Who the hell is Yoo Mi?”
“My girlfriend, punk,” he responded. “I thought my showing up here was going to be enough to rouse you out of whatever funk you were in. Na Jeong said no, but I knew I was right. I have this effect on people.”
“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? ”
“Na Jeong told me you’re living like a zombie. I said I might know what it would take to remind you what’s important. She said no… Refused to give me your address,” he continued, picking up the bag that fell when I punched him the first time. “So I hounded Binggrae until he gave it up. Na Jeong said to talk to you somewhere public… But I bet you feel better now, right? Women know nothing. They don’t understand that men need an avenue for all these feelings. Violence… Violence is usually the answer. Nothing makes us feel more alive than hitting someone.”
That logic is messed up,” I said, rubbing my shoulder. But true. Not that I would ever admit that. Not to anyone. Especially not to him. “Why are you here?”
“Can I come in now?” He asked warily.
Wordlessly, I opened the door then let him in. I followed him into my apartment. I took a deep breath and waited for him to say something as he perused the mess that is my living room and kitchen. When he said nothing, I tried to clear some of the mess on the dining table before motioning for him to have a seat. Rather than sitting down, he handed me a bag with at least five bottles of soju. I raised my eyebrows at him, then asked, “Is this for me? Should I put in the fridge?” When he didn’t respond right away, I realized I should probably be more polite. “Thank you?”
“It’s a peace offering… And don’t put it away. Grab some glasses. Now that we got that out of the way, we need to talk,” he responded. I put the bag down on the dining table before heading to the kitchen to grab a couple of shot glasses, grabbing a paper towel too for his bleeding lip. As I was about to sit down, I spied him sitting down at the table and putting the folder that he pulled out of the bag before he gave it to me down. The last time anyone came to this table with a folder, Na Jeong basically slapped a negotiation on me. Is he trying to intimidate me? Still not really sure what the point of this is, I sat down and watched as he unscrewed a bottle and poured two shots. “Let’s drink.”
“Before we start, let me just get it out of the way that you’re dreaming if you think I’m going to apologize. I’m not sorry for hitting you. ” He frowned at me while dabbing his lip. I took a shot and he stayed quiet for a few minutes before he responded.
“I know,” he finally said before downing his own shot, hissing when the alcohol touched on the cut on his lips. I would feel bad but he deserved it. You just don’t show up to a man’s house and tell him he looks like shit.
This is going to be a long conversation, I thought to myself, if we will be talking one sentence at a time. I poured us two more shots of soju.
“Why are you here?” Thinking I probably needed a little bit more liquor to hear his answer, I took another shot. “And, what’s that?” I asked, pointing at the folder he brought along with him.
“Will you hit me again if I tell you?” He asked. He looked at the shot of soju in front of him and downed it. Pouring the next round, he said, “Chilbong-ah, we were worried.”
I bristled at the use of my nickname. I didn’t think he and I were that familiar that we can call each other by nicknames. “Don’t call me Chilbong. Kim Jae Joon. That’s my name. That’s what you’re allowed to call me,” I said, taking the shot. “We? Who’s we?”
“Our family!” He said, drinking his shot. “Appa, Omma, Sook Sook, Jeong-ah and me! Everyone! We’re all worried!” He met my eyes as if challenging me.
“I know everyone’s worried but you have no reason to be. If anything, I would think YOU would be happy that I’m miserable.” I took the shot of soju and tried to remember how much I’d already had. Thank God I haven’t taken any pain medication in days.
“Kim Jae Joon… Just shut up and listen for a minute.” He said as he drank more soju. He poured more liquor into the glasses and I shot one down before responding.
“Kim Jung Gook-ssi, who are you to come to my house and tell me to shut up? Are you begging for another fight?”
He drank his glass and I poured more out. Not having enough from the first bottle, I unscrewed the next. “You need to watch your words… I’m about to save your life, you punk.”
I glared at him from across the table, except it looked like there were two of him looking back at me. Great, I thought, because the world needs more of him. “I don’t want it if you’re just trying to win Na Jeong back by showing her how selfless you are.” I met his gaze and drank my shot.
He drank his and poured more out. “I am her Oppa… Her Oppa and nothing else. You know,” he said, pointing his finger at me, “I can’t believe that you’re talking to her Oppa like this.”
“You’re also her ex boyfriend, asshole,” I retorted, drinking the shot. This soju is warming me up and I feel better than I have this whole month. Bolstered by the alcohol, I said what I always wanted to say. “Don’t you think it’s fucked up that you almost married your sister?”
He looked really serious as he contemplated my question before he chuckled and drank his shot of soju. “Yeah… It kind of is fucked up, right?” His hands shaking a little, his gaze narrowed as he poured more soju for us. I watched, concerned as he started swaying from side to side. The alcohol he was pouring missed the glasses altogether, and I wondered if it was okay for me to lick it off the table instead. Nah… I thought. Na Jeong and I made love on this table. Na Jeong…
At the thought of her name, I looked back again at him. He was unscrewing the bottles of soju like they were beer and put one in front of me before smiling. “I hated you for a long time, you know,” he said, his face growing more somber. He seemed to be staring at his bottle a little too intensely.
