September 12, 2007
“Young Seon-ah… How did school go today?” I heard Joon ask.
I looked behind me as I dished up the stew that had been simmering on the stove. Smiling to myself, I watched as Young Seon furrowed his eyebrows as he thought of how he will answer his Appa’s question. I walked over to the table with the bowl to see him nibbling on a chopstick.
“Seon-ie… Don’t do that. You’ve just lost a tooth, do you want to lose another?” I asked him as I pulled a chair out and sat down.
“You’ve lost a tooth?” Joon asked as he placed a spoon in his mouth. “When did that happen?”
“I woke up this morning to find your son standing at the side of the bed saying, ‘Omma, look!’ and holding a tooth up,” I answered as I tasted the stew. Closing my eyes in pleasure, perfect, I thought. “It’s the first one,” I said softly before ruffling our son’s hair. “Uri Seon-ie is growing up too fast.”
“Appa… Do you want to see it?” Young Seon asked, getting up from his chair. “I have it under my pillow…”
“Ahh… Seon-ie… I don’t really think Appa wants to see that while he’s eating,” I said, trying not to cringe.
Joon was chuckling before he responded. “Yeah, Seon-ah… You can show me tomorrow huh?”
Young Seon nodded as he bit into some kimchi. “Appa…” He started as he chewed slowly. “We started learning the alphabet today.”
He tried to maneuver his chopsticks to eat some rice and I had to stop myself from awwing he looked so cute with his brows drawn in concentration. After a few minutes devoted to focusing on using his chopsticks and seemingly out of nowhere, he started singing the alphabet song he learned in school and I listened at first, nodding my head to the song that we all learned when we were young before I started singing as well. After sitting quietly for a few minutes Joon soon joined in and we were all singing. As the song winded down, I thought to myself how I would have scoffed if someone had told me in 1994 that in thirteen years I would be sitting in the kitchen of our apartment, married to Joon and singing nursery rhymes with our son. Our first son.
A clanging noise to my left distracted me and saw our second son banging his plastic spoon on his high chair.
“Young Min-ah… Are you trying to join in?” Joon asked. “Wow,” he continued with a smile, “Our sons are so clever.” He made some cooing noises and Min gurgled happily at the faces Joon made.
Pushing the laptop a little further from Min’s reach and before he spills the content of his sippycup onto the keyboard, I watched as my husband lifted a Styrofoam cup to his mouth on the monitor.
“Do you not have real plates and bowls? Why are professional baseball players eating from takeout containers?” I asked irritatedly.
“You know this is the life we lead when we are on the road, yeobo. Easier clean-up this way… No washing up and just chuck everything in the trash can when we’re done.” Joon grinned at the web camera before pushing it down so we can see what he’s eating. I shook my head as he showed what looked like some kimchi jigae and some rice, along with some soju.
“AISH! Men left to their own devices and they revert back to teenagers,” I exclaimed and Joon’s handsome face broke into a smile before he realized what he was doing and adopted a more stern expression.
“AISH!” Min said and Seon’s eyes, my eyes, looked quickly at me in alarm. Min, as if liking the sound of the word, kept repeating himself as he banged on his high chair with conviction. “Aish! Aish!”
“Omma… I thought you said we’re not allowed to say that word,” Seon said thoughtfully as he drank some water. “Omma… Isn’t that a bad word?”
“Yes, Young Seon-ah,” Joon responded smoothly, giving me a wink. “It’s a bad word.”
“Uh-oh,” Seon said. “Min said something bad.”
“Seon-ie… Omma was just teaching you both that you can’t REALLY say that,” I muttered. Kids are so smart. They just follow anything and everything you say.
“But Omma… You said it first,” he countered as he ate some soup. “Omma, I like this.”
“Young Seon-ah… Omma was just demonstrating words that you shouldn’t say.”
“What does demonstrate mean?” He asked.
“Ahh… Demonstrate means to… Demonstrate. You know what, just keep eating,” I said as Joon continued to eat while trying not to laugh. I saw someone walk past behind him for the third time and narrowed my eyes.
“Joon-ah… I know you said you’re not pitching tomorrow, but don’t be spending all night drinking with Appa,” I warned him.
Before Joon can respond, Appa had pushed him out of the way and was glaring into the camera. He was still wearing his coaching uniform, his Twins jacket and his baseball cap.
“Oe Haraboji!” Seon said happily when he saw my Appa.
“‘Boji!!!” Min echoed and Appa smiled at them both before frowning at me again.
“Sung Na Jeong… Don’t be bossing uri Joon around, huh?” He said in a low voice. “Haven’t I been looking after him for the last four years? When have we ever been that drunk that you had to come and help us?”
“Oh, Appa, I don’t know, how about when I found you two passed out at a noraebang in Incheon, or I walked into the two of you sleeping at the reception of the hotel in Busan, or…”
“Fine, fine,” Appa said reluctantly as he stood back up and swung the camera back Joon’s way. “But when have we ever gotten in trouble BEFORE a game?”
I had to give that to him. Appa keeps Joon focused on all the weeks that they are on the road. Those nights are not the nights I worry about… It’s the last night before coming home that Appa seems to go out of control. I saw Appa pat Joon’s back before he walked away.
“Joon-ah, don’t stay up too late, huh?” I heard Appa say.
“Coach-nim… I’ll be off in a couple of hours,” Joon responded with a smile. “Don’t frown at me like that. This is how we’ve been doing it for years, Coach. I have to help Seon with his homework and then I have to read him his story and then I get to speak to uri Na Jeong-ie. This is what we do at home, so this is what we do when I’m away. Are you going to make fun…”
Joon’s voice trailed off as I listened to him speak and I couldn’t help but smile. We just celebrated our five year wedding anniversary a month ago, but it seems just like yesterday that we got married. It’s been almost eight years since he came back to the boarding house from Japan. It’s been six years since San Francisco. How is it that so much has happened since then, and yet it still feels like time hasn’t passed at all?
Our second child was making a commotion again, in protest of the fact that he’s just finished his food and I was reminded quite abruptly that things have, indeed, changed. Tearing up some more chicken to place on Min’s plate, it took me a few minutes before I could resume eating as well. We all carried on with our meal, with Seon filling the silence with all sorts of conversation topics, from what he wore today and what he ate at lunch. To his credit Joon listened closely even though he looked exhausted and asked questions, seeing that I was distracted making sure Min didn’t choke on anything.
When at last dinner was done, I cleared up the table and had Young Seon sit in the living room, still chatting animatedly with his Appa while I bathed Min, only 18 months old. I am not really sure how it happened, but we had been able to time our children’s births to when Joon happened to be off season. Perfect timing. I won’t examine more closely why we seem to conceive very quickly on his off season as well.
Leaving the bathroom door open so I can listen to Seon laughing at something along with Joon, I finished washing the baby quickly and carried him to our bedroom, where I liked to keep his crib when Joon is away. He was still wide awake, though he was sucking on his pacifier contentedly. As soon as I put him down on his cot, however, his lips started trembling and I counted to three in my head. 3… 2… The loudest wail emerged from Min’s mouth and I cringed.
He always does this when Joon is not here. The crying is not anywhere as loud and the drama nowhere as long when his Appa is the one putting him in bed. Joon has never admitted to anything, but I have a feeling there is a bit of bribing involved. I tried to stay tough, but my heart clenched as he continued to look at me like I was breaking his heart, and I weakened. I picked the baby back up and he quieted almost immediately and gave me a toothy grin. He only had a total of six teeth, and he looked like a tiny, baby version of Joon. Though both the boys favored their father strongly, Seon inherited my eyes, and Min had his Appa’s brown eyes.
“Aigoo, Min-ie, what’s the matter?’ I asked softly as I sat down on the rocking chair that we used when Seon had been a baby and now positioned by the bedroom windows.
With only the light from one lamp, I relaxed against the back of the chair and started rocking back and forth, back and forth. He rested his head on my chest and started playing with a lock of hair that has fallen out of my braid. I savored his baby smells and sighed. It didn’t seem like five years ago that Seon was this small, and now he’s begun losing his baby teeth already. I gazed at our youngest son and saw how he had his eyes fixed on my face. My heart was filled with so much love I felt my eyes tearing up. The pacifier in his mouth fell out but he didn’t cry.
“Omma,” he said sleepily and I kissed his nose.
“Yes, our clever boy… Omma is right here,” I said, wrapping my arms more tightly around him. His eyes closed for one minute before he opened them again, albeit reluctantly. I brushed a hand over feather soft hair and I saw how he was struggling to keep his eyes open. “Sleep, Min-ah… Do you want Omma to sing to you?” I asked him softly.
He looked at me owlishly, as if thinking about something important.
“Omma…” He repeated and I was about to ask what the matter was when he frowned. “Appa? Appa?’
“Ahhh… Is that what this is about?” I asked as I held him more closely. “You’re waiting for Appa to come home?” He nodded slowly. “Appa is not coming home tonight. He’ll be home in two nights.”
His eyes filled with tears and I watched helplessly as he rubbed his eyes with his fists. I know it’s not just Joon being gone that’s upsetting him. He is thoroughly exhausted from fighting sleep all this time. But still, I should have known, really. Seon went through this stage as well. I knew when I was marrying Joon that we will have to make sacrifices as a couple, but I didn’t think that the kids would be this affected also.
I’m sure that Min will get over it, in time, just like his older brother did. It still hurts though, to see him cry like this every night that Joon is not home. We can’t really do anything about that at the moment, so I did what I could in the meantime. I started singing the Butterfly Song to him softly, and I hoped that he understood what I had told him. I continued to rock slowly and kept him in my arms until he fell asleep.
“One day the man had no choice but to cross over the hill. The day was fine and the sun was shining as he started to head up Three Years Hill. His journey went smoothly until he had nearly reached the top. He was enjoying the birdsong from the trees nearby and the gentle breeze in the air, when suddenly a fluffy brown rabbit jumped across in his path.”
I looked up from the book to see that Young Seon had already fallen asleep with his own copy of the book still open on his lap. I studied his dark hair, his face exactly like mine had been at his age, with Na Jeong’s eyes. Curious and personable, he already had the social skills of a politician, with the negotiating talents of a lawyer. Awake he’s unabashedly intelligent, asking question after question, talking about every subject under the sun. But in sleep, he looked just like every other little boy in his innocence. His face was peaceful in slumber, and it brought a smile to my own. I continued to read, just in case he realized that I stopped and woke himself up.
“Caught off-guard by the hopping hare, the old man stumbled and fell, tumbling head over foot and foot over head all the way down to the bottom of the hill.”
As I reached the end of this part of the story, I glimpsed a shadow fall over his sleeping figure and knew that Na Jeong had entered the room. I wondered if the baby gave her a hard time again today. She’s usually in Seon’s bedroom before I even start the story at night. I watched as my wife picked up the book on our son’s lap and closed it shut before putting it on the table. She pressed a kiss to his forehead and tucked his covers around him more tightly with a gentle smile.
“Na Jeong-ah… Is everything…” I began before she silenced me with a finger to her lips.
“Shhh… Wait one second, yeobo…” She said and the image on the computer changed as she picked up the laptop to bring it to our bedroom, where she plugged it back up and set it down on the table next to our bed. I leaned back against the headboard of the bed and watched quietly as she began her nighttime ritual of putting her face cream on and brushing out her hair, now just past her shoulders.
My wife does this every night, whether we are together or apart, and I quite enjoy watching her perform this mundane task. When she was done, she laid herself down on the bed on her side, her lovely face illuminated only by the soft light from the lamp on our bedside table, and smiled at me. I noted her fatigue but that did nothing to disguise the twinkle her eyes.
My beautiful Na Jeong, I thought, as a familiar throb started in my heart. With us just having celebrated our fifth year wedding anniversary you would think that the feelings would have abated, or at the very least dulled by now. But they hadn’t. Instead they have only intensified year after year, and still continue to strengthen with each day. I traced her face on the monitor with my fingers and saw that she was looking at my image on her end just as intently.
“How was your day?” I asked, my fingers lingering on the monitor screen over her cheek. My hands hold the memory of the softness of her skin and not for the first time in the last two weeks that our team has been on the road, I yearned to be home. With her and our boys.
“It was okay, ” she answered softly as she placed her forearm under her pillow to support her neck better. “I had to stay a little later for work and Omma had something to do this afternoon, and Omonim offered to keep Seon and Min until I got out of work so I just had to swing by over there after to pick them up.” She blew a breath before continuing. “Joon-ah… We’re going to need new tires by the winter. The tread is getting a bit worn out. Oh… And I think we’ll need a new car seat for Min soon. He’s outgrowing the one in the car now.”
“I got it.” I smiled at her as she lifted a cover over one shoulder. “Should we do that this weekend?”
“We can. We’re still driving to Masan on Saturday?” She asked and I nodded. “We don’t have to if you’re exhausted. You’ve been on the road…”
“Yah, we never miss our monthly visit to Hoon Hyung,” I said gently. “Plus the boys love visiting the family in Masan. But… if you’re tired…”
“I’m good,” she responded. “Seon’s class is having this recital thing on Friday so I’m only working half day.”
My heart squeezed at the thought of another missed parent function and Na Jeong, as if knowing what would be going through my mind, lifted a hand towards the screen, as if to touch my face.
“Yeobo… I’ll take lots of pictures. Maybe even record them. Don’t worry. It’ll be as if you’re there,” she told me reassuringly. “Seon knows you would be there if you could.”
“Does he, though?” I asked, genuinely concerned. “It didn’t seem so long ago that we were just bringing him home from the hospital and now he’s in school. I still remember when he was teething and now his baby teeth are coming off. Time is moving too fast, yeobo.” I ran a hand through my hair. “Too fast for me.”
“You’ll be okay. Min is still young. There’s lots of years before he’ll start going to school, Appa,” she teased. “I swear, sometimes you’re worse than me.”
Her eyes closed for a minute before she opened them again and looked at me. There was so much love in her gaze that my heart ached so tightly inside my chest that my throat tightened. Thirteen years later and she still takes my breath away.
“I miss you,” she said. “I miss you a lot. It’s silly, right? We’ve been doing this for years. But I still miss you every time. You spoil me too much. It makes you not being home harder than it should be.”
“I miss you too. I miss your cooking. Nothing tastes right any more,” I said. “And I miss being woken up by Seon or Min. I miss all those things. Every day. Every second. I wish we didn’t have to play this past weekend, then I could have come home.”
“I know,” she said with a gentle shrug. “My husband’s a baseball player. We all live by the season calendar.” Na Jeong paused before continuing. “Min was asking for you again.”
I closed my eyes and imagined our second son, with his dark brown eyes, my eyes, looking happily at me. He’s a good baby, with gut busting giggles that never fail to make me laugh. Whereas Seon is sociable and extroverted, Min, even at this age, seems a little shyer.
“How long did it take this time?” I asked. I know that he doesn’t settle down as well when I’m not home.
“An hour. A full hour,” Na Jeong said with a laugh. “Who knew a baby can hold out that long? Oh yeah… I was bathing him earlier and he saw himself in the mirror and pointed to the image and said, clear as day, ‘Min’ then pointed to my reflection and said, ‘Omma.'”
“Keep talking, yeobo. I just have to get my stuff ready for tomorrow. He’s already doing that?” I said as I got up from the bed to take my uniform for tomorrow’s game out of my suitcase. I had just lifted the last clean set when I saw what was underneath. It was a drawing, much like the one Sook Sook drew years ago, of our family. Except now it didn’t say Hyung under my name but Appa. He drew my parents and Na Jeong’s parents and Hoon Hyung as well. I brought the drawing back to the bed and lifted it up to the camera. “Did you sneak this in my suitcase when you packed it last week?”
“You just found it, then. I quite liked it. Your son did a great job, right?”
“He’s a great kid,” I said. “We make good babies.”
Na Jeong chuckled before fixing her eyes back at me. “Joon-ah… I went to the doctor earlier today. That’s why I had to stay later for work… Because I took an extended lunch break.” I saw her take a deep breath before she spoke. “I’m eight weeks pregnant. Dr. Noh says the third Kim will be arriving in April.”
Happiness unfurled inside me as she broke out into a wide smile. We stayed silently looking at each other goofily as we both digested the news.
“I already kind of knew,” I finally said and watched her eyes widen in surprise. “I know my wife. And you haven’t eaten ddukbokki in weeks. But the morning sickness is not so bad this time around, though.”
“Dr. Noh said every pregnancy is different… Or I’m just getting the hang of it. She asked me jokingly if we’re trying to repopulate Korea,” she chuckled as she shook her head. “You know her son, the one she introduced you to? He’s about to go to Yonsei on a baseball scholarship. She says he still idolizes you. He hasn’t forgotten the day that you saw him play and gave him tips on pitching. You’re a great man, Kim Jae Joon, and I’m very very happy and very proud to be your wife.”
“That’s great to know. I’ll have to call him when I get back in Seoul.” I watched as she nodded thoughtfully. “We’re having another baby. I can’t believe it. Every time, it hits me right here.” I pointed to my heart and Na Jeong smiled at me tenderly. “I feel so blessed.”
“Let’s hear you say that when three kids all under the age of ten wake you up in the middle of the night for this and that,” she said laughingly. “We’ll have to sit down and figure out a strategy before the baby comes. Since this one will be born right in your season, and Seon will be in school too. I might have to start working part time once my maternity leave is finished.”
“About that,” I said slowly and I saw the way her eyes guarded. We have discussed her stopping working altogether, but I knew she liked her job and it gave her a sense of accomplishment. I worried now that she may think I’m going to try to talk her into becoming a full time mom. “I have something to tell you…”
I watched her listen with concern etched in her features and my heart warmed. Like I said, I know my wife. I can predict what words will come out of that pretty mouth before she even says it.
As I told her about what I was thinking about, her eyes opened quickly in astonishment and I saw the way they instantly glazed over with tears. She bit her bottom lip and looked like she was struggling to find words to say. I listened as she spoke calmly and gently, such a far cry from the Na Jeong that I met thirteen years ago, but strangely still the same exact woman. She only grows more graceful and beautiful over the years, and every day I am still surprised that she chose me to spend her life with. Her voice slowed and I knew she was trying to keep her eyes open. I looked at the clock and saw that it was already 10 o clock. Quite late for a household now that we have two young children.
“Yeobo… I’ll call you tomorrow when we get back to the hotel. Go to sleep.”
“You go to sleep too. Have a good game tomorrow. I would wish you luck but I know you don’t need it,” she said lightly. “You and that arm of yours don’t need luck.”
“That’s true… I already have my lucky charm and she’s sleeping in our bed. I’ll call tomorrow night,” I answered. “Good night, Na Jeong-ah. I love you.”
She opened her eyes long enough to reply. “I love you more, Kim Jae Joon. Good night.”
She puckered her lips and blew me a kiss and I did the same. After debating some more about who will close the screen first I finally won and she finally conceded, albeit reluctantly.
I turned the lamp off and laid flat on my back and looked at the ceiling. Just another hotel room in another city. My heart knew where it wanted to be. The last time I followed it it led me to more joy than I have ever imagined. I will trust it again as it leads me to the next part of my life. It wasn’t long until I fell asleep with a smile on my face, and to thoughts of my wife and our children. Like I do almost every night.
November 17, 2007
The day started out like it usually did. When I woke up at 8 a.m. Min was already standing in his crib, waiting patiently for one of us to wake up. Seon was already up as well, watching cartoons in the living room quietly. Joon was still asleep, and the boys and I tried to be quiet as I got breakfast ready. Let him sleep, I thought. It’s going to be a big day today.
I had just placed some dry cereal on Min’s plate and a bowl of rice in front of Seon and had just sat down with my coffee cup when Joon walked out of our bedroom. He went straight to the bathroom without a word and I heard the shower running. Seon looked at me curiously but stayed quiet and started eating breakfast quietly. Min, too young to know what was going on, happily nibbled on his cereal.
“Omma,” Seon finally said. “Appa has his game today, right?”
I ruffled his hair before responding. “Yes. We have to go pick up Oe Halmoni before we go there later. Don’t you remember? All your Eemo and Samchon are going to be there.
They’re all meeting us in front of the stadium.”
“Omma… Are Haraboji and Halmoni coming too?” He asked, chewing on a piece carefully.
“Seon-ie, you know they are. You spoke to Haraboji last night, didn’t you? He’s already in Seoul,” I told him. I had just opened up the paper to read when I heard Seon clear his throat and I looked over at him. I am not entirely sure when he picked up this habit from Joon, but I have been noticing that he’s more and more like his father in his mannerisms every day. I narrowed my eyes when he put his chopsticks down and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Omma… I can’t say,” Seon said hesitantly, although looking at his expression it looked like he was dying to tell me. I know my son well… It won’t take much to prod it out of him.
