R94: A MOMENT’S CHOICE TENTH INNING PART 1

Tenth Inning

Part 1

Chungju, South Korea

December 27, 2001

3:30 p.m.

Jae Joon

After driving almost two hours, I knocked on the door to Appa’s house and was surprised to find it unlocked. I entered slowly, worried that something might have happened and put my overnight bag down. I looked around and saw that this house was a far cry from the house in Seoul. It was decorated sparsely, with only the most basic of necessities around… It felt like I went back in time. It certainly looked like a man’s house, without any feminine touches, the way my apartment looked before Na Jeong started staying over more often.

Na Jeong… In four days I will be proposing. I have to get all the kinks worked out but hopefully it will happen without a hitch. Trying to remember everything on my list, I made a mental note to make a reservation at a restaurant for New Year’s Eve.

Seeing that my father didn’t appear to be home, I allowed myself to look around his living room. I walked over to the window that looked over where his apple orchards were. It’s winter now… All the trees are bare and without any leaves or fruit… Waiting for another chance to bloom again and bear their fruits.

It’s currently not apple season so I don’t see where else he could be. The glint of something caught my eye on the window and I turned around to look at where it came from. I faced a wall that was painted in a soft cream, just like the rest of the house, except this one was littered with frames. Curious, I stepped closer to look at what they were.

I was surprised to see that all of them were old and yellowed newspaper clippings of me, framed and hung up on the wall. Articles when I was in Yonsei, when I was in Japan and when I was in America. When did he start doing this? Why didn’t he tell me? I feel like everything I ever thought I knew about my parents were so inaccurate and I wondered if I even knew them at all. So many secrets in this family. Unsure of what to think, I was making my way to a chair to sit down when the door opened and my father walked in.

Dressed casually in a long sleeved shirt and loose trousers, the Kim Kang Ho that walked into this humble home was millions of miles off from the suited and stiff Kim Kang Ho who raised me with an iron hand. Just a few inches shorter than me, one would never guess looking at him that he had a full grown son. Appa always carried himself with dignity and that showed no matter what he was wearing. His face, always unlined in my memories, now held a few frown lines at the corner of his eyes. The skin around his mouth bore no laugh lines, the only evidence of how his life had been since Omma left. He was darker, coarser, his face and arms showing the effects of constant exposure to the sun, yet amusingly he looked like a gentleman still playing at being a farmer. Appa had only one vice that I knew of and it wasn’t food. He still looked strong and lean, with nary an inch of fat on his frame. But his face, I thought as my heart squeezed somewhere inside my chest, his face was older, more tired.

As I quietly perused him, his dark brown eyes, eyes that were always intense and angry in my head, met mine. I swallowed the nerves in my throat and searched for the right words to say, wondering if I should have given him advance notice that I would be visiting. Berating myself for always just pushing ahead without any thought, I was silent but I kept his gaze. His expression was that of surprise and for a brief few seconds, joy. Some things never change. Appa always hid his emotions better than I ever did.

“Appa.” I stood up and walked towards him, unsure whether to hold my hand out for a shake or to embrace him. Deciding to be safe, I held out my hand.

“Joon-ah,” he replied, taking my hand in his strong grasp. His hand was rough, a farmer’s hand. “What are you doing here?”

It was only when he released my hand that I noticed that he was holding a small sturgeon on his left hand. Had he been to the market or had he gone fishing? Market, definitely. Fishing is a patient man’s sport and my Appa is not a patient man. Never has been.

“Ahh… Appa… I came back yesterday. I have something I need to take care of… And I did promise I would come see you as soon as I came back.”

He nodded and I watched as he walked to the kitchen and deposited the fish into a plastic bucket in the sink. He pulled a large knife out of the drawer and began to clean the fish without speaking to me. I continued to stand, waiting for instruction. I never felt at home in my father’s house in Seoul and I still don’t feel that comfortable here.

“Are you going to keep standing there or are you going to help?” He asked, turning to me with the knife in his hand.

I quickly shrugged my coat off then put the apron hanging on a hook on. He handed me some vegetables to slice and peel and I busied myself doing just as he asked. We stood by the sink in silence as he descaled the fish. Watching my father work, I marveled at how expertly he prepared it… One would never think that just ten years ago he was making his living going to the office every day. It’s amazing to remember that this is the same man who sold his business for over 100 billion won, that he used to be on the cover of every business magazine in the nation. I peeled some carrots and potatoes, sliced some lemon and onions, just as I’ve done since I was young. Looking at my father next to me, I wondered if he’d shrunk or I had gotten taller. Somehow in my memories, my father always seemed broader and taller. When the fish was properly cleaned, he pulled a rack to put over the stove to grill the fish. The phone rang but he didn’t seem to notice.

I looked at his face and up close I saw that he had more wrinkles than I had previously noticed. How long has it been since I have seen my father? At least five years… At least. The thought made my hands shake and he coughed and cleared his throat as he shifted his position and went to my other side to get to the stove.

“Are you hungry?” He asked gruffly as he threw the potatoes and carrots in a separate pan. “I went fishing earlier.”

“Yeah, Appa, I’m hungry,” I answered. Has the atmosphere between us always been this awkward? Yes, yes it has… I remembered. Even when we lived together, we seldom shared a meal and we certainly never cooked together. The handful of times we did, the silence had been so thick I always felt choked by it.

“Wash your hands and sit at the table,” he said. “Rice is already made and there’s banchan in the fridge. There’s beer in the fridge too, if you want that.”

I washed my hands before taking the apron off. Opening the fridge, I noticed that it was bare except for a couple of bottles of beer and a few of containers of banchan with the one marked radish kimchi being the largest. Maybe my father and I were more alike than I originally thought… All these side dishes were my favorites from childhood. I pulled out the spinach salad, the pickled pink radish, cabbage kimchi and radish kimchi. I pulled out four small bowls and started spooning a little of each in each one before putting them all on the table. I sat down and waited for the food to be ready, wondering if I should have kept my bag in the car, in case I needed to leave later.

I was still thinking about this when Appa placed the fish on the table, then the rice. He rubbed his left shoulder as he sat down, and feelings of guilt ate me up. For not knowing how my Appa had been. For not caring. As a son it was my duty to worry about my parents but my selfishness at times made it so that I wished to cut that part away… Just like I tried to push Na Jeong away… Just like I tried to push everyone away. I felt my father watching me as I took a bite of fish and a lump forming in my throat, I continued to eat in silence.

“How are you?” He asked. Was that concern in his voice? I lifted my head to see his eyes looking at me closely.

“Yes, Appa. The treatment worked. I still do physical therapy daily and it takes a bit of warming up but yeah it’s good.” I cleared my throat again. My father is perhaps the only person that still makes me nervous every single time. “Is your shoulder okay?”

“Yeah, yeah… It’s fine,” he answered dismissively. “I think the farming is what does it and I’m certainly not getting any younger.” He paused before continuing. “What brings you back to Korea? Did you get some time off?”

I hesitated to tell him what decision I’ve made. Though I don’t need his approval or permission, I didn’t want to deal with his disappointment still. Appa’s opinion of me matters, no matter how much I wish it didn’t.

“Appa… I decided to stay in Korea,” I said. “I just realized that I already have a lot. My life is full… And I belong here.”

“Because of your Na Jeong?” He asked. “What did I tell you about…”

“Not just because of her,” I interrupted.

I knew where he was going with this conversation… I knew what he was going to say. And I knew how I would have responded had we been speaking like this years ago. It probably would have gone much like the last time I saw him… The night before he left Seoul to move to the country. He told me to forget baseball and find something else to do. I said nothing and walked out.

They say you can tell how much you love someone by the scars left on your tongue from holding angry words back. I must love my father a lot… Because I have two lifetimes’ supply of scars on mine. My father is someone whom I loved and at times hated in the same amount and with the same intensity, at different points in my life. But looking at him now… I realized that there had never been any hate really. I mistook it, like I mistook a lot of things. Had he changed? Is that what it was? No. You’ve changed, I heard a voice whisper inside me. I realized that it was so much easier to judge and hold on to the anger when I was myself without fault. But no longer. I’ve been guilty of what he’s done. I’ve done things to those I love without thinking and spewed angry words I didn’t mean. I understand, now, what it meant to have fear overtake me… But I also know now what it meant to be loved for everything I am. I’ve been given the gift of forgiveness by the one person who had borne the brunt of my bitterness. Na Jeong gave me that. Na Jeong taught me that.

Appa needs to know what that’s like too. I looked at his hands, the only thing I’ve inherited from him, strong and steady. Hands that never held mine as a child but toiled in work instead. I saw that they were brown and calloused now, just like mine… And I felt a sudden kinship with my father. Na Jeong was right. Scars exist everywhere and the deepest ones cannot be seen. How many more scars does he have that no one knew about? Who will tell him it’s okay to let go of the past?

“Appa…” I began, and watched as he took a sip of water. “I didn’t stay just because of Na Jeong. I couldn’t leave because… Well… Omma’s here…” His eyes met mine in understanding and he nodded. “… And you’re here.” Surprise flitted over his features before he hid back behind his mask. Trying to keep my tone light, I continued, “You said yourself you’re not getting any younger. Your shoulder is acting up now… Pretty soon it will be your back. Who’s going to piggyback you to the doctor’s? Who will take over your apple farm? I can’t be a proper son from a few thousand miles away. Aigoo… You might get angry and haunt me from your grave.” When he didn’t respond, I feared that I said the wrong thing, anticipating a chiding for being so candid. I looked up at him and saw a small smile on his face.

“So you see? I had no choice but to stay. The money they offered was good and I know you would have taken it, but Appa, in a few years I will have more money than I can do with and I’ll be secure in life, just as I know you’ve always wanted me to be… So you don’t have to worry about that. I can afford passing up on that. What I can’t afford is losing a couple more years away from the people I love and the people who love me. I don’t want to regret not being here with all of you. I’ve missed too much already. I don’t want to miss any more.”

My father remained silent for a few minutes before he spoke again. “You’re all grown up. Next thing you’ll be telling me you’re about to get married…” he joked.

“Appa… I will be getting married. I’m going to ask Na Jeong to marry me in a few days and hopefully she’ll say yes,” I said quietly. “You’re probably going to tell me I’m too young and my career too unstable still to be doing that, but I’m ready… And I think she is, too.” At the thought of Na Jeong I felt my face break out into a smile.

“What have you got planned?” He asked curiously. “Women like these big gestures.”

“Appa… I don’t have anything big planned. Maybe just a dinner at a restaurant and give her Lee Sang Min tickets with the promise that I will forever support her fangirling. And maybe give her the baseball she wrote on years ago… She’s very laidback and very practical…”

“Yah… Isn’t this your proposal too? It will be your memory too. Go big or go home. I remember that time when I proposed to Omma…” He stopped talking and started reminiscing a moment before continuing. “The Kim men are not known for subtlety. She’ll have to get used to that. Like in business, you have to show your best hand and ensure that she wouldn’t say no,” he responded. What? Who is this person now sitting in front of me talking about proposals like it’s a business merger of sorts?

“Well… I kind of thought that if I were to propose, I would do it like this…” I continued to speak and share what my dream proposal was and I watched, amused, as my Appa fully immersed himself in my plans, offering advice and nodding in agreement. This situation felt surreal and I sat back on my chair, as if seeing my father for the first time. Who knew my father was such a romantic? This must be the side that Omma fell in love with, I realized. It’s only now that it hit me how it must have been for the two of them before the stress of life overwhelmed them both.

When I was done speaking, he sat back and said, “That’s better. You have to give it your best. She has to know how much you love her.”

“I think she already knows, but yeah… It’s my memory too,” I said and we shared a chuckle. Appa resumed eating and I did as well, picking up the last bit of radish kimchi. Realizing that my father barely had any, I held the bowl in both hands and offered it to him. “Appa… You can have this.”

“I don’t like radish kimchi,” he said, declining the food and picking up some fish. “Never have.”

“You have a big container of it in your fridge. Did someone give it to you?” I asked, putting it over my rice and tasting it. “It’s pretty good.” Not like Na Jeong’s or my Omma’s, but pretty close. “They even put it in big chunks just as I like.”

“I made it,” he responded, not looking at me.

“Why would you make something you don’t like?” I asked. “Isn’t that wasteful? Is there someone around here who likes it? You should just…”

“My son loves radish kimchi,” he interjected quietly.

He smiled at me when he met my eyes. I was touched and rendered speechless. I haven’t visited my father in five years… So the whole five years… He made this kimchi waiting for the day I visited? But of course… I never did. Regret coursed through my veins painfully but I allowed myself to feel it. Because now I know it will only be brief and temporary. I have this chance now to change the direction of our future.

“Appa… It’s really really delicious,” I said hoarsely. “I’m sorry I never visited until today.”

“It’s okay. This is your home. You’re always welcome here. Appa is not very good at talking…” He finished his meal and stood up to take his plate to the sink. He reached into a cabinet for a giant bottle of rice liquor before turning to me. “Should we have a drink to celebrate your proposal?”

“Yes,” I said. I want to celebrate that, and this, too.

I watched with a smile as my Appa poured us our drinks and sat back down. It wasn’t until we were on our third round that I realized I never shared a drink with my father before, that I barely had spent any time with him to even allow myself to know him. All fixable, I heard Na Jeong’s voice say in my head and I looked at my father only to see him looking back at me. He smiled and I mirrored him, with perhaps the first authentic smile we’ve shared in years.

 

*****

December 31, 2001

9:15 p.m.

Jae Joon

I am the luckiest man alive. The luckiest. It’s been a few minutes since my proposal, and I still quite couldn’t believe Na Jeong said yes. Hold on… She did say yes, right?

I look over at her and she looked giddy and happy. She had a wondrous smile on her beautiful face and her cheeks were flushed.

“Na Jeong-ah… Just to make sure… You did say yes, right?” I asked her, studying her face for any sign of hesitation or misgiving. She met my eyes directly before she responded.

“Joon-ah… I already told people I was marrying you long before we were even together. What do you think?” She replied.

That’s true, I thought, grinning. I love this woman. I watched as an even bigger smile came over her face. She lifted her left hand to the light and I patted myself for picking a ring that was as unique as her. We continued walking hand in hand on the dimly lit path when I saw her gazing at the building that housed the indoor basketball court. Looking like she’s remembering something, she bit her lip before turning curious eyes at me.

“Kim Jae Joon-ssi…” She said with a stern voice. “Was this whole thing tonight a plot so you can propose?”

“Yes,” I replied, turning around to face her.

“But… What would you have done if I had gone to the basketball court? That was clearly the answer to the last hint.”

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist coming here first. I know you.” And I do. I knew she would take one look at the baseball stadium and decide to go there instead. And she still claims to love Sang Min Hyung as much as she loves me. HA!

“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 had to hold myself back from laughing in amusement. Trust Na Jeong to critique my proposal. Of course she would think of all the possibilities. Not me, though. I just forge ahead. If it was snowing… Well I would have been screwed. If it was windy then it would have been dark. Why didn’t I think about this? But still… I frowned at her.

“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 and not basketball.”

“And whose fault is that?” She asked cheekily. “I told you years and years ago to switch.”

“YAAHHH…” This woman… I shook my head at her. This is what I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life. Thank God.

We continued walking until she cleared her throat and spoke.

“Joon-ah… I just need to know one thing.”

I paused and stared at her, realizing only now that the speech I had written was still in my pocket. I’m not really good with flowery words, so I had to stay up all night to write a few things down. Too bad I got tongue tied when I saw her standing on the bleachers. She had looked a little dazed, a little confused. Bewilderment showed in her features and I had wondered for one minute if she thought she was dreaming when she rubbed her eyes. Afraid she would convince herself that she was just imagining me, I sped ahead with my proposal.

Did she… Did she need the words? I didn’t even say the three words I swore I would say at the very least. I can fix that now, if that’s what she needs to hear. I would do anything for her.

“Yes, I love you very much,” I said gently as I looked at her upturned face.

“I already knew that. I love you too. But… What I really want to know is,” she paused and took a deep breath, “Does this mean I didn’t win Lee Sang Min Oppa’s season tickets?”

I looked at her incredulously before breaking out into a wide grin. My woman knows her priorities.

“I got them… Did you think I was going to come empty-handed?” I answered as I pulled the tickets out of my pocket. “Do you think I want to die?”

Holding them up for her to see, she took them quickly and slipped it into her purse without a thank you even. I was about to grumble when she grabbed the lapels of my tuxedo and pulled me closer. Our faces inches from each other she placed a soft kiss on my eyes and my nose. I watched as her gaze dropped to my lips and she leaned in to place her lips on mine even as my arms tightened around her. I closed my eyes as every memory of Na Jeong drifted through my consciousness, from the moment I met her until now. Her heart beating against my chest I relished the feel of her hands, now cupping my face close. My mouth molded with hers as her scent wrapped around me.

“Aigoo… Look at these two,” I heard someone’s voice say behind us. Samcheonpo. There were other voices, too, which registered as I opened my eyes. Na Jeong opened hers too to see our friends standing not far from us, watching. They were all smiling as they walked over, and I watched as Yoon Jin pulled Na Jeong into a tight hug.

She was ushered to the side by the women as the men gathered around me to congratulate us. Jin Yi Noona and Ae Jung were admiring her ring when she met my eyes across the way and gave me a smile. As always when I see those magnificent eyes on me, it felt like time stood still as the noise around us dissipated and all that existed was Na Jeong.

“… And this bad guy of course had to propose in such a way that we have to clean up after,” Haitai complained as I zoned back onto the conversation around me. “Why can’t you just propose like regular people? Like in a restaurant or something? Or better yet, like Samcheonpo did, at the boarding house?” He shook his head as he grabbed Ae Jung to walk back to the baseball field, mumbling to himself.

“Yah… Chilbong-ah, don’t worry about him. He’s just mad because now Ae Jung is going to expect a proposal like this,” Samcheonpo said.

I watched as Yoon Jin and Samcheonpo, as well as Binggrae and Jin Yi Noona walked behind Haitai and Ae Jung, with Na Jeong closely following. She turned around and looked at me before holding her hand out. Warmth suffused me as I realized that I would be holding her hand for the rest of my life. Interlocking our fingers together, we walked closely behind our friends back towards the baseball stadium. 500 candles, I thought, what the hell was I thinking? Shaking my head, we walked back towards the stadium in silence.

Glancing at her, Na Jeong’s face appeared lost in thought. I was about to ask her what she was pondering so deeply when she spoke.

“Joon-ah… When did you come home?”

“I came back five days ago. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you but I wanted it to be a surprise,” I answered. “I had some things I needed to take care of.”

“We’ll need to tell Omma and Appa… And Omonim too. Maybe even Abonim?” She asked carefully. I love that she worried for my feelings but didn’t push. I turned her to me carefully before pulling her close.

“I spoke to everyone. I asked your parents for permission.” When she looked at me disbelievingly, I continued. “Yah… Did you not think I was going to do this properly? Don’t worry about my parents… I spoke to them too. Omma wants to see us for dinner sometime this week.”

“And Abonim?”

“I went to see him a few days ago. We’ll drive up next weekend so you can meet him.” When her eyes clouded over in concern, I smoothed her brows and kissed her forehead. “Don’t worry. It went fine.”

“But…”

“We’ll talk about it later, hmm? We have another New Year to celebrate and I want to enjoy it with our friends and the woman who just agreed to become my wife.” She smiled at me and I pressed a soft kiss on her lips. Rubbing my thumb on her lower lip as I pulled away, I looked at her face as she looked at me, her eyes appearing like they are drinking in the sight of me. I felt them travel over my face, each glance like a warm embrace. “Jagiya… Should we all just go back to the apartment after this? They helped me so much, and I want to thank them,” I said.

“All of us?” She asked. “Not just the two of us?” She bit her lip and I had to smile.

“Sung Na Jeong-ssi… You will have me all to yourself every day after we’re married. You’ll be begging for some time away from me then.”

“Not every day. Joon-ah.. About San Francisco. ..”

“Are you guys just going to stand there while we blow out these candles and pack them up?” Samcheonpo yelled out. “Aigoo…”

“You sure you want to ring in the New Year with these people?” Na Jeong asked. I chuckled and nodded. “WE’RE COMING! Aishhh… This punk…”

A few more expletives came out of her lips and I started laughing. I would have been taken aback but for the fact that I adore hearing all those sparks flying out of her mouth, and she looks so pretty with her face flushed with anger.

“Jagiya… Calm down, hmm? Let’s get this done so we can start the year right. I called Jung Gook Hyung as well… He and Yoo Mi-ssi are meeting us at the apartment in…” I looked at my watch, “… 45 minutes.”

“You are really something else, you know that?” She commented, trying to sound annoyed. “Did you think about whether or not I want to be around all these people for New Year’s? You’re going to be leaving again soon, and I want to spend as much time with you as possible.”

“Na Jeong-ah, we’ll talk about it later. I promise.” I pressed a hard kiss on her mouth. “Let’s go.”

*****

December 31, 2001

10:45 p.m.