“Yeah… The feeling’s mutual,” I said, taking a hard swig of the soju “You were Na Jeong’s first love. You knew all her secrets. All her dreams. You were always her first choice… If you hadn’t fucked up while she was in Australia, you’d probably be married now.” My heart tightened inside me as I acknowledged this long held belief of mine. Fuck it. I’m just gonna say what I want to say.
He gave me a sad smile before he answered me. “Yah… Do you really believe that? Do you really believe that the Na Jeong now would have chosen me over you? I’m not talking about now, obviously… It’s been over for far too long. But a year ago, do you think she would have chosen me?”
I swallowed the lump on the back of my throat as I took a swig of the liquor and watched him do the same. “I don’t know what to think,” I confessed. “I think maybe, if you had asked her for another chance, maybe, she would have agreed. She… She really loved you.”
He looked at me closely with his eyebrows furrowed. “I did ask her for another chance.” My eyes lifted to his in surprise. “I practically begged her for one, in fact.” He took another long swallow before looking at me. “She wasn’t in love with me anymore… I thought it was because of you, but I was wrong.” I looked at him questioningly, wanting to ask him to elaborate, but he continued speaking before I could ask. “The choice was never about us. She didn’t choose between me or you… She chose herself. By doing that, she realized that she was already in love with you… She wasn’t even going to consider trying one more time with me. She was done.”
I swirled the liquid remaining in my bottle before I took another swallow. “Sunbae… Why are you telling me this?” I asked him. My mind is fuzzy and I am not sure I am hearing his words right.
“Yah… Chilbong-ah… I’m telling you this because you need to know that you were never her second choice. If you considered thinking that way, which I think you did. By the time you left again for America, you were her only choice… You need to understand that. While you were gone, she could have easily gone back to me or tried dating other people… But she didn’t, because she already knew she wanted you. For Na Jeong, it was either you or no one. So no matter how hard it gets, don’t ever forget that and take her for granted. And for fuck’s sake… Don’t push her away. She’s making all our lives miserable.” He stared at his glass for a few minutes before he met my eyes and gave me a smile. “Whenever I see her, I still see a glimpse of the Na Jeong I was in love with sometimes. But mainly I see the Na Jeong who is in love with you…” He took a deep breath before proceeding. “As her ex boyfriend, I have to admit I hate it sometimes… But that’s just me being stupid… But as her Oppa, I couldn’t be happier for her.” He cleared his throat. “I could never have given her up to anyone else, Kim Jae Joon… No one else could love her more and that includes me… I knew that even six years ago, punk.”
“Yah… After this heart to heart conversation, you’re still going to call me Sunbae? I pour my heart out to you and give you free advice and everything… And you’re still not calling me anything else but Sunbae? Call me… Call me Hyung!”
To be honest, I am getting dizzy all of a sudden. It kind of feels like the world is spinning and when I looked at my bottle, I realized I’ve already finished it. How many drinks have I had, exactly? I look at Jung Gook Sunbae, except now he’s looking closely at something on the table.
“I’m going to need… A hell of a lot more liquor… To be able to call you that…” He met my eyes and unscrewed the remaining bottle.
“We best get to it, then…” He said, chuckling. It suddenly hit me how bizarre this situation was, and I started laughing.
An hour later, I lift my head up from the table to see him tipping an empty bottle over to get the remaining drops of soju. Following his lead, I do the same to the bottles that were on the table. When I could barely get a drop, I became so sad I wanted to cry… It’s all gone… All gone…
“HYUNNNNGGGGGGGGG!!!” I wailed, wondering if it’s rude to send a guest out for more liquor.
“Joooooooon-ie… Why… Why aaaaare you screeeeeaming? Are you trying toooo blow… Bloooow my eeeeeardrums out or what?” He asked, annoyed. “I want tooooo cry right now…. The sooooooju… Sooooooju is goooooone…”
“Hyuuuung, I’m… I’m goooooing to teeell you something reeeeally… REEEEALLY… impoooortant,” I declared. “Uuuuuuuuuriiiiii Na… Na Jeoooongie will be… Will be my wifeeeee!!! I want to hhhhhhave… Have maaaany maaany kids with her… Seeeven… Yes… Seeeven kids… Dooooo you think… Think I caaaan make them aaaaaall loooook like her? You’re a dooctoooor… Tell meeeee! TEEEELL ME…”
“Thaaat… That won’t haaaaappen,” he said, blinking at me like he had forgotten what he was going to say for a minute. “Ahhh… Thaaaaat won’t happen…. Unlessssss… Unlessssss she taaaaakes you back… Pu… Pu… Puuunk! If I waaaasssss a girl… Hehehehe… I wouldn’t taaaake you baaaaaack…”
“But Hyuuuung… You would loooook ugly… Reeeeeally uuuuugly as a girl…” I pouted at him and when I tried to imagine him as a girl, I snorted in laughter.
“I would beeeee a pretty girl… A phheeetty girl,” he said, smoothing his hair down. “That’s nooooot the point… You’re as baaaad as… As baaaaad as Jeeeeoooong… My poooooint is… I aaaaam… I am gooooooing to kill yooooouu… Uuuuuri Jeooongie cries beeeeecause of yoooou! You’re an idiiiiiiooooot! IDIIIIIOOOT!”
“Yoooou’re right… Riiiiiight,” I said, putting my head down on the table. “Thaaanks a… Aaaa lot. Now I feeeeel… I feeeeeel shiiiitty again!”