“We don’t keep secrets in this house, Kim Young Seon. You know that. If you don’t want to tell Omma, I’ll just have your Appa talk to you, then,” I said slowly. “You can tell him instead.”
“Omma, no!” He protested. He heaved a sigh of resignation and motioned for me to come closer. When I did, he whispered, “Omma, promise you won’t tell anyone. Promise,” he beseeched as he lifted his pinky finger towards me. I hesitated for a second before I joined my finger with his. He nodded and took a deep breath before speaking. “Omma… Haraboji and Halmoni like each other.”
“What?” I asked, shocked. Surely he must just have misunderstood. “Why would you think that, Seon-ah?”
“Last Saturday, uhmm, I was with Halmoni to sleep over and Min was with Haraboji. Halmoni and I were eating and Haraboji came into the house with Min, because Min wouldn’t stop crying. He didnt even ring the doorbell! Min’s face was all red and his nose was all runny and he was covered in a blanket and…” I listened as Seon digressed and fought the urge to refocus his conversation to the matter at hand. “But when I went to Halmoni’s room in the morning to wake her up because we were getting hungry and everything, Haraboji was there too!”
My eyes widened in surprise and he nodded at me. I know kids get fantastical ideas but Seon has never been one of those children. He doesn’t lie either. Omonim finalized her divorce two years ago, and as far as I knew she hadn’t started dating yet. Was it possible? Of course it was. Anything was possible. Could it be that she never stopped loving Abonim like he never stopped loving her? I shook my head. I was still digesting this piece of news when I heard the shower stop.
“Seon-ah… Thank you for telling Omma,” I said to him. “I’ll handle your Appa. Don’t say anything to him yet. We can’t have him get distracted today. Today’s a very big day. Appa’s playing in his championship. We’ll tell him after, ok?”
Seon nodded his head in all seriousness. I sat back on the chair and thought to myself that I only had a good six hours, between Joon’s game and the fact that our son is only five years old and really couldn’t be expected to keep a secret, to try to make sense of this newfound information before I have to fess up. I can never keep anything from Joon.
When he came out of the shower a few minutes later, he dropped a quick kiss on my lips before sitting himself down next to Min’s high chair. I studied his handsome face closely to see where he was at this morning, but he looked calm and in control. There were no shadows under his eyes and he looked relaxed. He grinned at me from across the table as he drank a cup of coffee and I couldn’t help but smile back.
“Yeobo, you know I have to leave early for the pre-game interviews and everything,” Joon said as he helped himself to some rice.
“Yeah I know… I have to go pick up Omma from the house anyway, plus with the kids, it’s probably a good thing that you drive on your own or you’ll be distracted.”
“You sure you’re going to be able to handle the boys?” He asked, pointedly looking at my swollen belly. “You’re getting bigger every day.”
“Yah… And whose fault is that?” I asked him teasingly. “Didn’t I have to do the same thing when I was pregnant with Min? I am an expert in this… An expert! Plus Omma will be with me on the drive to the stadium, and then everyone will be there, too. I’ll have plenty of help around.”
“Appa… I want to play baseball too, okay?” Seon said suddenly, and it’s only now that I saw him watching Joon.
Joon’s face lit up in pleasure and surprise. “Really? Our first son wants to play baseball?” He asked.
Seon nodded thoughtfully. “Appa plays baseball and Oe Haraboji is a coach. Joon Samchon likes it, too. He says girls like boys who play baseball. So I am going to play baseball.”
“Aigoo… Aren’t you too young to be thinking about girls?” I asked Seon. “Seon-ie… That’s not entirely true. I didn’t like your Appa…” I started before Joon silenced me with a glare.
“YAHH… Do you have to talk about that now?” He asked, pretending to be irritated. “Besides, did you or did you not end up marrying a baseball player?”
“That’s true, Joon-ah,” I agreed as Seon and Min watched us quietly. “But I would have married you whether you were or you weren’t. But I do like how you look in your uniform…” I stopped when I realized that I have gone off topic and in front of our children, no less.
“How much do you like it?” He asked with a wink. His gaze deepened as he openly studied my face and I cleared my throat when his eyes fixed on my lips. My eyes strayed to our sons, who are both still watching us closely and frowned at him.
“Ask me again later,” I whispered as I got up to take my cup to the sink. “Horrible man. Two kids under the age of six and another one on the way. I singlehandedly will solve all of Korea’s birth problems at this rate. I swear if I wasn’t already pregnant, I would be again with the way this man looks at me,” I muttered to myself.
Joon burst out laughing, and seeing their Appa holding his abdomen in mirth, the boys started laughing too, though neither of them knew what their Appa was laughing about, or at least I hoped not. It seems that now that revenge has been meted out, as I am now outnumbered three to one, uhmm, four to one, if you can count the baby still growing inside me, in this household. My boys love me, but they idolize Joon. Still I am the proud mother of all these boys, who, as I watched them joke and laugh with their Appa, made me realize that we seem to be growing little Joons in this house. Oh well, I thought, as I looked at the man I married, putting more food on Seon’s plate and sneaking a bite of rice to Min, certainly there is nothing wrong with more Joons in the world.
November 17, 2007
“I don’t know what or how to tell him, ” I confided in Yoon Jin. Samcheonpo had just walked the boys to the bathroom and Min was sitting on my lap. Her daughter sat on her side reading a book. “How do you tell your husband that his parents, who have been divorced for almost as long as he’s been alive, are dating again?”
“WHAT?” Omma said. “What are you talking about?”
I turned to Omma before speaking. “Omma… Seon told me this morning.”
“Na Jeong-ah… He’s only five years old. What would he know of such things,” Omma said and Yoon Jin nodded in agreement.
“Maybe he misunderstood,” Yoon Jin said. “You can’t really be bringing stuff like that up lightly. I mean, how long did it take Chilbong to get over his childhood issues?”
I shook my head and thought more deeply, trying to ignore the fact that the toddler sitting on my lap was nibbling on my necklace.
“Yah… My son is a pretty perceptive kid,” I said.
I looked over her to make sure that Haitai and Ae Jung were still fully engrossed in their conversation with Oppa and Yoo Mi Unnie. I looked at the bleachers in front of me to see Binggrae on the phone with Jin Yi Unnie, who had to stay home since their baby was just born a few weeks ago.
“Besides it wasn’t as if it was on baseless observation. He saw them in bed,” I tried to say as the crowd roared in excitement when they started seeing some of the baseball players run out to the field. I can barely hear myself think, much less speak, so we need to finish up this conversation before the game begins.
“WHAT?” Yoon Jin and Omma asked simultaneously. They were both shaking their heads at me, motioning that they didn’t hear what I just said.
“They were…” Yoon Jin was still shaking her head no. “THEY WERE IN BED TOGETHER!” I yelled just as the noise calmed down some. And I found not one, but five pairs of eyes on me in surprise.
“Bed!” Min echoed seriously and Omma patted his head affectionately.
“Chingu-ya… Who was in bed together?” Haitai asked over Yoon Jin’s shoulder and I glared at him.
“No one. It’s none of your business, ” I said, grimacing. So much for keeping my son’s secret.
“If it’s none of HIS business then it must be someone’s business,” Oppa said. “You should just come out with it, Na Jeong-ah. You’re horrible at keeping secrets anyway.”
“Oppa, that’s not true,” I protested. “I’m great at keeping secrets.”
“Na Jeong-ah… You know Joon’s got you beat in that department. That boy can keep secrets like no one else,” Binggrae said as he was hanging up his call. “Now what are we trying to hide?”
I clucked my tongue at him. He definitely won’t be privy to any information, especially since it pertains to his aunt. Also because he and Joon are like a pair of old ladies. As the years have gone on, they’ve gotten even closer and I know there is no one who Joon confides in more than he does his cousin. Well, besides Jin-ie Oppa and In Sung, anyway.
“Yah… Who are you calling a boy?” I asked him. “Joon is thirty four years old and is a father to three children! And what do you mean he’s better at keeping secrets than me? I’m definitely better.”
“What secrets?” I heard a familiar voice asked behind me and I turned around to see Omonim and Abonim standing there, having just arrived at the stadium.
I looked them both up and down to see if I can notice anything different but they stayed a foot away from each other surreptitiously and I narrowed my eyes. I won’t be fooled. I will be watching them like a hawk from now on. Omonim was dressed casually, or at least as casually as she goes, in tailored pants and a sweater. She kept her hair down, making her look younger than she already does. Abonim was dressed in trousers and a thick cable knit sweater and looked as handsome as ever. They certainly made a striking pair, and it’s easy to see how Joon turned out looking like he does, just looking at them.
Omma leaned into my shoulder to snap me out of my reverie before she greeted Omonim with an embrace and Abonim with a warm handshake. Everyone greeted them as well, having met the pair of them at our wedding and having seen them at every family function at the house. As if trying to make up for all the things they missed with Joon’s childhood, those two are extremely attentive and involved grandparents, claiming the kids at least once a month for a weekend sleepover, giving me and Joon much needed or maybe not so much needed alone time.
They sat down on either side of Binggrae on the bleachers and I wondered if maybe Seon, who now bounded up the stairs on a race with Dong Min, misread the situation. I shook my head at our oldest son as I watched him. He certainly inherited our competitive nature, even now at this age. His face lit up when he saw his grandparents and ran towards them in glee and I had to hold back from issuing a “be careful”. He hugged Omonim tightly around the neck and planted a loud smack on her cheek.
“Halmoni, you look pretty,” he said and I watched Joon’s mother’s face blush in pleasure.
“Thank you, Seon-ah,” she responded before lifting his cheek to take a closer look at him. “And you… Have you grown taller since last weekend? Every time I see you you look more and more like your Appa, except with your Omma’s unbelievable eyes. So handsome, uri Seon-ie.”
“Really?” Seon asked, his chest puffing up with pride to be compared to Joon.
Min, as if noticing the attention that his brother was getting for the first time, started getting restless on my lap. He reached out for his Haraboji and ended up plonking his bottle on his head instead. I looked at him apologetically when he turned around but he just grinned when he saw Min. He held out his arms and Min went cooperatively, without so much as a glance back my way. These boys get away with practically everything with both sets of grandparents so doting. No wonder they act like I am a dictator when they are home. I would be upset except for the fact that the boys are as in love with their grandparents almost as much as their grandparents are in love with them.
I watched Omonim and Abonim for a few more minutes and I was almost convinced that nothing was indeed going on, until I saw Abonim sneak a glance at Omonim when she wasn’t looking. Aigoo, like father, like son, indeed. It seems that I wasn’t the only one watching as I caught Yoon Jin and Omma seeing what I just saw. They both nodded in my direction and I gave them a smug smile. I knew our boy couldn’t have been wrong.
The blare from the announcer’s speaker made us all look to the field to see if the game was about to start, only to see the players still warming up.
“Na Jeong-ah… Is Jung Jin-ssi here, too?” Omonim suddenly asked, as she peeled a banana for Seon.
“Omonim, he’s here,” I replied. “He’s standing near the dugout with Appa, where all the reporters are.” I pointed to the spot where many people stood with mics and cameras, as well as a few men in suits. “He let my little brother stay there as well. Sook Sook is still playing as a pitcher for their Little League.”
“Did Unnie… Gia Unnie come back from America yet?” Yoon Jin asked and I nodded.
“She’s supposed to be coming later. She has to come from the airport to pick her friend up,” I said.
“Which friend?” Yoon Jin asked and I shrugged my shoulders.
“I don’t know… I haven’t met her yet,” I responded slowly. I suspect we will all meet her at some point in this visit.
Min started baby babbling about something and everyone turned their attention to him as they cooed and gushed about how cute he is. Our second son, being the ham that he is, ate up all the attention and safely assured that both kids are well taken care of, I thought back on the conversation Joon and I shared months ago, on just another night we spoke over video call.
2 months before
“About that,” Joon said slowly and I turned my gaze away, a little nervous about what he has to say. “I have something to tell you…”
Joon and I have spoken often about me quitting work altogether to stay with the kids, but even if we were financially stable, I don’t want to do that. I worked hard on my degree, and have worked even harder since in my profession to get to where I am. I also know we’re going to have our third child soon, and that some people may think I am being selfish by putting my needs over my children’s. But… it’s hard enough being married to someone so famous without losing who I am. I know Joon understands this, but I still cannot help but worry. I have seen and heard too many of my co-workers quit because of such demands from husbands who initially insisted they were perfectly okay with a woman’s independence. All under the guise of “what’s best for the family.” I stayed quiet and waited, biting my bottom lip.
“I’m retiring the end of the season,” my husband finally said and I lifted my eyes up to look at his face.
Worry nagged at the pit of my stomach as I wondered if his right shoulder had gotten re-injured. I was about to ask him when he continued speaking, his eyes serious.
“I’ve actually been thinking about this for the few months. I think it hit me when I missed the first time Min crawled, just like I missed Seon, that it was time to put my jersey up. I don’t want to miss any more things. Baseball always made me happy in the absence of everything else, but now, I find myself homesick on the road all the time, wondering about what Seon did every day and wanting to hear about which new friend he made… or thinking about what new word Min learned.” he said wistfully before releasing a breath. “Yah… You’re not mad I didn’t tell you earlier, right?”
“No,” I answered calmly. “You know I trust your judgment, and will support whatever decision you make. We have a lot of savings so we’ll be okay if you want to take some time and think about the next step. But Appa… Appa may not be so pleased. You’ve only been with the Twins for four years.”
Any decision regarding Joon and baseball is taken very seriously by Appa, and I wonder at times if he had appointed himself not just Joon’s personal coach but secondary manager as well. I still cringe when I remember the drama from when Joon chose the Bears to play for when we first got married.
“I told Appa before the season started,” Joon replied.. “He wasn’t too happy but he understood.”
Irritation flashed through me and I knew it showed on my face when I looked at my husband and saw that he was holding back a smile.
“Yah… Why do you tell Appa first before me? This is too much,” I complained. “I marry you, I bear your children, I…”
“Na Jeong-ah,” he said gently. “I knew you would support me no matter what. I know that. But Appa… He’s a little more difficult. Especially about this. I needed to prepare him mentally for what was to come.”
“You didn’t kneel again, did you? What did you tell him? Because I didn’t get yelled at or blamed this time.”
“I said…’Coach. It’s been an honor to play with you. I always dreamed that I would retire wearing the same jersey as you, and it’s going to come true. I think it’s time I go back to just being your son. I want to go out while I’m on top, with plenty of time left in my life to enjoy it. My family is my first priority now. This will be my last season.’ He walked off but came back not even five minutes later. He put an arm around me and I knew it was going to be okay. He gets it. He knows that for me to even say something that might incite his wrath it would have to be pretty set in stone.” I smiled at him through the web camera. Kim Jae Joon has truly become the man he was always meant to be. Even with my Appa, he stands his ground nowadays.
“Well that’s the biggest worry gone then,” I said, relieved.. “At least you’ll be able to think about what you want to do next in peace.”
“I know what I want to do next, yeobo. I want to open a baseball academy.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. “I think it’s a great idea. Won’t you have to go back to school for business though?”
“No… The academy will be in my name and I’ll teach and coach, but I was thinking of Jung Jin Hyung for the COO. He has his MBA from NYU and I think he’ll be a great fit.”
I sat up on the bed and opened the bedside drawer to grab a pad of paper and a pen.
“What are you doing?” I heard Joon ask.
“We need to make a list. Of the things you’ll need to make this happen.” I started thinking about where we even need to start when Joon’s voice startled me back to the present.
“Yeobo, lie down with me. Please,” he requested as he took his shirt off and climbed into bed. I frowned at him but put the notepad and the pen down anyway and complied. I had just laid back down on my side when he spoke again. “We have plenty of time to do that. Besides, it will take about a year to get this project completed and I already know what I want to do before the academy opens.”
“Wow… Kim Jae Joon… You’re so well prepared.” I adopted the most impressed voice that I can muster. “Tell me, then, what you plan on doing.” I closed my eyes unwittingly and realized that I must be more tired than I thought. I rubbed my abdomen automatically, knowing that I will have to get used to this fatigue again as I go through our third pregnancy.
“I’m going to stay home and take care of the kids while my wife works. That’s what I will do.”
My eyes opened in surprise and I felt them embarrassingly fill with tears. They fell without warning and I brought my hand up to wipe them up quickly before Joon even noticed, but when I looked back at his face, it seems he had never taken his eyes off me this whole time.
“Listen…” He started. “I know how much you do and how much you give up for me and for our family. I probably dont thank you as often as I should, but it’s not because I’m clueless about it. You’ve nurtured my dreams for years. It’s time now for me to do the same for you. So… I’ll stay home with the kids while the academy is being built and you can do whatever you want. Or don’t want. Go to your Oppa’s games. Take cooking classes like you kept on saying since a couple of years ago, but just never had the time. Now I want to make time… To give you the opportunity to do those things.” He paused and took a deep breath. “You are an incredible mother and wife. But you’re still Sung Na Jeong.You’ll never lose that… Not if I can help it.” He stayed silent for a few minutes with a smile as I blew my nose on a tissue. “Yeobo… What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking how is it possible to love one person this much. And to have been blessed with that three, I mean four fold…” as my hand strayed to my abdomen tenderly, “and I can’t believe it, either. Joon-ah, thank you. For working so hard to provide for us. You’re an amazing husband. And a wonderful father. You know that, right? You beat yourself up so much for the things you’re not able to do that you forget how much you do. I don’t forget it. Neither should you.”
“Na Jeong-ah… You don’t…” He hesitated and cleared his throat. “You don’t think our kids will think less of me for quitting baseball, right?”
I shook her head. “No. I think they’ll just be so happy that you’ll be home every night. We’re all in this together, and we’ll be together after it, too.”
“I know. I just don’t want our kids thinking I’m a quitter. I don’t care what everyone else thinks, but what you think matters. What our boys think matters.”
Of course it does. That’s why I love my husband. No matter what happened, he always puts his family first.
“Kim Jae Joon-ssi…” I began. “To the rest of the world you may be this Major League Baseball Player, but to them you’re their Appa. They’ll be proud of you, no matter what, just like I am.”
I vaguely heard the static from the speaker again and I was roused back to my present surroundings. I listened as the crowd quieted when the announcer started calling out the players’ names and waited in anticipation in my throat for Joon’s name. Seon had now sat himself down next to Omonim and Min was napping on Abonim’s lap, despite the noise all around him.
“Na Jeong-ah,” Samcheonpo said as he opened a water bottle for Dong Min. “Why were we all invited to this game anyway? Joon usually doesn’t insist on all of us coming out for a game, even when it’s a championship one…”
I guess he hasn’t told our friends. Everyone turned to listen to my response, except for Omonim and Abonim, who I am sure already knew. It’s just so like Joon to make a big deal of the smallest things and to try to underplay the things that mattered. Omma and I shared a look before I responded.
“It’s Joon’s last game,” I said.
“It’s his last game of the season?” Haitai asked. “What’s the big deal? The season will start again in five months and we’ll all be here again for the first game, like we always are.”
I looked at all their faces and smiled. “It’s the last game of his career. Or at least his career as a professional baseball player.”
The clouds finally parted and the sky had darkened into a clear evening. I allowed myself to savor the crisp night air and the smell of winter just creeping in as I stood on the mound. The stadium lights glowed brightly, illuminating the field and making the grass look greener and the colors more vivid. I tapped the pitchers mound with my shoe and watched as the dust blew around slowly.
I heard the whisper of a breeze blow languidly past my right ear, the prickle of tension spread slowly from the bottom of my spine and up my shoulder and down my right arm. I felt the weight of my legs, solid on the pitching rubber, and the way the sleeve of my jersey rubbed against my arm, even through the long undershirt I was wearing.
Around me the noise was deafening, the crowd’s excitement palpable. It was a special game. A special championship, and they were happy to be there. To watch Kim Jae Joon’s final game. To see me play professionally one last time. Jung Jin Hyung told me earlier that the tickets sold out as soon as it was confirmed that we had made it to the Finals. I am humbled by the devotion that my fans had showed all throughout my career.
