PLEASE NOTE: This story is written within two timelines. Please pay attention to the dates. Thank you!
April 13, 1973
“You’ll never believe it,” I whispered to my friend Tae Jun, as I put my guitar case down and sat next to him in class. “But I just met an angel.”
“What are you talking about?” He asked me, brows furrowed. “You and that dramatic nature of yours… Must be true what they say about artists and musicians, huh? Who talks like that? Oh, and while you’re out there playing at being the sixth Beatle and meeting angels, I’m here pretending to be you.”
“What do you mean?”
“The professor just called your name in roll,” he answered as he pushed his glasses higher up on his nose. “Yah… Is it not enough I’m taking a class I don’t need because you insisted I do so?” Irritation flashed through his eyes before he continued. “This is the real reason, right? So I can cover your ass?”
I feigned a hurt expression. “Tae Jun-ah… I’m hurt. Really, really hurt that you would think that…”
“Just shut up and tell me what happened,” he said resignedly. “Quick, before lecture starts.”
“I’m not kidding,” I responded, leaning towards him. He waited expectantly as I began recounting what just happened.
I had peeked into the music room to make sure there was no one there. I always did this, oftentimes in the afternoon, in between classes. I had hesitated for one moment before I entered, knowing that I probably should use these last few minutes before class studying, as my family would want me to do, and as my older brother would have done.
I am grateful for the privilege of growing up in a moderately wealthy household, but I felt imprisoned, too. My path was already laid out for me before I could walk, before I could talk, before I could even decide… Anything for myself. I wasn’t even given the opportunity to choose what university I would attend. Ahboji went to Seoul National University, so did Hyung and so did Noona, so it had been a foregone conclusion that this is also where I would go and that I would also major in business. Ahboji is extremely proud of the fact that I have a good head for numbers and that I very rarely have to be taught anything twice. He said I take after him and that it seemed to come easier to me than it did to Hyung. I wish he wouldn’t say things like that… I see the way Hyung’s eyes become guarded whenever a comparison between us is made. I hope that he doesn’t think that I have my eye on succeeding Ahboji in the company… Because that is the last thing I want.
I may take to business like fish to water, but it is not what my heart beats for. Music… That is what inspires me. She is my first love, my mistress and my muse all at once. If I had my way I would be playing somewhere all day, foregoing university altogether. But unless I am willing to turn my back on my family, I cannot do that. As a son, even the youngest one, there are expectations of me that I must fulfill. My parents never fail to remind me of this and of the fact that like Hyung, it is also my duty to uphold our family’s reputation. Even if that meant sacrificing my own dreams. Even if that meant that I am sneaking around in university just to be able to play for a few minutes.
One glance at the clock had told me that I only had half an hour before my next class and I had carefully lowered my guitar case onto the floor. Almost by instinct, I held my breath as I opened it… the sight of the guitar always took my breath away. My 1973 Gibson was my most prized possession, and I took care of it as if it was my child. I lifted it from its plush lined bed and eased the strap over my head before taking a seat on the lone chair facing away from the door. It wasn’t until I was about to start tuning the strings that I realized I had forgotten to take my pick out of the case’s pocket. I was bending back down to retrieve it when I heard a rip.
“Damn,” I muttered as I examined the rip on the left knee of my pants. My Omma balks even when I leave the house with any hair out of place, so I can imagine her expression if she knew that I am going to class with pants ripped. You are not a bum, Kim Kang Ho, I could almost hear her voice say reproachfully. Do not carry yourself like one. I sent a silent apology to my mother even as I started chuckling. Lucky for me, I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. I still get great satisfaction every time I see Ahboji’s eyebrows narrow in annoyance whenever he sees my hair down. Out of respect, I tie it up when I am in the house, but sometimes, just sometimes, I leave it loose just to, well… Rankle him a bit. My family needs a bit of loosening up.
Pick in my mouth, I sat back down and tucked my hair behind one ear before playing the strumming a chord. Not quite sounding right, I turned the thickest string and strummed. Satisfied with that, I placed a finger behind the fifth fret on the A string and tuned the D note. I then moved my finger behind the fourth fret and turned the B string. Shifting my finger behind the fifth fret once more on the B string, I made sure that the E string was accurate. Pleased that the guitar was now ready, I took the pick from my mouth and prepared to play.
Sometimes I wondered if this was crazy… That I sneaked around to play music. I have written some songs, songs I have only ever played in the safety of my room, and though playing it still gave me immense pleasure, I knew that music was an experience that needed to be shared. I didn’t need an audience, necessarily, just someone who could be in that moment with me. So that they may, too, feel what I feel what I feel. So that the music I play could, perhaps, bring them as much joy as it brings me, every single time.
Shaking my head at my fanciful thoughts, I smiled. “Kim Kang Ho-ssi, you can do it! Play well!” I said as I brought my pick towards the strings and positioned the fingers of my left hand. I took a deep breath and started to strum the melody that has been in my mind all day.
As my fingers moved through the song’s introduction, I closed my eyes and listened as the notes spoke to me. I had already started humming along before I even started singing the words. I should be nervous, as I am about to sing an English song, but there is no one here with me. Ahboji always believed all his kids would benefit learning the English language and had insisted that we have lessons as soon as we hit high school, and although I understood better than I spoke, I still immersed myself in it by reading books and listening to its music. This song resonated with me when I first heard it two years ago, and it remains my favorite to this day.
“When you’re weary, and feeling small… When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all,” I sang, my voice strong. “I’m on your side, oooh, when times are rough, and friends just can’t, can’t be found… Like a blidge over troubled water, I will lay me down. Like a blidge, over troubled water… I will lay me down.”
I allowed myself to enjoy the repeating notes before the second verse began. “When you’re down and out… When you’re on the street. When evening falls so hard, I will comfort you…” I had to pause and think on the next line before continuing. Singing in English gets difficult when all my thoughts are still in my native language. The lines coming to me, I continued. “I’ll take your part… When darkness comes. And pain is all around… Like a blidge over troubled water, I will lay me down… Like a blidge over troubled water, I will-”
I heard what sounded like a giggle from behind me and stood up so quickly the strap on my guitar broke. The instrument made a resounding thud as it fell onto the floor. I turned around to berate the person for sneaking up on me like a ghost, and was surprised to see a girl standing just a few feet from the door. She stood in front of me, silent, and for one brief minute I wondered if I had wished her onto reality. Hadn’t I, just a few minutes ago, wished for an audience?
“It’s bridge, not blidge,” she said quietly. Her voice held an intonation that was unfamiliar to me and I wondered if I am hallucinating someone who came from the country. About to ask her if she was real, she spoke before I could open my mouth. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have barged in.”
I wondered if she would think me strange if I asked her to just keep talking. Her voice was lilting, her syllables enunciated in a very pronounced way. It sounded a lot like music to me. She stayed grounded where she stood, and I accorded myself the chance to study her. With her keeping her eyes fixed to the floor, all I could see was a long braid over her left shoulder. She was dressed in a white button down blouse with a collar so high I could barely see her neck. The hem of her skirt was way past her knees, quite unlike all the other girls who attended university. Her boots started where her skirt ended and she was carrying a worn bag. I kept standing quietly, searching for the proper introduction, when I saw her turn around to make her way out of the room.
“Stop, please,” I asked almost instinctively, wanting to extend the interaction. I watched as she took a pause and turned back around to face me. Still refusing to look at me directly, I followed her eyes to my hands. “What did you say?”
When she finally lifted her head, I had to make a conscious effort to not gape. The person that stood in front of me was the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen in my life. Not only in the most superficial sense of the word, but the fact was, that she was… breathtaking. Her skin looked soft, her bare face lovelier than it had any right to be. Her perfectly winged eyebrows framed almond shaped light brown eyes. She seemed to be studying me as well. I flushed when I remembered the tear over my left knee, and wondered if it would look unseemly to straighten my shirt even as her eyes stayed fixed on me.
“It’s bridge, not blidge,” she repeated, drawing my attention to her pink lips, and I felt a blush creep up my neck. Her voice was smooth, like how I would imagine velvet would sound if it had a sound.
I was so distracted that I had to force myself to refocus and try to understand what she was telling me. Something about blidges and bridges… I’m not quite sure. Ahh, right, I thought as understanding dawned. I always had difficulty differentiating between R’s and L’s when speaking in English. It seems I have it while singing as well. Our tutor always tells me this. I was about to thank her when my eyes went back to her face and all my thoughts flew out of my head once more.
This is ridiculous, I thought. It’s not as if I’ve never had a girlfriend. I am an avid admirer of the female form, like most men. In fact I like to think I have had an even greater exposure to beautiful women than most guys my age, what with my parents always toting us about to business functions and parties. And though I quite appreciated beauty at its most basic aesthetic meaning, it was never what drew me in. I like to think I’m a bit more discerning than that. But this apparition in front of me… I could do nothing but blink at her as she stood there, her spine straight and her eyes shooting daggers at me. Incredible.
Trying to form a complete sentence in the face of such loveliness was something I am not able to do right now. I watched, transfixed, as slim fingers fiddled with the chain around her neck. Ask for her name, a little voice inside me said, and I opened my mouth to do just that when the clock chimed.
I lifted my eyes to look at the clock on the wall and in that space between two seconds, she was gone. By the time I looked again at where she had stood, only the sight of the door greeted me. Almost as if she was never there.
“So what happened next?” I heard Tae Jun ask.
“Nothing happened,” I responded. “I packed up my guitar in a hurry, trying to see if I could see where she went, but she was gone.”
“So you didn’t even get her name?” He asked and I shook my head in response. “That’s weird… You’re not normally shy around girls.” I could hear our professor’s voice still calling roll in the background. My friend appeared to be thinking and I tore off a blank sheet of paper from his notebook and stole a pen from his backpack which was lying on the floor. He glared at me before he spoke. “Yah… And you show up in class with a guitar and no notebook or pen or even your textbook?”
“I forgot, ” I said with a grin. “Plus we have the same classes anyway, and I knew you’d let me borrow your stuff.”
