R94: A MOMENT’S CHOICE NINTH INNING PART 2

 

Ninth Inning

Part 2

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August 25, 2001

12:40 a.m.

Chilbong

“Joon-ah… Are you proposing to me right now?” Wait, what? Her eyes twinkled at me as I looked for a response.

“No…” I said. How can I propose? I don’t even have her ring with me. I suddenly felt embarrassed for letting my feelings get ahead of me.

“Really? It sounded like a proposal,” she said disbelievingly.

“Sung Na Jeong… If I was proposing, you’d know!”

“Joon-ah… Don’t get upset! I was just saying. It would have been a nice proposal speech had you been proposing but since you say you’re not, thanks for telling me.” She turned around to stir whatever was in the pot before turning to face me again. “Aren’t you interested in my answer though… Had you been proposing?

“NO! Because I wasn’t proposing.”

“Really? Because it sounded like a proposal to me, too.” I watched as Na Jeong’s eyes went to the living room, where Jung Gook Hyung now stood by the couch, scratching his head. “Na Jeong-ah… You’re cooking? Joon-ah,” he said, patting my arm as he walked by me. “That was beautiful. I would have said yes.” He walked over to the fridge and grabbed a water bottle as I watched, incredulous.

“Oppa, what are you doing here?” Na Jeong asked as he turned on the television. Thank God I put a shirt on. I could have sworn Na Jeong said she threw him out.

“Ahh… I was tired. I just needed to sleep. And you didn’t close the door fully. When will the food be ready?

“Oppa… You need to leave.”

“Jagiya, it’s fine. Let the man eat first.” She narrowed her eyes at me but I just shook my head. “Do you need help?”

“No… It’s almost done,” she answered, annoyed. I’m sure she’s not happy about being overruled but I should be able to have some say too. I put a kiss on her forehead before pulling some bowls out from the cupboards. I set them down on the table before joining Hyung on the couch as he watched the news. I shook my head at the strangeness of this situation. Twenty four hours ago, I could never have foreseen this coming. I am convinced now more than ever that as long as Na Jeong is in my life, I would always stay on my toes. I looked over at her as she set the table and looked away just in time to see Hyung watching me, a small smile on his face. We watched television for a few minutes before we heard Na Jeong call out that the food was ready.

Hyung rushed to the table and sat down, and though she glared at him, she continued serving up the rice into bowls. She put the first bowl in front of me and though I appreciated the gesture, I slid it on the table to Hyung.

“Yah…” Na Jeong said.

“He’s the oldest. You know better than to serve me first,” I said. Hyung and I shared a smile and she volleyed back and forth at us with a displeased look on her face. I picked up my chopsticks and waited for her to bring the pot down on the table. Finally ready, she sat down next to me to my right and took my hand in hers, just as she’s always done. I looked at her and gave her a smile and she smiled back at me. I need to kiss her, I thought, before Hyung cleared his throat.

“Yah… I’m still here. I have to eat…” He said, helping himself to some soup. Na Jeong looked like she was about to throw a chopstick at him so I just squeezed her hand and shook my head no. She smiled at me sheepishly before taking a spoonful of rice.

“Oppa… You’re leaving after you eat, right?” When he diligently ignored her, I felt a motion under the table and heard a kick.

“Oww! Sung Na Jeong! What the hell?” He asked, glaring at her.

“You’re going to leave after the food, right?” She asked again.

“Na Jeong-ah… Are you the owner of this house? You don’t get to throw me out! I’m having a good time with my dongseng,” he said, winking at me. I grinned back at him, feeling like we’ve been reset back to 1994. I can’t help it. I always liked Hyung, I thought, when I saw Na Jeong glaring at me. I turned my attention back on the food and started eating.

“Oppa… Did you do this?” She asked irritated, pulling her hand from mine and pointing at the bruise on my right shoulder.

“Na Jeong-ah,” I interrupted, trying to stop her.

“What?” She looked at me and then turned back to Hyung. “Oppa… What did I tell you I’d do to you if you touched Joon? Aish…”

“JAGIYA!” I said putting both my hands between them as it seemed like she was about to climb over the table to throttle Hyung. “I fell on the floor. He didn’t do it.” She looked at me disbelievingly before she relaxed back in her seat. She took my hand back in hers and we all resumed eating.

When the television turned to baseball news, I saw Na Jeong’s eyes dart to the screen, as if trying to determine if she should get up and turn the television off. Just as she was about to get up from the chair, I put my hand on her arm to stop her.

“Jagiya… It’s okay. We can keep it on. I can’t avoid it forever, right?” She nodded and I gave her a kiss on her forehead. “From now on, I’m going to be like you. I’m done avoiding things. It is what it is.” I saw Hyung watching our exchange from the corner of my eye, a small grin on his face.

We finished our food and when Hyung got up, I saw Na Jeong’s face relax. Is he leaving? I turned my eyes to hers and her gaze met mine before it landed on my lips. With that one look I feel like an engine that’s been kick started back to life and not caring if anyone was around, I lift my hand to brush over her face. She closed her eyes to my touch and her tongue peeked out to lick her bottom lip. Watching it glisten, I wondered if it’s always been this plump.

I dragged my eyes away from her when I noticed that Hyung had not gone towards the door but towards the living room. Na Jeong still had her eyes closed and looked like she was puckering her lips when I heard Hyung speak.

“You two, come join me in the living room. I think I’m sober enough to actually talk to both of you about why I was here to begin with.”

Na Jeong’s eyes opened and she mouthed, ‘Why is he still here?’ to me. I shrugged my shoulders and stood up. I pulled her chair out and was rewarded with a smile.

“Jagiya, go ahead,” she said as she pushed me towards the living room. “Oppa, I’ll be right there. Let me clear the table first.” She had just picked up a plate when I stopped her.

“Go sit. I’ll do this.” I picked up all the plates and was about to gather up the bowls when I saw her looking at me. “What?”

“Let’s do it together,” she said as she picked up the bowls and utensils.

We both went to the sink where I proceeded to wash the dirty dishes while she waited on my other side waiting to dry them.

“We still have a lot to talk about,” she said gently.

“Yeah, I know.”

“Don’t think you’re going to get away with not talking about it,” she warned. “You’ve been an…”

“An asshole,” I finished for her. “I got it. We’ll talk.”

“I was going say an idiot, but okay.” She nudged my side and smiled at me, making me chuckle.

When we were done she dried my hands and hers before holding out a palm. I took it and we walked hand in hand to the living room where Hyung was already sitting, folder in his lap. We sat down and I put my left arm around her and she kept her hand on my thigh.

Hyung narrowed his gaze at us. “Yah… Do you have to sit so close?”

He stood and sat himself down on the coffee table in front of us. “Na Jeong said that you don’t want surgery?” I nodded but didn’t say anything else. “We might have another option.” I met my gaze questioningly and he nodded before opening the folder he brought. I felt Na Jeong take my hand and squeeze it reassuringly.

I searched her eyes and she looked at me, hope and acceptance in her eyes. Hyung cleared his throat before putting himself to sit down between us.

“Oppa!” Na Jeong complained.

“I’m about to talk about something important and I can’t do that with you two looking googly eyed at each other.” He lifted a sheath of papers before turning to me. “There’s a therapy that they’ve been using in America for a while. You’ve probably never heard about it. I know I wouldn’t have known until I looked it up. It’s called proliferation therapy.”

“What?” I asked. “Why didn’t any of the surgeons mention it?”

“Joon-ah, number one, they’re surgeons. Their job is to cut you open and then fix you up. And secondly,” he took a deep breath before he continued. “It’s a little controversial. There’s no real quantitative success associated with it. But since you’re so against getting surgery, this is a little less invasive.”

“What does it actually involve?” Na Jeong asked and I was relieved. My mind still feels a bit foggy and I’m processing things a little more slowly than usual.

“It’s a month to three months of weekly injections,” he said. “Along with intensive physical therapy. They will inject Joon with a solution of sugar water on the affected areas, which in his case is back here,” he pointed to the back of my right shoulder, “… And here,” pointing to the ball of my shoulder. “That’s where his injuries are.”

“Injuries?” Na Jeong stammered. “I thought he only had one.” Her face paled and she looked at me. “I thought you said it was only one.”

“Ahh, about that…”

“Kim Jae Joon-ssi, you need to stop hiding shit from me,” she muttered. She glared at me before Hyung spoke.

“Yah… You can argue later. You need to pay attention.” He looked at Na Jeong pointedly and she looked like she was about to turn her wrath on him when I met her eyes. After a few minutes she finally relented and asked Hyung to continue.

“How did you know what my injuries are? The news didn’t even know specifics,” I said.

“Binggrae and I requested your medical records and films.”

“But don’t you need my signature for that?”

“We forged your signature,” he answered easily. He met my eyes challengingly. “What… You got something to say? We wouldn’t have had to do that if you actually returned anyone’s call. People have been trying to talk to you for a couple of weeks. You have people watching out for you everywhere, even if you don’t always know they’re there. You have two doctors in the family and you’re moping around like an idiot not talking to either of us, making us do these illegal things.” He clucked his tongue at me and I mumbled an apology. “Should I record that? I thought I heard you apologize.”

“Yah…” I said warningly. He shook his head at me before looking at the papers he was holding.

“Anyway, it’s just sugar water but the idea behind it is that it’s supposed to strengthen connective tissue, stimulate development of new tissue and help with the pain. There have been studies done in America that supports that with a lot of physical therapy it might work. Some athletes swear by it, too.”

“Is he going to have to go back to America to get it?” I heard Na Jeong ask. Her voice was calm. Reasonable. So different from how she was the last time I left.

“Well… I asked the Chief of Medicine and he told me only one doctor is trained in Korea to do it. Lucky for you he’s in Seoul. He doesn’t even have a practice yet.” He handed me a piece of paper with a name, address and phone number. “I already called him. He didn’t want to, at first, but when I told him who his patient will be, he agreed to meet with you. It seems he’s a fan and he’s heard the news. I made an appointment for Monday at 2:30 p.m.”

“Hyung…”

“Meet with him and find out at least if it’s something you’ll be willing to go through. And you,” he added, turning to Na Jeong. “I made the appointment in the afternoon so you can go to work for half a day. I printed out some information about it… It’s all in this folder. I suggest that you both read over it and write down any questions you may have so you can ask him when you meet with him.” He stood up before I could say anything else.

“Oppa, you leaving?” Na Jeong asked.

“Yes. I have work in the morning,” he responded before patting his back pocket for his wallet. I stood up, as did Na Jeong, and we all walked towards the door. “I’m going.”

“Oppa, I’ll call you,” she said. He smiled at her before giving me an acknowledging nod and turning towards the direction of the elevator.

“Hyung,” I called out before I walked towards him. He turned to face me and I held my hand out. “Thank you.”

He looked at my outstretched hand suspiciously then my face before he took it. He shook it before saying, “Joon-ah, it will be okay. We’ll all help you through this.”

A lump in my throat, I could only nod. I waited until he was in the elevator before I walked back to the apartment, where Na Jeong was leaning against the doorway.

I followed her into the apartment and closed the door securely behind me. We sat back down on the couch, knowing that we still have some things to talk about but not quite knowing where to start.

“Joon-ah… How do you feel about what Oppa just talked about?”

I thought about it for a minute before I responded. “I think it’s worth investigating. It’s not as if I don’t have time nowadays. I won’t regret spending three months exploring this option if it means no surgery.”

She turned to me with a serious look on her face. “Why didn’t you tell me about how bad the injury was? You’ve been walking around with no expression on your face when you must have been in so much pain!” Her eyes glistened with tears and I put my arm around her and held her close.

“I’m okay. It wasn’t so bad. I didn’t tell you because it was neither here nor there. An injury is an injury.”

“Joon-ah… I’m the one who’s been practically living with you this whole month and you weren’t okay. It was that bad. Stop downplaying everything because you’re not fooling me. Let me in. If you’re in pain, I want to know. If you’re angry, I want to know that too. I can’t help if you shut down and block me out ‘for my own good’.”

“Jagiya…”

“Don’t ‘jagiya’ me,” she said now, turning to me with her eyes blazing. “You can’t shut down when things like this happen. Life isn’t always easy or fair. I’m here. I love you. Let me share some of the burden. You don’t have to carry it all on your shoulders. Especially now that you only have one. I have two perfectly good shoulders. I’m stronger than I look. Let me carry some of the weight too. I can handle it. I won’t break.”

“I know. It just seemed so unfair to burden you with this. It wasn’t just the baseball thing. I didn’t always have you. For a long time all I had was baseball. It freed me… From my childhood and all my memories of being left behind. So when I felt it slipping away I panicked. And then the nightmares came.”

“The nightmares?” She said. “I know about your nightmares.”

“I kept hoping they were going to stop, but they never do. Every night since I’ve been home, it was always the same. The worst part,” I paused and took a deep breath. “The worst part is they’re not just nightmares. They’re memories.”

“No wonder you were going insane. Next time, will you wake me up and tell me about it? Talking helps… It might not get rid of them but maybe they won’t have such a powerful effect on you.” She took my hand in hers. “Are they about Omonim and Abonim?”

“A lot of them are, but sometimes I dream about losing you too,” I admitted.

“Well you know that’s not a memory… I’ve never abandoned you.”

“It wasn’t a memory,” I said, hesitant to put it into words, but I pushed the fear away and told her anyway. “They were memories… Of you, before you loved me. The six years I waited. I thought that I’d forgotten, but I guess I haven’t. I’m sorry…”

“Joon-ah,” she said and I prepared myself for the hurt in her voice. “First of all, it was five years, if you want to be accurate. I’ve loved you since you left, in January of last year. But since we’re going there, you can hardly penalize me for thinking that I knew what I wanted. You know me enough now… You’ve seen see me and Oppa… The person I’ve become and Oppa… We wouldn’t have been together. Could we have made it work? Probably. Would we have been happy? Maybe. But those things don’t matter. The woman I grew into wanted more. The woman I became, wanted you. It doesn’t erase what happened and I can keep apologizing for it if I knew it was going to banish that thought away. But I know that’s only one part. The other part I can’t do anything about. That other part has to come from you… You have to forgive me. For whatever wrong you think I did. You can’t hold that against me forever.” She looked away from me before continuing.

“You asked me a long time ago what happened while you were gone. What changed. I didn’t think it mattered but I think maybe you’ll feel better if I told you what I had to go through. Before you left, we bumped into Oppa… Do you remember that?” I nodded. “I met with him and we talked about what went wrong. I had been distraught, caught up in the past. And then you left. And I fell apart. I couldn’t find the strength to even get up out of bed. Yoon Jin had to force feed me a couple of times. I alternated between being angry and being sad. I didn’t think I was going get through it. I didn’t know what I wanted and I certainly didn’t know who I was. But then I thought about something…” She looked at me then, a small smile on her face.

“I asked myself, ‘what would Joon do?’ He wouldn’t give up, that’s for sure. He wouldn’t want me to give up because he loves me so muuucchh. He loved me so much he walked away from me, just so I can have some time to get myself together and figure out what I want on my own. Without his influence and without confusing me. I shouldn’t make that sacrifice be worth nothing. I owed it to you and myself to make it matter. I spent a few months getting to know myself and learning to love myself, safe in the knowledge that you loved me and that no matter what, you will love me. You didn’t even have to be here physically… Just knowing that was enough. Your love is what ultimately made me do what I needed to do to become someone worthy of that. At that time I knew I wasn’t there yet, but I’ll get there. And that was because of you.”

“I didn’t do it just for you,” I said, even though her words touched me. I didn’t even think of that. “I did it for me, too. It wasn’t all selfless. That’s what I do when things get rough… I leave.”

“You could have just spoken to me.” She responded. “But… You did what you felt you had to do. That’s part of who you are and that’s your prerogative. But… Are you okay with it? Running away from everything? Avoiding the issue altogether? I’m not okay with it, but I’ll find a way to be if you are. But I don’t think you are. Or we wouldn’t be talking right now.”

“I didn’t realize how much I hurt you then, but I know I hurt you now. The past month I mean. And that night.” When she looked at me questioningly, I continued. “You know which night I’m talking about. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all of it. I would do anything to take it back.”

“How many times do I have to tell you it’s okay? Yeah, it hurt but you didn’t do it intentionally. You were hurting and it was projected towards me. You may have said hurtful things, but I’m pretty sure that my silence hurt you just as much as your words hurt me. It doesn’t make it okay and God help you if you do it again, but its the first time since I’ve known you that you messed up. Life is too short. Especially since I already knew that I’ll forgive you. I know that we’ll be together no matter how much time it will take. I just chose to free myself from the anger. Not even for you but for me.”

“It feels like that was too easy. I don’t deserve it. I…” Na Jeong put a finger to my lips before I could say anything else.

“Okay… Let’s look at it like this. Let’s say I stay mad and decide I’m going to make you pay for it not even a month… Let’s say two weeks. What if in those two weeks something happened and I or you died. I know it’s morbid but just go with it… You will spend the rest of your life miserable because I never forgave you. And I will spend the rest of my life miserable because the last thing you’ll remember is my anger and not my love. And the love was… Is so much bigger than the anger. Do you need to see it visually? Should I draw us a pie graph?”

I shook my head no and thought about how lucky I am. Tears came to my eyes as this was the most humbling thing I have ever heard in my life. Tears fell from my eyes and I kept my head down.

“… See? I can be sensible too. I know you. You don’t think that I know that you will punish yourself more than I can? My mind may not consciously remember every memory I have of you from the past six years, but my heart does.” She lifted my chin up so she could look at me in the eyes before she brushed my tears away with her fingers. “So whenever I say I love you, I mean I really really love you. Flaws and all. No conditions.” Her voice broke at the sentence.

“I really really love you.” I brushed her cheek with the back of my hand and though she gave me a shaky smile, tears fell from her eyes. “Thank you. For being you. You’re amazing.”

“At least you recognize this now. Maybe you’re not so stupid after all,” she said and I smiled. “And that night…”

“I know I was rough,” I shook my head at myself. That has to be one of the lowest points of my life. Thinking about it still shames me now. “I’m sorry… That’ll never happen again. You have my word”

“You think I left because you were rough?” She smacked my good shoulder. “You’re such a man, you know that? You may be a Seoul man but you’re still a man. I don’t mind rough. We can do rough. What I did mind was the lack of emotion part. You didn’t even look at me! I could have been anyone! And during that time, I needed to feel connected to you. So you not even looking at me felt like you were pulling away even more. And you’re right. If you ever do that again, I’ll kill you.”

“I’ll kill myself.”

“Deal.” Her eyes dropped to my lips again and my heart started hammering in my chest. “Should we seal it with a kiss?” She asked.

“You don’t think it’s too soon?” I asked, my mind still on the last time I kissed her and the pregnancy scare.

“No,” she said.

She launched herself at me before I could even ask her if she was sure. Her arms wrapped around my neck as her lips landed on mine. The smell of strawberry hit my nose as my lips met her soft mouth. I gave her a soft kiss, my lips savoring the feeling against hers after so long. I felt like we were kissing for the very first time again. Her eyes remained clear, so green today, and stayed fixed on mine. I nibbled on her lower lip, just the way I knew she liked it, and heard her moan. I brought my hand up to her hair and pulled the rubber band off, running my fingers through the tresses. She sighed into my mouth when my tongue met hers. Our tongues met leisurely and slowly, like we had all the time in the world. Her fingers were on my neck, just like I always did with hers and traveled down to my chest. I used my left arm to pull her closer and she tugged at the hem of my shirt to lift it up over my head. The sharp pain from trying to lift my arm out of the right sleeve made me wince and I tore my mouth off of hers.

“Jagiya?” She asked hesitantly.

I bit my lip as I slipped the shirt off. “I’m okay,” I said, putting my mouth back on hers. She pushed my back against the back of the couch and I looked down to see long legs about to straddle me. I hardened instantaneously. This woman, I thought, will be the death of me. She slipped out of her shirt and I was met with a vision of Na Jeong with her hair down her shoulders, her breasts covered only by a lacy red bra. She took that off too, revealing inviting nipples. My tongue instinctively touched one even as my hand went to cup her other breast. I watched her beautiful face as my lips wrapped around her nipple and her eyes stayed on mine. She said my name breathlessly before she lowered herself on my lap.

“Oww,” she said when her knees met the sofa. I remembered that both her knees were all scraped up. I noted her discomfort as her hands landed on both my shoulders for balance and I was reminded that both her hands held scrapes as well. She gingerly put just her fingers on my shoulders and I felt the sharp pain again when I lifted my right arm to support her back.

“Ouch,” I said. She lifted her knees off the couch and took her hand off my right shoulder and was awkwardly trying to figure out a way to do this without hurting either one of us. I shook my head and started chuckling. “Jagiya,” I said as annoyed eyes met mine. “This isn’t going to work.”

“What?” She asked. “We can make it work! We’re not quitters!”

“It’s okay,” I responded, my hand on her waist. “It’s not urgent… I’m good with waiting.”

“Speak for yourself, ” she huffed before lifting herself off me. I watched as she grabbed her blouse from the floor and put it back on. She gave a frustrated sigh as she sat back down next to me. “Jagiya,” she said. “How long do you think we’ll have to wait? Until your shoulder is better?”

“Maybe,” I said and looked at her just in time to see her frown. “Or maybe just until your cuts have healed up.” Her face brightened and I had to smile. “Na Jeong-ah… You know,” I whispered against her lips, “My shoulder is out commission but my mouth isn’t. My fingers are still good, so are my hands. Everything still works.”

She smiled at me so brightly my heart almost stopped. “Good… How long do you think it’ll take for my skin to heal?”

“Jagiya… You’re so obvious,” I laughed. “It takes as long as it takes. We’ll be okay. I promise.” She nodded before a yawn came over her. “Are you tired?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been sleeping well either.”

We both got up from the couch and walked to the bedroom. I took my sweatpants off and laid down under the covers and watched as she helped herself to another of my shirts from the closet. I watched as she shimmied out of her skirt and took her blouse off, taking in the delicious view. This waiting is going to be hell. What was I thinking?

She walked to the bathroom and I heard the sink running. Minutes later she walked back in, her face cleaned, drying her hands on a towel. She climbed into bed and turned the lamp off before laying her head down on my chest.

“Do you have work in the morning? You still have some work clothes here,” I asked quietly as I smoothed her hair down.

“No,” she answered, lifting her head so she could look at me. “I took tomorrow off in case our negotiations ran longer than all night.”

“Negotiations?” I asked. The last time I bargained with this woman she gave me such a hard time.

“Yes, negotiations. Yah… Did you think I was going show up here without a game plan? I was NOT expecting to come here to see you and Oppa drunk out of your minds. You and I… We were going have a serious discussion.”

She laid her head back down. I was about to ask her if we needed to talk some more when I saw that her eyes had already drifted closed. I closed my own eyes as it hit me that all was right in my world again.

*****

August 25, 2001

4:45 a.m.

Na Jeong

I woke up to Joon sitting up, clutching his shoulder, his body trembling as he was trying to catch his breath. I thought of asking him what happened when I realized he must just have had another nightmare. Silently I wrapped my arms around him and he resisted for one minute before his body relaxed in my arms.

“Shhh,” I said, running my fingers through his hair. “It’s okay. I’m here.” He tucked his head on my neck and then released a long breath. We laid back down and he kept his head on my chest while my hand started rubbing his back. “Joon-ah… Do you want to talk about it?” When he hesitated, I decided to let him know that I already knew more than he thought I did. I took a deep breath before I spoke. “I know Omonim left Abonim when you were very young. I also know you couldn’t wait to leave Abonim’s house. I know Omonim got married a second time in 1994… And I know you two don’t see each other that much.”

Without lifting his head, I felt his arm tighten around me. “Omma left when I was 8. Even though I was young, I knew something was wrong… They fought every day for a whole year. Appa wasn’t wealthy then yet… He came from a pretty well off family but his business had failed, and he and Omma were fighting a lot about money. It was the same fight all the time. But one night, it was different. They started out fighting about money, then they started talking about separating and then they started fighting over me.”

“About who you were going to live with?”

I felt him shake his head before he continued. “I wished they cared that much… No… They were fighting about who was going to be stuck with me. Omma said she didn’t want me, then Appa said he didn’t, either,” his voice broke and my heart broke along with it. “The next day I came home and Omma was gone. I looked for a note or anything that I thought she might have left for me. Anything that told me she thought about me even just a little bit before she left. But I couldn’t find anything. Nothing… Except some radish kimchi. I would only eat a few pieces only when I missed her terribly. Just a little bit, I always told myself. I made that kimchi last for four months… I don’t know how long I held out for the last few bites.” My heart squeezed as I thought of Joon as a little boy, finding the container of radish kimchi and eating it little by little. “Appa… Appa completely broke down after she left. ‘Don’t ever love anyone too much, son’, he used to tell me. ‘You’ll become like me.’ He drank every night when he thought I’d gone to bed.”

“Jagiya, I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Why are you sorry? You didn’t do it.”

“I’m sorry because no child should have to go through that.” It’s started to make sense now… How much worth he put on having money, how bitter his words were about my family loving me and how much he feared being left behind.

“He tried his best. I always had food to eat and clean clothes to wear. Not long after Omma left, he started another business. He worked all the time… I barely saw him, but I thought it was okay because he was going to be successful, which was his dream. In front of others, he always looked put together, but behind closed doors, he was broken. Damaged. I don’t think he ever got over Omma leaving. The house was always so quiet. The silence suffocated me. I couldn’t wait to get out of that house. And then baseball came.” He paused for a few minutes and I stayed quiet, just letting him know that I’m still with him.

“To other people it’s just a game. But it saved my life. It gave me friends, it gave me something to do and it got me out of that house. I always knew that if I became good at baseball I had a chance to stop relying on my Appa. Mainly I just wanted out. Chilbong was confident, outgoing, friendly… A far cry from Kim Jae Joon. Chilbong was who I wanted to be. Not poor insecure Joon. I didn’t see Omma again until I was almost done in high school. I had already accepted the scholarship to Yonsei and she was at Appa’s door when I came home from practice. She said she saw an article about me on the paper. She smiled at me and I got so angry. I wanted to yell at her, to ask her if now I was good enough to be her son. But no, I’m Chilbong now. I sat with her and talked politely about school and the weather. It felt like I was talking to a stranger. She brought me another batch of radish kimchi. When she left I wanted to throw it out, but I couldn’t. Even after all those years without her, my heart still remembered that my Omma was the first woman I ever loved. I wanted to hate her. But I couldn’t. I was grateful she came back. Even if she’s been gone almost as long as she lived with us. I hated myself for that.”

It wasn’t until he was done speaking that I noticed that he was crying. I put my lips to the top of his head and we sat in silence before I spoke.

“Joon-ah… How is your relationship with Abonim now?”

“He and I don’t see each other often. The only time I spoke to him when I was away was when I called him for his birthday. I think seeing me hurts him, because I look so much like Omma. He used to look at me when I was a kid and I could practically see his heart breaking on his face. Even though I tried to do everything on my own when Omma left, I was a kid. I couldn’t pay for things. I needed a place to live. I would have left, I swear to God I wanted to leave. I think he was relieved when I left to go to university. Me too. I was relieved. Finally, I thought, all his responsibility was done. Without baseball, I couldn’t have left.”

“I can’t speak for your father, but I know for sure Omonim really loves you. And is really proud of you. She didn’t say it in so many words when I saw her, but I know it’s true.”

“I know. She had my picture up on the wall when I came over for dinner. She said you gave it to her after I left.” He finally lifted his head and though his eyes were still shadowed but he managed a small smile.”She also said you threatened to keep our kids away if she didn’t start showing that she loved me. Na Jeong-ah…”

“I know. I may have overstepped my bounds, but she’s a practical woman. I needed her to understand that I mean it. I can be practical too.”

“I was about to thank you,” he said. “I spoke to Omma.”

“I know. You said,” I reminded him. “You told me earlier.”

“It was the weirdest thing. Surreal, even. She sat me down and she had this scrapbook of all the articles she found online about me. It was the first time I ever felt really loved by Omma. It made me feel a little better.”

“Jagiya, it’s not going to happen all at once. One step at a time, right? Now at least you’re one step closer than you were before.”

He pulled away from me then, then laid on his side with his head on my pillow. Our bodies touched chest to knees and he lifted a hand to touch my face. The look in his eyes was so tender I almost cried.

“Thanks for telling me,” I said. “I know it’s not the easiest thing.”

“Thanks for listening,” he replied softly.

When his eyes started closing I could see him struggling to keep them open. Wondering if he’s afraid to fall back asleep, I kissed both of his eyes.

“Sleep…” I whispered.

“I don’t want another nightmare to come. I’ll just stay awake. It’s almost daylight now.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m here. I’ll protect you.”

He leaned over and gave me the sweetest kiss. “I love you, Sung Na Jeong,” he mumbled sleepily.

“And I love you too, Kim Jae Joon.”

I waited until his breathing was steady and I was sure he was asleep until I allowed my own eyes to close.

*****

August 28, 2001

8 a.m.

Chilbong

I was struggling with my shirt when Na Jeong walked into the bedroom with a cup of coffee. She stood on tiptoes and kissed me before stepping back and looking at me.

“You look a little too formal to be going for a walk,” she commented as she noted my black trousers.

“I was thinking of seeing Jung Jin Hyung this morning,” I replied. “He’s leaving for San Francisco on Wednesday and I wanted to see him before he left.” I cringed when I tried to slip into the right sleeve and Na Jeong easily helped me into it.

“Why is he going back to San Francisco?” She asked as she buttoned my shirt up. Though she was getting it done I noticed that her hands kept on touching the skin on my abdomen, her eyes fixed on my chest. My breath hitched and I could feel my body respond. I noticed that her hands were still bandaged and I told myself to slow down. We have time. She finished with my shirt and looked at me before grabbing me for a deeper kiss.

My tongue licked her lips before she allowed me entry. She tasted like coffee. The most delicious coffee in the world. Our tongues met urgently and I felt her heart racing against my chest. As I pulled her hips against mine I kept seeing her eyes dart behind me, and I realized that she was watching us on the mirror. Uri Na Jeong-ie surprises me every day. One day… When I’m back on my game, I will investigate further what she’ll do in front of a mirror. I sucked on her tongue as she moaned and pulled me closer. I closed my eyes and savored the feel of her lips on mine. I let my hand linger on the curve of one breast and the other on her hips. When I pulled away from her, her eyes were glazed and her lips swollen. She took a step back and I was about to pull her back into my arms before she started talking.

“No… I need to stay this far away from you or I won’t care that you’re injured and I’m all cut.” I grinned at her and she frowned at me. “Don’t smile at me like that.”

She walked over to the bedside table and grabbed my coffee cup. She handed it to me and I followed her out to the kitchen. I was still drinking my coffee when I noticed that she was moving the newspaper away from me… As if hiding it from me.

“Jagiya… Give it,” I demanded.

“Joon-ah… There’s nothing interesting in it. Really! Trust me,” she said while looking at me, trying not to look suspicious but failing terribly.

“Na Jeong-ah…” I held my hand out to see it folded to the sports section, where I was expecting to see baseball news. I know she’s trying to protect me, and I appreciate it. I was still thinking of what article could they have possibly written about me now that I’m not playing, when I looked at what she’d been reading and started laughing. She had the paper on an article about Lee Sang Min Hyung and had drawn a heart around his face. I looked up to see her turning red. She tried to take it back but I held onto it.

“Yah… Do you love him or me more?” I asked teasingly.

“I love you both equally. It’s a different type of love so it’s okay… My love for Sang Min Oppa is like a fangirl love,” she said. “But you’re the love of my life. I’m nuts about you.” I expected her to blush even more or turn away and be embarrassed for revealing so much, but her eyes met mine directly instead. And this is why I love this woman. She smiled at me and I took her in my arms.