I heard them chant my name and closed my eyes. In the noise I didn’t just hear encouragement and love, but acknowledgment as well, for all the work I’ve done and gratitude to have been a part of it. I felt their joy and their dreams projecting my way. I opened my eyes and lifted my eyes to the crowd, old and young alike, all gazes directed towards me. There were smiles, and some people were openly weeping. I spotted banners, small and large, bearing my name and words of support. “Good Luck Kim Jae Joon. Thank you. We will miss you.”
No, thank YOU, I thought as I felt emotion roll through me. I will miss you all too. Thank you for watching me grow. Thank you for letting me grow and letting me go. Thank you for this life.
I looked at the baseball on my left hand and felt its comforting weight. I studied the seams and traced a calloused finger over it. Never again, in this same capacity, will I hold a ball this way, and though I have prepared myself mentally for this moment for months, it doesn’t diminish the fact that it is all still happening now, and my heart wasn’t quite as prepared as I thought.
The umpire’s whistle blew and the sound of it was like a lover’s call. Here we go. It’s the final inning of our final game… let’s make these few moments something worth remembering, Chilbong. I permitted myself a little smile as I called myself the name that had given me some of the happiest and saddest times in my life.
I tipped my cap four times, with each stroke accompanied by a silent prayer of gratitude for the men who have taught me everything I’ve known about baseball… the men who gave me confidence when I needed it the most. I remembered all the players I have battled with and against, each of them remembered in my memory. I grasped the ball twice, each squeeze with a message of love for my parents, without whose union I would not be here. I know that they’re here, somewhere in the crowd, along with Na Jeong and our friends. Na Jeong, I thought, as I lifted the chain from my neck with my right hand and saw the way my couple ring and my wedding ring glinted in the light, along with it a pendant, engraved with our children’s names and brought it to my lips. Three kisses. One for my Seon, one for my Min and one for our unborn child. I pressed one last kiss, a longer, lingering one for my wife, who continues to love me and ground me every day and without whose strength and sacrifice I would not have been able to do what I love for as long as I could.
I closed my eyes tightly as the metal hit my lips, and the pounding of my heart echoed what I’ve been hearing it say for months. Look at yourself, Kim Jae Joon. Look at your life. Are you happy? I smiled as I opened my eyes. Yes. I’m happy. My life has been fought for, as has my success.
I looked to the scoreboard and saw that our team was leading by several points. This game had already been won. The opposing team had one batter left and no one on the bases. Even their players who were currently not on the field were standing up just outside their dugout, watching respectfully, no doubt thinking about the day when they will play their last game. I nodded at them in gratitude… We all recognized this moment for what it was.
My eyes strayed to the dugout to see Appa, with his arms crossed, watching me with an unreadeable expression on his face. I took my position and my eyes met In Sung’s to see him grinning at me broadly from behind his catcher’s mask. I knew what he was going to signal for before he even did it. When his hand moved to position, I was given my confirmation. A fastball. Of course. My signature pitch. The first one I ever threw his way, and it seemed only fitting that the last one be that as well.
I nodded and turned to my side, planting my feet firmly on the pitcher’s mound, and lifted my left leg towards my waist, rotating my hips ever so slightly to my right as my arms raised over my head. My body knew my routine and the movements flowed automatically. Like a dancer, my body reacted instinctively, with nary a thought getting in the way. I felt the breeze kiss my arms before I took a deep breath and released the ball, my right leg lifting up off the ground with the velocity of my pitch.
The ball zoomed out of my hand, and I watched as the batter took a step back to avoid getting hit. It landed squarely in In Sung’s mitt and I saw the umpire motion a strike before the announcer confirmed it overhead. I released my breath as In Sung ran to me with the baseball in his hand, throwing his face mask to the side in the process. His arms enfolded me in a tight embrace as the team gathered all around us and enveloped us both in a group hug. I felt emotions well up in my throat as I heard the cheers and the applause. We all broke apart long enough to receive congratulatory handshakes from the opposing team and I accepted their well wishes graciously.
I looked over several shoulders and looked for Appa, who was getting some water thrown on him by the other baseball staff as he shouted in mock irritation. My eyes wandered past the dugout and met Jung Jin Hyung’s eyes as he gave me a nod and a smile. I smiled back at him before my eyes went to the part of the stadium where I knew my family and friends would be sitting. Afraid of the magnitude of the moment along with the sight of the people I love most together overwhelming and distracting me, it was only now that I allowed myself to look up at them.
In Sung tapped me on the shoulder and I looked back at him to see him hand me the winning ball before he ran to the bleachers to hug Misoo and his kids.I stepped back from the crowd around me and my eyes looked around for Na Jeong and our children. It was only then that it hit me that every person on the bleachers, men and women, children and adults, were standing up and applauding, I felt overcome with emotions as I looked back to see all my coaches, past and present, even those from Japan and America, along with Song Jae Park, the Doosan Bears Coach, and Appa, still wet with a towel wrapped around his shoulders, all walking into the field and standing in line. Yang Sang Moon, the manager of the Seoul Twins, came out bearing a microphone and a bouquet of flowers, and greeted the crowd enthusiastically.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen… the Seoul Twins would like to thank all of you for your support and encouragement over the past season,” he began as the audience quieted down to hear what he had to say. “As you all know, today is a momentous day, a day that will forever be remembered not only in Seoul Twins history, but Korean baseball history as well. We are honored and privileged to be the last team that the great Kim Jae Joon plays for, and we now not only celebrate this championship, but his career as well. Please join us for a few more minutes as baseball says goodbye to one of its brightest stars in our own little way.” He looked at me and smiled. “Jae Joon-ssi, please look behind you as we have prepared a video just for this occasion.”
He handed me the flowers and I turned my attention to the big screen monitor behind them and saw myself from 1994, back when I played for Yonsei University, on one of the interviews I had given after a game.
“It is said that in order to achieve success in one field, ten thousand hours are required. The ten-thousand-hour rule. You have to work hard and try and suffer til the end. Like Yogi Berra once said, ‘It ain’t over til it’s over.’”
I knew even back then that I hadn’t just been talking about baseball, but about Na Jeong as well, and my life. I watched with a smile as pictures of me flashed through the screen, from the time I was young, all throughout my baseball career in university and some footages from my professional career in Japan, America and finally, Korea. They had the clip of my first throw on that night I played the friendly game against Korea University, my first game post injury, and I saw myself the way everyone had always seen me, standing alone, but with a confidence that I have never noticed or seen before.
They interviewed several of my old teammates from all the teams I played for, all wishing me good health and luck for what’s ahead in life, and congratulating me on my wife and children. It felt like a trip down memory lane as I watched faces I have known and shared this part of my life with, appear on the screen.
When the video ended, the crowd continued their applause, and I kissed the ball I was holding and held it up in the air and heard the cheers, trying to control the tears that had formed in my eyes. Trying to tamp down on the emotion, I walked over to my coaches and greeted them one by one.
“Chukhamnida, Joon-ah,” my Yonsei University coach said warmly, and I said my thanks as I shook his hand.
“Omedetogozaimasu, Kim Jae Joon-san,” Tatsunori Hara, the coach from the Yomiuri Giants said, as he handed me a Giants All Star Jersey.
“Domo arigatogoizamashita,” I responded, the familiar Japanese expression coming to me easily and he smiled at me.
Dusty Baker, the Giants manager, handed me a San Francisco Giants All-Star Jersey as well as he held out his hand, and said, “Congratulations, JJ. It was a pleasure being part of your career.”
“Thank you. Thanks for coming,” I responded. “Please express my gratitude to all my teammates as well.”
“Will do,” he replied.
I walked over to Appa, who stayed standing, but unable to meet my eyes. He held the pitching rubber, now dug up from the from the baseball diamond, in his hands and he handed it to me wordlessly. A lump formed in my throat as I took it and I followed his eyes to see one of my jerseys being raised to join the other jerseys from retired players in the stadium.
“Congratulations, Chilbong-ah,” he said quietly. “We’re retiring your number. #77 will always belong to you.” He coughed and cleared his throat before meeting my eyes. “It’s been an honor playing with you.” I nodded as he hugged me tightly. As if recognizing the gravity of the occasion, his embrace lasted a few more minutes, allowing me to get my emotions back in order, before he whispered, “You’ve done well, Joon-ah. Your parents, me, Omma, Sook Sook, all your friends… Na Jeong, your children… We’re all very very proud of you.”
I pulled away and tried to find Na Jeong and the kids one more time, but was unsuccessful. I greeted the crowd one last time, and I watched as my coaches walked off the field with another wave my way. Appa walked back towards the dugout, where I saw him unnecessarily cleaning up the space. For one minute I wondered if I should follow him, but then I realized that Appa needed his own private moment as well. I reluctantly followed my teammates back to the locker room, a little upset that I didn’t see my wife and children. I planted a smile on my face as my teammates popped a champagne bottle and I drank just half a glass. I went to take a shower and it wasn’t until a few minutes later when I came out that I noticed that everyone, including In Sung, had already left the locker room, no doubt to join their friends and family who came to watch the game. Since it’s the last game of the season, I’m positive that everyone was ready to go home for a few months before they started all over again.
I went to pack up my locker to see that Jung Jin Hyung had taped a note in front of it.
“Joon-ah… We’ll meet in a week and figure out the game plan. You did surprisingly well for someone who looked like you were about to cry the whole time…” I tsked and grinned before I read the next sentence. “I was just kidding… You looked calm and in control the whole time, like you always do, you bastard. Thanks for letting me share your career with you. The kids send kisses and my wife sends a handshake in congratulations… actually she sent a kiss too but you’re not having that. I’ll call you soon, boss.”
I smiled as I placed his note in the outside pocket of my bag before I proceeded to empty out my locker. I quickly folded up my jersey and my training clothes, as well as the spare shoes that Na Jeong insisted I bring with me when she noticed that my game sneakers were getting worn out. I untaped the pictures that Seon had drawn for me and placed them in another pocket so as not to get creased. I lovingly fingered the pictures that were on the back of my locker, the one of Na Jeong at Yoon Jin’s wedding, a picture of us on our wedding day, one of me holding Seon when he was born and the last one of all of us, taken almost a year ago, wearing birthday hats on our heads, celebrating Min’s first birthday, all with cakes on our faces. Seon and Min were laughing at something as Na Jeong and I shared a messy cakey kiss. I quickly put them in the pocket of my jacket, and as I lifted my bag I kissed my hand and placed it on my now empty locker.
I went straight to the exit and saw our friends, as well as my parents and Na Jeong’s Omma, all waiting there for me. Our parents stood to one side while Samcheonpo, Binggrae, Haitai and Jung Gook Hyung all greeted me with handshakes and congratulations before chiding me for not telling them that this was my last game. The women all greeted me with hugs before they made me promise that we’ll all get together soon to celebrate properly. I nodded and waved them off as they all made their way to the parking lot.
“Joon-ah,” Omma said as she stepped forward. “Congratulations. You always wanted to go out while you were on top, and it seems that you fulfilled your own wish.” I looked over at Appa, who was just quietly standing next to her, before he put an arm around my shoulder.
“That must have been hard,” he commented. “But you did well. Just like you always do. Just like we knew you would.”
“Thanks, Omma, Appa, where’s Na…”
“Bong-ah,” Na Jeong’s Omma said hurriedly as she kissed my cheek and Sook Sook, now almost eleven years old, gave me a hug. “Appa’s waiting for me in the car, but I wanted to greet you first. Congratulations, uri Joon. Appa already transferred Min’s car seat to your car while you were getting cleaned up.” She walked away holding Sook Sook’s hand after smiling at me one more time and called out, “Remember! You guys are coming over for dinner this weekend!”
I turned back to my parents to ask them where Na Jeong was to see them looking at each other shyly and I narrowed my eyes. Before I could ask them what was going on on, Appa spoke.
“The kids were getting restless, no doubt fueled by all the excitement so Na Jeong is still in there with them,” he informed me, as he looked at the stadium. “Your Omma and I will be going first… We get the kids next weekend, okay?”
He and Omma walked away before I could ask them what he meant by “we” and within a few minutes, it was just me left there standing with my bag slung over one shoulder and the pitching rubber in one hand. I walked to the parking lot and deposited them in the trunk of the car before checking to make sure that the car seat had been applied properly. I placed one of Min’s stuffed animals in his car seat and got a bottle ready from the supplies that were in the car, and it was only after I had done all those things that I walked back to the field.
I walked in slowly, finally allowing myself to feel what I’ve been trying to hold back all day. I looked at the dark field, unable to find my wife and children, and stood in one place. The bleachers were empty now, and all that remained was the litter all around and the banners still hanging. I looked up to where my jersey now hung and felt the tears form once more, and this time I didn’t stop them. I sat down on the lowest bleacher and closed my eyes, permitting the silence to enfold me. My glory days are over… Finally. Along with the freedom came a grief, swift and unyielding, as I bid farewell to what had been the most constant part of my life. Even before Na Jeong.
The silence was thick, as was the lump in my throat. Just as I was beginning to feel choked by it, the most beautiful sound snapped me back to reality, and the reason why I made my choice.
“Appa!” I heard Seon call out and I stood up to see him running towards me with his arms outstretched.
Na Jeong was walking a few steps behind him, her hand firmly holding Min’s hand, as he walked with unsteady steps towards me. Na Jeong lifted her eyes from looking at Min and met mine and my heartbeat slowed down as I saw her study me with a concerned look on her beautiful face. I caught Seon in my arms and he held me close as I breathed him. Still brimming with energy, he pulled away and took Min’s hand from his Omma’s as they played in the field. I watched with worry as Min fell back on his bottom, but being the good big brother he is, Seon easily helped him up again and they resumed their play.
Na Jeong watched them for a few minutes before turning back to me. She walked towards me in sure steps and when we stood only a foot apart, took my face in her hands and kissed me tenderly on the lips. My tears fell and I felt her soft hands brush them away before she wrapped her arms around my waist. She placed a hand over my heart and I rested my chin on the top of her head. I choked back a sob and felt her hands on my back.
“It’s okay, Joon-ah. Let it out,” she whispered. “It’s just me and you. You don’t have to hide what you’re feeling. It’s okay.”
My shoulders shook as I cried quietly. She stayed quiet as she continued rubbing my back in comforting strokes. She pulled away slightly and took my baseball cap off my head before running fingers over my hair and smiling at me.
“You were incredible, Kim Jae Joon,” she declared. “I have never been more proud of you. Your children, too. Even Min stayed awake through the whole video, pointing to you on the field and on the screen, screaming ‘Appa!’ Seon was very happy to be wearing your jersey.” Her smile disappeared as she looked deeply at me, emotion flashing from her expressive eyes. “Are you okay?”
I nodded quietly as I brushed a stray hair off her face. “I love you,” I said softly and watched her eyes soften.
“You better,” she teased. “And I love you more.”
I was about to complain that she was still so competitive after all these years when I felt little arms wrap around my legs to see Seon holding on tightly. Min was sitting on the grass behind him, playing with a blade of grass. I lifted Seon into my arms and engulfed him in a tight embrace. He wrapped his arms tightly around my neck as I placed an arm around Na Jeong’s shoulder. Min, feeling left out, raised his arms to be picked up and Na Jeong bent down to help him to his feet. I leaned down and hugged my wife and my children, finally able to enjoy the time I have with them without worrying about when I will have to leave again.
“Let me down! Appa, let me down!” Seon said and I hesitantly put him back on the ground.
“Aigoo… Are you too grown up to be carried by Appa now?” I asked teasingly and he looked at me seriously.
“Appa, Omma says I’m a big boy now. I’m her little man when you’re away. Don’t I do a good job taking care of her and Min like you ask me to?” He asked.
“You do. You are our little man,” I said as he confidently took Na Jeong’s hand as we walked towards the stadium’s exit.
“Appa… Appa will carry Min, okay? Omma is having a baby and shouldn’t be carrying heavy things and Min is heavy,” he ordered and I smiled.
“I got it, Kim Young Seon-ssi,” I responded as I picked Min up from the ground and took Na Jeong’s hand with my free hand.
We all walked slowly out of the stadium, until I heard Seon speak again.
“Appa… Since you’re not going to play baseball anymore, you want to be my coach?” He asked.
“I don’t know… Do you want me to be your coach?” I asked, chuckling.
“Yes, I do, “ he said definitively. “Will I have to call you coach, cos you call Oe Haraboji coach…”
“Seon-ie, I only do that because we work together,” I said. “I didn’t want your Haraboji accused of favoritism.”
“Appa… What’s favoritism?” he asked and Na Jeong laughed, as she walked along.
“Ahh… Favoritism is when you…” I searched my mind for an understandable definition and came up with none. “Don’t worry about it. You’re only allowed to call me Appa.”
“Appa…” he continued thoughtfully as we were walking to the car.
“What?” I asked him when he stopped walking and looked at me earnestly.
“If you’re going to be my coach…”
“Come out with it already, Seon-ah,” I said, wondering if he’s worried about being teased for being coached by his father.
“If you’re going to be my coach,” he started and paused again before he heaved a dramatic breath. “Will you have a whistle?”
“A whistle?” I asked. This is what he was most concerned about?
“Yeah, Appa… All the coaches I see on tv have whistles, and it makes them look like real coaches. Oe Haraboji have a dozen whistles! ALL in different colors. You should have one too, okay?”
“Okay…” I said, as I looked over at Na Jeong, trying to control her laughter. “I’ll get a few whistles too.”
“Okay. You can be my coach.’ He ran towards the car when he spotted it and stood at the passenger door and waited for us to catch up.
“It’ll be my honor to coach you, Kim Young Seon,” I said as I placed Min in his car seat and ruffled Seon’s hair before dropping a kiss on his forehead.
December 1, 2007
It’s been two weeks since Joon’s last game and I pored over his plans as I sat down at the kitchen table. I had woken up a couple of hours ago to see a note from Joon saying he was going to the gym and Omma and Appa just left with Seon and Min. I pulled out the binder from the bookshelf and started looking through the financial statements, the estimates and the plans submitted by the architect that Joon and Jung Jin Oppa were working with and noted that not only was there a full baseball field and locker rooms, but a library as well, to provide help for the kids who needed academic guidance as well.
Two days after the championship game, Joon had held a press conference, but made no mention of the baseball academy yet. Although it didn’t appear like he regretted retiring, I also got the impression that there was something still holding him back from fully committing. With all the chaos and adjustment of having Joon twenty four hours a day at home and various doctor’s appointments for Min, Seon and me, we’ve barely had any time to ourselves to have a conversation and I can’t get a grasp on where he’s at mentally with this. I worried that he may be second guessing his decision and I wanted to nip those concerns in the bud before it ate him up. Joon was so tight lipped about the whole project and I was unsure why. I even had to talk to Jin-ie Oppa to get a hold of these plans, he was so hesitant to speak of it.
Our children are wonderful, but we can hardly get a serious conversation in when Seon is at an age when he wants to talk about anything and everything he’s seen and Min required constant observation at all times. So when Omma offered to keep them for the afternoon, I readily agreed.
Pulling the picnic basket out of the cupboard, I quickly packed the fried chicken I picked up earlier, as well as some ddukbokki we made, the mandoo that Omma had sent over and a couple of containers of banchan, making sure that I pack the radish kimchi I made this past week. I grabbed a couple of bottles of juice and carried the picnic basket down and waited for Joon to come back, which should be in about in 5 minutes.
I wrapped my coat and my scarf more tightly around me and checked to make sure that I had placed the architectural plans in there and double checked the address again. Within a few minutes Joon’s car pulled into the parking lot and he stuck his head out of his window as he pulled into the space next to my car.
“You going somewhere?” He asked and I shook my head no.
“WE are going somewhere,” I responded, taking in the still damp hair brushed back on his head and the sweatpants and sweatshirt he was wearing under his puffy coat. 34 years old and not looking a day older than 25. “I’m taking my husband out on a date. But you’ll have to drive because…” I pointed to my belly.
“Where are the kids?” He asked and I smiled.
“Omma and Appa took them to see Sook Sook play,” I replied. “We have all afternoon to ourselves.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively and I shook my head. “Uh uh… I have something even more special planned.”
“More special than making love to my wife? This I’ll have to see,” he said. “Come on, hop in.”
“Joon-ah, pop the trunk open, please. I need to put the picnic basket I packed in there, ” I asked and he got out of the car after the trunk was opened.
“Yah,” he said as he lifted the picnic basket. “Don’t tell me you carried this all the way down from the apartment.” When I didn’t respond, he glared at me. “Sung Na Jeong-ssi, you are five months pregnant.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, I know… You don’t have to remind me,” I said dismissively. “It won’t happen again.”
“You said that last time,” he said as he shook his head at me.