He shook his head at me. “I give up. I give up with you,” he said resignedly. “But, Kang Ho-ah… What are you going to do about your angel?”
“You know me… I will find her. ”
“Find her? There are thousands of students here. You don’t even have a name. Who you described could be anyone. You’re persistent, but good luck with that. You…”
“Here,” a familiar voice said softly, and I held a finger up to shut Tae Jun up. That voice. It’s that girl’s voice.
“Park Mi Sook?” The professor repeated. “Please speak louder.”
“Here,” I heard her say more loudly, and I got my confirmation.
I craned my neck past the students in front of me and towards my left, where I was positive the voice came from, and saw the long braid, now behind her head and disappearing where the back of her chair started. I spied her tan colored boots, and the bag that lay on the floor by her feet. The heavens must be smiling on me today. For the second time today, our paths cross.
Park Mi Sook, I wrote at the top of the paper in front of me. Mi Sook-ssi. Mi Sook-ah… just writing her name on paper brought a small grin to my face.
“I don’t need luck,” I said to my friend, who was still looking at me in confusion. I’m sure he’s still wondering why I was telling him to be quiet. I smiled at him triumphantly, and he raised an eyebrow in question. “I don’t need luck. She’s here.”
Park Hyatt Hotel
June 17, 2002
Feeling like I was being dissected from the inside out, I self consciously lifted my left hand to smooth my hair down. Satisfied that it was once again impeccable, my fingers found their way to my necklace, feeling its comforting weight. Risking a look at his face, I saw that his eyes held a faraway look in them. He seemed lost in thought, and I looked away.
I know that look. It’s how he always looked daydreaming, and when he was completely immersed in his music. He passed that expression on to Jae Joon. They had both been dreamers, forever ago. Having him this close, I could smell his particular scent, still the same as it had been years and years ago, the crisp notes of mandarin and lemon, with the subtle undertone of cedar and tobacco. The way he smelled had been comforting, then. He smelled of winters spent by the fire, of the woods and of cosy nights. It had been one of the things I loved about him, and one of the hardest to forget. It’s becoming more apparent that I had been unsuccessful, even at that.
Memories were unlocking in my head, one by one, and I was reminded of why I have made a conscious effort to not see him since I left, even if it meant staying away from Joon, too. Our son may look like me, and some of his personality traits may have come directly from mine, but his heart… his heart and the essence of who he is… That came from his father. Joon had inherited his father’s hands, and the strength, along with the gentleness, that he had wielded from them. He had his father’s kindness and good humor, along with his simplistic view of the world, where things existed only in black and white.
His silence made my thoughts seem overly loud, even if they were just in my head, and I mentally gave myself a shake. Keep moving forward, Park Mi Sook, don’t ever look back. As long as you do that your ghosts will never catch up. I kept my eyes down as it dawned on me that the presents for our in laws, which I had carefully wrapped, we’re haphazardly strewn all over the floor.
Grateful for the distraction I quickly bent down and try to gather them together back into the bag. Upon seeing what I was doing he also bent down and attempted to help me. We did this task side by side with nary a sound being made by either one of us. For a brief moment I considered saying something, anything, that would break the tension but thought better of it. I had feared that any word from me which shatter the fragile impasse that we were in. We would have been fine, absolutely fine, until our fingers touched as we picked up a gift simultaneously. At the brief contact we both pulled our hands away almost at the same time. Sparks of awareness traveled up my arm and my heart started beating erratically.
I tried to stand up quickly and so did he. Devoid of any spatial awareness, my forehead collided with his as we both tried to raise ourselves off the plush carpeted floor. I raised my eyes to his as I realized our faces were only inches apart. His hard eyes were studying me with an inscrutable expression and I couldn’t tear my gaze away, lest he get the impression that I was any more affected than he was. Which I’m not. I’m not affected at all. I am no longer twenty years old, with nothing to back me up but my pride and my principles. Things are different now, I am a married woman. I am married to someone else.
At the reminder I straightened my back. I had almost raised myself to a full standing position when the door opened behind me, hitting me right at the bottom of my spine and I found myself careening back to the ground. I closed my eyes and berated myself for wearing such high heels. Convinced that I was going to find myself face flat on the floor, I splayed my palms in front of me and braced for impact.
Something cushioned my fall, and I gingerly opened my eyes. It was only then that I became aware of strong hands around my waist and that my palms were now clutching a solid chest. My ex-husband’s solid chest. The shock from the fall must have left me a bit bewildered and addle minded, because for the life of me, all I could think about right now is that his chest now doesn’t feel much different than it did twenty years ago. Broader, maybe, but still the same. How unfair, really, that the passage of time excludes some people, whereas I’ve had to employ a veritable army of beauty products and people to keep me looking as I do. I was still pondering and bemoaning this issue when my son’s voice broke through my musings.
“Omma! Appa!” He exclaimed from behind me. The shock on his voice reflected what i was feeling too, right now. “What are you doing?”
In a nanosecond his father and I were both on our feet, facing our son and the others at the door. I saw Sung Dong Il sneaking peeks from behind Joon’s back and Na Jeong’s Omma standing behind her with her mouth agape. Na Jeong looked like she wanted to say something then thought better of it, as she pursed her lips back shut and sent a look over to Joon, as if waiting for him to say something else. Joon still had a hand on the door, his other hand carrying a bagful of gifts. He didn’t say anything else, but stayed resolutely standing and staring at us with a frown on his handsome face.
“There is a logical explanation for this,” I started to say as I attempted to formulate an appropriate response. The truth… The truth will work, I decided. We have nothing to hide, and I was about to tell him so when I heard his father’s voice next to me.
“Joon-ah,” he said smoothly, his voice gruffer and deeper than I remembered. “You came?”
Our grown son merely narrowed his eyes in response.
I don’t believe that in all the years that I have attended business functions and multi billion won mergers that I have ever been to a more silent table than this. Na Jeong, along with her parents on either side of her, sat in the center seat across from us. Her father kept his eyes fixed on the flowers on the table. Her mother was looking around the room and then rearranging the cutlery around her plate. Na Jeong also stayed uncharacteristically quiet, her pretty eyes studying Joon, who sat between me and his mother. Though our son said nothing, I could feel the tension in the way he was sitting down, from his posture and down the long arms that stayed resolutely at his sides.
His mother stayed quiet as well, her eyes never straying to anyone else on the table, her focus entirely taken up by the wall behind Il Hwa. Joon cleared his throat and then sounded like he was about to say something, but then decided against it. I cleared my own throat next, wanting to break the silence at least. I searched for the perfect ice breaker, but all my social skills seemed to abandon me at this moment in time. When Dong Il cleared his throat, my eyes met his in surprise, and I watched as Na Jeong nudged his side and then glared at him. He blinked at her innocently before shrugging his shoulders. I was reaching a hand over the table to reach for the water pitcher when at last the wait staff came in.
I could almost hear the collective breaths of relief when two baskets of bread rolls were placed on the table, along with gorgeous dishes full of pats of butter shaped like hearts and doves. Bottles of red and white wine were brought in on a cart, along with a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne on ice.
The head server ceremoniously opened the bottle of champagne and poured a glass for each of us until he reached Na Jeong’s, and Joon blocked his hands with an arm. To her credit, Na Jeong only looked at the alcohol a little longingly before turning her full attention back to the bread basket. After looking at both her parents and myself and Joon’s mother, it seems our daughter in law has made her mind up to break the ice. She smiled brightly before taking a deep breath and speaking.
“Omonim, you wear Chanel, right?” Na Jeong, the love of my son’s life, asked as she passed me the bread basket after taking two, no, three rolls and placing them on her plate. I had to hide a smile when rather than look at her in concern, my son just looked on in amusement as he watched his future wife attack the bread with gusto.
“Yes, I do,” Joon’s mother answered. “Why do you ask?”
“Ah,” she said as she buttered a roll and took a bite. “We were trying to figure out what to get you and Abonim as presents and Joon couldn’t remember what perfume you wore, only the brand and how it smelled.”
She finished off her roll before turning her attention to its companions on her plate. I watched as her father stared at her incredulously even as she serenely buttered her next roll. Her mother gave us a sheepish smile before taking a sip of her wine.
“It’s delicious,” she commented to no one in particular, before darting her eyes back to Na Jeong.
“Omonim… We had to go to the Chanel counter at Lotte and smell all the perfumes they had on offer. It wouldn’t have been so bad but my sense of smell is crazy nowadays…” Her voice faded at the last part of her narration and her father frowned at her. “But anyway, we found it in the end. Omonim… I didn’t know you were such a traditionalist. We had to special order Chanel Cristalle for you. The sales lady said that was popular in the seventies!” Na Jeong gave Mi Sook a smile and Joon’s mother mirrored one back at her, her face breaking out into the first authentic expression I’ve seen since she came into the room.
Well, maybe not the first, I thought as I recalled the way her eyes darkened when she found herself on top of me. I was just trying to brace her fall. She had looked so shaken when our foreheads collided, and I was just trying to brace her fall. I am a gentleman. It is the gentlemanly thing to do. I don’t care that the pulse on her neck became visible as I got closer. I don’t care that she pulled her hand away a second later than I did when we inadvertently touched. I don’t care that her lips opened slightly as she became aware of where my hands were resting after I caught her. Those things are of no consequence to me. It is no longer my job to care. She had a husband to notice those things now.
Na Jeong was still speaking and though I forced myself to stay attentive to the conversation flowing around me, my mind was distracted. I felt unsettled being here… I wasn’t used to these social events anymore. It wasn’t just this room… It was this city. It was my ex wife. I heard Joon talking to his future father-in-law, and attempted to look like I was paying attention. On the other side of the table, the women were immersed in their own conversation, until I heard Na Jeong address Joon.
“Joon-ah,” she said as she was buttering half of the last roll on her plate. “Say ahh…” She lifted the roll towards his mouth as she leaned towards him, blinking a couple of times.