“You can have your paper back,” I said, putting it on the table. “Jagiya… You want to talk to him? I can call him right now.”

“NO!!!!” She screamed. “I will fangirl love him from afar!”

“You sure? I mean, it’s my job to make all your dreams come true… So if you want to talk to him, I can make that happen… Where is my phone?” I looked around and tried to remember where I last saw my phone. I saw it sitting on the coffee table. “Ahh, there it is…”

I felt Na Jeong grab my arm before I could take one more step. “Joon-ah, you have to meet Jin-ie Oppa and I’m… Uhmm… I have to go to work.” She grabbed her purse then gave me a quick peck on the lips and before I could even ask her if she needed a lift to work, she was already out the door. I was still chuckling and shaking my head when the door opened again and she ran over to me and gave me another kiss on the lips. Before I even have the opportunity to deepen the kiss she walked off again, saying, “Pick me up at 1:30 p.m. in case there’s traffic. Love you. Bye.”

*****

PAUL Bakery, Seoul

August 28, 2001

9:00 a.m.

Chilbong

I took the quick fifteen minute drive to where I was meeting Jin Hyung and parked the car quickly. By the time I walked into Paul’s I already spied him sitting at a table by the glass walls, drinking a cup of coffee based on the carafe on the table, and glaring at his phone. I know he’s not waiting for a text from me since I messaged him before I left the apartment.

I placed a hand in his back and he turned around and stood up, a smile on his face as he looked me up and down. We shook hands and then sat down. A few minutes later, a server came by and dropped off our menus. After perusing the menu, I settled on an egg and cheese crepe and he ordered a mushroom omelette. Hyung waited until the server had gone to bring our orders to the kitchen before he spoke.

“Joon-ah, you’re looking better,” he said, taking a sip of his coffee.

“I feel better.”

“You still having the nightmares?” He asked quietly.

“Yeah… But it’s not so bad now. Na Jeong usually is with me and I don’t panic as much when she’s there.” I looked out the window as I responded.

“You don’t panic because you don’t want to alarm her?”

I thought on his question before I answered. “Strangely, no. I don’t panic because I refuse to have it have as much hold on me. I don’t view them as intruders anymore… More like visitors,” I responded, meeting his eyes.

He lifted his eyes from his phone and smiled at me. “And Na Jeong? How is she dealing with all this? ”

“Hyung… I’m not going to lie. It was bad for a little bit, but it’s good now. Who knew talking could solve a lot of stuff?” I asked and he chuckled.

“I always knew that she was a tough cookie. I was worried the last time I saw you but I knew she would hold you down. That’s just the type of woman she is.”

I looked up as the server delivered our meals, along with a basket of bread. We ate in silence for a few minutes then I cleared my throat.

“Hyung,” I started and he met my gaze. “I have an appointment this afternoon with an anesthesiologist. ”

“Have you decided on getting surgery then?” I watched as he took a bite of his omelette then wiped his mouth with the napkin.

“It’s not for surgery. It’s another type of treatment. It can be done while I’m awake and I’ll need a lot of physical therapy, but we’ll see.”

“Keep me abreast, hmm?” I nodded and I saw him looking at his phone again.

“Hyung… Are you expecting an important call or something? You haven’t stopped looking at your phone since I got here.” A blush spread over his cheeks as his face broke into a wide smile.

“Joon-ah… I met someone.”

“What? I’m injured and you find time to date? You didn’t have opportunities to meet women. Didn’t you complain about this before? You said my schedule was too full and you don’t get to go out on your own.”

“Ahh… When I went back to San Francisco, I stopped at the hospital and saw your nurse. You know, to thank her for taking care of you.” At my incredulous expression he looked down on his plate. “It’s the polite thing to do. I’m polite.”

“Polite, my ass. You were checking her out even as I sat in the hospital about to lose my future,” I said, trying to sound cross.

“Yah… You punk,” he said and it looked like he was about to throw a roll at me. “Have I not devoted the last four years taking care of you? Korea, Japan, America… Wherever you went… Didn’t I move my life wherever you were?”

“Hyung, I was just teasing… I’m happy for you, she seemed nice.” I have to take Na Jeong here one day, I thought as I bit into the fluffy crepe. She’d love this.

“Don’t be too happy for me yet. She won’t go out with me. I had to bribe one of the people that worked with her with one of your autographed press release pictures to get her number and she’s responded a few times but outrightly said no when I asked her out. ‘You look like a player’, she said, ‘and I don’t go out with players.’” He shook his head even as I started laughing. “What?”

“Hyung… You are a player,” I said, taking a sip of water. “You were always a love ’em and leave ’em kind of guy.”

“That was true years ago but I’m getting older,” he said defensively.

When I saw the serious look on his face, I forced myself to stop laughing. I should be more sympathetic. I know what it’s like to have people use who they think I am against me. “Cheer up, Hyung. It’s only been a few months. She can’t possibly be tougher than Na Jeong. It took me six years to win her over.”

“I’ll persist… I’m going to wear her down.”

“Hence the trip back to San Francisco?” I asked.

He nodded as he finished his meal. I quickly polished off the rest of my meal and sat back and looked at him. Gratitude came through me when I thought about how much he’d had to sacrifice for my career as well. He always went above and beyond what other managers did… I would know because more than once I was asked what I paid him by other players, and I know he’s had better paying job offers. But he chose to stick with me. When I got injured he kept me moving and sane until I could get myself together. I could only imagine how hard it must have been for him, too. All at once I didn’t just have a manager, but also a brother and a friend.

“Hyung,” I said as he typed a message on his phone then put it down and looked at me. “Thank you… For everything. I could never have done everything I was able to do without you. In the off chance that I’m able to play baseball again, I would like if you would consider managing me again.”

“Joon-ah… Seeing you grow up not only as a baseball player, but as a person too, was a joy to watch. No matter what happens with baseball, you will be successful. I mean that.” He reached under the table for a bag and he put it on the table. “I almost forgot… The rest of your stuff is at my place. But I thought you would want these.”

I open the bag to see the jersey I got Sook Sook and I lifted that to see the signature baby blue box on the bottom.

“When are you proposing?” He asked. “You could have warned me. What if I had movers pack up your stuff? I saw the price tag on that ring and USD 26,000 is nothing to sniff at.”

“I don’t know yet, but I have plenty of time to think about it.” I shrugged a shoulder. “What’s next for you?”

“I’ll wait and see what happens with your shoulder. Until then I’ll devote myself to winning my woman over.” I chuckled at his response.

“Hyung… I returned the money you sent back to your account this morning. I appreciate the gesture but you earned that. Don’t even try to resend it… Because I will just return it back to you,” I said as I put some cash in the check holder, not even giving him time to argue. I stood up and took the bag he brought. “I have to go. Call me when you get back from San Francisco and we’ll hang out. I think it’ll be nice spending time with you without you bossing me around, don’t you think? We’ll both be men of leisure after all.”

“Yeah I’d like that,” he responded, standing up. “You didn’t have to pay for breakfast.”

“Hyung I know. It’s the least I can do.” I offered him a hand to shake and he took it before wrapping his arms around me.

“Take care of yourself, Joon-ah. And your Na Jeong-ie, too.”

“I will.”

I stepped outside where the sun was shining brightly and wondered if I had enough time to stop somewhere else before the appointment. Looking at my list, I think I need to visit one more person.

*****

Seoul University National Hospital

August 28, 2001

11:40 a.m.

Chilbong

“What’s up?” Dong Joon asked as we walked out of the hospital. “What are you doing here?”

“Yah… Can’t I bring my only cousin some lunch?” I said as we sat down on the bench by the front entrance.

“You’ve never done it before, so I thought something was wrong. Everything okay?” I watched him as he took out the sandwich that I bought for him and took a bite.

“Yeah…” I cleared my throat before I continued. “Jung Gook Hyung told me that you guys requested my records from America.”

“Ahh, about that… You’re not going to get us arrested right? Because that will look really bad and Jin Yi will probably beat me.”

I smiled at him. “Nah… You’re fine. I actually,” I coughed, “I owe you an apology.”

“For what?” He asked, unscrewing the top off the drink in the bag.

“Just… For everything. I get so self-absorbed that I forget sometimes that I have you watching my back.”

“Did Na Jeong put you up to this?” I shook my head no. “It’s what family is here for, right? You probably don’t know that… Actually, of course you wouldn’t know how a family is supposed to work. You were an only child. And you grew up in a broken home. We didn’t even meet in person until Eemo came back into your life. For you everything is a first time. It makes complete sense that your first instinct is to try to handle stuff on your own.”

“I don’t want to stay like this, Dong Joon-ah… I need to become better. Not just for Na Jeong and the family I want to build with her but for me too. It’s exhausting, being that person.” He looked at me in understanding and smiled.

“Just you saying that tells me that you’re already changing. You wouldn’t even talk about it before. I know if you want to change, whatever the reason may be, you will. You’ve never set a goal for yourself that you haven’t met, yet. That’s one of your strengths.” He turned his gaze away before speaking again. “Na Jeong called me, you know.”

“When?” She never mentioned this to me.

“The day after I saw you. I was going to call her anyway to check up on her, and you know… To gauge how close she was to breaking up with you. Since you told me the day before how badly you messed up. I thought I needed to smooth things over… Help her understand you a little better, so she can consider forgiving you. I called her and she started yelling at me. Asked me how I could abandon you. When I told her I’ve called you and seen you, she breathed a sigh of relief… Turns out I didn’t have to explain anything. She understands you.” He stood up and I was afraid he was done talking when he turned to me. “Then SHE reassured ME that you were going to be fine. She said that she’ll make sure of it even if she had to drag you out of whatever hell you’re in. You don’t know how relieved I felt hearing that, knowing that you finally have someone by your side that will always fight for you.”

“I always had someone fighting for me,” I said, standing up. “I just never realized he was there the whole time. Thank you, Dong Joon-ah.”

“Yah…” He said uncomfortably. “We’re not, like, going to start hugging and crying, right?

“No. I’ve just become more self-aware, not become a completely different person.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “Don’t you have to get back to work?”

He looked at his watch and nodded. “Yeah… lunch time is done. Where are you off to?”

“I have an appointment with the doctor… The one you and Hyung found for me.”

“Do you need me to come with you? It’s short notice but I could probably tell them it’s a family emergency…”

“Na Jeong is coming with me,” I interjected. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”

“Okay.” He started walking back towards the hospital and as he was about to open the door, I called out to him.

“Do you and Noona have plans this weekend? Come over to the apartment Saturday night for dinner. I’m going to try to get everyone together.”

“Call me with the details when you know. You better let Na Jeong know, if you haven’t discussed this with her yet. She doesn’t like surprises.”

“Yeah, yeah…” I said, giving him a wave. I walked quickly towards the parking lot and got into the car. Feeling a little lighter than I have in a month, I hummed along with the song playing on the radio as I went to pick Na Jeong up.

*****

LG Tower

August 28, 2000

1:25 p.m.

Na Jeong

I got out of work at exactly 1:25 p.m. I should have eaten breakfast, I thought to myself as my stomach rumbled and I dug into my bag for the kimbap I picked up on my way to work. Unwrapping and eating it as I walked out of my office building, I checked my purse for the folder containing all the information regarding this prolotherapy, along with a list of questions we had written down for the doctor. Looking at my watch, I noted that Joon was supposed to be here soon and wondered if I should call him to make sure he remembered. I had just pulled my phone out of my purse when I saw Joon sitting on the hood of his car, his face basked in the sunlight.

He still looks a little gaunt for my liking but he’s eating three meals a day now and taking a walk every day since this weekend. “My legs still work”, he said, “and I need to keep moving.” I know why he does it. He needs a new routine to replace his old one. I offered to go with him, but he said not yet. He said he needed to get his mind right and that he needs to be able to do some things on his own. I accept and respect it. I know he’s not doing it to pull away from me but to properly learn what it’s like to be able to handle something on his own. I see it in his eyes now, what’s been missing for the past month, the determination. He’s a proud man, and I’m assured that he’ll let me know when he needs me. I told him it’s okay if he doesn’t tell me everything… Just as long as he tells me about the things that matter.

I called Omma yesterday to let her know that Joon was okay and to ask how I should approach this. Do I need to ask Joon to tell me everything? The magazines all said yes, but Omma told me that she and Appa still keep secrets from each other… That a relationship needs that. She said that we are not one person, and we still have our own selves, but we need to remember always that we’re fighting for the same team. Omma has always given me good advice and she’s never steered me down the wrong path before. I really need to stop reading those magazines.

My breath hitched as I watched him lift his face slowly to the sun. The light caressed his cheek and he closed his eyes for a brief minute, as if savoring it before he lowered his face again. It’s just like Joon to never allow himself to enjoy anything too much. We will have to rectify that.

I walked towards the car and finally he saw me. Our gazes met and a slow smile lit up his face. The past month has taken its toll, I thought, he is still thinner than I’d like. The angles on his face were more prominent. He’s lost some muscle mass even though he still filled a white shirt better than anyone else I know. All fixable.

My mouth curved into a smile when he started walking towards me. He may walk with his head down anywhere else, but not towards me. Joon always knew his way to me, his strides confident and sure. When at last he was in front of me I wrapped my arms around his waist and he planted a kiss on the top of my head.

“How was work?” He asked as he took my hand in his as we walked towards the car.

“It was busy. Mondays are tough,” I answered easily.

“Did they give you a hard time about taking half a day off?”

“No, it’s okay.” I looked at him. “How is Jin-ie Oppa?”

“He’s good… He’s in love,” he replied with a smile on his face.

“Really? He doesn’t seem like someone who’s into the love thing,” I said. I noticed Joon paling and wondered if he was in pain. “Are you okay?” I asked as he let go of my hand and sped up to the car, where he opened the passenger seat and tossed something to the back seat. I thought it was a little strange but wasn’t going to push. If it was important he would tell me. He held the car door open and I sat down before looking behind me and seeing a shopping bag. He must have been shopping. Not a big deal. Speaking of which…

“Jagiya, we need to return those baby things this weekend,” I said as I placed a kiss on his lips when he sat down in the driver’s seat.

“Okay… Omma messaged me yesterday and asked if we wanted to have dinner on Sunday. Actually she told me to come over for dinner and told me to bring you,” he said. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah, it’s good,” I answered with an easy smile. I pulled my phone out of my purse. “Let me text her back.”

Joon pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road before he spoke again. “Jagiya… You know I meant my Omma right?” He asked uneasily.

“Yes. I know you meant Omonim,” I replied as I looked into my contacts for her number and started typing a response.

“You and Omma text now? When did that start?”

“I gave her my number when I threat… Uhmm.. Spoke to her months ago. She called me last week too… Is that a problem?”

He shook his head no. “No… It’s good. Na Jeong-ah… Do you have the address for the doctor?”

Do I? I fished in my purse for the piece of paper and read it out loud. “Dr. Lee Sang Ryul… Seokchon-dong 296-10, Songpa-gu, Opus building 2F Seoul… Joon-ah, does that sound familiar to you?”

“I think so,” he answered.

“Are you sure? Because it’s 1:45 p.m. now and our appointment is at…”

“Na Jeong-ah, I got it,” he said vehemently. Okay… I got it. I kept quiet and looked out the window.

Joon drove like he knew where he was going, but after about 20 minutes and we passed the same restaurant thrice, I decided that he might not know.

“Jagiya… Do you think we should stop and ask someone?” I asked helpfully. “You don’t even have to get out of the car or anything… I’ll ask.”

“Sung Na Jeong… I know where…”

“Yah, Kim Jae Joon… We’ve been going around in circles for the past ten minutes.” He turned to me as he braked at the stoplight. “You’re just like Appa you know that? What’s up with men and directions?”

“Really?” He asked, pleased. He chuckled as if remembering something before his expression became more serious. He signaled and then parked the car at the space on the street. I looked at where we were and turned back to him, trying not to huff.

“Jagiya, we’re here.”

He looked at me surprised when I pointed to the name on the building. He had been driving so quickly before I didn’t even get to read anything. He gave me a sheepish smile before taking the car keys out of the ignition. He stepped out and I watched as he made his way to my side, wondering how anyone injured can still look this good. He was wearing his black slacks and white shirt… Something every office worker wears every day, but on Joon it looked effortless and expensive. My hands are healed now… By this weekend I should be all patched up. And then…

By the time he opened my car door, I was already flushed from my thoughts. “You okay?” He asked, looking at me closely.

“YES!” I exclaimed a little louder than I expected. Although he looked at me like he didn’t believe me, he nodded and pressed the car lock from his keys. I took the hand he offered and we walked into the building together. We passed several marked doors but we didn’t see the doctors name when I remembered Oppa mentioning that his practice hasn’t been established yet. I was about to call the number on the paper when a man exited an unmarked door and paused when he saw Joon.

“Kim Jae Joon-ssi,” he said, extending a hand to Joon. “I’m Dr. Lee Sang Ryul. I believe Dr. Kim Jung Gook set up your appointment with me? I was just about to check on you since I don’t have any signs yet.” He looked at me then and gave me a smile and I warmed to him instantly. I gave him a smile in response and felt Joon stiffen next to me.

“Ah, yes,” he said, shaking his hand. “This is Sung Na Jeong, my girlfriend.”

Dr. Lee nodded at me in acknowledgment before opening the door to his office. I was taking a step to follow him in when I heard Joon whisper in my ear. “Yah… Do you have to smile like that? Do you know how irresistible you are when you smile?”

“Joon-ah… You’re cute. Corny but cute.” He blushed and I kissed his hand. “That’s okay though. You can be corny with me anytime.” He grinned at me and I relaxed. I want to try to get him as comfortable as possible for this appointment. We both need clear heads for this. I looked around as he led us to an interior room past what looks like what would be the reception area.

“Forgive the mess,” Dr. Lee said apologetically in front of us before turning into an office with a great view of the city. He motioned for us to sit down on leather seats before he sat himself down. “We have another few months before we actually open officially, so we’re still trying to get the office together. ”

“It looks like it’s going to be a big practice,” Joon said.

“Yes, we will be specializing in pain management, nerve blocks, acupuncture and as you know, prolotherapy… Things like that. Treatment without surgery. I will have two other doctors here when we start, but I’m currently the only one in the country to do the prolotherapy. Dr. Kim, your friend…”

“He’s my brother, well kind of… ” Joon interrupted before I could say anything and Dr. Lee nodded.

“Well, Dr. Kim already brought over your records for me to look at before he even made the appointment. I told him that though its not guaranteed, I think I can help. I’ve gone over some things with him, but I’m sure you have questions before deciding on whether or not you would want the treatment.” He looked down at a chart in front of him before he directed his attention to us again. “Before we start, would either one of you like any coffee or tea? We have water too.”

“A cup of coffee would be great, thank you. Jagiya?” He asked, turning to me.

“Coffee also please.”

“I’ll just be a few minutes. Please, make yourselves comfortable.”

He left the office and we were left on our own. I brushed a hand on the side of his face and asked him if he was nervous.

“A little,” he said. “But I’m good.”

“I’m proud of you, ” I said quietly. “Oh… Oppa’s your brother now? Aigoo… Amazing what Soju does…” My words trailed off when I saw the physician enter the room with a tray holding three cups of coffee. He placed the two cups in front of us, along with a little jar of sugar and some milk before sitting down with his own.

“Kim Jae Joon-ssi,” Dr. Lee said, addressing Joon as he was about to fix his coffee. He stopped what he was doing at the sound of his name and looked up. “Have you ever seen your radiology films?”

Coffee forgotten, Joon shook his head no. Dr. Lee stood up and put some films on a window looking thing on the wall before darkening the room and turning its switch on. Joon stood next to him as they perused the films together. I finished fixing Joon’s coffee before fixing my own then turned my attention to the conversation they were having. Unable to hear anything from my seat, I walked over next to Joon and he handed him his cup. He mouthed thanks before giving the doctor his full attention.

“If you look here,” Dr. Lee said, pointing to a spot on the first X-ray, “This spot… It’s not supposed to be there… That’s the first injury. The Superior Labrum Anterior and Posterior tear. And here,” he continued, pointing at the second film, “is your second injury, the rotator cuff tear. You’re lucky it’s only a partial tear and not a full one. Your options for non surgical treatment greatly diminishes had that been the case. Most people live with a rotator cuff tear for years but with you being a pitcher and the fact that you have another injury, that’s not really an option, is it?”

“No. I would like to see if I can keep playing baseball.”

Dr. Lee said nothing but turned on the lights before directing us back to our seats. “Like I’ve mentioned Mr. Kim… there are no guarantees but it’s worth a shot. And if all else fails, you can get surgery. That option is always there. Before I go over the specifics, do you have any questions for me?”

I cleared my throat before pulling my list out of my purse. I looked at him as I read the first question. “Are there any contraindications to this treatment?”

“This treatment is very safe, though like with any others, it comes with risks. I’ve reviewed your chart,” he said, directing his gaze at Joon, “and there is nothing there that will raise red flags. There are only certain instances where a person would be told that he cannot get it, such as having a bleeding disorder, septic arthritis, cellulitis or if you had been taking blood thinning medications. Seeing that you were in perfect health before this injury, you would be the perfect candidate.”

Joon looked at my list as I was wrapping around the information. “What kind of side effects could happen?”

As the doctor went into the details I tried to focus but all this stuff I can ask Joon about later, since medical terms go over my head. Instead I paid attention to Joon and his reactions instead. I watched as his expression stayed focused and resolute. I know that expression. He’s already made his mind up, of this I’m pretty certain.

After Joon had gone over everything on the list, he turned to me and asked if there was anything else I wanted to ask. I shook my head no in response.

Dr. Lee handed Joon a sheet of paper. “I’ve taken the initiative and printed out some FAQs for you. What to wear whenever you go, what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do, food to help with the therapy, things like that. All that information is on this. Whenever you make up your mind, please call me. I’m going to a medical conference this week but I should be back before the weekend and we can start next week if you so choose. If you have any more questions, please don’t hesitate to call and ask.” He stood up from his chair and walked towards the door. Joon took my hand and we followed him out. “It was a pleasure to meet you both, ” he said graciously

“Thank you for taking this time to meet with us,” Joon said, as he let go of my hand to shake Dr.Lee’s hand. “We’ll discuss it and I will let you know either way.”

Dr. Lee nodded and gave me another smile before he closed the door. We walked wordlessly to the elevator and I got the feeling we were both still digesting all the information we’d just received. I squeezed his hand reassuringly and he turned to give me a small smile.

“Joon-ah… Do you want to talk about it yet?” I asked as we walked out to the car.

“Jagiya, not yet,” he said. “But I will. Soon as I’m ready I’ll let you know.”

I believed him. There is no doubt in my mind that when he feels like he can talk about it, that he would. And that I would be the first person he would speak to.

“I love you,” I said as I got into the car.

“I love you too,” he replied back before putting a kiss on my forehead then getting into the driver’s seat. We drove back to the apartment in silence, but it was not uncomfortable. We don’t have to talk about it now… As long as I know we will. Joon will decide what he thinks is best, but I am safe in the knowledge that whatever it is, he will discuss it with me first. After all his future is my future, just like mine is his. We finally understand this now and I’m glad we figured it out just in time.

*****

August 30, 2001

10:30 p.m.

Chilbong

I was lying on Na Jeong’s lap as we watched television. She was alternately feeding me and herself some oranges as we watched a drama on SBS. I don’t know why she likes these really dramatic shows… I would have preferred a comedy, myself, but she wanted to watch Kim Min Jong.

“Jagiya, do you think I’m prettier than Song Hye Gyo?” She asked, looking at the screen closely.

“Ahh…” I said, not really knowing how to answer. Well, I know how to answer… I know what will happen no matter what answer I give. If I say yes, she’ll accuse me of being biased, probably fish for more compliments. I’ll end up kissing her to convince her that I’m being truthful and then things will get too heated up. If I say no, she’ll get angry that I don’t think she’s prettier. Then I’ll end up kissing her to convince her that I do think she’s beautiful, and then things will get too heated up. This is a quandary. Her knees are almost healed up, but she has shown no signs of wanting to engage in those activities yet and with what happened the last time we were in bed, I was all too happy to wait.

“She has great skin,” Na Jeong continued. “I really liked her in Autumn in my Heart. But I think she had better chemistry with Won Bin Oppa than Song Seung Hoon Oppa… Don’t you think?” She asked. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized she didn’t necessarily want an answer from me, just that she wanted to do a commentary of sorts.

“Na Jeong-ah… How come it’s so easy for you to call everyone Oppa except for me?” I pouted. I looked up at her face and she just blinked at me in response. She stuffed an orange wedge in my mouth and I almost choked on it trying not to laugh.

“Joon-ah… Why do you think the nice guy never gets the girl in dramas? I mean… Do you remember Lee Jung Jae Oppa in Sandglass? That broke my heart. It’s always the not so good guys. I don’t understand…” She smiled at me then. “It’s a good thing that’s not what happens in real life, right?”

She was so serious about this topic and so earnest that I couldn’t help but chuckle. Seeing her frown at me, I put on a serious expression and looked at her. “Yeah, Jagiya, it’s a very good thing that’s not what happens in real life. They would have written me off then given me a last minute loveline. And I would have loved you from afar forever.”

“Yeah… that’s stupid.” She bent down to kiss me and I met her lips surely. She tasted like oranges and strawberries, and her hair smelled of jasmine. I was about to pull her down to lay with me when she said, “But Joon-ah, you COULD be in a drama… Your actions are very dramatic.”

“Yah… I thought women liked grand gestures?” I asked.

“I just like your kisses… Wherever I can get them. In the rain, snow, sun… Whatever. I’m not picky,” she answered. “But Joon-ah, not everything has to be done ceremoniously,” she paused for a few minutes, waited for the CF’s to start, and said, “Like your non-proposal proposal. That was really dramatic.”

“I wasn’t proposing… How many times do I have to say that I wasn’t?”

“Fine, fine… I would have…”

“I don’t want to know your answer!” Well, I do, but I don’t… I have to get some things together first before asking her. Like getting a job. Or going back to school.

“Jeez, so touchy,” she said, leaning over me to put her plate down on the coffee table, putting her chest in direct line with my face. She leaned back far too soon and then said, “I was saying that if I were you, I would have said that first. Like a disclaimer… Na Jeong-ah, this is not a proposal, but…

Her voice trailed off and I realized that the program had started again. I had planned to prepare a nice dinner before this weekend to tell her about the decision I’ve made about the treatment, but since she said that not everything has to be done in ceremony, I decide to just blurt it out. Why not? Now’s as good a time as any.

“Jagiya…” I started.

“Hmm?” She asked absently, her gaze fixed on the television.

“I’ve decided to go ahead with the treatment.”

“Okay,” she said. That was easy, I thought, too easy. I counted to three in my head and I had only just gotten to one when she looked at me intently, turned the TV off, and then looked at me again. “You did?” She narrowed her eyes at me then. “Why did you tell me in the middle of a drama? I would hit you if you weren’t already injured.”

“Didn’t you just say to not make a big deal of everything? I was going to tell you over a nice dinner, maybe some candles, but you said that it’s okay, so I just said it. Did I do wrong?” I asked.

“No… It’s fine,” she said as she watched me sit myself up. I bit my lip in pain but faced her while we talked. “Are… Are you sure it’s what you want to do?”

“Jagiya,” I said, taking her hands in mine. “I’ve spent nothing but the last two days reading up all the material that Dr.Lee has given me, as well as what Jung Gook Hyung provided for us. I’ve looked it up online and studied until my eyes crossed. But the fact is this… I don’t want surgery… I have a bad feeling about it. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. And while I don’t particularly like the idea of having to be stuck with a needle every week for a few weeks, at least I’ll be awake and conscious the whole time. Na Jeong-ah… I needed to make a decision. I’m tired of waiting for God knows what and tired of being afraid of the unknown. If this doesn’t work, then maybe it’s time for me to give up baseball and figure something else out. But if it works, maybe I can see how far I can go as someone who was promising, who was injured, who is now back. I may never be as good as I was, but I want to take the chance to see.” I looked into her eyes then and saw nothing but understanding and love. She nodded at me. “You’re not mad that I made the decision without you, right?”

“Joon-ah… Why would I get mad about that? You know yourself. I trust your judgment. That’s never been the issue. I just wanted to make sure that you’re going into this fully cognizant that it might not fix everything. I don’t want you to be disappointed. I am very very proud of you,” she said, giving my lips a tender kiss. “What made you decide to finally go for it?”

“I realized that I owed it to myself and to you, to man up and do something. Everything I have ever done up till now has been based on fears. I played baseball because I was afraid of being a nobody… I liked winning because I was afraid of failing. I have nightmares about losing you because that’s the thing that scares me most. I’ve become someone who’s running on fear. I don’t like it.” I took a deep breath and looked down at our hands, our fingers interlocked. “It has nothing to do with you, though. I love you for loving this side of me, too… But… I don’t even like him. Jung Jin Hyung told me something a long time ago, when he first started working with me. He asked me the same question you did… He asked me who I was. When I couldn’t answer, he said,’We better find out then because people will only accept whatever they think they deserve.’ I did get to know myself, but I knew myself as Chilbong, not Kim Jae Joon. In my head I thought Chilbong deserved everything, but not Kim Jae Joon. Kim Jae Joon only wanted one thing: Love. So why is it now that he has it, things still aren’t perfect? It’s because of me. I have to change. I’m ready to fix it. I think it’s time.”

“I agree,” she said, “but give yourself time, okay? Don’t be so hard on yourself if there are days when it doesn’t feel good.” She looked like she was thinking for a minute begore she looked into my eyes. “Joon-ah, how are the nightmares now?”

“I still have them every night. They’re not as bad when you’re here though.” But they still haven’t slowed down.

“Do you… Do you want me to stay tonight?” She bit her lower lip while looking at me and I was tempted to say yes.

“No. Na Jeong-ah, we’re not married yet. You can’t stay here all the time, even if I wanted you to. People might look at us funny and I won’t be responsible for my actions if neighbors start criticizing you. Plus, if I keep having you stay here, your parents may kill me. Besides, this is one of those things that I have to fight on my own, right? You’re amazing but my demons aren’t exactly afraid of you,” I tried to say teasingly only to have her frown at me. I smoothed her brows with my finger and kissed the tip of her nose. “If it’s really bad, I will call you. I promise.”

Though she didn’t look like she believed me, she allowed me to wrap my arms around her and she leaned back behind me as I rested my back on one arm of the couch. We stayed in silence for a few minutes watching the lights just outside the windows. “Jagiya, do you need me to call Dr. Lee? I can make the appointment for you…”

“I did it already, before you came home from work. I got this.”

She nodded under my chin and allowed herself to relax against me. When I drove her home half an hour later, she stayed quiet, and I hoped that she was not overly worrying. Parking the car in front of the boarding house, I tried to ease her mind by attempting to look as relaxed as possible. I leaned down to kiss her and her hands automatically through my hair. I felt her tremble as my hand wrapped over her neck. We kissed gently and languidly, savoring each and every sensation. When at last we pulled away from each other, she looked at me with lips slightly bruised, more beautiful than anything else I have ever seen in my life.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said. “I love you.”

“Kim Jae Joon-ssi… I love you more.” She gave me a lopsided smile before stepping out of the car. “Call me if you need me, okay?”

I had to stop myself from blurting out that I always need her, so I just nodded instead. As I drove back to the apartment, I remembered what John the doorman in San Francisco told me seemingly forever ago. The love of a woman is a gift, but the love of a good woman, is indeed priceless. And Na Jeong… Is the best woman of all. I am a lucky man.

*****

September 1, 2001

7:00 p.m.