“You knoooow what… Whaaaat would maaaaake you feeeeel better, Joooooon-ie? More sooo… Sooooooju! And snaaaaacks!” He tried to get up only to steady himself with his hand on the table. “Hyung… Hyuuuung will get sooooome… Hyung will maaaaake us feeeeeeel better.”
I put my head back down, prepared to wait as long as possible for more alcohol. I love having a Hyung. I mean… Jung Jin Hyung is the best. This is why Na Jeong and I need to have a lot of babies. So there are unnies… And hyungs… And noonas… And oppas. Our kids will never be lonely… Never… I opened one eye and spotted Hyung bump into the wall as he walked towards… Somewhere. Feeling so tired all of a sudden I laid my head down on my forearm. I’ll just close my eyes until Hyung comes back.
August 24, 2001
“Yah, Kim Jae Joon… Get your act together!!! Do you know how amazing I am? You will really regret losing me!” I practiced saying as I stood in front of the refrigerator looking for food to bring to Joon’s apartment. I don’t think it’s strong enough yet… I cleared my throat and said a little more loudly… “YAH KIM JAE JOON! GET YOURSELF TOGETHER OR YOU’LL LOSE ME FOREVER!” I can’t say that knowing I won’t be able to carry through with my ultimatum. My credibility is on the line. I started stacking some banchan containers together in a bag, still trying to figure out how to convince Joon that he needs to snap out of it and that we belong together.
“Na jeong-ah, are you on the phone with Joon?” Omma asked, peeking her head around the doorway.
“Ah, Omma… No, not yet… I was just rehearsing.” She looked confused for a minute but nodded anyway. I saw Appa go into the kitchen with a newspaper, still in his Coach’s uniform. He sat down at the table and turning to face the counter again, I continued packing. Hmm, maybe I should take a different approach. Maybe I should? NO… I shouldn’t. But… But… Magazines always say it works. I coughed to clear my throat and tried saying it, even as it made me cringe. “Joon Oppaaa….” No, my voice needs to be higher for this. Try one more time. “Joon-ie Oppaaaaaa… No, no, no…. I can’t do that. What am I? Fifteen?” I placed the last of the containers down in the second bag before putting it down on the floor. When I raised my head up, I felt Appa’s eyes watching me. He blinked at me a few times before he spoke.
“Yeobo,” he called out to Omma. “Your daughter is talking to herself again… But this time she’s using aegyo? Something is wrong with her.”
“Appa…” I said warningly.
“I’m not judging you,” he said innocently. “I just thought your mother would want to know that you’ve gone crazy again.”
I picked the two bags from the floor and started making my way towards the front door when Omma came into the kitchen, Sook Sook in tow. “Sook Sook-ah… Why are you still awake?”
“Noona, I have no school tomorrow. I want to see Joon Hyung with you!” He said, wrapping his arms around my legs. I bent down and looked him in the eyes before I spoke.
“Sook Sook-ah… Joon Hyung doesn’t feel good yet… But I’ll make sure that when he does he visits you first, okay?”
“Noona… Does he have a booboo?” he asked, worried. “You and Omma always kiss my booboos to make it feel better. You should kiss his booboo too.”
Appa stood up with his arms crossed over his chest. “NO KISSING OF ANY SORTS… If you want to make him feel better, just pat him. Gently. But pat him.”
“Appa… Is Joon a dog?” I blinked at him and then turned my attention back to Sook Sook. I nodded at him as he wrapped his arms around my neck. Omma smiled at us as I stood back up. “Na Jeong-ah… I thought you were bringing the food to Joon?”
“Omma, I am.” Noting her confused expression, I asked, “Why?”
“You have enough food there to feed two dozen people…”
“Well… I don’t plan on leaving his place until he and I have argued and sorted our way out of whatever mess this is together. The key word being together.” I noted the approval in her eyes and picked up the bags.
“Na Jeong-ah… If you’re going to be eating there too… Maybe you should bring more food,” she suggested, walking to the cupboards and pulling out packets of ramyun.
“Omma,” I started, but she didn’t seem to be paying attention to me. “OMMA… I DON’T HAVE ANY MORE HANDS TO CARRY ANYTHING ELSE!” Omma turned around and nodded. “I’m leaving now.” I was already almost out the door when I heard Appa screaming.
“No kissing! You hear me? NO KISSING!”
I was still shaking my head at my family when I flagged a cab down to make my way to Joon’s apartment. Once settled in the cab, I thought about what approach will work best with him. I need to be at my most persuasive. The magazines always tell me one thing but none of them have worked in the past. Deciding I needed some help from someone who would have no reason to lie, I called out, “Ahjussi…” to the cab driver.
“Yes, Agasshi… Did you have a question?” Our eyes met on the rear view mirror and he looked politely curious.
“Ahjussi… If your wife wanted you to do something and you didn’t want to do it… What would she have to say to convince you that you should?”
“Agasshi…” He said. “She calls me Oppa.”
“Aishh…” I muttered under my breath. “Okay Ahjussi, thanks!” Yeah… I won’t be following that advice. Only under the direst of direst circumstances will I ever call him Oppa. He’ll either take me as I am or he doesn’t have to take me at all.