I had expected Joon to smile and comply, but he narrowed his eyes at her instead. “Jagiya… What’s the matter?” He asked. “Are you trying to get me to do something right now? You’re not having one of your crazy cravings, right?”
She clucked her tongue at him before she responded, a frown on her face. “I was trying to be sweet,” she complained. “All my sincere effort is wasted on you. Just wait and see if I use any more aegyo when you want me to.” She delivered the last line emphatically as she plonked the roll on his plate. “Take this, then.”
Fully expecting my son to apologize profusely, as other men would under the circumstances, he surprised me by laughing instead. The sound of his laughter brought a smile to my face, and pretty soon I was chuckling as well. Na Jeong continued to frown at us over her plate for a few minutes until Joon spoke.
“Na Jeong-ah,” he said gently. “I always appreciate you and your sincere effort. Thank you.”
Something seemed to passed between them as I watched a slow smile bloom on Na Jeong’s face. They never took their gazes away from each other even as both mothers looked on with a fond smile and I exchanged an awkward glance with her father.
“Joon-ah, I appreciate you, too,” Na Jeong said softly as her eyes misted with tears. “I appreciate your sincere effort and how hard you work. I lo-”
Dong Il cleared his throat only to have Na Jeong turn to him with a glare. Again. I saw as my son reached for her hand across the table, and immediately her face relaxed. For the first time since dinner started, there was an almost comfortable silence at the table, and I looked at Joon’s face in profile and felt warmth and pride suffuse me. Despite all the mistakes I made with him, I still managed to raise a good man, even though sometimes I am convinced he raised himself. Somehow, despite everything that we had been through… He is still someone who believes in love and someone who had faith in things bigger than himself. I get the feeling I owed my future daughter in law a lot for that.
Whereas other people grew more cynical as they experience the disappointments of life, Joon seems to have become more idealistic as he’s gotten older. Falling in love had taught him to believe in himself and the others around him. I heard that change in him, when he called this past December for my birthday. I saw it firsthand when he came back to Korea and visited me after years of separation within days of coming home. There was a lightness to him that I haven’t seen since his mother abandoned us. He carried himself with the confidence and poise of a man who knew his place in the world.
When he mentioned that he was planning on asking Na Jeong to marry him, my initial reaction had been of worry. I had been concerned that they were too young and too inexperienced to make such a commitment. I feared that they were riding high on the sails of young love without actually understanding what they were getting themselves into. I was afraid they would end up like me and his mother, completely unprepared for what was actually expected of them.
All that worry had been for nothing, as I came to discover. My son has grown up to be a strong and capable human being, infinitely kinder than I have ever been, more capable of love than I ever imagined I could be. He stands firmly by his beliefs and his people. The self knowledge that he has afforded him the luxury of not caring about what anyone else thinks and ensures that he always sees the big picture. He appears to be more courageous and honest than I ever was at his age. And he has certainly found his match in Na Jeong.
Na Jeong is beautiful, but even her loveliness pales in the presence of all her other qualities. Forthright, brave, and intuitive, she understood my son better than either his mother or I do. They each made up for whatever shortcomings the other had, making them stronger and better together. I had no doubt that either one of them would have had a good life without the other, but they chose love and each other nonetheless, despite the difficulties that may lie ahead.
I knew it the first time Joon brought Na Jeong home, as we sat at the kitchen table sharing a meal. As I played our prank on her to get her to come out of her shell. I noted the way she watched Joon’s face for any reaction, the way she smiled when he smiled. Her belief in him came out in laughter, in anger, through actions and through words. This, I thought, is a woman who will always stand by his side. Fighting next to him, fighting with him, fighting for him. It had seemed unbelievable to me then, too, but almost as soon as I was assured of this fact, I loved Na Jeong too and had already accepted her into this crazy, slightly dysfunctional family that we have.
It was with a wistful smile that I watched through my window as she joined Joon on the wooden platform outside the house in Chungju, just a few minutes after he asked me whether I still loved his mother and I didn’t respond, mere moments after he had asked me for the first time in his adult life whether we can go fishing together. I let myself watch for a few seconds as they laid down together in a blanket, their voices coming in softly. If there ever was a time when I felt true happiness in the last few years, surely this had been the moment. There is nothing quite like the feeling of contentment that a parent gets upon seeing their child so happy. And that night, as I watched my son and his soon to be wife look at the stars in front of the home I had built myself, on the wooden platform I had made with my hands, lying together, laughing with each other and talking between themselves about their future, I truly felt at peace.
The thought hit me then that if were to die the next day, I would never need to worry about leaving my boy behind. He is capable of handling his world. He will be loved. They’ll make it.
I had thought that then and I believe it even more so now. Na Jeong and Joon spoke to each other with the honesty of two people who knew each other very well, unfiltered and unafraid. Seeing the way they are together makes me wonder how much they’ve already gone through, as it seems that they’ve been together for much longer than they have. No matter… They are as ready to get married as two people ever were.
The servers came back with our first course, an amuse bouche consisting of shrimp with zucchini and melon, and I saw Joon and Na Jeong break their handholding reluctantly, but not before I spied his fingers linger over her palm. These two. It’s like none of us are here. I shook my head without any real annoyance and kept myself focused on my plate. We all ate quietly, but I did spy Na Jeong’s parents darting glances between me and Joon’s mother. I admit it’s a very bizarre situation, to be sitting front row to a twenty year reunion and the issues that accompanied it.
We all ate quietly, the only audible sounds that of the clinking of plates and utensils, and maybe an occasional cough. Afterwards, the plates were cleared in no time and still the silence continued. This cannot continue. I am the groom’s father. I should say something.
“Sa-don… Jae Joon mentioned that you have been coaching the Twins for a long time,” I asked as I put my napkin down.
“Ahh, yes, ” he answered. “I played baseball when I was younger and it just seemed like the most sensible transition when I couldn’t play anymore.”
“How’s the season going?” I continued. I am not the most knowledgeable of people when it comes to baseball, only just learning enough terms as to understand articles written about Joon, but this much I know to ask. I waited for his answer as a server placed a square wooden block in front of me with what looked like a tomato tartin, topped with burrata and basil. I took a bite of the flaky dish before continuing. “Are there any promising players on your roster right now?”
Joon coughed uncomfortably next to me and I sent a puzzled look his way. My son was covering his mouth with a hand and trying not to laugh.
“Well,” Dong Il started with a pointed glance Joon’s way. “We would have had the MOST promising player in the world on our roster, had he not decided to play for ANOTHER team.”
“Appa!” “Yeobo!” Na Jeong and her mother exclaimed simultaneously.
I looked up from my plate to see Il Hwa glaring at her husband from one end of the table and Na Jeong looking like she wants to shove the tart down her father’s throat.
“He asked!” Dong Il said.
“Are you still not over that?” Na Jeong asked. “Appa… One more time. You do that one more time and I swear….”
“You swear what? I already tried to disown you and you wouldn’t let me.” Dong Il continued eating calmly even as Na Jeong reddened next to him.
“You have to excuse these two,” Il Hwa interjected with an apologetic smile. “They’re not usually like this.”
“Yeah, we are.” Dong Il said smartly as he took a gulp of wine.
I attempted to find the words to diffuse the situation but this scene is so different from any other scenes I have ever shared with my family and Joon’s mother that I am a bit taken aback myself. For a minute Na Jeong kept staring at her father with a frown on her lovely face but then broke out into a smile as she leaned into him.
“That’s true,” she said with an affectionate smile towards her father. “Appa, I still like you.”
“Aish, gashina!” Her father said as he peered down her face. He held the frown for a second before smiling back at her. “I know… I’m awesome, right?”
Na Jeong nodded and for now, at least a truce has been met. The tides changed swiftly and all was well again. For a minute I had worried that they were going to start attacking each other at the dinner table, but it appears that this is a normal exchange in their family and I allowed myself to relax.
As the servers cleared the table again and prepared for our third course, I watched as father and daughter spoke quietly and chuckled at something together. Her mother continued speaking to Joon’s mother as if nothing just happened. I think I may understand a little bit now how my son became enamored with this family. I could always hear his affection for his future in laws in the way he spoke about them. For my part I am just glad that he is marrying into a family that so welcomed him. That support makes a difference, a fact that I am all too familiar with.
When the third course of sous vied salmon came, Joon surprised me by lifting Na Jeong’s plate and his and walking off to speak to the head server. When he came back to his seat he addressed Na Jeong.
“Jagiya, they’ll give us a Caesar salad with pork belly instead,” he told her.
“You didn’t have to forgo the salmon, Joon-ah. I know it was one of your favorites when we had the tasting.”
“Of course I did. I won’t eat what uri Na Jeong-ie can’t eat,” he responded. They shared another smile as their salads were delivered and we all dug in.
“Joon-ah,” I heard his mother say, and I was surprised at the way my heart leapt at the sound of her voice. “Will you please tell your father to pass the salt?”
Joon looked at his mother then at me, as if saying “you heard, right?” But I made no move to pass the salt. I pretended that I didn’t hear because that message was supposed to be passed onto me, and he didn’t say it yet. She wasn’t speaking to me so why should I listen? It’s not as if I just liked her voice.
“Appa,” Joon finally said when he realized I was waiting for him. “Omma wants you to pass the salt.”
“Here, Joon, give this to your Omma,” I answered, handing him the silver shaker. Na Jeong and her parents stopped eating long enough to watch all of us. “And tell your Omma she didn’t have to bring presents. I already had most of them sent to their house a few days ago. And the ones that haven’t been sent will be delivered next week.”
When his mother didn’t respond right away, Joon sighed in exasperation before delivering my message in a monotone voice. I focused my attention on the succulent dish in front of me even as I heard his mother’s response. Across the table the Sungs continued to watch us wordlessly.
“Joon-ah, tell your Appa that had I known he was going to do that, I would have taken note,” I heard her voice say more loudly. “And ask him why he thought it imperative to buy more gifts without consulting me.”