Na Jeong

When I arrived at Joon’s apartment, it was empty. Wondering if he had gone for a walk, I felt relieved to have the place to myself. Perfect, I thought, as I pulled out the packages of votive candles from the bag. I ran the shower and stepped underneath it, trying not to get myself too excited about tonight. Joon thinks I am so pragmatic… But I can do romance too. I will seduce him tonight and we will have the most memorable night. It’s time to erase all those bad memories and replace them with new ones. “I sincerely hope this man appreciates this”, I mumbled to myself as I slathered lotion on before slipping into another delicious concoction I picked up at Agent Provocateur.

I was just spritzing perfume on when I saw the bedroom door open and in walked Joon, wearing jeans and a shirt. I started brushing my hair and tried to give him my best come hither smile, but he just stood there slackjawed. I was about to ask him what was going on when he put a finger to his mouth.

“What?” I asked, annoyed. I am standing here wearing a slip of a thing and he wants to whisper?

“Ahh…” He said hesitantly. “Jagiya, keep your voice down.”

“What? Why do I have to keep my voice down?” I whispered furiously.

“Na Jeong-ah… I forgot to tell you,” he said, not meeting my eyes.

“Forget to tell me what?” My eyes blazed with irritation. What exactly did he forget to tell me?

“Everyone is here,” he answered, finally looking at me. “Bing and Jin Yi Noona, Haitai and Ae Jung, Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin and the baby. I invited them for dinner. And they’re here. Right outside that door.” I watched as his eyes took in the candles and the chilling champagne. His eyes darkened as he perused me up and down. “Jagiya… What are you wearing?”

*****

September 1, 2001

7:30 p.m.

Chilbong

I was taking the groceries unsuccessfully out of the trunk when I heard voices behind me. I turned around to see the gang and their respective partners standing just outside the apartment building. Samcheonpo patted me on the back and Yoon Jin glared at him.

“Yeobo… He’s injured! What are you thinking?” She asked, pushing the baby stroller towards him.” Turning to me, she smiled. “Bong-ah, sorry about that… You know my husband.”

“It’s alright Yoon Jin-ah… It’s the other side,” I explained. I glanced at the baby that was sleeping in the stroller. With dinner having been such notice, I knew that they weren’t going to find a babysitter so quickly, so I okayed them bringing the baby. I mean, how much can a little baby do? I leaned in to look only to see a tiny face asleep.

I stood up and picked up a bag with my left arm and tried to heft the big bag of rice as well, only to drop it back unceremoniously on the ground. Haitai picked it up and Ae Jung greeted me with a shy smile. Binggrae and Jin Yi Noona said their hellos to everyone and we all walked into the building and piled onto the elevator.

Walking towards the apartment I hope that Na Jeong got the message I sent while I was at the checkout line at the store. She had told me yesterday that there was a chance she would have to go to work today and to not expect her until about 8 p.m. That gives me plenty of time to get dinner started.

We will have to eat in the living room. Our kitchen table only seats four and there are eight… Well eight and a half? A quarter? How do you count a baby? Whatever the answer is there are too many of us to use the kitchen table. Thankful at least that I had the foresight to clean the apartment before going out to get the groceries, I opened the door to a dark apartment. Hmm… That’s strange. I could have sworn that I left the lights turned on. Flipping all the lights on, I ushered our guests to the living room as I put the groceries away. Binggrae went straight to the fridge and grabbed a few beers and handed them out to the men. Lifting the juice from the bag, the cap fell off and spilled a bit of juice on me.

“Yoon Jin-ah, Ae Jung-ah, Noona, help yourselves to whatever we have in the fridge. There’s wine, water and… Whatever’s left of this juice,” I said as I made my way to the bedroom to grab another another shirt. I was still looking behind me to the living room when the sight in the bedroom surprised me. There were votive candles lit on every surface and right in the middle was Na Jeong standing up, brushing her hair.

She looked at me and gave me a smile, her eyes soft and lovely, and my heart started racing inside me. What’s going on here? Could it be that… Nah… She wouldn’t do that. Na Jeong looked like she was about to say something and knowing that everyone was outside I put a finger on my lips to keep her quiet.

“What?” Her voice was annoyed, furious. She’s so sexy, I thought as I saw the annoyance shooting through her eyes.

“Ahh…” She’s going to kill me. “Jagiya, keep your voice down.”

“What? Why do I have to keep my voice down?”

“Na Jeong-ah… I forgot to tell you.” I turned my eyes away, both for my safety and my sanity. I was afraid if I looked at her that she would throttle me or that I would throw the guests out and jump her.

“Forget to tell me what?” She asked, irritated now.

“Everyone is here… Bing and Jin Yi Noona, Haitai and Ae Jung, Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin and the baby. I invited them for dinner. And they’re here. Right outside that door.” I looked at her then noticed the champagne chilling in a new ice bucket by the side of the bed. It’s looking more and more that she had planned a special night for us… In the bedroom. Dammit. The last time she seduced me was my birthday and she wore a flimsy wisp of a thing then. I finally allow myself to look down to confirm. If she is wearing regular clothes, then maybe she just wanted some alone time. If she’s wearing something else… Then I well and truly messed up. My eyes traveled over her and I swallowed. “Jagiya… What are you wearing?” A whole lot of nothing… From what it looks like.

Creamy skin alternated with fringing pieces of fabric over shoulders over cups which barely covered her breasts, some kind of elastic gathering under the bust and emphasizing her tiny waist. The skirt was non-existent, made up only of short fringes not even skimming the top of her thighs. My mouth watered as soft skin peeked out from the fringes… She wasn’t wearing any underwear. Blood rushed to my groin and I closed my eyes. I messed up, dammit. Is it rude to send people expecting to eat out before they eat? I seriously pondered this as I opened my eyes to see Na Jeong leaning down to blow out the candles, her back covered only by a single strap and her bottom covered by those same fringes.

“Na Jeong-ah… Hang on… Just hold that thought.” She stood up and looked at me expectantly. I’m going to throw them out. Opening the door, I saw the men comfortably sitting at the kitchen table while the women were talking in the living room. Yoon Jin had a bottle to the baby. I can’t throw them out. “Just give me a few minutes,” I called out to them and they all nodded in acknowledgment. I looked back at Na Jeong who continued to stare at me with her mouth partially open. Yes I can throw them out. Base desires warred with common decency in my head and to keep myself from having to make a choice, I walked over to where Na Jeong stood and took her mouth in a hard kiss as my hand made contact with silky skin. “Later, jagiya. Later, hmm?” Her eyes drowsy with passion, she nodded. “I’ll see you outside.”

I made my way out of the bedroom before I changed my mind. I walked to the kitchen and tried to avoid the curious looks being sent my way. I wondered what Na Jeong was doing right now… Was she changing? Was she naked?

“Joon-ah,” Jin Yi Noona said, her gaze fixed on my clothes. Can she tell I’m hard? I tried to put a hand over my groin self consciously. This was a bad idea. She’s going to call me out on it. Noona doesn’t care. If anyone will call me out on it, it’ll be her. “Joon-ah…” she repeated. Don’t say it, I pleaded in my head. “I thought you were changing your shirt. Isn’t that why you went to the bedroom? You were there for a long time.”

“Maybe he was hiding a girl in there,” Haitai joked and Ae Jung smacked his arm on her way to the fridge.

“Don’t let Na Jeong hear you say that,” she reprimanded. “She’ll beat you.”

“Don’t let me hear what?” Na Jeong asked, walking out of the bedroom. Dressed casually in my jersey and jeans, she looked poised and in control. She had blown dried her hair, and it was now in a long braid over one shoulder.

“NOTHING! I didn’t say anything!” Haitai said, cowering back in his seat as Na Jeong exhanged hugs with the women and coming to stand by me. She wrapped her arms around my waist and I allowed myself a sniff on her hair. She eyed the bags on the counter and smiled.

“I was afraid we would have to order out since we didn’t have food. I’m glad to see you got that covered,” she said then whispered, “too bad you didn’t tell me.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” I said.

Pulling away from me, she opened the fridge and studied its contents. Turning to me she asked, “Japchae?” I nodded. “Joon-ah, you got samgyeopsal too. But we don’t have a table grill,” she commented, starting to pull the ingredients out.

“I got one of them, too,” I said, looking at the box on the floor. I tried to pick it up with my right side and cringed when my shoulder resisted. Binggrae lifted it up without question and brought it to the living room. He had already opened it and was reading the instructions when I looked at him again.

“Yoon Jin-ah, is the baby awake?” Na Jeong asked, taking the cutting board and a knife out to start prepping the vegetables and put a big pot of water to boil.

“He was awake, but asleep now, after the milk,” Yoon Jin responded, walking to hand Samcheonpo the baby to burp. I watched as he expertly put a cloth over one shoulder and balanced the baby on one arm as he patted the baby firmly on the back. I watched in concern… But ended up watching in admiration as he successfully got the baby to burp.

Wow, I thought, they’re really parents. We’ve all really grown up.

Yoon Jin and Ae Jung have now pushed me out of the way to stand by Na Jeong while she sliced the ingredients. Yoon Jin had a colander out and was washing the lettuce leaves and Ae Jung was mixing some type of sauce in a little bowl. The kitchen overrun with women, I sat down at the kitchen table with Haitai and Samcheonpo, and listened while they shot the breeze about their work. Samcheonpo automatically started rolling the stroller forwards and backwards in an effort to put the baby to sleep.

When Na Jeong took a wok out from the cabinet, I stood up to help, to the amazement of the boys.

“Jagiya, let me do that,” I offered. Na Jeong shook her head at me, then took the pork belly out of the fridge, along with the tray of sliced vegetables. When I took the pork with my left hand she glared at Haitai.

“Yah… Are you not going to help?” She demanded. Haitai got up quickly and took it before she could say more. Samcheonpo rolled the stroller to the living room, where Binggrae and Noona were already sitting watching television and sat down. Haitai and I followed close behind.

Within a few minutes Na Jeong yelled out for the grill to be turned on as Ae Jung brought bottles of soju and makgulli to the table. Yoon Jin came with plates and chopsticks, as well as the kimchi that was in the fridge. Na Jeong walked into the living room balancing a mountain of japchae in her arms. How many people are we feeding? I thought. She really is Omma’s daughter.

While everyone helped themselves to the food and Binggrae started putting the pork on the grill, Na Jeong sat on my lap and ran her fingers through my hair.

“Thanks for cooking… You didn’t have to do that. You worked all day and I was going to cook,” I whispered.

“You’re welcome… I like cooking so it is no big deal,” she responded, with a pleased smile on her face.

“Just as long as you know it’s not expected of you and it is always appreciated,” I said, dropping a kiss on one shoulder.

“As if I could ever be obligated to do anything,” she teased. “I only do what I want to do.”

Jin Yi Noona handed her a plate and she got up from my lap and sat on the floor next to me. Binggrae handed me one too and I said my thanks.

As I ate, I looked around me at the people I spent so much time with in university and was hit by a feeling of deep appreciation and gratitude. These are the people who have been by my side through my successes and who are by my side still. They all kept in touch even when I was away, even when I didn’t have Na Jeong by my side. I listened to their voices and remembered every conversation we have ever shared, over at the boarding house, over the phone, over the miles and over the years. As Haitai started pouring out shots, he handed me one with a smile, just like he has done so many times. No one asked about my shoulder and I knew why. It wasn’t because they didn’t care, but because the shoulder was of no consequence to their relationship with me. I was never just the baseball player to them… I was a friend. I forget so often… Too often really, how blessed I am. A small smile graced my lips and as if she knew what I was thinking, Na Jeong nudged me on my side.

“You okay?” She asked and everyone stopped and listened for my response.

“Yeah I’m good,” I said. “Please everyone keep eating… I just need to take it easy with the soju tonight.” I eyed the drink suspiciously, remembering the last time I drank.

“Aigoo,” Na Jeong complained. “You and Oppa are not allowed to drink together anymore. You guys should have seen it… Oppa against the wall looking like he was going to kiss it and Joon at the table passed out.” She shook her head and everyone laughed.

“Joon-ah… You got Jung Gook Hyung’s text?” Binggera asked, giving a pork belly wrapped lettuce roll to Noona.

“Yeah I got it,” I answered.

“You and Oppa text now?” Na Jeong asked. I nodded. “About the appointment?”

“Not just that,” I said, putting my plate down and wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “I invited him to dinner tonight, too. He said he had to work so he’ll take a raincheck… and he’ll bring Yoo Mi-ssi when he comes.”

She gave me an appreciative smile and my heart melted. From this day forward that will be my goal. To keep a smile on her face. She took my hand in hers when the baby started crying.

Seeing that everyone was still eating but me, I stood up and tried to replicate what I saw Samcheonpo was doing with the stroller. The baby however was not cooperating. His wails got louder and my hands started to sweat. How can a little person make so much noise?

“Joon-ah,” Yoon Jin said helpfully. “Just pick him up and rock him in your arms. Just like how you did for Sook Sook.”

“What? Omma always placed Sook Sook in my arms. I didn’t pick him up before.” I started panicking. “What if I drop him?”

“Chilbong… He’s only 13 pounds,” Samcheonpo said. Is he judging me?

Reluctantly I unwrapped the baby’s blanket only just to have him grab a finger. Such small hands. He gurgled at me and I felt my heart drop to my knees. Carefully lifting him up from the stroller, I held him out in front of me and waited for someone… Anyone to tell me what to do next.

“Jagiya,” Na Jeong said laughingly. “Why are you holding him like that? He’s not contagious.” She walked over to me and took the baby and I breathed a sigh of relief. Babies are scary. That little person looked at me like he knew me. It was disconcerting. I thought I was out in the clear when she motioned for me to sit back down. I did as she wanted and as soon as I was sitting down, gently placed the baby in my arms.

“Remember how you held Sook Sook? Just… Keep your arms in that position… Make sure you support his head,” she said. Okay… I can do that. Just like how I held Sook Sook. The baby looked at me curiously and I wondered if he can tell what I’m thinking about. I swung my arm gently to rock him and was rewarded with a smile. “See? He likes you.”

Na Jeong resumed eating and I continued to rock and study the baby as he continued to study me. He was like a miniature Yoon Jin. I wonder if our kids will look like Na Jeong, as my gaze strayed to her face. I hope so.

Slow down, Kim Jae Joon. Get a job first, then marriage. Then you can think about having babies. I think I might be turning into a woman. Isn’t it supposed to be women who soften at the touch and smell of a baby? Why am I the one thinking about them suddenly? Hmm… I thought as I looked at the little person in my arms, you are performing some sort of magic on me. It’s the only explanation. He gurgled at me happily one more time even as his eyes closed. I felt a sense of accomplishment at having successfully completed such a small task. Not unlike how I feel when I pitch a ball. Life is indeed surprising. I had just put him back down onto the stroller when I saw that everyone had cleared the table and it now only held the alcohol.

“Ah, I’ve missed this,” Haitai said, taking a shot of soju. “All of us together again. When was the last time we were all together?”

“It’s been a couple of years,” Samcheonpo said. “Before Chilbong left for Japan. We were all supposed to come back for New Year’s Eve but I don’t think anyone remembered.”

“Joon remembered,” Binggrae interjected with a smile. “So did Na Jeong.” He gave us a knowing smile and I could have sworn Na Jeong was going to throw her glass at him. “What? You didn’t think we would figure out that’s when everything changed between you two? We’re smarter than we look… Well… Except for Samcheonpo who only realised after Chilbong left for America. We’ve talked about this and it was obvious, really. And when Yoon Jin wouldn’t confirm or negate, both Binggrae and me knew we hit the bullseye.” He chuckled along with the rest of the gang. “Plus you were acting all crazy the next morning,” he continued, looking at Na Jeong.

“I wasn’t,” she said.

“You were too,” Haitai said. He blinked at her a few times. “And you haven’t stopped since. Chilbong-ah… You’re brave.” I took Na Jeong’s hand in mine before she could think about tossing anything at anyone.

“I think she’s awesome,” Ae Jung said, drinking some makgulli. Na Jeong smiled at her appreciatively.

“That makes two of us,” I said before I cleared my throat. “You are all probably wondering why I called everyone here.” They all turned around to look at me. “I know you all have heard about my shoulder and first, I wanted to apologize for ignoring all your phone calls. I was really messed up, for a while.” No one spoke but they all continued listening. “I’m going to start treatment on Monday.”

“I can take the day off,” Samcheonpo said.

“So can I,” Haitai added.

“Me too,” Binggrae said.

“No… I don’t need anyone there with me. I just wanted you guys to know that I may have to apologize again at some point. I hate feeling useless. You saw… How I can barely pick anything up with my right arm. The treatment might help, but I may have to stop playing baseball professionally.”

“That’s okay,” Yoon Jin said reassuringly. “You can go back to school or model… You’re pretty handsome and your body proportion is great.”

“Yah…” Samcheonpo said. “What do you mean he’s handsome?”

“He is,” she responded matter of factly as all the women nodded in agreement and the men exchanged incredulous looks with one another.

Haitai turned to Ae Jung and asked, “More than me?” She smiled before nodding her head in response.

“I think so, too,” Jin Yi Noona piped up.

“Yeobo…” Binggrae said uneasily. She shrugged her shoulders and I had to smile.

“Anyway… This is me apologizing in advance. And to thank all of you for being here, always.” I looked down as Na Jeong squeezed my hand.

“Chilbong-ah,” Haitai started, “that’s what friends are for, right? You don’t need to thank or apologize, not unless this whole time you didn’t see us as friends.”

“Yeah… Whatever you need, we’re here,” Samcheonpo said quietly.

Binggrae gave me a small grin and I released my breath. He cleared his throat before pouring out eight shots. “Shall we make a toast?” He asked. “To the success of Chilbong’s treatment?”

“Nah,” I responded, taking two shot glasses full of soju and handing one to Na Jeong. “Let’s toast to friendship instead… That’s something to celebrate.” We all raised our glasses then took the drink.

An hour later, Na Jeong and I sent everyone off in cabs and walked back up to the apartment together. When she went straight to the kitchen to wash the dishes, I gently guided her to the bedroom.

“I’ll do this,” I said. “You just relax. And… Put that thing back on that you were wearing earlier…”

She gave a husky chuckle before a frown formed on her forehead. “Joon-ah… You’re not allowed to rip it.”

“I promise I won’t. I might slip it off with my mouth though.”

“Fine… That’s acceptable,” she conceded before giving me a kiss, her mouth holding the promise of pleasure and I had to stop myself from taking her in the kitchen. After everything that’s happened, I feel like it’s going to be our first time again and I want to make it special.

I did however relish the feel of her body, flush against mine and the taste of her mouth. So delicious. I will never ever get tired of kissing her. When I finally pulled away, her hands were clutching at my shirt and her eyes were dazed.

“Joon-ah… Wash the dishes fast, okay?” She said before she walked to the bedroom. I set the dishes to soak and while I was waiting, took a quick shower. I finished the dishes after washing up and tried to formulate a seduction plan as I dried my hands. Wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around my hips, I entered the bedroom quietly and saw that the candle by the bed has been relit. Na Jeong lay on her side of the bed, not looking at me, the curve of her hip silhouetted by the… Thing she was wearing. I pressed a kiss on her neck only to realize that she was already asleep.

I could have continued and I’m sure she would have woken up but the memory of the last time I did that still leave a bitter taste in my mouth. The next time Na Jeong and I make love, I want it consciously, from both sides. That’s not how you treat the person you love. Never again will I use her love for me against her. I made that promise and vow almost immediately after it happened. That lesson has been learned and I will never make that mistake again.

*****

September 2, 2001

6:00 p.m.

Na Jeong

“How many times are you going to change your outfit?” Joon asked from the doorway. He looked me up and down. “You look beautiful already, like you always do.”

“You’re biased. And we’re not just going anywhere… We’re going to Omonim’s.” I held another dress up against me in front of the mirror and shook my head.

“Why does it matter?” He asked. “It’s not as if you’ve never met her. You’ve been to her house once, went to her job twice and you text occasionally.”

“Well, that’s the thing…” I said, trying to be patient with him. Men don’t understand. “The first time I met her, I told her I didn’t need her kimchi. The second time I met her I yelled at her. And the third time… I threatened her.” I stopped myself from cringing. “She probably thinks I’m unstable… You know… Mentally.”

Joon started laughing. “She’s not that bad. And she likes you.”

“Did she say those words?” I asked insistently.

“Na Jeong-ah,” he said, wrapping his arms from behind me. I closed my eyes and savored the smell of Joon. How did I fall asleep last night? “She said, ‘You got yourself quite a woman.’ That is the highest compliment coming from Omma.”

Settling on the blouse and the pants that I’m wearing, I turned around and rested my head on his chest. “It doesn’t still hurt you, right? Seeing Omonim?” I asked, worried that things may be changing too fast for him.

“No,” he said. “I’m good. It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. It’s just so much easier to be content with things happening the way they’re supposed to.”

I felt a flood of relief hearing that. Slowly Joon’s coming back and growing up. I see the way his eyes take everything now, the way he watches and listens. The way he appreciates every moment. He’s a lot kinder… Not just to me, but also to himself.

“Are we ready?” He asked and I nodded. He walked over to the closet and pulled out the bag of baby things he bought. “We can return these too. The store is right by Omma’s house.”

We made our way down to the car and drove the fifteen minute drive to his Omma’s. I have to admit… I still get nervous thinking about his mother. I tried to tamp down on my nerves as he parked the car.

“Wait here,” he said, looking over at me. “I’ll go return these quickly and then we can go up.” When he saw that I was about to protest he shook his head and gave me a serious look. “Na Jeong-ah, NO. You’re not coming with me. People might get the wrong idea and I won’t be having any of that. So just stay here. I’ll be right back.” Before I could say anything else he had already given me a quick peck and was out the car.

I stared ahead of me and tried to figure out if I needed to apologize to Joon’s Omma for all our previous meetings. If Joon and I get married… Which we will… She’ll be my mother-in-law and I can’t have her using that against me… Like in those dramas. That’s not fair! Maybe I should. No, I told myself, I mean every word I’ve said. A woman is only as good as her word. I was still thinking about it when I heard a tap on my window and seeing that it was Joon, I unlocked the door. He opened it and waited for me to come out, blocking me from any oncoming traffic. Once safely out of the way, he locked the car and took my hand as we walked to Omonim.

Joon rang the bell and moments later, Omonim answered the door. I had to close my mouth seeing Omonim with her hair down. No matter how many times I see her, her beauty never ceases to amaze me. I looked at Joon’s equally beautiful face and realized that good looking genes must run in this family. I’ve never seen Abonim or any pictures but I bet he’s good looking as well. I was looking for the right greeting when she enfolded me in an embrace. Turning to Joon she hugged him as well and said, “I’m glad to see you looking better than the last time you were here. Thanks for bringing Na Jeong. Come in, you two.” She ushered us both in and disappeared into the kitchen as we changed out of our shoes into slippers. I followed Joon as he went into the living room and sat down on the couch.

“Hang on,” he told me. “I’m going to help my Omma with the tea.” He winked at me and I sat back and tried to relax. I noted with approval that the picture I had given her was now hanging up framed on the wall. By the time Joon and his Omma came back I was already looking at the scrapbook on the table, the one he mentioned to me. I watched as they sat down and his Omma handed me a cup before fixing Joon’s.

“Na Jeong-ah, it’s good to see you again,” she said pleasantly.

I almost choked on my tea. Who is this woman? I noticed the way she kept her hands together and wondered if it was possible that she was nervous too. Instantly I softened. Of course she would be. She wouldn’t want to jeopardize this newly mended relationship with Joon. He on the other hand was nonchalantly looking through a magazine. So rude. I took the magazine from him and darted my eyes to his mother when he frowned at me. I saw understanding dawn on his eyes and he smiled.

“Omma, how are you?” He asked. “Where’s Ahjussi? I thought he’d be here on a Sunday.”

As if relieved by the conversation, she responded. “I’m well. And he… Left for a business trip on Friday.”

I felt Joon stiffen next to me. “Omma… Who goes on a business…” I nudged him before he could say something else. This newly confident version of Joon just blurts out everything on his mind. My Joon may be incredibly perceptive at times, but still such a man in his way of handling things. Surely he must realize that pointing something out to his mother is not the way to go about things.

“Omonim, I like this scrapbook,” I said, quickly changing the topic. “You did a great job. I especially like the pictures of Joon when he was younger in the back.”

“What pictures?” Joon asked. “There were no pictures in there. Just articles.” Surprised I turned the scrapbook to the last section, where I saw pictures of Joon playing baseball as a kid and showed him.

“Your Appa sent them to me over the years,” Omonim explained. “I found them while going through some things a few days ago. They weren’t there yet the last time you were here.” She stood up then and went to the kitchen. “Dinner will be ready in five minutes, so come to the table whenever you’re ready.”

I watched her retreating back before I turned back to Joon, his eyes disbelieving as he stared at the pictures in the book. “What’s the matter?” I asked.

“I think Appa and I will have to talk. I don’t understand how he had so many pictures of me playing baseball when he never attended a game.”

“Things are not always as clear cut as they seem, huh? I’m sure there’s an explanation,” I folded the book closed and took his hands. “Which you won’t find out until you speak to him. So for now, let’s enjoy this meal with Omonim.”

We stood up and walked to the table then sat down next to each other. As Omonim started serving up the food, I stood up and walked over to her.

“Omonim, please let me help you,” I asked as she tried to take two big bowls to the table.

“Na Jeong-ah, here,” she said, handing me one to take. “I made some of the radish kimchi, except this time I used ginger like you did. Joon said he prefers yours to mine.”

“Omonim… I’m sure he only said that because he didn’t realize.” The last thing I would want is to offend Joon’s mother by modifying a recipe she gave me.

She gave a chuckle before she responded. “Na Jeong-ah… I know my son. If he said it, he meant it. And I told you he’d know, didn’t I? And I told you it would matter to him, right?”

I know what response she’s trying to get from me. I suppose I owed her this. And for giving birth to Joon. Right. “Yes, Omonim. You were right.”

“What was that, Na Jeong-ah? I didn’t quite hear you.”

“Omonim…”

“What are you two whispering about?” Joon asked from behind us. Omonim walked over to the table, which already had all the banchan and set the bowl down. She was sitting down by the time I came with the other bowl. I reclaimed my seat and waited for Omonim to start eating before I did. Joon was already digging into the food and I watched as he ate with gusto. Every day, his appetite seemed to be improving and I was relieved.

He’ll need to stay strong for the treatment. Speaking of which, I wondered if he had let his mother know that he has made a decision.

“Omma, I like this kimchi,” he said, mouth full. Omonim smiled at me before glaring at him.

“Jae Joon-ah… That’s twice now. That you’ve preferred Na Jeong’s kimchi recipe to mine. I will disown you next time.”

“Omma… You did that once already,” he responded. My mind raced for the appropriate thing to say, anticipating the tension. Just when I was about to talk about the weather, Omonim spoke.

“That’s true, actually.” She and Joon shared a chuckle and I almost passed out from relief. It’s very strange but not unpleasant to be in the company of Joon with his mother. They have a dynamic that’s so so different from the one I have with my parents. Or is it that different, really? I wondered as I thought about all the times Appa would criticize me. Everyone shows love differently. And everyone perceives love differently too. I have to keep reminding myself of this as I spooned some rice in my mouth

“Na Jeong-ah, when are you two getting married? I want grandchildren right away” Omonim said, her face straight while taking some banchan and I started choking. Joon patted my back as I coughed and sputtered then handed me a glass of water.

“Joon has to ask me first,” I responded. I should have expected this, really. Omonim is a straight shooter. She never minced her words with me before, and part of me felt relieved that the woman I had met a couple of times before finally made her appearance. “He kind of proposed before.”

“And what happened?” She asked me conspiratorially.

“He denied that he was proposing. He had this long speech and it was really touching. All he needed was to drop down on one…”

“Yah… I’m right here! And I did not propose. If I did, you would know it!” Joon interrupted. Omonim and I just gave him an irritated glance before we resumed talking.

“Yeah… So all he had to do was drop down on one knee and ask that one question,” I continued as I ate. “But then he recanted.”

“I wouldn’t dawdle, Joon-ah,” Omonim commented. “Take life by the horns.”

“Omma… I’m going to decide when I ask,” he responded.

“Fine… Fine. I was just saying,” his mother replied. Looking like she hasn’t let the matter rest, I anticipated her to say something else when Joon spoke again.

“Omma… I start treatment tomorrow.” Omonim’s surprised eyes lifted to look at Joon’s face and I stayed quiet.

“I can take the day off,” she offered and I had to suppress a smile.

“It’s okay, Omma. It’s not surgery…” He said.

“You don’t get to throw a fit about this later,” she warned him. “You can’t get mad and say that I didn’t offer.” She was so succinct that I smiled.

“Omma… When would I do that? That’s not even like me,” he huffed quietly.

“You may look like me but your dramatic outbursts are very much like your father’s,” she said. Turning to me she whispered, “He really is a emotional isn’t he?” I nodded in response while Joon bristled next to me.

“It’s okay,” I said back. “I can handle it.”

“I knew you would, Na Jeong-ah. I never worried about that.”

From the corner of my eye I saw Joon watching me and his mother with a smile on his face. We finished the meal fairly quickly and Joon stopped in the restroom before we were on we our way. Standing by the doorway and changing my shoes, Omonim handed me a basket filled with fruits and a bag.

“Omonim you didn’t have to…” I said when she shook her head sharply at me.

“The fruit is not for you but your parents. There’s some health drinks in that bag that I picked up for Joon too when I went to the herbalist shop. Please make sure he drinks it once a day.” I smiled as I took the package from he then felt uneasy when I realized that I didn’t bring anything for her when we came.

“Omonim… I forgot my manners. I’m sorry I didn’t bring you anything. I’ll make it…”

“Na Jeong-ah, you’ve already given me the best gift. I don’t need trivial things that I won’t use or would just stay unopened in the house. And the stuff I do want, I can get myself. But you brought me back my son. Surely that counts more than any other thing?”

Joon came out of the bathroom and looked at the stuff I’m holding questioningly. I shrugged my shoulders as he changed back into his shoes.

“Omma, I’ll text you later and let you know how the treatment went,” he said, taking the basket from me with his left arm. She nodded at him then blushed as he leaned down to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for dinner.”

Wondering whether I should shake her hand, I stood there thinking about it for one minute before I felt her arms wrap around me in an affectionate hug. “You weren’t really going to break up with him, were you?” She whispered. I shook my head no. “I’m glad.” She pulled away and I could only smile at her. She walked us to the door and waved as we made our way to the elevator.

“Jagiya, what’s with the fruit basket?” Joon asked.

“Omonim wants Omma and Appa to have it,” I answered.

We got in the car and drove the home. Traffic was light and by the time I realized that tonight still will not be the night, Joon was already parked in front of the boarding house. I typically spend Sunday nights at home, since I usually walk Sook Sook to school on Mondays. It’s kind of become our thing. Speaking of which… “Joon-ah, Sook Sook wants to see you and I kind of promised him that as soon as you felt more like yourself you would.”

“I know,” he said with a somber expression on his face.

“Do you want to come in and see if he’s still up?” I asked.

“Tomorrow… I’ll come tomorrow, after the treatment.” His eyes looked distracted, but I wasn’t going to push. He needs all the rest he can get tonight. I leaned over and gave him a kiss before stepping out of the car.

“The plastic bag is for you. Omonim picked you up some health tonics.” He nodded at me. “I love you. Text when you get home.”

“I got it,” he responded and I closed the door. I watched as he pulled off before walking into the house.

“Na Jeong-ah, how did it go?” Omma asked before her eyes widened at the sight of the basket I was carrying.

“It was good. Omonim sent this over for you guys,” I said, putting the basket on the table. Omma sat down and looked at it and even Appa did as well. “Joon said he’ll come tomorrow after the treatment.”