Within minutes, I found myself looking up at the familiar view of Joon’s building. I haven’t been here in a week. Somehow it feels even longer than that. I was so busy looking up and balancing what I was carrying that I didn’t realize there was a step up until the bags had come flying out of my hands and onto the pavement.
“Shit!” I exclaimed when I saw that my once pristine skirt is now covered in dirt and I had skinned both my knees as well as my palms due to the fall. As soon as I stood up, my right knee decided that it will start bleeding. Shaking my head, I hoped that this was not a sign of things to come. I bent back down to make sure that all the containers remained intact and no food was spilled before putting them all back in the bags. I avoided prying eyes as I stood in the elevator, waiting to get to Joon’s floor.
When at last, I finally arrived there, I walked slowly to his door, unsure of how he would react to seeing me again. Did he even get my messages? Knowing Joon, he probably didn’t even have his phone plugged in or something. I lifted my finger to enter his door code and was irritated when it doesn’t work. I then realized that he’s changed it. What the hell? I’m gone for only a week and he’s going around changing his locks? I tried it again, thinking that it was just a mistake but it still rejected me. Strangely I saw his car keys right outside his door. What happened? My mind ran through every possible scenario and I rang the bell once, getting worried now, and when the answer didn’t come as quickly as I wanted, I kept pressing the bell until finally I heard the buzz that would allow me entry.
I walked into Joon’s apartment and saw that all the lights are off but for the one by the entryway and the one by the kitchen. The first person I saw was not Joon, but Oppa, with his forehead leaning against the wall, looking like he was about to pass out.
“Naaaaa… Na Jeoooong-ah… You caaaaame?” He asked drunkenly, his lip swollen.
I frowned at him before I looked around for Joon, when I spotted him sitting at the kitchen table with his face flat on the surface. I was trying to figure out what happened here when I saw the three empty bottles of soju on the table and an additional two empty bottles on the kitchen counter. Walking carefully around the debris on the floor, I placed the food on the small space left on the counter before turning my attention to the two very inebriated men in this apartment. Marching over to Oppa, I got there just in time to see him sliding onto the floor.
“OPPA!!!” I screamed in his ear before taking him by the ear to stand back up.
“Owwww!!! Oww!!! Yaaah… Sung Naaa Jeong… What is wroooong with you?”
“Oppa,” I said, a threat in my voice. “I asked you to talk to him, not get him drunk! Aigoo… WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?”
I hit his shoulder repeatedly and he ran to hide behind Joon. “What were you thinking? Oppa, he’s been taking pain medication!!!! You’re a doctor… You know that stuff shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol!”
“Don’t Jeong-ah me!” I walked over to where he was and pointed my finger at him. “Were you trying to kill him?”
“He’s fiiii… Fine,” he said, as we both looked at Joon unmoving on the table. “Besides eveeeen if he wasn’t. I’m a… I’m a doctor. I could saaaave him.”
“Oppa… How can you think of yourself right now? Look at him! I swear to God and Hoon Oppa… If Joon dies I’m killing you too!”
“Na Jeoooong-ah… You keep screeeaming like that and you’ll wake him up! Can’t yoooou see he’s sleeping soooo peacefully? Like a baaaaaby,” he said, looking at Joon fondly? I smacked him at the back of his head and he glared at me before walking towards the living room. Looking like he was about to lay himself down on the couch, I walked towards him.
“Oh no you don’t…” Grabbing his sleeve and pulling him to the exit. “Out… Out!” I said, shoving him out the door.
“I’m going,” he said. “You’re so rude sometimes. How are you going to throw a drunk man out in the middle of the night?”
“Oppa… It’s not even 9 o clock.” I said and pushed him out.
I then walked over to Joon and pulled a chair next to his. He looked like he was breathing… running my fingers through his hair, I said, “Jagiya… Are you okay? Joon-ah?” He started pushing my hand away, and I got confused. “Jagiya?”
“You beeetter stop calling meee that befoooore my girlfrieeeend… My giiiiiirlfriend hears yooooou! Uri Na Jeoongieee will kill yooooou,” he muttered. Seriously, how can I be mad at him when he says things like this so earnestly? “And stooooop touching meeeee… I won’t be respooooonsible if she cuts yoooour fingers ooooff!” His face broke out into a smile then. “She’s so viooolent with everyone else but… Buuuut so gentle with meeee. I loooove her. So don’t toooouch me!” He sniffled, still with his eyes closed. “I misssss her. She has these eeeeyes… She loooooks at me with those eeeeyes aaand I forget… Eeeeverything.” I tried to touch his face then and he swatted my hand away. “The funny thing issss,” he lifted his face then, his eyes still closed forming two lines on his face, and put his pointer finger up. “The fuuunniest thing is… I’m okaaay with it. I’m okaaay with not knowing aaaanything else as looong as she looks at meeee. Joooon-ah… She’ll saaay and I tuuurn to goo in here…” Pointing to his chest, a small smile on his face. “I hated my naaaame for a long time… But she says it so sweeeetly… Even wheeen she’s angry. You shooould see her when she’s mad… Aaall fire and sparks flying out of that pretty moooouth.” He opened one eye. “Aga… Agasshi… You looook a little like uri Na Jeoooong-ieeee. Am I dreaming noooow?” He asked himself. “Don’t waaaake me up, okay? I don’t want tooooo wake up and she’s noooot here.”