At this I felt myself straighten in defense and I found myself responding before I could even think about what I’m saying. “URI ADEUL, ask your Omma how exactly I was supposed to do that when I haven’t spoken to her or even known where she’s been for the last twenty years.” There. I’ve said it. At least my voice sounded fairly calm though I was bristling inside.
“Uri Jae Joon-ah… Please inform your Appa that I stopped being acc-”
“Enough,” I heard Joon say quietly. Too quietly. From the corner of my eye I saw Joon run a hand over his hair before he looked at Na Jeong and her parents, all sitting down across from us with identical expressions on their faces. “Please excuse us for a minute, it seems I have something to discuss with my parents in private.” He rested both of his palms on the table before standing up. “Omma,” he said as he turned to his mother, “Appa,” then to me, “Outside. Now.”
I thought we were doing a great job with this speaking like civilized people business when I heard Joon’s father’s voice respond to me before my message was even relayed to him.
“URI ADEUL, ask your Omma how exactly I was supposed to do that when I haven’t spoken to her or even known where she’s been for the last nineteen years.” At his pointed use of the term ‘my son’, I felt my temper rise. My son? He doesn’t belong to just him. He’s my son too.
“URI Jae Joon-ah… Please inform your Appa that I stopped being acc-”
“Enough,” Joon interrupted. He excused us from the table to Na Jeong and her parents before speaking to me and his father. “Outside. Now.”
He had already stood up and started walking towards the double doors. I followed his example and by the time I was following him out the door, his father was already behind him. When we were in the hallway, I saw that his father stood with his arms crossed in front of his chest and was waiting for him to speak. I however had no such patience.
“Kim Jae Joon, was that really necessary?” I asked incredulously and his father turned his eyes my way.
Though I was feigning annoyance, I started playing with my necklace again. I’m nervous. About this whole thing. What happened earlier took me by surprise and left me feeling imbalanced. As if the world I know has been tilted off its axis, and I’ve lost my footing. I have yet to regain that still.
Joon’s expression remained stoic, but I could sense that he was about to explode. As if reading this same thing, his father diligently kept his mouth shut. When Joon didn’t respond right away, I spoke again. It was worry, just worry, for Joon that was driving me. We have only just started mending our relationship months ago and I didn’t want to take a step backwards.
“You shouldn’t have called us out like that in front of the Sungs…” I continued hesitantly. “They might think we’re…”
“Messed up?” Joon finally said, his eyes digging holes through both our heads. “Omma… It wouldn’t take a genius to deduce that. And I’m sure I didn’t imply anything to them that they haven’t figured out already. You two are doing an exemplary job of demonstrating that fact on your own.” He shook his head and took a deep breath. “Listen… If neither of you liked Na Jeong you could have just said so. I can’t say it would have made a lick of a difference but we could have just avoided this and I would have just sent you both wedding invitations.”
“What? Why would you say that?” I asked. “I love Na Jeong!”
“I love her more!” Joon’s father muttered darkly.
I met his eyes and spoke to him for the first time. “I met her first.”
“Only because I lived in the country,” he retorted back and I narrowed my eyes at him. “They told me they were pregnant first.”
“Well, they told me they were getting married first AND showed me the baby’s pic…”
“STOP,” Joon said with a warning in his voice. “Just… stop. Will you two listen to yourselves?” Even then I could tell that he was still attempting to exercise a semblance of control over his temper. “Are you both trying to stop this marriage before it even happens?” Joon continued angrily, and I and his father both looked away, chastised. I focused my attention on the floor even as his Appa looked at the wall. “What sane parents would allow their daughter to marry into such a ridiculous family?”
“Jae Joon-ah,” his appa said uneasily but Joon put a hand up to silence him.
“How can I promise her parents that our family will always treat her with respect and courtesy when you two won’t even do it to each other?” He asked. “Do you think her father will entrust her to me knowing she will have to live with this? How can he trust me with her happiness and her future when I am incapable of even getting my parents to behave for two hours?” He looked away then and I felt uncomfortable, not for the first time today. “Have I asked either one of you for anything since I was young?” When he didn’t get a response he repeated his question. “Have I asked you two for anything in the last twenty years?” His father and I shook our heads no. “Then is it too much to ask that you two act like adults for two hours? Two fucking hours…”
“KIM JAE JOON!” his father bellowed and I pursed my lips. “You do not use those words when speaking to myself or your Omma. I don’t care how old you are.”
“I’m sorry for cursing, Appa,” Joon responded, the tone of his voice not at all apologetic. “But I’m glad that you remembered that I am now an adult. I am twenty seven years old. No longer a child. I am about to get married and about to become a father. Believe me when I tell you that I will always protect my wife and my child from everything that will cause them any discomfort or any pain. That includes you two.”
“What… What are you saying, Joon-ah?” I asked plaintively.
“Omma… Appa,” he said. “I love you both, but if you two don’t figure out in the next few minutes how to make this work, I will not hesitate limiting our family interactions. I will stay away, so will Na Jeong, and you won’t get to see this grandchild or any other future grandchildren, except for holidays and birthdays.”
“Na Jeong is not the only one able to issue such threats, Omma,” he said to me then, his expression resolute. “I’m not as soft as she is, though. You both know me well enough to know that I always do what I say. A man is only as good as his word. Didn’t you always teach me this, Appa?”
“What do you want us to do?” His father asked quietly.
Joon looked at both of us hard before responding. “Just pretend, for the remaining two courses, that we are a normal family.”
“I’m too old to be pretending anything,” I said before I could even stop myself. This whole situation, coupled with what happened this morning, has left me feeling imbalanced and the tact that I would have been more careful to employ in such an event abandoned me.
“Well then it’s a great thing this is not about you, isn’t it?” Joon asked me before addressing us both. “I’ll leave you two to decide between yourselves what you will do.”
He had disappeared beyond the door before I could even blink and his father and I were left standing in the hallway on our own. The servers came to clear the table and I stayed silent until they had gone back to the kitchen with the plates. I should really have taken my glass of wine with me for this, I thought.
“Well?”Joon’s father finally said. The deep timbre of his voice resonated somewhere inside me, and I took a step away from him and leaned against the wall. “I’ll do it if you’ll do it.”
“Fine,” I responded after a few seconds. I am so exhausted all of a sudden.
“Fine?” He repeated, brows furrowed. “Is that all you have to say?”
“Fine… What else am I supposed to say? I don’t really think he gave us much of a choice.” I shrugged my shoulders resignedly. I met his eyes directly and continued. “But I think I liked it better when he was afraid of us.”
June 22, 1983
He never came. He never came for me.
I wrapped the thin blanket more securely around my trembling shoulders, the shaking less from the cold than from the realization of this sad fact.
When I left the house, I thought that he will discover me gone when he arrived home and come after me. I know the Kang Ho from the night before last would have. I know the Kang Ho that I fell in love with would have done just that. I’ve been waiting for eighteen hours, and he hasn’t come.
In a rare fit of impulse I went back to the house minutes after I left, once I looked at my watch and realized that Joon will be home from school. I quietly led myself back through the gate, but only allowed myself a peek through the window. I couldn’t see him in our apartment and was about to walk away when I heard his voice.
“Omma?” He had called out.
His face came into view and my heart squeezed inside my chest. I wanted to stay there, just looking at him. I could look at him forever. It took everything in me to make my way back out of that gate, uncertain if I will ever return.
I lifted my chin and tried to keep my expression neutral. As each minute passed I could feel my hope withering. The hope that we still had something worth fighting for. The hope that my husband still believed in us.
As I sat on the park bench, I held on to the handle of my suitcase like a lifeline, taking only the clothes that I had bought since we were married, and one pair of shoes. I didn’t allow myself the luxury of packing any of our memories with me, convinced even then that I would never need to, because Kang Ho will find me and bring me home.
I watched through a sheen of tears as more people started walking towards the bus stop a few meters away from where I sat… people in business wear, on their way to work, ahjummas on their way to the market, kids on their way to school.
Seoul had woken up, and a new day was beginning again. Across the street there were women with their children crossing towards the playground. There was a food vendor opening the steel doors to his shop. There was the smell of fresh bread and coffee wafting from the bakery nearby. Around me life was chugging along, and it hit me that it will be so for my husband and my son as well. Without me their lives will continue as well.
The thought left me reeling and I clutched at my chest. For one minute I couldnt remember where I was and what I was doing here. I’m not supposed to be here. Kang Ho and I were supposed to be together. For the rest of our lives. We were supposed to sit around when we’re old and gray, perhaps remembering nothing else but Joon and each other, laughing at the years we’ve shared and recalling the adventures we’ve had. It wasn’t supposed to end up like this.
I picked up my suitcase and stood up, and for one second it felt like my feet were trying to take me back to the house. I started walking, my thoughts lost and confused. As I was about to cross the street to start my long walk home, the red on the pedestrian light stopped me. As I waited I imagined what my family could be doing right now. Joon will just be getting up to go to school, trying to be as quiet as possible, disappearing into himself, afraid of saying something that will set off another tense conversation between me and his father. Kang Ho will be getting dressed slowly, his face full of dread for another day of working for his father. I would wake up to a list of chores… just one more day of being treated like a servant at his parents’ house. I thought back on the papers I found and turned back around. I took a deep breath and and made my way back to the park in slow steps. I sat back down and waited some more.
When the bus came for the tenth time around since I’ve been at this park, I picked up my suitcase, and prepared to join the queue. A breeze kissed my face and I allowed myself one last look around. Part of was still half expecting, half hoping that my husband would appear around the corner. At this hopeless wish I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Just ten more seconds. Surely I can wait for ten more seconds. I counted slowly in my head even as I knew it was no use.
When I opened my eyes ten seconds later, it finally hit me without any doubt that he wasn’t coming. He was letting me go. There will be no one coming after me, not even the one I loved the most. How can the surroundings be exactly the same as it was before I closed my eyes, when part of me just died? How can people go about their lives, when my world has been changed? How can the sun still shine happily in the sky, when my heart is breaking this way?