He went to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. He waited until I was safely seated and buckled up before he closed the door and sat back down in the driver’s seat. He had his hands on the steering wheel and turned his face to me leaning down quickly to steal a kiss. Aigoo… Like he hasn’t kissed me a million times already.
“You sure you don’t want to just stay home?” He asked, looking at my lips and I was almost tempted to say forget the date and let’s just stay in bed all day. Knowing that if I even stayed silent for another minute my husband would take it as a sign that I’m wavering and will continue to seduce me and will most definitely succeed, I merely blinked at him and pretended I had no clue what he was talking about.
“Drive,” I barked and he started laughing.
“Where am I driving to?” He asked and I pulled out the piece of paper with the address and handed it to him.
He glanced at it then looked at me. “Na Jeong-ah…”
“I don’t want to hear any excuses Joon-ah… I want to see where my husband and children will be spending most of their time,” I said before he could say any more. “Now drive.”
He pulled out of the parking lot and drove towards the outskirts of the city in silence. With Joon not being very talkative I dialed the radio onto full blast and sang along when ‘White Snow’ came on. I looked over at Joon subtly and noticed that he still looked a bit tense so I sang even louder and more out of tune until he turned to look at me and smiled. The ice broken, I gave him a lopsided smile as I felt a kick on one side of my abdomen.
“Oww… I think the baby likes this song,” I said.
“The baby has good taste,” Joon said as he pulled onto a gravel road. He put the car on park and I exited the car, only to see an empty field, devoid of any structures. The grass stretched for miles and there was still a ‘for sale’ sign up. I waited until Joon had taken the picnic basket out of the trunk until I took his hand and we walked together towards the middle of the empty field.
He started taking his coat off for me to have something to sit on when I stopped him with a hand. I pulled a picnic blanket from my bag and spread it on the ground before patting the spot where I wanted Joon to put the picnic basket down.
“It’s a good amount of land,” I said lightly when he finally sat down next to me. He started pulling out the contents of the picnic basket and put them in between us.
“Why would you bring ddukbokki when you can’t eat it when you’re pregnant?” He asked when he saw the container.
“You’ve been boycotting ddukbokki as well in solidarity and this is to show my appreciation,” I answered with a laugh. “Just today you’re allowed ddukbokki. But touch the chicken and you’re dead.”
“I got it. This baby loves fried chicken, ” he said.
“This baby loves food, just like all our other babies,” I said as I put a supporting hand on my back as I leaned back. I took a chicken leg and took a bite before speaking again. “Joon-ah…”
“Hmm?” He asked as he dipped a mandoo in the ddukbokki sauce.
“Jin-ie Oppa said you’re dragging your feet with signing the contract to buy the land,” I said quietly. “What’s the matter? You’ve had your eye on this land for a couple of months. We’ll have to move quickly if you want this place to be open by the summer next year. Otherwise we’ll have to wait until the year after.”
When he said nothing I put my chicken leg down on my plate and looked at him. I leaned over and lifted his chin so I could look into his eyes and I was surprised at the uncertainty I saw there.
“What’s the problem, Joon-ah? Do you not have the funding that you need?”
“It’s not that. Hyung invested the money well from years ago and there’s plenty of it to get this project up and running,” he said. “Plus we have a couple of investors just waiting for the go ahead to send the check.”
“Okay,” I said as I waited for him to continue. “Are you worried about not having enough staff?”
“It’s not that… You know I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of the guys I’ve played with and more than half of them have said they’d be interested in teaching and mentoring. In Sung is planning to retire next year with Appa and he wants to get involved as well. Even Appa has said that he wants to get on board once he retires.”
“Your name alone will bring in the students but you already know that,” I said, thinking. “So I’m not really sure where your hesitation us coming from. And neither does Jin-ie Oppa, apparently, since he asked me to speak to you. Everyone is just waiting for you to make a decision…”
He stopped eating and popped a juice bottle open and handed me one before opening the other and taking a long drink.
“That’s the problem, yeobo,” he finally said. “This is not just a project… Before it even begins, so much already rides on this. The land is not cheap and success is not guaranteed. If the business never takes off, I will be responsible for the loss. Jung Jin Hyung’s livelihood depends on this succeeding, not to mention our investors’ money. Plus the kids that will be attending… I don’t know if I’m ready to be responsible for all these people.”
“Is that it?” I asked as I picked up a mandoo and placed the whole thing in my mouth.
“Is that it?” He repeated. “We’re talking tens of billions of won, yeobo. More than enough to ensure that our family will live a privileged life our whole lifetime and our kids’ too. It’s not a small decision…”
“I’m not trying to make light of your concern, Joon-ah, but whether you know it or not you’ve already been responsible for the happiness and well-being of three, I mean four human beings for years. And you’re doing a wonderful job, I must say.”
“That’s family, though, but this is business,” he replied. “Who the hell am I to open a business? I barely passed those classes in university.”
“Don’t make this more complicated than it has to be, Joon-ah…” I continued as I took a sip of my drink. “Look at it like a family too if that makes things easier. And your children and I… we don’t need a privileged life. We are comfortable and as long as we don’t have to scrape every month just to pay bills, we’ll be fine. I work and you work, we’ll be okay.”
“But…” He hesitated and I think I know what he was about to say. “What if it fails?”
Failure. It’s a thought that strikes fear in every man and it seems my husband is no exception. I chose my words carefully before I spoke again. I wiped my hands on a paper towel before I looked at him again.
“Then it fails…” I said, shrugging my shoulders and Joon actually looked alarmed. “And then you dust yourself off and you try again. Know why?”
“Why?” He asked.
“Because you’re Kim Jae Joon and that’s what you do. Let’s face it… You do much better the second time around anyway, with a lot of things.”
“Yeobo… I love you and I support you. But I also know you. And I only said with a lot of things, so don’t you be getting all huffy with me,” I interrupted. I tried to get up on my own and was unsuccessful. “Joon-ah, help me up, please.”
He got up from the blanket and lifted me up under my shoulders gently and as soon as I was on my feet I planted myself in front of him and wrapped his arms around my waist as I looked out at the field in front of us.
“I seem to remember you saying, a few years ago, when we went to Abonim’s farm for the first time, that you just want to be a good man,” I began. When he stayed quiet I continued. “Do you know how many people in this world are able to do what they love to do and get paid handsomely for it? Not many. As one of those few, I love that you know that it’s your responsibility to try to give some of it back, in whatever way you can. That’s what already makes you a good man. Joon-ah… When you look out here, what do you see?”
“A empty land,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of work and time to make it something usable.”
“Pshhh, yeobo… You’ve never been afraid to work hard and you’ll have plenty of time now. And you’re looking with your eyes and not your heart. I look out in this land and I see dreams and hopes and joy. I see future Major Leaguers and I see our kids playing baseball with their father. I see my husband making difference.”
“Making a difference? I just want to teach baseball.”
“Or so you claim. The baseball that Kim Jae Joon will teach will be different from all the other baseball that’s being taught out there… because you’ll be teaching them not only baseball as you know it but about life too. Baseball saved you, you’ve told me this many times, and I know that you hope it might save another kid, too. Even if it’s just one. That’s why you’re scared of it failing. Because you don’t want to miss out on that one kid on whose life you could have made a difference.
When he stayed quiet, I received my confirmation that my hunch had been correct, and I relaxed against him.
“So many people in the world, going around without really knowing that they’re leaving a mark. No matter what happens, you’ve already left yours. I’ve been the witness to your life, and I can testify that up to this moment you’ve lived it with strength and integrity. But here… You have a chance to really build the legacy you would be proud to leave behind… Maybe even more than your baseball career.”
“When you first told me of your plans, even then I had no doubt that it will work. Because it will come from your heart. And nothing beats that. If you lose all this, that will still remain. You’ll teach the kids at a local park, heck you’ll teach them anywhere. This is just another place, Joon-ah. Just a place. And money is just money. A kid who never thought he could be anything in life now thinking he can play baseball and be successful, just like Kim Jae Joon. Someone who only had an empty house to go home to, now feeling like he has something to belong with and somewhere to go. Being able to see that with hard work and perseverance, there’s hope for a better life. Giving each and every child a chance to dream. Those things… Those things are priceless and you have a chance to make it happen. It may not seem like much to you but it can change someone’s life, like it did yours.”
He turned me around and cupped my face, and finally I see the lightness back in his eyes. “How do you know just what to say to ease my fears?” He asked softly.
“I’ve loved you for a long time and I’m damn good at it,” I said with a smile. “No fear, Joon-ah. Just like with me. Just like your proposal. Your heart will never lead you astray, and even if it did, I can always bring you back, because I’m awesome that way.”
He chuckled before he placed a soft kiss on my lips. “I agree… You are awesome that way.”
“Joon-ah… Don’t worry so much. Enjoy it, hmm? Sign the papers. Let’s do this.” He nodded and I brushed an invisible lint off his coat. “About that offer to stay in bed all day…”
“Does it still stand?” I asked. “We still have three hours.”
“We best make our way home then,” he said as he quickly shoved everything back in the basket. “Besides this is still private property and we might get arrested if someone saw us here.”
“Well… There’s our free publicity anyway,” I joked, making him laugh out loud.
“Did you really move in today? There is no dust! Not a single speck,” Yoon Jin asked as she looked at the bookcases in front of her. “By the way, what are you looking for?”
I continued through the box to no avail. Kneeling on the floor, I was surrounded by boxes.
“If its not here, its gone,” I said in frustration.
Yoon Jin continued perusing the bookshelf when she spotted something and released a surprised breath.
“Oh my, what is this? You still have this? Oh my God. Such young flower boys,” she said incredulously. “Yah. Moon Gyeong Eun was super skinny.”
Figuring that she found the Akaraka book on the shelf, I was still looking in the box when I responded.
“Yah yah yah… Don’t drool and look at it carefully. That is my household’s most treasured possession.” I spied a black videotape on the bottom and lifted it up with a smile. “I found it!”
I examined the tape in my hands with a smile on my face for a few seconds. In front of me I saw Yoon Jin’s eyes dart to some activity behind me and followed her gaze to see Sook Sook grab the iPad from the table and walked towards the apartment door.
“YAH YAH YAH… Where are you going?” I asked my not-so-little brother and he came back to peek his head behind a pillar.
“Hello!” He greeted Yoon Jin. “I’m going out for a while.”
I watched as he quickly left the apartment still wearing his uniform and turned to Yoon Jin who was still looking at his back.
“Wow, Sook Sook has gotten so much bigger. It feels like yesterday when he surprised me. Does he study well?”
I stood up and walked over to the television and plopped myself down in front of it before responding.
“Do you think he would do well?” I asked as I turned the power on the VHS player on. “He says he’s all grown up, he doesn’t listen… Growing hair on his lips and chin. Its so gross.”
“Its been awhile seeing that video,” Yoon Jin said as I continued to dust the front of the VHS player. “What’s with the video all of a sudden? Thats not, by any chance, the wedding video?”
“Yeah,” I responded with a smile. “Sung Na Jeong’s wedding tape.” I raised my brows in triumph and Yoon Jin huffed.
“Like seriously!” She exclaimed, the yearbook still open in her hands. “Are you a newlywed that you are still watching it?”
I carried on flicking some dust off as I replied. “Not at all. I thought I lost it. I only found it the other day while packing for the move. I couldn’t possibly see it then because it gives me goosebumps and makes me want to puke. Today is my first time.”
“Do you have to see it at a housewarming party?” She asked as she continued browsing through the yearbook.
“Why not? Its nice… I can see my old self.” I popped the tape into the player and waited for the telltale click.
“You probably look the worst. You wore this tiara because you wanted to wear Park Joo Mi’s wedding dress or something.”
My fingers grazed over the buttons on the player and was about to hit the Play button when I hesitated. “Should I not watch?” I asked Yoon Jin with a grimace. “It will be quite traumatic.”
Yoon Jin said nothing but nodded in response instead. The phone rang and I quickly lifted myself off the floor to answer it. I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was Oppa calling and hit the receive call button and answered casually.
“What are you doing that you’re not here yet? Did you get on the subway?”
“Yeah Na Jeong-ah… I just got on the subway.”
“Thats good. The traffic on Gangnam Northern Road is always heavy during rush hour. Since traffic starts from Han-nam Bridge, if you don’t take Itaewon-ro in the middle, you are just stuck.”
“It’s a good thing I’m taking the train then. Transfer to Line 6 right?” He asked.
“Right,” I replied. “Then transfer to Line 6 at Yaksu station. Thats the fastest way. Its DMC station. Also, buy me some coffee.”
“Coffee? Okay I think there’s a coffee place right by your place.”
“Yoon Jin-ah, you don’t drink coffee right? What do you want to drink?”
“Juice for me!” She responded as she sat on our leather couch and directed the remote control towards the screen.
“Get one orange juice and they have blueberry yogurt there.” I softened my voice and sweetened my tone as I continued. “Have them take out the almonds and put 2 spoons of espresso…”
“Yah… I’m not doing all that. Am I Joon or something?”
“I got it… I got it… Just buy whatever you want. I understand. Sorry,” I continued as Yoon Jin turned to look at me with a small smile under her cap. “Hurry!” I hung up the call and muttered, “I hate almonds…”
“Wow… Sung Na Jeong, you have completely turned into a Seoul person. You know Seoul like the back of your hand and order coffee like it’s a piece of cake. You did pretty well for a Masan country girl.”
“Chingu-ya…” I said as I braced my hands against the kitchen table, the only piece of furniture we kept from our first apartment. “This year I will have live in Seoul for 19 years. I have lived half my life in Seoul. Doesn’t this make me a Seoul person?”
She continued to watch me, looking impressed, before turning back to the television and pointing.
“Thats true,” she said readily. “Compared to that, you are a true Seoul person.”
I followed her eyes and looked, aghast at what I saw. “Yah… What… What am I wearing on my head?”
“That’s what I’m saying. Your Omma and I tried to talk you out of wearing that, but you said you absolutely must wear it. I don’t remember where you got it from, though.”
“Ahh… I know why I had to wear it,” I said, suddenly remembering. “Joon’s Appa gave me that as an engagement present. How could I not wear it?”
She nodded in thought before speaking. “Who called?”
“Oppa,” I answered. “You know everyone from the boarding house was invited.”
“I thought it was Joon.”
“Yah… Why would I need to tell my husband how to get home and how I like my yogurt? Joon knows all that. Does that even make sense?”
“You’re right. How did you two get the night without the kids anyway?” She asked me quizzically.
“Ahh… Joon’s parents are watching them this weekend,” I answered easily. “Yah… Press the pause button. I have to go to the bathroom. Joon should be back from the academy anytime now. He had a late meeting or something. ”
I had just pulled into the parking space of our new apartment building when I heard a knock on the window. I turned to my left and saw four faces smiling at me, and I grinned back.
“You’re just getting home now?” Haitai asked as I was opening the driver’s side door.
Samcheonpo clapped a hand on my back and Binggrae and Jung Gook Hyung stood to one side talking about medicine, no doubt. Everyone had a drink in their hand and I wondered if they stopped at the coffee shop around the corner before coming over.
“Yeah,” I answered as I leaned back in to grab my coffee and a brown paper bag. “I had a late meeting. You guys are just getting here?”
“Yoon Jin’s already up there helping Na Jeong unpack,” Samcheonpo said.
“Na Jeong is so stubborn.” I shook my head. “I told her to wait until I got home. That woman… you’d think she didn’t have a bad back or something.”
“You knew that when you married her,” Binggrae retorted. Everyone around him nodded and I chuckled. That’s true.
It wasn’t until we have reached the top of the stairs leading up the building that I realized I didn’t have my house keys with me. With it being our first day at the apartment, I haven’t even had a chance to put it in my keychain and I know exactly where it’s at. In my jacket at work.
“Hyung, ring the bell please. I forgot my house key at work.”
He nodded and pressed the buzzer. When someone had pressed the button, we all smiled and were let in. I led everyone to our door and into the apartment, where after sharing some greetings the men retreated to the living room with Yoon Jin.
Na Jeong had followed me to the kitchen and I dropped a kiss on her head before sticking the brown bag in the fridge.
“I think Oppa forgot my coffee,” she complained as she eyed my now empty cup. “What did you just put in the fridge?”
“Blueberry yogurt. Just the way you like it. No almonds.”
“Really?” She asked as she motioned for me to come closer. She dropped a peck on my lips and I grinned at her. “This is why I married you.”
“Was that the only reason?” I teased.
“That and because I really really love you.” She looked back at the men all sitting in our living room before she turned back to me. “Yah… How did you guys all arrive together?” She asked softly.
“They were just getting here as I was getting out of the car,” I replied, wrapping my arms around her and nuzzling her neck. “What did I tell you about unpacking without me?”
“Yoon Jin was helping,” she said. “Kim Jae Joon-ssi… You haven’t even greeted your wife properly and you’re already interrogating her?”
“Is that right?” I smiled as I leaned down and pressed a chaste kiss on her soft lips. “I’ll greet you properly later. For now that would have to do.”
She frowned at me for one second and I brushed her now short hair away from her face, letting my fingers graze her soft skin. The voices from the living room made me turn around to see Haitai and Samcheonpo seated on the floor, Binggrae and Jung Gook Hyung on the couch behind them and Yoon Jin on the love seat opposite them.
“Were the kids okay when you dropped them off earlier?” I asked and she nodded.
“Shin threw a bit of a tantrum when I was about to leave but Abonim distracted him with a camera or something,” she reassured me. “Are terrible twos supposed to extend to five years old? He’s lucky he has Hoon Oppa’s face.” She shrugged her shoulders. Our youngest has such a different personality from his two older brothers. “But Seon and Min… They were fine. You know those two…”
“Yeah… Have I told you today how much I love you?” I whispered.
“You have,” she answered with a smile. “But not nearly enough.”
“Well… I do. I love you.”
“Me too. I really love you.”
“Yah…” Hyung called out from the living room and Na Jeong and I both turned to look at him. “You subject us to your wedding video but neither of you are watching? The least you can do is come join us.”
I reluctantly pulled my arms away from Na Jeong and walked in the direction of the living room. Seeing that she didn’t immediately follow, I looked back to see her going to the bathroom. When she came back from the bathroom she gave me a sheepish smile.
“I forgot my phone,” she explained and I shook my head.
Na Jeong nowadays can’t live without her phone. We walked hand in hand to the living room where I sat myself down on the couch between Hyung sat and she sat down on the couch behind Yoon Jin. In front of us, Binggrae, Haitai and Samcheonpo sat on the floor.
I directed my attention between the conversation flowing around me and the video of our wedding. I don’t believe we’ve ever seen this before. Na Jeong, on the other hand, couldn’t be any more distracted as she opened the cover of her phone and started pressing on the screen furiously. I pulled my phone and wallet out of my pocket and laid them on the coffee table. When Yoon Jin saw my phone she started laughing and I looked at her questioningly.
“Couple phones, Chilbong-ah?” She asked incredulously and I smiled. “Are you guys sixteen or what?”
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked. “We’re a couple so we have couple phones.” I looked over at Na Jeong and said, “Right, yeobo?”
She didn’t even acknowledge me she was so distracted. Her eyes glued to whatever was going on on her screen, she was muttering to herself. She was sitting on the couch with her legs up.
“Send me some hearts. Send me some hearts,” she directed to no one in particular.
Samcheonpo, sitting on the floor between took his eyes off the screen to pull his phone from the pocket in his jacket and looked at her incredulously.
“Wow, she’s a hip middle-age woman, who is persistent at giving love,” he said, sounding a bit impressed. “Yah.. I told you not to send me hearts after sunset!”
Na Jeong just continued with her phone without responding to him. I was resting my head on my hand while my arm was propped up on the back of the couch and I listened in amusement.
“Ok. Start,” she declared.
“I can’t believe there are people who still play Anipang,” Haitai said, taking a sip of his iced coffee.
“She gets a score of over 3,000,000,” Yoon Jin retorted without looking away from the screen. “Na Jeong stays up all night every night to win first place at this.”
“If she gets first place, what do they give her?” Hyung asked.
“Satisfaction of challenge and accomplishment?” Yoon Jin answered, looking directly at Hyung. “Pride?”
“Sung Na Jeong, she’ll never be able to fix that habit. She’s such a sore loser,” Binggrae observed.
“Mmm…She can’t fix it. She can’t fix it,” I agreed. “Yah… Because of that addiction, on the games, Everyone Marble, Candy Crush, Cookie Run and Magu Magu. She’s first place in everything.”