Na Jeong

I rummaged the kitchen drawer looking for some takeout menus. In the living room, the gang sat around drinking as they watched television. Where are all those menus? I opened drawer after drawer and proceeded to find a menu here and a menu there. Joon needs to organize this stuff. On second thought he might not need to… It’s not as if he will be staying here longer than a couple of months anyway before he has to go back to train in San Francisco. Speaking of which… I should probably start saving up money now so I can visit him again for my birthday. Maybe while there I can start looking for jobs. The thought of being away from my family and friends makes me sad, but it really is time for Joon and I to start our future together. Maybe I should start…

“What’s taking so long, Na Jeong-ah?” I heard him ask from behind me before I felt strong arms wrap around my waist. I closed my eyes and relished the sensation before responding.

“Joon-ah… Why are all the menus in a million different places? When we’re married I’m going to organize this mess,” I complained. “Should I get a binder?”

“You can do anything you want… With the apartment… With me… I’ll let you do everything,” he whispered behind me. He brushed my hair to one side before placing a kiss on the curve of my neck. My heart started racing in response as I leaned back against him. “In my mind I already married you. So you can do anything to your heart’s desire. Whatever makes uri Na Jeong-ie happy.”

“There are people here… People you invited. You can’t speak to me like this. It’s not fair.” He continued to run his fingers up and down my arms and sparks of pleasure traveled the length of my spine.

“Sorry, Na Jeong-ah… I can’t help it. You make me really really happy,” he said, allowing his arms to fall away. I turned around to see those beautiful eyes on me. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

I nodded and held out the menus. Looking at his handsome face, I added. “It was right in front of me this whole time, right under my nose. But I found it just in time. Lucky me.”

I got the feeling he knew I wasn’t talking about the menus anymore when his eyes darkened and the fingers on my waist tightened momentarily. This is really a horrible horrible time to have people around. I’ve missed his face and his hands. I don’t feel quite right when he’s not here. I can’t believe he’s been home for almost a week and didn’t tell me.

“Yah, Kim Jae Joon… I’ll let you off this time, but the next time you lie to me, you’re dead.”

“I didn’t lie,” Joon replied defensively. “I just didn’t tell you.”

“Are we arguing semantics now?” I asked, frowning at him. “You know what I meant.” He looked like he was searching for the right thing to say.

“Yah… “ I heard Oppa call out, and I could have sworn that Joon breathed a sigh of relief. “Will you two hurry up? We’re getting hungry over here.”

I watched as he walked to join the others in the living room, long strides still encased in fitted tuxedo pants. As if knowing I was watching him, he loosened the bow on his shirt slowly before undoing the top button on his shirt. He looked over his shoulder as he shrugged out of his jacket and met my eyes. Jesus. Please help me. This confident Joon never fails to surprise me. He’s going to be my husband. My husband! I shook my head at myself as I walked to the living room. Avoiding his eyes, I sat on the floor next to Yoon Jin and placed the menus on the table. My cheeks felt flushed and I felt an absurd need to fan myself.

“What should we have?” Haitai asked, unaware of the fact that I desired nothing more than to throw everyone out. He picked up a menu. “Hmm… This should be good. They serve a lot, too. And they’re not too far from here.” Yoon Jin plucked the menu from his hand and started reading through it.

“I want some bossam,” she said decisively. Everyone nodded their assent, except for me.

“No… I don’t eat bossam.”

“Jokbal then?” Binggrae asked. “I haven’t had that in a while, and it would go perfectly with the beer and liquor we have. Plus…”

He motioned to the bottles of alcohol we bought before coming home. Home… When did I start thinking of this apartment as home? I suppose I should get used to it… Since this will be mine and Joon’s first home as a married couple. Even if we lived abroad, we would still come back here.

“…Na Jeong-ah… Is that okay? We’re going to order jokbal.”

“I don’t eat that either, but it’s okay… We may still have some ramyun here.”

“Who’s going to order?” Samcheonpo asked, pulling his phone out.

“I’ll do it. I have their number saved on my phone,” Joon offered, grabbing the menu and pressing some buttons on his phone. “Yes, hello… Is this Song Goon Restaurant? Yes I would like to place an order…” He walked to the kitchen and I listened to him as he gave the restaurant the apartment address. “What would I like? Hmm, one large serving of jokbal, please. Yes.” He met my eyes over the counter and winked at me. “Some ddukbokki too. Yes. 15 minutes? Oh… Can you make sure we get extra shredded radish please? Yes, thank you. My name? Ahh… It’s Kim Jae Joon. Really? Thank you very much. We’ll see you soon.”

“Joon-ah… You didn’t have to order ddukbokki. I would have been perfectly eating ramyun,” I said as he made his way next to me. He eased himself down to the floor and nudged my shoulder.

“Yah… You can’t celebrate with that. How will that make me look if I don’t take care of my Na Jeong-ie?” He asked teasingly. “You love ddukbokki anyway. As if you would ever say no.”

“You’re right,” I conceded.

“What was that?” He asked. “”I hear that so rarely I should probably mark this day in my memory.”

“It’s not my fault you’re wrong a lot,” I said to him as he chuckled before turning my attention to Yoo Mi Unnie. “How’s work going Unnie? I haven’t seen you in a while. I thought you wisened up and broke up with Oppa…”

“Yah…” Oppa said, throwing a dried fish at me. “Why are you saying things like that? I’m a good guy.”

Next to me Joon was talking to Samcheonpo and Haitai about something, but his hand continued to hold mine. I smiled at Oppa before Yoo Mi Unnie spoke.

“But Na Jeong-ah… Has he always been this messy? I went to his apartment last week and I thought he’d been robbed.” She shook her head vigorously as if remembering the image and I had to stop myself from laughing out loud. Yeah… I had that same reaction too. “He said it’s because he’s been working a lot.”

Before I could even respond, Binggrae answered the question for me. Sitting on the couch with his eyes firmly on the television, he said, “We don’t call him Sseureki for nothing Yoo Mi-ssi..”

Everyone burst out laughing and Oppa looked like he was about to tackle Binggrae. Did Oppa know? That Joon asked me to marry him? I don’t want to make anything awkward now that he and Joon are back in each other’s good graces, but I probably need to say something. A little nervous, I coughed and cleared my throat.

“Oppa,” I started to say as his eyes met mine over the coffee table. “Joon…”

“Na Jeong-ah… Joon asked me if it was okay if he asked you to marry him. Judging from the rock that almost blinded me when I came in, it’s safe to assume you said yes,” he said quietly before he smiled at us both. “Congratulations, you two. Be happy.” He proceeded to pour shots for all of us before he lifted it up in the air. “Should we have a drink to their engagement?”

Everyone picked up their shots and relieved, I turned to Joon. “You asked for permission to marry me from Oppa?”

“I told you… I was going to do this right. He’s your Oppa, and I needed to give him his respect as such,” he answered.

I listened vaguely as the conversation flowed around me, distracted by Joon’s fingers on my palm. He brought my hand to his lips and I remembered everything… Surrounded by all our friends, I almost forgot why we were all here to begin with. Every memory of Joon came crashing back to me… and I felt tears come to my eyes. What a journey it has been and it was just beginning. I will become Kim Jae Joon’s wife. There is no one else I wanted to spend my life loving and looking in his eyes it felt like I just had a taste of forever and always. His palm up holding mine, I traced I love you onto it, just like he’s done for me, and met his surprised eyes. His face broke out into a slow smile.

We were there again… On the floor of my parent’s house the first time he gave me a massage… At the bus stop in Samcheonpo, the first time he kissed me… In the living room upstairs, kissing against Bing’s door… Outside, having a snowball fight…. By LG Tower, holding each other close in the rain… In San Francisco, making love against his windows… In the park, having a picnic… And just a little while ago, at the baseball stadium, giddy with love and happiness.

What to do? I fall deeper in love with Joon the more I know him… For everything he was, everything he is and for all that he could become. What else is there to do? The little voice inside my head replied. You marry him. Was there really ever a choice? I smiled to myself and then at Joon, who was still looking at me tenderly.

“I’m marrying you,” he said with a husky voice as my hand cupped his face.

“There’s no escaping me now,” I declared. “You sure you can handle it?”

“You sure you can handle me?”

“Yah… Of course I can… I’m Sung Na Jeong…”

The doorbell rang and Joon stood up before grabbing his wallet from the coffee table. I watched as he walked to door and asked myself again if it would be rude to throw guests out just before New Year’s. I shook my head at my thoughts. No need for impatience now, Na Jeong. You have the rest of your lives together. That’s true, I said to myself. That we do.

*****

December 31, 2001

11:40 p.m.

Jae Joon

I watched from the kitchen as Na Jeong downed another shot. Aishhh… That girl. Why is she drinking so much? I heard her laughing as I deposited some trash into the bin and I couldn’t help but smile. It’s so rare that we all get to be here together… Of course she will want to enjoy herself. I can hardly penalize her for it because if we hadn’t drank two years ago, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Granted, she wasn’t really drunk and neither was I, but fueled by liquid courage, that moment changed our lives forever.

One moment. One chance. One kiss. It had been all we needed… And I wonder sometimes still what would have happened had I not come back to the boarding house, as I originally planned on doing. I was still thinking about this when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see Jung Gook Hyung behind me.

“Joon-ah… Sit down with me for a minute,” he said. “Just two minutes.”

I did as he asked and sat down. He pulled out two beers from the fridge and opened one before placing it in front of me. Na Jeong had warned me about sharing a drink with Hyung but I feel perfectly fine and this is only beer, so I should be safe. Taking a sip of the beer, I watched as he placed a small box in front of me.

“What’s this?” I asked, looking at it suspiciously. He took a sip of his own beer before he responded.

“Late Christmas gift? Ahh, maybe early birthday gift,” he responded. “Open it.”

I nodded and picked it up hesitantly. I could feel his eyes on me as I opened the box and lifted the tissue on top, only to to find my baseball nestled in some more tissue paper…. The baseball I gave him for safekeeping almost seven years ago, before I even left for Japan.

“Hyung…” I said.

I searched my mind for the right thing to say and unable to come up with anything, I just remained quiet, staring at the ball. I lifted it up from the box and touched it for the first time in years… The ball that always reminded me to work hard and persevere. The ball that always encouraged me when I was down to get up and try again, as many times as I had to.

“How does it feel to have it back?” He asked.

“This baseball?” I asked, meeting his eyes. He nodded and raised his eyebrows at me and taken aback by his question, I had to honestly think it through before responding.

“It feels… Good,” I said and he started chuckling. “Hyung… I’m not good with describing emotions… What was I supposed to say? It doesn’t feel bad, and it makes me happy to see it again. This ball meant a lot to me… It still does.”

“Does it feel like victory? This was one of those things that marked when we stopped being friends and became competition to each other. Does it feel like you won?” He asked this with no judgment in his voice… as if he was truly curious as to what my response will be.

“You would think that’s how I would feel, but surprisingly. I don’t. Baseball was all I had a long time ago, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I have everything I want, even without baseball. Na Jeong, my parents, Appa and Omma, Sook Sook… Binggrae and all our friends, you and Jun Jin Hyung. It took me a little while to see it, but it feels like my eyes have opened up in the last few months, and I can finally see everything clearly. Baseball is what I do… It’s a part of who I am but it’s not everything I am. And I’m okay with that.” I took another sip of beer. “I’m sorry for making you feel like I was challenging you years ago. I should have just told you straight out to love and take care of Na Jeong. She was just as precious to me then as this ball.”

“And now?”

“Now she is priceless… Incomparable. But I won’t be needing to entrust her to anyone else. I will always recognize her for what and who she is… Hyung…” I continued as I watched him finish off his beer. “… She was nervous about telling you about our engagement… I felt her hands clam up. Thank you for making it easier for her. And for me, too.” I placed the ball back in the box and slid it to him. “You can keep this if you want… It always encouraged me whenever I was having a hard time… Maybe it will do the same for you. Besides, it’s not as if it hasn’t been yours the last few years anyway.”

He smiled before he stood up. “It was never mine. You handed it to me years ago to take care of, but I think it’s time that it be returned to where it belongs, to the person it always belonged to,” he responded.

He winked at me before going back to the living room and I watched as he sat back down next to Yoo Mi Unnie. She whispered something in his ear, and he smiled at her before placing a kiss on her forehead.

“I’ll be right back,” I called out as I picked the box up from the kitchen table. “I just have to put my ball away.” Distracted by the television, no one even acknowledged me. I glanced at the clock and saw that we were five minutes to New Year. I was making my way to the bedroom when I felt a hand on my arm dragging me into the laundry room.

“Do you know what time it is, Kim Jae Joon?” She asked tipsily, her tongue peeking out to lick her lips and her hazel eyes soft. “It’s almost midnight.” She walked towards me and started running a finger over my jaw. “You’re so so SO so SO so pretty…”

“Jagiya… I was just going to put this away before I joined everyone in the living room. Are you okay? You look flushed… I think you’ve had enough to drink. We don’t want you biting people now, do we?” I rubbed my thumb on her cheek and she gave me a lopsided smile.

“I’m tipsy… I feel really really good. Yah… Why didn’t you tell me you kissed me before Samcheonpo?” I looked at her in surprise to see her eyes looking back at me owlishly. “You know what you are, Joon-ah? You’re a thief! You stole my first kiss… Then you stole my heart! And you didn’t even tell me about it!” She clucked her tongue at me before grabbing the collar of my shirt. “It’s time to pay me back. I’m taking back your stolen kiss!”

“Is that right?” I asked, in dialect, like I always do, and smiled when her brows furrowed into a frown on her forehead. “Our friends are right outside though…”

“Is that right? He says with a straight face, as if he doesn’t know how sexy he sounds saying it… Your voice gets all husky and it drops another octave whenever you say that… It makes me feel like I’m cold and hot all at once. Did you know that?” She asked and I shook my head no. “It makes me feel like my heart is going to explode in my chest because it’s racing so fast… And… Oh! What’s the time now? How close are we to midnight?”

I looked at my watch and had to chuckle. This is just like deja vu. “Not long now… We have ten seconds. Should we count down? 10…9….8…”

“Joon-ah… I’m not drunk and I do know what I’m doing… Do you remember saying that? That’s me now. I am NOT drunk and I also know what I’m doing. When the clock strikes midnight I will kiss you like I plan on doing every day of my life. I’m not as considerate as you though… You don’t get to run away. Not just tonight but forever. Sorry.” I felt her hands grasp my collar more tightly as she allowed herself a look at my watch. “….3… 2…1…”

“Happy New…” I started to say but she fused her mouth with mine before I could even complete the sentence.

Her mouth persuasive and teasing, she let her tongue drift over my lips before meeting mine. Baseball forgotten, I heard a thump on the floor when I dropped the box. One of my hands went straight to her hair, and I ran my fingers leisurely through the tresses as she moaned into my mouth. My other hand settled on the side of her neck, feeling her pulse jump wildly under my fingers. Her arms wrapped around over my shoulders as I savoured the taste of her mouth on mine. Taste of strawberry and soju registered on my tongue as I sucked on hers and her fingers, restless now, began to score my back. I kept my eyes on her face, relishing the way she looked with her eyes closed in surrender.

When my hand travelled just under her breast and settled over her ribcage she sighed and I felt a pulse of satisfaction roll through my veins. I pressed our bodies closer together even as desire pounded through me. My hands firmly on her waist, I lift her onto the washing machine and her long, long legs wrapped around my waist. She opened her eyes, and hazel eyes darkened with passion met mine. She ran one of her hands tenderly over my face and the other through my hair. She smiled and my heart stopped. Her lips looked tender and soft, her eyes focused intently on me. Her eyes never breaking our gaze, she let her hands roam over my chest, her fingers hovering over my abdomen. I tightened involuntarily and she gave a self-satisfied chuckle.

“I wonder, Kim Jae Joon… What else you will allow me to do…” she whispered. I felt her hand travel dangerously close to the front of my pants and I debated whether to let her or not. Yes, definitely yes. I leaned over her and allowed myself to place a kiss on her neck. She moved her head to one side to give me greater access and I breathed her scent in. Her wandering hand cupped my arousal confidently and I closed my eyes. Dangerous, dangerous game. “Joon-ah…” She said.

“Hmm?” I asked as my mouth hovered over a breast. What color bra would she be wearing today?

“Joon-ah,” she whispered huskily again before I lifted my eyes to look at her. Her eyes darted to the door and I wondered if she felt shy all of a sudden. I followed her gaze and saw what she was looking at. There were shadows of feet visible in the gap between the floor and the door. “I think we may have an audience.”

She smiled at me before she shakily jumped off the washing machine and straightened her skirt. Putting a finger to her lips, she crept to the door before opening it. Haitai jumped in surprise and Samcheonpo walked quickly to the kitchen. I turned away to try to get my arousal calmed down, and I heard Na Jeong yelling at Haitai.

“What were you doing outside the door?” I heard her say demandingly. “This is an invasion of privacy!”

“Oww, oww, Na Jeong-ah,” he screeched and myself fully back in control, I turned around just in time to see her drag him off by the ear. “We were just making sure you’re okay…”

“Checking, my ass… Is that why your ear was pressed against the door?”

“Na Jeong-ah… You’re going to be someone’s wife! Calm down!” Haitai said before hiding behind Ae Jung.

By the time I walked back to the living room, I felt eyes watching me in amusement before conversation awkwardly began again. Sheepish, I sat down a few feet away from where Na Jeong now sat and tried to watch whatever was on the television. Binggrae put a shot in front of me and I downed it gratefully. I need something cold to drink… Or thrown over me.

“Joon-ah,” Jin Yi Noona said drily. “I didn’t realize it took that long… Or that it took two people to put one measly ball away.”

All around me, everyone laughed and I felt myself flush in embarrassment. Na Jeong, however, stayed expressionless on the floor. “Unnie, sometimes the ball is not so measly… And it might require a bit of help,” she responded cheekily. She smirked at me and I started laughing.

Looking around at the people I considered family and friends, I realized that my life, really, has just begun. I took another swig of the liquor poured in front of me by Samcheonpo and said a silent grateful prayer to the powers that be for great friends and New Year’s Eves.

*****

January 1, 2002

2:15 a.m.

Na Jeong

“Omma?” I answered, double checking the time. “Why are you still up and calling at this time?”

“Appa and I watched the New Year’s Eve program on tv and we started drinking… Since Sook Sook is asleep and it’s just the two of us now, why not?” She answered. “How did it go?”

“How did what go?” I teased. I can’t believe that my parents managed to hide the fact that Joon asked them for permission to marry me for this long. No wonder they kept asking me where I was going yesterday morning. “The contest went well. I won my tickets.”

As I waited for her response, I heard my father in the background whispering frantically. “What’s she saying? What did she say?” I heard Omma tell him to shut up before coming back on the line. “Really? Ahh… I’m so happy it worked out well for you… Are you coming ho…”

“Oh, I also agreed to marry Joon.” I said nothing else and waited for a reaction. There was a moment of silence before Omma gave a shriek of joy.

“What happened? What happened?” I heard Appa say in the background. “She said yes!” Omma told him. “I knew our daughter was smart!” Appa responded back to her. I think Omma may have passed him the phone because the next thing I knew, I heard him clearing his throat before he spoke. “Na Jeong-ah. You’ve done Appa proud.”

“Aigoo… You’re just happy Joon is going to become your son-in-law officially. You would marry him yourself if you could.”

“YAH! SUNG NA JEONG!” He replied curtly then his voice softened. “Congratulations! Omma is grabbing the phone away but tell… Uhmm… Tell my son to come see Appa again soon, hmm? Tell him to come visit at my job so I can introduce…” His voice dripped with saccharine sweetness and I had to shake my head.

“Na Jeong-ah… Don’t listen to Appa. Tell Joon to come to the house! And invite his Omma too! We have to start planning…” Omma started rattling on about lists and guests and I felt myself zoning out. I’m still just recovering from his proposal. I want to try to enjoy this moment as long as possible.

“Omma, we have plenty of time, ” I interrupted. “I have to go… It’s time to start sending everyone home. I won’t be home til tomorrow, okay?”

“Have a good night. Kiss Joon on the cheek for me!”

“No kissing!” I heard Appa call out.

“Good night,” I said, smiling. I looked at our picture, still on Joon’s bedside table. After that kiss in the laundry room, I was ready to close this deal. Soon as we send the gang home. I picked up my perfume bottle and spritzed some on before walking out the bedroom to see the women congregated in the kitchen.

They all turned annoyed eyes at me and I followed the direction of their gazes to the living room, where the men are in various states of unconsciousness. Surely they’re all not drunk. Surely even if they were all drunk, Joon isn’t…

I walked over to the living room and tapped on his shoulder. No response. I can’t believe this happened again. I thought he could handle it… I could have sworn he was still sober a few minutes ago… Talking all calmly with the boys, who at that time only seemed mildly inebriated. Yes they were all talking about five different topics all at once but they all seemed coherent and lucid. I was shaking my head and trying my best to tamp down an insane need to throttle Joon when I felt Yoon Jin join me in the living room, hands on her hips.