I felt something wet on my cheeks and realized that my tears had started falling at their own accord. My heart had already started grieving the future that will never be. The bus line was moving and though I knew I needed to join the queue, I was frozen in place. The tears were falling silently, until it hit me, really hit me, that my life with Kang Ho, and my life with Joon was over. My heart felt like it was imploding from the inside out and my breath started coming in deep gulping sobs. My cries were hysterical and panicked, and I knew that people were looking at me but I didn’t care. I held my abdomen and struggled to keep myself standing up as the pain ripped through me so savagely it almost brought me to my knees.
I can’t breathe, I thought. I can’t breathe. I feared I will never breathe again.
Joon-ah, Joon-ie… my son, don’t hate me. Please don’t hate me. Grow up well and remember me sometimes, please. I know I have no right to ask anything of you, but if you remember nothing else, remember Omma loves you. Forgive me, don’t forgive me. It doesn’t matter as long as you don’t forget me.
Kang Ho-yah… my love. I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry that I’m not good enough, that I’m not strong enough. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you anywhere near enough how happy you made me and how fortunate I felt that I was your wife. Thank you for Joon. Thank you for loving me. I’m sorry that I couldn’t protect you from this. I love you.
I felt like a condemned woman, throwing wishes in the wind like I had run out of time. The thoughts were pouring out fast, uncontrollable. My cries were inconsolable, coming from a part of me that I didn’t even know existed. I cried for everything I’m losing, and I knew even then that there will never be enough tears for all I’m giving up.
It will be better this way. We will all be better off this way. Life will go on. Maybe, at least, my husband and my child will be finally happy. I will live my life forgetting this past. Forgetting that I was ever happy, that I was ever loved. I will learn to live with only half a heart. I can do it. I have to.
I cried for what felt like a million years. I cried out all the love and all the pain. I cried out all my tears. I won’t cry again. Not like this. I will never love again. Not like this.
And then I collected myself, wiped my tears away and picked up my suitcase. I have to take this step, I told myself. I have to. When the bus came for the twelfth time, I boarded myself and the one suitcase I had onto the bus and sat down. When it pulled away, just a few minutes later and yet still not a moment too soon, I didn’t allow myself to look back.
April 21, 1983
I loosened my tie before pulling my car keys out of the ignition. The sky was still pink, trying to decide whether to be day or night. A flash of silver from the corner of the foot well blinked at me as I was getting my suitcase and I bent down to pick it up. Like a habit I uncapped the flask and brought it to my mouth, until I realized today was a brand new day. For me and my wife. For Joon.
My grandmother had been right. I smiled a little when I thought of her. The only person from my family invited to our wedding, she had taken me aside after the ceremony to give me some words of advice.
Marriage has its peaks and valleys, she had said, its highs and its lows. When the rough times come, just crouch down, hold on tight to each other, and keep pushing on until you get to the other side. Faith, respect, trust, love… none can exist in a marriage without the other. You’ll see… one day you’ll see the beauty in holding on to one person’s hand all of your life.
At the memory a lump formed in my throat. My grandmother had been the only person who understood me. She had been passionate in her youth, and was the kindest and most generous person I knew. She had a love for the simple things in life, and had been the only person who accepted Mi Sook’s place in my life. I miss her everyday and not a day goes by that I don’t wish Joon could have known her growing up.
She had placed a hand on my face then, and asked me to take her words to heart. Her hand had been lined and soft, much older than I remembered in my youth. Her hands had held my grandfather’s hand until he passed away the year before. It hadn’t been long after that she followed him. She passed away the year after, the same year Joon was born, just months after she held her great-grandson in her arms for the first time.
For the last few months I doubted if Mi Sook and I will get through this, but then I remember the words my grandmother told me and I kept persisting, sacrificing, compromising. My wife had sat down in front of me last night, and took my hand in hers. She had crawled into my bed for the first time in months, and I had spent the night holding her. Remembering what brought us together in the first place, savoring her heart beat so close to mine. It was as if I had felt the hope rise inside me again. We had spent the night this way, not speaking much and yet somehow still connected, more so than we’ve been even when we were talking. For the past year it’s felt like we were in two different places, speaking two different languages.
I looked at the paperwork lying on top of my briefcase, for the old house we had rented. Luckily, they haven’t found a tenant yet, and the past month I had been working has given me enough money to put down for rent and key money. We will pack up again and leave in the morning.
I have yet to find another job, but I submitted some applications for other places today. I will continue working for my father until something else comes up and then I will turn in my resignation. Mi Sook, Joon and I may have to go a few more months without some things but at least we’ll be together. I shoved the paperwork into my suitcase and opened the door. Once outside, I emptied the flask of whiskey on the ground. I was almost at the front door when I remembered I forgot something in the car. I quickly went back and grabbed the flowers that were sitting on the backseat. I felt a lightness that I haven’t felt in months.
I was so happy it almost felt like my feet weren’t touching the ground when I walked. I bypassed the main part of the house to go straight to our apartment, outfitted with three bedrooms, a separate kitchen and a bathroom. We only had a small living area where Joon played, but that’s okay. The house we were renting was small, but at least it had a park right next to it. I’ll be able to take my son out to play again.
One of my parents’ maids tried to speak to me on my way to our door, but I waved her away in my haste to see my wife and my son. Joon would be in the living room now, doing his homework before dinner. Mi Sook would be at the sink washing dishes, or sitting on the sofa reading a book. It’s been months since I came home this early, and I anticipated the looks of surprise on both their faces. We will eat happily as a family for the first time in a long while.
I placed my briefcase under an arm so as not to crush Mi Sook’s flowers and opened the door. Expecting the sound of television to greet me when I opened it, I was a little perplexed when only silence greeted me. The apartment was encased in darkness, and I wondered if Mi Sook and Joon had gone out. Putting my suitcase down on the table by the hallway I walked slowly into the apartment and turned a lamp on. When no one came to greet me home, I was about to walk out the door and ask one of the maids where my family was when I heard a sound coming from the kitchen.
It was a small sound, barely audible even in the silence, but I heard someone sniffling. It stopped me in my tracks and I went back to follow where it was coming from. The sound led me to the kitchen, where a small shadow was crouched in front of the refrigerator.
Hesitantly I turned a light on to find my son sitting in front of the fridge, shoulders shaking, tears running down his face. He was holding onto a plastic container in his arms. I bent down to speak to him, putting the flowers aside on the floor. His lower lip was trembling, his nose running. I lifted his chin to look into his eyes and frowned at the heartbreak I found there.
“Joon-ah,” I said carefully. Some focus came into his eyes as he looked at my face. “Where’s Omma?”
He shook his head and then shrugged his small shoulders.
“Joon-ah,” I repeated. “Has something happened?”
He ran the back of his hand over his eyes and I placed a comforting hand on his head. His voice small, I finally heard his reply.
“Appa…” I held my breath as I waited for him to continue, his voice haunting. “… Omma’s gone.”
It took a minute for the words to register and when they did I stayed silent, unsure of how to proceed. Surely he must be mistaken. Mi Sook wouldn’t leave. Not after last night. Not today, of all days.
“Joon-ah… Omma probably just went somewhere. I’m sure she’ll be back soon,” I tried to tell him and he shook his head vehemently.
“Appa…” He said, as he clutched the plastic container more protectively towards his small chest, “Appa… Omma’s clothes are gone. Her shoes are gone. So is her toothbrush. I looked. I looked everywhere.” He looked at me long enough that I understood the finality of his words. The words sank heavy and I fought to control the urge to run out of the apartment and look for her.
Joon hesitantly held out his hand to me and I put a palm out. Wordlessly he placed a handful of coins and a few bills on my hand. Still in shock, I stared at them for a few minutes before even meeting his eyes. He must have read the questioning look in mine because he swallowed before he spoke again.
“Appa… I think Omma needs money,” he explained softly. “You fight a lot about it, and she cries a lot. Appa, you can have it… it’s all I had in my piggy bank. Just,” he said as his lip started quivering again. “… just find Omma, okay? Appa, let’s go find Omma. I promise I’ll be good from now on. I won’t ask for a little brother. I’ll eat all my vegetables without complaining. I won’t ask for anything. I’ll be good… I promise I will be good. Appa, you’ll find Omma, right? Right?”
By the end of his sentence he was crying outright, desperate, pleading tears as his small hands held the container on his lap tightly. When his body continued shaking I felt the rush of tears behind my own eyes, but I kept them at bay.
Jae Joon… he is what is important. Before I could think of myself, before I could make sense of the mess that is in front of me, I needed to comfort my child. Once the result of a loving union, he has been reduced to mere collateral damage.
Slowly I peeled his fingers from the plastic container, even as he tried to resist. I looked at the contents and realized what it was. His mother’s radish kimchi, a piece of paper taped on top, and Mi Sook’s handwriting, with today’s date.
I set it aside and pulled my son tightly in my arms, his soft cries changing into loud wails, my heart breaking with each sob.
“Joon-ah…” I tried to say, “Your Omma would never leave you. She loves you too much. She will come back for you.” He didn’t cease his crying and I struggled to find the words to say. I didn’t want to lie to him, but no matter what happened I was convinced that Mi Sook would never leave Joon. “And uri Jae Joon is a good boy. This wasn’t your fault.”
His crying slowed down but didn’t stop. I continued to hold him in my arms, both of us on the floor, both of us bewildered and confused. There must be an explanation… she must have left a note somewhere… maybe something happened with her parents, or her sister. I will get to the bottom of this, as soon as I’ve calmed Joon down.
When at last I felt Joon’s body relax, I looked at his eyes, puffy from crying, and laid a tender hand on his cheek.
“Look,” I said with a forced smile on my face. “Your Omma made you your favorite.”
He looked at me somberly before speaking. “Appa… can we have some?”
I nodded slowly at him before wrapping his arms around my neck and raising us up from the floor. Walking to the table I sat him down on a chair before placing the container on the table. My hands shaking I walked to the cabinet and pulled out two bowls and spooned up some rice. Quietly I placed one in front of him and then sat down with my own. I watched as he opened the container and helped himself to a few pieces, then smiled at him encouragingly when he put two pieces over my rice as well.