“I’m not first place in those games,” Na Jeong said defensively, eyes fixed determinedly on her phone screen.
“She say she can’t sleep because she lost to Sook Sook,” Yoon Jin continued and Na Jeong frowned.
“AHH!! AIISSSH!!!” Na Jeong screamed in frustration, almost dropping her phone on her lap, and everyone turned to look at her.
“I almost broke the record! I think I’ll have to confiscate his cell phone. He can’t study because everyday he’s playing games. Playing games!”
“Can you show that kind of competitive spirit for something more productive?” Hyung asked, motioning his hands and tapped Binggrae on the shoulder.
“Where are the two of you going?” Na Jeong asked as Hyung and Binggrae stood up and started making their way to the door.
“Where do you think we go?” Hyung said.
“Among doctors, I’m sure there is no one who smokes as much as you!” Haitai commented.
“Yah yah yah… ” Yoon Jin said. “There is the worst heavy smoker from our major.” She sat up and looked more closely at the screen.I watched as Na Jeong watched as well.
“Congrats! Wow… The country bumpkin from Masan is getting married in Seoul. I give you my earnest congrats. Live well ok?”
Na Jeong looked at the person in disbelief. “She came, too? I don’t remember inviting her.”
“I invited her,” Yoon Jin reminded her. “She and I are close because we are both from Yeosu. That kid, she’s ok if you talk to her. It’s just that she smokes too much.”
“Yah… Do you think Superintendent Kwak Young Pyo will win the next election?” Haitai asked everyone and I looked at them blankly, not entirely knowing who they’re talking about.
“If his son comes and make an appearance, I am sure he’ll be elected,” Yoon Jin responded.
“Thats what I mean. I heard he didn’t come last time though.” Haitai continued.
“Gosh… They hung up so many banners in Yeosu hoping that his son would visit.”
“Yah… Who’s Kwak Young Pyo?” I asked them, leaning my elbows on the pillow on my lap.
“The superintendent candidate for Jeonnam Education Department,” Yoon Jin replied.
“How do you know even the Education Department candidate?” I questioned her.
“Why would I not know? Who’s that guy… Oh, that actor Ji Sung. Its his dad.”
“Ahhh….” I said. Finally a name I recognize.
“That Jong Mal, Baek Il Sub are also from Yeosu,” Yoon Jin said with a little pride.
“Isn’t Kim Kyeong Ho from Yeosu as well?” Na Jeong asked.
“Kim Kyeong Ho is from Sun Cheon,” Yoon Jin and Haitai said simultaneously.
“I heard Yunho is also from Jeollado,” Na Jeong said thoughtfully.
“Yunho is from Gwang Joo!” Yoon Jin and Haitai responded at the same time. Again.
“Yah… From back then on, this is the most fascinating to me,” I said. “How do kids from the countryside memorize all that?”
This time four sets of eyes turned to me with a glare.
“Its not the countryside!” Samcheonpo, Na Jeong, Yoon Jin and Haitai all said together indignantly and I was taken aback.
I gave them all a sheepish smile and tried to ignore the dirty looks directed my way as I rubbed my right shoulder. Thank God Binggrae wasn’t here or he probably would be glaring at me right now too.
I watched in silence as my husband of eleven years capitalized on his being the only one on the couch and laid his long body down, stretching his long legs in front of him. I watched as his eyes closed and his long lashes flared onto high cheekbones. So pretty. Still, after all these years. He looks like he’s barely aged any. So unfair.
Within a few minutes Oppa and Binggrae came back, and Oppa sat down on the end of the couch where Joon was lying and Binggrae found himself back on the floor. My attention was still on Joon, and I was still studying his face when I heard Haitai’s voice. I directed my gaze to the television screen and brought one of my knees up towards my chest.
“Whats his name?”
“Who?” Samcheonpo asked.
“Him, over there,” Haitai said, referring to the guy in the video. “Him… Him…”
I looked at the screen and bit my nails as I tried to remember who the guy is. I should know who he is, but I don’t. But I should. Somehow I get the feeling that I can never seem to remember his name.
“Oh.. Sung Na Jeong. Congratulations! Gosh… You’ve tried to weed out and pick the best one but finally you’re going. Yah… There is no one who’ll accept your foul temper except for your groom. Be good to your groom! Anyways… Congrats!”
I bristled in indignation at what he said. “That bastard… What did he say?”
“Yah, yah, yah… Talk nicely. You’re about to turn 40 soon,” Oppa said with a sigh.
“Yes… But what was that asshole’s name?”
“What’s that? Ah… I can’t come up with his name right now. He was the representative for our major during our freshman year,” Samcheonpo said.
“Yoon Jin-ah, whats his name?” I asked Yoon Jin when I saw her come out of the bathroom.
“Who?” Yoon Jin asked as she walked towards Joon, who had his eyes closed on the couch.
“Gosh… I guess he’s really tired.” She tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey… If you are going to sleep, go sleep in the room.”
“Ah… Ah… I need to close my eyes for a bit,” Joon responded as he got up, pushing his way between Samcheonpo and Haitai.
I watched as he sauntered over to our bedroom, slipping his sweater off. I admired the way his back moved under his white shirt and wondered if this was my cue to follow. I was still thinking about this when Haitai interrupted my thoughts.
“I used to tease him because he had the same name as some baseball player,” he said, still talking about the still unnamed acquaintance.
“Exactly. It was some batter,” Samcheonpo replied, thinking.
“Batter? That it could be Ryu Joong Il, Lee Kang Dong…” Oppa suggested.
“Wasn’t it someone from the Ssangbangwool Raiders?” Samcheonpo interjected. “The guy who was good at hitting home runs.”
The sound of the intercom ringing blared through the living room and I stood up to answer it.
“Who is it?”
“This is the security office. Please come and take your package,” the ahjussi from the security office said.
“How many are there, ahjusshi?”
“You are in apartment 3303 right? One came from Sung Na Jeong and the other one…”
Behind me the conversation continued, and I vaguely heard Haitai, Samcheonpo and Oppa still arguing and trying to figure out who the person on the video was.
“Yes, they are for my house. That’s my husband name,” I replied to the security ahjussi with a smile.”I will be down shortly.”
“Wow… I was really friendly with him. When he went to the army, I saw him off. He and I went to Rock Cafe so many times. There was a time when I was crazy about Rock Cafes,” Haitai continued.
“So what’s his name?” Samcheonpo insisted.
“Yah… If it was the Ssangbangwool Raiders’ home run hitter then there is only one player,” Oppa said smugly.
“I think I know too,” Bing said with a smile.
“Why am I the only one who doesn’t know?” Samcheonpo complained. “Aish, who is it?”
“His name is Kim Gi Tae,” Haitai finally said and they all breathed a sigh of relief.
I walked out of our apartment and took the elevator down to the security office where there was a package sitting on the counter. The security man greeted me with a smile before motioning over the box.
“This is for Sung Na Jeong-ssi and this one is for… The Ahjussi’s name is Kim…” he said, as he placed another package on the counter.
“Thats right, it’s my husband’s name. Thank you. Take care,” I said.
I took the boxes and left the office before the Ahjussi had a chance to figure out that my husband was THAT Kim Jae Joon. Though I always welcomed any and all discussion about my husband and his former baseball career, the conversation always seems to take on a life of its own and I end up spending more than a half hour talking about Joon.
I opened the door carefully, trying to balance the boxes on my arms.
“How many did he buy seriously?” I said as I put the parcels down on the kitchen table. Joon had just came out of the room and sat himself back down on the couch next to Oppa.
“Did you get some sleep?” Oppa asked Joon.
“Yeah,” he said and Oppa laughed. “What’s so funny?”
“Yeobo, the mail came….” I said to Joon but didn’t get a reply. “Yeobo…” I repeated, and still he didn’t reply he was so focused on his conversation with the boys. “Yeobo…” This isn’t working. “Yah! Kim Jae Joon!” I finally said loudly and the five men in the living room turned to look at me. Joon raised his eyebrows in question and I released a frustrated breath.
“Yeobo… Some stuff came for you. Why is it so heavy?” I asked. “What did you order?”
“Jerseys for the kids at the academy.” He stood up from the couch and walked over to the kitchen. “You should have woken me up. I would have grabbed them for us,” he said.
“You were exhausted,” I answered with a hand on his face. “It wasn’t that heavy.”
He looked over his shoulder at our guests before dropping his voice. “I thought you were going to follow me to our bedroom,” he said, his voice husky. “I took off my sweater hoping you’d get the hint.”
“Joon-ah… We have guests,” I chided him even as warmth suffused me.
“That never stopped you before,” he responded back. At my incredulous look he added, “New Year’s Eve 2001. Laundry room. At our old apartment.”
He didn’t have to remind me. I know what happened that night, or didn’t happen more like. “Oh you mean the night we got engaged and you got so drunk with the men you were all passed out in the living room? That night?” I replied cheekily.
“Ahh, yes, I remember that too,” he said, grabbing the package that came and walking quickly to our bedroom. I bit my lip to stop myself from laughing. Joon hates being reminded of that night.
I watched as Na Jeong walked to the coffeemaker that we had in the house to get herself a cup of coffee before she sat down at the kitchen table with it and her copy of her Lonely Planet Vietnam book. We are planning a trip to Vietnam next year, and my own copy remained a fixture on our bedside table in the bedroom. I’ll trust Na Jeong to mark hers like she did our San Francisco book. I sat down and took the cup before she could even take a sip. This was an everyday thing with us, and she didn’t even blink when she realized what I had done.
“You are not watching the wedding video?” I asked her.
“Don’t you hear them making fun of it?” she said as she flipped a page.
“What did the groom put on his lips?” I heard Yoon Jin ask as Na Jeong sent a dirty look her way and stood up to get herself another cup of coffee.
“Who doesn’t look like a bumpkin at their wedding?” Haitai asked as I turned Na Jeong’s book towards me and started reading through what she’s marked.
“Na Jeong, that wench… Should have added some breast pads. Its completely empty… Totally empty,” Yoon Jin commented and Na Jeong glared at her again as she sat back down.
“Hasn’t Sook Sook come back yet?” I asked my wife absently, while still reading the book.
“He told me that he will be back soon but he still hasn’t come back,” Na Jeong said slowly. “Ahh… This son of a bitch. Does he have a girlfriend or something? His college entrance exam is around the corner.”
I raised my eyes to look at her directly. “What do you mean by son of a bitch? You have three kids,” I chastised. “You should watch your language.”
“Why? You told me that you like it in the past,” she said with a frown.
“Even if I did, its so annoying to hear it for 20 years,” I said lightly. “I was too innocent back then because the only thing i did was playing baseball.”
I felt Na Jeong’s beautiful green eyes shooting daggers at me, much like she did at Binggrae’s wedding so many years ago, and I looked up and felt myself squirm when my eyes met hers. I broke eye contact before I dared speak again. “Where would he possibly go at this hour? He has been coming home late these days.”
“Who knows? He might be giving this and that to some girl right now, like a freak,” Na Jeong responded with a pointed look at me.
“What?” I asked innocently. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I should have known you would set a bad example to Sook Sook,” she said. “Please don’t tell me you told him your ‘Women like Grand Gestures’ theory.” When I looked away again and didn’t respond, she gasped. “Aha! I knew it! What did I tell you about that?”
“WHAT?” I asked again. “You married me didn’t you?”
She gave me a sheepish smile before she nodded. “That’s true.”
“Na Jeong-ah…” I started and she responded with a hmm. “You’ll stop cursing in front of people right?” I asked gently. “Or at least tone it down some.”
“Why? Why should I do that?” she asked stubbornly.
“Yeobo… Think about it,” I asked. “I’m tired of having to explain to people why all our kids knew how to say ‘son of a bitch’ before the age of four.”
She looked like she was about to protest again when the front door opened and Sook Sook walked in, talking to someone on the phone.
“I am already here, Omma,” I heard him say. There was silence as I assumed Omma was speaking back to him. “Who said I saw a girlfriend? Did noona tell you that?” he asked indignantly.
“I don’t know…’ he said before he saw everyone in the living room. “Hello…”
“Oh you came? You are a senior, how can you be playing around?” Binggrae asked.
“Yah… Sung Joon, you should come home early,” Samcheonpo advised.
“I guess you are ready for your college entrance exam?” I asked him.
Haitai waved him off as I watched Hyung come out of the bathroom, saying, “Oh… Sook sook is here? Eat your food quickly,” he urged as he patted Sook Sook’s butt affectionately. “Quickly.”
“Nae Hyung, Omma wants to talk to you,” he said as we all turned to look at him. He held out the phone and I stood up again to take the call. I raised my eyebrows at Sook Sook questioningly, wondering if I was about to be lectured, but he did nothing but shrug his shoulders. I placed the phone to my ear and took a deep breath.
“Yah… I don’t think 1 squid is going to be enough. You should cook 3 or 4 more,” Yoon Jin suggested.
“Did they come to a housewarming party to eat?” I asked irritatedly.
“They should just nicely pour beer into their throat!” I watched as Oppa walked over to the fridge and took out a bottle of mayonnaise. “Oppa, pass me the mayonnaise from there.”
“Mayonnaise,” he said, as he handed me the bottle. “There isn’t much left.”
“Aissh, thats annoying. Go to the store for me.”
“Give it to me. Let me try,” he said and squeezed the bottle until I felt something cold over my left eye.
“Are the squids going to take longer? Hurry up and bring them over,” Yoon Jin called out from the living room.
“Na Jeong, don’t blow out of your nose,” Oppa said to me as he took a condiment bowl and scooped the mayonnaise from my eye. I closed my eyes tightly. “Ok… done. Oppa is sorry…” he said as he put the bowl down and walked off with it.
Joon, who was calmly watching us from the living room, stood up and intercepted the bowl from Oppa’s hand with a frown before bringing it back to the kitchen and straight into the sink. He leaned down and brushed a hand over where the mayonnaise was with a frown.
“Do you need me to cook the squid, yeobo?” he asked me, his eyes grazing over my face and I felt myself blush. Every single time he looks at me like this I still feel self conscious, as I haven’t been married to the man for years.
I shook my head no and he sauntered back to the living room to join the boys on the floor for a card game.
I finished grilling the squid quickly and walked to the living area from the kitchen with the plate of grilled squid. I placed it on the coffee table and noticed that only Yoon Jin remained sitting and watching the video, now with the couple that Oppa and I helped fix up so many years ago, wishing me luck and thanking me for the matchmaking I made. Wow… I was really awesome then.
“All of you are not focusing on my sacred wedding scene?” I asked them as I sat down on the floor.
“Yah… Its not a scared but a freaking funny video. I think I have to borrow this tape when I feel depressed,” Yoon Jin responded as I started lifting all the beer cans from the coffee table.
“What? All the beers are gone?” I asked in disbelief.
“They drank a lot,” Yoon Jin responded. “Oh my… How many cans have they already finished?”
“Aissh… I haven’t even started yet. Yeobo, go buy some more beer.” Here we go again. The guys didn’t pay me any attention and kept playing their game. Oppa turned around slightly but my husband didn’t even flinch. “Yah… Kim Jae Joon, I said to go get some more beer before I turn that game table upside down!” At the threat Joon finally looked up.
“Ayeee… If that lady say she would turn it upside down, she will really do it right?” Haitai asked. “Yah… Why don’t you learn from Yoon Jin? She was going so nuts in the past but now, after meeting a nice husband, she is now such a gentle woman.”
“Bullshit,” Yoon Jin said as she chewed on a piece of dried fish.
“Give me money,” I heard Oppa say. “36 million 500 thousand won.”
“What are you doing,” Haitai laughed as he started getting up off the floor. “Let’s go get some beer and fresh air.”
“Give me money before leaving,” Oppa insisted to Haitai.
“Ah… What are you talking about?” Haitai answered as he helped Oppa up. “It was so close.”
“Yeobo,” I said as I noticed Joon’s wallet on the table. “Aren’t you taking your wallet?”
I threw the wallet to see Joon catch it with one hand, and I smiled at him. It seems the pitcher can do more than throw.
“Nice catch!” Oppa said.
It was the last thing I heard before the men left the apartment, and I kept on watching the video with Yoon Jin.
“Wow… I was so pretty right?” I asked her as I leaned into her shoulder.
We were all sitting in the living room watching the video, except for Samcheonpo, who was walking to the refrigerator, seemingly in search of something specific. Yoon Jin called out to him, but he didn’t respond right away, so focused he was on finding what he was looking for.
“Na Jeong ah…” I finally heard him call from the refrigerator. “Is this all you have?”
“Why?” I asked. “What are you looking for?”
“Choco Milk,” he responded with a smile.
“Yah!” Haitai exclaimed. “What choco milk… When you are how old? Act your age!”
“Yah… He is young,” Yoon Jin said defensively. “You know he is 2 years younger than us. My husband doesn’t drink plain milk. He only drinks choco, banana or strawberry milk.” She turned to Samcheonpo. “How old is my honey?”
“I am 37 years old!” Samcheonpo said with aegyo, before Joon threw a can towards his head successfully and I almost shouted out in glee. My husband’s been out of baseball for five years and he still has it.
“Hey…” Binggrae pointed the knife that he was using to peel the apple out to Joon. “You did not see this?”
“Yah… I did not see it,” Joon responded. “If I had, I would have thrown that…”
Yoon Jin started teasing all of us of being jealous since she has a younger husband and I commented that it must be nice. We all looked at Oppa and told him that he looked much younger now, too, when before, he looked much older than his years. Oppa was still talking about how his patients all think he’s thirty years old when Joon snaps his fingers and brought all of our attention back to the video that we just started replaying.
“Here,” he said. “The groom is entering.”
“Oh right! We’ll be able to see on the video,” Yoon Jin said. “All the guys are in the video. So, lets see who looked the youngest!”
“Yah… Its not your husband,” Haitai said.
“Yah Yoon Jin, there is your young husband over there,” Binggrae pointed out.
“He is world class at looking older than his age,” Joon teased.
“How on earth… ” Haitai mused. “What kind of medicine did he eat wrongly?”
“Didn’t people think he was Yoon Jin’s uncle or something?” I finally said.
“Be quiet, you jerks,” Samcheonpo commanded. “The present is the most important. The past has no use what-so-ever.”
“Wow, the groom takes such wide steps…” Yoon Jin said, sending a smile Joon’s way. “Full of energy! Of course, this was a long anticipated day.” She continued to watch for a few minutes before turning her attention back to Joon. “Yah… Groom! How did you endure it for so long when you like her so much?”
“Yah! I was pretty!” I said unabashedly. ” Even in my eyes, I look pretty. How must have the groom felt?”
“Truthfully, what woman doesn’t look pretty at that age?” Yoon Jin asked.
“I know,” I conceded. “Look how nice my complexion was in my 20s.”
“Yah… Isn’t that player Kim Jae Hyeon?” Haitai asked.
“Oh… You are right,” Joon said. He turned to me and asked, “He came to the wedding?”
“I dont know,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking clearly then.” And I wasn’t. I was three months pregnant, in a big white dress with a tiara on, and Lee Sang Min was at my wedding.
“Wow… He was really good looking,” Oppa said. “Player Kim Jae Hyeon was a total superstar while we were in college.”
“Geez… I don’t think much of him. My husband is way more handsome,” I said truthfully and all the guys sheeshed. “Jagiya…” I said with aegyo and all the men turned around.
I winked at them and I didn’t even notice everyone else’s reactions as they all took turns sending me some aegyo back. I did, however, notice my husband’s response, since he not only winked at me, but clawed his hands in like he was about to bite me. Is this what we are playing tonight?
“Yah.. Yah… Yah… Stop drinking,” my wife urged Yoon Jin. “You are going to babble after drinking like this, aren’t you?”
“Yah. I did that when I was younger,” Yoon Jin protested. “I dont do that these days. By the way, Na Jeong-ah, can we drink that?” I followed Na Jeong’s eyes to the ginseng liquor on the shelf.
“We can’t,” she said. “That is not just any liquor. My dad waited for 20 years to drink that. Waiting for Seoul Twins to win again.”
“But at least his team made it to the offseason playoffs,” Haitai said.
“Yeah… Ranking 2nd place overall. Should be worth drinking that,” Binggrae added and I watched as Na Jeong shook her head at all of them.
“Hey, how long are we going to wait for his team to win again?” Hyung asked.
“Seoul Twins fan were truly happy this year,” Samcheonpo continued pitifully.
“Tsk… Since when were you fans of Seoul Twin, you country bumpkins?” Na Jeong asked.