“How is this even possible?” I asked. “We only bought two bottles of soju precisely to avoid this. I thought we were all drinking beer.” I looked around the table and spotted more bottles of soju.

Yoon Jin shrugged her shoulders in response before Yoo Mi Unnie spoke.

“Jung Gook brought seven bottles with us… Said his dongsaengs are getting married and we needed to celebrate,” she explained.

“THIS is why Oppa and Joon are not allowed to drink together anymore,” I said, irritated. “The last time they drank together the same thing happened.”

“They get all competitive and try to outdo each other,” Ae Jung said, next to Jin Yi Unnie. “What are we going to do?”

“Should we let them sleep it off? None of us are strong enough to help them all downstairs and into cabs then out of the cabs into our apartments,” Jin Yi Unnie said.

“Na Jeong-ah… Sorry,” Yoo Mi Unnie said and I brushed it off.

“Unnie… It’s not your fault that they are idiots. Haitai can’t go home like that… Appa will kill him.” I started picking up the bottles littering the floor and bringing them into the kitchen, with the women following suit. “Should we all have some tea? Or coffee? We’ll give them an hour and decide what to do, hmm? I could use the female company anyway. It’s been a while since we all got to hang out together… And this is the first time Yoo Mi Unnie is joining us.”

They all nodded and sat themselves down at the table while I put the kettle to boil. I heard Jin Yi Unnie asking Yoon Jin about Dong Min while Ae Jung and Yoo Mi Unnie talking about a drama they were both watching.

In front of the counter, I stood waiting for the water to boil. I cannot believe Joon got drunk. On the night of our engagement. After he hasn’t seen me in nine days. I stirred the cups of tea in front of me a little more vigorously than I had intended and the clang from the spoon hitting the side of the cup startled even me. I had just put the spoon down when I felt someone join me the counter.

“Yah… I don’t really think the tea needs that much stirring… Are you mad?” Yoon Jin asked. “Give the man a break… He just got back, just got engaged… You need to start getting used to their antics sometimes.”

“You make it sound like he’s the only one who could use a drink, Yoon Jin-ah. It hasn’t exactly been unicorns and rainbows for me either. And it’s the night we got engaged, shouldn’t he celebrate with me?”

“Don’t be selfish, Na Jeong-ah… Those guys… They’ve missed him too…” She responded. “You know that anyway. Did you guys get to talk about when you’ll have the wedding?”

“No, not yet… I’m only assuming that it will be after this season. He didn’t even get to tell me yet when he’ll have to go back to San Francisco.”

“So it’s safe to say that you haven’t broached the subject of where you’ll live after the wedding?” She asked quietly.

“No, not yet… I can probably do the long distance thing for another year…”

“Your place will be with him, just like it’s always been. You’ll only make all of us miserable when he’s gone and he won’t be happy either. So… you should probably go wherever he is. Besides, it probably won’t be the only time you’ll have to move anyway. He’s a baseball player after all.”

I thought about it for a minute before I responded. “Yeah… Home is where Joon is. Appa and Omma did well without me when I was in Australia. They can come visit us.” Even as I said it, I felt tears burn the back of my eyes. I looked over to her and she smiled at me before patting my hand reassuringly.

“We all have to grow up, right? It will be okay… You know that. Appa… Omma… Sook Sook… They will all understand. So will we.” I saw her eyes glistening with tears and she cleared her throat before picking up two of the cups. “Let’s drink these before they’re cold.”

I watched, overwhelmed by gratitude and love, as my best friend walked over to the table and carefully set the cups in front of Ae Jung and Yoo Mi Unnie. I picked up the two on the counter and gave them to Jin Yi Unnie and then lastly, to Yoon Jin, squeezing her hand as mine touched hers. Taking my own to the table with me, I sat down and listened to the voices all around me.

I realized with each passing day that I have been blessed, but never more so than now. Just like Joon’s love gave me strength and courage, so did my bonds with the people I called friends. They’ve all seen me grow… They’ve all let me grow, always supportive, always encouraging. Friendship… Love… they’re not different at all. I dare not think of how different my life would have been had they not been there through the happiest and saddest moments that I’ve had to go through.

And Yoon Jin… She is the sister of my heart. My brother Hoon may have been gone for a little while now, but he was still watching over me. Did he send all these people into my life to ensure that I was surrounded by love? Of that I am not so sure… But someone did. Someone definitely did.

*****

January 1, 2002

10:00 a.m.

Jae Joon

 

I don’t usually dream. At least not until recently. The nightmares and my memories… Those were all aberrancies. Proof that whatever was going on in my life was seeping into my subconscious. It hadn’t always been so… When I was in San Francisco the first time around, I dreamt of Na Jeong, too. Not of her leaving, but always of her loving me back. I had dismissed those dreams as worthless follies of a foolish man, never actually thinking that she would ever reciprocate those emotions. I see her now, in my sleep, back in the baseball field. The moment I knew… What I had to do and who I was doing it for.

Unbelievably, it wasn’t my proposal that I dreamt of. Instead it was the moment right before my pitch, before I the ball zoomed out of my hand… Before I knew that my fate has been linked back to baseball once more. My eyes had met hers and I knew that nothing else mattered. My destiny was looking at me in the face, replete with pride and love, with the promise of walking through sunny days, kissing in the rain and playing together in the snow. I saw visions of our children, with her eyes and my smile. I knew then, with certainty, that a beautiful life awaited me, if I was brave enough to take that chance and to make the change… To do what my heart was begging me to do.

My future had sat on the baseball bleachers, wearing my baseball cap, cheering for me. Just as she’d done for so long. Always on the sidelines, allowing me my glory… Never obstructing the sun from my eyes, but letting me soak in it for as long as I needed to. Loving me through my weakness, finding me through the darkness… Permitting me to fly higher, brighter… And even away if that’s what I needed. Through her eyes I saw myself and for the first time, I liked who I saw, and was proud of who I was and who I had become. Even before the game started, I knew that no matter the outcome, I had already won.

I opened one of my eyes and smiled sleepily at Na Jeong, who was looking at me.Thinking I was still in the dream, I closed it again and tried to ignore the incessant pounding in my head. I tried to remember where I was and what had happened. The events of the last few days broke through my consciousness and I smiled. I had proposed. And she had accepted. Our friends and I came back to the apartment and ordered food. Jung Gook Hyung giving me my ball back. Na Jeong’s legs around me in the laundry room. Then… Nothing. The pounding intensified and I opened my eyes gingerly, thinking that I was alone in the bed,

Stormy hazel eyes met mine. Her lips were thinned into an irritated line and she was glaring at me. If eyes could kill… I would be a dead man. What time is it? I tried to roll over to my back to reach for my phone to check the time when I heard her speak.

“Yah… Kim Jae Joon…” She began. “What are you doing?”

I covered my eyes and willed my head to stop throbbing before I responded. Na Jeong has never been a quiet woman, but her voice sounded like it has increased in volume. “Jagiya…” I said, my voice hoarse. “What time is it?”

“Does it matter? You have somewhere else you need to be?”

“No…” I met her eyes and tried to figure out what the emotion was that I saw in them. I studied her face as I waited for her to answer, then allowed my eyes to travel down her graceful neck and to the creamy shoulder peeking out from under the covers. As if seeing what I was doing, she alluringly ran her fingers over her collarbone and brushed the hair that was covering her skin over one shoulder. Hang on… I thought she was angry… But maybe not that angry. She bit her bottom lip and my mouth watered.

“Joon-ah,” she whispered. “Do you like what you see?”

I could only nod in response, wondering if that strap holding her nightgown together was as fragile as it looked.

“Well then…” She said, shyly looking at me from under her lashes. “THAT’S TOO BAD!!!” Her gaze hardened while she screamed and she sat up on the bed, the frown back on her face.

Okay… Maybe she was that angry. “Na Jeong-ah… Jagiya… Please… Lower your voice. I feel like my head is going to explode.”

“REALLY?!? GOOD!” She crossed her arms over her chest, exposing some more skin.

“Na Jeong-ah… What’s the matter? Did I do something else last night?” She blinked at me without responding. “I apologize, whatever it is. Just don’t be mad, hmm? I love you, jagiya… Don’t be mad.”

“What did I tell you about using that phrase all willy nilly whenever you think you’re in trouble?”

“Well,” I said, sitting up slowly. “It might help if you actually told me what I did. Then I’ll know how much I have to apologize for.”

She released a breath before replying. “You don’t remember getting drunk with everyone?” When I shook my head no, she continued. “How about me having to drag you to bed?” Again, no. “I wanted to have a romantic night together. We just got engaged… And I wanted to…” She paused then pinkened adorably, “I wanted to… No matter. It doesn’t matter. You were useless last night!”

“Na Jeong-ah… I’m sure if you let me know that, I would have sobered right up,” I responded, chuckling.

“I did.”

“Well… You should have just started then. You know I don’t need that much persuading. Look… You even managed to take my clothes off and get me to bed. It wouldn’t have taken much more to get me going. You know I’m crazy for you.”

“I did.”

“And what happened?”

“Nothing happened. You just kept yelling ‘I love you, Sung Na Jeong’. I couldn’t get any other response from you. And… More concerningly, I couldn’t get a response from him,” she said, looking pointedly at my groin. “You’re not allowed to drink with Oppa ever again. I mean it.”

“I’ll make it up to you. You know I will.” I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and though she resisted at first, she eventually softened and burrowed closer into my arms. “Just say when and I’ll do it.”

“When.”

*****

January 1, 2002

10:15 a.m.

Na Jeong

“Nothing happened. You just kept yelling ‘I love you, Sung Na Jeong’. I couldn’t get any other response from you. And… More concerningly, I couldn’t get a response from him,” I said, my eyes straying delicately to his groin. I tried to look not so pleased at seeing that there seemed to be more activity down there now. “You’re not allowed to drink with Oppa ever again. I mean it.” He looked at me incredulously before his gaze relented.

“I’ll make it up to you,” he said soothingly. The man knows how to handle my ruffled feathers, and I tried to hide my smile. “You know I will.” He wrapped a strong arm around my shoulder and just to make sure he treats me seriously, I resisted at first, before after a little while, burrowed closer into my arms. “Just say when and I’ll do it.”

YES! I think I’m getting the hang of seducing Joon… Which is really, just by making him think he’s seducing me instead. It’s laughable how easy he is.

“When.”

Before I could even say anything else, he had shifted his position quickly and laid on top of me, holding his weight up only by an elbow on the bed, by one side of my head. His broad shoulders and bare chest appeared silky smooth from the sunlight seeping into the bedroom and my fingers reached out to touch. His gaze focused on my face, I felt his arousal pressed against me insistently. Oh yes. Everything is definitely back in working order. I felt his free hand roam the side of my calf and up up up over my thigh, lifting my nightgown in the process. I felt teeth nipping on the side of my neck and I smiled. Hands lingered over the curve of my waist and I shrieked out loud.

“Joon-ah, that tickles!” I cried, trying to escape his fingers. He immediately stopped and attempted to look contrite.

“Is that right?” He asked in dialect, before wiggling his fingers towards me. I tried to push him off but was unsuccessful. His hands went back to my waist and continued tickling me as I laughed and tried to dodge him under his weight. When he finally stopped, I looked at him to see him watching me with a smile. He was leaning down to give me a kiss when I caught a whiff of alcohol and I turned my face away.

“Jagiya… You reek of alcohol. You’re not kissing me with that mouth,” I said. Seeing that he was about to complain, I added, a little more gently. “Go brush your teeth. Quick. Please. I want to kiss you. I love kissing you. Kissing you makes me happy.”

He nodded and jumped off me before I could say anything else. I watched as he walked towards the bathroom then jumped up to put some lip gloss on. Just because the man will be my husband doesn’t mean I should stop trying, right? I shook my hair loose to give myself softly tousled bed hair, even though I’ve been up for a little over an hour before he woke up. I rushed back to the bed and tried to assume a provocative pose, only to realize that half the time I try to be sexy I end up looking awkward that I just positioned myself on the bed sitting up. That being said, though, I still permitted myself to slide one strap down my shoulder. For effect. I needed to look effortlessly sexy. Like I just woke up looking like this.

Within a few minutes he walked back in the bedroom, eyes looking more awake, and no doubt with fresher breath. He climbed into bed and straight under the covers, then back on top of me again. Holding my hips, he slid me down the bed so that I was flat on my back. I love it when Joon takes control, I thought as I watched his eyes taking my face in and his hands cupped my bottom. So handsome.

“Comfortable?” He asked as he slid a pillow more firmly behind my neck.

“Perfect,” I answered, my hands traveling down the expanse of his chest, his pectoral muscles smooth and strong under my fingers. “Utterly. Ridiculously. Perfect.”

I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and I closed my eyes as he bent down to kiss me. The scent and taste of mint hit my senses as soon as his lips touched mine. My lips softened in surrender as he teased them to open. Our tongues and breaths mingled and mated slowly, deliciously, sending little sparks of pleasure all over me.

I’ve missed him so much. I’ve missed this so much. With me not knowing whether he’ll have to go back again soon, I felt an urgency but tamped it down, knowing that I need to enjoy our every moment like it’s the last time.

His mouth on my neck brought me back to the present and I felt his hands lifting my nightgown up so he could get closer. As soon as the nightgown reached my waist I decided to take things into my own hands and slipped it over my head. I watched as his eyes darkened even more and feeling impatient, I slid his boxers down with my hands. I brought my lips to his chest even as I caressed his arousal and smiled when I heard him moan. So sexy.

Keeping my eyes closed, I allowed myself to get lost in the sensations that Joon was coaxing out of me. His hands and lips were everywhere, all at once… So much so that I felt like my whole being was thrumming with tension. He worshipped my body with his mouth and his fingers, and I have never felt more beautiful or loved. When he slipped my last remaining piece of clothing off my hips, I whispered his name.

“Na Jeong-ah… Jagiya…” He said softly. “Open your eyes. I want to see your eyes.”

I lifted my lids slowly and met his focused gaze. The love and warmth pouring out of his eyes touched something deep inside me and I started to tear up. I felt his calloused hand brush over my cheek as a tear fell.

“I love you. Kim Jae Joon. Uri Chilbong-ie. My Joon-ah.” I smiled through the haze of tears and he bent down to take my lips tenderly as he slowly slipped inside me.

I wasn’t quite sure myself if it was the certainty of the life I am about to start with him or the feeling of finally finding what I haven’t even realized I’ve been missing most of my life… But feeling his body with mine, I felt pleasure, more intense than I’ve ever felt before. Our eyes stayed connected as he moved slowly at first, as if savoring the sensation.

The morning light hit his hair and made it appear more brown than black and caressed his cheekbones. I watched as he rose over me, strength and control in his every move, in every thrust. His dark head bent down to take my nipple’s peak into his mouth and his hands roamed down my abdomen between us to touch the bud between my legs even as he continued to move inside me.

When I felt the pleasure building up, my fingers restlessly moved over his back and he slid back up to brace his arms on the bed as his hand cradled my head, his eyes interlocked with mine. His name like a prayer on my lips, I felt myself tighten around him as my body shattered into a million pieces. He was still moving, faster now, when I heard my name escape his tongue and felt him stiffen on top of me and another climax rolled through me.

Even after the storm had passed, he stayed on top of me, his weight pressed reassuringly on me. I ran my fingers through his hair and smiled when he gave a contented sigh. Like a cat who ate too much cream, his eyes closed into two lines as he rested his head on my chest. I allowed both of us some time to recover and closed my eyes as well. I felt him press a kiss on my collarbone before he sleepily opened one eye.

“Am I too heavy?” He asked. “Should I get off you? I don’t want to cru…”

“Nope. You move an inch and I won’t let you seduce me again. You stay right where you are.”

“You sure?” When I nodded, a corner of his mouth lifted up. “You still have time to change your mind,” he continued, in a more serious tone, and I knew he wasn’t just talking about being on top of me anymore. My heart softened, knowing that Joon will always give me the choice. Which is sweet but unnecessary, since I will keep choosing him over and over again, if I had to.

“Never. I will never change my mind. I told you this over a year ago.” I yawned sleepily and closed my eyes. “Joon-ah… Let’s rest a little, okay? Just a few more minutes and we’ll get up…”

“Okay,” he responded, putting his arms more firmly around me. I felt his legs intertwined with mine and relished the feel of his heart echoing the same beating in my chest. This is so nice, I thought, as sleep overtook me once more.

*****

Four hours later

Na Jeong

The next time I opened my eyes, Joon was no longer on top of me but laying on his side of the bed, still sleeping peacefully. Propping myself up on an elbow, I turned to him and perused his face. I traced his long lashes with a finger and watched him breathing slowly. I’ll get to have mornings every day like this soon. The thought brought a smile to my face and I lift myself off the bed with renewed vigor and energy.

I walk over to his closet as I pull my hair up into a loose bun at the top of my head. Slipping one of his white shirts over me, I padded to the kitchen in my slippers and started put the kettle to boil. Gathering all the ingredients I needed, I began making hangover soup. Again.

I grabbed some pills from my purse and placed two on Joon’s side of the table, along with a glass of water and a bowl of rice.

By the time the vegetables were added and the soup was happily simmering on the stove, I had already showered and cleaned up what rubbish was left from last night’s festivities. I had just lifted the cover off the pot and was ladling the soup into a tureen when I heard Joon walk up behind me. Strong arms wrapped around my waist and I felt him breathe me in.

“You changed your shampoo,” he commented, taking an appreciative sniff. “You smell like the rain. I like it.”

“Yeah… I knew you would,” I replied. “You feeling better?”

“I do. Jagiya…” he said as he turned me around to face him. “You didn’t have to cook and you didn’t have to clean up. You know that, right? I was going to help.”

A lock of hair has fallen onto his forehead and I lift a hand up to brush it back. “I love to cook. And the cleaning… There wasn’t much left. The girls helped me with most of it last night. I know I don’t have to do all this stuff, but I wanted to.” I stood on tiptoes to kiss him gently on the mouth. “Go sit down.”

He shook his head no before he responded. “YOU go sit down. I’ll do this. All I have to do is put it in this thing, right?” I nodded. “I’ll do the dishes too. You’ve done enough work for today.”

I smiled at him before I sat down and opened the newspaper to read. It was only then that I realized that I forgot my coffee on the counter when Joon walked over to the table with my cup in hand.

“Jagiya… I’m going to need the milk and su…”

“I got it,” he said with a wink. “I already added it. I know how uri Na Jeong-ie likes her coffee.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. I already said yes, so what is this? Is he still trying to win me over? I continued to watch as his bare back flexed while spooning the soup into the big bowl. Shirtless and only wearing sweatpants, I let my eyes travel admiringly over his defined chest and taut abdomen as he walked to the table. Sighing inwardly, I brought my coffee cup to my mouth as he finally set the tureen down and sat down across from me. Picking up his spoon, he grinned at me across the table and met my eyes.

“Thank you for the food,” we both said simultaneously and shared a chuckle. I watched as he took an appreciative sniff of the stew before diving in.

“Careful, Joon-ah…” I started to say when I watched him cringe as he burned his mouth. “… It’s hot.”

He gave me a sheepish smile before blowing on his next spoonful. “Ahh… I miss this every time I leave. You make the best food. Is this kkakdugi too? I didn’t realize you made a fresh batch.”

“Of course I did. It’s your favorite. It’s part of my wedding dowry. You’ll have a lifetime supply of kkakdugi. Aren’t you lucky?” I teased. “Jagiya… Take those pills as you’re eating. I know your head must still be hurting. You know better than to drink that much.”

“Yeah… Na Jeong-ah… Sorry about that. We were all just having a good time.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I was a little irritated but it had less to do with you drinking and more to do with not being able to… Never mind.” I felt a flush creep up my neck and I took a spoonful of rice. “Anyway, that situation has been thoroughly rectified.”

He held my gaze for a few minutes before he resumed eating. We ate quietly for a few minutes, knees touching and our legs lightly pressed against each other. I passed the sports column of the paper to him and kept the rest for myself, just as we’ve always done. I was reading a news story regarding the increasing tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world when I heard Joon clear his throat.

“Na Jeong-ah… When do you want to get married?” He asked when I lifted my eyes to him enquiringly.

“I would like spring or early Summer but you’ll be in season, so we can probably wait until the season’s over. Or even next year. It takes some time to plan a wedding.” I said, putting the paper down.

“Okay,” he said, his eyes back on the paper. “Should we go see Sook Sook play later? They’re having a special game indoors this evening. It’s important to him, and I would like to be there.”

“We can do that. We don’t have any other plans,” I said. “But how did you know about that game? Sook Sook only just told us yesterday morning about it.” He grinned at me but didn’t respond. “Don’t tell me that you saw him asked for his permission too…” When he didn’t answer, I realized that he must have done just that. “Did you ask everyone’s permission to marry me?”

“I told you I was going to do this right,” he said. “Sook Sook is your brother. You love him and I love him. I needed him on my side. And I knew I had to see him last because well… He’s only a kid. I didn’t want to risk revealing my plans before I actually had a chance to do it.”