“Okay Kim Jae Joon-ssi, I get it. You love your girlfriend,” I said, shaking my head. “She might get angry if she sees you like this, hmm? Let’s get you to bed and have a little rest.” I raised his left arm over my shoulder and tried to lift him to no avail. “Jagiya… You have to help me. You’re too heavy. We need to get up, okay?”
“I wissssh she’d just geeeet angry at meeee,” he said, finally getting up from the table. “I wish she’d yeeeeell and throw thingssss. Befoooore… Befoooore she and I were together she neeeeever yelled at me. That’s how I kneeeeew she didn’t like meeee. She was always sooooo polite. So fuuuuucking courteoooous. But then she fell in loooove with me and aaaaall of a sudden she would screeeeeam and yell and teeeeell me I’m wrooooong about things… Why did she stoooop calling me out on my shit?” He asked, his voice breaking.
I started to lead him towards the bedroom, our steps slow. “Maybe she was trying to give you some space,” I said. “Maybe she didn’t want to suffocate you so she gave you time alone… To figure things out on your own. ”
“Agasssssshi… I’ve been aloooone my whole life. I’ve figured things oooout on my own… My whoooole life. Why wooooould I want that?” He asked, as I sat him down on the edge of the bed.
I bent down to take his slippers and socks off when I saw the two bags on the floor. I looked more closely and found them both full of baby items. My heart softened inside me when I realized that despite his protests and his denials, he would have stepped up had I been pregnant. This man… I thought, releasing my breath.
I proceeded to take his shoes and socks off and just stepped away long enough to avoid being kicked by him as he laid himself down in bed. I climbed onto the bed and tried to lift his shirt up only to have him shove my hand away. “Agassssssshi… Diiiiid you not hear me? I am Sung Na Jeoooooong’s!!! Don’t tooooouch meeeeee!”
“Kim Jae Joon-ssi, I know your Na Jeong. I think she’ll be okay with me doing this,” I reassured him. “Just this once, hmm?”
“Fineeee,” he said. “But I woooon’t be…”
“… Responsible. I know. I’ll take responsibility. It’ll be okay.” Finally I got his shirt off and I noticed that there was already a bruise forming on his right shoulder. “Did Oppa do this?” I asked Joon but he was already asleep. I’m going to kill Oppa when I see him again. I laid Joon down gently and his head automatically went to my side of the bed and his hand wrapped around my pillow, as if he’d done this a million times before. Tears came to my eyes as I realized that he must have been doing this the whole time I was gone. I placed a kiss on his forehead, letting him sleep.
I got out of bed and stood in the middle of the bedroom, the room just as I left it almost a week ago. There was still the remnants of a vase and a frame on the floor, reminders of the last night I was here. Carefully picking up the shards, I noted that the picture that was in it was back on the bedside table, in a new frame.
I went to the living room and the kitchen, and there it was the same. It was as if time had frozen the night I left. Everything was still on the floor, his couch almost covered by the amount of rubbish that’s piled up over it. I put the food in the fridge and started cleaning up, gathering all the mess in big trash bags. I reconnected his home phone to the wall. I plugged his computer back up. I gathered the bottles from the table and the counter and put them in a bag for recycling. When the alcohol accidentally touched the cut on my hands from my fall earlier, I hissed at the burn and almost dropped the bottle back on the table and spotted a folder. Figuring that it must be one of Joon’s financial things, I placed it on the coffee table in the living room. I wiped everything down and cleaned everything up, and afterwards I looked around and satisfied that it now appeared more like the apartment that Joon would live in, I cooked some rice from the remainder in the small bag from the cupboards and turned the lights off before going back to the bedroom.
Joon lay on his side, the same position he was in before I started cleaning up. I kicked my slippers off, knowing that it’s now safe to be in this apartment barefoot, and laid down next to him. I traced his face with my fingers, noting the dark circles under his eyes. I bit my lower lip as my palm hovered over his face. I know this face. I’ve missed this face.
“I’m sorry, Joon-ah,” I whispered. “I should never have left but you just made me so angry. I know you didn’t mean the stuff you were saying. I know that. But my temper. I was scared to tell you to get yourself together.” I put my hand to his chest, his breathing slow and steady, his heart beating strong against my palm. I closed my eyes and kept my hands on him, unwilling to break contact even in sleep. Never again. I will never allow him to pull away again. This was my last thought before I fell asleep to the rhythm of his heart.
August 24, 2001
My mouth felt like cotton. I tried to swallow but my mouth was so dry it was painful even to do that. My head throbbed painfully and I shut my eyes more tightly as it pounded mercilessly. I was supposed to go see Na Jeong, to apologize and beg for another chance. But then… Then what? I tried to remember what happened only to recall sitting at the table with Jung Gook Sunbae. Suddenly I recalled myself saying “Hyunnggg…” And I cringed at the memory.
When was the last time I’ve ever gotten this drunk? Never… I was always training. I always knew I couldn’t drink that much. I shook my head as it dawned on me that I was laying in bed. How did I get here? Did he… Did he put me to bed? I’ll never live this down, I thought.
I felt a warm breath over my face and suddenly got nervous. Did he… Did he go to bed with me? Gingerly I opened one eye, not knowing what to expect. Imagine my surprise when Na Jeong’s beautiful face greeted me, her eyes closed, her face bathed in moonlight, the only light in this dark room. Am I dreaming? Am I imagining her here?