“Yah, thats right,” I said to Na Jeong. “Let’s just have it. He wouldn’t know if we pour soju in after drinking it.” I motioned my head quickly towards the bottle and my wife smiled.
“Right?” she asked me and I grinned back at her as Yoon Jin started pouring shots.
“Besides, they won the championship five years ago, when Chilbong retired,” Haitai said. “But Appa forbade us to touch it then too. Saying that Chilbong retiring is nothing to celebrate.
I shook my head at the memory and downed my shot. We all were drinking happily until Yoon Jin answered a phone call from her mother in law regarding Halmoni’s wedding. When I told them what I remembered of Halmoni, they all started laughing at the story that I was told. Apparently only part of what she told me was true, and I started shaking my head at my youthful naivete back in 1994.
We watched as Kim Min Jong and Samcheonpo performed the wedding performance and I look over at my wife, who watched with a small smile on her face. Truly, one of the happiest days of my life passed by in such a blur I don’t even remember half the things that happened. But I do remember how beautiful my bride looked, and how lovingly she looked at me then, and now.
I listened absently as Yoon Jin talked about the galbi that Na Jeong’s Appa sent to Kim Min Jong for years in preparation for her wedding. I remembered the look on her face as she sang and clapped along to the wedding performance. I am still as in love with her now as I was with her then, maybe even more so, every time I see her in our children’s eyes.
Yoon Jin complaining about her team leader snapped me back to reality and I tuned in just in time to hear Samcheonpo’s voice.
“That bitch! She is a total bitch!” Samcheonpo cursed out loud and we all turned to look at him.
“Hey, if she is working by herself and needs help finding files, sending messages…” Haitai tried to say and Samcheonpo glared at him.
“She still shouldn’t do that, though!” Samcheonpo responded hotly. “She should take care of her own work by herself! She really is a bitch! Give it to me,” he told Yoon Jin. “Give me your cell phone! I really won’t hold back today!”
“Fine. Try it. Give her a call,” Na Jeong said.
“Seriously! Does she know what time it is right now?” Samcheonpo continued. “Really! She is doing this because she is jealous of my Yoon Jin’s prettiness!”
“Hey, hey! Do it in moderation! Moderation!” I teased, but Samchonpo wouldn’t listen.
“Just because Yoon Jin is dealing with it and not saying anything,she is belittling her! You know how she is. My Yoon Jin can be a really scary person! You know…”
“Stop it! Stop it!” Na Jeong insisted.
“She is someone who would pour out cyanide. She is someone who would make Jukgal with intestines,” Samcheonpo insisted. “I have to tell her off! I can’t take it anymore! Hold on! This is her. This is her, right? Bald Dog Meat, right? I’m going to kill her!”
We all held our breaths as he made the phone call and the call was answered. In typical Samcheonpo fashion, as soon as the team leader got on the phone his voice turned soft and we all shook our heads.
“Oh. Excuse me, Team Leader? Have you been well?” He paused.”Oh, yes. Yoon Jin is currently sleeping so I read the Kakao Talk message. If it’s something urgent, should I wake her up? Yes… You’re okay, right?”
We all waited as Samcheonpo spoke to Yoon Jin’s Team Leader and listened for the moment when he tells her off. Which never happened. He merely hung up the phone respectfully after and we continued to tease his soft nature as we continued drinking.
“Hey, hey, your couple’s membership dues for this month haven’t gone through yet.
The two of you, 300,000 won. Hurry up and pay,” I told Yoon Jin and Samcheonpo, who were still sitting on the floor.
“We paid,” he responded. “It really didn’t go through?” He turned to Yoon Jin. “Honey. You didn’t pay the membership? I told you to do it yesterday.”
“I forgot,” Yoon Jin replied. “It was so hectic preparing for today’s house warming party. Honey, 300,000 won. Let’s give it to her while we see her.”
“I don’t have enough cash. I’ll send it through the Internet later when I get home,” Samcheonpo said.
“Hey. Are you still managing the household expenses?” Joon asked. “Just give it to Yoon Jin. Have the woman manage it.”
I smiled at my husband. Because of my awesome number skills he hasn’t had to balance our household budget in years.
“I can’t,” Samcheonpo replied. “If I leave it to her, we’ll be in big trouble. We’ll all end up living in the street.
“Geez, is there even something to manage?” Yoon Jin asked incredulously. “With your tiny wages… There’s nothing to even manage or not.”
I listened in amusement as they continued to bicker with each other before they got Haitai involved. Haitai defended himself at least by saying he has job security working for the government.
“Ah, I’m a bit hungry,” Haitai said, and looked at Binggrae. “Yah! Why don’t you buy this time?”
“Why should I?” Binggrae asked.
“What do you mean, “Why should I”?” Haitai huffed. “Are you going to continue to pretend ignorance?”
“Hyung-nims are here, why should I buy?” Binggrae insisted.
“Wow, do you take after Sung Gyun now?” Haitai continued to prod. “Cheap bastard. If so, then today will be Chilbong’s treat. No complaints, right?” He asked everyone. “No complaints?”
“Hey, hey… I have a complaint. Why, all of sudden, do I have to buy?” Joon protested.
“Hey, hey. It’s fine,” Oppa said. “Forget it. I’ll buy it. You guys are always mooching off me.”
“Wow. Since it’s getting late, I’m craving some jokbal,” Haitai said. “Isn’t that right?”
“I want bossam,” Samcheonpo said.
“Me, too!” Yoon Jin added.
“You guys are nuts! You’re really trippin’. Aigoo… Aigoo…” I said as I stood up to get our takeout binder from the drawer. “Joon. Here.” I handed the binder to my husband and sat back down.
“Okay, what shall we order?” He said before looking at me. “You don’t eat jokbal or bossam.”
“Ddukbokki!” I said.
He nodded his head once. “Ddukbokki…” He pulled his phone out and pressed a number on his speed dial setting. “Yes, it’s the snack store, right? I’m in Sangam-dong. You know the World’s Cup apartment complex, right? Yes… Past that Nurikum Square…” I heard him say as he walked off to place the order in peace. “Yes. Yes. One large serving of jokbal and ddeokbokki as well.”
“Yah, we don’t have any booze; order 2 soju,” Oppa called after him.
“Oppa! Stop drinking alcohol. Haaa. Just goes crazy over alcohol,” I complained. I still remember the last few times they all drank soju together, and this time, none of the women were here to help me. “YAH!” I screamed to my husband. “Don’t order any alcohol!”
Once I placed the order we continued to watch the video as Yoon Jin complained to about their financial situation and berated Bing for not treating. Binggrae defended himself by saying that he didn’t open the practice on his own but with a group and that their expenses are high.
“Even so, you will make more money than us. Do you think anyone can be a white-collar worker’s wife? It’s tough, really tough,” Yoon Jin said despairingly.
“Hey, but it’s a major company,” I said. “You also get the bonus at the end of the year.”
“Aigoo, bonus, my ass,” she replied. “As soon as the bonus comes out, I don’t know how the bank knows, but like a ghost, the bank takes it all. If we want to repay the loan on the lease, from now on, we have to tighten our belts for about ten more years.”
Na Jeong and I patted Samcheonpo and Yoon Jin at the same time. Talks continued about the book Samcheonpo published, with Hyung saying that he’s seen a few copies at the hospital and Yoon Jin balked and criticized her husband for his choice in title.
“We have it at our house too,” Na Jeong said, pointing to the bookshelf. “Over there! So, have you guys earned 100,000,000 won?”
“Sure, we made 100,000,000 won. But we have 300,000,000 won in debt,” Yoon Jin sighed. “Looking again then, our Haitai is the best. Civil servants are steel rice cookers. For us, we worry about what to eat after paying debts after we invested here and there. Looking again then, Haitai, you have it so good. Isn’t it a lifetime employment? Lifetime employment?”
“I got 1,700,000 won as my monthly wage,” Haitai bemoaned.
“Oh, is that so?” Yoon Jin asked curiously.
“Yah, so why did you chuck that good job?” Samcheonpo asked Haitai.
“Tell me about it,” Haitai answered.
“By the way, Na Jeong,” he said. “On the shelf… What is that on my book?”
Na Jeong looked at the bookshelf before responding. “What? Which one?”
“That…” Samcheonpo pointed. “That baseball.”
“That’s got quite a story,” Yoon Jin said.
“YAH!!” Binggrae, Na Jeong, Haitai and Hyung exclaimed simultaneously when I realized I should probably say something too.
“Yah,” I added belatedly.
“Ah, this girl,”Hyung muttered looking at Yoon Jin.
“Ah ha ha,” I said, trying to change the subject. “Where did my cell phone go?”
Samcheonpo continued asking what the deal was with the baseball before Yoon Jin whispered something in his ear. I thought I heard Hyung threatening Samcheonpo with a metal pipe and Yoon Jin trying to intervene.
“Oppa!” I heard Na Jeong yell. “Ah, seriously…”
While all this was going on, I walked over to our book shelf and picked up my baseball. Memories of how it has passed hands came back to me and I gave a small smile. I could vaguely hear them still behind me arguing and talking about calling the police, but I was lost in my thoughts and didn’t pay them any mind. I held it in my hand for a few more minutes before I turned back to Hyung, who was now back sitting on the couch.
“Hyungnim,” I said respectfully, as was befitting to call someone my wife considered an older brother.
“What?” He asked and I threw the ball gently. He looked at the baseball and I knew that he was thinking about our history as well. He smiled at me, and I smiled back.
The food finally came and we put all of it on the coffee table. Samcheonpo was feeding Yoon Jin and Haitai was teasing them about still liking each other this much after twenty years and Joon and I just shared a smile. We only had eleven, but we were still crazy about each other too. Yoon Jin was telling Haitai off when I heard the intercom ring.
“Who is it?” I asked as I walked over to the intercom. “What’s going on at this hour?”
“Who is it at this late hour?” I heard my husband ask from behind me.
“Omma and Appa,” I said over my shoulder.
“For what occasion at this hour?” Oppa asked.
“Did something happen?” Yoon Jin added in concern.
“As if there’d be any problem!” I responded. “They live the next town over and probably came to nag us.”
I pressed the button to let them in and within minutes, my parents entered. I looked at Appa and narrowed my eyes when I saw that he was wearing his Twins jacket.
“Aigoo, Appa! Take off your jacket! How long has it been since baseball’s been over?” I asked, knowing that he retired a year after Joon did, which means it’s been four years for him.
“Gashina…” Appa answered. “Do you know what kind of historic meaning this has for me? Gashina. Even if I die, I’ll be wearing this!”
Appa and Omma turned to greet the rest of our guests. “Hello!”
“Hello!” The gang responded as they all stood up to greet my parents.
Omma gave Yoon Jin an affectionate hug before directing her attention back to the gang. “Hey, guys. As your father got this jacket from the club, he likes it so much that he even sleeps in it too. He must be really proud of this,” she said before looking at all of us. “Aigoo. These guys really got together!”
Within a few minutes Appa had just ordered all of us to sit back down when we all heard a noise coming from the apartment upstairs.
“What is that noise?” Omma asked. “Don’t you hear that noise?”
“Aigoo, the upstairs family has started again,” I responded. “It’s like this every weekend, or so the former tenants said. They should educate the kids.”
“Is your apartment like a soccer field or something?” Appa yelled. “What the hell kind of household is that? Then our upstairs neighbor is as serene as a Buddhist temple compared to those people. A temple!”
“But, Appa, what brings you here at this hour?” Joon asked.
“There’s something I completely forgot,” Appa answered with a sheepish grin.
“What is it, Appa?” Oppa asked.
“I’d also completely forgotten about it,” Omma added.
“I know. Remembering now what happened 20 years ago,” Appa said fondly ” …Is pretty good, huh? It isn’t anything really, just the ginseng liquor.”
All of us looked at one another in alarm and I sent Joon an I’m-going-to-kill-you look.
“My ginseng liquor,” Appa continued. “You see. In 1994, when the Seoul Twins won the Championship, I made it to remember the occasion. Remember I made a huge bottle of ginseng liquor? But while we were moving, That…” He looked at me. “We left it in her care and completely forgot about it.” When I didn’t move, Appa glared at me. “What are you doing? Go get the ginseng liquor, so I can go home quickly.” I looked at Oppa and Joon in alarm. Appa will kill all of us. “What are you doing? Quickly get it, so I can have a drink and go to sleep!”
“Ahboji, but… But these days… What is that? With the training… Year end training and with trade and things, I know you must be busier than during the season. Is it really time for you to be drinking alcohol?” Oppa said smoothly and Joon adopted his most complacent look and nodded as well.
“Geez! You punk! Then is it a time for me to be dancing like this?” Appa yelled and looked at me again. “What are you doing? Go get the liquor! I want to have a drink and watch the sports news.”
“Ah, aish! That family is being too much, really!” I complained as I tried to divert his attention. “Aigoo!”
The gang repeated the expression behind me and Appa looked at me in annoyance.
“Ah, you wench, you’re really being too much! Hurry up and get it!”
“AHHH. I can’t take it any more,” I answered instead, pretending I didn’t hear him. “Appa, let’s go at them this once. They must really be crazy, the upstairs people. Appa come with me!”
I grabbed Appa’s arm only to have him resist. “No, why should I get involved in your family’s fight?” He asked. “I’m not going!”
“Don’t you know about about fights caused by noise by neighbors? Appa, what if I go alone as a woman and get assaulted?” I pleaded with him.
“Why are you doing this?” He asked.
“Just go with me this once,” I begged.
“Ohh, I don’t know about this, gashina,” Appa said uncertainly and I continued to drag him to the door while signaling at Joon to take care of the liquor. Finally, Appa relented and I was able to convince him to come with me.
“I’ll be back! I’ll be back after a good fight!” I called out as we were exiting our apartment.
I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief when I saw Na Jeong exit the apartment with Appa. Omma turned to me with a frown on her face before speaking.
“You’re only living here until the house is built, right?” She asked and turned towards Bing when his phone rang. “They’re really noisy and your kids are still young.”
I nodded in response as I was still thinking about how to sneak the liquor bottle back to the kitchen to top it up. Binggrae walked off to answer his call and Omma watched him.
“It’s a good thing we remembered the liquor as well, and since we were coming here to pick up Sook Sook for the weekend anyway,” Omma said absently. “But can’t I get a cup of coffee in this house?”
“Yes, Omma. Just a moment,” I answered and while she was distracted brought the liquor bottle back to the kitchen before I grabbed a cup of coffee for her.
She said her thanks before Binggrae asked if she will still be here when he came back, to which Omma responded that they’ll be leaving once they collect the liquor and Sook Sook. Binggrae made his way out the door quickly after telling all of us that he’ll be back and closed the door quietly behind him. After Bing left, Haitai continued eating.
“Today, this place tastes good. I think this restaurant’s cooking comes and goes,” he commented. “Hey, who did Binggrae go to meet?”
“Who would you go to meet at this hour? You think he would go to meet his parents or his homeroom teacher?” Yoon Jin asked back. “If you think about it, doesn’t an answer come to mind?”
“Ahhh… It must be Jin Yi Unnie,” Haitai finally said.
“Yah,” Samcheonpo replied. “Who else would he be meeting at this hour but his wife?”
“They were too noisy, Appa,” I said, trying to keep my father’s mind away from the liquor. I hope Joon got my hint.
“Ah, seriously,” i muttered as i heard more noise coming from the apartment. I rang the bell and waited for a response.
“Who is it?” A voice called out from inside the apartment.
“Oh, we’re from downstairs,” I answered.
“They’ll think we’re husband and wife,” Appa said.
Before I can think of a response the door was opened by a young looking woman, holding a spatula in her hand.
“Aigoo. Hello,” she said. “It’s my first time giving my greetings. What is it about?”
“Well,” I started hesitantly. “It’s so loud, so it’s hard for us to live normally.”
Our upstairs neighbor expressed her apologies and explained that since she and her husband are a long distance couple their child was excited to see her father. I softened a bit when I remembered all of the days that Joon came home after a long week on the road. I softened even more when I noticed her accent.
“No, it’s okay,” I said. “That’s expected from children. You’re a weekend couple, I see. But, you seem to be from Gyeongsang Province.”
“Yes, I’m from Busan…” she replied.
“I’m from Masan,” I informed her with a smile.
“Masan!” She exclaimed as she opened the door wider to let us in. “Aigoo, I thought your dialect… Come in for a bit and have some coffee.”
“Then, should we?” I asked as i entered the apartment.
“The person next to you is your father, right?”
“Let’s go,” I told Appa as I led him into the apartment, only to see pur neighbor studying him closely.
“You seem really familiar,” she said to him.
Appa agreed that she also looked familiar and I was just asking him if that was so when our neighbor yelled loudly for her husband.
“Honey, our neighbors are here. Say hello,” she yelled pleasantly.
“It’s okay,” I said when she received no response. “It’s fine.”
“But, still it’ll be better to know our faces and say our greetings. Yeobo! Yeobo!” Still no response and I fully empathized. I’ve lost count of how many times I have to call for Joon when he’s distracted. “Yah, Yoon Yoon Jae, what are you doing, not getting your butt out here right now? I ought to just break every bone in…”
“Her temper is really dirty,” Appa observed. “She is similar to you…”
Our neighbor asked Appa to clarify and Appa merely said “nothing” in response. I heard a voice coming from the hallway before a handsome young man came into view, holding a baby.
“I’m coming,” he said. “Don’t yell, you’re embarrassing me.”
“Why aren’t you coming out fast?” She asked. “Give your greetings they’re our neighbors from the lower floor.”
“Oh, hello. Nice to meet you,” he said to me before directing his attention to Appa. “Are you perhaps Coach Sung Dong Il?”
His wife repeated my Appa’s name before Appa asked her husband how he knew of him.
“I heard about it a lot from my father-in-law,” he said. “That you have the same name as my father-in-law. Oh,” he said as if just now remembering something. “He’s inside right now. Aboji!” He called out. “Come over here, Aboji!”
“Appa, hurry and come out,” his wife called out and I was taken aback when I saw that her father did not only share a name with my Appa, but a face as well.
“Ah. It’s so frustrating,” my neighbors Appa complained. “What are you calling about? Why do you keep calling?! What will you do if the neighbors complain about the noise? Damn it…”
“Appa, you’re the one who’s loud,” his daughter told him and it was only then that he noticed us in the entryway.
“Oh my. Who is this?” He said happily. “Isn’t it Dong Il Hyung!”
“Wow,” Appa said. “Hey, Dong Il… You… How are we meeting at a place like this?”
“Is it someone you know?” I asked, turning to my Appa.
“Ah, not just someone I know. We played together, and our family name’s root is the same. He is a distant cousin, he’s a younger brother,” Appa told me before looking back at his cousin. “Ah, you punk. By the way, I heard a rumor, that your daughter married really well. His occupation is a jud… Judge, I think they said.”
“Ayi… Me too,” my uncle said. “I also heard some rumors. I heard your daughter married an awesome guy too. Very famous… He is. Oh, right. Since it’s been so long let’s go in and have some drink, and talk a bit,” he said as he wrapped an arm affectionately around Appa’s shoulder. “Come this way, come.”
I watched in disbelief as my Appa walked off into the apartment as if he’d been there before. I could hear their voices reminiscing about how long it’s been when my neighbor turned to her husband and told him to make coffee.
“Come in and have some coffee,” she said with a smile. “My husband makes great coffee.”
“Okay. My husband was going to come right now…” I said, hoping that Joon will, indeed, come up since I’m not back yet.
“Ah, is that so?” She asked.
“Yes,” I answered with a nod.
After I fixed the liquor, thanks to the distraction provided by Samcheonpo and Yoon Jin, I sat down and realized that my wife has been gone for more than fifteen minutes. I hope that there wasn’t much trouble upstairs. I knew Na Jeong’s temper can explode in an instant.
I excused myself from our guests and quickly took the elevator up. I saw no one at the doorway and worried that the altercation has been continued inside the apartment. I straightened out my shirt and my pants and lifted my hand to ring the bell.
I heard a few voices from the other side of the door before it opened. A pretty woman in her 30’s stood in the entryway with my wife, who gave me a grateful smile.
“Hello. Oh. Are you?” She asked and I put my most cordial smile on and held out my hand.
“Yes,” I responded. “I’m her husband. I’m Kim Jae Joon.”