“Wow… Kim Jae Joon-ssi… It appears that you got all of Korea involved in this proposal. You’ve worked hard,” I said. “But you know the answer would have been the same had it just been us two, right?”

“Yeah… I know that. But I wanted something memorable that you can tell our children about and go back to whenever I make you mad. I’m being proactive,” he replied. “Plus… Appa said women like grand gestures. You may be Sung Na Jeong but you’re still a woman first. I was going to show you my best effort in this… So you know I will always give my best effort as your husband, too. I’m not perfect but I’ll always try to do my best for you.”

My heart melted inside me and as much as I hate to admit it, I loved his proposal. It was as if I walked down our memories together as I found all the clues and I remembered how we got here.

“Speaking of Appa,” he continued. “I promised him we’ll come down this weekend and visit.”

“Sure. I’d love to meet Abonim. It would have to be done at some point or another, right? To be honest, I’m curious to meet the man who was able to pin Omonim down, even just for a little while.” I played with the rice that remained in my bowl before I asked the question that was hanging on the tip of my tongue. “Joon-ah… When do the Giants expect you back? Last year you had to leave at the end of January to begin training. They’ll probably expect you back even earlier, right? So that you can continue to have your physical therapy and conditioning under their watchful eyes?”

Joon didn’t answer but continued to watch me intently instead. “Will that be a problem? If I have to leave soon again?” He asked quietly. His tone remained even and neutral, and I’m unable to read the mood behind it.

“Of course it won’t be a problem. You’re a baseball player. Have I not been dealing with this beautifully since a year ago?” At his continued silence I kept talking. “Well… Maybe not always beautifully but I think I’ve dealt with it relatively well. I would be better with advanced notice. That’s why I’m asking. I like preambles and disclaimers. You know me…” When I realized I was babbling, I decided to shut up. I kept my eyes on a spot on the table and waited for a response. Any response.

“You’ve done better than anyone else could have,” he replied, finally. “I don’t have to go back.”

“Until when?” I asked. “Until next month? I know you must want to see Omonim and In Sung and Misoo, too. The extra month ensures that you’ll get to do all that. That’s good. That’s really good.”

“I didn’t mean until next month, nae sarang.” He’s never called me ‘My Beloved’ before and the sound of it from his mouth brought a flush of pleasure inside me, and I met his eyes. “I don’t have to go back, ever. I’ve decided to stay and play baseball in Korea.”

Unsure of what to say, and trying to contain the joy that bloomed in my chest, I tried to keep the smile forming on my face in check. “You didn’t have to do that, Joon-ah. That’s your dream. I would have waited.”

*****

Joon

 

I looked at Na Jeong’s beautiful face and saw happiness flit over her features before she hid it again. So selfless, my love is. She bit her lip to keep the smile that I’m certain is fighting to form and I had to hold my own back. Before she even spoke, I already knew what she was going to say. Something along the lines of playing in America being my dream, how I was not obligated to do that, how she would have waited.

“You didn’t have to do that, Joon-ah. That’s your dream. I would have waited.” Sure enough, I was right. I felt contentment pulse through me in the knowledge that I think I finally get who Na Jeong is and what she’s about.

“I know you would have, just like you gave me the freedom to decide for myself, because that’s who you are and that’s how you love. I don’t want to wait anymore. And my dream was always baseball. Not necessarily America. What’s the point of earning all that money and having all that fame if I’m not where I want to be? I knew I had a choice to make. One that I gave myself. I could spend years of my life pretending to be happy, sure that I should be happy, because I have everything I want, but on everyone else’s terms.” I took a deep breath before I continued. “Or, I could be happy, not pretending, having everything I wanted and on my terms. My life is here, with you. I want to be able to enjoy our life together. I want to be the person you wake up to and the person you fall asleep with. I want every day with you, for the rest of our lives. Don’t get me wrong… There will still be days and nights that I may have no choice but to be away for some games. But six hours of driving in Korea is doable. Over twelve hours on a plane is not always so. Life moves so fast and I need to know, for my sanity, that should something happen, good or bad, that I am only a drive away from coming back home.”

“Home?” She asked, finally giving me a shaky smile. I thought I glimpsed tears in her eyes but emotional Na Jeong is something I can understand. She feels things so deeply for someone so practical. “Of course you’ll already be home if you’re in Korea, Joon-ah.”

“No… I meant home as in you. You are my home. Wherever you are. That’s where I want to be.”

“I could have moved for you, lest you hold it over my head that you gave this up for me,” she said. “I won’t tolerate that.” She lifted her chin up stubbornly and I chuckled.

“What would I have done about my parents, then? Or your parents? And Sook Sook?” Surprise came over her features and she put her spoon down. “And our friends? Should I take In Sung too? That’s what would have made me happy. I need all of you in my life to be happy, and it would have been exponentially less expensive to just move myself than move all of you to America.”

“It seems that your decision has been made,” she conceded. “Who am I stop you?”

Her face broke out into a smile so bright she almost overshadowed the sunlight seeping into the apartment through the half opened blinds. I’ve made her so happy, with something so little, and I knew then without a shadow of a doubt that I made the right decision. I had followed her voice as I contemplated which direction to go. I have finally done something out of love, not fear. I know I’ve done her never ending faith and unwavering love for me justice. Besides, whatever puts that dazzling smile on my Na Jeong’s face could only be the right choice.

I watched as she resumed eating with gusto and once done, she stood up and grabbed her plate, as well as mine.

“Yah… I wasn’t done yet,” I resisted.

“You weren’t even eating anymore. Besides… Don’t you want to take a shower?” She asked. She fluttered her eyelashes at me then pulled her hair out of the bun that was holding it together. “We only have less than three hours before we have to go to Sook Sook’s game. And then I will have to go home tonight unless you want Appa coming over here and sleeping over too. So… Don’t you want to take a shower, Joon… Oppa?” She blinked at me a couple more times and I started laughing.

“Will you take it with me?” I asked as she walked towards the bedroom. She stopped walking, as if thinking, then slipped my shirt up over her head, revealing her smooth back and long legs and everything in between. She turned her head and looked over her shoulder, hair tumbling seductively. My mouth dried up at the alluring picture she made and I said hoarsely, “I might need some help washing my back.”

She smiled at me before responding. “I thought you’d never ask.” She turned around and gave me a full frontal view and I felt all the blood rush to my groin. I stood up and started walking towards her. “But Joon-ah… I was hoping to wash your front, too.”

She darted to the bathroom and then peeked her head out and stuck her tongue at me. She was still laughing by the time I joined her in the shower.

*****

January 5, 2002

1:30 p.m.

Na Jeong

 

“Even though already a year has gone by, even after a year or a year after that I wait for you,” I sang along as Joon drove. “I love this song, but it’s so sad.”

“Yeah. It is. I like this song, too,” he commented as he kept one hand firmly on the steering wheel and the other holding my hand.

I looked over at him and though he didn’t sing along with me, he was mouthing the lyrics to the song as well. I only just realized at this moment that he and I haven’t driven long distance together since almost two years ago. So much has already changed since that time. Back then I wasn’t sure where we stood, having only just started something together and now look at us. I’m so happy my face hurt from smiling.

Omma and Appa have insisted that Joon come over for dinner almost every night since Sook Sook’s game. I know that training kept him busy during the day and I had to go back to work the day after New Year’s. He mentioned that Jung Jin Oppa came back two days ago, and I know he will have to go back to the business of choosing where he’ll play next week. But for this week, at least, we were granted a reprieve, and I had the opportunity to enjoy how lighthearted and carefree Joon seemed nowadays. Like a man who finally had it all. I feel that way, too.

I pressed a kiss to the top of his hand before leaning my head to his shoulder. I kept my eyes to the view outside the windows, marveling as the scenery changed from the urban jungle that is Seoul to the greenness of trees as we headed towards the mountains to Chungju.

Having made a severe impression on Omonim when we first met, I am determined to win Joon’s Appa at first sight. I will remember everything my Appa criticized me for, and try to do my best in being the lovely daughter in law that he would want for his son. I glanced behind me at the big fruit basket Omma and Appa helped me put together last night, along with an invitation for dinner at the boarding house the next time he finds himself in Seoul.

“Did you know that Chungju is the main producer of apples in Korea?” I asked Joon, having read up on it before our trip. “Abonim runs an apple farm, right? It must be so nice for him to have such a life, considering how hard he’s worked in the past.”

“Yeah… But Na Jeong-ah, it might not be what you’re expecting,” he said, as we passed the sign welcoming us into the city.

In my head having a farm sounded quaint. Images of people working on a medium sized patch of land filled my head, and I looked forward to meeting the man who put his business behind him in pursuit of a simpler life.

Joon turned to a smaller road and I watched absently as dried apple trees started filling my line of sight, as far as my eyes could see. Everywhere I looked there were only apple trees. We might be getting near now.

“Jagiya… How much farther is Abonim’s farm?” I asked. “I need to go to the bathroom.” I knew I shouldn’t have had that big cup of coffee on the way. “If it’s still far, can we stop somewhere so I could…”

“We’re here,” he said.

“Here where?” I looked around, puzzled, for any sign of a house only to be met by even more rows and rows of trees.

“This is Appa’s farm. He owns, ah, a few acres of land. We should be there in… About half an hour.”

“Half an hour? Exactly how many acres of land does Abonim own?”

“Ahh… Maybe… 500 acres?” Joon said, embarrassed. “I told you it’s not what you were expecting. This is not a hobby and it’s not small scale either. Appa takes everything seriously.”

“Wow… You Kim men definitely operate on a different scale. I get now, all your grandiose tendencies.” Of course he would have a whole orchard. Joon gave me a sheepish smile and I looked at the land with new eyes, realizing only now that all this belongs to Joon’s Appa.

We drove in silence for twenty minutes and I braced myself for how Abonim’s house will be. Maybe a mini mansion of sorts, I thought, styled just like how Omonim’s house in Seoul was.

 

So imagine my surprise when Joon parked at the top of the hill, in front of a traditional looking house. Built on one floor, it was made up of three distinct structures, all with a big door opening to the front of the house. I got out of the car and stretched my legs, grateful that I am wearing my heaviest coat. Omma said that it tends to get colder up in the mountains and she was right. Joon had popped the trunk open and grabbed our overnight bags. I was about to grab mine when he shooed my hand away.

“Na Jeong-ah… I’ll get these. You just get your purse and the basket.”

I nodded and started walking up the house when I saw a man walking out of the house. Figuring that he must be Joon’s father, I walked up towards him and offered the basket, which he took hesitantly. Oh no… Has Omonim already warned him about me? I allowed myself to take in his plain looking face and his heavy build, dressed in simple garb with a heavy coat, before dropping my eyes in respect.

“Abonim,” I started to say politely. “It’s nice to finally meet you. My name is Sung Na Jeong.”

“Na Jeong-ah… What are you doing?” Joon asked, finally joining me, easily holding both our bags.

“I’m introducing myself to Abonim… What does it look like I’m doing?” When he just continued to look at me, I nudged his side before I turned his way and gave him an irritated glare. “Joon-ah… Don’t be rude. Greet your father.”

“I’ll do it once…” He started to say. What is wrong with this man? Has he forgotten his manners? I know they’ve had problems in the past, but really…

“Baek Il Hyun-ssi, you forgot your baseball cap,” I heard from the front of the house and I looked to see a handsome man emerge from the front door holding a cap in one hand.

Dressed casually in loose trousers and a sweater, he was a couple of inches shorter than Joon but still looked surprisingly lean and strong. Dark hair, with no visible gray, covered his head. His face was the stuff of women’s dreams, all hard angles and strong features, lacking the delicacy present on Joon’s face. The only thing on his face that was even remotely like Joon’s was his cupid shaped mouth, the bottom lip plumper than the top. I felt my mouth open in surprise and realized I was studying his father shamelessly. Curious eyes met mine and I looked down quickly. So much for good first impressions.

“I think this was meant to be for you,” his companion said, chuckling, as he handed the basket to Abonim. He offered a hand to Joon before he spoke. “You must be Jae Joon… Your Appa speaks of you often. It’s nice to see you finally made it up here. Kim Kang Ho-ssi, I’ll see you on Monday.” Turning to me, he said, “it’s nice to meet you too, Sung Na Jeong-ssi.” He took the cap from Abonim before walking off.

“Appa, who was that?” I heard Joon ask his father.

“He’s one of the guys I play Go-Stop with every Monday,” he said, his voice deep. “Are you going to introduce us or will we have to introduce ourselves?”

Hearing the sarcasm in his voice, I tried to figure out how he and Omonim had been together as a couple. She was sarcastic too. It must have been interesting.

“Ahh… Of course,” Joon said as he put our bags down on the ground. “Appa, this is Na Jeong. Sung Na Jeong. Jagiya, this is Appa, Kim Kang Ho.”

“Na Jeong-ssi, it’s nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard about you from both Joon’s Omma and Joon, too. Thank you for the basket, and for coming,” he directed at me. I met kind brown eyes, assessing me, not unlike how Omonim was when we first met, and I felt nervous all over again. “Come in, come in… I had just put the kettle to boil. Let’s have some tea.”

I followed him and Joon into the house and was surprised at the simplicity I found there. Abonim led us to the living room and Joon plopped himself down on a wooden hard backed bench, devoid of any decorative pillows, and I sat down and primly folded my hands in front of me.

Abonim walked over with a tray and I debated whether to serve the tea. Might as well, I thought, as I added a couple of teaspoons of sugar into one of the cups before offering it to Joon’s father.

“Appa, Na Jeong prefers coff…” Joon started to say and I glared at him to shut up.

“Abonim, I wasn’t sure how you took your tea, so I just made it like how Joon takes his,” I said, and breathed a sigh of relief when he took it.

“How was the journey?” He asked politely. “Two hours is quite a long way to drive just to visit your future In-law, right? I appreciate you taking the time in making the travel, Na Jeong-ssi. Joon says work keeps you busy. I’m sure he keeps you busy as well.”

“Ahh, Abonim, it was good. My family comes from Masan and we go back there at least once a year, so the travel is something I am used to.”

“Speaking of travel, didn’t you say you needed to go to the bathroom? It’s just over…” I heard Joon say next to me and I cringed.

“I’m fine,” I interrupted and fixed him an irritated glare. Does he not realize how much I’m trying to make a great first impression? Before he could say anything else I shoved a cup towards him to shut him up. “Drink your tea.”

He looked at me curiously, but complied anyway. He and Abonim started talking about his proposal and though I wanted to chime in, I held myself back, knowing that I should be more courteous. So I sat and listened and only answered questions that were directed towards me. I don’t want him to think Joon is marrying someone rude and mouthy, just like Appa often accuses me of. I can be proper. I can be polite. I’m determined to make Joon proud of me.

*****

Joon

 

Not for the first time since we got to Appa’s house I wondered if something was wrong with Na Jeong. I looked at the way she was sitting on the bench and wondered if she was hurting again. Her back was so stiff and straight, her hands folded in front of her, her eyes fixed on the tea tray.

“How did the proposal go?” Appa asked, his tone friendly.

I smiled at him because I knew he was trying. My father was a man’s man… Always has been. He tends to speak roughly and bluntly, as one would expect from someone who hasn’t lived with a woman in almost twenty years.

“It was good, Appa… She said yes. Everything went as planned.”

I half expected Na Jeong to interject, since I know she has a lot to say about the proposal… God knows she gave me a review of it as soon as it’s done with and many many days thereafter. Though her Omma swooned at the story, Na Jeong remained sensible, examining everything that could have possibly gone wrong.

Appa darted his eyes at her in concern and again, I just shrugged my shoulders. I don’t know why she’s acting like this. Maybe the travel has made her more tired than usual.

“Ahh.. Joon-ah, Abonim… I think I will go to the bathroom,” she said nervously and she suddenly stood up and walked off before I could even tell her where to go. I watched as she went the direction of the kitchen and worried when she opened the pantry door.

“The bathroom is this way, jagiya,” I said gently, concerned that she’ll end up opening all the doors in that end of the house.

She nodded and walked briskly towards the direction I pointed her to and I had to hold back a smile when I saw her blush in embarrassment. I was relieved when she finally opened the right door and started chuckling as soon as she was safely in it. She’s so adorable… I can’t help it… Seeing Na Jeong so flustered and nervous was a rare thing, and it touched me to know the lengths she would go through to win my parents’ approval. I turned to see my father watching me closely, a smile on his face.

“Jae Joon-ah… Is she okay?” He asked.

“Yeah Appa… She just needs to get a little comfortable. I think she may be nervous. It is the first time she’s meeting you. Uri Na Jeong-ie worries about Great First Impressions. Uhmm… She and Omma bumped heads the first time they met, so I’m sure she’s still thinking about that.”

“I’m not really surprised… Your Omma must have been hard on Na Jeong,” he commented.

“Actually, from what Omma said, Na Jeong actually stood her ground. I think Omma was surprised but they’re great pals now. Na Jeong even texted her after I proposed.”

“I can’t imagine that, seeing how quiet she is today. She’s so well-mannered.”

“Appa… This is weird. She’s not usually so gentle.”

“I hope she’s not putting up an act just for me. I would like to know the woman that you’re marrying and will be part of this family.” Appa appeared to be thinking deeply before he spoke again. “How do you think we can get her to open up and be more comfortable?”

“I don’t know really,” I said. “There’s really only one way to get Na Jeong to speak up when she’s in one of her well-intentioned moods, and it always works for me, but I’m not sure that’s the route we want to go.”

Appa brightened and leaned towards me. “What is it?” He asked, looking behind me to make sure that Na Jeong wasn’t coming yet. “Quick, before she comes back.”

I took a deep breath before I responded. I don’t think this is a good idea. “We can make her mad.”

*****

Na Jeong

By the time I came out of the bathroom, I was a bit more composed and put together. I had splashed some water over my face and given myself a little pep talk as I have been wont to do under circumstances like this. Of course he will like me, I kept telling myself. Omonim likes me and she’s a tough nut to crack. I just have to bite my tongue and agree with everything he says, just as any good future daughters-in-law would do. He is their only son after all. I need to make sure that he entrusts Joon to me, just like Appa does, and no one else loves Joon outside his family more than Appa.

I slowly walked over to the living room to see that the tea tray has been cleared and looked over to see Joon and his father sitting at the kitchen table. I approached the table cautiously, in case they were having a serious discussion, but my mouth watered when I saw the feast laid out on the table.

Joon’s face lit up with a smile when he spotted me and he motioned for me to sit next to him. I gave him a smile and sat down. I browsed the offerings on the table and said a silent prayer for my tummy not to rumble before I could eat. There were separate platters of galbi and beoseot gi, jjeobokjjim and dubuseon, along with at least eight banchan dishes. Abonim looked at me expectantly as I tried to determine if it would be rude to start eating before the rice has even been served.

“Abonim, everything looks great,” I said warmly.

“Appa… I’m glad there’s a lot of food. Na Jeong likes to eat,” Joon said casually and I wondered if it would be appropriate to kick him while his father was around. My big appetite is a long running joke amongst my friends and family, but I don’t want Abonim to think that I am gluttonous.

“Let me get the rice and we can start eating,” Abonim said, standing up.

“Abonim, please, sit down and let me do that. You’ve already worked so hard preparing all this food. I would like to help,” I offered.

I stood up, grateful for something to do and was relieved when I saw that three bowls have already been placed to the side of the rice cooker. I busied myself spooning up the rice and placed one in front of Abonim, and then Joon, before picking up my own bowl. I hope Joon will not comment on the fact that I served myself less rice than usual.

I waited until they started eating before I allowed myself to eat and I was so hungry, I almost cried when I took a bite of the galbi, it was so delicious. To be honest I wanted to stuff the whole thing in my mouth but I forced myself to slow down.

“Appa… I’m jealous. When I was here last we only had one main dish and four side dishes,” Joon complained. “You haven’t seen me in five years… And you couldn’t be bothered to make more for me.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes at him and tell him to suck it up. His voice was plaintive, as if he was really hurt. He hasn’t acted like this in years, but maybe being around his parents brought out the immature side of him. He didn’t act like this around Omonim, though… So maybe it’s just around his father that he’s like this. I have to talk about this with him later, even though every cell in my body told me to call him out on it now.

I took a small bite of the mushroom dish and felt both Joon and Abonim’s eyes watching me eat.

“Yah… Jae Joon-ah, I’m starting to think Na Jeong is too good for you,” Abonim said to Joon. “Look at how nicely she’s eating. Like a lady should. She seems far too beautiful for you, too.”

“Thank you, Abonim,” I said, even as I felt myself blush at the compliment. Beside me I heard Joon start coughing and I slid my glass of water to him.

“Joon says you have a degree in computer science as well?” Abonim asked pleasantly. When I nodded, he continued speaking. “Well at least she has a degree that people can actually use. How many times did I actually tell you that physical education was a useless degree?” He asked Joon and I felt myself bristling. Control yourself, Sung Na Jeong. He’s just making casual conversation. Do not lose your temper. “Well, you’re not very smart anyway, so I suppose your Omma and I should be happy that you have a degree at all.”