Hesitantly I lifted a finger to touch her, to make sure she was really here, with me. I realized then that her hand was on my chest, her fingers directly over my heart. I lifted her hand and placed a kiss on her palm before putting it down. It was only then that I noticed that her palm was covered in cuts. I lift her other hand and saw that it was as cut as the other. My gaze traveled down her length and I noticed with concern that both her knees were scraped, blood drying on the skin. I looked at her face then, noticing the dark shadows under her eyes. She’s lost weight, I thought, as my heart squeezed tightly inside me. I did this… Guilt gnawed at me, and I had to swallow to keep it at bay. I brushed my hand over the side of her face.
“Joon-ah,” she whispered, a small smile forming on her face and I felt a lump form in the back of my throat. Always. She always calls my name out when I do this. I laid on my back and stared at the ceiling, allowing the way she says my name to wrap me up like a warm blanket. I’ve never heard my name uttered that way by anyone else. Ever.
What’s in a name? To other people, it’s the first sign of love… The first sign of knowing with whom you belong. Isn’t that the first gift given to a child when he’s born? Isn’t that what happens when a new member of a family is introduced? A name is given or a name is changed.
It’s said in many emotions, called out in many tones. But for the lucky some, no matter the emotion or tone, there is the underlying presence of love no matter what. I have no such recollections of such things.
“Kim Jae Joon… Stop crying.”
“Kim Jae Joon… Be a man.”
My name was always said with a hint of resentment. I knew even when I was young that even my name came weighed by broken promises and broken dreams. Until baseball. To me who once wished to be nameless to avoid the bitter weight of loneliness… To me who once was factionless… Baseball finally gave me a place where my name was said in exaltation and in triumph. I became Chilbong… The baseball player. That had been enough, then. My brain registered it as acceptance. My heart gratefully took it as love.
Those things are not love… I knew that consciously. But it was the closest thing to love that I have ever known. Until her. I look over at Na Jeong, her face lost in sleep. Until her. My name on her mouth sounds a lot like hope and forever. I always hear the tender way it rolls off her tongue, amazed that it’s accompanied by a smile. Always with a smile. It sounds like a melody, unyielding and unafraid, laden with promises, threaded with forgiveness. I don’t deserve it. The melody of my name on her tongue. She deserves better. But I can’t let her go. I won’t let her go.
I realize now that it didn’t matter whether I actually deserved her or not. For the first time in my life, I am consciously making the choice to be selfish. Not because life owes me anything, but because this is my choice. I am choosing to be happy. I am choosing love.
I carefully lift myself off the bed and made my way towards the bathroom. Once there, I open the cabinets to grab some plasters and some antibiotic cream. It was only on my way back out that I saw myself on the mirror. I looked the same, but my face was more angular and I only notice now how I’ve also lost weight. There were the same shadows under my eyes as there were Na Jeong’s. All this time… All this time I thought it was just me hurting. All this time I thought it was just me affected. How could I not see that she was hurting, right along with me?
I go back to the bedroom and climbed back into bed. I carefully wash the cuts on her hands and her knees before applying some cream and covering them with plasters. Just as I was putting the last of the bandages on, she moved next to me and I look at her face only to see her eyes watching me. Her gaze met mine directly, unafraid and open, as if waiting for me to say something.
I scooted up the bed so that my face was directly opposite hers. I feel like I have so much to say, but all the words were stuck in my throat and I didn’t know where to begin. As if understanding, she took my hand in hers and interwove her fingers with mine.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey back.” My voice sounded gravelly, even to my ears.
“How have you been?” She asked, her eyes boring into mine.
Miserable. Lonely. Intolerable. “Fine,” I answered.
“Liar,” she said, a small smile forming on her face. “But if you’re going to stick to that story…”
“How are you?” I asked hesitantly.
“Miserable. Lonely. Intolerable,” she responded. “I was lost without you.”
“I didn’t hear your messages until today… Just in case you thought I was ignoring it. I wasn’t.”
“I should have come here instead and demanded that you talk to me,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders. “I thought I was doing the right thing giving you some space.”
“Yeah. I know. I thought you didn’t care. I thought you gave up on me. I’m sorry for everything.” An apology seemed inadequate for what I’ve put her through, but I’ll take it one step at a time.
“I’m sorry too. We’re both still new at this. We forgot who we were. It’s just… You were so angry all the time. I didn’t know what else I could do besides just be here. I thought about what would happen if I got angry too. I was scared you would hide even more.” She paused for a few minutes before proceeding. “You blocked me out and turned away, hiding yourself from me.” She smiled at me then, love shining in her eyes. “But I found you again. That’s when I realized you weren’t hiding. You were protecting me from you. Joon-ah, I don’t need to be protected. Especially not from you.”
“I was angry. Not at you. But myself. All those things I said… I didn’t mean any of it. I was just trying to get a reaction out of you. I was trying to prove I was right.”
“About what?” She asked.
“About people. About everything. I wanted to be right in thinking that I could only depend on myself. That you didn’t really know me… So you couldn’t possibly really love me,” I said. “I didn’t want you to see me weak. I didn’t want anyone to use it against me. You could really hurt me.” I took a deep breath before allowing myself to look at her again. “Do you want me to beg and grovel? I could do that. I could do… I would do anything for you.”