“Ki… Kim… Jae Joon?” She asked as her mouth dropped open. “#77?” I nodded. “Appa! Yeobo!” She screamed out suddenly and Na Jeong took a step back in surprise. “KIM JAE JOON IS HERE! KIM JAE JOON THE BASEBALL PLAYER! COME HERE RIGHT NOW!”
We finished a cup of coffee at our neighbors’ before we finally left. Appa was still catching up with his old teammate with the command to tell Omma to take a cab home with Sook Sook and that he’ll be home later. It seems that all the fuss about the ginseng liquor has been forgotten and all this trouble has been for nothing.
“Joon-ah,” Na Jeong said. “I will never let any of you talk me into touching that liquor again. It will just be our luck that the next time we try to drink it Appa will remember that we still have it.”
I took her hand securely in mine before I nodded. We continued walking hand in hand towards the elevator when she noticed I was still in my office clothes.
“Yah… What was that late meeting you texted me about earlier? And what meeting at the academy would require you to dress up?”
“Ahh… An entertainment management company set up a meeting for one of their actors after hours,” I responded. “I thought I should probably dress up a little since it sounded so formal.”
“Who was it with? Is it someone I know?” Na Jeong asked.
“Ahh… His name is Yoo Yeon Seok. I don’t think he’s done a lot of dramas but I looked up his work, and he was in that film with Song Joong Ki… ‘A Werewolf Boy’ I think.”
“That name sounds familiar now,” she said as we waited for the elevator. “I remember now! He’s the bad guy that you always wanted to beat up whenever he was on screen.”
“Ahh… Yes,” I responded as I stepped into the elevator. “But you know… He looks okay in real life.” I turned to look at my wife as we waited to arrive on our floor. “Yah… Do you think he’s handsome?”
“Yes,” she said without hesitation as she stepped out of the elevator before she turned around back to face me. “But not as handsome as you.” I smiled before I slung an arm over her shoulder. “But Joon-ah… Why would he need to meet with you?”
“He’s going to be in a drama based on 1994 and he’ll be playing a pitcher,” I said. “He wants to take lessons from me before they start filming next month.”
“Very smart choice,” Na Jeong said. “Are you going to do it?”
“Probably,” I said. “He looks like a good kid.”
“Joon-ah,” Na Jeong said as we reached our door. “You still haven’t greeted me properly.”
“I know. We have to wait until everyone’s gone,” I told her teasingly.
“I think you need to get rid of them now,” she said, referring to our guests. “Seeing that baby upstairs made me miss having a baby in my arms.” She turned her pretty green eyes at me and fluttered her lashes. “It made me miss having one of YOUR babies in my arms. Plus we’re running out of time to win our bet. You don’t want to lose to Samcheonpo, do you…. Joon-ie Oppa?”
This woman knows too many things about me, I thought as I quickly thought of excuses to send everyone home RIGHT NOW. I was still thinking when the door opened and everyone started piling their way out the door, all dressed up with their coats and belongings.
“Are you guys going?” I asked.
“Hey, it’s already 11 PM,” Haitai answered. “Hey, let’s go. We’ve been here too long,” he said to Samcheonpo.
“Yeah, it’s very late,” Samcheonpo said and Yoon Jin agreed.
“Hey, isn’t it physically and emotionally tiring to be a newly wedded couple at your old age?” She asked us.
“That’s why you should have just gotten married earlier,” Binggrae said drily.
“Aigoo, be quiet,” Haitai added hurriedly. “Let’s hurry and leave. Ae Jung is waiting.”
Na Jeong and I bid them safe travels home when Hyung came out of the apartment with Omma and Sook Sook.
“Hyung are you leaving too?” I asked.
“Yeah… I’m sharing a cab with Omma and Sook Sook,” he responded. “I have Appa’s car keys. Omma will take it with her. Make sure you don’t let him drive, Joon-ah.” I nodded at him.
“I’ll be back tomorrow night, Noona,” Sook Sook said as he kissed his sister on the cheek. “Hyung,” he said to me. “I’ll see you tomorrow for ice-cream.”
Omma waved to us as the three of them walked towards the elevator. Na Jeong and I stood in the doorway until they disappeared from view. Once they were gone we entered the apartment quietly but as soon as the doors were closed, she fastened her mouth on my lips and I felt her soft lips and her tongue, warm and insistent, against mine. She started unbuttoning my shirt and unzipping my trousers even as my hands automatically went to her hips. I lifted her against the door and she wrapped her legs around my waist.
“Joon-ah,” she moaned. “How long has it been since we’ve been able to do this with no kids around?”
“Too long,” I said huskily as my teeth nipped at her neck.
“You best make it count,” she said, chuckling.
“Don’t I always?” I asked as I carried her to our bedroom.
We didn’t know it yet, but we will win our bet… because nine months later our fourth child was born. And a few minutes later, our fifth.
Busan, South Korea
June 23, 2018
“Wow, Omma, look at this place,” I heard Seon say as I was bending down to fix the bow on Young Ae’s dress.
I re-tied the bow efficiently and straightened myself out to full height. I looked at Seon, already as tall as his father at almost 16 years old, and was taken aback by how much he looked like him, too. Especially right now, dressed smartly in a suit, smoothing out his slim tie. His thick hair was brushed back from his forehead and his face is exactly like Joon’s, except for his eyes, which were distinctly like mine. He also inherited his Appa’s lean and lanky frame, with legs that went on for miles. He was still personable at his age, never quite losing the effervescence of his childhood, and he drew eyes wherever he went. He played baseball, too, and as a pitcher, just like Joon. We’ve already started noticing the presence of scouts at his games and he just entered his last year of high school. We were lucky with him… He is the perfect oldest son, taking his role and responsibility very seriously. He always took care of his siblings, even without asking.
Min was also dressed nicely in black trousers and a buttoned down shirt, a red tie around his neck but no jacket. He was as tall as me, a little bulkier than Seon, with Abonim’s darker complexion. He also resembled Joon, except his face was still a little softer and rounder at thirteen. Min was not as extroverted as Seon, and he was less open to talking to strangers. He likes to observe people, and is the peacemaker in the family. He’s so smart, his head always buried in his books and Joon even exclaims more than once that Min studies as if he likes it.
The Kim blood ran strong with our brood, with the first two boys looking very much like Joon, except with a feature here and there from me and my parents. One would never doubt who these children’s father is. All as handsome as sin, and they knew it too, seeing as they’ve grown up being fawned over by women and little girls alike.
But the twins, I thought as I looked at our two youngest, the twins looked like me. Young Soo was dressed in a suit that he had picked out for himself, replete with a bowtie at the neck. He looked like an angel, with his perfectly white skin and his light brown eyes. He even inherited Omma’s wavy hair. You add to that Joon’s lips and what you end up with is a cherubic looking child. He’s had asthma since he was a toddler and it’s made him appear even more delicate than he already was. He was the dreamer amongst our children, his head always up in the clouds, no doubt conjuring scenarios that only Seon is privy to. Seon is very protective of all his siblings, but even more so of Soo who always has been seen as the most fragile and sickly of the bunch.
I watched in amusement as Young Ae tried to scratch her head through the braid that I had done on her hair. Dressed in a red dress that she picked out after I told her she can’t wear her tracksuit to the event, she was clearly uncomfortable as she scratched at where the taffeta skirt rubbed on her legs covered in tights. I looked at our lone daughter and wondered if this was how I looked as a child. Omma looks at her sometimes and is always taken aback, saying it’s as if she was looking at me 35 years ago. Her hair was a lighter shade of brown, like mine, pin straight when undone. Her eyes were an even more vivid hazel than mine, her expression undulled by restraint, and she was always bossing her brothers around. It’s just my luck that she inherited my temper as well. All the expertise in parenting I had thought I acquired with four boys decimated in one year by one little girl. I can’t even complain to my parents as Appa just laughs and says that I deserve it. And Joon, I thought as I saw him walk out of the bathroom holding Shin’s hand, is no help with her.
He’s always celebrated our children’s births with much aplomb, but when Young Ae was born and he was informed that we finally had a girl, he actually broke down into tears. We didn’t even ask for the baby’s genders when we had our last ultrasound, just assuming that we would have boys again. “It’s always been a dream of mine to live my life surrounded by beautiful women,” he’d said. “But my wife and my daughter are more than enough for me.” Needless to say Ae probably spent the majority of her first two weeks dressed in all things blue, with us having been so unprepared.
I saw Seon observing Shin and I felt a smile creep up my face as I looked at our third son. Already moody and intense at eleven years old, with a temper that can blow the roof off the house, he was certainly not forgettable once you know him. He looked so much like Hoon Oppa and gets away with so much because of it. Omma and Appa can’t bear to yell at him, and Omonim adores him as well. But he has a special relationship with Joon’s Appa. Many a times when we vacation in Chungju and we can’t find Shin he’s usually at Abonim’s side, trying to help at the farm, or gone fishing with him without telling us, or even just speaking quietly while looking at the stars.
He doesn’t like to stick to what’s expected of him, turning his back away from playing baseball or any sport altogether, and he didn’t gravitate towards school either. Instead he spent his time drawing or listening to music, usually by himself in his room. His tastes ran towards the unconventional, as I perused the mohawk on his head. Joon and I have always been very supportive of letting our children express themselves but I was still shocked when he walked out of his room this morning with his hair like that. I know he couldn’t have gone to the barber’s on his own and when I asked Joon, he had shrugged his broad shoulders. I had asked Shin neutrally who cut his hair and he pointed to Sook Sook, home with us from university, as my brother tried to creep back to his room.
“Omma…” I heard Seon say, his voice sounding very much like an adult, “I can’t believe you didn’t blow a gasket when Shin came out this morning.”
“Blow a gasket?” I asked then pointed at myself delicately. “Me? When do I do that?”
Seon blinked at me and so did Min, before sharing a look with their father and breaking out into peals of laughter. I narrowed my eyes at my husband, so handsome in his tuxedo, before I sighed inwardly. He still looked like he did in 1994, but with a few laugh lines around his eyes and mouth. He still kept a training regime, stating that he needs to be able to keep up with the kids at the academy, and still ran every day. He’s aged very very well, growing even more distinguished looking over the years.
My heart still raced inside my chest whenever I look at him and he smiles back at me with that same smile from almost twenty five years ago. He was standing between Seon and Min, still laughing when he was interrupted as a retired baseball player passed in front of him. He pointed and started saying, “Isn’t that…” when another person walked in front of him and he pointed at them too. “And that’s…”
He took my arm gently pulled me aside. “Yeobo, all the great baseball players are here,” he whispered excitedly. “Baseball players I grew up watching.”
“You mean those people that just passed by?” I asked as he smoothed the loose chignon on my head. He nodded and shook his head at me. “Don’t look at me like that. You know I only followed baseball when you played.”
“I wouldn’t say that so loudly while you’re in the Baseball Hall of Fame,” he said as he wrapped a long arm around my waist. “You look beautiful tonight.”
I blushed before I turned back to him with a smile. “You don’t look too bad yourself,” I said.
He cupped my neck softly and leaned down to give me a kiss and Seon coughed.
“Appa… Do you two have to do that in public?” He asked. “There are people here. Reporters too.”
“So what?” Joon asked. “What will they report? Kim Jae Joon is still in love with his wife after 16 years? What the hell is wrong with that?”
“Yeah… What’s wrong with that?” Shin echoed with his hands on his waist.
“No one was talking…” Seon started to say and I silenced him with one look.
I looked over at Shin, who now had his arms crossed over his chest with a smug smile on his face and I shut him up with one look as well.
“No arguing tonight,” Joon said. “We are here together as a family for something good. No arguing, okay?” When neither of his sons responded, he asked again. “Okay?”
Seon and Shin gave reluctant nods and we all proceeded to walk into the conference room.
“Joon-ah, what table are we seated at?” I asked and he looked down at the place card he picked up when we came in.
“Ahh… We’re at table 10. They seated us along with…”
“Na Jeong-ah!” I heard Omma’s voice call out and I turned to see her standing behind Appa’s chair.
“… Appa and Omma…” Joon finished with a grin.
We herded our children towards the table and made sure to sit Shin between Soo and Ae, leaving Min to sit between Seon and Shin. Joon sat himself down next to Appa and left a chair next to him for me to sit next to Young Ae. Having five children can be a logistical nightmare when some get along better than others. There were two more empty seats next to Seon and Omma looked at them questioningly.
“Are we expecting anyone else?” She asked as she helped herself to some bread on the table.
“Omma… I think In Sung and Misoo are coming as well,” Joon answered as he motioned for a server to pour us some wine. He winked at me, knowing I was more of a soju girl, but had them pour anyway. “Appa, how’s your back?”
“What’s wrong with your back?” I asked, taking a sip of wine.
“He hurt himself at the academy last week,” Omma answered.
“I’m fine… I’m fine…” Appa said with a glare.
“Appa… What did I tell you about working too hard? I hope you’re not letting Joon boss you around too much,” I said as I glanced over at my children who were all munching on some bread. I asked the server for some juice for all of them before I turned my attention back to Appa.
“Yah gashina!” Appa said. “I wasn’t even doing anything. I was just bending down to get something. I’m not as young as I used to be, believe it or not.”
“Yeobo, are In Sung and Misoo not bringing their kids?” I asked and he shook his head no. “He said they’re going straight to Jeju Island when they check out in the morning. He took the week off from the academy too. The kids are at her Omma’s.”
I broke off a piece of bread and was buttering it when In Sung walked in, all suited up as well, with Misoo, who looked beautiful in a green dress. Her hair was cut short around her face and I wondered for a minute if I should cut my hair again.
In Sung greeted Omma and Appa with a handshake and a bow, before he gave me a hug and patted Joon on the back. Joon greeted Misoo warmly and shook In Sung’s hand. He gave the kids a casual wave before sitting himself down next to Seon and Misoo sat down next to Omma.
Before we can all even catch up, the lights dimmed and Goo Bon Neung, the chairman of the Korea Baseball Organization, walked onto the stage and took the podium. We all directed our attention to him and the audience laughed when he tapped the microphone twice to make sure that it’s working. Assured that it was, he cleared his throat before he placed a sheet of paper in front of him and spoke.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for coming to our annual Korea Baseball Hall of Fame Induction,” he started. “Every year we welcome another member into this prestigious group and this year will do so once again.”
“As you all know, we have been established since 1982, but have only opened the Hall of Fame two years ago. As you came into the building I’m sure you all noticed that there were life sized canvas portraits of the current Hall of Famers and the photos which chronicle the history of Korean baseball in our nation. Tonight, another esteemed baseball player will join our ranks.”
“Currently heralded as the best pitcher to come out of Yonsei University even to this day, Kim Jae Joon led a career that had both ups and downs. He said so himself in interviews that he wasn’t very good in baseball when he started. He claimed that he had none of the God given talents pervasive in most ball players growing up. And yet, he has behind him a very successful career, all on the back of his determination and resilience. Always mentioning Yogi Berra’s quote “it’s not over til it’s over’ in interviews, watching Kim Jae Joon play is like seeing that very quote come to life.”
He smiled and a screen projector descended from the ceiling. I looked over to see our children watching intently. I’m sure seeing this will surprise them, seeing as by the time Shin was born, Joon had already put his professional career behind him. I looked at his face, and though expressionless, I can tell that it touched him to be honored in such a way. A photograph of Joon in his Little League uniform filled the screen.
“Kim Jae Joon was discovered playing in the park by his first coach, who convinced him to spend his time with the team instead, when he was only ten years old. For a sport that required so much training, he was actually quite late joining the game, but when he committed, he did indeed, commit. By the age of twelve, he threw the first pitch at his first Little League Game, and helped his team win the Regional Championship that year. Fast forward to four years later, when he made news being the only high school senior courted by three biggest universities in Seoul. And why wouldn’t he be? It was in this year that he struck out seven batters. In one single game,” he paused for effect. “…in one single game. Kim Jae Joon earned the name Chilbong, and the baseball community finally saw him. But once they did, they never took their eyes off of him.”
The screen moved forward through the years that Joon played as a child to his stock picture from Yonsei University.
“At Yonsei, Chilbong perfected his skill. Pitching at an average speed of 92 miles per hour, his greatest talent was not perhaps the speed with which he threw, but his consistency. All of his former coaches agree that when you put Chilbong on the mound, you can trust that he will deliver. He was reliable, focused and dedicated. These characteristics propelled him into a career abroad, playing Major League Baseball not just in Japan, but in the United States as well, possibly opening the eyes of the international baseball scene to the talented players here in Korea.”
They showed clips of his baseball games from Japan and America, and I took his big hand in mine before giving him a squeeze. Omma, Appa, In Sung and Misoo were all riveted to the screen and I myself brought my attention back.
“And just when we thought his star couldn’t get any brighter, he had to come home because of an injury. An injury that has ended many baseball careers. The baseball community waited with bated breath to see if Kim Jae Joon will rise again, whether the strength and persistence that carried him through most of his baseball career will get him through what was perhaps the most difficult challenge of his life. Then on December 22, 2001, Kim Jae Joon pitched a perfect game. With what is still recorded as the fastest ball thrown in Korean baseball history, Chilbong made his comeback. And he made it with a definitive statement. We prepared to lose him again to the Major Leagues, but Kim Jae Joon is nothing if not his own man, and he surprised us yet again, by choosing to play in Korea.”
“For the next six years he played for two of Seoul’s most famous baseball clubs, spending a year with the Bears and his final years with the Twins. Fans and members of the baseball community were shocked when he announced his retirement in 2007. He didn’t even make it public until the last month of the season, not wanting to distract the audience’s attention from enjoying the game. It was in November 2007 that we said goodbye to Chilbong and his professional career. He made his exit the way he made his entrance, on top, in command, and fully on his terms.”
The slide moved to pictures of his last game, as well as the short ceremony after. Joon was on the screen holding the winning ball up in the air, and waving at the crowd. He was there again, surrounded by his teammates, and shaking hands with his former coaches holding a bouquet of flowers. The photos transitioned into a picture of the Kim Jae Joon Baseball Academy and the chairman smiled.
“But Kim Jae Joon’s story does not end there. In 2008, he founded a baseball academy in Seoul and part of the financial success of the academy was used towards the Sung Tae Hoon Foundation, which has been providing uniforms and equipment, as well as training grounds for children, boys and girls alike, who are interested in baseball. The foundation also gives scholarships annually to kids who showed promise but are unable to pursue baseball in a secondary and collegiate setting due to financial hardship. Ten years later, and some of the academy’s graduates have moved on to play for Seoul University, Korea National University and of course, Yonsei University. They can boast of their graduates playing in Major and Minor Leagues all over Korea and in Japan. They just sent one of their boys to the United States to play this past season. Throughout his career, Kim Jae Joon has taught all of us that hard work does pay off, but even when his career was thought to be over, he still continues to teach us that there is still so much that we can do, and that with enough perseverance, we can all get there.”
The chairman paused and looked up from the paper in front of him. He nodded and smiled before he spoke again. “It is with the deepest pleasure and honor that I introduce all of you to tonight’s honoree into the Hall of Fame. Please give a warm welcome to this year’s inductee, Kim Jae Joon.”
The audience burst into applause and I turned to see Appa and In Sung looking at Joon proudly. I saw the way that our children watched Joon get up, and my heart filled with emotion. It seems like they’re just seeing their father for the first time. Seeing for the first time a part of their Appa that they never really knew. I don’t suppose they will ever realize that he made his choices later in life for them, and for us. Joon kissed me on the cheek and whispered “I’ll be right back,” before he walked off, buttoning his jacket on the way, and climbed the few steps onto the stage.
He was greeted with a handshake and a smile, which he accepted graciously. The crowd continued their applause even as he stood at the podium, continuing even a few minutes later. He bowed to the crowd and still they continued clapping. After five minutes, the chairman finally put his hands up to motion for silence and the crowd finally quieted down. I saw the emotion pass through Joon’s face, and I myself had to hold back the tears that came to my eyes.
When it seemed like he was stunned speechless by the moment or the honor, I prepared myself to stand up and be by his side, at least until he got speech started. As I was getting up however, I heard him clear his throat, and I sat myself back down.
The last time I stood at a podium was to be the officiant for Haitai’s wedding and this feeling wasn’t very different. I have said it before and I will say it again, that I am extremely uncomfortable being in front of a crowd. The baseball uniforms I had always worn served as my armor, and without it, I felt vulnerable and naked.
I tried to calm my nerves down by focusing on the table where I knew my family sat. I kept my hands together in front of me at first before pulling out the speech I’ve prepared for this occasion from my tuxedo pocket. I took a deep breath and still the words will not come out. My eyes scanned the audience and it felt like I was frozen. But then my eyes met Na Jeong’s and she gave me a little smile. It’s the smile that brings me back every time, the love in her eyes pulling me back to this time and place, reminding me always of what I have to do and why I do it.