My beautiful child. So pure of heart. You are the best thing to ever happen to me.
I watched as he brought the chopstick with a piece of radish kimchi to his mouth, then took a piece of mine as well. It felt like I was numb, and I was unable to taste anything. Jae Joon’s tears started falling again as he chewed slowly and carefully, and I continued to eat even as my stomach turned.
After he finished his kimchi I uncovered the container to have him eat some more when he merely stared at it in silence then shook his head. I placed what was left of mine on his bowl and he ate it quietly, chewing even slower, as if relishing the last bite.
The apartment was dark except for the kitchen light and in that moment, I saw my son growing up right before my very eyes. He was quiet and pensive, his innocence gone. He’s already accepting what I couldn’t even wrap my mind around yet.
I helped him get washed up, both of us silent, and held him in bed as he fell asleep. When at last I knew that he has succumbed to slumber, I lifted myself off his bed and walked to the bedroom that Mi Sook has used since we moved back here.
I looked at her table to see her beauty products gone. Her closet was empty except for some of the dresses I had bought for her. Her shoes were gone, just as Joon said. The bed was made, the windows closed.
Unable to find a clue in her room I walked back into mine reluctantly. She had joined me here last night, and I thought everything will be fine. She had her hair down and had smiled at me in the dark. The door creaked as I pushed it open, and my eyes adjusted to the darkness even before I turned the light on.
The room was the same as I left it this morning, except for what was laying on my bed. It was a guitar case, much like the one that I had and pawned a month ago, to pay for Joon’s school uniform. I stayed standing where I was for a minute, unable to understand what has happened between last night and now. With slow steps I approached the bed.
My hands uncertain, I unlocked the case and opened it to find a beautiful guitar inside. The wood gleamed like its recently been polished and cleaned, and the velvet lining of the case invited my touch. My fingers itched to hold it in my hands, but then I noticed that it wasn’t all that was there. On top of the guitar were sheets of paper, held together by a clip. I lifted them up slowly and my hands shook when I saw what they were.
She had placed divorce papers on top of my guitar. The line over her name was already signed and stamped.
I put them back in the case and sat down on the side of the bed. I remembered what she told me last night and berated myself for not realizing what she had meant, for believing that we we were capable of starting anew with each other. I had given her the choice, and she has made it. I was a fool to think that she could be shaken. There is no turning back now. My hands on my head I bent down and allowed the tears to fall. I kept my mouth covered lest I wake Joon up. I had taken the biggest gamble and I lost.
It wasn’t until I was in bed that night that I felt the full weight of grief overtake me. We had promised to love each other for the rest of our lives, and it only took a mere paper to undo those vows. We were two people who had met, who had loved, who had shared our lives together even for just a brief moment in time, and that amounted to nothing now.
In the space between those years and those months, we had built a life. A life that I thought was worth something. A life that I thought upon closer introspection on her part would make her stay. I had been wrong. I had overestimated my role in her life. No one is permanent. Not even me. Not even Joon. Vows can be undone, promises unmade. Hearts broken and dreams shattered.
It was with this in mind that I realized that when all was said and done, one of us held on to the idea of us longer and believed in who we were more fiercely, while the other, seeing a way out, had just thrown it away. And just like I saw my son transform from a little boy to grown man in a few seconds, I felt myself change too. That realization turned grief into anger, sorrow into bitterness, and I was thankful. Those are emotions I can deal with. These are emotions I can harness.
I uncapped the whiskey bottle that was sitting on my table and downed the rest of the bottle in a long desperate gulp. They say whatever heartbreak time can’t heal, alcohol will. I don’t have the luxury of time, yet. I’ll see if the theory holds instead.
Happy fucking anniversary to me.
April 21, 1983
For the first time in months I woke up with a smile on my face. I stretched languidly on the bed before I opened my eyes and looked at the clock. It was 9:30 a.m. Alarmed at how late it was, I sat up quickly before I remembered that Kang Ho told me he would give Joon breakfast and send him to school.
He had pressed a soft kiss on my lips, and even now my heart raced remembering it. He hasn’t been this tender with me in a long time. There had been a light in his eyes this morning that I haven’t seen in a while. Things are going to change. I know it. I can feel it with every part of my being.
Wrapping the covers more tightly around me, I savored the memory of my husband’s arms wrapped around me. Though we had said very little to each other, seemingly afraid of breaking the moment, I know that he knew that I loved him. I had fallen asleep to the sound of his heartbeat and his slow steady breathing. I had never been more at peace.
The sun was shining happily and I rose from the bed, my footsteps taking me to the windows. His parents’ maid was already outside sweeping, and I was assuaged by guilt. I hastily made my way back to my room and changed my clothes before putting my hair up in a ponytail.
Aware that there would be a list of chores waiting for me at the main house, I ate my breakfast quickly before leaving our apartment.
Today’s a very special day, but I have plenty of time to sort our space later. Hurriedly I went to his parents’ kitchen and looked at the list on the fridge. I was so happy this morning that I didn’t even care that there was more to do than usual.
I greeted the maid warmly as I made my way out of the house, humming a song under my breath as I walked towards the bus stop to head to the market. I quickly made my way down the aisles and collected what was on the list, and picked up some radish for the kimchi I’m making for Joon. Our son can’t get enough of the stuff. Though he still loved samgyeopsal the best, just like his Appa. At that thought I splurged a bit of our money on a small piece of meat, to be marinated and grilled later for dinner. It was a little pricey, but tonight was a special night. It’s not every day that we celebrate our wedding anniversary.
I was lugging the groceries in my hands when I passed passed a pawn shop with a guitar that looks much like the one Kang Ho had, until a month ago. I leaned my head closer to the glass and my eyebrows narrowed when I started thinking that I haven’t seen his guitar in a long while. It’s been even longer since I’ve seen him play. Impulsively I entered the shop and enquired how much it was. Before I knew it I was making my way home excitedly, imagining the expression on his face when he sees his gift.
As soon as I came back to the house, I put the groceries away and started making the kimchi and marinating the meat for dinner. I gathered all the dirty clothes from his parents and his Noona’s rooms and started the wash, enjoying the sunshine as I spent it outside, elbows deep in suds and then hanging the clothes out to dry. By the time I walked back into the house with a basketful of clean laundry it was already afternoon.
I turned the radio on and listened to music as I ironed his parents’ and his Noona’s clothes. Now more than ever I was glad his Hyung was already married and lived away, else I would probably be expected to wash and iron their clothing as well. Just a little bit longer, Mi Sook. Endure it for a little bit longer. Surely Kang Ho is worth that much. He is, I thought to myself. He is worth it, and he always will be. I am not always an easy woman to love, and yet he had done just that.
I made my way back to our apartment to cook rice and put our clothes away. After measuring the water and rice and turning the rice cooker on, I walked into my room. Putting my clothes back in the drawers it hit me that I shouldn’t be putting them there… that it was time I shared a room back with my husband instead. I gathered my clothing in my arms and happily made my way back to his room. I had just placed them on his table to look for some drawer space when I noticed a pile of papers on his desk.
I would not have looked had I not seen my name. I am not usually given to prying on my husband’s work stuff. Casually I lifted them up to see what they were. When I read the words on top, I had to read them again I couldn’t believe my eyes.
They were divorce papers, already drafted, already signed by an attorney. Kang Ho hasn’t signed over his name, but as I leaned against the wall for support I wondered if that was what he meant when he started talking last night.
“I will always love you,” he had said. Not I love you. Not I love you still. But I will always love you. Silly me for not realizing that he had already begun the process.
I read over the conditions quickly and reeled in shock. The settlement offered me generous spousal support, and I blinked the tears away from my eyes. He had already made his mind up, but he didn’t want to be the one to give up. I get it.
I quickly went back to my closet and pulled out a bag and then shoved my clothes in it. I scooped up my things from my table and into the bag. I took my toothbrush from the bathroom and a pair of shoes. I left everything behind that he had bought for me, allowing myself to only take one thing.
Before I made my way out of the house I stopped back in his room and placed the guitar on his bed. I looked at the divorce papers resignedly before pulling a pen out of my bag. If this is what he wants, then this is what I will give him. I won’t hold him back.
I quickly signed and stamped on the line above my name. I turned the sheet of paper over and scribbled something quickly, wondering If he would even care.
Chin up, I took my suitcase and walked out of the house, uncaring that the maid was trying to speak to me. I started walking towards the park, not really knowing where to go. I’ll just stay there until I decide what to do. Or until a decision is made for me.
April 21, 1983
I turned on my back for the umpteenth time since I went into my room. I ran a hand over my face and through my hair. The room was dark except for a sliver of moonlight through the curtains of the windows. I eyed the bottle of whiskey on my bedside table and poured myself a glass. Maybe a little more would put me to sleep. Maybe.
My heart felt heavy after tonight’s confrontation, but it needed to happen. I know that she’s tired, but I’m exhausted too. Between her and my family I constantly felt like I’m being torn in two different directions.
She had looked at me a few months ago, fire in her eyes, asking me what kind of man I am, to marry and have a child, when I couldn’t provide for any of us. She wanted security, and she wanted wealth, so I gave it to her, even if it means crawling back into my family’s good graces. Never will it be said that I didn’t know how to sacrifice my pride for the woman I love and our son. And still she’s not happy. If anything she grew even more unhappy as the days went on. She wasn’t the only one.
Did she think I wanted to working for my father, with Hyung breathing down my neck? How can she not realize it was killing from the inside out to be living back at my parents’, dependent on their favor and goodwill? It used to be that she and I can read each other’s minds without speaking, now we can’t even do that even when we talk. Our conversation was pieced with angry barbs and hidden meanings. To protect Jae Joon, we have begun to eat in silence instead, leaving our fights and arguments to when he’s in bed, but Joon isn’t stupid. I knew that he knew. Our son had a close up view of what happens when love stops being enough, if there was even love still. It’s already affecting him.