She chuckled and ran her fingers through my hair. “Just you saying you would do that if I asked is enough. Why waste time doing that when the ending is the same?” I looked at her questioningly before she continued. “You and me. Us. This is the ending. No matter what.”
I closed my eyes and let her words sink in. Us. I’m part of an us. I felt her lips then, over my face. I felt her plant kisses over my eyes and my cheeks and my nose. I opened my eyes as she wrapped her arms over my neck. “I love you,” I said.
“I know… I love you too. You know that, right? Like you really understand, right?”
I nodded as I tucked her closer to me. “About the baby thing,” I started.
“Yeah… Joon-ah… About the baby thing.” She chuckled then. “I saw the two bags on the floor. What are you doing buying baby things anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be saving money?” She got up before I could stop her and brought the two bags and spilling their contents on the bed. “What is all this? Why would you buy outfits when we didn’t even know if I was pregnant for sure?” She rifled through the things and held something up. I wasn’t even sure what it was, I was so intent on buying everything that I thought our baby would need. “Jagiya… A wipes warmer? Why would a baby need that?”
“It warms it up so that it’s cozy and not cold,” I replied, embarrassed.
“Joon-ah… Why would a baby care? Even if he did, does it matter? We don’t want our baby getting used to getting his butt wiped with something that’s perfectly heated!” She glared at me then and I had to hide a smile.
“Why not?” I asked. “Our baby deserves the best.”
“Jagiya… First of all… We’re not having a baby. Secondly, having the best is one thing but being spoiled is another. Why would we want that? What? So that when he grows up and realizes that he won’t always have heated wipes he can throw a tantrum? No, thank you!” She lifted up the two pairs of shoes and looked at them closely.
“They’re cute, right?” I asked, expecting her to agree.
“Joon-ah… Babies don’t walk,” she answered sternly. Putting the items back into the bags, she said, “I hope you still have the receipt for this because we’re returning all of these. Well,” she paused then set aside the little boy shoes. “Maybe except for this. We’ll keep this for our son one day.”
I reached over and picked up the little girl shoes, the ones I noticed first. “I like these,” I said, setting them aside.
“Kim Jae Joon, they don’t fit you,” she said, trying to pry my hands loose.
“NO! I want a daughter!” I protested, taking them back.
“Aigoo… Just a week ago you didn’t even want a kid,” she said, side eyeing me.
“Correction… I didn’t think we were ready for a baby. Not that I didn’t want one.”
“What’s changed?” She asked, her eyes looking at me closely.
“Nothing. Everything. The past week just opened my eyes to a lot. I’m still jobless though… And my shoulder is still messed up. But it’s okay. Even if it’s not. It will be okay. Eventually. I might not be a Major League Baseball Player anymore though.” She stayed quiet, only looking at me through her lashes. “Na Jeong-ah, I’m going to lose a lot of things.”
“Not me,” she said with conviction. “You’ll never lose me.”
“It might get worse for me before it gets better. I’m going to apologize in advance. We’re going to have to live like regular people… No more fancy restaurants and no jet setting to foreign places.”
“Joon-ah, when have I ever cared about that? You’re the one that is so obsessed with romancing me when you don’t even need to. And… There’s nothing wrong with just being regular people.”
“Is it wrong of me?” I asked and she rested her elbow on the bed before meeting my eyes. “I wanted to be different. I wanted to be special. As selfish as it sounds, I wanted that. I didn’t just want to be like everyone else.”
“You’re already special. You’re already different,” she said, tracing my face with her fingertips. “But it’s not just because of baseball. You’re not the same as everyone else. Something about you stands out. I can feel it with every part of me. And you’ve already met your goal.”
“What goal? I’ve changed nothing. Not even myself. I wasn’t capable, of even doing that.”
“Joon-ah… You have those little voices in your head too, right? Telling you what’s right and wrong? Questioning everything you do?” I nodded. “Well.. You need to tell that voice telling you what you are and are not capable of doing to shut the hell up. Replace it with my voice instead.” She ran her fingers over my hair. “Because unlike that voice, I know you. I know who you are. Not the you who changes masks for the world, depending on your audience. I know the you behind all that. Beyond that silly voice in your head. Beyond the compromises you make. And I think you’re pretty awesome.”
“Jagiya… You’re so biased,” I teased, chuckling.
“So what? I should be biased. You’re my man. And… You might not change the world but you’ve already changed my world.”
“I get so scared whenever I think of not having baseball in my life anymore. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at.”
She shook her head at me. “Incorrect, Kim Jae Joon-ssi. Baseball isn’t the only thing you’re good at. You’re really really good at loving me, too… When you’re not being a crazy person. Seriously, Joon-ah, who knew? You’re even more emotional and dramatic than me.”
“I can change,” I said defensively. “I can become…”
“Shhh,” she said, putting her lips over mine. “Who asked you to change? You don’t have to do that. If you want to, that’s fine. But do it for you and not for me. I love you just as you are.” She looked deep in thought. “And this whole not having a job thing… That’s okay,” she said easily. “We’ll just have to figure out another…”
“Plan,” I finished for her. “I’m already on it. I looked up some business courses at the University. Omma thinks I can get in next month if I really wanted to do it.” I laid down and watched as she put the bags back down on the floor then climbed back on the bed and into my arms.