I saw her begin to stand up, no doubt to come to my side and I took a deep breath. Whether or not she’s physically next to me, I knew she was there, cheering me on and supporting me every step of the way. I took a deep breath and took the microphone.
“Thank you… thank you so much for this honor,” I started, my voice shaky. “Even now, even as I stand here, I still can’t believe that I was chosen to receive the privilege of being able to stand beside the great baseball players of our nation. The continued support that I have received from the baseball community has been tremendous, and no words would ever be able to express the extent of gratitude that I’m feeling to still remain a part of this family. Because that’s what we are, right? A family.” I paused and listened as the audience murmured their assent. A few beats passed before I spoke again, this time with a stronger clearer voice.
“If someone had told me thirty four years ago when I picked up a baseball and threw it for the first time that I would be here now, I would never have believed them. When I started playing baseball at ten years old I never imagined that it would become such a big part of my life. As a kid that age, I only wanted something to do, to be honest.” I heard the crowd laugh. ” And baseball gave me that, at first, then eventually, so much more. I’m not entirely sure exactly when it happened that it stopped just being a hobby, but I continue to live by the lessons that baseball taught me about myself and about life every single day.”
“Baseball not only taught me to never give up, but to also push through whatever trial and tribulation stood in the way. It taught me to always work hard for what i want, to stay focused, and to always acknowledge the people who stayed by my side throughout my journey. But most of all, it taught me that just like in life, a baseball game can change with one move. This is the biggest lesson that I try to pass on to all the students that pass through the academy’s doors. It’s something that I wished someone had taught me along the way. And maybe they did, except I wasn’t quite paying attention. I’m notoriously bad with lessons. Ask my wife, she’ll tell you.” Again the audience laughed.
“The more I learned about baseball, the more I realized that it is really the perfect metaphor for life. It showed me time and time again, that there is no better weapon to have as a baseball player than preparation. Just like life. A baseball game is dynamic, and one can never call who will win and who will lose, not until the very last inning. Just like life. Life is also constantly moving and evolving, and just like baseball, we are all given plenty of opportunities to make a change in plan, a change in strategy or a change in perspective. That’s the beauty of both things, and one that took me a long time to realize. Growing up I failed to recognize the moments that changed my life, that changed me, but now a lot older, and a little wiser, I am proud to be able to say that I no longer take those for granted. Deciding to play baseball changed the course of my fate, and the choices that I make every day continue to open more doors for me and for the people around me. I find it reassuring to know that at any given time, I can change, into a better baseball player, a better husband, a better father, and a better person. A moment’s choice can change everything, as long as you do it out of love. It was love for the game, love for its players, love for its coaches and love for its devoted spectators, that kept me playing baseball for so long, and it was also love, this time for my wife, our parents and our children that took me out. It is with that same love that I founded the academy and continue to teach.”
“When I became a father, it became it even more important to me to nurture children and their goals in life. There were people who did it for me, so I am giving it back. That has always been part of the mission statement for the academy. That every child be allowed the luxury of a dream. That he or she leaves the academy not just as a stronger baseball player, but a person better prepared for life as well. That every child has the opportunity to become someone they never thought they could be, or maybe, just maybe, to become the person they were always meant to be, had they just been given the chance. It’s those same hopes I have for my children and I feel deeply privileged that other parents entrust me to take part in their children’s futures as well.”
I felt a lump form in my throat and I swallowed to try to keep my voice calm as I finished my speech. “I would like to take this opportunity to thank my parents, who couldn’t be here tonight, for having given so much of themselves to make my dream possible, especially my Appa, who taught me that hard work will pay off in the long run. I’d like to thank my in laws, who really are more like second parents, for teaching me what it means to be a part of a family. I’d like to thank my children, for to opening my eyes to life’s never ending possibilities every single minute.” I took a deep breath before I spoke again. “And my wife, for sharing this life with me. Na Jeong-ah… You always challenge me to be better and for that I am grateful.” My eyes met hers in the crowd and I saw her wipe some tears from her eyes.
“Lastly, I would like to thank the Korea Baseball Organization and its members, all my old teammates and old coaches, and the whole baseball family, for embracing me into their fold, and for loving my family as well. I will never forget this moment, and I hope I do all of your belief in me justice.”
I nodded one more time and the crowd once again burst into applause. By the time I stepped off the stage, everyone was on their feet, and so many hands reached out to shake mine that I couldn’t even remember the faces that were attached to them. But I knew where I needed to be, and my footsteps led me there. Back with my children. Back to Na Jeong. Back where I belong.
June 23, 2018
I kicked off my heels and rolled my stockings off my legs before I sat myself down on the floor. It’s been a great night, but my forty four year old body cannot handle more than three hours in heels anymore. I did, however, enjoy getting dressed up, and seeing Joon and our children dressed up, for the occasion. I smoothed out my skirt onto the floor and thanked God I asked Omonim to go shopping with me. This dress was the perfect choice. Black and strapless, with a bone lined bodice and a full ballgown skirt that hit just below my knees, it was classic and elegant, and I felt beautiful in it. Even more so when I saw Joon’s eyes light up when he saw me, like they did in San Francisco and like they did on the day we got married.
The rest of the dinner went by in a blur there had been so many people trying to speak to Joon and Appa and In Sung. I didn’t even get to eat much we were talking to so many people and trying to make sure the children ate enough. No doubt we will be back here again next year, when Appa hits his ten year post retirement to celebrate his induction to the hall of fame. Or at least that’s what I’m surmising from what Chairman Goo told Appa.
Joon came from the direction of the kitchen with a pot of ramyun, holding onto the handles with a tea towel. I quickly placed one of the towels from the bathroom on the floor so that he could put it down. I applauded myself silently for having the foresight to pack some ramyun and snacks. Or I would have begged Joon to stop at a store to get some after the ceremony.
Joon had already taken his shoes off as well, and went back to the kitchenette of the suite for some bowls and chopsticks. I waited until he sat himself down on the floor next to me before I lifted the lid off the pot and we both put our faces close to the steam as we savoured the familiar and always loved smell.
“Aigoo, it smells delicious,” I said as Joon started serving up the ramyum into bowls. “Hurry… Hurry…”
He smiled at me before handing me the bowl. I quickly took the chopsticks and wrapped some noodles around it before bringing it to my mouth to cool it down.
“Careful… it’s hot,” he warned and I gave him a sheepish grin.
He lifted his own bowl up and started blowing on the noodles and I was distracted for a moment at the way his pretty lips puckered up. However my tummy had other ideas and rumbled in protest. Joon, so used to this by now, merely chuckled and exchanged our bowls once he realized his noodles were cooler than mine.
“Yah, Kim Jae Joon-ssi…” I said as I sighed in pleasure once I had my first bite in. “… that speech of yours was pretty good.”
“Pretty good?” He teased back. “I seem to recall you crying it was so good.”
“I was overwhelmed. I was so proud of you,” I replied. I leaned over to the entertainment unit and turned the radio on. “Ahh just in time…” I said as ‘In A Starry Night’ came on.
“This is still going on?” Joon asked as he ate his ramyun. “The first time I really heard this was at the boarding house, the night of the blackout, when we all slept on the living room floor.”
“I woke up the next day and your face was this,” I motioned with my pointer finger and thumb, “close to mine.”
“How is it?” Joon asked, looking pointedly at the ramyun.
“Good,” I answered. “Not as good as yours, though. But it will have to do. Hungry people shouldn’t complain.”
“It would have been better with your kkakdugi,” he said. “I wish we brought some now. And maybe some eggs.”
“You and that radish kimchi,” I laughingly said. “You’re obsessed.”
“I love it. Almost as much as I love you,” he quipped back.
“I got it, I got it,” I relented. “We’ll never go on another trip again without taking some back with us.”
“Were the kids asleep already when you checked up on them,” he asked as he stretched his legs in front of him and put his bowl down.
“The light was off in Seon and Min’s room. Ae’s too. Shin had his earphones on, still dressed and refusing to put his pajamas on, and Soo was in bed reading,” I responded before I put my bowl down and sidled closer to him so I can loosen his tuxedo bow and unbutton the top of his dress shirt. His jacket lay on the couch behind us, as did my shawl. I laid my head on his shoulder and placed a hand over his heart. “They were so proud of you. Don’t tell Seon, but I saw him tearing up.”
“Really?” Joon asked. “I’m glad they saw a little bit of that part of my life.”
We stayed sitting on the floor quietly before an old familiar song came on the radio.
“I know this song,” Joon suddenly said. “Kim Dong Ryul, right? It came out in 1999.”
“Yeah,” I answered quietly. I listened to the familiar lyrics and sang along.
As if we’d met yesterday
Not really needing to ask how you have been
Perhaps I was needlessly concerned
Not being at ease
Maybe I made it more awkward between us
Telling me that you look terrible because you couldn’t sleep at all
After my phone call last night
Your face is smiling shyly
How could it be that you’re still the same like this…
Joon stayed quiet for a few minutes, holding my hand in his, over his chest, before he sang the chorus along with me.
Should I say that I love her again
That I’ve come around a little too late
But that I’ve been waiting
That waiting for you was the easiest thing for me
So I didn’t realize how time has passed
Should I say I love her again
That I’m still not good enough
But would you accept me
That loving you is all of my life
So I can’t help it
I felt a smile form on my face as I listened to his clear voice and closed my eyes.
“Yeobo,” I heard Joon say.
“Want to dance with me?”
Na Jeong lifted her head from my chest and looked into my eyes.
“Right now?” She asked softly.
“Why not?” I responded as I stood up and held a hand out. “The kids are asleep and I’d like to dance with my wife.”
She looked at me for a few seconds before she took my hand and allowed me to lead her to the balcony of our suite. I slid the glass door open and led her out carefully, not bothering to turn the light on.
Once outside, I wrapped my arms around her waist as she enfolded her arms around my neck. We swayed from side to side silently, our bodies coming together gracefully and automatically, the way we’ve always done.
“Joon-ah…” She said quietly. “Why did you wait for me? All those years ago… And for so long?”
I thought about my answer before I responded. “I thought you were worth it. I thought I could love you and make you happy, if I was given the chance. I knew you were the one for me.”
“You were right,” she said with a chuckle.
“Na Jeong-ah…” I asked hesitantly. “Hmm?”
“Why did you stay with me? During that time… You could have just left and everyone would have understood… It probably would have been easier.”
“I have never been one to take the easy road,” she said. “And I KNEW you were worth it.”
She stopped moving and pulled away enough so she could look me in the eyes. “You know when the weather is bad, and it’s raining or snowing so hard that you can barely see in front of you?” I nodded. “No matter how bad it gets, you never forget your way home. Your love for me was like that. Just because I couldn’t see it right away, it didn’t mean it wasn’t there. We just needed to get to the other side. Sometimes, all we really need is a little bit of faith. Lucky for us, I have plenty. Or at least enough, for you and for me. This is what I realized when you left me that letter.”
“What letter?” I asked. We’ve written each other so much over the last eighteen years I don’t even remember.
“Even when I didn’t love you, I still loved you. Even when it was just the promise of you, it was still you. I loved you then and I love you still,” Na Jeong recited from memory. “That’s why I stayed. Because you loved me through all that. Never wavering in your belief that one day I would become the woman you thought I could be. I looked at my present and imagined my future, and it was always you by my side. I couldn’t let that go. Not when there was so much at stake.” She gave me a dazzling smile. “And look at us now.”
I kissed her lips tenderly as I cupped the back of her neck. I pressed my forehead against hers and smiled. “Yeah, look at us now.”
“Joon-ah… How come Abonim and Omonim didn’t make it tonight?” Na Jeong asked suddenly.
“God only knows,” I said before heaving a loud sigh. “The last time I talked to Appa he said they were going on a cruise.”
“A cruise?” She asked. “How lovely.”
“How lovely? How lovely?” I asked in irritation.
“You don’t have to sound so unhappy about it, yeobo,” she chided. “Are you still mad they’re refusing to get married?”
“Yeobo, they’ve been living together for over ten years! Is it so wrong that I want them to make it official? Is it?” I heard my voice getting louder with this same discussion and I had to make a conscious effort so as not to wake the kids up. “Do you know how weird it is to explain to our kids that their grandparents are ‘dating’?” I continue in a harsh whisper.
“They’ve done the whole marriage thing and they didn’t like it,” she said calmly. “Can’t you just let them be and be happy for them? I think it’s sweet.”
“Joon-ah… Should we stay here another night?” Na Jeong asked softly and I saw her lick her lips. “We haven’t had any alone time recently…”
“We can’t,” I said and watched her face fall. “Omma and Appa are taking the kids back to Seoul tomorrow and WE, as in only You and I, are flying to Japan.”
“Wait, what?” She asked in puzzlement. “But who’s going to watch…”
“Samcheonpo and Yoon Jin still owe us for the bet,” I responded smoothly. “And I still owe you a honeymoon.”
“I already had Omma pack your bag with enough clothes for a week. Everything else has been arranged.” I leaned down and put an arm under her legs and lifted her in my arms. “Should we get the honeymoon started tonight?”
She gasped but wrapped her arms around my neck anyway. “Why not? The kids are asleep and now’s as good a time as any.”
I carried her back into the suite and leaned down to kiss her soft lips. “You have to stay quiet, though. Unless you want the kids to know we’re trying for our sixth.”
“Sixth?” She asked. “I’m 44 years old.”
I laughed and kissed her nose. “Stranger things have happened,” I whispered as I took her to our room and kicked the door close behind me.
This is our story. And the best part? Our story, our love and our happiness… they’re all real. All tangible. We lived it, we fought for it and we chose it. No one handed us this life on a platter. We’ve earned our happy ending.
Busan, South Korea
June 24, 2018
I looked around the hallway barefoot to make sure everyone was in bed before stepping out of my room. The door for Omma and Appa’s room is closed so I think they’re asleep already. So is the door to Seon and Min Oppa’s room and the room that Shin Oppa and Soo are staying in. Trying to be as quiet as possible I tiptoed my way out of the room and walked quietly on the carpet to go to the kitchen.
I’m hungry and there was a lot of food in the fridge. Omma might get mad because I took stuff from the “mini-bar” whatever that is, but Appa will just smile at her and she’ll forget all about why she was mad anyway. Omma’s so soft. Only with Appa though. All someone has to say is Appa’s name and she gets all funny in the face.
Yoon Jin Eemo says my mother is a gangster. I didn’t really believe her until I saw her hit Sung Gyun Samchon once for making fun of Appa about something from 1994. That must be an important year since our parents and their friends talk about it a lot. I’ve seen a picture of Omma from that time and she looked funny! It looked like she didn’t comb her hair!
That is a long time ago. I tried to count in my head and got to twenty and then I had to give up. I’m not good with math, but Soo, my twin brother is. Omma and Appa are really old now but you’d never guess. Omma is so beautiful… Everyone in my class always says so. And Appa is so handsome. All the teachers say so.
Omma got so mad when I told her but Appa just nudged her on the side and said “I still love milk.” Omma turned bright red and was hushing Appa when Soo said, “I love milk too, Appa… And cheese too.” Omma got even redder but didn’t say anything. Me? I only like cheese. Milk makes my tummy ache. Shin Oppa hates milk so much that Appa always has to yell at him to finish his milk before he left the table, but then Appa confused me when he told Seon and Min Oppa that milk will get them in trouble. Maybe they’re al-ler-gic to milk… I learned that word in class this week. Seon Oppa told Appa it would only get him in trouble if it’s spoiled, Min Oppa said he’s worried now because he likes milk so much and we might have a ge-ne-tic problem with milk and Appa burst out laughing like crazy. I love it when Appa laughs. His eyes become two slits on his face and he makes me happy. Omma, too, I think, because she kissed him on the lips and made my brothers go ‘eww’ before the two of them disappeared into the bedroom to watch television. They watch television a lot.
I was already almost at the kitchen part of the hotel room when I noticed a soft light on where the big television is. I was about to turn back around and go to my room when I heard Omma’s laugh coming from the balcony of the hotel room and I quickly crouched down behind the couch. I peeked around the sofa to see my parents outlined in the dark.
Appa didn’t have shoes on and had his arms around Omma’s waist and Omma also had taken her shoes off and had her arms around Appa’s shoulders. There was some old music playing on the radio and they were slowly swaying from side to side. Omma looked like a princess with her long hair up and the skirt of her dress falling just below her knees. And Appa looked like a slightly messy Prince Charming, like I always see in my books, with the bow of his tuxedo to one side and the top button on his shirt unbuttoned. Omma’s pretty rings caught the light and I was transfixed for a minute before I felt my brothers join me behind the couch.
“What are you doing up?” Min Oppa asked. “And why are you hiding behind here?”
“I was hungry,” I said when my gaze strayed to the empty ramyun pot on the floor and I gasped. “Omma and Appa made ramyun and didn’t tell us. I’m so hungry…” I licked my lips and sighed in disappointment.
“Omma and Appa are still awake?” Shin Oppa asked irritatedly. “How are we going to watch our movie?”
“Where did they get the eggs?” Soo asked next to me, rubbing his belly.
“You were going to watch a movie without me?” I asked, offended.
“Ahh.. Ae-ya… It’s for older kids,” Seon Oppa said, not meeting my eyes. Liar liar pants on fire. He is so bad at lying and I can always tell.
“But Soo is here too!” I said, hurt. “I’m going to tell Haraboji and Oe Haraboji you’re treating me different just cos I’m a girl.” When they didn’t budge I continued. “And Jung Gook Samchon and Joon Samchon…” Still, no response, so I dangled the heaviest threat. “I’ll tell Appa! I’ll tell Appa for sure. Maybe I’ll tell Appa now…” I opened my mouth wide to scream Appa’s name when Seon Oppa covered my mouth with his hand.
“You can watch the movie with us,” Min Oppa finally relented after sharing a look with the boys, though I get the feeling he’s just saying it so I wouldn’t tell.
“If Omma and Appa are still up, no one will get to watch the movie,” Shin Oppa said and they all nodded.
“Shhh…” Seon Oppa said suddenly, bringing a finger up to his lips. “They’re doing that thing again. There’s still hope.”
“What thing?” I asked and tried to listen, only to hear our parents bickering even as they kept their arms tight around each other. I hope they’re still not talking about the thing that happened last week, when Omma opened my school pictures and saw how Appa did my hair.
“Kim Jae Joon-ssi,” Omma said in her I’m-a-little-annoyed voice. “How could you let your daughter go to school with lopsided pigtails? And on picture day no less?”
“How am I supposed to know how to fix her hair?” Appa said innocently. “We only have boys! I asked Young Ae and she said it was perfect.”
“Yeobo… She’s five,” Omma had barked, but Appa just looked at her while sending me secret smiles. Appa is awesome.
“Yahh. She’s pretty still though,” he said with a wink my way. “Just like you.”
When he said that Omma relaxed and let Appa hold her. Then they watched television. Again.
“You know… When they fake argue just so they can make up,” Min Oppa said with a smile and I looked at him in puzzlement.
“Fake argue?” Soo said, his perfect angel face confused. We’re only five years old. Neither of us knew what they meant.
The thing is though is that our parents argue differently than other parents. When they fight they’re still holding hands or hugging, and some people I’ve seen yelling or even throwing things! Omma and Appa never do that. And it always ends in a kiss.
Our parents are always kissing. My brothers cringe and make faces when they do but Appa doesn’t care. And neither does Omma. Appa just says, in his serious voice, “You’ll all understand one day.” Understand what I’m not really sure but I don’t feel disgusted when I see them kiss. Or when I see them holding hands or whispering to each other. A lot of my friends’ parents barely talk to each other or look at each other but Omma and Appa are always talking to each other and they are always looking at each other. They say I love you all the time, to each other and to us. I don’t really know what this love business is yet, but I know it makes me feel good when I hear our parents say it. Whatever this love is, it must be the good stuff, because Appa always says we wouldn’t have our family if not for that. And Omma agrees. I’m glad we have our family. Though I act like my brothers are a pain most of the time, and they are, most of the time, I can’t imagine life without them or all our grandparents and our parents’ friends.
Omma has said before that people can get through just about anything if they had family, friendship and love. I don’t know exactly what she means yet, but I’ll just believe it to be true. Because Omma is always right. Which Appa says on an almost daily basis. I love Omma and Appa. They’re the best.