Omma clapped her hands and started making a list of what to cook tomorrow, but no reaction from Appa. Weird, I thought. Before I could ask him what the matter was, Omma had called me into the kitchen to help put the fruit away. I’ll ask Appa tomorrow, I thought, because I could have sworn a frown came on his face when I mentioned Joon’s name.

*****

September 3, 2001

3:30 p.m.

Chilbong

I sat on an examination table with my shirt off waiting for Dr. Lee to come back and begin the procedure when the door opened suddenly and I was met with furious green eyes. Uh-oh. I am in trouble.

Minutes before, Dr. Lee took a full history and did a physical examination, reviewing the films one more time. He explained the risks and benefits from the procedure and had me sign a consent form. I did all of it mechanically. My decision was made and now it was time to follow through. I turned my phone off… I was already nervous as I was. The last thing I needed was that thing going off as he put a needle into me. I had texted Na Jeong when I left the house, but I knew she wouldn’t respond right away. It’s the middle of a workday and a Monday at that. I knew she must be swamped with work on Mondays. She mentioned that to me many times before. Of course I wanted her here but I couldn’t expect her to drop everything because I couldn’t do it alone. I love that Na Jeong loves her job.

When I met her eyes again, she put her purse down on the chair and glared at me.

“Why didn’t you tell me what time this appointment was?” She asked, hands on her hips. “Why do you think it will be okay to just send a text saying ‘I’m leaving the house now. I’ll call you later’?”

“That’s not all I wrote,” I mumbled.

“Yeah… You wrote,” she started, digging her phone out and scrolling through her messages, “Jagiya, I’m leaving the house now. I’ll call you later. I love you’… How is that any better?”

“I put I love you. You didn’t mention that the first time, ” I said defensively.

She blinked at me. “Adding ‘I love you’ is not your get out of jail free card. Kim Jae Joon… Do you want to die?”

“It’s a Monday. Didn’t you always say that Mondays are especially busy? Na Jeong-ah… It’s not as if this is a one shot deal. There will be other times too.”

“And that is why I told work I will need to take Mondays as half days for the next few weeks,” she said.

“I can’t ask you to change your schedule. Your job is important. You’ve worked too hard to sacrifice that.”

“You’re important too,” she said. “And being here for you is no sacrifice. I want to be here. You don’t even know how it’s going to go. What if you’re in too much pain after to drive? What if you had a bad reaction?”

“Na Jeong-ah, I would have figured it out then.”

“Yah… You’re lucky you’re injured already. Or I would beaten you up.”

I grinned at her then and she sat down. “I love you, Na Jeong-ah.”

“I’m still mad.”

“And yet you’re still here,” I teased. “Which tells me you must love me too.”

Whatever she was about to say was cut off when the door opened and Dr. Lee entered the room carrying a tray. He looked at Na Jeong and smiled. “Glad to see you made it, Sung Na Jeong-ssi.”

“I did. Thanks for waiting until I got here, Dr. Lee.” Waiting? Here I thought he was taking his own sweet time. Did Na Jeong call and ask him to delay?

“Before we begin I wanted to make sure you both read the information I gave you?” He asked and we both nodded. “Kim Jae Joon-ssi… I am applying a tennant biomodulator on you to distract your nerve endings, to help with the pain. I’m not going to lie. It’s going to hurt. Do you need anything for anxiety?” I shook my head in response. “I will have to do a few injections today, to cover both your injuries. I will go over with both of you again what you can and cannot do after the procedure. In the meantime do you have any questions?”

“No, I’m okay.” He nodded once and went to the sink to wash his hands.

I saw Na Jeong pale when she saw the size of the syringes and needles, but she went in front of me anyway and took my hands in hers.

“Okay,” Dr. Lee said, donning sterile gloves and I felt something cool rubbed on my right scapula. I took a few deep breaths to try to control my anxiety but it wasn’t working. So much rests on this. Too much. “Big stick in 1, 2, 3…” I felt the stab of the needle and closed my eyes. The pain was intense, and I almost wish I took the doctor up on his offer to give me pain medication before the procedure even began.

I felt Na Jeong’s hand lift my chin up. “Jagiya… Open your eyes,” I heard her voice coaxing me and though my eyes blurred with the pain, I looked into hers. Clear calm green eyes flecked with gold stared back at me, shining with love and pride. I felt the strength of her hands as she held mine and tried to draw from her the courage that I didn’t have at this moment in time. She gave me a little smile before she began to speak.

“Do you know why I love you?” She whispered, her eyes still fixed on my face. I managed to shake my head no. And I meant it. Some days I wasn’t quite sure. “It’s because you’re funny and dorky… But other than me, no one else knows that. To everyone you’re cool and calm, but with me you’re so soft. Uri Jae Joon is strong and steady too. You’re my rock… But I forget sometimes that even rocks are made of teeny tiny particles and you can still break. Is it bad that I feel better knowing that you’re not always completely in control? Nope. It makes you real and it makes you better.” She leaned in to my ear. “And it also helps that you’re a really really good kisser.” When she pulled back she brushed a hand over my cheek and I gave her a smile.

“There’s my Joon,” she said fondly. I felt a second stick and kept my eyes focused on hers. “There’s the smile that I love. Do you know that to this day I still can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with you? I like it that way though. It happened so gradually, just like growing up… Until one day I just realized that I can never be without you. You’ve become essential to my life. Like the air that I breathe. Or the food that I eat. You’ve become part of what sustains me.”

I kept my focus on her voice and let it guide me through the pain. Soft and gentle, her words eased my nerves and warmed my heart. She kept on talking about different things, trying to keep my mind distracted. I’m so glad that she’s here. The pain wasn’t so bad now but she still kept speaking. Her eyes stayed on mine through the whole procedure, throughout what felt like a million pricks.

When Dr. Lee moved in front of me, she adjusted her position to behind me but kept a hand on my left shoulder. Her lips a breath away by my ears she started describing what she had for lunch and I almost started laughing. I can always count on uri Na Jeong-ie to talk about food. The woman knows what she likes. Before long the treatment was done and Dr. Lee was unhooking me from the contraption I was connected to and was back at the sink washing his hands again.

“Your first treatment is done. You might feel sore for the next three days, that’s normal. This process will only work with inflammation and healing, so do not use ice.” He walked towards us with a list of instructions. “This is what we recommend for all patients receiving this therapy. Motion, exercise, analgesics and treatment. Keep moving as it increases the circulation to the treated area. You can exercise but if you’re going to lift weights, cut the weight in half and increase the repetition instead. I will prescribe some pain medications for you to pick up from the pharmacy but if you want to use milder ones, stay away from non steroidal anti-inflammatory medications. They will negate the treatment you just received. Lastly, you will come back next week at this time and for the next five weeks. We’ll make the appointment the same time every week, as you requested, Sung Na Jeong-ssi.”

“Dr. Lee, thank you,” I said as Na Jeong slipped my shirt over my head. Once properly dressed I shook his hand.

“Did you have that list for me, doctor?” She asked Dr. Lee. “The recommended food list? I need a few copies… My Omma would like a copy and so would his Omma.”

“Yes, Ms. Sung. I’ll have it ready in a few minutes,” he responded then turned to me. “You’re very fortunate, Kim Jae Joon-ssi, to have all these women catering to you.”

“I know,” I answered easily. Never let it be said that I don’t know how lucky I am. He left the room and Na Jeong walked back to the chair and picked up her purse. “Jagiya… I’m sorry for not giving you advance notice. And thank you, for being here.”

“Now, was that so hard?” She teased. I stood up from the examination table and took her hand. Dr. Lee was already at the doorway when we walked out and he handed her some papers.

“Thank you,” she said as she smiled at him. “We’ll see you next week.”

*****

Sincheon Boarding House

September 3, 2001

5:30 p.m.

Chilbong

Na Jeong and I walked into the boarding house together and as soon as I entered, Sook Sook saw me and ran to me.

“Joon Hyung!” He said, wrapping short arms around one leg. I just remembered that I left his jersey at the apartment. Damn. “I’m so happy to see you!”

“Sook Sook-ah… Look how much you’ve grown. You’re going to be as tall as your Noona soon,” I commented as I bent down and ruffled his hair. He puffed out his chest adorably and I felt a smile come over my face.

“Joon Hyung, Noona said you didn’t feel good,” he said, brows frowning in displeasure. “Do you have a booboo?”

“Yeah, I do,” I answered, then pointed to my right shoulder. “It’s right here.”

“Really?” He asked then leaned towards me. “I know just what to do to make it feel better. Do you know what it is?” I shook my head no. Before I could ask what it was, he had already put his arms around my neck in a hug, then placed a soft kiss on my shoulder. “Noona and Omma do this when I have a boo boo. Doesn’t it help?”

Looking into his eyes, so full of innocence, I felt a lump form in my throat. “Yes, it helps. I feel 100 times better already,” I didn’t say anything else for fear that my emotions would get the better of me. I straightened myself up as he moved on to tell Na Jeong about his day in school. Omma walked into the living room from the kitchen and walked towards me when she saw me.

“Joon-ah, you’re here! When Na Jeong told us you were coming, I made sure to get the ingredients for Seollongtang. You like it, right?” She asked as she put her arms around me. I nodded and smiled at her.

“Omma, here,” Na Jeong said from the couch, where she was sitting with Sook Sook, handing Omma a sheet of paper. “That’s the list the doctor gave us. It’s foods recommended to help in conjunction with the therapy.”

“Joon-ah, sit, sit,” she said and I complied. “Appa is not home yet but he should be getting home from work soon.”

Though I loved seeing Na Jeong’s parents equally, I have been a little apprehensive about seeing her Appa again. I’ve avoided coming here since I returned from San Francisco because I knew he would be disappointed. Disappointed in my injury. Disappointed in me. Baseball was what always seemed to tie us together. With his profession and mine in the same field, it seemed only natural that we felt an affinity towards one another… But now… With my future in baseball so uncertain, will he still view me in the same light? Would he still entrust me with Na Jeong? I honestly don’t know the answers to those questions and it’s making me uneasy. I kept a distracted eye on the television as Omma and Na Jeong spoke. Sook Sook sat by the coffee table doing his homework.

“Omma, did Sook Sook eat already?” Na Jeong asked Omma as she looked over her brother’s shoulder at what he was drawing. “What are you doing?” She asked him.

“Noona, my teacher said to draw a picture of my family,” he answered, brows furrowed in concentration. I noticed a few stick figures on the paper, but having no artistic ability myself, I just stayed sitting back.

To be honest I’m a bit nervous about being here when Na Jeong’s Appa came home. I wouldn’t know what to say and where to begin. I hoped that by the time he gets home I will already be gone. As usual though time is not on my side when I heard a booming voice from the entrance, accompanied by the door being shut.

“Aigoo, the traffic is horrible,” he said from the door as he changed his shoes. Wiping the sweat off my hands on my pants, I stood up to greet him even as Na Jeong sent me a puzzled glance. “Kim Jae Joon-ssi,” he said, nodding at me and disappearing into his bedroom.

As I suspected, he was disappointed. Coach-nim has never used my full name when speaking to me before. And certainly not in that tone either. I swallowed another lump of nervousness.

I saw Coach-nim come out of their bedroom and watched as he sat himself on the couch without looking at me. Na Jeong and Omma has since moved to the kitchen to prepare dinner I assumed. Coach-nim and I sat in silence while Sook Sook didn’t seem to notice as he alternated between drawing and sharing random facts about his various classmates. Through all of it Coach-nim watched television and chuckled at something Sook Sook said, but still didn’t direct any of his responses towards me. Feeling uncomfortable, I realized that this situation was worse than I thought. I debated staying here, having been one to always leave a tense situation, but I plan on being with Na Jeong, and I’m done running away. I’m going to have to rectify this. Tonight. Now.

When Omma came back to the living room and took Sook Sook’s hand to get him ready for bed, I looked at Na Jeong.

“Na Jeong-ah, can you get Sook Sook ready for bed?” I asked and she and Omma looked at me questioningly. “I need to speak to Omma and Appa alone. Just a for a few minutes,” I explained and though she still looked confused, she nodded and tried to pry Sook Sook’s hand loose from her mother’s.

“Joon Hyung, Omma always gets me ready,” he protested. “And I want to see you some more.”

“Sook Sook-ah, your Noona will get you ready and I’ll come in to read you a story later, ok?”

“You promise?” He asked suspiciously. “You left the last time and you didn’t come back here as soon as you came home.” My heart sank as his lips trembled and all at once I felt ashamed for having broken the trust of this child.

“I promise. I will definitely go to your room later, okay?” He nodded at me and took Na Jeong’s hand as they walked towards his room.

Omma and Coach-nim sat next to each other on the couch without asking me any questions and even as I searched my mind for what to say, I was already dropping down on my knees onto the floor in apology and contrition. I bowed my head down and waited for either one to speak before I would allow myself to even look at them.

“Joon-ah,” Omma said, confused. “Why are you on the floor? What happened?”

“Omma, Appa… I’m sorry,” I started, my voice hoarse. “I know I’ve disappointed you. I know that. Please forgive me. Coach-nim always told me not to ignore any pain from my shoulder and I didn’t pay any attention.”

“Joon-ah… You couldn’t help that. Things like this happen. You’re a baseball player,” Omma said gently.

“Aigoo, this punk,” Appa said, his voice rising. “You think that’s why I’m disappointed? I don’t know if I should hit you.”

“Yeobo,” Omma said to him, nudging his side. Appa took a deep breath before addressing me again. I kept my head down as I waited for him speak.

“Joon-ah… I’m insulted that you would even think that that’s why we would be disappointed,” he paused. “When Na Jeong told us you were injured and were coming home, do you know that I even learned to get on the Internet just so Omma and I can read up on what happened? We knew it wasn’t going to be good and that you would be in bad shape but we didn’t think you were going to shut us out, too.” Not knowing what to say, I stayed silent, trying to understand what he was saying.

“We thought you would come back here, so we can at least tell you that everything was going to be fine. I even tried to see you a few times but you never answered the door. You hurt Omma and my feelings.” He said with a softer but hurt tone. “And I haven’t even started on how it felt seeing Na Jeong struggle on her own. You two are supposed to be a team but you let her cry on her own.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered as I felt the weight of their disappointment and I was struggling to get the words out. “I wasn’t thinking. It will never happen again.” And it won’t. I will make sure of that. “I was afraid you were going to be disappointed that I might not be a baseball player anymore… I didn’t know whether you were going to approve of me being with Na Jeong.”

“Damn right you weren’t thinking. All these years, we’ve always supported you and the decisions you’ve made. Have we ever just treated you like a baseball player?” I shook my head no. “Omma and I, we…” He cleared his throat before continuing. “We always saw you as another son. Even before you were with Na Jeong, so why would that change? Because you’re no longer a Major League Baseball Player? When we met you, you were just Chilbong. When we look at you, that’s still who we see. Nothing will ever change that. As for Na Jeong… Your profession has nothing to do with why we approve of the two of you together.”

I lifted my head in surprise and looked at them both. “We entrusted you with her because we saw how you loved her, even all those years ago. To see her so happy with you is every parent’s dream come true. To see her grow into the person she was always meant to be, that’s something every parent asks for. Things like this will happen, but you cannot fall apart. Even if you did, you cannot block the people who love you away. Life is too long and hard to walk alone… And you don’t have to do it. You always have a choice. That’s never a bad thing. It only gets scary when you don’t get to have one.” I felt the emotions overwhelm me and dropped my head down to prevent them from seeing my tears. Omma stood up and I felt her next to me even as she wrapped one arm around me. “Binggrae mentioned to us about your family and how hard it was for you growing up… You’ll have to find a way to reconcile that but aren’t we your family too? No matter what happens… Family. Must. Always. Stay. Together.”

I felt the tears fall onto my cheeks as I tried to brush them off with the backs of my hands. Omma started rubbing my back in soft and gentle strokes. My breath tightened and I felt some greater emotion than relief take over. Their gratitude and love made me feel vulnerable, and I acknowledged that while I was falling in love with Na Jeong, I was loving her family too. Piece by piece my wall was crumbling, as every happy memory I have in this house came back full force, as well as the lonely nights alone in San Francisco, even before I knew that Na Jeong loved me back, relieved only by my weekly conversations with them.

“Don’t ever drop your head down with anyone, even us. I will only allow it this time… You have a lot to be proud of, and we are always proud of you. Don’t worry so much about what you’ll do beyond baseball… You and Na Jeong will figure it out. Look at me and Omma… We don’t have a lot of money and we’re not rich, but we’re happy. That’s the most important thing.” Appa stressed it out to me as I stop tearing.

“Na Jeong-ie… My daughter… She eats a lot and she’s a little hot tempered. She’s mouthy and she has a bad attitude sometimes…” I was about to speak up on her behalf and point out her good points when he kept talking. “… But she’s strong. And she’s smart. She’s got a good head on her shoulders and her heart is always in the right place. She’ll hold you down, just like you will always lift her up. Remember that as you both walk through your lives together.” He stood up then and put a hand on my head for a few beats before he lent me a hand to stand up.

I looked at the arm outstretched towards me and like a lifeline I took it. I opened my eyes and met his, humbled by the kindness and understanding reflecting in a single look. Omma smiled at both of us as Appa walked off sniffling. I was going to follow him to the kitchen when Omma pushed me towards Sook Sook’s room.

“He’ll be okay. Just give us a few minutes. He tried not to show it but all this has been very difficult for him too. He alternated between cursing you and worrying about you. You should know that… Appa and I care about you very much.”

I watched as she walked towards the kitchen, no doubt to comfort her husband, which is what Na Jeong would have done for me had it been the other way around. I walked to Sook Sook’s door slowly and hesitated at the door before entering his room. I heard his voice talking to Na Jeong, and her voice soft and tender as she spoke to him like he was an adult. I entered the room and though he looked sleepy, his face brightened when he saw me.

“Joon Hyung,” he said drowsily. “You came, like you promised.” He sent a smile my way and I picked up the book on his bedside table before sitting myself down on his other side.

“Are you ready for your story?” I asked him. Na Jeong mouthed ‘Everything okay?’ over his head and I nodded. She gave me an answering smile before she tucked her brother tighter under the sheets. He rested his head on my left arm as I opened the book and began to read. Not long after I began, he was fast asleep. Na Jeong and I lifted ourselves slowly and quietly off his bed and walked out of his room and into the kitchen hand in hand, where Appa, and Haitai were already sitting and arguing about… Something. Haitai smiled when he saw me, and said, “Right, Chilbong?”

“Joon-ah, say no” Appa added decisively.

“No,” I said. I’m not stupid. I know which side to take in whatever argument this is.

“Suck-up,” Haitai said, glaring at me even as Appa sent him a self-satisfied smile.

I sat down just in time to see Omma putting a gigantic bowl of Seullongtang in front of me. I saw Haitai’s eyes dart to my bowl then his. “Omma, how come Chilbong gets a bigger bowl?”

“Yah,” Appa said, throwing a chopstick at him. “Did you get needles stuck in you today, you punk?” He turned his attention to Na Jeong, who was rubbing some lint off my arm. “Gashina, will you leave the man alone so he can eat in peace? Stop touching that arm… That should be insured.”

“APPA!” She said, frowning. I had to hold back a smile.

“Joon-ah, eat a lot,” Omma said as she brought her own bowl to the table and finally sat down.

We all started eating even as I ignored the pain on my shoulder, where I received my injections. This is normal. The doctor said so. Even so, it was difficult even to lift my arm even to eat some soup. I saw Appa watching me closely before he cleared his throat.

“Chilbong-ah… How long are you going to be getting the treatment?” He asked.

“Uhm… Appa, Dr. Lee said six weeks. So I should be done by mid October, but I’ll still have to do physical therapy after,” I said, using my left hand to spoon up some rice. Na Jeong motioned for me to open my mouth and fed me some soup when I did.

“That’s going to be difficult,” Haitai said thoughtfully as he chewed. “How are you going to manage on your own? Na Jeong can help but she has to work. It’s too bad you don’t live here anymore. At least someone is always around here.”

Na Jeong sent a look his way and he mouthed ‘What?’ as Omma and Appa exchanged a look before he turned to me.

“That’s an idea, Chilbong-ah,” Appa said brightly. “Why don’t you move back in here temporarily? Just while you’re getting your treatments? That way we can keep an eye on you and help you too.”

“Ahh,” I said, wondering why Na Jeong’s foot keeps bumping into mine under the table. “I suppose I can do that. I’ll pack some stuff tomorrow and move back into my room. Owww!” Okay, that last bump was definitely a kick. I looked at her to ask what’s wrong when I saw her blinking at me, a frown on her pretty face. Her lips were thinned into an irritated line and I really wondered what I did now to make her mad.

“Really? Joon-ah, that’s so great to hear!” Omma exclaimed. “I will make sure to buy all the stuff on the list the doctor gave tomorrow!”

I smiled at her even as Na Jeong continued to glare at me. I will never understand women. Wasn’t it just months ago that she said she wished I still lived here? Now I am going to be living here and she wasn’t happy. It wasn’t until later, as she walked me out of the house and to the car that I found out why.

“Yah… Kim Jae Joon-ssi… I know I told you that I trusted your judgment but you still need to discuss some stuff with me! What made you agree to Appa’s suggestion?”

“It sounded like a good idea. You do have to work and if this pain is any indication of how it’s going to be for the next six weeks, I will need some help. Didn’t you tell me that I should accept help when it’s offered? And you get to see me more often,” I tried to reassure her.

“Yes… But will I ever get to see you naked again? Don’t you want to see me in That Outfit?” She stopped walking when she realized that I was no longer walking with her and turned around to look at me.

“I… I didn’t think about that.” And I didn’t. Dammit. I can’t take it back. Not since Appa and I just reached a truce. I still am walking on thin ice with him and at one point I will have to ask him for Na Jeong’s hand in marriage. I can’t mess this up.

“Omonim was right. Foresight is not your strong suit.” She clucked her tongue at me and I cringed. “Oh well,” she continued, “I guess we’re just going to have to wait.”

“We have to wait anyway,” I said, trying to diffuse her annoyance. “My shoulder is not good… I am not exactly at the top of my game.”

“Yeah, but Joon-ah,” she said, walking towards me and standing on tiptoes to whisper in my ear, “I can always be on top. That won’t hurt your shoulder.” Desire pounded through me as the memories of Na Jeong riding me tore through my head. She’s right. I am an idiot. Now my idiocy will mock me in my face every time I look at her. “You’ll be alright though, right?”

I could barely nod as I tried to convince myself of this. We made it four months without physical intimacy when I was in San Francisco. We will last another six weeks. Of course we can. I kissed her lips quickly and made a hasty exit.

I was still trying to convince myself of my ability to control myself as I drove back to the apartment and as I was packing some clothes. And still as I put myself to bed. There’s always phone sex, I thought… That’s true. There’s always phone sex. But who has phone sex while living in the same house? Dammit. My eyes drifting close, I just realized that as always, Na Jeong just being herself managed to keep my mind off this pain all day and all night. I love her.

For the first time in months I fell asleep with a smile on my face. Whatever happens now, life is looking up for me.

*****

September 8, 2001

8:00 a.m.

Chilbong

I woke up to voices in the living room as well as the sound of the television blaring. Though I’ve been back at the boarding house for five days, sometimes I still feel disoriented waking up. Having lived by myself for the most part of the last six years, waking up to a full household is a nice surprise. I wondered for a minute how noisy our household would be, if Na Jeong and I do end up having seven kids.

The thought brought a smile to my face even as I heard a faint knock on the door. The door opened and in came Haitai and Samcheonpo, both wearing shorts and tshirts. Haitai was doing some stretching exercises and Samcheonpo was jogging on the spot.

“Get up,” Samcheonpo said. “We’re going to train with you today.”

“Yeah,” Haitai said as he bent down to touch his toes. “Get your ass up, you lazy person.”

“What?” I said, getting out of bed and pulling shorts out of the drawer. “Really?” Na Jeong and I usually take a walk together when she gets home from work but my body is restless. I am not used to being idle.

I walked out of my room with the two of them closely following behind me. I went to the bathroom and washed my face and brushed my teeth before changing into shorts and a tshirt. I stopped at Na Jeong’s door to check to see if she was awake and slowly entered.

Long lashes resting on the very top of her cheekbones, she was still absolutely beautiful even in sleep. I brushed a hand over her cheek and smiled when she whispered my name. Pressing a soft kiss on her forehead, I watched as her eyes opened and hazel eyes met mine. My chest tightened and I marveled at how even now… Even after all these years, after all we’ve been through, I still felt this way.

“I’m going for a run with Haitai and Samcheonpo,” I said quietly. “I’ll be back in a little bit.”

“Haitai and Samcheonpo? Are you kidding?” She asked, looking at me sleepily. “Those two don’t run.”

“Well they’re outside waiting for me. They woke me up.”

“Really?” She said. Seeing her like this always gets me, when sleep still softens her normally extremely expressive face and gentles her eyes. “Can I have a kiss?” She asked, giving me a lopsided smile. She could have asked me for the world and had I been able I would have given it to her.

I leaned down and pressed my lips to hers even as she sighed my name. Slim arms automatically went around my neck as my tongue met hers. Holding my weight up with my left elbow, we were connected chest to hip, with clothes and her blanket separating us. My hand tenderly brushed her hair down even as her fingers moved under my shirt. I tasted her with my tongue and her teeth nipped on my lips. My mouth moved to her neck and she moaned, the sound like music to my ears. She ran fingers through my hair and pleasure shot through me, making me harden in arousal. When I felt her nails on my abdomen, I knew I had to stop before I couldn’t. I could feel her nipples on my chest, even with our clothing separating us, and her heart raced, making the pulse on her neck jump. She looked affected, her breaths coming in short gasps, her cheeks flushed with color.

This is a very dangerous situation. I have no resistance to this woman. And we are in her parents’ house. And they might be right outside her door. Just the thought cooled me right down and I lifted myself off of her so quickly she looked at me in surprise.

“I’m going. I’ll be back. I love you.” I made my way to her door before she could even give me a response and ordered my body to calm down. I opened the door and walked out to see Samcheonpo and Haitai sitting on the couch. The baby stroller was in the living room and they looked like they were napping. Shaking my head, I woke them both up and we all left the house to go to the nearby park.

Once there I warmed up even as Samcheonpo did his stretching using the baby stroller.

“Samcheonpo… How are you going to run with a baby stroller?” I asked.

“Who said I was going to run?” He answered. “Uri Dong Min and I… We’re power-walking.”

I laughed and started jogging, enjoying the feel of my body moving again. I haven’t felt any difference on my shoulder yet but it hasn’t even been a week yet and I feel hopeful. Haitai managed to keep my pace for a lap and a half as Samcheonpo power walked with the baby. By the end of the second lap Haitai was panting and holding his abdomen and Samcheonpo had slowed down even more.

By the third lap Samcheonpo just stayed at our starting point and Haitai had slowed down so much I was able to run a fourth lap around him. When we were, or I was done, the both of them looked like they were about to start crying. The baby however looked happy and was gurgling cheerfully in his pram. I thought for sure they wouldn’t make it back to the house but they managed. It didn’t hurt that I told them Omma would probably be cooking breakfast. Apparently Yoon Jin makes Samcheonpo cook breakfast over the week and he could use the break.

When we all finally walked through the door, Na Jeong and Yoon Jin were both already sitting at the table drinking coffee. After saying good morning to Omma, I grabbed a cup and sat down when Na Jeong took the cup away and replaced it with something else.

“Nuh-uh… Chamomile tea for you until treatment is over,” she said, lessening the caffeine blow with a smile. “But before that, water first though.” She grabbed a glass of water from the kitchen and placed it next to the teacup. Yoon Jin chuckled into her coffee and got up to help Omma set the table.

“How was your run?” She asked. “You got out of here super fast earlier. Do you feel better?”

“Not quite,” I responded.

Her gaze dropped to my lips and she said, “Good.”

Haitai and Samcheonpo walked into the kitchen with the stroller and the way they reacted when Omma put the food out you would think they’re the ones who ran for miles. We were all eating by the time Binggrae dropped by to check up on me. Sitting himself down at the table, he tried to refuse breakfast only to be served some. He ate reluctantly but didn’t finish his food.

“Omma, where’s Sook Sook?” I asked as I chewed on some fish.

“Appa walked him to the park earlier. He just joined a baseball league and they practice on Saturday mornings. He said he wanted to be a pitcher, just like you,” she responded. “Oh, I forgot my water.” She got up from the table and I stopped her before she can even push her chair back.

“Omma, I’ll get it,” I said, going to the kitchen and grabbing a glass before taking the pitcher of water out of the fridge and pouring some out. It wasn’t until I had returned the pitcher in the fridge that I noticed the drawing that Sook Sook had completed for school. I smiled at his drawing of Appa with a frown with Omma with a smile. He drew Na Jeong with long hair and himself wearing a cap and holding a baseball. Next to Na Jeong was another figure, and I looked closely to see who it was supposed to be, expecting to see Jung Gook Hyung’s name. Instead I saw my name and I smiled. He drew two more figures, one in the background with wings, labeled Hoon Hyung and one next to Appa with a stethoscope, labeled Jung Gook Hyung. I love that kid, I thought, reminding myself to buy him ice cream later.

“Joon-ah,” Binggrae said, his mouth full of rice. “Let me check you out after breakfast.”

“Check me out?” I asked, putting Omma’s water to her side and sitting back down.

“Yes, I want to check your vital signs and the site on your shoulder.” I was about to say no when he continued. “Humor me. People can get infections from injection sites and I’ll feel better once I’ve seen that it’s okay.”

“Fine.”

The rest of breakfast passed pretty uneventfully and afterwards I allowed Binggrae to look at me. Everything checked out fine and he made me promise to let him check me every weekend and to call him if any of the sites looked funny or I spike a temperature. I must admit though… Having a doctor in the family can be quite convenient.

Later as I watched the women clean up and the men congregated back in the living room, it finally hit me that I was part of a family, just like what In Sung had said. The family I picked for myself. However, I felt even more blessed, as I am mending my relationship with my Omma. There’s just one more relationship that needs to be settled, though I’m not sure if that will ever be fixed.

*****

September 15, 2001

8:30 a.m.

Na Jeong

Joon’s second treatment went by without a hitch. Now that he knew what to expect, he hadn’t been as anxious as he was the first time. He tried to appear like he wasn’t apprehensive, but I saw the way his eyes became guarded, the way they always did when he’s about to hide behind his mask, so I made sure that was stopped before he even had a chance to revert to old behavior.

He doesn’t talk about them much anymore, but I know the nightmares still come sometimes. He doesn’t seem as affected by them, as if he’s become more accepting of their presence in his life. “I can’t help that they come,” he said to me once when I asked, “but I can help the way I react to them.” For the most part he has been doing well on his own.

However this past week, I’ve seen the doubt in his eyes after the third treatment. He hasn’t seen any results yet and I feel his restlessness and his worry. He has started talking about going back to school and trying to find an alternate plan. I keep telling him to slow down and allow the treatment to do its job. His body will heal the way it’s meant to, in the speed that it needs to.

He woke me up last night when he came into my room in the middle of the night. He almost scared me half to death until I realized it was him. It seemed he had a dream again, of losing baseball and of me leaving. I know he told me of his dream not because he wanted to but because I asked. I also know he’s uncomfortable allowing me into his mind, as if I was going to judge him. Though I’ve reassured him many times that I wasn’t going anywhere, sometimes the brain doesn’t understand what the heart does. So instead of just comforting his mind, I gave him an assignment instead: One of my foolproof methods to clear my mind and make sense of things. “Let’s both make a list,” I had suggested. “You make a list of why I would leave and I’ll make one of why I wouldn’t. In the morning we’ll compare notes.”

Standing by his door with my hand poised to knock, I looked at the piece of paper in my hand and hoped that he didn’t stay up all night writing his list. Dr. Lee said it… Plenty of rest and good nutrition makes a difference on how effective the treatment will be. I knocked once and opened his door only to find him asleep on top of the covers with a notepad and a pen still in his hands.