“So Omonim did find you and you spoke?” I nodded in response. “Joon-ah, I’m proud of you. I know that must have been hard. See? Things can change quickly. Just because you two weren’t good for a long time doesn’t mean you won’t be good forever,” she said quietly. “And just because you can’t play professional ball anymore doesn’t mean you have to stop playing it. I know it’s a big part of your life.”
“Yeah, I know that too.”
“Did Oppa talk to you? He said something about another possible option if you didn’t want surgery when I asked him about it.”
“We talked… But we didn’t talk about that.”
“You two fought, didn’t you? Did you fight each other or together?” When I didn’t answer she just pursed her lips. “You know what? I don’t want to know. Either way, you have to stop doing that.”
“It’s okay… We’re fine. Hyung’s not so bad,” I replied. “Yah… You threw him out? He was drunk though… Was that safe?”
“What’s this?” She said, irritated. “Less than one day and a few drinks later, he becomes hyung and you’re taking his side? Yeah, I threw him out.”
“Jagiya… That’s so rude,” I chastised. “You’re lucky I love you so much.”
She gave me a smile before tucking her head between my neck and my shoulder. “Joon-ah,” she whispered against my skin. “What’s the new passcode on your door?”
“Ahhh,” I hesitated, not wanting to look like a fool.
“Yah… Are you not going to give it to me?” she asked, a frown on her face. “Fine… I won’t visit…”
“You’re so soft!” She teased. “If I didn’t love you so much I would totally tease you with it! You’re so lucky.”
“Yeah. You speak the truth.” She laid quietly on top of me and I savored this feeling of having her this close to me again. Her stomach rumbled and I laughed. Some things never change. I realized I haven’t eaten anything all day either. “You hungry?” I asked.
“Yeah, a little. Omma sent over some food and I already made rice, ” she responded before getting up. “I think I’ll go make you some hangover soup, though. Your head is probably killing you, judging from the amount you and Oppa drank.”
She walked towards the direction of the kitchen and I stared at the ceiling, feeling like I haven’t quite done enough, like I haven’t said enough.
I followed her a few minutes later after putting a shirt on and watched as she pulled out ingredients from the fridge and put some beef bones in water to boil. She expertly diced and sliced some ginger and radish and measured out some doenjang. I’ve watched her do this so many times, but only now do I realize that this was always her way of showing her affection. I thought back on all the meals we’ve shared, even from six years ago… All the food she’s prepared for me and all the packages she’s sent. It was so simple and straightforward really. Just like her. I think, for the first time, that I finally understood her… The essence of who she is. There was an urgency to the situation that I can’t put my finger on and overwhelmed by love, I cleared my throat and spoke.
“Na Jeong-ah…” I saw her about to turn around and knowing I’d lose my nerve if she did, I quickly added, “Don’t turn around. I have something to say.”
August 25, 2001
I heard Joon’s footsteps behind me. I knew he liked watching me cook so I said nothing and just went about my business getting the hangover soup ready. I loved cooking for him. He’s always so appreciative and it made me feel like I was giving him a gift every time he closed his eyes and enjoyed what I made. It’s amazing how food can bring people back to a place in time. From now on I vow to make as many good memories with him. Starting with today. I heard him clear his throat.
“Na Jeong-ah…” I heard him say and I was about to turn around when he proceeded. “Don’t turn around. I have something to say.” I put the knife down on the cutting board and prepared to listen.
“You asked me who I was that day and I couldn’t even answer you. That’s because I didn’t even know who I am. You have to understand that all my life I just became whoever people needed me to be. Afraid to be different, afraid of being rejected, I suppressed all the ugly sides of me to make myself more acceptable. I always thought I had to prove that my existence wasn’t a mistake and I should just be happy with whatever was given to me. But now I know that I meant to be here. In this life. With you. Once homeless, I finally found my place in the world. Never in front of you and not behind you. But always next to you,” he paused and I wondered if I should turn around now. This sounds like too momentous a conversation to be having while not facing each other. I was about to ask him if I should turn around when he continued. “You are the only person who I could have ever shown myself to. Because I always knew it… That your love for me knew no bounds. I never thanked you for that… So I’m thanking you now.” My eyes filled with tears as I heard him speak haltingly, his words coming fast. It was as if he was afraid to slow down for fear of not being able to say everything.
“Who am I?” He continued. “I am a man in love with you. It doesn’t define me, but it is the biggest part of me. Not because I need you, even though I do. Not because I want you, even though that’s true too. But because I choose you. Not because I’m nothing without you, but because I’m everything with you. I am myself. I own myself. My life. My choices. My destiny.”
“So who am I? I am Kim Jae Joon… The man who loves Sung Na Jeong… But that means nothing. I’ve been that man for six years. Maybe the more important part is that I am the man loved by Sung Na Jeong. I could do worse in life than being that person. But I can’t do better. That I know for sure.” I heard the hesitation in his voice even as my heart responded to his words.
“Will you take another chance on me? I’m selfish and I’m broken. I might hurt you sometimes. I might even make you cry. But I’ll always admit when I’m wrong and I can spend my life making it up to you. And I can love you. For the rest of my life.”
I turned around slowly to see him standing barefoot five feet away from me. I looked at his face, expectant and nervous and I had to hold a laugh. My man certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
“Joon-ah… Are you proposing to me right now?”