I bit my tongue from jumping to Joon’s defense, but I started wondering what happened to the polite man I met when I first came. This came from so out of the ballpark that I was shocked at the direction this conversation was going. Half expecting Joon to get up and walk out, I was surprised to look over at him and see him studying his food a little too closely. Mending this relationship must be really important to him, I realized. Joon has been a little more forthright since recovering from his injury, and he even stands up to Omonim now, so the fact that he’s letting his father talk to him this way must mean that he is trying also. I took his hand under the table and gave him a reassuring squeeze.

Seemingly discounting all that Joon had to go through in his childhood to become the man that he is now, Abonim just kept on talking.

“I cannot believe that you turned down the opportunity to play abroad again. Five million, you said, right? That was really reckless of you, Joon-ah. What did I tell you about letting your heart rule your head?” I felt my hands ball into fists and my vision went red. I can’t help it. This is crazy. Why would he talk to him like that? Appa criticizes me too, but Appa always talks jokingly. “You’re not going to be playing baseball forever and you wouldn’t have to if you just took the contract. I think you’re too young to be getting married anyway. That was really dumb.”

This cannot carry on like this. I have to say something. Before I could even formulate a civil response, I had already stood up and slammed my hands on the table. “For your information, Joon is very very smart. He studied what interested him and there is no shame in that…”

“Na Jeong-ah…” I heard Joon say next to me. But I wasn’t done. Oh no… I was nowhere near done.

“…Secondly, him deciding to stay here wasn’t reckless. He thought about it, and it’s what will make him happy, which is the most important thing. The fact that he followed his heart speaks of his integrity and his strength. Money is not everything, and he understands that now….”

“Jagiya…” I heard Joon say again and I shot him an irritated glare.

“…And lastly, he’s not just staying here so we can get married, if that is what you’re implying. He’s staying here not just for me, but for you, too and Omonim. I won’t say any more about this matter since Joon loves you and values your opinion. In fact he respects you so much he won’t answer back… I, however, have no such qualms. It is my duty and my right, as the woman who loves him, to never allow anyone to besmirch Joon’s name or criticize his character, even his parents. You don’t believe me? Ask Omonim. He may permit you to do so, and as your child I can understand why, but I will not stand for it.” I paused and took a deep breath.

“Na Jeong-ah…”

“… WHAT?” I asked Joon, and when he didn’t respond right away, I kept on speaking, fueled by indignation and anger. “I do hope that you will refrain from making insulting comments about him. Your son is kind and wonderful. He’s amazing. And I know he won’t play baseball forever, and he knows that as well. But it will always be in his life. Speaking of which… now that he will be playing in Korea, you should see him play. He’ll make you cry he’s so good…”

“Jagiya,” Joon said as he put a hand on my arm.

There… I’ve finally said everything I needed to say, and I felt better. I sat down before I turned to him and cupped his face. “Jagiya… I’m sorry, but I cannot stand by idly if anyone says or does anything that could possibly hurt you.” I composed myself before I allowed myself to address Abonim without looking in his eyes. “My parents taught me to always stand up for what I believe in, and there’s nothing and no one I believe in more than Joon. Now, I know how important this is to him so I will apologize for the way I just spoke, but not for what I said. ”

I put my hands under the table to keep them from shaking. I’ll probably get thrown out of the house now. As usual, my mouth ran away from me. It’s a good thing Joon drove… We won’t be stuck sleeping at the bus station should his father decide that he detests me.

“Well… Thats certainly one way to break the ice. Appa…” Joon said next to me. “… I knew this was a bad idea.” What?

“Na Jeong-ssi,” Abonim said gently, and I drank a full glass of water before I lifted my eyes and met his amused gaze. “I didn’t quite believe Joon and his Omma when they said you were quite scary when you’re angry, but it appears that they’re right. The passion you have in defending my son is reassuring. I know I’ll never have to worry about him being alone. It’s nice to finally meet you.” Turning to Joon with a conspiratorial smile, he said, “She is very much like your Omma. She’ll keep you on your toes.”

What just happened? I thought to myself as Joon and his father shared a chuckle. Did they trick me? And what did he mean by finally meeting me? Confused, and just a little relieved, I carried on eating. Joon is going to have to explain this to me later.

*****

Joon

I was sitting on a wooden pallet outside the house when Appa came out with a bottle of soju. Na Jeong had just gone to bed in one of the adjacent structures flanking the house, and unable to sleep, I bundled myself in a blanket and my coat and sat outside. It seemed that Appa can’t sleep either, and I turned to face him as he approached.

“I didn’t think I’d find you here. Why are you still up?” He asked as he sat down next to me.

“I just couldn’t sleep,” I responded. He poured us a couple of shots and we sat together drinking in silence for a few minutes before I spoke.

“Appa… Thank you for dinner. And for everything. Na Jeong… She gets a little too passionate with everything regarding me. I’ve never seen it firsthand myself, so I was just as surprised as you…”

“You’re not apologizing for her, surely?” He asked me as he poured us another round.

“Nah… I only apologize for things I feel sorry for and I’m not sorry that she’s outspoken and hot-tempered. I love that. It’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with her. She has a sharp mind and a smart mouth. She can run circles around me with her arguments and metaphors…”

“I hope you know I just said those things to make her upset,” Appa said softly. “I… I didn’t hurt your feelings, right?”

“No, you didn’t, Appa. I can’t believe it either… But it seems I’ve toughened up, after all.”

He nodded at me in response before he spoke. “Your Na Jeong… She’s a little intense,” he commented as he swirled the soju in his glass. “But she’s strong. It takes courage to stand up to even your parents to defend you. You’ll need that in your life. That makes me happy.”

“Yeah… She does. She’s magnificent, right? I swear, Appa… Sometimes I look at her and I can’t believe she’s real. It sounds ridiculous, I know… But…”

“If it makes you feel better, she looks at you like that too. I watched the way she talks to you, the way she studies you for any reaction. She loves you.” I watched as he drank the soju in his glass in one swallow. “Omma… Your Omma used to look at me like that.”

“Appa…” I hesitated before asking the question that’s been weighing heavily on me. “Do you still love Omma?”

He looked at me in surprise and I saw his mask fall off for a minute before he looked away. He didn’t answer my question but from that one glimpse, it seems that he does. My heart clamped painfully inside me. I know the pain of loving someone who doesn’t love me back all too well.

“Appa…”

“It’s getting late, Joon-ah. Your old man shouldn’t be staying up this late…” He stood up and pulled his coat closer around him. “There’s a heater in your room, as well as Na Jeong’s. Don’t even think about sneaking into her room, either. You may be getting married but you’re not married yet. I’m not that progressive. I’m off to bed. Don’t stay up too late.”

He walked back towards the house and as I watched his retreating back, I felt an urgent need to spend more time with him… To get to know the man who I called Appa.

“Appa… You want to go fishing in the morning?” I asked impulsively and saw him stop in his tracks. He turned around slowly but once he had, I spied a smile on his face.

“Sure… I’ll wake you up… There’s a frozen lake not too far from here. Make sure to dress warmly. Come to think of it, I don’t think we’ve ever gone fishing together, have we?”

I shook my head no and he nodded before opening the door and allowing himself back in the house. I poured another shot of the soju he had left, the alcohol warming me up nicely. I laid down on the wooden pallet with the blanket around me and looked up at the sky. It finally felt like all the pieces in my life are coming together. For the first time in a long time, I felt at peace.

*****

Na Jeong

After tossing and turning for an hour, I had just grabbed my phone to send Omma and Appa a text message when I heard voices coming from the outside. Peeking out the window I saw Joon and Abonim sitting on a wooden platform, sharing a bottle of soju. Seeing them spending time together, not tense or angry, makes me happy… I know how important this is to Joon. Even if they were having fun at my expense.

It seemed that my reputation preceded me and Abonim already knew what to expect. Concerned that I was making myself uncomfortable holding my tongue, he followed Joon’s suggestion and made me mad. And what better way than to insult Joon in front of me? That method is, indeed, very effective.

I glanced at my phone to see that there was no reception and walked around the room to see where I could get some type of connection. Finally, two bars appeared right by the door. Not wanting to eavesdrop on their conversation, I was just typing a message out to Omma when I heard my name being mentioned. Unable to help myself, I press my ear to the gap to listen more closely.

“Your Na Jeong… She’s a little intense, but she’s strong. It takes courage to stand up to even your parents to defend you. You’ll need that in your life. That makes me happy,” I heard Abonim’s voice say.

“Yeah… She does,” Joon replied. “She’s magnificent, right? I swear, Appa… Sometimes I look at her and I can’t believe she’s real. It sounds ridiculous, I know… But…” I smiled at his voice, filled with wonder and wished I could hug him. No one makes me feel like Joon does.

“If it makes you feel better, she looks at you like that, too. I watched the way she talks to you, the way she studies you for any reaction. She loves you. Omma… Your Omma used to look at me like that.” Even from this distance I heard the sadness in Abonim’s voice and I hoped that Joon would ask him about it. It’s time that this family started talking.

“Appa… Do you still love Omma?” That’s my man. Good job, Kim Jae Joon. I didn’t hear Abonim respond and realized he still must love her. I felt myself soften in sympathy for him. It’s hard loving someone who doesn’t love you. I know what that feels like as well. “Appa…”

“It’s getting late, Joon-ah. Your old man shouldn’t be staying up this late… There’s a heater in your room, as well as Na Jeong’s. Don’t even think about sneaking into her room, either. You may be getting married, but you’re not married yet. I’m not that progressive. I’m off to bed. Don’t stay up too late.”

I was still debating whether to open the door and join them when I heard Joon speak again. “Appa… You want to go fishing in the morning?”

“Sure… I’ll wake you up… There’s a frozen lake not too far from here. Make sure to dress warmly. Come to think of it, I don’t think we’ve ever gone fishing together, have we?”

A small smile came over my face to hear Joon and his father making small steps back towards each other. Isn’t that what relationships are about, though? Isn’t that what love’s about? Finding it within yourself to forgive and find each other again? Bonds of family is near impossible to sever and I doubted that Joon even wanted that anyway. There was love there, buried under all the remorse and resentment over a past that cannot be changed.

Once I heard Abonim close his door, I opened mine and watched Joon as he laid down on the wooden platform, a thick blanket wrapped around him. My heart squeezed inside me as he lifted his handsome face to look at the sky and I wondered how it was possible to love anyone this much.

I walked slowly towards him after a few minutes and stopped when I reached his side. He had his eyes closed and looked so peaceful I hesitated to even speak. I’ll let him rest, I decided. I was about to walk back to the house when I felt a hand grab my wrist gently. I looked at his face to see both of his eyes open.

“Where are you going?” He asked. That deep timbre in his voice when he’s just a little sleepy never fails to get me.

“I thought you were asleep,” I responded.

“How can I sleep?” He asked as he opened his blanket. I climbed in and laid down next to him, resting my head on his chest, before he wrapped us up again. “You know I have a hard time sleeping without you.”

“Me too.” I snuggled in closer and wrapped my arm around his waist.

“Na Jeong-ah… Sorry about earlier. Appa just wanted to know you better,” he said softly.

“It’s fine… I have a sense of humor. It was no big deal.” I tried to sound composed though inside I was mortified to have all of Joon’s family aware of my weakness. Ah well… It can’t be helped.

“Na Jeong-ah… How much time do you think we’ll need to plan a wedding?” I heard him ask.

“I don’t know, Joon-ah… Usually it takes time to get a house and furnishings, but you already have the apartment. Unless you think we should move?” I felt him shake his head over me. “Since that’s taken care of, maybe just a few months?”

“Want to get married in June? That gives us six months. Would that be enough time?”

“June’s good. But Joon-ah… The World Cup is coming to Korea around that time,” I said.

“So? I play baseball, not soccer… Why should I care?” I chuckled at his response. I knew he was going to say that.

“I wasn’t concerned about that, but won’t the guests be upset?”

“I don’t care,” he said stubbornly and I looked up at him. He met my eyes and smiled. “It could be a roomful of people or just you and I. You know those things don’t matter to me.”

“June it is, then… But won’t that be a problem with your season?” I asked. “Maybe it will be better to wait…”

“I’ll negotiate that with my contract. I can do that. Because I’m a…”

“Major Leaguer, I know. Just so you know… Major Leaguers are not excused from doing household chores,” I reminded him. “So if you think…”

“I got it. I’ll do chores too. Anything else?” He asked, amused.

“I would like to invite some of your teammates in San Francisco and John, too,” I responded quietly.

“You’d do that?”

“Of course. They were a part of your life too. I know most of them won’t be able to come since it’s their baseball season as well, but it wouldn’t hurt to try… But John, he might not be able to afford the fare. I have a little money saved up…”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll send tickets for him and his wife along with the invitation.”

“Okay.” I rested my head back on his chest, my hand over his heart, and savored the slow steady beat under my fingers. It was so quiet here… The smell of winter is thick in the air. “It’s beautiful here, Joon-ah. I like it.”

“I’m glad. I’d like to be able to visit Appa more often and bring you too.”

“I like him, too. It’s very easy to imagine him with Omonim,” I said hesitantly. “Will it be a problem, them seeing each other again? I don’t want them to be uncomfortable.”

“My parents don’t buckle under pressure. Plus it’s been so long now… What could possibly happen? Besides, Omma’s husband will probably go as well.” I felt a strong hand on my hair and I sighed. “You’re not cold?”

“Not at all. You keep me nice and warm. Yah… Do you remember that night at Samcheonpo?” I heard him mouth a quiet ‘mmm’ before I continued. “I was so surprised when I woke up and saw you huddled next to me, shaking like a leaf. Why were you sick anyway? I never asked and you never said.”

“Ahh… Some guy jumped in the water, crying for his wife and I jumped in after him,” he replied.

“Joon-ah…”

“He would have drowned. I can swim. I would never have been able to live with myself had I not done anything.”

“You always do that. Do things without expecting credit for it. I remember the way you spoke to Samcheonpo’s Halmoni. And… I didn’t even know you spoke to Oppa about me before you left for Japan until he told me. Kim Jae Joon… You’re my hero.”

“I’m no hero. I just want to be a good man.”

“That’s precisely why you’re my hero. You don’t have to do big things, but you try to do the right things. Even if sometimes you don’t always succeed and it beats you so low that it looks like you’ll bow down, you always pick yourself up and dust it off and then you try again. And you try to do it without hurting anyone else. Being strong is one thing, but being kind while you’re at it is another. It’s one of the reasons why I love you.”

“Do you love me enough to possibly move to the country one day? Appa’s getting older and I think maybe, not soon, but in ten to fifteen years, I’ll have to come help him. He doesn’t have anyone else and…”

“Shhh…” I said, putting a finger up to his lips. “Of course you’d have to help. You don’t have to explain anything to me. I’m okay being a baseball player’s wife. I can be a farmer’s wife, too. As long as I get to be your wife, I’m good with that. I’ll be quite at home in the country, really. It’s where I’m from, after all.”

“Na Jeong-ah… I love you. So much.” My heart fluttered at his words and I brush a finger over his jaw.

“Is that right?” I asked and Joon started laughing as I gave him a playful nudge. “Why are you laughing? I bet I sounded so provincial, huh? What’s wrong with being countrified, Seoul boy?”

“Nothing, jagiya…” He said as he leaned down and gave me a soft kiss. “Nothing at all. I think you’ll look wonderful in ahjumma pants.”

*****

January 8, 2002

7:30 p.m.

Joon

“Jagiya… I’m back,” I heard Na Jeong call out from the door as I measured out some rice and water into the rice cooker. I dried my hands on a towel before glancing at the clock. 7:30 p.m. I saw her walk into the kitchen with a big bag. She placed the bag on the counter and assessed me up and down.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to the bag.

“Just stuff from Omma… I knew we weren’t going to have much time today so I marinated the bulgogi as well. I’m making bibimbap. But… Joon-ah… What are you wearing?”

“Ahh, this?” I asked, blushing, as I tried to slip the apron off.

“Don’t,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around me. “You look sexy with it on.”

“Oh yeah?” I glanced at the clock again. We have thirty minutes… Enough time. I leaned down to take her lips for a kiss when I heard an amused voice at the doorway.

“Joon-ah… Domesticated already?” I heard Jung Jin Hyung say and Na Jeong slowly peeled her arms away from me.

“I walked in with him. He was parking the car when I was walking up,” she explained. “Jin-ie Oppa, sit down, please.”

At the mention of the word oppa I balked. To this day I don’t like it. Can’t she call him formally? Jung Jin-ssi. That has a nice ring to it. Now… How to get Na Jeong to actually say it. That is the question.

“Jin-ie Oppa… Do you want something to drink?” I watched as she opened the fridge and scanned its contents. “We have coffee and tea, of course, but we also have… Uhmm… Water, juice, wine, and beer.”

“Na Jeong-ah… Coffee will be good,” he responded as he sat down at the kitchen table.

Na Jeong pulled out some cups from the cabinet and filled the kettle with water before putting it on the stove. She kept a hand on my back the whole time, her eyes smiling at me.

“Joon-ah,” Hyung said and I turned around to look at him. Dressed casually in a sweater and jeans, he was a picture of effortlessly cool. Sometimes I wonder if something is wrong with me because I can’t help but admire Hyung’s style. “I brought all the paperwork…”

“Jin-ie Oppa, nope. We’re not talking shop until we’ve eaten. Those are our house rules. Food before business. My Joon needs to eat,” Na Jeong said.

She pulled out a pan from the cupboard and grabbed some vegetables from the fridge. The kettle boiled and I fixed three cups of coffee, one the way I knew Hyung took his and mine and Na Jeong’s the same way. I brought Hyung his to see that he was, again, distractedly looking at his phone. I shook my head and walked back to the counter, where Na Jeong stood mixing some gochujang with some sesame oil in a bowls.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked. “Should I slice up the carrots, or cook the spinach? I’m at your service… And I’m already wearing the apron.”

“That’s true… but the carrots will take only two minutes so I’ll do that when the beef is almost cooked. But you can put a pot of water on the stove to boil, jagiya. I need it to blanch the spinach.”

I nodded and set a pot out and filled it with water. After putting it on the stove, I turned around and leaned back against the counter and looked at Hyung.

“Is Noona still giving you a hard time?” I asked him. “I read your email. Were you drunk when you wrote it?” At his questioning look, I shrugged my shoulders. “You were cursing a lot.”

He looked at me before answering. “Rule number one, Kim Jae Joon, gentlemen don’t get drunk. They get tipsy, but they never lose their heads in drink. You cannot be so inebriated you don’t have any control of your situation or your surroundings. Why do you think I never let you drink while you’re in season? Although there was that one time… In Japan… Ah, when was it?” I saw him furrow his brows in concentration. “Ah… It was right after you found out that Na…”

I clapped a hand to his mouth and darted my eyes to Na Jeong, who didn’t seem to be paying us any attention. I shook my head at him quickly and hoped he understood that I needed him to be quiet about this. I don’t want her to know about how I lost my mind when I found out she was getting married.

“You were saying? About Noona?” I said, raising my eyebrows at him.

“Have you tried romancing her? It doesn’t work for me personally but I know most women are into that,” Na Jeong interjected, bringing two side dishes to the table. “Jagiya, can you grab the remaining side dishes, please? The beef’s almost done. I just have to fry the eggs.” She sat down across the table from him and continued to sip on her coffee.

“Na Jeong-ah… I am a great romancer. I am very very good at romance,” he said with a charming smile directed at her and I wanted to wipe it off his face. “I sent her flowers at work, only to be informed later on that she gave it to a patient. I sent chocolates, too, only to be told that she shared it with all the nurses and didn’t eat any herself. She’s so stubborn. I mean… She’s nice enough in texts, when she can be bothered to answer it. I’m busy, she says. Well I’m busy too!” I almost laughed at Hyung’s predicament but he looked so distraught I almost pitied him. He’s so calm most of the time, about everything, and it’s a bit disconcerting to see him this way.

Na Jeong stood up and patted him sympathetically on the shoulder. Why is she touching him now? “Oppa… I know how it feels to deal with someone so stubborn. Do you know I wrote Joon 134 emails? And no response. None. At all. I’m still waiting for responses to those emails.”

“Yah… I didn’t know about them!” I said defensively.

“I even went to San Francisco and waited at a restaurant for two hours!” She said and I cringed.

“I didn’t know about that either!”

Na Jeong shot me a hurt look and Hyung did, as well. Have they forgotten that I’m the one who had to deal with an unrequited love for six years?

“Na Jeong-ah… Haven’t I made it up to you already?” I asked her. “Besides, we’re not talking about us. We’re engaged to be married. We were talking about him.” I sat down once I’ve brought the banchan to the table and addressed him. “Hyung… Noona will come around. She did,” I said pointing to Na Jeong, who was busy assembling our plates with the bibimbap. “I did.”

“Oppa…” Na Jeong said as she placed a plate in front of him. “Maybe San Francisco is just not good for romance. I mean I didn’t have much luck there until Joon and I were already together. She needs to come to Korea.”