As quietly as possible I sat myself down on the bed and looked at his list. Lifting up the notepad I saw that he had listed completely inane reasons as to why I would leave. “Because I’m useless” is not a reason because he’s not useless. Neither is “I’m an ass sometime,” even though that may be true. I saw that he was only able to write 8 reasons why I would leave, and none of them would stand up under scrutiny. This man can never be a lawyer, I thought, shaking my head. But he tried though.

I looked at my piece of paper with my forty three reasons of why I would never leave and placed it between his fingers. Maybe he’ll read it and he’ll realize that all of the bad things he thought about himself are still a part of why I love him. Joon’s a logical man… Sometimes. So I’m giving him the proof… Something he can visualize. Sometimes you need to see it to believe it.

I brushed a finger over his brow before I made my way out of the room. Thank goodness I called Samcheonpo and told him that Joon and I will be working out together today. I ran into Haitai just outside his room and told him the same thing. It’s time for me and Joon to spend some quality time together, hopefully bathed in sweat. It’s time for my man to step up and remember who he was, before all this happened. He may not have liked just being known as Chilbong, but being Chilbong is part of who he is. A good part. I fell in love with Chilbong before I fell crazy in love with Kim Jae Joon. The sooner he reconciles these two halves together, the better.

*****

The next time I woke up, it was past 11 a.m. The sun greeted me brightly from my windows as I stood up and stretched. Putting on a pair of yoga pants and a shirt, I was putting socks on when I heard a faint knock on my door.

“Come in,” I called out, walking to my desk and grabbing a hair tie. I had just put my hair up in a ponytail when I felt soft lips on my neck. Joon. I turned around and smiled at him. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” he said, a broad smile on his face. “I saw your list.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked. “What do you think?”

“I think you gave a compelling and convincing argument. You win. Except, I guess, in this case I win too. But Na Jeong-ah… 43? You actually came up with 43 reasons why you wouldn’t leave me?”

“Yah… I would have put more but I thought it would be overkill.” I looked him up and down, dressed in a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. Perfect. “Joon-ah… Want to go on a date with me?”

He smiled even wider and nodded. “Let me just change real quick…”

“Nope… Where we’re going it doesn’t matter how you’re dressed.” He looked at me as if he didn’t believe me. “I promise.” I took his hand and said, “let’s go.”

Passing by Omma and Appa on our way out, I told them we’ll be going out for a little while. Engrossed with a program on television, they barely acknowledged us as Joon grabbed his car keys. Once in the car, he turned to me and asked me where to drive to.

“Where else? Your apartment building ” I said as his eyes darkened and dropped to my lips. “It’s time to see what you’re capable of.”

*****

September 15, 2001

12:00 p.m.

Chilbong

I was tricked, I thought as Na Jeong stood before me with her arms crossed over her chest, counting my repetitions out loud. When we walked into the building I was surprised when she told me to close my eyes. Blindly I followed, thinking I was about to seduced again. I was ready to be seduced. And I wanted to be seduced.

When she led me down a hallway rather than up the elevator, I thought she was being adventurous. I don’t know. I never know what to expect with Na Jeong. I saw the glint in her eyes this before we left the boarding house. I recognized that twinkle. She had told me to open my eyes and I looked around and realized she brought me to the weight room of the apartment building. Is this some kind of weird fantasy of hers? I mean I don’t care. I’ll perform wherever at the rate we’re going, but looking around isn’t it a bit unhygienic? She motioned for me to get on the leg press machine and I went. Whatever Na Jeong wants, Na Jeong gets… To a certain extent. But this… This is okay.

I get the machine and my breath caught when she walked towards me but expecting her to climb over me I was puzzled when she went behind me instead and heard her adjusting the weights. With an encouraging voice, she said six words. “Ten reps, two sets. Let’s go.”

Still a little confused I did what she said, feeling my muscles warm up to the activity. Maybe it’s foreplay. It has been a long time.

“Front leg lunges, Joon,” she said next, “10 reps, three sets.” When I looked at her puzzled, she explained. “Pitchers with leg strength are able to deliver better throws. I read this when I read up on baseball.”

Is she… Is she trying to seduce me with baseball? This woman knows my language, I thought as I smiled to myself. I’ve heard what she’s saying before and it can’t hurt. So I did it.

However, after the fourth leg exercise, she moved on to stomach exercises and I got even more confused. I’ve never heard of this kind of foreplay.

“Joon-ah, it’s a known fact that a baseball pitcher with a strong core has higher arm speed and more hip rotation. You can increase your pitching velocity.”

Wondering when she had time to look all of this up, I didn’t say anything when she insisted that I do three sets each of sit ups and crunches. But I had to draw the line when she wanted me to do ab exercises that involve my arms and shoulders. I haven’t done any kind of lifting with my right shoulder since the injury, even though Dr. Lee said it was okay. I don’t want to mess it up before it even heals.

“Na Jeong-ah… No!” I protested.

“Why not?” She asked. “The doctor said to keep your shoulder moving, Joon-ah. We’ve been in treatment for three weeks and you haven’t even tried to lift weights yet. Are you afraid?”

“No. I just don’t want to.”

“I’ve read about this too… How about an incentive?” She winked at me then smiled. “If you do this cable pull exercise for 3 sets with 10 reps each I will kiss you for an hour whenever you want.”

Is she bribing me now? With kisses? Thinking on how long it’s been since we made out, I walked over to the machine and with reluctance, started doing the exercise. Though my shoulder ached at first, it was an ache borne from lack of use as opposed to real pain. I continued to count as I did the exercise and she watched. I added another set in the end for good measure. You know, to prove my good intentions.

She led me through two more ab exercises, both performed under duress. By the time I was done with them I was already owed three hours of kissing and maybe a view of a body part. I can’t believe this woman is actually using this to make me do things. I bet she would try to…

“Oh hell no, Sung Na Jeong-ssi. It’s too early for actual lifting.”

“Dr. Lee didn’t say anything about that,” she said, blinking at me. “You can’t avoid it forever. If you do this push press for 3 sets of 8 reps, I’ll call you Oppa.”

“What?” I looked at her and wondered for a minute if she had gone insane, only to see her face with an expression that tells me is very very serious. She raised one eyebrow challengingly.

Dammit. She knows what to do to get to me. She knows I would have given an arm and leg to hear her call me that. Now she’s asking me to do just that. I sat on the machine and she adjusted the weights. It’s time to negotiate.

“Can you do it with aegyo?” I asked.

“Only if you do the seated row machine after. Same number of reps. Same number of sets.” She lifted her chin up stubbornly.

“Call.” What is it about hearing the word Oppa and the men of Korea? This is, frankly, ridiculous! Even as I frowned at her and she looked at me, I imagined her calling me Joon Oppa and I felt a blush cover my cheeks. My shoulder felt like a grumpy bear that’s been forced to wake up and I breathed through the burn.

Wordlessly I moved on to the seated row machine and waited until she was done setting the weight up before starting the exercise. By the time I was done with that, my eyes traveled around the room only to realize that I have already done most of the exercises.

Wow… Na Jeong is good. I didn’t think I was that weak but apparently I am. I tallied in my head the hours of kissing and the cute aegyo Oppa. She doesn’t have much else to barter with. Surely we’re done. I rubbed my right shoulder as I watched her make a note on her notebook, the one she pulled out as soon as we arrived. I looked at the the clock and saw that we have already been here a couple of hours.

“One more exercise,” she said.

“I’m done. I’m not going to overwork my shoulder.”

“Just the bench press. I’ll spot you,” she insisted.

“How will you spot me?” I asked. “The last time I bench pressed I almost dropped the weighted bar.”

“Just try it,” she said. “Joon Oppa.”

Unbelievable, I thought, as I laid down on the bench. I never thought in my wildest dreams that Na Jeong would pull the Oppa card to get me working out. She stood behind the bar and I looked up to see a pair of breasts not far above me. Well… Maybe this one isn’t so bad. I lift the bar and my shoulder resisted. As soon as the pain hit, I put the bar back on the stand.

“I can’t do it,” I said. I sat back up and looked at her.

“Why not?”

“It hurts. What if my shoulder gets even more messed up?”

“Joon-ah, you are not doing heavy duty lifting.” Hazel eyes met mine defiantly but I wasn’t going to back down on this. We were at an impasse. I was about to stand up and start my cooling down exercises when I heard her voice behind me. “Chilbong would have done it.”

“What did you say?” I asked as I turned back to look at her.

“You heard me.” She started wiping the machines down with the sanitizer spray and a towel. “Chilbong wouldn’t have given up. He wouldn’t want you to, either.”

“Chilbong is gone,” I said firmly. “Kim Jae Joon is not as strong and definitely not as naive.”

“Joon-ah… You don’t need to say the name Chilbong so resentfully. He’s not your enemy, and he’s not your competition.” She put the towel down before walking towards me. “You are Kim Jae Joon… But you’re Chilbong too. He is you. He’s still you.”

“Chilbong was loved by everyone but you,” I said. “He was your friend but you didn’t love him.”

“That’s where you’re mistaken. Without Chilbong I might not be as in love with Kim Jae Joon. Chilbong did the grunt work for you. He waited the six years and planted the seeds. I fell in love with him before I even knew Kim Jae Joon. He made sure you made it through your worst times. And he will get you through this too. I know it. I feel it. I believe in you so much I am betting my future on this.”

Her words broke through whatever wall I had up. Adamant and unshaken, her words were spoken with conviction.

“Joon-ah,” she said as she crouched down to look me in the eyes. “Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be. I love every part of you.” I felt warm fingers brush my cheek as she pressed her soft lips on mine. Our lips only a whisper of a breath from each other, she whispered, “I love YOU. Whatever name you’re called, whatever name you go by or however you see yourself as. To me, it’s all just you.”

She pulled away from me and I laid down on the bench. To try again. I took a deep breath and lifted the bar, telling my shoulder it’s okay. I felt myself relax and though still a bit difficult I was able to complete the exercise without much struggle. Maybe I was getting better, I thought. Maybe I just didn’t give myself the opportunity to find out how much.

When I was done with the exercises I cleaned up along with Na Jeong and then took my hand in hers.

“Jagiya, thanks for believing in me.”

“You just needed a little bit of motivation and the right incentive,” she responded playfully. When she asked, “When do you want your reward?” I merely smiled at her in response.

Minutes later we were at a ddukbokki stand and she looked at me stonily.

“I’m not saying it here,” she said.

“You said you would do it. Tsk… Tsk… Sung Na Jeong-ssi, I thought you of all people would follow through. I thought…”

“Joon-ie Oppa,” she whispered with her eyelashes fluttering with a small pout on her lips. My heart dropped to my stomach as I watched her. “Please buy me some ddukbokki, Joon-ie Oppaaaa…”

I ended up buying five orders of ddukbokki. She laughed about it all the way home.

*****

October 8, 2001

8:30 p.m.

Chilbong

In Sung and Misoo sat across the table from me and Na Jeong and I was telling the story of how Misoo walked into the locker room one day when we were in university as I was changing and I told her to knock. She asked me who knocks to enter a locker room and asked if she was a guy. I started cracking up when I was telling them that she had given me the finger. In Sung burst into laughter and Misoo did too. Na Jeong blinked at me before she motioned for me to come closer.

“Does that mean she saw you with your shirt off?” She asked.

“She saw me many times with my shirt off.”

“That’smorethanI’veseenrecently,” she mumbled.

“What, jagiya?”

“Nothing.” She gave me a reluctant smile and stuffed her mouth with a piece of sushi.

“Yah,” Misoo said. “At least I don’t go around kissing drunk people and lying to my coach.”

In Sung started laughing even more and I looked over nervously at Na Jeong. I don’t think she knows. Good. We’ll keep it that way. I don’t want her thinking that I go around doing things without permission. Even though I did. Once. Only once.

I know Na Jeong is frustrated about not having any physical alone time but I can’t help but feel relieved. The memory of that night still haunts me and I’m afraid to lose control like that again. The more time passes the more I think about it. It’s better that we wait. I’m thankful now of all those missed opportunities. I know she will never forgive me if it happened again. And I will never forgive myself.

It’s a blessing that we are currently living under the same roof, with her parents and other people. We kiss and that’s about it. I’m perfectly happy with it. Okay, maybe I’m just okay with it. But… There are other more important things to worry about.

I went in for my fifth appointment today. Haitai and Samcheonpo continue to run with me on the weekends and Appa sometimes accompanies me when I lift. Na Jeong had designed a lifting and workout schedule for me, which she has up on the fridge at the boarding house as well as my room. I feel my body getting stronger but my shoulder still hurts like a bitch after treatment.

Omma includes at least one of the recommended foods in each meal, but I will be perfectly happy never seeing chamomile tea ever again. I haven’t allowed myself to hold a baseball again yet, afraid that the temptation to throw would be too great. And it is a temptation. I feel like I’ve lost a limb.

In Sung’s voice brought me back to the present.

“How’s treatment going?” He asked hesitantly.

“It’s good,” I responded. “I’m able to lift now.”

“That’s good news,” Misoo said.

“Let me know when you go and I’ll spot you,” In Sung offered.

“That would be great,” I started when I felt Na Jeong’s hand on my thigh. Oh no… I know this trick. I took her hand and held it in mine instead. I saw annoyance flash in her light eyes and I just kept eating.

When we finished our meal, I had just placed my card in the check holder when Na Jeong spilled soy sauce all over her shirt. I thought I spied a smile before she started panicking. I don’t really understand what the big deal is since it was a dark shirt but she was so distraught I felt bad. We paid for our meal and bid Misoo and In Sung good night, with a promise from In Sung that he will meet up with me to work out sometime this week.

As we got in the car, I looked over at Na Jeong to see her staring at the spot where the soy sauce spilled.

“Joon-ah… I need to get this washed before it stains,” she said. “I think we should go to your apartment. It’s only five minutes away from here.”

“Sure… We can wash it there,” I said nervously as I eased out of the parking space and onto the highway.

“I’m going to need to shower too,” she added.

“Okay… I think I have some clothes you can change into,” I responded.

“I still have some clothes at your place, don’t I?” She asked. “I’ll just wear one of those.”

I nodded and tried to stay focused on the road and not think about Na Jeong in the shower. Is she doing this deliberately? Planting seeds in my head? I parked the car into a space in front of the apartment building and opened her car door. When she stepped out she took a hard look at me and spoke.

“Joon-ah… I forgot to tell you. If you don’t claim even part of your reward tonight, the three hours of kissing, the whole thing is forfeited,” she whispered as she walked away from me, hips swaying gracefully and I walked faster to catch up to her.

“You didn’t tell me it had an expiration date,” I complained.

“You didn’t ask. Things change, Joon-ah. If you don’t use it, you lose it.” She stepped in the elevator and looked at me determinedly. I followed her without saying a word. She is in a mood tonight. I can practically feel her temper simmering to boil.

When we got to the apartment, she took her shoes off and lifted her shirt in the entryway before opening the bathroom door.

“Are you going to take a shower with me?” She asked me directly. I felt myself harden instantly and I turned away before I shaked my head to her question. I love Na Jeong. My hormones aren’t worth risking losing her for. “Joon-ah… We’re going to have a talk tonight.” She handed me her shirt and I brought it in the laundry room to wash.

While there I thought about what we probably would have to talk about. We’re not fighting. In fact we are better than ever. We feel strong as a couple.

When Na Jeong came out of the shower she was wrapped in a towel, as was her hair. I was sitting in the living room trying not to look. I felt her glare at me before she disappeared into the bedroom, I’m assuming to put clothes on.

I was flipping the channels when I saw her walk out. Or not put clothes on, I observed as she walked out wearing, or not wearing, what she had on the night I invited the gang over for dinner. I watched silently as the fringes swooshed over the tops of her thighs as she walked towards me and tried not to gape at the smooth expanse of her back. First she sat down on the couch, and unable to get a reaction out of me, planted herself on the coffee table directly across from where I sat.

“Joon-ah, we have a problem.”

“What problem?”

“I think you’re scared to get back on the horse.” Horses now? We’ve moved back to pasture animals? I have no clue what she’s talking about.

“What about horses?” I asked, confused.

“I think it might be saddle. But whatever, you’re afraid to get back on something,” she said with an intent look on her face. “Joon-ah… Are we ever going to make love ever again?”

“Of course we are.”

“Okay, that’s a start,” she said encouragingly. “Do you know when, exactly?” When I didn’t respond, she looked concerned. “Does your shoulder hurt a lot still?” I shook my head no. “Is anything wrong with… Your equipment?”

“NO! Sung Na Jeong! Everything works fine!”

“No need to get upset. I was just making sure so that there’s no confusion,” she responded. “So if everything is in tip top shape… Then what is the matter?”

“I… I used it against you before and it hurt you,” I said. “I don’t want to do it again. I lose control around you. It scares me sometimes. I don’t want to lose my head. And I don’t want to lose you.”

“Where am I going? I’m still right here. Were you not paying attention the first time we spoke? It wasn’t what we did that hurt me, but how we did it,” she explained. “Joon-ah… I love you. I want to feel close to you. I want to be physically connected to you. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

When I didn’t say anything she whispered something in my ear.

“…You understand right? You can’t let fear take over your life. Or take over our life together,” she paused before she continued. “Let’s try something. How about we try and you don’t do anything unless I give you explicit approval? I’ll take control and you only do what I want you to do. Will that work?”

Even just her words were having an effect on me already.

“I’m going to climb on your lap and straddle you, okay?” She asked, her eyes fixed on my lips. “I don’t want to hurt your shoulder and it’s more comfortable for me.”

I nodded and watched as she did just as she would do. Slender thighs splayed over mine and I licked my lips. “Can I put my hands on your hips?”

“That’s a start… You don’t have to ask Joon-ah. I know how to say no and deliver a punch. Also I know where to hit you where it will hurt.” I smiled at her response. It is so Na Jeong. My woman is awesome.

“Na Jeong-ah… I’m cashing in on one of my rewards,” I told her.

“Finally, ” she said as she wrapped her arms around my neck. “I love the way you kiss me.”

I only had to lean forward to take her lips in mine. Soft and sweet, her mouth moved slowly over mine and I realized consciously how much I’ve missed this. Nimble fingers ran through my hair before landing on my shoulders.

“Joon-ah… Am I hurting you?” She whispered.

I shook my head no before her mouth landed back on mine. I tasted the sake we had with dinner on her tongue. Good, I thought, I love sake. Her tongue moved against mine tenderly and I heard her moan as I continued to kiss her.

She grabbed one of my hands from her waist and placed it on her breast, urging me to squeeze and cup. When my thumb brushed over a nipple she trembled and slipped the straps off her shoulders.

“Joon-ah… I want your mouth on me,” she said against my lips.

“My mouth is on you already,” I whispered back.

“You know what I meant.” I met her beautiful eyes as she wiggled her eyebrows at me. My mouth traveled the length of her neck to her chest and I nuzzled a breast.

“You mean here?” I asked.

Her answering sigh was the confirmation I needed and I took the hardened peak of one breast tenderly into my mouth. My tongue moved over it slowly, savoring her taste, savoring her enjoyment as she started moving over my hips. When I’ve properly cared for one breast, I moved on to the other and gave it as much care.

She lifted my shirt over my head and kissed my shoulders then down my chest. I watched as her mouth traveled down my abdomen and her hands tugged my pants down, along with my boxers. My arousal free, she grasped it with her hands and her fingers caressed its length before I felt her mouth, warm and wet, descend upon me.

Though my hips begged to move, I kept a tight rein on myself and just let her call the shots. I could only watch as her fingers moved with her mouth and sensation over sensation threatened to push me over the edge. When I didn’t think I was going to last another second, she slipped out of whatever she was wearing altogether and went back to my lap. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the feel of her body on mine. She took my mouth again for a kiss, her lips sucking on my tongue. She broke the kiss long enough to tell me what she wanted then returned back. “Joon-ah… I want you… I want you inside me,” she said.

Still a little nervous about losing a grasp on my control, I lifted her hips off of me and slipped inside her. She is as tight as I had remembered. She gasped and moaned and she sat herself down on me and I saw the sheen of sweat over her shoulder. I gave her shoulder a lick as she started moving against me. Slow at first, my hands stayed on her hips as she pulled me in deeper and deeper inside her. When she sped up, I continued to watch as her face became flushed with passion and her moans became louder. She called my name and I knew she was close. I wrap my lips around her nipple and gave a long suck even as my fingers caressed the tight bud between her legs. She screamed my name out and I continued to guide her over me as I felt her contract around my arousal. My breaths shorten as I drank the sight of her in and how I felt in her. Her eyes fixed on mine and her body still shaking her climax pushed me over the edge and I allowed myself to let go, sparks of pleasure shooting up from my abdomen to my spine as I moaned her name.

After a few minutes she spoke softly. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” She gazed at my face. “Now you understand the difference? I knew the whole time that we were making love because I felt love. If I didn’t want you to do something I know I could have stopped you at any point. I trust you, Joon-ah. Without trust, love is just an empty word. Trust ME when I say that I can handle you.” Looking at her eyes, unshaken and true, I could only nod.

She stayed connected to me as she rested her head on my left shoulder and her hand strayed to my chest. I saw her eyes land on my shoulder as she studied it closely.

“Joon-ah… The treatment is going to scar a little,” she said.

“I hate scars,” I said hoarsely. “It’s like showing the world a weakness… It’s like exposing a wound.

Her hands kept my head steady so she could look into my eyes.

“Well I like scars,” she declared softly, placing a soft kiss on my right shoulder. “It’s like a badge of honor. There’s nothing wrong with having weaknesses… Or making mistakes. And we all have them. Except for some of us, they’re not on the surface but really really deep inside.”

She continued to speak as she licked an earlobe and I took her words to heart. Na Jeong’s voice will echo through me all my life. She will be my voice of reason, my conscience and my voice of sanity.

“Well I know one thing for sure, though,” she said thoughtfully.

“What?” I asked, brushing a stray hair off her shoulder.

“Everything does, indeed, work.” We started laughing and she looked at me with her eyes sparkling and a glow on her cheeks.

“Na Jeong-ah, I love you.”

“I love you more,” she said back with a wink.

“Not again,” I said before rolling her over on her back as she shrieked in surprise. “Jagiya…”

“Hmm?” She said as my mouth kissed her shoulder.

“Does that count towards my reward?”

She looked thoughtful for a minute before she responded. “I’ll tell you after round 2.”

*****

November 17, 2001

2:00 p.m.

Na Jeong

“Omma, I don’t know what Joon has planned for tonight. I didn’t ask and he didn’t say. You know it doesn’t matter anyway… What’s one anniversary when we will be together forever?” I asked on the phone as I walked out of my office building. Omma is even more excited about our anniversary than either me or Joon are… It’s so funny. We don’t need an anniversary to celebrate… We reconnect on a daily basis. We make the commitment every day. I was just about to tell her so when I spotted a familiar car in front of the entrance. “Omma, I have to go. It seems my hot date is here.”

I hung up the phone and watched as Joon got out of the car with a big bouquet of roses. Dressed casually in a long sleeved shirt and jeans, his feet were in boots. He looked like a walking advertisement for casual, rugged male. Maybe Yoon Jin was right… Joon could model, if he wanted to. He strolled towards me in long strides, more comfortable than I’ve seen him in the last two months. His face broke out into a smile when he reached my side and I had no choice but to smile back.

“Hey, handsome,” I said.

“Jagiya,” he responded as his arms wrapped around me and he pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Happy anniversary.”

“You didn’t have to do this,” I said as he handed me the roses.

“You think I’d skip out on the opportunity to celebrate a year with you?” He teased. “I have something else planned. Just wait.”

He took my hand as we walked to the car and as I sat down, I wondered what else he could possibly have arranged. Joon and his plans. I thought I was the organizer between us. More and more I’m starting to realize that he’s actually the one who needs definites in life. When he didn’t tell me where we were going, I just settled on watching outside the window as he held my hand while driving, a small smile on my face.

My face dropped as he stopped and parked right by the Han River. I looked at his calm face and wondered what the hell this was. What are we doing here? Is he breaking up with me on our anniversary?

“Joon-ah… Tell me this is not what it looks like,” I said.

“What does it look like?”

“Why are we at the Han River? Have you forgotten all the dramas we’ve seen? Are you breaking up with me? Nothing good ever happens here.”

“Na Jeong-ah, calm down. First of all, we’re not in a drama. Secondly… Hmm… There’s no second item. But no, I’m not breaking up with you,” he said calmly. “I had planned a picnic… I just thought this would be a great place.” He looked around me and gestured. It wasn’t until I digested his reasoning that it struck me that before he would have just done whatever I wanted, with no questions asked, but now he thinks about it logically and says what is on his mind. He’s getting better, I thought to myself. For one second I wondered if I should just stay here, but remembering all those dramas, I chose to hold my ground.

“Let’s go to Namsan Tower instead… We can just be like a regular couple,” I suggested.

“How about Namsan Park. If you want, we can go up after. The tower will be really crowded as it’s a Saturday,” he reasoned with me. “Plus I brought a picnic.” I don’t know if I like this not getting my way business. I’m not used to Joon saying no. I thought about his words, though, and they made sense. The park is a much better place for a picnic.

“The park sounds good,” I relented and watched him smile in response. He put the car back into drive and drove the short distance to the park.

When we got there he opened the passenger door and grabbed a basket from the back of the car, then locked it and took my hand.

As we looked for a spot to eat at, I couldn’t help but keep looking at him. His treatment has been done for four weeks, and he’s getting better everyday. He’s stuck through the training schedule I set up for him. He’s gained all the weight back in muscle mass training at least three hours a day and his confidence has grown leaps and bounds. He hasn’t told me about any nightmares in weeks. Watching him now, no one would ever guess that two months ago, he was falling apart.

“What are you thinking about?” He asked as he put the basket down on a grassy spot overlooking the flower garden. His eyes searched mine as I thought of my response.

“Not a lot,” I said, “just how quickly everything changes sometimes. Just like every year on New Year, we always get opportunities to start anew and transform ourselves. It happened to me, and I see it happening to you.”

I sat down and opened the basket he had and started laughing. He just about had every type of food in there. Ddukbokki, sushi, jajangmyun, some fried chicken. I’m surprised he didn’t try to bring a grill and make bulgogi, too. It’s good to know that no matter how much he changes, Joon is still essentially the same.

“I wasn’t sure what you wanted to eat, so I thought I’d cover the bases. But the chicken is for me. Protein is good for people working out,” he said and I smiled.

“Joon-ah,” I started as I started eating some jajangmyun. “Are you still having nightmares? We get so busy nowadays we haven’t even spoken about it. Plus it’s not exactly breakfast or dinner conversation material.”

“I don’t have a lot of them, anymore. None that includes you. Besides I don’t call them nightmares nowadays… I’ve recognized them for what they actually are. They’re memories,” he said. “And need only to be considered as such. I won’t let them have that kind power over my present or our future. I already had my almost nervous breakdown and I didn’t like it. They’re unwanted visitors but that’s about it.”

I listened to his voice as I ate and marveled at how in control he is. Gone is the insecure Joon of old. This man knows exactly what he’s doing.

“I’m proud of you,” I said and I meant it.

Now the next step… The next step will happen when we get back to the house. I studied his face as he looked around the park appreciatively. Though he looked at peace, and I do believe he is most times, I feel the restlessness coming from him too. I see it whenever he avoids baseball talk and how he veils his eyes whenever Appa tells us about a game. He loves baseball and because he can’t have it, he’s just choosing to cut it off entirely from his life. I understand that. He tried to do that with me, too. But I know him too well. Living without it will be miserable for him. Yes, he may never play baseball again professionally. And yes, I’m sure that will break his heart, but it won’t hurt any more than depriving himself of it for the rest of his life. He needs another chance at playing baseball and seeing if his dream can stay alive. I believe that if he doesn’t have that, he will question it forever. I’m the one who will be by his side, and I can’t allow that to happen.

I looked in my purse to see the speedometer I bought on my way in to work, as well as the baseball I picked up. I think it’s time that he picked one up and threw again. I cleared it with Dr. Lee, who said that as long as Joon warms up his shoulder extensively, he should be okay.

I was eating some cake when I saw him watching me. The way he was looking at me took my breath away. There is no one who makes me feel more alive than Joon does. In his eyes I feel special and very very much loved. I know he knows now how much I love him and how grateful I am that he loves me. Wanting to hear him laugh, I decided to reenact one of our lighter moments, from months and months ago.

“Jagiya,” I said, scooting closer to him. “Do you want some cake?”

“Sung Na Jeong-ssi. The last time you offered me some cake, I ended up sticky and dirty,” he said drily. “And needing a shower.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked innocently, offering a big bite on a fork. “I just wanted you to have a taste.” He looked at me warily but closed his eyes and opened his mouth anyway. Sucker. Quietly I picked up some cake and smooshed it delicately on his chin. I watched as his eyes opened and he narrowed his eyes on me. “Oops.”

“Na Jeong-ah,” he said warningly.

“Let me just… I’m just going to…” I said as I put the plate down and got to my feet. He was wiping his face with a napkin, but when I saw that he was getting up too, I started running, knowing that he would chase after me. I darted across the grass and around some trees, Joon yelling at me to stop. He almost caught me a few times but I managed to evade his grasp. When I ran out of breath, I stood underneath a tree and watched as he came towards me, his face laughing and happy, his chin smeared with chocolate. The lightness of his expression warmed my heart. When I finally allowed him to catch me, I wrapped my arms around his neck and gave him a thorough kiss.

“Joon-ah, I love you. Happy anniversary. I’ll give you your gift later,” I said.

He bumped his nose with mine. “I love you more. You are my gift.”

“You can’t receive a gift that’s already yours,” I said. “That’s cheating.”

He shrugged his shoulders then. “What to do then? I already have what I wanted.”

Not everything you wanted, I thought as we stood under the tree, looking into each other’s eyes. Not quite everything, but you will again one day. I’ll make sure of it.

*****

5:00 p.m.

Na Jeong

We were all sitting watching television when I thought of a way to get Joon pitching again. I looked at Sook Sook sitting on Joon’s lap and I wondered if he would cooperate. Why wouldn’t he? He plays baseball too. And he wants to be a pitcher. Who better to teach him than Joon? What better way to get him to throw than to have it under the guise of mentorship and brotherhood?

“Sook Sook-ah,” I said and motioning to him. “Come help Noona find something in her room.”

“Should I come, too?” Joon said.

“No… I need Sook Sook. His hands are small. Your hands are too big. You just stay here with Omma and Appa and watch television,” I responded, walking to my room with Sook Sook.

“Noona,” he said once we got to my room. “What am I looking for?”

“Ahhh… I don’t think you need to find it anymore, Sook Sook-ah. I think I see it on my table,” I responded, holding up a pen. “But Sook Sook-ah… Didn’t you say you wanted to learn how to pitch from Joon Hyung? I think it will make him really happy if you asked him to teach you.”

“But Appa said he has a booboo,” he said. “And he gets mean faced when I talk about baseball.”

“His booboo is all better. And his mean face is just his missing face. It’s still daylight outside… You can ask him.”

“Hmm… Okay. But if he gets mad, it’ll be your fault.”

I nodded and smiled and handed him the baseball from my purse. As he came out of my room, I followed behind him and listened to his voice from the doorway.

“Joon Hyung!!! Come throw this ball with me. I want to be a pitcher, just like you!”

I didn’t hear his response, but I did hear the front door closing. I knew it. I knew he wouldn’t be able to say no to Sook Sook. Those two have a mutually adoring relationship. Convinced that I had already accomplished my goal for the day, I walked back out to the living room to see Omma and Appa looking at me.

“What?” I asked as I sat down on the floor.