Jae Joon… Our son, with his shy smile and his serious eyes. His face was just like hers. He was the the sweetest baby and that has stayed with him as he’s grown. Sensitive and thoughtful, he played with his toys with the care of an adult, always putting things back in place without prompting. He liked to run towards me with his arms outstretched when I came home from work, his Omma standing by the door, watching us. He smelled like sunshine, and joy and everything good in my world. He wanted a little brother… Someone he could play with. He used to laugh so hard his eyes would disappear into little slits on his face. But no more. I wonder sometimes if he will even remember that his parents loved each other once… if the memory of us being a family and us being happy will remain intact in his young memory. Somehow I doubt it, and I am unsure if that is a blessing or a curse.
He carried the weight of our problems on his little shoulders. I see it in the way he darts his eyes between me and his mother, unaware that I’m watching him, the way he started clearing his throat to break the silence, the way he rushed off to go to his room to escape the tension that wrapped around us. I see it in the way his former exuberant nature began to dull, the way he jumps whenever our voices get louder. The past year has done its damage. Messing each other up was one thing but our son doesn’t deserve that. Mi Sook may not love me anymore but she loves Joon, this I know with certainty. At this thought I placed a hand over my chest to rub the ache away.
I miss my wife.
I miss the way my she used to laugh at my lame jokes, the way she would run her fingers through my hair. I miss the way she smiled at me when I came home after a long day at work and the way she brushed her hair every night. I miss the way her voice sounded when she’s sleepy and the way her eyes looked when she’s happy. I miss all of it.
I didn’t want to be the one to say the words out loud, how we were losing what we had, how we were losing who we were as the years have gone. I didn’t want to do it. But we can’t stay the same.
We were stuck. Unable to move forward, unwilling to go back. I thought that by moving here she would finally get what she wanted. I keep trying to do my best, but it’s still not good enough. And if my best isn’t good enough, then am I?
The way she looks at me now… I feel myself shrinking smaller and smaller in her eyes. I see the way she looks at me echoing the way my parents and my family does, and I’m buckling. Buckling from everyone’s expectations, the knowledge that I haven’t been able to fulfill any of it ripping into me constantly. My family looks at me with a mixture of pity and disappointment. I didn’t need my wife looking at me that way too.
I walk over to my briefcase and took the papers out, laying them on the desk. I find it amazing that years spent loving a person, vows made with hope, can be dissolved by pieces of paper. The picture of us on our wedding day sat on the desk, and as I looked at it, I felt a lump form in my throat.
Mi Sook wore a knee length, cap sleeved white wedding dress that she sewed by hand. It was unembellished, made of cotton, but she looked lovelier than anything else I have ever seen in my life. Her long hair was flowing behind her, a braided crown on top. She held a bunch of wildflowers in her hands.
I wore a brown suit, my hair tied back, a single flower over my left chest. We were looking at each other, our expressions that of wonder and love. She had a hand on my cheek and mine was on her waist. We didn’t have enough money for a reception so we had only shared a meal at a local restaurant. The only people on my side were Tae Jun and oe halmoni. Her parents came, as did her sister. But we had something most people had, or so I had thought then. We had each other and we had love, and then at least, it had been enough.
Reluctantly I put the picture down and slowly walked back to the bed, sitting down on the side. The light from the window passed over my wedding ring and I smooth a finger over it. The pain in my chest persisted and to fight the tears that threatened to fall from my eyes, I closed them instead.
With one last long swallow from the bottle I held in my hand, I laid back down, a forearm over my eyes. I slowed my breathing and tried to force myself to relax. It’s her call now… There’s nothing else I can do but wait.
Make a decision, Park Mi Sook. Mi Sook-ah. Mi Sook-ie. Save us or sink us, it’s up to you now. I beg of you… Make a decision and make it quickly.
I had fallen asleep restlessly, caught in that space where I’m not awake but not fully asleep, when I felt the covers lifted off of my shoulder. I was about to raise myself up in alarm when the smell of Chanel Cristalle drifted towards me. Mi Sook. Before I could even ask her what she was doing, she had laid herself down next to me and wrapped an arm around my waist, her long hair brushing my neck.
I opened my eyes to see her watching me, and I couldn’t even muster up a smile. We are not in a good place. In fact I can’t remember us ever being so low. She brushed a finger over my hair, and I closed my eyes. It’s been so long since she touched me like this. I felt her trace my eyebrows and my cheek, and opened my eyes as she touched her finger to my lips.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Me too,” I answered. “I’ve always loved you. I will always love you.”
She smiled at me then, a sad but hopeful smile. She leaned into my face slowly, as if expecting me to push her away. I opened my arms more fully instead, and pulled her closer as her lips touched mine.
There is a grace to the way old lovers come together. For us it had always been this way. A brush of hand to the cheek, a hand to the waist. We were polar opposites of each other, but unable to escape the gravity of what kept us together.
In that one kiss I was reminded of all the reasons why I continue to fight still. Love, doubt, fear, hope… all these emotions were in my head, and I could taste them on her lips. The past and the present colliding, conflicting, fragmented. I was reminded that this heart of mine hasn’t been just mine in years. It belonged to her, too. I marveled at her soft skin, as if I have never touched her before, and she said my name as if it was the only thing she knew. As if it was the only thing that mattered.
In the darkness and in the silence, I made love to my wife, hoping against all hopes that she would be reminded too, of what we once shared. A love that is still ours, waiting to be reclaimed again. A future that we deserved, waiting in the shadows, and waiting to unfold.
April 20, 1983
“Fine… I told her it was fine,” I said as I washed the pan in the sink. What I really wanted to do was slam it on to the floor and break the plates, but I won’t. I’ll bite my tongue and keep washing the dishes instead. God forbid I say no and risk losing the beneficence of this family. I kept on speaking with my back turned to him. “What else did you expect me to say? It’s not as if she gave me much of a choice, so I told her I would do anything they wanted me to do.”
“Mi Sook-ssi,” Kang Ho said and I turned around to face him. He was still wearing his suit from working at his father’s company. He looked tired, unhappy, defeated. It seems I’m not the only one. I lifted my eyes only to see him sitting at the table, his food untouched. “I’m really sorry about this. I didn’t realize this was what Noona had in mind when she asked you to help with the household chores. I didn’t know she had given the maid the day off and expected you to do all that.”
“Really?” I asked as I dried my hands on my apron. “Because I did. Your sister’s hated me since she met me.”
“You could have said no.”
“And risk having all us be thrown out in the street? We have a child, Kim Kang Ho-ssi. My principles will not feed Joon.”
“I’m sure she didn’t mean for this to happen. Let me talk to her,” he said quietly, eyes not meeting mine. “Either way I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” I said. “Don’t you dare apologize for her.”
“What is it that you want me to do?” He asked, his voice flat. I saw him drink from his glass, something I know I didn’t put out, and I knew with certainty even without smelling it that he has started drinking even before he came home.
Watching him and the way his shoulders were hunched over the table, I felt all the anger melt away. It was replaced by dread, and somewhere inside me, the taste of my own desperation was trying to claw itself out. The Kim Kang Ho I know… The Kim Kang Ho I loved… He’s disappearing every day. His family… This house… Working for his father… It was killing his soul. I see it in the way he won’t meet my eyes, the way his workdays keep getting longer and longer. I hear it in his voice, once vibrant with life and excitement, now dulled by what he has settled for. By what we have settled for. He won’t even play with Joon now, as if looking at his son shamed him. My husband is a good man, but he is also a proud man. I know that even though he said nothing, he was dying inside. I was, too.
It’s not too late. We can still do something about this. With an unexpected urgency I sat down next to him at the table and took his hand. He turned surprised eyes at me and I tried putting an encouraging smile on my face.
“Kang Ho-ssi…” I started gently, as gently as I could possibly muster. “Let’s move back out. Let’s start over, somewhere else. Maybe back to the house we were renting. Just not here.” My words starting coming in fast, panic and hope reverberating with each syllable.
His eyes darkened as he took another sip of his drink. He looked at me, expression veiled before he responded. “Wasn’t it just months ago that you begged me to find something stable? ‘We need security for Jae Joon.’ Isn’t that what you said? ‘Love can’t feed you.’ Didn’t you tell me you were done with this marriage if I didn’t figure something out?” His voice got louder and I flinched. He pulled his hand out of mine and stood up. “Do you think I look at myself, at what I’ve become, and do you think I’m proud? You gave me a choice. I did what you wanted me to do. I picked the option that gave you the chance to stop working, to stop struggling and to stay home and be a mother to your son comfortably.” He looked away from me and took a deep breath. “You’re not the only one who’s had to sacrifice your dreams. You may not think I have sacrificed anywhere near as much, but I have. The thing is, I never even realized one of us was keeping tabs.” He met my eyes then, and I was taken aback by the defeat that I saw in their depths. “I did what you wanted me to do, and now you want me to undo it? We can stay together and be miserable or break up and see if we could be happy. Make up your mind, Park Mi Sook-ssi.”
I stayed sitting on the chair, my back straight. Unable to say anything, unable to deny what he has accused me of. I don’t know what happened either, when I changed from the old me to this.
Has it only been nine years, since the day we met? Has it only been eight years since we got married? Time seemed to be of no consequence to us now… so many years have changed since our paths first crossed.
“If you want to go, then I won’t stop you. But I’ll stay here. It’s your decision. I don’t really think it matters to you anymore where I am anyway…” He said quietly. “I know you have said that I chained you with a child… But Joon… Needs a mother. Whatever you decide, he belongs with you.”
“What are you saying?” I asked shakily. “What are you telling me? Is this where we are now? I thought we were on the same side…” My voice trailed off as I saw him walk across the kitchen with his drink to look out the window. “If anyone will get Joon, it will be you. You know I won’t be able to support him.”
It took a few minutes to get a response from him. Under the table my hands were trembling, taken aback at how quickly this conversation had escalated.
“I can’t even remember the last time you told me you loved me. When the last time was that you and I laughed together? It’s been so long I can’t even remember. I’ve forgotten what you looked like happy. What it felt like to be happy. We can’t keep living like this,” he said. “I see it in the way you look at me… The mixture of disappointment and disbelief… It’s been on your face since the company went bankrupt… I can see it even more since I moved us back here.”