“Maybe… But how do I convince her to come to Korea? She won’t even go on a date with me.”

“Hmm… I’ll think about that and let you know,” Na Jeong said as she placed my plate in front of me, along with her plate, and she finally sat down.

I surreptitiously moved the kkakdugi dish over to my side of the table, until Na Jeong caught me doing it and glared at me until I gave it up. We all sat in silence for a few minutes and I waited for Hyung’s reaction to the food when he took his first bite.

“Wow… Jeong-ah… You are a cooking goddess,” Hyung exclaimed. “Forget this guy and run away with me. Please.”

“Yahhh…” I watched Na Jeong blush a pretty pink and I blinked at her. Don’t I tell her this all the time? I am the MOST appreciative of Na Jeong’s cooking skills.

“Should I?” She asked him, looking like she was thinking, as she wiggled her eyebrows.

“SUNG NA JEONG! You agreed to marry me! Look at that rock on your finger! We are as good as married.”

“Is that right?” She asked and looked at me innocently. “I can still change my mind. But… What to do then? Because I’m crazy in love with this guy.” She pressed a kiss on my cheek and I felt a little calmer. Until I saw him take a bite of my radish kimchi.

“Hyung… That’s mine,” I began to say as his eyes closed in appreciation.

“Na Jeong-ah, this is delicious. Do you know what I missed the most when we were in America? Good Korean kimchi. All the varieties. You just can’t find that there. Do you think you can pack some of this up for me? This is probably the best radish kimchi I’ve tasted in a while. Almost as good as my Omma’s.”

“Of course.” “NO!” Na Jeong and I said simultaneously.

“Fine,” she said, shooting me a dirty look. “I’ll make you some, Oppa.”

“No,” I said adamantly. “Na Jeong makes this just for me. I eat it every day. You can’t have any at all.”

Hyung clucked his tongue at me. “Kim Jae Joon. You’re so petty.” He continued to eat it while looking straight at me, knowing fully well that I won’t stop him with Na Jeong sitting right here. “Na Jeong-ah… Maybe just give me the recipe?”

“You can’t have that either! It’s a family secret,” I said, even as Na Jeong already pulled her phone out and started typing him a message. “Don’t tell him about the ginger,” I whispered to her. She shook her head at me but did as I asked anyway.

“Sent,” she informed Hyung then looked at me in frustration. “You’re lucky I love you.”

“I know it.” And I do.

We all finished our meal in comfortable silence until Hyung’s phone beeped. He quickly took it out and typed something so fast even I was impressed. When he put it away again, he had a smile on his face. I hope Noona does come around and give him a chance, before he gets any more ideas about luring Na Jeong away. And, it would be nice to finally meet the woman who seems to have tamed Lee Jung Jin.

“Oh, hyung… You never did tell us what Noona’s name is,” I said. “I can’t refer to her as Noona forever.”

“It’s Gia,” he said with a grin, and I wondered if that’s how I looked whenever Na Jeong’s name passes through my lips.

*****

After we finished dinner and put the plates away, we found ourselves in the living room, ready to deal with the matter at hand.

Hyung had laid out nine proposals on the table and quietly waited for me and Na Jeong to read over them. I quickly scanned over the first five before my eyes became blurry. Na Jeong, on the other hand, was taking notes. This is her domain. She’s amazing with numbers.

“What are you thinking?” Hyung asked me as I rubbed my forehead.

“I don’t know, my mind can’t absorb all these numbers,” I said slowly.

“How about we start with this? How do you both feel about moving to Daejeon, Daegu, Gwangju, Masan or Busan?” He asked.

“I’m okay with it,” Na Jeong said quickly.

“I’m not okay with it,” I responded.

“You’re not?” She asked me, surprised.

“No… Training takes quite a bit of time and so will games. What if you get pregnant? I don’t want you to be far from Omma and Appa… Especially when I am away for a game. It’s going to drive me crazy.” I pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You don’t know anyone in those cities, except for Masan. And even then, it would be hard.”

“Well… The Seoul teams are offering the best salaries, too. Maybe because the cost of living here is higher,” she said softly.

“Okay,” Hyung said, as he took away the proposals from the teams that were nowhere near Seoul. “So that leaves us with three teams. Seoul Twins, Doosan Bears and SK Wyverns. How do their numbers look, Na Jeong-ah?”

“The Twins are offering 989 million won, the Wyverns have put down 975 million, and the Bears are offering 1.1 billion won.” She looked up from her list and turned to me expectantly. “They’re not bad offers.”

“I can’t play for the Twins,” I said. I saw Na Jeong frown and I smoothed her brow with a finger. “Jagiya… I can’t, not yet anyway. Even if your Appa wouldn’t mean to, he’ll treat me differently by nature of the fact that I am his son in law. I’ve never played professional baseball in Korea, and I need to make my mark, without anyone saying anything about me or Appa.”

“Okay, then. I guess that leaves us with the Bears and the Wyverns,” Hyung said, smoothly picking up the proposal from the Twins and adding it to the reject pile. “Joon?”

“The Bears offer the best salary… And it’s in Seoul. So I guess the Bears it is.”

“Are you sure?” Hyung asked.

“Yes.”

“Great. I’ll call them in the morning.” He stood up and gathered the remaining proposals. “I have to go… things are about to pick up again soon. Next decision will be about CFs but we’ll deal with that later.”

Na Jeong stood up and gave him a hug and I walked him to the door. Standing at the hallway he changed back into his shoes before he spoke. “Oh yeah… I forgot to tell you… I’ve been getting phone calls from several broadcasting stations and magazines about an exclusive interview. Do you want me to forward you the list?”

I searched my mind for a name and smiled when I remembered. “No need… I will go with the Weekly Sports. But only if Yoon Hyeong Shik will interview me.”

“Why so specific? What if he no longer works there?”

“Then we have to find where he works and go with them. I kind of promised him an exclusive,” I explained.

“When? Why didn’t you tell me about this?” He ran an annoyed hand through his hair.

“Sorry, hyung, I didn’t think that this day would ever come. I promised him the exclusive believing that Na Jeong and I will never be together.”

“Ah, okay. I’ll make that call tomorrow, too. I would plan as much of the wedding as soon as possible, Joon-ah. You’ll be busy once the season starts.”

“Hyung… That’s another thing. Before you reject the Wyverns, can you make sure the Bears are okay with me taking off for a week from June 20th?”

“Why would you need to take off for that?” He asked.

“I’m getting married.”

Hyung nodded and smiled before he shook my hand. “I’ll ask and let you know.”

“Drive safely… I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

I watched as he walked away and didn’t close the door until he was in the elevator. I walked back to the apartment to see Na Jeong studying the proposal for the Bears. “This contract is only for a year, right?” She asked when I sat back down next to her. “Even if you played for them for two years, you’d still be making considerably less than you would have in America. Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“Yes,” I said without hesitation. “Are you?”

“Of course I am… I will support whatever decision you make. But… you know Appa doesn’t have any love lost for the Bears. I understand why you don’t want to play for his team. He might not, though.” She said, looking at me in concern. “I’ll pad him out for you, but he’ll take it personally. Appa’s Twins and the Bears are like mortal enemies. You know that… Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Appa will understand. He knows that baseball is as much about politics as it is about the game. He wouldn’t want to be accused of nepotism, either,” I reassured her. “He’ll be okay.”

*****

January 14, 2002

7:00 a.m.

Na Jeong

“He’s not okay,” I whispered furiously into the phone. “You said he’ll be okay and he’s not. You should have seen him, Jagiya… I thought he was going to pop a blood vessel. I TOLD you not to text it to him. But did you listen?”

“Na Jeong-ah… I said he will be okay. I didn’t say he would be immediately. I meant he’ll be okay eventually. He just needs to digest it and think about it. Then I promise you he’ll accept it,” Joon said and I heard traffic from the other line.

“Where are you going?” I asked. “It’s only 7 in the morning.”

“I have an interview to go to,” he said. “I promised I’ll be there before 9. You know how busy Seoul is in the morning. I don’t want to be stuck in rush hour traffic.”

“Joon-ah… If you have time later, you need to get your very nice ass over here and deal with Appa. He keeps shooting me dirty looks like it’s my fault you went to his hated team.”

“Okay… I will do my best. In the meantime just tell him to blame me.”

“How will I do that? Appa’s as in love with you as I am,” I said. “Watch… He’ll stay mad at me but be all My Joon this… My Joon that…”

He chuckled over the phone and I felt myself smile too. Even his laugh is sexy. It’s not fair.

“Do you have to go to work today?” He asked softly. “I can bring you some lunch after the interview.”

“No… I called out. I feel a migraine coming on,” I replied. “I can’t even open the curtains without feeling like smashing my head against the wall.”

“Please don’t do that. You have a really pretty head.”

“You’re so corny,” I said, but I Iaughed anyway, making my head hurt even more. “Ow… Don’t make me laugh. Even my hair hurts.”

“Have you been to the doctor about this?”

“Yes. She said it might be the birth control pills,” I said hesitantly.

“Can’t you switch to another brand?” He asked.

“I’ve tried the other brands. One gave me severe abdominal pain. The next one made me so nauseous I couldn’t eat anything for days. The last one made my vision blurry. How am I supposed to work like that? I work with computers. This was the one that gave me the least side effects, so I’m sticking with it.” He was so quiet that I worried the line had been cut off. “Hello? Jagiya?”

“Jagiya… How do you feel about stopping the pills altogether?”

“What? That’s absurd,” I replied.

“Why is it absurd? It’s hurting you and we’re getting married soon.”

“But…” I paused and took a deep breath. “… What if we get pregnant? ”

“Then we get pregnant.” I lifted the phone off my ear and stared at it for a few minutes, wondering what happened to Joon. “Jagiya, I just got here. I have to go.”

“We’re not done talking though,” I said.

“I know… Think about it and we’ll talk when I get out of here. Text me what you want to eat and I’ll swing by the boarding house on my way to the gym. Take something for that headache and I’ll call you soon as I’m out. I love you.”

“I love you more, Joon-ah.”

I smiled when he pressed a kiss to the phone and I kissed the phone too before the call disconnected. Snuggling back under the covers, I almost forgot to take medication before I fell back asleep. Padding to the kitchen to grab something for my headache, I studiously ignored Appa’s glare. I took the pills with a little water before I went back to my bedroom. Within a few minutes I was back in bed and back asleep.

*****

9:00 a.m.

Joon

“Mr. Kim,” Yoon Hyeong Shik said, greeting me with a handshake. “I must say I never thought this day would ever come. Please, sit down.” He motioned me towards an upholstered chair and I sat down as he requested.

“Yeah, I didn’t think this day would ever come, as well,” I answered unabashedly. “But I always honor my promises, so here I am.”

“Do you mind if I record the interview?” He asked.

“No, not at all,” I responded. “Before we begin, can I ask what kind of interview this would be? Is it more sports related or a personal profile? I just need to tell my manager… He’s a bit particular about how he does PR on my work.”

“To answer your question, I would like for this to be a more personal profile… to give people a window on who you are as a man. And about your manager… that’s totally understandable. That’s his job. I’m actually surprised that he’s not here today,” he commented. “Unless, of course, he’s coming? Do we need to wait?”

“No, that’s not necessary. He trusts my judgment.” I tried to assume a professional pose and smiled at him encouragingly, just like I’ve seen Jung Jin Hyung do a million times before. “Should we begin?”

“First question… Have you decided who to play for? You caused quite a stir coming back to Korea after what could have possibly been one of the best post injury comebacks in korean baseball history. Everyone wants to know… What’s next for Kim Jae Joon?”

“I have. I will be playing for the Doosan Bears. Seoul will remain my home city and Jamsil Baseball Stadium will be the home venue.”

“Why the Bears? Any particular reason? I know your old catcher Jo In Sung plays for the Twins… why not go there?”

“Ahh… I would like to keep challenging myself first and foremost. But more importantly, there would have been a conflict of interest… but rest assured, it wasn’t because I didn’t have the utmost respect for the Twins, as an organization. It just wasn’t the right time.”

“Will you still play with #77?”

“Yes. Of course. That will always be my number.”

“Who would you say have been your most influential role models?”

“I have a few of course… All my coaches have impacted me in some way or another. But I really have to credit my father, who taught me about working hard and persevering against all odds. He’s made an honest living all his life and his work ethic was amazing. And also, Sung Dong Il.”

“Sung Dong Il? Isn’t that the coach for your new team’s biggest rival?” He looked at me with a surprised look on his face. “How do you know him? Did he coach you at some point?”

“No… No, nothing like that. My cousin… He moved into the boarding house ran by Sung Dong Il-ssi and his wife when we were all at Yonsei. I got to know him at that time… Not just as a coach but also as a person. I admire the way that he is. He was the one who really taught me what it meant to be present for your family. Between him and my Appa I not only learned how to be a good ballplayer but how to be a good person in general. I am deeply honored that I have them both in my life. ”

“Now… Onto the difficult topics… You know I have to ask about your injury,” he said with a little hesitation.

“Yes. I had a feeling that was going to come up.”

“How bad was the injury? None of us were told the specifics and your people have kept mum about it that even to this day none of us are really quite sure what happened.”

“To make a long story short, I had a couple of tears on my pitching shoulder. The options initially presented to me was only surgery and physical therapy. However, with the help of Dr. Kim Jung Gook, I was able to pursue another less known alternative and thankfully it worked. I would disclose the name of the specialist who did the treatment, but I didn’t get a chance to speak to him first, and I am unsure about whether he would want me to mention him yet.”

“That must have been a very challenging period… During the injury, with you not knowing if any of those options were viable, and after the injury as well… With it being so uncertain that the treatment was going to work.”

“Yes.. It was a very, very dark time. I was in a lot of pain, and the thought of losing my shoulder… It made me question everything. Not just my career but my life too. I was always so sure of my path. To have that taken away from me… Saying it was rough is putting it mildly. But in a lot of ways, it had been a blessing in disguise.”

“How do you mean?”

“Going through something like that… Hitting that low point, it really humbled me and taught me a lot about not just about myself but about life as well. It taught me that life isn’t always fair, and it will disappoint me sometimes, and sometimes it might even break my heart. But life also gives me beautiful moments, moments that are worth waiting for. All I needed to do was open my eyes to see that there are things that take my breath away everywhere I turn. Life gave me another chance.”

“To keep playing baseball?” He continued to watch me, riveted.

“Not just that… It gave me a chance for redemption. Absolution. It gave me an opportunity to grow and showed me the things and people that really mattered. It had been an eye-opening experience to see that I had people who truly cared. Having a great support system made all the difference. I knew then, that with or without baseball, I will be okay. It changed my perspective and my outlook. It changed me.”

“It’s been discussed in many forums, as you probably know, but people are still shaking their heads and wondering what reason you could possibly have to stay here and play. We don’t know exact numbers, of course, but surely your projected salary in America would have been exponentially larger than your salary here.”

He looked at me quizzically and I smiled. I know there’s been full sections of news reports dedicated to this topic. Jung Jin Hyung made me aware, of course, but I never bothered to watch or read. Let them speculate… That’s always been my philosophy, but I did agree to this interview.

“I love baseball. I would have played it anywhere. I have in the past. Rain or shine, in a country field or a university field, with no one watching or with everyone watching. It didn’t matter to me. It still doesn’t. Money is fluid. If I want it, I’ll earn it. If someone needs it, I give it. I stood to gain more by staying and playing in Korea than I had to lose by not playing in America. The equation was clear cut and making this particular decision had been that simple.”

“Things like what?” He examined me closely, as if looking for any signs of duplicity, but I am a man who nothing to hide.

“Family… Relationships… But most of all, something no one can ever replace or buy… Time. To me, those things are priceless. Baseball had taken center stage in my life for so long that I missed so much of what was going on around me… And don’t get me wrong, it’s given me a lot in return too but after playing it for almost fifteen years, I’m ready to see and experience everything else. I want to spend more time with my family and friends. I want to get married and I hope… Have children one day. And I would like to be able to do my best, not just in baseball but in life as well. I may not succeed all the time, but I would like the opportunity to be able to keep trying. And I can’t do that from 5,000 miles away. At this point in my life, that’s no longer a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

“Which brings us to the next question, and the very reason how I got this exclusive interview to begin with… I spot the ring on your right hand and you said you would do the interview if your relationship became official. Is it safe to assume that it has become quite serious?”

“Yes. We are engaged to be married in a few months.”

He smiled at me then nodded in understanding. “Congratulations. I will ask another question, and feel free not to answer if you’re uncomfortable with it, but by nature of my profession, I have to ask. Most well known public figures wait until they’re in their late 30s and 40s before they even think about settling down. You are only 26 years old. Why the rush?”

I looked at him straight in the eyes before I responded. “To be frank… Mainly because I’m feeling sentimental since you actually were present at one of my very first dates with my fiancée. Whether it be a year, or five years, ten years, a hundred years from now, it will still be the same woman for me. So I could marry her now, or I could marry her in ten years. Either way, I’m marrying her. I’m just choosing to start our life together as soon as possible. Na Jeong’s done a lot for me. She believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself and accepted all of me, both the good and bad sides, when no one else could have. She loved me through all that.” I took a deep breath and smiled at him. Talking about her, even thinking about her makes me happy. “She saved my life. I will give her my future for compensation.”

“She sounds like a remarkable woman. What does she do for a living? I bet she’s a big baseball fan,” he commented and I started laughing.

“She is incredible. The best. She’s an extremely private person so I won’t share too much, but I can tell you this… You will lose in that bet… She’s not into baseball. In fact she never even watched a baseball game until the first time she saw me play. She’s not impressed by my baseball career at all. I like that. She doesn’t allow my ego to become over-inflated.”

“Would it be too much to ask for a picture on your wedding day?” He asked.

“I’ll do you one better… I’ll send you an invitation to the wedding. Is it okay to send it here?”

“Yes… That’s fine. But Kim Jae Joon-ssi, how about another exclusive with you and your new wife after?” He asked hopefully.

“Well,” I said, standing up. “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. I don’t think my Manager will let me keep granting exclusives for free, though. Let’s see how it is when the time comes…”

*****

January 17, 2002

5:30 p.m.

Na Jeong

I pulled my phone out of my purse as I walked out of my office building only to read a message from Joon telling me he’s outside waiting for me. It’s about time he showed up. After dropping off some juk for me two days ago, he went straight to the gym, and though I’ve spoken to him after he got back to the apartment and yesterday too, he didn’t speak to Appa, and Appa, in turn, hasn’t spoken to me. Still. Ever since Joon texted him the news. Which was almost five days ago.

I quickened my steps and saw him leaning against his car, dressed in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, topped with a thick coat. He had a baseball cap on and for one second I was transported back to 1994, when our journey began, and it felt like I was looking at Chilbong from years and years ago. Do not soften, I told myself, even if it is his birthday. He needs to fix this thing with Appa.

“Jagiya,” he called out as he walked towards me.

I allowed myself to admire his long legs as he got closer, his strides graceful. My eyes traveled to his lean hips and his broad shoulders, thinking it unfair that he can look so good wearing things that normal people look, well, normal in. Things have been so hectic that we haven’t been able to spend too much alone time together, and afraid to incite any more of Appa’s wrath, I’ve stayed home every night this week. Joon went back to his Appa’s last weekend and didn’t get back until late on Sunday. We haven’t spent quality time together since last Friday and I’m becoming antsy.

Thoughts from his birthday last year drifted through my head and even now, I can still feel myself blush. Maybe we can… NO. I already texted the gang to forget whatever plan Joon texted them with and come to the boarding house for dinner instead. However I asked them to show up an hour and a half after the time I knew we’d be getting home. Omma already sent me a message confirming that Appa arrived home from work. We will deal with this tonight.

“Happy birthday, Joon-ah,” I whispered when he finally reached my side and wrapped his arms around my waist. I don’t know if it was for his sake or mine, but I pressed a small kiss on his mouth. Soft, soft lips met mine and my hands automatically tightened as I closed my eyes. Uncaring about who could have been watching, I felt liberated from all those worries. We are getting married after all. If Appa doesn’t kill him first. At this, I abruptly broke away from him and narrowed my eyes.

“Yah… Sung Na Jeong… It’s my birthday,” he complained, taking my hand as he started leading me to the car.

“Joon-ah… I know it’s your birthday,” I said carefully. “And I have your gift.”

“You do?” He asked brightly as he opened the car door for me. I sat in the passenger seat and watched him make his way to the driver’s side. One in the car, he turned to me with a smile and held his hand out. “Where is it?”

“You don’t get to have it until you talk to Appa,” I said and met his eyes, challenging him to say no. “I’m tired of being in the middle… He’s treating me like I was this temptress who lured you to the Bears. I mean it, Joon. You don’t get to have any until Appa forgives you.”

He blinked at me, incredulous, before inserting the key into the ignition and starting the car. He smoothly pulled out into the traffic silently but I felt his eyes on me when we reached the stoplight.

“Wow… Na Jeong-ah… You’re really tough,” he stated. “I’ll speak to him when I take you home tonight. We already have plans with our friends.”