“Did you do that?” Omma asked. “You just used Sook Sook to get Joon to hold a baseball again.” Her tone remained neutral and I struggled to figure out whether I should apologize or not. “Smart,” she finally commented. “Your brother is irresistibly cute.”

Appa nodded next to her. “He’s avoided it too long. He has to start somewhere.”

Relieved that my parents also noticed what I’ve been seeing all along, I walked to the window and watched as Joon held the ball in his hand for the first time in months to show my brother the proper pitching position. It’s not much but it’s a start, I thought to myself. It’s a start.

*****

December 22, 2001

4:30 p.m.

Chilbong

After waking up later than I had hoped, I checked my phone to see a message from Na Jeong asking if I wanted her to drive with me to the game. Yes. Of course. But I knew I needed silence before a game. I always need a moment to listen to my thoughts and get my mind into the game. I love her but she’s not a quiet girl.

I sent her a message telling her I’ll see her after the game, as we made plans to meet up with the gang along with Misoo and In Sung for a meal and drinks later. I might need a drink after this game. hen Na Jeong told me about the invitation to play a month ago, my first instinct was to say no. But all it took was one look into her eyes, eyes that always believed in me, and I found myself saying yes. Now I question the rationality of that thought. I haven’t played baseball in months, and I felt the pressure to perform well. It’s the first time I’m playing in public after my injury.

I took a quick shower and as I was drying off I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked more like myself from a few months ago. In fact, I am in better shape than I was before the injury. The weeks of lifting have done its job. I looked strong. I looked closely at the mirror and saw that some of the sites where I received my injections have scarred. Not badly and no one would probably even notice unless they looked closely, but they’re there. Pinpoint dots of healed skin, proof of what I had to get through to even get to this point. An unbidden memory of Na Jeong’s lips on the same spot came to me.

“Everyone’s got scars, Joon-ah. Some are seen and some are not. They’re all beautiful and they’re all a part of us. Scars mean you’re healing, scars mean you’ve gone through something painful enough to leave a mark. Wear it with pride. It means you survived.”

And I did. I have survived. Not alone and not by myself, remembering all the people in my life who ensured that I did and that I made it through with my dignity intact. To have been blessed with such people was an honor I never even thought I would have and I owe it to them to try my best, no matter the outcome.

I quickly got dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a long sleeved shirt before slipping the chain with my ring over my head. I drove to Yonsei University and entered the locker rooms to see In Sung and the other guys already there, getting ready. He smiled and approached me as soon as he saw me and engulfed me in a bear hug.

“Yah… Chilbong-ah, can you believe we’re back here again? How long has it been since we played together? 5, 6 years?” He exclaimed.

“I think it’s been about that long,” I replied, thinking. We haven’t played together since I left for Japan.

“It’ll be great!”

His enthusiasm was contagious and I felt the familiar thrum of adrenaline and excitement course through me. I saw the Yonsei All Stars jersey hanging in the cubby with my last name and number and felt a lump form in my throat as I touched it. Our old coach called us for our pre-game huddle just as I was buttoning the uniform on.

I rotated my shoulder a few times as I walked over and noted that I felt no pain. I feel good. Better than I’ve felt for months. The coach talked about playing for pride and for Yonsei, to respect the tradition that has been in this institution for decades. I felt as I did years ago, in this same place, when my future hung at a precipice towards the unknown.

As we were filing out to go on the field, I let my mind wander to all the people who have watched me grow up on the field. I will play for them tonight. I’ll play for all the people who believed in me, for the people who never lost faith. I’ll play for myself and for Yonsei too. But above all that, I’ll play for the one person who never gave up on me even when it felt like the world had. I’ll play for Na Jeong.

*****

Yonsei University Baseball Stadium

December 22, 2001

6:00 p.m.

Na Jeong

I found myself seated in between everyone. I mentioned the game to our family and friends but didn’t think they were all actually going to be here. To my right sat Yoon Jin and Samcheonpo, holding hands and acting like teenagers as his Omma came from Samcheonpo to babysit Dong Min for the weekend. In front of me sat Haitai, Ae Jung, Binggrae and Jin Yi Unnie. Behind me sat Appa, Omma, Oppa and Yoo Mi Unnie. And to my left sat Jin-ie Oppa. I looked around and spotted Misoo a couple of bleachers down, surrounded by some old Yonsei baseball alumni who were not playing in the game. She met my eyes and waved happily and I smiled back and returned her wave.

“Who’s that?” Jin-ie Oppa asked, nodding his head at Misoo.

“The wife’s wife,” I answered. I chuckled at the puzzled expression on his face. “Joon’s catcher’s fiancee.”

“Oh? The one you were jealous of at his cousin’s wedding?” At my surprised expression he smiled. “Na Jeong-ah… Don’t look so surprised. I’ve worked with Joon a long time. He tells me practically everything, Na Jeong-ah. I’m the only person he had whenever he was abroad. I’ve heard your name even from six years ago. I was the one who drove him back to the boarding house on New Years Eve almost two years ago, remember?”

I nodded and looked at the field as the crowd erupted in a cheer. Korea University baseball players came out to some applauses and cheers and I heard the announcer speaking in the background.

“Tonight, we will uphold a long held rivalry between Yonsei University and Korea University. We have so many of their best and brightest on the field tonight, all of whom have played and some still play for the Major Leagues, here and abroad. Some of the names include Hee Seop Choi, Cho In Sung, Park Hae Jong, and of course, Kim Jae Joon. All baseball giants in their own right, back to where their futures were decided. Who will be the victor tonight? We all have to wait and see, but I do know one thing… It’s a great night to watch baseball.”

Butterflies fluttering inside me, I kept my hands together to keep them from shaking. I waited until I saw Joon make his way out onto the field before I allowed myself to breathe. I felt Omma’s hand on my shoulder and I looked back to smile at her when I saw Appa, his gaze intent and focused on the field. It’s funny because I never see this serious side of my father. I guess baseball knows that side better too. In Sung took his position on the home mound, adjusting his mask and body vest. I glanced at Misoo only to see her watching with pride.

I watched as Joon slowly walked to the pitchers mound, his body practically strumming with tension and power. My breath caught as I saw him tip his hat three times, as he powdered his hand and grasped the ball twice. He grabbed his chain and kissed his ring. I know this routine. I’ve watched him do it many times before

Something was different now, though, as I saw him scan the crowd. The only other time I saw him do this was before his game, in this field, in 1994. The first time I saw him play. Joon doesn’t usually look around before it starts, he looks around after it has been won. Afraid of who he sees but maybe moreover afraid of who he won’t see. Tonight, he looked around leisurely, acknowledging the crowd before the game even began. When he spotted everyone here for him, he looked surprised. But when his eyes met mine, there was no surprise there. Only certainty. Only love.

I heard the umpire blowing his whistle to start the game and waited to see the intensity come into Joon’s eyes. It happens now… The focus and determination will be all I see on Joon from now until the end of the game. Chilbong will take over. As I studied him more closely, I saw his eyes close, as if listening to something no one else can hear. When he opened them again, I saw the laser like focus and felt the intensity but no real tension, unlike every other time before.

I was still thinking about how different this was when the most amazing thing happened. Joon smiled.

*****

Yonsei University Baseball Stadium

December 22, 2001

6:15 p.m.

Jae Joon

I heard the faint sound of the announcer over the loudspeaker as I made my way onto the pitcher’s mound.

“Let’s do this!” I heard In Sung say from behind me before he patted my back. I looked at him to see him grinning broadly behind his mask and I nodded in response.

As I stood at the center of the field, I allowed myself to look at the sky, just beginning to darken and face the glare of the lights surrounding the stadium. I felt the slight breeze of wind on my face and the tickle of my hair underneath my cap on my neck. Prickles of tension were building up just underneath the surface of my skin and my heart pounded in anticipation even as I tried to coerce it to slow down.

I tipped my hat three times, in honor of the three coaches who guided me through my baseball career. I powdered my hands and grasped the ball twice, in honor of my Appa and Omma, who gave me life. And I lifted my chain to kiss my ring, for the woman who gave meaning to my existence.

I lifted my head and the noise of the crowd was deafening. For only the second time in my life I looked out at the audience and saw that every space on the bleachers were filled. My eyes traveled the spectators, seeing some familiar faces. Na Jeong is here somewhere, I thought, as I searched for her face. The first faces I found were my cousin’s and his wife’s, next to Haitai and Ae Jung. Just a couple of bleachers up were Appa and Omma, along with Jung Gook Hyung and his girlfriend. I saw Samcheonpo, Yoon Jin and Jung Jin Hyung. I was surprised… None of them mentioned coming to my game when I spoke to them all during the week. My eyes drank them all in… It was the first time in my life that I had people who knew me and loved me present to see me play. But there… There in their midst, was my heart and my world. Na Jeong. Her eyes met mine and time stopped.

When the umpire blew his whistle, I looked away and closed my eyes. The world quieted down and I forced myself to focus on the steady beat of my heart. That was the only noise I heard, the only one I focused on, save for Na Jeong’s voice in my memory.

“If you’re going to do something, then do it… But do it out of love. You want to play baseball? Then play baseball… But not because you’re afraid of being a nobody without it, but because you love it. You want to be with me? Do it because you love me, not because you’re afraid of losing me. If you let love motivate and guide you, you will never lose, because you’re already the victor in the only game that matters: Life. Joon-ah… Remember this, love is stronger than fear. It will always win.”

Recalling her words in my mind, I let my shoulders relax and memories of sunny days outside playing baseball came back to me. Faces of people I’ve met and fans who have shaken my hand and chanted my name ran through my head. I remembered the feeling of being alive on the field and the acceptance it had shown me. I remembered the feel of victory and my accomplishments over the years. Baseball has given me a lot. Now is my time to honor that gift. For the first time in my life I did something I never did before a game started. I smiled.

Feeling the ground under the weight of my legs, I felt grounded and ready. I rotated through my hip to prepare for the throw, my arms bent at the elbow over my head. Steady, now. Controlled power is what I need. I saw the figure of the batter ahead of me but focused on In Sung’s eyes and his mitt. I took a deep breath before I let the ball go and as soon as it flew out of my hand I knew the batter would not make contact. I watched as In Sung’s mitt caught it, then as he fell back onto the ground. STRIKE! I heard from the umpire as if in slow motion, as the screen posted a speed of 102 mph. In Sung stood up and took his mask off with an incredulous look on his face, giving me a smile before he slipped it back on.

*****

Na Jeong

I watched with bated breath as Joon readied for his pitch. His body will hold up, I made sure of that since I designed his workout schedule based on the research I did online. His legs will support his throw, as will his back and his core. His arms will ensure that his pitch is controlled and accurate. With the rest of his body so strong his shoulders wouldn’t have to work so hard.

My breath caught when the ball zoomed out of his hand and onto In Sung’s mitt. The bat didn’t even get to touch the ball as it was so fast. The crowd roared into cheers and whistles, even as In Sung got up from the ground and took his mask off. Appa and Jin-ie Oppa stood up to look at the speed he posted and Appa let out a breath as he sat back down. When he said 102 mph, everyone around him stood up to confirm. While everyone applauded and marveled at the number on the board, I stayed sitting down, my eyes focused on the happiness and relief on Joon’s face. My heart felt full and the tears fell from my eyes before I could even try to hold them back. He threw a second ball with the same precision as the first and struck out the second batter. When he threw the third, his pitch appeared consistent and showed no signs of slowing down. The announcer said ‘Strike Out’ over the loudspeakers and we watched as the teams changed sides.

“Na Jeong-ah… I think I need to watch this from down there,” Jin-ie Oppa said next to me, darting his eyes to the group of reporters and spectators just outside the baseball pitch.

I nodded and smiled. He gave me a reassuring grin before walking off. It wasn’t long after he vacated his seat that someone else came.

“Sorry I’m late. I couldn’t find a seat,” Omonim said as she sat down.

“Hello Omonim. You just missed the first round,” I told her and she shook her head.

“I saw it,” she responded. “I was here looking for somewhere to sit when it happened.”

“He’s amazing, right?” I said and she nodded, smiling.

“Eemo, you came?” Binggrae said from the bleachers in front of me.

Hearing that, I realized that Omonim hasn’t met anyone else in Joon’s life yet. I quickly introduced the gang and their partners, as well as Jung Gook Oppa and his girlfriend. I was about to introduce Omma and Appa when I noticed him staring at her with his mouth open and I had to stop myself from telling him to cut it out. I mean I can’t blame him… I understand the feeling… I wanted to do the same when I first met her. Omma, to her credit, just kept on nudging Appa until he closed her mouth. Omma took the hand Omonim offered with both her hands and Appa did the same.

“I heard we’re going to be in-laws,” Omonim said drily and my parents laughed. I cowered back in my seat in embarrassment.

“It’s looking like it,” Omma said, smiling at me. “She told us she was marrying him over a year ago.” She and Appa laughed at the memory and I wanted the ground to swallow me whole.

Omonim raised an eyebrow at me then said, “I suppose I should be glad you waited to tell me the same thing when you two were actually together?”

I gave her a sheepish smile and turned my attention back to the game. Fully cognizant of Joon’s recent injury and wanting to give all the invited athletes equal opportunity to showcase why they were invited to play, he was pitching four of the ten innings, alternating with two other pitchers.

I volleyed between watching the game and watching Jin-ie Oppa as he navigated the public relations aspect of Joon’s career. By the end of the seventh inning, it seemed that it was well and truly established that Kim Jae Joon was back on his game and that he was poised to make a big comeback into the Major Leagues. I watched as Jin-ie Oppa started out speaking to just one reporter to being flanked on all sides by people wanting to speak to him. When I looked at him and he gave me a thumbs up, Omonim’s eyes followed the direction of my gaze before speaking.

“That’s Joon’s manager, right?” She asked, staring at my face a little too closely.

“Yes.”

“I recognize the journalists with their cameras, but who are the other men in suits down there?” She continued looking at me as I searched for an answer.

I’m not lying. I don’t exactly know who those people are either. So I shrugged my shoulders even as I recalled the conversation I had with Jin-ie Oppa two weeks before.

 

December 7, 2001

“Jin-ie Oppa,” I said as I stood up and embraced him. “Thanks for meeting with me.”

“Sure thing,” he said as he sat down and motioned for a cup of coffee. He leaned back into his seat and I was struck by how good-looking he was. He looked happy, too

“Things going well with your lady?” I asked him and watched a smile spread on his face. I have to hand it to him… He tried to stop it but he was unsuccessful. I was glad. He deserved to be happy too.

“Yeah, it’s good. Really good. She’s amazing,” he finally said before looking at me closely. “What’s up?”

He looked up to thank the server who brought his coffee as I pulled my notebook out of my purse and laid it on the table before sliding it over to him. “What’s this?”

“I bought a speedometer. That’s the log I’ve been keeping of Joon’s pitching speeds starting from a few weeks ago.”

“Yeah, Joon mentioned that he’s pitching again,” he said casually as he perused the numbers. His eyes narrowed when he saw the latter part of the list.

I cleared my throat before I spoke again. “Yonsei and Korea University are having a friendly charity game on the 22nd. Joon’s going to be pitching. I… Uhmm… I wondered if you can make a few phone calls. I know you’re not his manager anymore and I would do it myself, but…”

“I’ll do it. I know there were scouts wanting to find out if he’s received any kind of treatment,” he said, still looking at the notebook. “Does Joon know you’re here?”

I shook my head no. “I don’t want him feeling pressured. I would rather he not know they’re there when he plays either.” I fiddled with the phone charm that Joon gave me, now hanging over the buckle on my purse.

“Na Jeong-ah…” Jin-ie Oppa said and I raised my eyes to his questioningly. “It probably doesn’t need to be said but I will say it anyway. You realize that if Joon gets scouted abroad, he will more than likely go back right? You know him. His pride won’t let him make the kind of exit he made with the injury. He’ll feel like he has something to prove.”

I nodded my head. “Yes,” I said, looking directly into his. “I know that.”

“But… You could have just kept this to yourself and had it all finally. Without as many options he would stay and you two can get your lives started. I thought you wanted him in Korea?”

“I want Joon happy. That’s what I want. If it means that he has to go back there and settle some unfinished business, whether it be for pride or redemption or whatever else, then so be it,” I answered. “The last few months have taught me that Joon and I… We can get through anything. Regardless of wherever he is, we will be together. Whether now or later, we will have our future. So if that’s what he has to do, then I am behind him 100 percent.”

Jin-ie Oppa looked at me silently for a few minutes over his cup. “I will do as you asked.”

I smiled at him and he smiled back. “Thank you.”

The umpire’s whistle brought me back to the present. “Omonim, I don’t know who they are,” I finally responded, my voice strained. She narrowed her eyes at me but didn’t press to elaborate. I kept my eyes on the field as the game went on, fully aware that those people down there could very well be the ones who will take Joon away from me again. But if he’s happy then I’m happy, I reminded myself. Forever can wait.

*****

Jae Joon

By the time the last inning started the score was 3-2, with Yonsei leading. With one more round to go, it looked like we were going to win. Even if the opposing pitcher threw a perfect round, we would still be leading by one homerun. My job is done.

From the dugout, I stood up and looked out to where Na Jeong sat and spotted her laughing at something someone said. I looked at who she was speaking to and was surprised to see my Omma talking animatedly as Omma and Appa listened as well. My Omma had her hand affectionately on Na Jeong’s arm and I smiled and wondered what could they be possibly laughing about. Me, probably, but I didn’t mind. They can all make fun of me if that meant keeping a smile on Na Jeong’s face.

In Sung joined me where I stood, as he watched the leadoff batter take his position before letting his eyes wander to where I was looking. With him batting eighth it’s unlikely that he will even be hitting tonight. I saw as Misoo waved at us and he gave a wave back.

“Na Jeong’s here, right? Is she here alone?” He asked.

“Na Jeong’s here. But not alone,” I responded. “All of our friends are here and her parents.”

“Who is that beautiful woman sitting next to her?” In Sung asked, awe in his voice.

“Yah… Close your mouth. That’s my Omma.”

“Your Omma doesn’t go to your baseball games Joon,” he reminded me. “Isn’t that your claim to fame?”

I blinked at him. “She did today.” He laughed and patted my back.

“You did well. Better than I thought you would,” he said, looking at me closely. “There are a lot of reporters here… You will get the exposure you need to gain some momentum with the American teams, if that’s what you want to do.”

“Yeah I know.” My thoughts strayed to how Na Jeong will react should I have to go back to America. I have no doubt that she will take it like she has everything else. She might actually do better than I will. “We’ll cross that bridge if we get there.”

“Well, looking at your manager working the ropes, I think that you’ll be having to cross that bridge sooner than you’re ready. We’re still going out after right?” I nodded and he smiled at me before taking his seat back next to the other players.

I watched as the game came to a close and we all ran out into the field to celebrate. I shook hands with the opposing players as the Yonsei players all took bows in front of the crowd. Before I could even celebrate properly, I was surrounded by reporters asking me questions. I tried to look for Jin-ie Oppa to try to divert them, but I saw him speaking to a couple of men in suits. I don’t really want to be answering questions without my manager there. It then hit me that he was no longer my manager… Yeah I will have to rectify that soon. Even as I was barraged with questions, my eyes continued to drift to the bleachers, where I knew Na Jeong stood.

*****

Na Jeong

As soon as the game ended, I stood up, ready to find Joon and tell him how proud I am of him. I saw him being surrounded by reporters and waited for a few minutes, wanting to give him some time to get these interviews done. Waiting for him to savor his time in the spotlight. He deserved this. He’s paid his dues.

“Na Jeong-ah, we’re going to hail a cab to the restaurant. Song Jook Heon, right? Across the street from Changdeok Palace?” Yoon Jin asked as Samcheonpo, Haitai and Ae Jung stood behind her. I nodded. “Do you want to come with us? Is Chilbong going to take a long time?”

“Uhmm, I’m not sure yet. I’m sure he’ll be done soon. If not, I can catch a cab myself later,” I responded as I saw Appa, Omma and Omonim talking. Turning back to Yoon Jin, I reassured her I will be fine before I sent her off. Walking towards our parents, I got there just in time to hear Omma say that they had to go home because the neighbor is watching Sook Sook.

“Omonim, do you want to come with us?” I asked her. “I’m sure Joon would love to see you.”

“I can’t,” she said. “My husband is expecting me home. Tell Joon to call me though, okay?”

“Sure,” I said. I bid Omma and Appa good night and though Appa grumbled about me staying the night at Joon’s apartment, he quieted when Omma nudged him.

When I walked back to the bleachers, Joon still stood in the center of the crowd, his eyes looking out to where I stood. I knew he would be looking for me. When our eyes met, he excused himself and walked towards me, his strides sure and purposeful. I started walking down the bleachers and met him halfway.

As soon as I reached the last bleacher, he ran towards me and wrapped his arms around my waist, lifting me up in the air. My arms snaked around his neck and he buried his head on my shoulder. When he lifted his head, his eyes looked into my eyes and he pressed his forehead to mine.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey back,” I responded and he pressed a soft kiss on my lips as I breathed him in. His arms supported my back even he smiled against my lips. “Joon-ah, you did it. You really did it.”

“We did it. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

“Jagiya… There are a bunch of people staring at you right now,” I said. “Do you think they can see my face?”

He chuckled and said, “I don’t care.” He put me down on the ground before he continued. “But I should. At least until you’re my wife.” Blocking their view he led me by the hand to the back of the bleachers just outside the stadium. “I have to change out of my uniform, but I’ll only be a few minutes. You’ll wait for me?”

Forever. I’ll wait forever if I have to. “Of course.” His mouth descended on mine again, his thumb brushing my cheek and I wondered how long we will have to be apart again. My tongue sought his out and as I opened my eyes I saw him watching me. Our lips clashed and our tongues danced together, in the shadow of the stadium. His teeth nipped my bottom lip even as I pulled away. “Come back soon.”

I looked at him through a thin haze of desire and he nodded at me. I watched him walk towards the locker room. While I waited I walked back into the stadium and sat myself down on a bleacher. Misoo spotted me and walked towards me. She sat herself down next to me before she spoke.

“I never thought the day would come when I saw Chilbong and In Sung play again,” she said.

“Yeah… Me neither. It’s been a long time,” I responded. “But they play like they’ve never been apart. I forget sometimes, how well they play together… I mean even now I have only ever seen them play at a game twice.”

“Once, Na Jeong-ah,” she said. “I saw you when you came to Chilbong’s game. He was so giddy after.”

“Nope… He told me I was his lucky charm and talked me into seeing another game. I don’t think he knows, though.” I blew a breath out and put his gloves on. Winter is here again already. When I looked at her she appeared surprised. “What?” She merely smiled at me.

“Did you know that the first night Chilbong kissed you, he was punished for so long afterwards?” Misoo said, chuckling. “Coach was so upset that he actually lied and missed practice… Said his Omma was getting married, when she had just gotten married.”

Huh? Joon first kissed me on New Year’s Eve… In Samcheonpo’s hometown. I frowned and looked at her but before I could ask her what she’s talking about, she kept talking. “Don’t get mad at him, okay? And don’t tell him that you know. He told In Sung, who then told me. He said you were playing some sort of drinking game and some bottle landed on you. He’s such a girl sometimes. ”

I searched my mind for the memory and tried to find it but I couldn’t.

“It’s kind of crazy looking at him now, to believe he was Chilbong years ago. He’s so confident and poised these days. Even when he’s falling apart,” she commented then looked at me again. “I know how hard it must have been for you, when he got injured… I went through the same thing with In Sung years ago.”

“Yeah… It was hard.”

“But you made it through stronger, just like we did.” She paused and took a deep breath. “Na Jeong-ssi, In Sung mentioned that Joon might go back abroad if he got any international offers?”

“Yes. It’s very likely. ” A lump formed in my throat as I nodded. “I think… I think it’s what will make him happy.”

“You make him happy, too, Na Jeong-ssi. In Sung may think that way but if you ask Chilbong, I think he’ll stay.”

I stayed silent, not knowing how to respond. Joon and make each other happy but I won’t ask him to sacrifice his dream for me. Not when the battle to reclaim it was fought so hard and was so painful. Joon will make whatever decision he thinks is best. And I will trust him because that’s what it means to love someone. To allow them to stay themselves. To allow them to fly.

Misoo sat with me as we waited for Joon and In Sung. When they finally came back out, Joon took my hand in his and we walked behind them to the parking lot. I listened as Misoo and In Sung talked about their wedding and looking for a house. I wondered what it must be like to have your future so close. I envied that. Feeling the weight of Joon’s grasp I turned to him and looked at his face in profile, looking ahead, his chin up. I know the heart and mind that lies behind that handsome face.

Time is relative. He’s worth it. He will always be worth it.

*****

Song Jook Heon

9:15 p.m.

Jae Joon

I looked around and smiled as I watched all of our friends laughed and joked around the table. Taking a bite of the abalone with ginkgo berries, I listened vaguely as Misoo and Yoon Jin spoke about weddings. To my left, In Sung and Haitai were talking about sports. Na Jeong was eating some steamed pork and chatting with Jin Yi Noona and Ae Jung. Jung Gook Hyung, Yoo Mi Noona and Binggrae were talking about medicine.

The table was set with about 30 traditional Korean dishes, and we were all sat on the floor. I took a shot of soju and felt Na Jeong’s eyes on me.

“You okay?” She asked.

“Yes,” I responded. “I’m happy.”

To my surprise, I realized that I am, indeed, happy. And have been for a while. Tonight was just the icing on the cake. The happiness I felt from the victory doesn’t even equate to the happiness from being able to prove to myself that I can do it, or the happiness I feel now being surrounded by Na Jeong and our friends.

My phone rang and keeping my right arm around Na Jeong’s shoulder, picked it up when I saw that it was Jung Jin Hyung.

“Hyung?” I asked. “Why aren’t you here? I thought you told Na Jeong you’d be coming out for dinner.” He responded, but due to the noise and conversation around me, I couldn’t hear him so I got up to take the call outside. “Hyung, hang on… I can’t hear you.”

I stepped out of the dining room and out of the entrance before I spoke again. I looked up at the traditional arch that marked the restaurant’s location and reminded myself to come here again when Hyung’s voice came through the line.

“Joon-ah, are you listening to me?” He demanded.

“Hyung I couldn’t hear you before, but I’m outside now. Why aren’t you here?”

“I’ve just spent the last two hours talking to the scouts who flew all the way from America to watch you play and trying to divert some attention from the little demonstration you and Na Jeong did at the stadium. Shouldn’t you be more careful? You know once they have a picture of her face they’ll never leave her alone.”

“Yeah I know. I wasn’t thinking,” I answered before his words actually registered in my brain. “Hyung… American scouts? How did they know that I was playing?”

“I called them, but listen…”

“Hyung, you didn’t even know that I was playing. I didn’t tell you.”

“I read about it in the paper but Joon-ah…”

“It wasn’t written in the paper. The reporters that were there were by invitation only…” He’s hedging the question and I wasn’t quite sure why.

“That doesn’t matter. The important thing is that I’ve already received some emails of interest from three American teams. We’ll need to move quickly if you want to play in the upcoming season.”

“I’m not really sure…” I started before he interrupted me.

“Dammit Joon-ah… This was all you wanted. Now is not the time for dawdling around. Especially after Na Jeong asked that I make some phone calls…”

“What do you mean Na Jeong asked you to make some calls?” I asked. When did she even have time to do that?

“Your Na Jeong-ie has been taking notes on how well your physical therapy was progressing and showed me her log. Don’t you think you owe it to her and yourself to see where this will take you? This was your dream… And now it’s back. People don’t get many opportunities like this Joon-ah.”

“What do I need to do?” I asked quietly.

“We can get away with communicating with the other teams via phone and online. But the Giants… We probably need to meet with them in person. So that means flying back to San Francisco. I’ll email them tonight and find out when they can meet with you. Do you want me to call you before I book the flights?”

“Hyung… Just book it and let me know when we’re flying out,” I answered. It’s only a meeting. The season doesn’t start for a few more months.

“I’ll call you tomorrow.”

He hung up the phone and I stood there for a few minutes staring at my phone… Wondering how it was possible that things can change so quickly. Na Jeong asked him to make some phone calls. Why the hell would she do that without telling me?

As I walked back into the dining room I allowed myself to watch her as she spoke to our friends, her face expressive and her hands moving in front of her and I had to smile. Her hair was piled high on top of her head in a bun, exposing the graceful curve of her neck. As if she felt my eyes on her, she turned her head over her shoulder slowly to where I stood and met my gaze, her mouth caught in a smile.

My eyes fastened on hers, I recognized the racing of my heart as love coursed through me. I looked at her intently and when I didn’t return her smile, she raised an eyebrow in question. Emotion flooded my veins as I looked at her and I stalked over to the table and handed Binggrae my card.

“Na Jeong and I are leaving,” I said as she looked at me in confusion. “You can use this to pay.”

“What happened?” Samcheonpo asked. “Is there an emergency?”

“No,” I responded. “We just need to leave.”

“Joon-ah… What’s wrong?” Na Jeong asked.

“We need to talk,” I said, my tone sounding curt and abrupt. When I saw her about to protest I said, “Jung Jin Hyung just called me.”

Her face paled and she got up from the table and quickly collected her purse and her coat. Jung Gook Hyung looked at us in concern and Yoon Jin stood up.

“Na Jeong-ah, call me later, okay?” She said and Na Jeong nodded her head.

We walked to the car in silence and I drove us to my apartment where we can talk in private.

*****

Na Jeong

Am I in trouble? I dart my eyes towards Joon as he gripped the steering wheel, eyes firmly fixed on the road. He hasn’t said a word since dinner. Not entirely sure how to read him, I didn’t know whether to be nervous or to get angry. How do I prepare a rebuttal when I don’t know what the offensive approach is?

He parked the car and opened the passenger car door. He held his hand out, palm up and puzzled, I took it. He didn’t say anything as we walked up to his apartment and as soon as we entered the apartment I sat myself down at the kitchen table to prepare myself for the talk.

“Do you want something to drink?” He asked. “Coffee, tea, wine? I think we still have half a bottle in here somewhere…”

“Joon-ah… Are you going to tell me what this is about?”

I watched as he stood against the counter facing me. His expressionist neutral, he looked like he was thinking before he spoke.

“Did you ask Jung Jin Hyung to get in contact with the scouts from the American teams?”

“Yes.” Just because I didn’t tell him doesn’t mean I lied. So I have nothing to feel guilty about.

“Why would you do that?” Not why would you do that without telling me, but why would you do that.

“Because I love you. And you love playing baseball, ” I said.

“You didn’t think I would call Hyung myself?”

“No. If you wanted to do that you would have done it. You’re a proud man, Joon. I know that… There really was no other…”

“You’re right,” he said quietly.

“… Way around… What?”

I frowned at him when I saw a smile spread on his face. So he’s not angry? I’m confused and a little thrown off.

“You’re right. Thank you.”

He walked over to the table and pulled a chair out before placing it perpendicular from me. He sat down next to me and intertwined his legs with mine. His right hand landed on the top of my thigh even as his left started drawing circles on my back of my hand.

“How is it… That you understand me better than I understand myself?” He asked, his eyes intent on my face. He brushed a stray piece of hair from my face, his fingers lingering over my brow and I swallowed. His thumb brushed over my cheek before moving down to my mouth.

The way he was watching me was direct, no awkwardness or avoidance. It was disconcerting, having those eyes looking at me that way. Joon oozed confidence, as if he was just confirming something he’s known all along.

“Jagiya,” I said nervously as he rubbed his thumb on my lips. “We’ve known each other for almost eight years…” The hand that was on my thigh started traveling up towards my waist and settled right on the underside of my breast. His eyes were watching my lips as I spoke and finding it hard to breathe, I felt my tongue dart out to wet them. “… And we’ve been together for a year. If I don’t know you, who does? If I don’t try to understand you, then who would?”

“Let’s go.” He took a deep breath and stood up. My knees feeling a bit like jelly, I lifted myself off the chair and he wrapped a steadying arm around my waist.

“Where… Where are we going?” Is it possible to meet another version of a man you’ve been in love with for years? Because that’s what I’m feeling right about now.

“I want to show you how thankful I am. That you’re you. That you love me.” He said this with his face an inch away from mine. Not really knowing where we are going with this, my heart racing in my chest.

“Can’t you do that right here?” I asked, my throat parched dry.

“I could… But it won’t be anywhere near as comfortable. Let me show you, Sung Na Jeong… How much I love you.” He said my name so tenderly, the husky timbre on his voice shooting sparks right through me. I felt lightheaded and out of breath, as if I had been running in place.

Feeling shaky, I could only nod and he bent down to kiss me, his mouth insistent and persuasive. Power and control vibrated off of him… Such a contrast to how he’s ever been in the past. This version of Joon knew exactly who he was and where his place was in the world. It was thrilling and nerve wracking at the same time.

Strong hands pressed into my waist and he pulled me close to him, and his arousal pressed into my stomach. I felt his deft fingers unbuttoning my coat and dropping it onto the ground. A warm hand lifted the hem of my shirt and I trembled when I felt contact on my abdomen. He pressed himself closer to me and I moaned into his mouth. His tongue met mine possessively as his hand caressed my collarbone before he placed it on my neck. I felt a nip on my lower lip before his lips moved lower. I felt his mouth suck and lick at my neck and I grabbed the hem of his shirt to… Take. It. Off. He pulled away long enough and I watched him slip it off, his broad chest coming into view. I ran my exploring hands over his chest, my eyes gobbling up the view. He watched me as I looked at him and I saw his abdomen tighten.

Before I could even say anything, his mouth was on mine again, one hand on the back of my head. I grab his cap and throw it on the floor, just like he did on the night everything changed and heard him groan against my mouth when I ran my fingers through his thick hair. I felt his hands move to my buttocks and he lifted me up, my legs instinctively wrapped around his waist. His mouth continued to move on mine, lips sucking on my tongue. Heady with passion I didn’t even notice when he took a hand off my bottom to turn a room handle and used a foot to kick it open.

I opened my eyes in confusion when he tugged his mouth off of mine and let me down, my whole front rubbing against his body as I tried to land on my feet. He went behind me then, his hands on either side of my shoulders, as his lips went onto the curve of my neck. I was about to close my eyes again, lost in sensation, when I heard his voice.

“Open your eyes, Na Jeong-ah,” he whispered in my ear and I opened them slowly. “Look in front of you.” I followed his command and saw that the mirror that was previously standing to the side in the room has now been fastened on the front of the closet. The glow from the lamp brought a subtle glow to the room, bathing it in soft light. I felt like I was in a haze and everything felt surreal with nothing but Joon’s touch keeping me grounded. Though I felt like I should look away, I didn’t and my eyes fixed on his hands as they wrapped on my waist.

“Do you see, jagiya, what I see when I look at you?” I heard him whisper into my ear. “Do you see how beautiful you are?” I felt his fingers on my head, loosening the rubber band that held my bun in place. I felt my hair tumble down on my shoulders, even as he worked to shake the strands loose. I felt prickles of sensation everywhere and I trembled as I stood there watching us on the mirror.

“Do you know why I love you?” He continued before standing in front of me. His pulse jumping on his neck, he brought my hand to his lips. “My beautiful Na Jeong-ie… I would willingly give my last breath for one taste of you.” He kissed my collarbone, his lips lingering at the exposed skin. His mouth traveled down to kiss my abdomen and I watched the image of his dark head on the mirror as he went lower and lower still. His hands grabbed the hem of my shirt and I watched as he lifted it off me, exposing me in a lacy black bra. I looked different in the mirror, my skin glowing and my face flushed in passion.

“I love you,” he said against my abdomen, “because you make me feel alive. You make my life worth living.” I looked down to see his eyes gazing intently at my face. Desire and love mingled in my body and I could taste the anticipation and excitement in my mouth. His fingers unclasped my bra, and I instinctively tried to cover myself up when it fell. I felt him chuckling against me before he spoke again.

“Don’t cover yourself up, Na Jeong-ah…” I heard his voice whisper. “Every inch of you is beautiful. Every single damn inch. So beautiful. All the places I’ve been and all the people I have met, and still I have never seen anyone or anything lovelier.” He took my hands off my breasts and embarrassed, I tried to close my eyes when I realized that my nipples were hard. As if knowing where my eyes were, he brought his calloused hand up to cup one of my breasts as his head moved to the other. I looked down and watched his tongue move over my hardened nipple and his lips wrapped around it. I closed my eyes as I felt him suck even as his other hand squeezed the other. My legs felt so shaky I thought they were going to give out on me. After he’s had his fill of one he leisurely moved to the other, taking his sweet time and driving me crazy. When I felt his mouth on my abdomen his hands went to my hips and his fingers moved down to take off my socks before unbuttoning my jeans.

Working it down my hips, I watched as his fingers touched every inch of skin he exposed. I stood there in front of the mirror with just my underwear on and wondered how it was that I didn’t feel more self conscious. Then it hit me that I knew why. Because with Joon I always felt powerful and beautiful. I saw myself through his eyes and the woman I saw there was incredible and perfect. Feeling emboldened, I took my panties off and continued to stand, fully naked in front of him. The back of my legs hit the bed and I sat down. Joon reached under me to pull me more towards the edge and before I could ask him what he was doing, he had already dropped to his knees between my legs and was staring intently at what was before him like a starving man. I felt hands grab the back of my knees as he lifted them to his shoulders and his mouth moved to kiss and lick my core. I watched our reflection on the mirror as I felt his fingers spread me and his tongue darted out to lick the swollen bud. At the contact I clutched at his head, my eyes taking in the image even as his mouth continued to move against me. His teeth nipped at it before licking it gently. I felt a warm breath over it before he inserted a finger inside me even as he continued to lap and nibble. My hips moved to their own accord and I heard him say, “You taste delicious. I just could never get enough of this taste.” His words, delivered in that husky voice, turned me on even more and I whispered his name huskily as I felt him guide a second finger into me. He moved them slowly, watching me as I looked at him, his eyes never breaking our gaze and that, coupled with the view from the mirror, made me feel desperate and wanton. The pleasure building up, I could only watch as he coaxed my body into release, my shoulders shaking as I cried out his name over and over again.

He continued kiss my core gently, even as my climax subsided. When at last he lifted himself off me, I looked into his eyes and the intensity still burned. Our gazes never breaking I watched as he took off the rest of his clothes and pressed himself over me.

He slid me higher on the bed, so that my whole back was safely supported. Our bodies touched from chest to legs, and he brushed my hair from one shoulder to the side as he leaned his weight over one elbow. His eyes traveled over my face before staying fixed on my eyes. I didn’t know why but I felt tears gather as I took in the way he looked at me.

“Joon-ah,” I said, my voice choking. “I love you so much.”

He started kissing my face then, my forehead and my eyes. My nose and my cheeks… My ears and my chin. He was whispering something so softly but it wasn’t until he was back on my mouth that I heard what it was. ‘I love you.’ After every kiss on my face he had been whispering ‘I love you”. Overcome with emotions, I watched as his lips landed on mine and I wrapped my arms around his neck, feeling the weight of his body on me. His heart raced against my chest as I tasted myself on his tongue and his hands went under me to try to narrow the gap between us. I felt his arousal pressing on me, and I wanted him closer… Closer… From under him I lifted both legs and raised my pelvis to wrap them around his waist. Impatient and no longer willing to wait I gave his lip a nip before putting a hand between us and stroking his arousal. I watched as his eyes closed and he moan my name, his hips moving against my hand. I slipped him inside me and his eyes opened when he realized what I had done.

“Mine,” I said, as I pushed my hips towards his. “You’re mine. Mine.”

He nodded and lifted himself slightly off of me and he started thrusting his hips. He pulled out halfway before sliding himself back in, until I felt like we were no longer two people but one. He rotated his hips and I felt him all around, even as his mouth continued to kiss my neck. He thrusted in an even pace, as if we had forever. My hands caressed his strong back and lingered on his taut buttocks, willing him to speed up, but he wouldn’t give in. When his mouth took my nipple and sucked I had to close my eyes the sensation was so intense. And still he kept moving between my legs slowly. I could feel the tension, my peak building up low in my abdomen. I need him. Deeper. Closer. Faster.

“Joon-ah…” I pleaded. He lifted his face from my breast and kissed my mouth. His eyes looked at me questioningly. “Please…”

“Jagiya,” he whispered against my mouth. “Please what?” The whole time his hips never stopped moving and I felt like I was about to shatter.

“I want to see… I want to see you as you’re inside me,” I said hurriedly.

“Na Jeong-ah… Are you sure?” He asked, his breath warm.

I nodded and he lifted me from the bed before laying me down on my stomach on the other end. If I lift my head up I can see my face. How are we going to do this? I thought. I watched on the mirror as Joon joined me, our legs touching, his mouth planting little kisses down my spine. His fingers traveled the path his lips took and just when I was about to complain about him teasing me, he brought a hand to my abdomen, lifted my hips upwards and slid inside me. Oh… Oh… I wanted deeper and this was definitely deeper.

I looked in the mirror and saw that he was on his knees behind me, and I lifted myself higher up to get some leverage. His hands stayed around my waist as he continued to thrust and I felt my climax building up once more. More intensely. He brought a hand up to move the hair that has slipped forward back and felt him reach in front of me to caress my breasts even as he sped up. I moaned low in my throat as I felt him everywhere. Sensations of coiling and uncoiling, rising and rising. My body no longer feeling like my own, his name was constantly on my lips as the knot inside me burst… My climax tore through me and I met his eyes on the mirror. Even with my body trembling in surrender, I watched him as he groaned out my name before he was overtaken by his own release.

Our eyes stayed connected in our reflection. Even as our bodies stayed connected. And it was a beautiful sight. Wow. This mirror. I will never look at a mirror the same way again. I wondered if something was wrong with me that I didn’t feel embarrassed and was still pondering this issue when Joon pulled out of me and laid down next to me instead. Lifting myself on one elbow I looked at his face and saw that he was smiling.

“Jagiya,” he said. “You are going to kill me one of these days.”

“Nope… YOU are going to kill me one of these days. That was amazing.”

He gave me a lopsided grin and I laid my head down on his chest. He pulled the cover from underneath us and covered us both up in our own cocoon. We stayed in silence for a few minutes, our hearts slowing down together. I kept my hand on his chest while his fingers were on my back. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to rest a little… It’s been a long day. Just as I felt myself nodding off I heard his voice, quiet and strong.

“Na Jeong-ah…”

“Hmmm?” I responded, my eyes already filling with tears, already knowing what he’s about to say. I willed them to stay shut even as I waited for him to continue.

“I’ll have to go back… To America.”

At that, my eyes shot open and I let the tears fall. Dammit. This is the problem when you love someone so much. All selfishness flies out the window. I wasn’t sure what to say and I debated whether I should just pretend that I didn’t hear him say it. But pretending it wasn’t said doesn’t make it less real. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I uttered the two words that I realized would bring us both peace.

“I know.”

*****

San Francisco, California

December 24, 2001

3:00 a.m.

Jae Joon

After tossing and turning for a few hours, I just contented myself with laying down on the bed. The last few days have been hectic, with me and Jung Jin Hyung leaving first thing yesterday morning, barely giving me a chance to properly say goodbye to Na Jeong. I remembered the resignation in her voice when she acknowledged the certainty that I might have to go back… But I heard the love too. She knew that I would have regretted it had I not been given that chance. She knew even without my telling her that this was the opportunity I was waiting for. Her selflessness overwhelms me. Seeing how she takes everything in stride inspires me to be stronger. Hyung’s right… I owe it to myself and her to see how far this can take me.

It’s just a meeting, I reminded myself, I will be back in Korea in a few days and Na Jeong and I can decide our future together.

The alarm in my phone rang and surprised I looked to see what it was alerting me to. It’s the 24th in Korea. Appa’s birthday. I wondered briefly if I should even make the phone call. He probably wouldn’t even notice if I didn’t. Filial duty won over pride and reluctantly I picked up the phone to make my dreaded once a year call to my father.

I hoped that the call would go unanswered until I remembered that Appa still to this day refused to have a voicemail set up. I’ll give it until the fourth ring and then I’m hanging up, I told myself. The phone rang for the third time and I was getting ready to hang up when I heard my Appa’s voice on the other end of the line.

“Hello?”

“Appa… It’s Joon. I don’t want to take too much of your time, but I know you go to bed early to get up for the farm… So I wanted to wish you a happy birthday.”

“Thank you, Joon-ah…”

“Appa I still have to sleep so…”

“Your Omma called me a few days ago… She said that she saw you play and that you did well.” I heard him pause before he clear his throat. “I’m proud of you.”

“Appa are you okay?” He’s never told me he was proud of me before.

“Did you know your Omma hasn’t called me since the day she left?” He asked. “I couldn’t believe she would call me after almost twenty years just to tell me that…” Not knowing if that was a rhetorical question, I just chose to stay silent. “Ahh… Are you still there? I wish I could have seen you play… But no one told me you’ve even recovered… I haven’t seen you play since you were in high school…”

What? “Appa, you never saw me play.” Even as I spoke I remembered the pictures in my mother’s scrapbook and her voice telling me that Appa has sent her those over the years.

“I used to go to your games, in the beginning… I was always late… It’s impossible to get out of work on time. The business was just starting. But you never seemed to notice, so I stopped staying for the whole game… You always did your own thing… You didn’t need me anymore…”

“Appa,” I said, my voice strained. “Is something wrong?”

“Don’t mind me… Appa is just getting old. The older I get, the more I seem to think back on the past. Joon-ah… You’re happy though, right? Your Omma said you have a nice girl… Make sure you treat her well, which I know you will… You were always a good boy growing up…”

Tears filled my eyes as confusion took over. Why is he saying this stuff? Why now? Is something wrong?

“Learn from Appa, okay? Don’t waste any minute to show her how much you love her… Every moment is an opportunity to tell her. Not with money and not with stuff, but your heart… A good woman will understand that. I wish someone told me that when I was younger.” He paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “I wasn’t thinking when I made those calls… To my old company friends and to that baseball team… Do you ever just do or say anything that you don’t actually think about first?” Yes, I do. I guess it runs in the family. “I had a feeling it would make you angry… Appa’s sorry… I… I was just trying to help. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, Appa, I know…” Is he lonely? I suddenly pictured my father in his house alone, in the country somewhere and despite not wanting it, my heart clamped inside my chest. I haven’t even seen him in a few years. Not since he moved. Has he… Has he aged now? Will his face be wrinkled when I see him? The thought brought a lump to my throat and I fought to tamp down my emotions. “Appa… You should find yourself a good woman, too. You should re-marry… Just like Omma has.”

“That’s the curse of the men in our family. We seem to only ever love one woman all our lives… Your Omma… Your Omma was the only one for me. There will be no other… That’s why it was so hard when she left… But I forgot that she didn’t just leave me… She left you too… And I wasn’t as good a father as I should have been, but I worked hard… I had my boy to think about. But then my boy left too… And it felt like I was alone all over again…”

“Appa… I was just going to university… I wasn’t leaving you.”

“With your talent, I knew that once you left home, you were gone for good. It was okay… And I was right. First Japan… And now America… I wish though that one day you will be in Korea long enough so that I can actually see you again… I really want to see my boy again and tell him how much I’ve missed his face.”

The tears fell from my eyes then as I struggled to find the words to say. “As soon as I’m able to take time off here, Appa, I’ll come see you.”

“That’s good,” I heard him say. “That’s good… And bring your girlfriend along. I want to meet the girl that your Omma mentioned.”

“Appa… Her name is Na Jeong… Sung Na Jeong. You’d like her. She’s a bit like Omma.”

“Oh… You’re in trouble then… Those kinds of women are a lot of work.”

I managed to chuckle along with my father even as the tears fell. By the time I hung up the phone I wished I could teleport back to Korea and see Appa’s face. I always thought it was just Na Jeong I was leaving behind in Korea but it seems that I was wrong. I was leaving them, too. And right now I wasn’t quite sure if that was a good or bad thing.

*****

December 24, 2001

9:00 a.m.

Joon

The team manager, Dusty Baker, was already sitting at the conference table, along with the team lawyer when Jung Jin Hyung and I entered. They were both wearing suits and thankfully I listened to Hyung and wore one too. I had complained that it all seemed so formal but he said that we needed to be taken seriously if we were negotiating. That brought to mind the night that Na Jeong came to my apartment before I left the last time, her in her white suit looking so determined as she sat and negotiated, relaxed me instantly. It worked for her, so I’m hoping it works for me too. The door opened and the Giants’ coach entered the conference room. A smile came upon his face when he saw me.

“JJ, it’s good to see you again,” Dave righetti, the pitching coach, said as he held out a hand. I shook it before he turned his attention to Jung Jin Hyung. “Mr. Lee, you too.” They exchanged a handshake and we sat down. Before long, one of the secretaries came in and brought some coffee for each of us.

I looked behind them to see Pacific Bell Park through the windows. It’s another beautiful day in San Francisco and I wondered what Na Jeong was doing. I’m sure she’d be going out tomorrow with the gang. Either that or staying in with the family. Maybe she and Sook Sook will…

“JJ… Let’s cut to the chase. It’s Christmas Eve here and we would like to spend some time with our families too. We heard about the game you just played a few days ago. We would like to renegotiate your contract.”

“There is no contract,” Jung Jin Hyung said smoothly, putting his coffee cup down. “As of September, Jae Joon became a free agent.”

“That’s what we wanted to talk about,” the manager said. “We’ve come up with a contract that we think would make the Giants the most attractive option for JJ.” His lawyer placed a folder on the table and he slid it over for us to look at.

Jung Jin Hyung opened the folder and looked at what the contract said before handing it to me. After scanning the paperwork, we exchanged glances. USD 5 million for 2 years.

“We know that it’s a good contract and of course it will be contingent on JJ staying here until the season starts so we can take over his physical therapy and do some conditioning. We also need him examined by the team physician to make sure everything is okay.”

“You do realize that he’s received several offers from other teams as well,” Hyung said. “Their offers are not as generous as yours… But the Oakland As are paying for his housing and the Mets told him they can get him a permanent visa.”

I watched as the manager and the lawyer spoke quietly before he turned around back to us. “That can also be arranged.”

“Can you give us a minute to discuss this?” I asked with a smile. The men nodded and left the room. Once the door was safely closed, I turned to Hyung to see him studying me. “Hyung… What do you think?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think but what you think. I just wanted to make sure the options that you had were the best possible ones… That’s my job. To make sure you’re taken care of. If you take their offer, you’re pretty much set for life. You’ll come back to Korea having made the best comeback. And you know I will have no problem staying in San Francisco. But at the end of the day, it’s your choice.”

I sat back and looked out the windows as I thought about everything… The years I spent working to get here, the past few months, the last few days, the phone call from this morning and Na Jeong.

This will ensure our future. This will be our future. Jung Jin Hyung watched me for a few minutes before he spoke.

“Joon-ah, have you made a decision?” He asked.

“Yes.”

My mind made up, I sat back on the chair as I flip through the contract waiting for the men to return. It’s time to take control of my destiny. I just hope Na Jeong understands.

*****

December 31, 2001

6:45 p.m.

Na Jeong

I rubbed my gloved hands together as I waited for the gang to show up. With Joon away we all made plans to meet up after talking them into abandoning their New Years Eve plans to help me win some Lee Sang Min season tickets. They all tried to get out of it, but I reminded all of them of their broken promise from two years ago, as well as the “my-boyfriend-is-in-America-you-can’t-possibly-leave-me-by-myself-on-New-Year’s-Eve-what-kind-of-friends-are-you” card and they gave in.

I looked at the printout of the email from Lee Sang Min’s official fan club and hoped that not a lot of people will show up. Maybe they wouldn’t even have read it. I received the email invitation three days ago, so I’m sure that people already had plans. But me. Even if I did I would have given it up for this opportunity. I know my priorities.

WIN LEE SANG MIN SEASON TICKETS!

When: New Year’s Eve

Where: Seocho-gu Bus Stop

SPOT THE BANNER!

I looked at the banner hanging behind me and noted that it seemed to be a big promotion. There was a long table for registration and the people in charge were milling about getting things organized.

As I waited I chewed on some pepero sticks that I picked up at the convenience store and looked around only to realize that there was still a space where Sampoong Department Store stood six years ago. It looked like they were about to start construction of some luxury apartment buildings, though, seeing the billboard signs around it.

I was looking for my phone in my purse when at the corner of my eye, I saw the pedestrian light turn to green and realized that this was the exact spot I stood at that day. The day I thought we lost Chilbong.

I remembered the buzzing of all the pagers as the news broke on the bus and pounding on the door to be let out. I remembered people all around me, standing in shock as we all watched the building collapse on the jumbotron. I remembered running and running all the way to this corner.

Like a montage it seemed like I could see myself with my hand against the tree, my body trembling, as I hoped against all hope that Chilbong was alive. Then, like a miracle, he was there. Waving across the street and smiling at me. And then, a few beats later, he was here, right in front of me, looking at me in concern as I dissolved into hysterical tears. I had wrapped my arms around his neck then as he comforted me when I should have been comforting him. But all that I could think of was, thank God. Thank God that miracles exist. Thank God Chilbong is still alive.

In my arms he felt real and solid and steady. Even then I knew my world was a better place because he was in it. Even then my heart understood the magnitude of loss had he not existed in this world. Tears started forming in my eyes at the poignant memory and I didn’t notice that the gang had arrived until I heard Binggrae’s voice.

“Na Jeong-ah…”I heard him say. “It’s almost 7 p.m… Do we need to sign up?”

Brushing the tears away with the the back of my hands I nodded and tried to smile.

“Are you okay?” Jin Yi Unnie asked.

“Yes. I’m good. Just… Some memories,” I responded. I motioned for the gang to circle me before I spoke determinedly. “Okay… Listen. We all have to sign up separately so we have seven chances of winning rather than just one. Let’s get the first clue then decide on a strategy.” I saw Samcheonpo chuckling on the side and I fixed a glare at him. “Yah… This is important to me. Should I tell Joon you weren’t being supportive? ” He blinked at me a few times, as if trying to gauge how serious I am, but then his face straightened.

“Sorry, Na Jeong-ah,” he mumbled even as Yoon Jin gave him a squeeze.

“Let’s go! FIGHTING!” I tried to be encouraging. I really really want these tickets. I was going to ask Joon this morning to call Lee Sang Min to ask for hints, getting up especially early to call him at least when it’s a decent time in San Francisco but he didn’t pick up the phone. Thats weird. I could have sworn that he’s usually done with training by that time.

We filed in a line and when I was at the front I filled out a piece of paper with my name and other pertinent information. They handed me an index card with three lines and immediately I thought, Is that it? I can definitely do this.

I waited at the side as our friends all signed up and got their clues and as we all gathered together, we all read the first clue.

Head to the next point!

LOCATION: Gangnam, 38 storey building.

HINT: Red umbrella

 

“Hmmm, Gangnam is a big place,” Haitai commented. “How do we know which ones have 38 storeys?”

“I know,” Ae Jung said. “And there are a ton of people here… It’s a bit vague but it has to be big enough to handle the crowd, right?” Everyone nodded and a light bulb flashed in my head.

“Guys… I’ve worked at the LG Tower… It has 38 storeys. It’s big, and well known. I bet that’s what it is.”

“Should we walk or take a cab there?” Samcheonpo asked. “It’s only a couple of miles away.”

“Time is money! I don’t want people getting there before me!”

“Okay… Taxi it is then!” Yoon Jin said and we quickly hailed two taxi and agreed to meet in front of LG Tower. Haitai and Ae Jung were looking at each other all lovey dovey and before I became bitter about Joon not being here, I reminded myself that they’re spending New Years Eve running around Seoul to win me something. They can be lovey dovey all they want. I bet Joon and I are the same way. Thank goodness the taxis stopped and we arrived before I could think about how much I missed him.

“Which red umbrella are we talking about?” Jin Yi Unnie asked. I looked around and cringed as it seemed like the place was overrun with people holding red umbrellas. These organizers are good.

“Should we split up into two teams? That way we can cover more space and we’re not all spending time hitting up non helpful clues,” Binggrae suggested.

“Good idea, Bing,” I said. “Plus surely they didn’t just give one person in this whole place a clue, so if anyone gets it first, just continue with the hunt and we’ll keep in touch via phone.”

Yoon Jin, Samcheonpo, Binggrae and Jin Yi Unnie teamed up, leaving myself, Haitai and Ae Jung by ourselves. I watched as they walked off in the opposite direction to tackle the other half of the umbrellas. I thought about where to go first even as Haitai and Ae Jung already started talking to some people on our half. I looked across the street and my eyes softened. I could almost see Joon there, over a year ago, standing in the rain, his face somber and tortured as he willed himself not to love me anymore. Foolish man. I shook my head at the memory when I saw someone walk to the spot I was just looking at, carrying a red umbrella. Worth a shot.

“Ahjussi!” I said as I ran to him. A bespectacled man in a business suit turned around to look at me in surprise. “Ahjussi… Do you… Do you have a clue for me?”

He nodded and smiled before reaching into his suit jacket for another index card. I was so happy I almost kissed his cheek but thought about the conniption Joon would have if I told him I kissed a random stranger and decided against it. He would grumble and complain and tell me to keep my lips to myself. ‘Your lips are private property, Sung Na Jeong-ssi’, he’ll say, ‘and I don’t share.’

“Haitai! Ae Jung! I got it!” I called out and watched them walk hand in hand towards me. I pulled out my phone and dialed Yoon Jin’s number. “Yoon Jin-ah… I got the next clue! Have you got a pen?” When she said no, I blew a breath out in frustration. “Use your phone then… Or someone’s phone. Are you ready? Location: Most popular cinema for college students. Hint: Exit.”

“Na Jeong-ah… There are a number of universities in Seoul… How do we even know which one it is?” I heard her say.

“Are there movie theatres near each one?” I asked. “I think there might be. You and Samcheonpo go to… Hmm, I think there is a Lotte Cinema near Seoul National University. Bing and Jin Yi Unnie can go to Korea University campus. I don’t think there are a lot of cinemas around there so it shouldn’t be hard.”

“Where are you guys going?” She asked.

“Where else? Piccadilly Cinema by Yonsei… That’s where we always went when we were in school. That’s where Lee Sang Min would have gone too when he was in Yonsei. Call me if you find it first!”

“I got it. I’ll call you Na Jeong-ah. I’ll see you later.”

She hung up the phone and I stared at the index card. How convenient that he went to the same university as us. Surely we get an advantage knowing these places. I will definitely win.

“Na Jeong-ah… Where are we going next? Did you say Piccadilly Cinema? That’s where you and Chilbong had your double date with us! Remember?”

Remember? Remember? How could I forget? We were still sneaking around then… It seems so long ago now but I remember it clearly. He looked at me then just like he does now. We also came here for a movie before he left for San Francisco. I shook my head at the memory. I have to stay focused. I can’t do that thinking about Joon. I MUST WIN LEE SANG MIN OPPA SEASON TICKETS!!! Reminding myself to call him later and tell him how this contest made me recall all of our times together, I hailed a cab.

As we rode the six miles to the cinema I remembered the way he held my hands then and the way he kissed me that night. “Say my name”, he said. Heat coursed through me and I berated myself. We’ve done this long distance thing before but when he said his contract was contingent on his staying in San Francisco for the next three months before the season started, my heart still fell. I actually considered trying to find a job in San Francisco… I still might be able to get one depending on the opportunities that arise. Half an hour later we finally arrived. We would have been here sooner had it not been for traffic. Seoul is a nightmare sometimes.

“Na Jeong-ah… What was the hint again?” Haitai asked as we walked into the cinema.

“Exit,” I said, looking around. “You guys take the left side and the back. I’ll take the right side and the front.”

They nodded and went on their way, whispering, no doubt sweet nothings to each other. Spending New Years Eve with all these couples is not good for my mental health. Now, where to start? The exit sign by the front of the cinema caught my eye and I pictured myself and Joon standing there, our arms around each others’ waists. I saw myself laughing at something he said and his lips landing on my forehead for a tender kiss. Sighing, I’m coming to accept that I will spend all day today thinking about him. And why not? Two years ago today my life changed. It’s okay. It’s definitely okay.

I spotted an usher cleaning by the exit and tapping him with my pointer finger for attention, he stood up and looked at me.

“Excuse me…. Would you happen to have a clue for me? For the Lee Sang Min contest?” He nodded and grabbed the card from his cleaning cart. Running back to right in front of the concession stand, I called Haitai and Ae Jung on the phone to meet me. I quickly sent a text to Binggrae with the location and hint, knowing he and Jin Yi Unnie had already separated from Yoon Jin and Samcheonpo. I called Yoon Jin and waited for her to answer.

“Yoon Jin-ah… I got the next clue!”

“You got the clue already? You’re so fast… You will definitely win this for sure. Season tickets are expensive!” Yoon Jin screamed over the phone.

“Yeah yeah… Two more to go… I won’t celebrate until I have those babies in my hands. Are you ready? Location: T blank L blank J blank. Three words beginning with T L and J. Hint: best item on the menu… Hmmm…” This one is a little more difficult.

“It’s got to be a restaurant,” Yoon Jin said, “if it has a menu.”

“I know!” Ae Jung said. “Tous Les Jours! There’s a few around here.”

“That fits!” Going back on the phone, I spoke to Yoon Jin. “Yah… You heard that, right? Tous Les Jours! Go to every one of them around you and ask Bing to do the same. Ask the people around for what’s the best product on the menu.”

“I got it,” she replied.

“Call me!” Even as I was hanging up the phone I was already walking towards the Tous Les Jours nearby, the one Joon and I went to after our driving lesson. That HE didn’t need. Thinking about all those days in the bus made me smile and as I stood at the entrance with Haitai and Ae Jung, I can clearly see Joon wearing his baseball cap and bundled in his coat as he looked at me self consciously.

“Taus les jaurus? Isn’t that what it’s called?” He asked, cheeks blushing. I started chuckling at the memory and had to tell myself to stop. That man can put a smile on my face anytime.

“I think that the cream puffs or green tea macarons are the best items,” Haitai commented.

Really? I don’t agree with that. But… Divide and conquer… “You order the cream puffs and Ae Jung-ah, you order the macarons.” They went in line before me and my heart dropped when they both came back holding bags of pastries but no card. I stomped to the counter and placed my order for what I thought was the best item.

“Please give me a Jurrasic Park set,” I asked the cashier. She went behind the counter and packed some pastries in a bag, then handed it to me. I was disheartened when I saw no card inside but a smile spread on my face to see the card fastened to the bottom of the bag. Grabbing one to munch on, I read the last card as I walked back to where Ae Jung and Haitai stood.

“Got it!” I said and they continued to munch on their purchases. “The clue said its the last one… Location: School. Hint: No.8…”

“Which school?” Haitai asked as he fed Ae Jung a cream puff. “Grade school, middle school, high school? Or Yonsei?”

“I’m guessing it’s the schools he attended. Thank God there are 7 of us and we’ve already dispersed. And I’m really glad that he has always lived in Seoul, else this would have been a logistical nightmare.” I searched my mind for all of his schools and drafted a text to both Yoon Jin and Bing, asking Bing to go to his grade school and for Yoon Jin to go to his middle school and to look for anything marked 8. Within seconds I got a response that they got it and that they’ll call me back when they found something.

“You guys will probably need to go to his high school, so we can separate here.” I wrote the name and address of his high school on a piece of paper and handed it to Ae Jung. She and Haitai exchanged glances before she spoke up.