“You’ll speak to him now,” I responded curtly. “As for those said plans, I cancelled the reservation, and told everyone to come to the boarding house instead. You have an hour and a half before they come. Let’s hope they won’t need to pull Appa off you.” I looked away from him and looked straight out the windows. “He’ll be okay, he says,” I muttered to myself, shaking my head.

“Fine. I’ll speak to him now. But not because of your threat,” he answered quietly. “You’ve forgotten… I know exactly what makes your knees go weak, Na Jeong. If I really wanted to, I could ‘persuade’ you right now and we would find ourselves at the apartment and no one would get to see us…” I turned my gaze to his face, still focused on the road, with his hands lightly on the steering wheel. He stopped at the red light and met my eyes. “… For days.”

Omo. He’s right. I broke the stare first and fought the urge undo one of the buttons on my shirt. I felt so warm.

“Good,” I said, trying to make my voice sound as tough as possible. “Then we’ve agreed.” I won this round, right? He’s doing what I want but somehow I feel like I didn’t win. That’s important, right? I don’t know why I’m competitive, but…

My thoughts were interrupted when I noticed that we had arrived at the house. Grabbing my purse from the floor, it was only now that I noticed the medium box that was on the corner of the footwell.

“Joon-ah… What’s that?” I asked him, pointing to the box.

“That’s actually for you. Appa sent it with me when I saw him this past weekend. He said it’s your engagement gift.”

I picked it up and held it securely as I pushed the passenger door close and waited for Joon on the sidewalk.

“Jagiya… What is in this thing?” I asked. It wasn’t light, but it wasn’t heavy, either. Afraid it was fragile, I didn’t want to shake it around. Joon was zipping up his coat when he responded. He grabbed a small plastic bag from the back of the car then joined me.

“I don’t know, either. He forbade me to open it.”

I looked at the box one more time before Joon took my hand and we walked the path to the house. When we reached the door, I took a deep breath even as he squeezed my hand reassuringly. Surely he’s the one that needed to be worried, yet I’m the one freaking out. I don’t want to be a widow before I’m even married.

We walked into the house and Omma was on the phone, writing something down furiously. Appa was sitting on the couch, so engrossed in his conversation on his handphone he barely spared us a glance. I shrugged my shoulders at Joon even as Sook Sook launched himself on him. I heard his voice telling Joon about his day and between that, Omma’s conversation, and Appa’s conversation, I can’t understand what anyone was talking about.

I put my purse down and sat down on the floor and motioned for Joon to join Appa on the couch. Appa, as if finally noticing that Joon had joined him on the couch, tried to scoot away from him. I quickly glanced at Joon’s face, expecting to see him hurt, but he just grinned and moved closer.

Finally, Omma finished her call and joined us.

“Joon-ah, happy birthday!” She said, embracing him as he stayed sitting. “Why are you sitting so close to Appa?”

“I love Appa,” Joon answered.

Appa fixed him a dirty look as he hung up his call before he spoke. “Yeobo… I smell a rat… You…” he said, pointing to Joon accusingly. “You love Appa, my ass. Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you years ago that you are allowed to play for anyone but the Bears?” Appa was yelling so loudly he was red in the face. “How could you? I changed my mind. GO BACK TO AMERICA! I CAN’T HANDLE THIS! I ONLY REQUESTED THAT YOU DON’T JOIN THAT… THAT AWFUL TEAM!!”

I watched, fascinated, at the drama that unfolded in front of me. Appa looked like he was about to spontaneously combust any minute. I glanced over at Omma, who just gave me a sheepish look, and Sook Sook, who was watching Appa with his mouth slightly open. Joon, to his credit, looked properly apologetic as Appa stood up and started pacing in front of the television, as I have been known to do in times of extreme stress. Omma, trying to lighten the mood, spoke up a tad too brightly.

“Na Jeong-ah… It’s been a strange day. I’ve had about twenty seven calls since this morning from people wanting to know if we were still renting out rooms for college students. I’ve had to tell them that we no longer do that, of course, but I am not entirely sure how they even knew about that. We haven’t accepted any new boarders since you guys graduated and we never advertised, really,” she said, shaking her head. “And Appa said his phone hasn’t stopped ringing either… Just a little while ago, some newspaper called asking him for an interview. It’s so out of the blue… Appa’s been asked for interviews before but never when not in season.”

“I wonder what’s going on with that? I’ve had a strange day, too…”

“Noona,” Sook Sook said, tugging on my sleeve. “Want to know my friends were asking me? Uhmmm… They asked if Appa was my Appa… And if Omma…”

“Sook Sook-ah… You can tell both Noona and Joon Hyung later, okay?” I told him before directing my attention back to Omma. “Omma… When I got to work this morning, there was this huuugggeeee flower arrangement on my desk from the Weekly Sports.”

“Ahh…” Joon began to say and I smiled at him. Seriously he is so predictable.

“I KNEW it was from you! Aaaannnndddd….”

“HOW WILL I EVER SHOW MY FACE TO ANYONE AGAIN??” Appa interrupted and we all looked over to him to see that he still continued his pacing. “IMAGINE THAT! I FINALLY HAVE YOU AS A SON IN LAW AND I CAN’T EVEN SHOW YOU OFF BECAUSE YOU PLAY FOR THE BEARS! THE BEARS!” He started pounding on his heart vigorously and Omma sighed before turning her attention back to me.

“What were you saying?” She asked, urging me to continue.

“My email account was bombarded with emails from people I haven’t spoken to since college… There was that guy who I worked with at the burger joint… What was his name?” I searched my mind for a name and came up with a blank. “I can never remember it…”

“Na Jeong-ah…” I heard Joon say before Omma spoke.

“Maybe you just haven’t checked your email in years. Maybe they were old?” Omma asked.

“I thought that too, at first… But all the emails were dated from today. And they were all giving me their address. I hope I didn’t get volunteered for a social committee at Yonsei or something…”

“I’M DISOWNING YOU!” Appa yelled at Joon, suddenly stopping mid stride. “YOU CAN’T MARRY NA JEONG! MY DAUGHTER WILL NOT MARRY YOU!”

Joon, who just a few minutes ago looked mildly amused and not a little confused, now stood up, his palms up in surrender, his face resolute. “You can’t renege on an engagement, Appa…” he said.

“DON’T CALL ME APPA! CALL ME COACH-NIM! BETTER YET, CALL ME SUNG DONG IL-SSI! I DON’T WANT TO KNOW YOU! HOW CAN SOMEONE WHO PLAYS FOR THE BEARS BE MY SON?”

“Appa,” Joon said gently. “I wasn’t just thinking about me… I was thinking of you too. And Na Jeong.”

“DON’T YOU SAY HER NAME TO ME! YOU AND I… WE COULD HAVE HAD A BRIGHT FUTURE TOGETHER… BUT YOU HAD TO GO AND FALL IN LOVE WITH HER!!!”

“APPA!” I said, shocked. I knew he loved Joon, but really…

“Appa, Na Jeong had nothing to do with this,” he tried to say, even though we both know I did. “I made this decision on my own.” Even though he didn’t. Liar, I thought as I frowned at him. “Please don’t make it sound like I just fell in love with her. I’ve loved her for eight years. Wait… Just wait a minute…”

I was about to ask him what he wants Appa to wait for when he reached into the bag he brought and pulled out a pile of magazines. How was this going to help anything? Appa looked like he was preparing to tackle Joon onto the ground and I prepared to shield myself over Joon, if that was necessary. He handed one to Omma, then to me, before putting one on the coffee table for Appa, as if giving him a peace offering.

Omna had looked at the magazine cover in surprise before quickly turning the pages to a specific location. Curious now, I looked at the magazine in my hands to see a picture of Joon on the front.

“Is this the interview from a couple of days ago?” I asked him. He nodded in response. “They published it so quickly.”

“Ah, jagiya…”

“DON’T CALL HER THAT!” Appa yelled.

Joon looked at him before speaking back to me. “Sung Na Jeong-ssi… They wanted to release the interview on my birthday. They sent a courier to the apartment with a dozen copies this morning.”

“This looks like a pretty extensive article Joon-ah… It’s a few pages chronicling your career, with clips from interviews they’ve done with your coaches. Ah… Here’s the interview they did with you,” she said. She read for a few minutes before she continued. “Joon-ah… You sound so grown-up in your answers… Omma’s really proud of you. Yeobo, listen to this…”

Omma started reading part of the article out loud and I listened absentmindedly as I read the article on my own. When I reached Appa’s name, I sent him a smile. Ah… So this was the plan. Joon knows just the way to Appa’s heart. Omma continued to read, and even though Appa tried not to look interested, I can tell he was listening too.

“Well this is interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more personal article on you before… ‘Who would you say have been your most influential role models?’ I don’t think they’ve ever delved into that before, right, Joon?” Omma read his response quietly before she gasped.

“What?” Appa said. “What did he say?”

Omma looked at Appa with a smile before she proceeded to read Joon’s response out loud. “Well… He said, ‘I have a few of course… All my coaches have impacted me in some way or another. But I really have to credit my father, who taught me about working hard and persevering against all odds. He’s made an honest living all his life and his work ethic was amazing. And also…” Omma took a deep breath. ” … Sung Dong Il.”

My father’s lips twitched into a smile before he quickly covered it up. “I don’t believe you. That boy didn’t say that.”

“Yeobo, he did… Look. It’s right here. He explains why he said your name…” She motioned for my father to come closer and read the article himself. Though Appa hesitated for a minute, he soon relented and grabbed the magazine that Joon had placed on the coffee table and leafed through its pages to read the interview.

I waited as he finished reading Joon’s answer and by the time he put the magazine down, there were no traces of anger on his face. His features softened and he mumbled, “At least this time he mentioned me in this interview… Of course I am his role model… I taught him so many things…”

Joon’s face broke out into a happy smile when he heard Appa’s words and gave him a bear hug. “Appa, you’ll forgive your future son-in-law, right?” Joon asked.

“For now… And dream on if you think you can invite your new coach to the wedding,” he whispered to Joon in warning, though he didn’t pull his arms away. Omma and I watched quietly even though she looked like she was about to burst out laughing.

“Yes Appa! The entire coaching team will not be invited,” Joon replied to Appa in seriousness.

“Noona,” Sook Sook said, “why does Appa look like he’s about to start kissing Hyung?”

“Because he probably is,” I responded. “Aigoo… All this drama and for what? All he needed to do was to say his name in the article and all was resolved. Appa… I haven’t forgotten how you didn’t speak to me for days! DAYS! I’M YOUR DAUGHTER!”

Appa didn’t even respond to me as he now sat next to Joon, holding the magazine almost reverently rereading that particular passage. I shot him a glare before I resumed reading the rest of the article. Omma was right… Joon did sound articulate and mature. And this interview was indeed very personal. My heart warmed with pride as I continued reading and the smile that had been forming on my face stayed there as I reached the end of the interview until…

“YAH!!! KIM JAE JOON!!! You said my name?!?!?!” I cried in horror. I stood up and walked towards him, but Appa stood in front of Joon with one of his hands on my forehead, keeping me an arm’s length away from the-soon-to-be-strangled-by-his-future-wife Joon. What is this? Just a few minutes ago he looked like he was about to kill him and now he’s protecting him from me. My, how the tables have turned. “DO YOU WANT TO DIE???”

“Na Jeong-ah… Jagiya… I didn’t say your full name!” He replied.

“Yeah… He didn’t say your full name,” Appa echoed, and I wondered if I can hit them both at the same time. “Sung Na Jeong! Don’t threaten my future son-in-law!”

“You don’t think people who even know of either of us will put it together?” At his enquiring glance, I rattled on.”You said there would be a conflict of interest if you played with the Twins… You said Appa’s name… And about the boarding house. People already know you went to Yonsei, and now you’re engaged to a woman named Na Jeong. It wouldn’t take a genius to connect all the dots!”

“Noona… Some of my friends asked if I had a sister named Na Jeong! You’re famous, Noona! That’s what I was trying to tell you earlier!” Sook Sook said happily.

“Where was Jung Jin Hyung during this interview?” I asked Joon. “Because you are a public relations nightmare. ”

“He let me handle this interview myself. And I disagree with you about me being a PR nightmare. In fact I think I am a PR dream! The magazine sold out within hours…” Joon answered. “… In the whole country.”

“That’s because you just say whatever! Yah…” I said warningly, “You can forget about your present.”

He clucked his tongue at me but stopped when he saw my eyes, and I’m sure that he saw how serious I was. His gaze softened as he gave me a chagrined smile. “I love you, Na Jeong-ah.”

“I hate you…” I said back to him. “… right now.”

Omma broke out in peals of laughter and Sook Sook followed suit. Appa just continued to watch us with a smile and Joon… Joon just continued staring at me like I was the only one who existed. In the haze of my anger it just registered now what he had said about me.

‘She saved my life. I will give her my future for compensation.’

My heart filled with happiness inside me. And though I wanted to stay angry, I can’t. Because I wasn’t the only one doing the saving. He saved me too. So I guess I will have to return the favor, for compensation, just like him.

*****

March 14, 2002

8 p.m.

Jae Joon

“Joon Hyung, you like baseball, right?” Sook Sook asked as I folded the book I was reading to him closed. I looked at his little face watching me expectantly.

In the dark, I glanced around the living room floor, littered with little boys sleeping, and I smiled. Finally… I managed to fulfill a promise I made more than a year ago. Sook Sook wanted me to come for his sleepover, and here I am. Better late than never, right?

Omma and Appa came in hours ago but left me alone with the kids, no doubt grateful for some time alone. Na Jeong went out shopping with Yoo Jin and is not due to come back for another half hour. I’m hoping that by that time Sook Sook will be asleep and she and I can celebrate White Day properly, since I was already in San Francisco at this time last year. I had sent her some flowers at work earlier, along with a box of chocolates and an invitation to dinner. It was only then that she reminded me that I had already promised to be here tonight for Sook Sook’s sleepover.

Seeing how happy it made him to have me here made being wrestled and tackled by a half dozen of his playmates worthwhile. I forget sometimes, how it felt to that young. Being here with them reminded me of being a kid, except this time I’m surrounded by laughter and joy. This period goes by so fast… Even in just the two years since I’ve been back in his life, he’d already shot up about two inches in height and put on some weight.

His expectant face stayed upturned towards me and I realized I never answered his question. “Yeah… I like baseball,” I responded. “Why are you asking me that?”

“I like baseball, too. I want to be a pitcher like you. Do you think I can do that?” His eyes were hopeful and full of dreams, and I smiled.

“Sook Sook-ah… you can be anything you want to be. If you want to play baseball you can do it,” I answered slowly. “But… If you want to be other things, you can do that, too. Your Omma and Appa… They tell me all the time about how smart you are, and your Noona says you like to draw. Right now you can do whatever makes you happiest. And you don’t just have to be one thing. You can do anything you set your mind to.”

“I like to draw the best, but I’m not very good at it. Appa is a coach, and you’re a pitcher, so I should play baseball.” His little voice sounded so adamant I almost laughed until I realized that this while he was still only a child in my eyes, this was very serious for him. I wasn’t much older than he was when I started playing baseball. Of course this was important.

“If you like to draw the most, you can keep working on it until you’re good. I wasn’t very good at baseball at first. But I worked hard, and I got better. You can do that also.”

“And now you’re the best!” He exclaimed. “That’s what Noona says. And Noona is always right.”

“There’s always room for improvement, but yes, I’m pretty good,” I agreed with a chuckle.

He stayed quiet for a few minutes and I thought he had fallen asleep until I heard him speak quietly again.

“Joon Hyung…” he said, and I heard the worry in his voice. What could he possibly be worried about?

“Hmm?” I closed my eyes as I waited for him to continue.

“Once you and Noona are married, you’ll still visit, right? I… I really love Noona.” I opened my eyes and noted his trembling lip and ruffled his hair.

“Yah… We’ll be here so much you’d think we still lived here. Nothing’s going to change, except your Noona will sleep over at our house at night. But she’ll be here to help you with homework, and we’ll watch your games, and attend all your parties. Maybe, sometimes, you can stay over at our house when you don’t have school,” I reassured him.

“What about you? You won’t get mad if I ask Noona to come over a lot, right? Because Noona makes me laugh and Haitai Hyung said he wants to get married after you get married and then I’ll be alone.”

I know how he felt… I was there once. I understood his fears, and sympathized greatly. I may be his Hyung, but in his young mind, I may also appear as the person who will take his Noona away. I took a few minutes to choose my words carefully, knowing that he will take whatever I say to heart.

“Sook Sook-ah… Your Noona loves you very much. And I love you very much, too. We want you to be happy. We’re not leaving you… don’t think of it like that, okay? Instead… you get to have two houses. One here, where you stay with Omma and Appa, and one with us. You can stay in either, whenever you want. As long as it’s okay with everybody, it’s fine with me. I like having a little brother,” I lifted his chin so I could look him in the eyes. “Did you know I was an only child?” He shook his head no.

“Well, I was. I wished for a long time I had a brother or sister to play with. So having you is like a gift. It’s like my prayer has been answered and now I get to be your Hyung. And your Noona… I’m sure she sees you like that as well. I promise … that I will never keep her away from you. You have my word on that, and I’m telling you this man to man.” I reached a hand out to him. “Should we shake on it? That’s what gentlemen do, when they make a deal.”

He looked at me suspiciously, brows furrowed, and for a minute his expression looked so much like the one I see so often on Na Jeong’s face I almost laughed. But then he finally reached his hand out and shook mine. He looked so earnest doing it, biting his lower lip, and I knew he believed me.

“Hyung… I love you too. Noona smiles a lot now… you make Noona happy,” he said as he burrowed closer to my chest, his voice sleepy.

“Is that right?” I asked him and I heard a soft giggle. “What’s so funny?”

“Noona says that a lot!” He crowed and I started chuckling as well. In fact I was still chuckling when I noticed that he’d gone quiet, his breathing slowing down to a steady rhythm. I gathered the cover closer to him before I allowed myself to relax. I had just closed my eyes when I felt someone hovering over me and I heard her voice.

“Oh no you don’t, ” she said quietly. “You’re not allowed to fall asleep, yet. You promised me a special night.”

“Jagiya… When did you get back?” I asked. “Has it been half an hour already?”

“I got back a few minutes ago… But you were so focused on your conversation with Sook Sook you didn’t even notice,” she smiled at me. Sook Sook’s right… Na Jeong does have a pretty smile. “Did you have fun?”

“Yeah… it was good.” I peeled Sook Sook’s arms off from me before lifting myself up slowly off the floor. I put an arm around her as we walked to the kitchen. “How did shopping go?”

“It was productive. I bought a couple of things that you might like.”

“You bought stuff for me?” I asked, surprised.

“Sort of,” she answered cryptically and I smiled. God bless Na Jeong and her love of lingerie. “You want to see?” She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively and I pressed a kiss to her lips.

“We should probably go back to the apartment, huh?”

“Yes,” she said definitively. “Let me just tell Omma and Appa we’re leaving.”

I watched as she walked to her parents’ room slowly and heard her voice quietly call out to them. Within a couple of minutes she was back by my side and we made our way out the front door. With one last look at Sook Sook to make sure he was asleep, I quietly closed the door behind me and followed Na Jeong onto the path. She wrapped an arm around my waist as we walked towards the car.

“I heard what you said to Sook Sook,” she said. “About his dreams and me… And you… I heard all of it.” She looked at me then, her eyes soft. “Jagiya… You’re very good with him. Thank you for that. He’s been looking at me funny since we started planning the wedding, and he wouldn’t talk to any of us about it. I’m glad he felt like he could talk to you, at least.”

“It’s very easy to be good with him. He’s a great kid. And I meant every word I said.”

“I know… And that’s what’s so great. You talked to him like he was someone whose opinion mattered. Not like he was just a little kid. You didn’t undermine what he was feeling or discount his worries because he was young,” she continued. “It made me realize something.”

“What?” I asked as we reached the car. She wrapped both her arms around my waist and looked up at me.

“You’re going to make a great Appa.” She smiled at me then, her face lighting up completely. “I have something to run by you.”

I opened the car door for her and waited until she was sitting down before I walked over to the other side and got into the car. She stayed quiet as I pulled out of the parking space and onto the road towards the apartment. I didn’t hear a peep out of her even as we reached the halfway point in our route.

“Are you hungry?” I asked, and she shook her head no. “I guess it’s a little late for dinner. Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay… Yoon Jin and I had ddukbokki earlier,” she responded. “Joon-ah… Aren’t you going to ask what I wanted to talk to you about?”

“I knew you would talk about it when you’re ready,” I answered easily. “You know I’m not fussy.”

“Well… You know I’ve come off the birth control pills…” she started. “And we’ve been making do under the circumstances…”

If by making do she meant reverting back to condoms and the rhythm method, then yes, I am very aware of what we’ve had to do. With the pregnancy scare still fresh in her mind, I had absolutely no problems letting her call all the shots in that department. But why are we talking about this now?

“… However, after seeing you with Sook Sook, I’ve decided that I’m okay with your initial proposal. I think we can stop using birth control altogether.”

It took me a few minutes to digest what she just said, and I parked the car slowly onto a space in my apartment building’s lot. I put the gear to P before I allowed myself to look at her.

“Hold on…” I said. “Are you saying you want to have a baby?”

“Not necessarily have one, like, right now. I’m just saying I’m open to practice making one.” At my incredulous expression, she grinned. “Well… Do we have deal?”

She lifted her hand for a shake, and as I looked at it I realized that she must have seen me shake hands with Sook Sook. I leaned over and took her hand and placed it on my shoulder before I responded. When surprised hazel eyes met mine, I smiled.

“Sung Na Jeong-ssi, a handshake is done between business transactions and gentlemen,” I whispered as my mouth hovered over hers. “This…” I said as I gave her lips a little lick. I watched as her eyes darkened before I proceeded. “This is how you and I seal our deals.” Her mouth opened for a breath and I pressed my lips more firmly onto hers.

*****

Na Jeong

By the time we reached the apartment, my body was thrumming in anticipation. Joon entered the door code and allowed me in, but as soon as the door closed behind him, he had me pressed up against the wall, his fingers unbuttoning my blouse as his lips took mine. I unzipped his hoodie while he kissed me, throwing his cap to the floor. I kicked my heels off as my fingers found the hem of his shirt and lifted it off of him. We stared at each other intently, silently as my he rubbed a thumb over the corner of my mouth as his mouth continued to taste and devoured. My heart raced inside my chest and my fingers itched to feel his skin and I reached my hand out to meet smooth warm skin.

Insistent, persistent, I could feel his hunger for me as he lifted me up to wrap my legs around his waist. I felt strong arms around me and sure hands cupping my bottom under my skirt. He nipped at my lips before his tongue met mine. When he broke our kiss,  I opened my eyes to see him smiling down at me.

“Why are you smiling?” I asked, my voice husky.

“It never feels like I’ve ever done this before. Every time I kiss you, it’s like the first time I had you pressed against Bing’s door. It’s very strange, don’t you think?” He whispered as his mouth pressed a kiss on my collarbone and my neck. He let his tongue travel over a shoulder and I trembled in his arms.  Sparks of pleasure exploded inside me when his teeth nipped the delicate skin between my neck and my shoulder. I felt him walking ever so slowly towards the bedroom, where he gently put me down on the bed.

My breath hitched as I watched him undress completely, and his hooded eyes watched me watching him and I felt like my body turned to molten liquid. I raised myself up on my knees as my mouth traveled his chest and his abdomen as my hand wrapped around his arousal. I felt his whole body tighten when I touched him slow strokes, savoring his every reaction. When at last I took him in my mouth I heard him moan and felt satisfaction pulse through me. I licked and I laved, and the feel of tightly reined control that vibrated through his body heightened my senses.  I felt a large hand on my hair, touching tenderly and my eyes met his, his expression open with passion. He cupped my cheek for a moment before he laid me down on the bed, his fingers continuing to undo all the buttons on my shirt then continued to unzip my skirt. When I was only left in my bra and my panties he sat back, and let his gaze travel over me, taking in my hair spread over his pillows, my body flushed with warmth and my lips tender from his kisses. He grinned at me then and my heart stopped. I swallowed the lump in my throat as I took my bra off and threw it down the side of the bed.

He continued to watch me silently, his eyes raking over each inch of skin I revealed. My fingers hooked over my panties and I slowly lowered them off my hips, and Joon bit his bottom lip as his eyes blazed with desire. Just as I was convinced he was just going to look at me all night long, he covered my body with his weight, his arousal pressed against my core. He flexed his hips once as he took a nipple in his mouth. I watched as his pretty lips sucked and kissed both of my breasts, my core getting wetter with each passing minute. His mouth traveled down my abdomen, his fingers finding my wetness surely and confidently.

When his mouth traveled to the softest part of me I sighed his name. I felt his tongue explore and adore, a long finger slipping inside me to stroke and arouse. I watched as he loved me with his mouth with single minded focus, the pleasure building up inside me from his ministrations. My hips started moving with the rhythm of his fingers and my climax came swiftly, deliciously, and I rode its waves even as he continued to kiss my core, crying out his name, my whole body alive and completely in the present. He lifted himself up as I descended from my peak and slowly slipped himself inside me.

He watched my face as he joined his body with mine, my body fully ready to receive him. Inch by inch, I felt him stretch me as he filled me. My legs wrapped around his waist and he started moving. Languid, deliberate, unhurried, he flexed and he thrusted as if this was the only place he wanted to be. Watching him as he moved over me, my heart filled with so much emotion I felt overwhelmed. Pleasure and love mingled through my whole being as he coaxed my body into surrender. Eyes locked together, he took my lips in his as I sobbed his name out again, my core contracting tightly around him, my back arched.

Before I could recover, he rolled onto his back, our bodies still joined together. I placed my hands on his solid chest as I lifted myself up off him before sliding myself back down. My fingers know this body, I thought, perhaps as well as I knew my own. I know his angles and his scars… I know his taste and his every sound. It wasn’t long until my body found its rhythm and I felt the thrill of being the one controlling his reaction and his moans. I scored my nail against one nipple and he groaned and grabbed my waist as his hips lifted off the bed to meet my every undulation. I rode him harder and faster, my body doing what it knows Joon loves, my hands wrapped around his neck, my fingers through his hair. Just as pleasure unfurled itself inside me for a third time, he stiffened in my arms and he chanted my name. His tightly shut eyes opened and met mine as he continued to move his hips, my center contracting against him as he emptied himself inside me. We stayed bound together,  our arms tightly wound around each other, as if unwilling to let go. He pressed a kiss to my mouth and nibbled on my lips delicately.

“I love you, Na Jeong. Forever. Always,” he whispered against my mouth.

“I love you more. To infinity,” I responded and he started chuckling. “What?”

“I knew you were going to say that,” he responded. “So competitive.”

“You love that about me,” I said.

“You’re right. But I love all of you. Don’t ever forget that.”

“You can still remind me sometimes,” I suggested.

“Call.”

When at last our heartbeats have slowed down, I laid my head on his chest and closed my eyes.

“Jagiya,” I hear Joon say quietly. “I called the Ritz and confirmed our wedding date.”

“You did? I thought they said the venue we wanted wasn’t available?”

“I told them how much you loved the space and how happy it made you to be in it, and how happy it made me to see you happy, and magically the date and time became available. We might have to do the ceremony in one space and the reception in the bigger one that you like, though,” he said. “I couldn’t change that.”

“Joon-ah, that’s amazing,” I said. “I guess having a Major Leaguer husband-to-be does have its perks.”

“Yah…” He replied, indignant. “I come with a lot of perks.”

I chuckled against his chest as I felt his fingers on my hair. “Yeah… I can think of a few. We’ll need to schedule the menu and cake tasting before the end of the month, ” I informed him. “You start training in April, and it will be busy for you then. I’m sure the last thing you want to worry about is planning a wedding.”

“I want to be part of everything. It’s my wedding too.”

“I got it,” I teased. “You realize most men would be more than happy to let their women decide and plan everything, right?”

“I’m not most men,” he answered and I smiled.

“No, you’re not. And I’m grateful for that.”

His fingers have stilled and I knew he must have fallen asleep. It was only then that I allowed myself some sleep as well.

*****

April 24, 2002

6 p.m.

Jae Joon

I was just finishing up icing my shoulder when my phone buzzed. I stood up from the bench in the locker room to pick it up when I spotted a message from Na Jeong.

Joon-ah… Can you swing by the supermarket and grab a melon after you get out of work? I just realized I haven’t had any in a while and I really REALLY want some. You know which melons I’m talking about, right? Like the one you brought to the boarding house eight years ago. I love you. Make sure it’s sweet!

Shaking my head, I wondered how I could possibly ascertain a melon’s sweetness without opening it. I started taking off the bandage holding the ice in place and thought about her message. Why melons? For as long as I’ve known her, Na Jeong has never been a picky eater. I thought she ate everything under the sun. I quickly put a t-shirt back on and zipped my hoodie up. After putting my baseball cap on my head, I walked out of Jamsil Baseball Stadium and headed to the parking lot.

Na Jeong’s been acting weird lately. I brought ddukbokki home last weekend and she wouldn’t even let me open it. She said that even the smell made her nauseous. When we were watching television she started crying suddenly… Over a long distance phone card commercial. She’s constantly complaining about how tired she is, and a few times when I called the boarding house after I got done late from work, Omma told me she’d already gone to bed directly after dinner… At 7:30 p.m. She mentioned that she’s had a stomach virus for the last few days, throwing up almost every night, but I suspect the vomiting has been going on longer than that and she just hasn’t told me.

As I started the car, I debated going to the apartment first and reading the pregnancy book that I still kept on my bedside drawer before going to the supermarket, but I don’t want her to be asleep by the time I got to the boarding house. Not wanting to call either one of our Ommas, I opened my phone and dialed Yoon Jin’s number. I waited for her to pick up the call and breathed a sigh of relief when I heard the call connect.

“Yoon Jin-ah?” I asked.

“Chilbong-ah!” I heard Samcheonpo say. “Why are you calling at this time? And Yoon Jin’s number at that?”

“Ah… I just had to ask her something about Na Jeong. Is she around?”

“Yeah, she’s just in the bathroom, throwing up,” he said gleefully. He sounded way too happy for someone whose wife was ill. I was about to call him out on it when I heard his voice again. “We’re pregnant. We were going to tell you when you come over for dinner next week, but since you called, why not now?”

“Congratulations!” I said sincerely. “When is she due?”

“Not until November… She always gets sick with anything and everything right now… But that should pass in a few weeks…”

While he was talking about Yoon Jin, it suddenly hit me that I might soon be having this conversation with other people for real. I should be nervous, but I’m not. Na Jeong and I have spoken about this in length, and I knew we were ready. It would just be nice to know for sure.

“… Oh here she is now. Yeobo, it’s Chilbong. He said he had a question about Na Jeong,” I heard him say. “I’m passing you over… I’ll text you in a couple of days.”

“Hello?” Yoon Jin said. “What’s up?”

“Yoon Jin-ah… Has Na Jeong mentioned anything to you recently about not feeling well, or feeling strange?”

“Ahh… She said she’s been a bit more tired than normal. And her stomach’s been playing up,” she replied. She didn’t say any more yet I felt like she was holding something back.

“Was that all? She didn’t say anything else?”

“Chilbong-ah… Why don’t you ask her yourself? Women talk about certain things that I don’t really think I should be talking to you about.”

“Yoon Jin-ah… She’s been having some weird cravings and ddukbokki makes her sick. And you know she loves ddukbokki. She has no energy at all and she cries at the drop of a hat. Na Jeong has never been a soft girl… You know that. I think…” I paused and took a deep breath. “I think she may be pregnant.”

“WHAT?” She exclaimed and I shushed her. “I thought she was just having PMS or something… but she never told me about the cravings. That girl… I’m going to call her.”

“Yoon Jin-ah… Let me talk to her first. Please don’t say anything to anyone about this yet, and please don’t mention anything about me calling you to her. I’ll talk to her tonight. I have to go… I have to buy some melons.”

“Melons?” She asked. “Why plural?”

“Well, she wants A melon so I have to bring it to her, but she said to make sure it’s sweet. Would you happen to know how I can tell if it’s ripe?” I asked, a little embarrassed.

“No… I don’t know how to tell that without opening it. Sorry, Chilbong-ah.”

“It’s fine. Thanks Yoon Jin-ah. We’ll see you next week.”

“Good night, Bong-ah,” she said. “And congratulations, if she is.”

I said a quick thank you and hung up the call. Driving straight to the supermarket, I went straight to the produce aisle once there. I stood in front of the pile of melons, watching the women that prodded and touched them as they picked one. I tried to replicate and imitate what I had observed them doing, but I had no clue what I was doing.

Knowing that I might be recognized, I just grabbed a few to take with me. I mean one of them have got to be sweet, right? I took my cart to the checkout lane and quickly paid. As I walked to the car, I wondered how in the world I will explain this to Omma and Appa. It’s not as if I can just stroll into the house with a box full of melons and be conspicuous.

*****

I put the box of melons down on the ground as I knocked at the door to the boarding house. Omma let me in with a smile but looked at me confused when she noted the box of melons I was balancing with my arms.

“Joon-ah… What in the world?” She asked.

“Ah, Omma… Na Jeong said she wanted a sweet melon and I wasn’t sure how to tell if it was ripe, so I just bought a few,” I explained as I changed into slippers. I watched as she walked into the living room and followed behind her.

“Na Jeong-ah! Joon’s here!” She called out.

Appa was sitting on the couch, watching television. He took one look at me and started shaking his head.

“Aigoo… Are you going to let her boss you around? Who needs that many melons?” He asked and only now did I start getting nervous. I can’t very well tell him that if our baby wants a sweet melon, then that’s what I will provide. He’s only just forgiven me for choosing the Bears, and now this… He’ll definitely kill me. “Na Jeong-ah,” he yelled out. “Chilbong’s here!” When she didn’t respond, he stood up. “That girl… I’ll go get her.”

“Appa… It’s okay. I’ll go see her, ” I said as I went to the kitchen and carefully placed the box on the table, along with my car keys. I walked to her door and knocked.

“Jagiya? It’s me…” I said gently. “Can I come in?”

When I received no answer, I placed my hand on the doorknob to open her door when all of a sudden the door opened and Na Jeong came into view. Eyes smeared with mascara and face wet with tears, she was bawling as she launched herself into my arms.

*****

Na Jeong

I was pulling pajamas out of my closet after I texted Joon about the melons when a picture fell out of my closet. It had been the picture of me from eight years ago, when I had crazy hair, in front of a white background. The one I found in Joon’s cap when he left for America. Astounded that I had kept it and that it had been in my closet all this time, I slowly sat back on the bed with it, pajamas forgotten.

It seems so long ago now… When this all started. I forget, sometimes, how much we’ve had to go through to get to where we are. And yet… Yet I only need to think for one second to unlock all my memories of Joon. Like a movie playing in reverse, every memory I had of him came crashing back. From the time when he loved me from a distance, all the way to now. Most were of happy times, moments I want to cherish forever. But some… Some were of sad times too. I remembered what was perhaps the loneliest time of my life, the first time Joon left for America.

Directionless and in love with a man who had made a conscious choice to not love me back, I had drifted from day to day, holding on to the barest of hopes that I would even be in the same room as him again. I remembered my bravado, my insistence in wishing him good morning and good night, even though the mere thought of him killed me inside. I knew, even then, that I was changing, with the memory of his love for me forcing me to look at myself and my future in a different way. Sometimes the sadness in me felt so thick I was choked by it, and the weight of regret suffocated me. There had been many sleepless nights, worrying about him and his well-being and wondering what could have been. Though I thought about him endlessly, I had to stay strong. For me.

Because it was in that period of loneliness that I found myself. Because I saw, finally, what kind of love I deserved. And I knew that there was only one person whose love I wanted again. I wanted it so badly I could taste it. The love that was once given so freely to me, the love that had sheltered me and cushioned my falls, was gone and I felt like with its loss came a small death. Do you know what it’s like to be haunted by ghosts of memories past? Taunting you and mocking you for the choices you’ve made? I do.

Throughout my youth I believed only in one dream, and never even considered why. I kept my eyes closed to the even better reality that had been waiting to be realized. I kept myself shielded from the love that had been waiting for me selflessly and faithfully.

When this awakening came, I knew. I knew that if Joon were to come back to me, I will love him in the same exact way, whether or not he still loved me. I will love him with no condition and no expectation, just as he had done for me. I will offer my heart as a gift, just like he did. It hadn’t been a matter of ego, or pride, because the most empowering thing I have ever done in my life was take control of my heart. I got to know its every scar, its every crevice and every beat, and I accepted for whom it beats the strongest. No matter what happened, I owed him the knowledge that his love is returned and that he is loved deeply and wholly. He needed to know that the six years he had spent loving me had not been for nothing.

I knew when he finally returned that it was still a long shot that he would give me another chance. But I’ve then adopted his faith and his perseverance, and there was no turning back. I had already made my choice. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road, but I was prepared to fight every battle for Joon’s heart. Because he did it for me. And because he was worth it. Even with his flaws and imperfections, even with his demons and his mistakes, I will love him. I wanted to be the one whose love he thinks of as his shelter, as his blanket and his home. I wasn’t sure of many things in my life. I like to deal in absolutes, but Joon was the chance that I would have taken over and over again. For us. For this.

And I had been wrong about a lot of things, but not about Joon. Never about Joon. Because look at us now… I have never in my life, ever felt more loved or more understood. He takes my anger and turns it into a smile, takes my sadness and transforms it to joy. I wasn’t lying when I said he was my hero. He’s flawed and so human, but he holds magic in his hands and his heart. And now I get to spend my life with him.

Emotions coiled and unfolded through me, and I felt tears fall unwittingly down my face. I don’t know what’s wrong with me… I cry so easily nowadays. I look around my room and saw pieces of Joon everywhere, tangible things that I held onto and continue to treasure as proof of what we have. As reminders to never take what I’ve been given for granted.

“Na Jeong-ah, it’s me,” I heard the most beautiful voice say from outside my door, and I stood up without saying a word. “Can I come in?”

I opened the door quickly and there he was. My dream come true, looking at me in concern as he studied the hysterical picture I’m sure I made. Love unfurled inside my chest and before I could even stop myself, I threw myself into his shocked arms. I let the smell of him wrap over me, and felt his strength cover me up tenderly. I smiled through my tears as I unwrapped my arms from his neck.

“Jagiya… What’s the matter?” He asked, his eyes intently on my face, a callused finger brushing my tears away.

I shrugged my shoulders before I responded. “Nothing. Nothing’s the matter. Everything is just… Perfect. I’m so scared.” At this another wave of tears came and I started crying even harder. “How can it be so perfect? It can’t possibly this good…”

“Jagiya… Slow down. Let’s talk about it, okay?” He said as he led me back into my room. He sat me down on the bed and sat next to me, holding my hand quietly. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”

“I’m just… It’s just… I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I always want to sleep or I’m crying. I saw this picture of me from your cap and I started thinking about us. And about everything. And then I was happy then I was sad then I was happy again. I guess what I’m trying to say… Is thank you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for waiting for me. Just… Thank you.”

I hiccuped and he just kept looking at me in concern. “You waited all those years, and I know how that feels, because I had to wait too, and I didn’t even have to wait that long. And I know that it wasn’t easy and you could have easily given up on me, and you didn’t and you gave me another chance. I’m sorry I have verbal diarrhea, and you probably think I’m crazy, but I swear it all makes sense in my head.”

He wrapped an arm around my shoulder and chuckled. “Na Jeong-ah… You don’t have to explain it to me. I know how you feel because i felt the same way for so long. You were always worth it, though, and I would do it all over again for you.” He took a deep breath before pressing his lips on my forehead. “And I don’t think you’re going crazy… I think you may be pregnant.”

“What? Why would you think that?” I asked.

“Jagiya… When was the last time you had a period?”

“I had it last month… But it didn’t even last a day. But my periods get like that with stress sometimes so I didn’t think anything of it.”

“Your food cravings are crazy… I caught you last week eating pepero sticks with a side of kkakdugi. I know they’re both delicious individually, but they don’t really go together. Also… How long have you been throwing up?”

“Maybe… Maybe the past few weeks? Maybe it’s just acid reflux…”

“You have morning sickness, I think. I remember it from the pregnancy book.”

“What pregnancy book? Also I only throw up in the evening, Joon-ah.”

“I never returned the pregnancy book from the baby store. To be honest I had placed it inside the bedside drawer and forgot all about it. But… It said that morning sickness is just a term that they call it by. It can happen any time of the day.”

“So you think… Do you think I’m pregnant?” I asked him and he nodded. “How do you feel about that?”

“I’m happy, but a little scared too. It’s not as if we’ve been parents before. But we’ll be fine. All of us. All three of us. I’m actually more worried for Appa.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” I said as I patted my face dry. “I guess it makes sense. My chest hurts a lot and my hormones are out of control. Should I buy a pregnancy test?”

“Nah…” He responded with a smile. “I’ll look it up tomorrow and I can make an appointment at a doctor’s to confirm. I’d rather be safe than sorry. The sooner we know if we’re pregnant, the sooner you can start prenatal care.”

“Listen to you… You sound like an expert,” I commented, nudging him on the side.

“I very well should be… Since I read that book from cover to cover the last time. And you know I hate studying. But I will study for this. I want to be as good a father as I know you’re going to be a mother,” he teased. “We can’t have the baby wondering why you married me.”

“Our baby will adore you, just like I do.”

“You think?” He asked giddily and I started laughing.

“Yeah,” I responded. “Joon-ah… did you get me a melon?”

He sighed before answering. “I got you seven melons. One of them should be sweet. I want uri Na Jeong happy.”

“I’m already happy,” I said, as I pressed my lips to his.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s