“Na Jeong-ah… Let me come with you instead!” She said. “Uhmmm… I have to… I have to go to the bathroom and Yonsei is only a few minutes away from here but the high school is in the other end of town.”

“Well… You can go to the bathroom now… There is one in Tous Les Jours.” I suggested.

“No! I meant I just went to the bathroom when we got to the cinema. In another half hour I will have to go again. The cold weather makes…. Uhmmm… Makes my bladder sensitive and I will have to go every hour.”

“Really? That’s terrible!” I said sympathetically. Haitai, that bad boyfriend, was laughing behind his hand which was over his mouth. Ae Jung nodded and I watched as she gave the piece of paper to Haitai. “Yah… Let me know if you find it.”

He wasn’t even paying attention to me he was so focused on Ae Jung. “I got it,” he said distractedly before giving her a quick hug and walking out of the bakery. Ae Jung and I walked out together towards Yonsei.

“What does no. 8 mean?” She asked.

“Probably building no. 8… I can’t remember which one that is, though. We can look at the map when we get there,” I told her. “Thanks for doing this for me Ae Jung-ah… You guys are the best friends ever.”

“It’s nothing. It must be hard being without Chilbong. I can’t even imagine.”

“Yeah, it’s hard,” I said softly. “It never gets easier either. But I really believe that if you love each other enough, distance and time don’t really matter. Besides, he may be there, but his heart is with me.” I looked at the ring that graced my right ring finger.

We talked quietly and walked for a few minutes. I asked her when she and Haitai were getting married and she said not yet, saying Haitai wanted to wait. I was about to ask her what he was waiting for when I looked up and saw that we were already at the entrance for Yonsei University. We looked at the map together and she pointed out the indoor basketball court, clearly marked with number 8. Of course. Where else?

With the end in sight, I breathed a sigh of relief as I did not see anyone else around. We made it in good time and I doubt that people would have gotten the clues as quickly as we did. Victory is mine! I will be getting Oppa’s season tickets soon! We walked the campus that we used to walk every day, towards the direction of the indoor basketball court when I saw the baseball stadium looming over the horizon.

Involuntarily, an image of Joon came back, the day of the friendly match. The look of happiness on his face. He’s mine… But not just. I shared him with the people who supported him over the years, the people who have shaped who he is and the children who watch him play. A small smile formed on my face as I thought of the way he held me after the game. As if he played the game for me. As if I was his home. He’ll come back to me. Yes, he will. Maybe not when I want him to but he’ll always come back to me. He promised. And Joon doesn’t break his promises.

Feeling an urgent need to be somewhere Joon was, I turned to Ae Jung. “You go on ahead to the indoor basketball court. I’m just going to the baseball stadium real quick.”

“Na Jeong-ah… Are you sure? You know you’ll have the tickets whether or not I get there first. But you really wanted to win this…” She said hesitantly.

“It’s fine. You go ahead. I’ll just be minutes behind you.” She looked like she was about to protest so I added, “You can wait for me outside if you want.”

She nodded and started walking slowly towards the indoor basketball court. I walked in the opposite direction, following the path that would lead me to the baseball stadium. Closer to Joon. I looked up at the night sky and noted what a beautiful night it was. The sky was clear and there was no wind. Joon loves nights like this. I wondered what he was doing tonight. I have a feeling he’s thinking of me just like I am thinking of him. I know Joon.

*****

6 days before…

Jae Joon

“Hyung, it’s Joon… I need a favor. Do you think you can meet up at,” I looked at the paper in front of me, “… 1 p.m. in 2 days? I need to talk to you. It’s really important.”

I listened to his soft reply and smiled.

“Okay… I’ll text you my address… I’ll see you then.”

*****

5 days before…

Jae Joon

“Are you sure you’re okay about going back on your own?” Jung Jin Hyung asked as we made our way to the departures gate. I checked my itinerary and nodded.

“I don’t always need you with me, Hyung… And I know you wanted to spend New Year’s Eve with your lady,” I said with a smile. “You’ll be coming back on the 3rd?”

“Yeah… We have meetings all the week after so you better have your game face on. And you better keep up with your training while you’re in Korea. I don’t want to hear anything from anyone when I get back.”

“I will.” I embraced him as I prepared to show my passport and my boarding pass to the TSA personnel. “Hyung, thanks for everything.”

“It was nothing, Joon-ah. Go.”

I waved at him one more time and walked towards the line.

*****

3 days before…

Jae Joon

I pulled my phone out and powered it on as soon as I landed back in Korea. I debated whether or not to change the clock on the phone back to Korea time but needing to remember that Na Jeong thinks I’m in San Francisco I left it as is. She’ll probably call at strange hours and I reminded myself to set my alarm clock to those times. I don’t want to miss her phone calls.

Pressing the Messages tab, I wrote a mass text to Haitai, Yoon Jin, Samcheonpo and Binggrae.

I need your help. Meet me at my apartment at 7 p.m. DO NOT TELL NA JEONG ABOUT THIS MEETING OR THAT I AM BACK IN KOREA. I’ll take responsibility if she threatens to beat you.

Joon.

Satisfied that it was concise enough, I go straight to the taxi line and get in. I gave the driver my apartment address in Gangnam and watched as the familiar sight of Korea greeted me home.

 

*****

1 p.m.

I opened the door to see Lee Sang Min Hyung standing on the other side. After welcoming him into the apartment, I served him some coffee and we sat down at the kitchen table.

“Chilbong-ah, what’s going on? It’s been a long time,” Sang Min Hyung said, lifting his cup for a sip. “Want to tell me why I’m sitting in your apartment drinking coffee when we could have met up outside?”

“Ahh, that… I can’t take chances that people might spot me and know that I’m back in Korea,” I responded. I took a deep breath before speaking. “Hyung… I need your help.”

“With what? I’m assuming that it’s not professional help, since we play different sports,” he said. “I’ve also seen the news on your comeback. Congratulations, Jae Joon-ah. It’s quite a feat to be scouted again after an injury.”

“Thanks… And no, it’s not for professional help. It’s… Uhmm… It’s personal. My girlfriend, Na Jeong, she’s your biggest fan.”

“Okay… Are you going to ask for an autograph?” I looked at him to see one eyebrow raised at me.

“It’s not that simple. I need a little more help than that. Do you, by any chance, have season tickets I can buy off of you? I just need two.”

“Two?” He asked.

“Yeah… I can’t let her go to your game and get into a fight because someone’s bad mouthing you.” He started chuckling. “Oh, and is it possible for you to speak to your fan club?”

“Why?”

“I’m not just giving her the tickets as a gift. I’m kind of proposing to her.”

“You either are or you aren’t. What the hell does ‘kind of’ mean?”

“I am proposing. I want it to be a surprise.”

“I’m not quite understanding. Maybe you need to tell me exactly what your strategy is and what I need to do.”

*****

7 p.m.

Yoon Jin and Samcheonpo sat holding hands on one end of the couch, while I sat on the other end and Binggrae and Haitai sat on the floor.

“What did you tell Na Jeong?” I asked Yoon Jin and she smiled before responding.

“Nothing… I just asked her to babysit for a couple of hours,” she said calmly. “What is this about?” She gestured over the map I’ve drawn on a piece of paper, along with a list of places.

“I’m proposing. She should be getting an email from Lee Sang Min’s fan club today about a contest on New Years Eve,” I started.

“She already got it. She told me a couple of hours ago, said she would tell you how badly we treat her if we didn’t cancel our plans and go with her.”

“I knew she’ll want to join… That girl is crazy for Lee Sang Min,” I said. “It’s a scavenger hunt, and these,” I pointed to the places on the paper marked in red, “… Are the places she needs to go for every clue.”

“But Chilbong-ah,” Samcheonpo said. “You’re going to need a lot of people to make it convincing… We can’t just be the only ones running around the city without her noticing.”

“Sang Min Hyung’s fan club will take care of that. They sent an email out to their members about the same thing… Except they will be playing for autographed posters.”

“Wow, Chilbong-ah, Na Jeong will probably want the poster too,” Haitai commented.

“Yah…”

“I’m just saying.” He thought about it for a minute before he looked up. “We’ll need more people though… So we can have someone watching her and making sure that she goes to the right place. You know Na Jeong… She’s very competitive and organized. She’ll probably want to split up at some point to cover everything.”

“Yeah,” I responded. “I was hoping you guys could ask Jin Yi Noona and Ae Jung to come, too.”

Binggrae and Haitai nodded as they pulled out their phones and sent text messages to their better halves. Within a few minutes both their phones went off with responses and they both gave me a thumbs up.

“Chilbong-ah… You’ll need to speak to the places on here, too,” Yoon Jin said. “You can’t just walk in and ask them to help you propose.”

“Yes, he can,” Samcheonpo said, munching on an apple. “He’s a major league baseball player.”

“Yoon Jin-ah… It’s okay. I already called ahead to meet with them tomorrow afternoon.”

“Omma and Coach will kill you if you don’t tell them ahead of time,” Binggrae said.

I pointed to the big basket on the table before addressing his concern. “I’m going to the boarding house in the morning, after Na Jeong leaves for work and before Appa leaves. Baseball’s off season now so he wouldn’t leave the house till late anyway.”

“Well… It looks like you have everything covered,” Yoon Jin observed. “Where will the proposal actually happen?”

“That’s where I will need you guys to coordinate with me. Here’s what I’m thinking…”

 

*****

2 days before…

Jae Joon

I was just walking up the path to the boarding house when I heard Na Jeong’s voice. She is loud.

“Omma, Appa… I have to go! You can ask me about Joon when I get home… I’m already running late for work,” I heard her yell as she muttered to herself walking towards the street. “Aishhhh… How am I supposed to know when EXACTLY he’ll be back? He doesn’t even know…” I ducked behind the stairs and crouched down quickly in case she saw me.

As if realizing someone was there, she stopped walking and I held my breath. Just when I was convinced she was going to find me and the huge basket I carried, which I now lifted closer to me, I noticed she was rummaging through her purse for her phone. The charm I gave her now hung from it and it glinted in the sunlight. Taking a glove off with her teeth, I watched as she furiously typed on her phone.

Is she… Is she sending me a text? Shit! I didn’t turn my phone off. Quickly I reached into my pocket and took the battery out before she closed her phone. After she was done, she put her glove back on.

Is she going to spot the car where it’s parked? Dammit. I should have parked farther out. I craned my neck and saw her hail a cab and finally I could release my breath. I stared at my watch for ten minutes even after the cab had gone to make sure it didn’t turn back around in case she forgot something.

When I was finally in the clear, I stood up and grabbed the basket and proceeded to go up the stairs to the boarding house.

I knocked on the door and straightened up my suit as I waited for someone to answer. Omma came after a few minutes and stared at me in shock.

“Joon-ah! Na Jeong didn’t tell us you were coming home!” She said as she opened the door to let me in. “You’re so dressed up, too! Come in, come in…”

I followed her into the house as she called out to Appa. “Yeobo, you wouldn’t guess who’s here!”

By the time Appa walked to the living room from the kitchen, wearing a tatty old pair of sweatpants and a long sleeved shirt, and Omma turned back around, no doubt to offer me something to drink, I had already dropped to my knees, with my basket to my side.

“Chilbong!” Appa said. “What the hell have you done now?”

“Nothing… Abonim. Please sit down… Omonim, you too.”

They exchanged glances and looked at me suspiciously but sat down anyway. I placed the basket on the table and took a deep breath.

“I would like to…” I felt a scratch in my throat and coughed to clear it. “Uhmm… I would like permission to ask your daughter for her hand in marriage.” I kept my eyes down to the floor, not knowing whether they will say it’s too soon. A few minutes of silence passed and I thought for sure I will be chased out of the house with a knife. Violence runs deep in this family. I allowed myself to look up to see Omma crying happy tears and Appa glaring at me.

“Joon-ah, I’m so happy,” she cried, standing up and embracing me. “Yeobo… Aren’t you happy too?”

“Yes. I’m happy. But couldn’t you have warned me? I must be the only father in existence to receive a formal proposal from my son-in-law wearing clothes that are at least five years old. I have holes in my shirt!” I started chuckling even as he shook my hand. “Chilbong-ah… I will change my shirt and you can ask again. Wait!” Incredulous, I could only nod.

He came out of his room a few minutes later decked out in a suit and tie, his hair slicked back and Omma stared at him in shock. He sat down regally before motioning for me to kneel back down. I was trying to remember the words when as soon as I was kneeling he said, “I accept… But Chilbong-ah… It’s too early to drink.”

“We’ll drink once she says yes,” I reassured him as I stood up. “Which will be in two days, hopefully. But you two think it’s okay, right?”

They both nodded at me and I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders.

“I brought you this basket to show my…” My voice trailed off when I saw that they had already opened it and were perusing its contents.

“Joon-ah,” Omma said with wonder in her voice. “You brought us some more supermarket melons!”

It wasn’t until they had the melons peeled and sliced that I realized they were more surprised about the fruit than they were about my proposal. I love this family.

*****

1 day before…

Jae Joon

I sat on the bench outside the hospital and waited for Jung Gook Hyung to get off his night shift. I had texted him earlier asking to talk, and he agreed to meet me before making his way home.

I stood up when I saw him walk out of the hospital holding a coffee cup. I held out a hand and he shook it before we sat down.

“I saw you play at the game,” he said, looking me up and down. “Your shoulder held up. You did a good job.”

“Hyung, thank you,” I said sincerely. “It seems you were right. You did save my career.”

We shared a chuckle for a few minutes and I cleared my throat. His face sobered as he studied me.

“You didn’t come all the way out here just to tell me something that you could have told me over the phone.”

“No… Hyung… I’m going to ask Na Jeong to marry me tomorrow,” I said softly. “I would like to get your blessing. Or if not that, your permission. I would be grateful with either.”

He looked out onto the grass for a few minutes before he sighed and gave me a smile. “Of course. I wish you and Na Jeong a very happy life.”

“Hyung… You’ll be a part of that life, right?” I asked. I watched as his eyes softened and he nodded.

“I’ll always be Na Jeong’s Oppa… And your Hyung. I’ll be around as long as you two want me around.”

“Hyung, thank you. Again.”

We sat in comfortable silence before I spoke again.

“I have one more thing to ask. Would you happen to know where Hoon Hyung is buried?” He turned to me in surprise. “I have all day today, and I would like to get his permission, too.” When he didn’t respond right away, I said, “If you can just write it down for me, I can drive there today and be back by tonight. I know I’m asking for a lot…”

“I’ll do you one better, Joon-ah,” he interrupted. “It’s my day off and hey, why not, right? I’ll go with you. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my old friend.”

We drove the four hours to Masan, where Jung Gook Hyung alternated between sleeping and talking my ear off. It felt good to have company on the long drive though and I was grateful that it was him. Once we arrived in Masan, I picked up a bouquet of flowers and some ddukbokki, after Hyung said he liked that, too. We bought a bottle of soju and some paper cups, and proceeded to look for Hoon Hyung’s grave.

Once I poured the liquor on the paper cup and laid the flowers and the food in front of the mound. I brought my hands to my forehead and bowed to the ground twice, to honor his place as Na Jeong’s elder brother. Feeling like it wasn’t enough, I began to speak.

“Hi… Uhmm Hoon Hyung… My name is Kim Jae Joon. I’ve come today to ask for your blessing to marry Na Jeong-ie. She would have come too, but I wanted it to be a surprise… So yeah… It’s just me and Jung Gook Hyung.” I look over my shoulder to see Hyung with his head bowed. “I know we never had a chance to meet, but I wanted to let you know that I will always love and take care of Na Jeong. I will always honor and respect her. My words are all I have to give you, but rest assured that I am a man of my word. I will spend the rest of my life making her happy. Please know that I mean that.” I paused and though about what to say before speaking again. “I’ll also take care of Omonim and Abonim… I’ll make sure that they will have everything they need as they get older. And Sook Sook too. I’ll always treat him like he is my blood brother and not one by marriage. I… I wish I could have met you, Hyung. Uri Na Jeong-ie… She misses you a lot.”

I heard Hyung take a step towards me before putting a hand on my shoulder. “Hoon-ah… He doesn’t look like much but I can vouch for him. He’s the one Na Jeong loves. Be happy for them, chinggu. And don’t worry.”

I turned a grateful glance to Hyung and he gave me a grin. We spent the next hour cleaning up Hoon’s burial mound. When it was time to leave, I touched the mound one more time.

“I’ll come see you again, Hoon Hyung. Next time I’ll bring Na Jeong. You might not believe how incredible of a woman she is now. She taught me the song you used to sing to her. I bet you miss her too. You’ll see her again soon. I promise.”

*****

December 31, 2001

3:30 p.m.

Jae Joon

“Joon-ah… Did you get permission from Yonsei University already?” Binggrae asked as we drove.

“Yes… They gave me from 7 p.m. till midnight,” I reassured him.

“And the cinema?”

“I gave them a copy of her picture and the clue two days ago,” I responded as I parked the car.

“How about the people with the umbrellas?” He asked. “How do you even know they’ll show up?”

“Yah… I told them you won’t give them the jerseys until she’s left. You got all of it from Jung Jin Hyung right? He told me he sent it. I’ll come in after I drop you off and autograph them all for you. Do you have a place where you can keep them by the LG Tower?”

“Yeah… The receptionist said she could keep it for me until I get there. Hopefully we will split up.”

“And the red umbrellas?”

“That’s at the apartment, too. Don’t worry Joon-ah… I’ll take care of my part if you take care of yours, hmm?”

I chuckled and nodded. “Thanks for doing this with me, Dong Joon-ah…”

“Enough of the gooey stuff. Save it for Na Jeong. Let’s go.”

Minutes later I was sat in front of a paper bag full of dinosaur shaped pastries and a stapler.

“But… Joon-ah… Their best selling items are the green tea macarons and the cream puffs. Wouldn’t it be safer to just put clues in three bags? That way whatever Na Jeong orders she’ll get a clue?” He insisted. “How do you even know she’ll order this?”

“She will,” I said confidently. “Na Jeong will see this on the menu and think of me. She won’t order anything else, trust me.”

I finished stapling the clue to the bottom of the bag and handed it back to the person behind the register with Na Jeong’s picture.

“Good luck,” she said with a smile.

“Thank you,” I called out as Binggrae and I walked out of the bakery. Once in the car I pulled out my list and crossed that one off. Two more things. Just two more. Almost there.

*****

5:00 p.m.

Jae Joon

“Joon Hyung!” Sook Sook screamed when he spotted me at the edge of the baseball field near the boarding house waiting for him to get done with his little league practice. I bent down caught him easily in my arms as he wrapped his arms around my neck. “Have you come to pick me up?”

“Yes. I asked Omma and Appa if I can and they said yes. Are you all finished?”

“Yeah… But Hyung… Can I show you to my friends?” Before I could even respond he had already taken my hand and introduced me to the kids that he played baseball with. There were so many names I could barely remember, coupled with the fact that their parents started walking over when they recognized me, that I just kept smiling and nodding. What’s important to Sook Sook is important to me. I promised Hoon Hyung.

When he gathered his stuff and was certain he was done, he took my hand in his and we walked the long way home. He chatted about his day at practice amiably and I had to smile. This kid… I love this kid. I bought a couple of ice cream cones and he looked at me like I was some kind of a god.

“When I asked Noona for ice cream last time she said I shouldn’t because it’s winter,” he informed me. “Can you keep this a secret? I don’t want Noona to yell.”

“Sook Sook-ah, yes I will keep this just between us. But… I have a secret too…” I said, bending myself to a sitting position so that I could meet his eyes. “I want to know if it’s okay that I marry your Noona.”

“Na Jeong Noona?” He asked, his eyes as wide as saucers. “I guess it will be okay. You’ll still be my Hyung, right?”

I nodded and ruffled his hair. “I’m already your hyung.”

“That’s true… So it’s okay. But…” he looked at me then, his expression serious. “You made Noona cry before. Like big tears. I put my ear up to her door and heard her.”

“Yeah… I said I’m sorry to your Noona… And Omma and Appa too. I guess I should say sorry to you too, huh? Your noona’s very lucky to have you protecting her. How about this then? How about I promise that I’ll try to not make her cry again? Because you know sometimes grown ups cry when they’re happy too.”

“Really?” He asked me disbelievingly. “Because I only cry when I have booboos. But… Joon Hyung… What if Noona wants to eat ddukbokki every day?” His brows were frowning and I realized that this was a very important topic.

“She can eat ddukbokki every day, Sook Sook-ah. I’ll even get it for her. I learned how to make it, too.”

“Okay. That’s good. Because she really likes ddukbokki.” I stood up and he took my hand in his as we walked back to the boarding house. I felt honored that he has entrusted me with his precious Noona. She’s precious to me, too.

*****

7:45 p.m.

Jae Joon

“Na Jeong just got in the cab to go to the cinema. Haitai just texted me,” Yoon Jin said as Samcheonpo followed her. “It will take at least 30 minutes with traffic to get to Piccadilly… But once she figures out the clue only about 30 minutes to cover Tous Les Jours and then come here.”

“Okay, ” I said as I unpacked some candles. “We’ll probably have to start lighting these as soon as she gets to the bakery. It’s only walking distance from here.”

“Joon-ah… How many candles are here?” Jin Yi Noona asked.

“About 500,” I responded, flushing. “It was cheaper to buy wholesale!”

“How come I didn’t get a proposal like this?” She asked Dong Joon and he took her arm and carried a box of candles to the opposite end of the venue.

“Chilbong-ah… Are you sure you want to set up here? I mean it’s number 8 but… Don’t you think Na Jeong might go somewhere else?” Samcheonpo asked. “What if you do all this and she doesn’t even show up here?”

“She’ll come. Just wait and see. I know uri Na Jeong-ie. This is the first place she will go.”

*****

8:30 p.m.

Jae Joon

I love nights like this. Clear sky and no wind. It was cold but not so cold that I needed my puffy coat. The perfect night. I was just putting down the last of the candles on the bleacher after lighting it when Yoon Jin came running down from the top tier to tell me that Na Jeong just got to Yonsei. I smiled and nodded before I allowed myself to look around.

All around me the bleachers were covered in candles, the only light that will guide Na Jeong here until the spotlight comes on. I felt the ring in my pocket and bent down to retrieve the box that I got from San Francisco. Lifting it up, I smiled as I read the writing on it, as well as my response… Written many many months ago. Before I even left for America again. I put it back in its box and stood up.

Now I wait. I wait for the woman I love. Just like she waited for me. Just like I waited for her all those years ago. I felt like all the events in my life have culminated to this day and this moment. I looked at my ring, back on my hand and allowed myself to remember all the years that I’ve loved Na Jeong. Saying that until recently I couldn’t quite believe that she could love me back is an understatement. But that’s all changed. I now believe I am a person capable of love and capable of being loved. It took me a while to get here but I’ve finally bid my demons goodbye.

As I stood and waited, I thought about the last week and how they led me here… How I woke up one morning believing my future to be going in one direction and yet still I am standing right here. Life is funny sometimes… You don’t always end up where you thought you would, but somehow and someway you still end up exactly where you were meant to be.

 

December 24, 2001

9:30 a.m.

“Joon-ah, have you made a decision?” He asked.

“Yes.”

My mind made up, I sat back on the chair as I flip through the contract waiting for the men to return. It’s time to take control of my destiny. I just hope Na Jeong understands…

They all came back in… With smiles on their faces. They knew they were offering me something I wouldn’t be able to refuse. I stood up and waited for them to sit down before I sat down myself. Hyung followed my lead.

I take the pen out of my pocket and when I clicked the pen, I remembered my mother’s words. I’m proud of you. Click. My father’s voice. I really want to hold my boy again and tell him how much I’ve missed his face. Click. Abonim’s voice. You have a lot to be proud of. Click. In Sung’s voice. You can make it the beginning. Click. Binggrae’s voice. It was all you. Click. Na Jeong’s voice. I’ll wait. Forever if I have to.

“Joon-ah,” I heard Hyung say in Korean. “They’re waiting for you to sign.”

My brain says yes but my heart says no. I’ve always gone with what my brain said, and it’s never led me down the wrong path. But it never made me happy either. No matter how much money I had. Maybe it’s time to do something different. Maybe it’s time to listen to what my heart is telling me to do.

Before I realized what I was doing, I had already slid the folder back to them without my signature. They exchanged puzzled glances and even Hyung looked at me with an eyebrow raised.

“Are you trying to play hardball, JJ? I didn’t think you were the type,” the manager said and I shook my head no. “Did you want more money? Was that it?”

“No… I’m sorry but I changed my mind. I thank you for the opportunity, but I have to beg your pardon. I just realized that I have too much to leave behind in Korea. My apologies.”

“I thought you weren’t close to your family?” I wasn’t. “And that you were unmarried?” I’m not… Not yet.

“Things have changed since I’ve been injured. My priorities have changed. I’m not the same man that I was when I first came here two years ago. I am grateful for all that you have taught me,” I said as I met the eyes of my manager and my pitching coach. “But no amount of money will convince me to stay.”

I stood up and held out my hand. Though reluctant they all took it as I beckoned Hyung to follow me out. He stayed quiet until we were out of the building.

“Joon-ah… Are you sure about this? I’ll manage you in Korea too… But…”

“Hyung… Do you know what went through my head the whole time I was in there?” I asked.

“Na Jeong,” he answered. “She’s already said she’d wait for you.”

“Yeah, I thought about Na Jeong, but I also thought of the other people in my life, too. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. And yeah, Na Jeong will wait. But I am no longer willing to wait. I’m not just a baseball player anymore. I’m a partner, a son, a brother, a cousin and a friend. Those are the things that I choose to define me now.”

“Joon-ah,” I heard him say softly.

“I’m not changing my mind, Hyung. And I won’t regret it either.” I looked over to him before we got in the car.

“I was just going to say… I asked you who you were four years ago and I think you finally have an answer. Congratulations.”

I do know who I am now. I know what I want. I know what I need. I know what I deserve. I’ve made my choice a long time ago. It’s just taken me this long to really understand what it meant. I’m ready now, for whatever life brings my way. I already have the one who will walk through my life with me. I just hope she’s ready to make it official.

*****

8:45 p.m.

Na Jeong

Am I walking into a dream? Was there a candlelight vigil of some sort? Omo… I hope there’s nothing somber going on here tonight… And I’ve just walked into it because I wanted to think about my boyfriend.

The stadium was dark… Only illuminated by what looked like hundreds and hundreds of votive candles on the bleachers. So pretty. I hesitantly climbed up the bleachers to enjoy the view.

I sat down on the third row, where there was a little bit of space and thought about Joon and what he would be doing now. I pretended the candles were all stars and wished he was here. He would love this, I thought, this is just the sort of thing he would be into. He may not be so good with words, but he’s better at romance than he ever gave himself credit for.

I stood up and rummaged through my purse for my phone to tell him about it when a single spotlight turned on. Surprised, I shielded my eyes from the glare. When I was able to look down on the field, a familiar looking silhouette greeted me.

It can’t be him. Joon is in San Francisco. I talk to him every day. He is in San Francisco. No… This has to be a dream. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I dream about him a lot when he’s away. And this was always one of my favorites.

I was still telling myself this when I realized that maybe I was hungry or low on sugar. I pulled out the pepero sticks from my purse and a sense of deja vu filled me. I realized that I should probably go to the basketball stadium, where my Lee Sang Min Oppa tickets were waiting for me, but I remained rooted to the spot. Wanting to spend some more time with this person who looked a bit like Joon. From the back. I’ve really gone insane. Am I sleeping dreaming? I rubbed my eyes and wondered if I should have taken that nap. I’m hallucinating now.

I started walking down the bleachers when the person turned around. I held my breath until his face came into view. Imaginary Joon was just as handsome as my Joon. So this is what he would look like… If he was wearing a tuxedo. As I suspected, he would wear it well. My breath caught as he cocked his head to one side, just like he did seven years ago, when I first saw him play. Imaginary Joon walked towards the bleachers and motioned for me cup my hands together, just like real Joon did, a lifetime ago.

If this is a dream, why not? Imaginary Joon raised his eyebrows at me and I pushed my pepero sticks back in my purse and did as he asked. He had a ball in his hand and he wanted me to catch it. Of course he would. Imaginary Joon will do as Joon did. I suspect however that I will wake up as soon as the ball lands on my hands, just like I usually did when I had dreams like this.

Bidding imaginary Joon goodbye, I prepared to catch the ball and wake up. The ball landed on my hands and I stared at it in confusion. I’m still in the dream. Or the hallucination. I don’t understand. Unless… Unless… It’s real.

I felt the weight of the ball in my hands and looked at it more closely. It looked real. It felt real. I was turning it over in my fingers when my handwriting greeted me. Just like that I was transported back to the night before Joon left, almost two years ago. Images flashed of us cooking ramyun and dancing together in the dark. Kissing as the snow fell, falling asleep watching television. Writing on a baseball. I don’t have to read my handwriting to know what I wrote. I still remember it to this day…

New Year’s Eve will always be ours.

I smiled at the memory because it was still true. New Year’s Eve IS still ours. The ball had another sentence now, though, written in Joon’s handwriting, across the seam from where I wrote.

Shall we make forever ours too?

I lifted my face to see him watching me, the smile that I love lighting up his face. The same smile, from so many years ago, the one I never realized was only for me. It’s real. He’s here. He came back.

Tears filled my eyes unexpectedly and I closed my eyes. Afraid he wouldn’t be in front of me anymore when I opened them, I counted to ten before I allowed myself to look again. When he still stayed where he was, his gaze fixed on my face, I finally realized that this was the moment. The moment I dreamed of all my life. With the man I dreamt of too but didn’t always realize… That he’s always been there. That he’s been there all along.

I climbed down the bleachers quickly as I watched him walk towards me. When at last only a couple of feet separated us, he lifted a hand to cup my face.

“Joon-ah,” I whispered, tears finally running down my face. He watched me with those beautiful eyes, shining with unshed tears.

“Sung Na Jeong-ssi… Will you marry me?” He pulled out a ring from his pocket and offered it to me.

Dazzling, twinkling lights danced in my eyes and I let out a breath and nodded before launching myself in his arms. Thank God he’s real… Or I would have fallen flat on my face. I looked at his face as his tears fell too and all at once we were laughing and crying. If anyone had seen us they probably would have thought we were lunatics but I didn’t care. As his lips met mine for a kiss, my last coherent thought was that forever was here. Forever was ours. At last.

*****

“Na Jeong-ah… Just to make sure… You did say yes, right?” I looked over at him to see him studying me quizzically as we walked down the path that led us out of the baseball stadium.

“Joon-ah… I already told people I was marrying you long before we were even together. What do you think?” I watched as a smile came over his face and I smiled too.

I lifted my hand to the light and admired the way my ring sparkled. The building that housed the basketball court came into view and I remembered something.

“Kim Jae Joon-ssi… Was this whole thing tonight a plot so you can propose?” His hand holding mine, he turned to me.

“Yes.”

“But… What would you have done if I had gone to the basketball court? That was clearly the answer to the last hint.”

He shook his head before replying. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist coming here first. I know you.”

“But… Why didn’t you do it somewhere with a roof? What if it had been snowing, or even windy? This wouldn’t work.” I insisted. I swear, Joon really doesn’t think things through.

“Yah… I’m only proposing once in my life. Don’t I get to have a say on where it happens? Why would I propose in a basketball court? I play baseball, not basketball.”

“And whose fault is that? I told you years and years ago to switch.”

“YAAHHH…”

“Joon-ah… I just need to know one thing.”

“Yes, I love you very much,” he said gently.

“I already knew that. I love you too. But… What I really want to know is,” I took a deep breath, “Does this mean I didn’t win Lee Sang Min Oppa’s season tickets?”

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