“You said it yourself… You were tired of struggling. Tired of working two jobs, tired of wondering if we will have enough money for rent, tired of begging for another month’s reprieve for our electric and gas. You’re tired of borrowing money from your sister without knowing if we would ever be able to pay her back, just for food.” He delivered all this without looking at me, his shoulders tense and his eyebrows furrowed. “I had gambled our future on that company and when it failed, we lost it all. Our son is eight years old, wearing shirts that are a little too tight, and pants that are a little too short. You have never blamed me outright but you didn’t need to. I feel the judgment when you look at me and I am hating myself more and more every day. We are all paying the price of my dreams. All of us, but no one more than our child.”
“What does that mean?” I asked quietly, willing him to look at me. Please look at me. We’ve fought every day for the past year… The same argument almost every night, almost as if we were unable to stop. I hated the barbed words, but even that was preferable to the flat resignation in his voice.
“Mi Sook-ah,” he said and my heart cracked. I haven’t heard him say my name in such a familiar way, the way he used to, in so long, and tears formed behind my eyes so quickly that I had to swallow to hold them back. “I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of being accused of holding you back. I’m tired of all of it. I won’t beg you to stay, even if I wanted to. I would keep trying if I knew that was what you wanted, but you won’t even speak to me. Now I’m putting the ball back in your court. Make your decision wisely.”
He walked away and into his room before I could even respond. I don’t know how long I sat there at the kitchen table, staring at his plate, pondering his words. Part of me feels relieved, that one of us finally said what had been simmering for a long time. But the bigger part of me was afraid, that Kang Ho meant everything he said… afraid that it wasn’t just this place and its inhabitants that were killing him, but me, too…terrified that he was ready to give up on me. In the course of the past year I’ve said some things I didn’t mean, mainly out if anger, mostly to get some type of reaction out of him. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right, but I am neither one of those things, all the time.
I’m not ready to give up my marriage, no matter how many times I’ve said I was. I love my husband, even though I’ve found it increasingly difficult to tell him. He and our son… To be without them will be like having to live without my heart. It’s sad really that it’s not until one is faced with the thought of losing something that one actually acknowledges its worth. We’ve gotten too caught up in the petty trivialities of life that we stood to lose that which mattered the most.
With that realization I knew what my decision was. I went to the bathroom and took a bath, then to my room and brushed out my long hair. I sprayed what was left of the Chanel Cristalle on my neck and my wrists. The necklace i wore felt comforting around my neck, the locket cool on my sternum. I walked slowly towards my husband’s room, my feet bare. Taking a deep breath, I lifted my arm slowly and prepared to knock.
April 20, 1983
I trudged into my parents’ house slowly, checking my breath for the telltale smell of alcohol, knowing Mi Sook would be watching. What does it matter, i thought silently, she would be looking at me the same way whether or not I had. There would be disappointment in her eyes. I know it. I’ve been living with it for months.
My footsteps quickened as soon as I entered the door, not wanting to see either of my parents, or God forbid, my sister. I thought I was in the clear as I rounded the corner to go to our apartment, when a hand on my shoulder forced me to stop.
I turned around and saw my father, who motioned for me to follow him into his office. Dreading going home, too tired to protest, I stayed behind him and closed the door behind me. Laying my suitcase down on the table, I sat down and waited for him to speak.
My father was an intimidating man. Not very tall, but broad shouldered. He had played football for Seoul National when he was in university. He had a strong face, a stern mouth, an almost patrician nose. His eyes watched people like a hawk. He was gruff, calculating. I loved him because he was my father, but I never liked him much. Though we have never heard of any indiscretions, I would be more surprised if there was none.
His and my mother’s marriage were arranged by their parents. Both from rich families, it seemed the logical thing to do. It was a merger, made to combine two companies together. I have never once seen my father hold my mother’s hand. In all the years I spent growing up I have never seen them kiss or even share a loving glance. My father spent his days at work and his nights who knows where, and my mother stayed busy raising us kids. A quiet woman, the opposite of her mother. My Omma never lost her temper. And she didn’t care for my father besides more than what could be expected of two people who have been married for almost forty years.
When I moved us into my parents’ house, I could almost taste the satisfaction that was poring out of my father’s gaze. He didn’t have to say it, but I knew what he was thinking. I told you so, I could almost hear him say. I told you so.
“I’m sure you know that it was your mother who insisted that you be allowed back to the house and be given a job for your son,” he started. “… as I’m sure you know it wasn’t for her.”
I continued sitting silently, my back straight, wondering if that was all he wanted to tell me. He already got his wish. I’ve had to go back to working for him. What else could he possibly want from me?
“You look like hell. Is it wearing on you now, having to take care of that woman? You chose someone who will only drag you down. Your life will never amount to much if you stay with her. You will never be anything if you marry a nothing,” he continued. He was trying to make me angry, I can tell. Trying to prove still that to this day, I am nowhere near mature enough to handle a marriage and a child. “How many times did i have to tell you?” He asked in his droll voice. “Marriage is more about politics than love. Make the best match, and then fall in love. Maybe with your wife, maybe with someone else. Success will give you everything you want. Everything.”
He paused and walked to the side before grabbing a decanter of liquid and two glasses and putting it between us. Pouring a generous amount on both glasses, I shook my head no as he drank his in one go.
“It’s not too late,” he proceeded. “You’re still young. Leave her behind and I will give you enough capital to start a new business, and even buy yourself a house.” He reached behind him and placed a documents envelope before me. At my puzzled look, he opened it and placed it in my hands. The title up top told me what they were and I didn’t need to read the rest. Divorce papers. “The offer only stands without your wife. Divorce her and you can have it all.”
I almost started laughing at this conversation if I wasn’t already so miserable. It was reminiscent of his proposition before Mi Sook and I married, of every conversation that we’ve had every time we found ourselves alone in the last few years. It was the reason i tried to avoid him every holiday, every birthday. This is tiresome. The answer then is the same as it now… the same as it always was, the same as it always will be.
I meant the words that I said when I promised my life to her eight years ago. To have and to hold, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish… For all the days of my life. I am as dedicated to my wife now as I was when I fell in love with her. Unless she gives up on us first, I will never abandon her.
Today was different though. My father’s astute nature didn’t miss the charged silences and the stiff smiles. His observant eyes saw the cracks in our marriage and waited. .. my father was a lot of things, but patience always was his strongest suit. It’s what made him a successful business man. He’s as predatory as a fox and as parasitic as a vulture. Looking at him repulsed me and fascinated me all at once. I would wonder how he became like this except i didn’t give a damn. I was ashamed that such a man sired me. I resisted the urge to rip the papers up and throw it in his face, putting it in my briefcase instead. His sharp eyes didn’t miss this, and I resented the gleam of approval in his eyes.
I gave him no answer as I stood up and walked out of the door. I didn’t have to examine why I didn’t tear those papers apart. I know why.
For the first time since I’ve loved Mi Sook, I doubted that she loved me back. I doubted myself and my ability to be everything that she and Joon needed me to be. I doubted us and if we will get through this. And my father knew… He knew it was the perfect time to strike.
I dragged my feet to the door to our apartment. Joon would be asleep now, and I’m grateful. Hopefully Mi Sook would be asleep, too. It’s the only way I would escape the judgment in her eyes. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
Park Hyatt Hotel
June 15, 2002
By the time his mother and I went back, Joon and Na Jeong stood in one corner of the room, speaking quietly. She had a hand on his chest and his hand was protectively around her shoulder. She met my eyes and then said something to Joon, who gave me an appreciative nod. His mother was already sitting back down and I followed. Joon and Na Jeong came back to the table just in time for the servers to come and serve the main dish.
When the silence persisted, I knew when I came back into the room that I owed it to Joon and Na Jeong to make an effort. and so, after taking a resigned breath, I spoke.
“Park Mi Sook-ssi,” I said after I cleared my throat. “Joon tells me that you’re an art professor at a university.”
Her fork stopped in mid air, the piece of meat speared on it suspended in a pause. She turned surprised eyes at me before she looked away.
“Ah, yes, Kim Kang Ho-ssi, I am.”
“Which university?” I asked, trying to keep my tone cordial.
“Seoul National University,” she answered tightly. “My husband is a researcher there as well.”
At the mention of the man I took two quick bites of my steak and wiped my mouth with the linen napkin. Across the table I felt Na Jeong’s parents’ eyes on me, and I gave them a rehearsed smile. Dong Il and Il Hwa shared a look between them and they both smiled back at me awkwardly.
“Ah, Sa-don,” Dong Il said to Joon’s mother. “Will your husband be attending the wedding?”
Na Jeong’s eyes widened before she nudged her father on the side. Her father sent her a puzzled glance before looking at his plate.
“Of course he will, Sa-don,” she answered smoothly. “My husband likes Joon.”
Joon put his fork and knife down before he addressed her with an incredulous look. “Omma… how can ahjussi like me if he’s doesn’t know me?”
“Joon-ah!” Na Jeong said, and she looked at his mother apologetically.
“It’s true,” Joon responded. “I’ve met the man what… once? Twice? I don’t even know.”
“He’s seen you play on television,” his mother responded. “My husband likes you.”
At the continued use of the phrase I put the glass of wine that I was drinking down and continued with our friendly conversation.
“Does your husband have a name, Park Mi Sook-ssi?” I asked drily. “You don’t have to keep saying my husband this, my husband that. I sure we are all well aware that you have a husband.” I turned to the rest of the table and smiled. “Aren’t we?”
After a shocked silence Dong Il said “Ah, yes.” And Na Jeong and her mother murmured their assent. Joon was looking at me searchingly, his eyes concerned, and I put a reassuring hand to his shoulder. Before his mother could respond to my question, I heard Na Jeong’s voice.
“Joon-ah,” she said sweetly. “Are you finished eating?”
“Yes, jagiya, I’m done,” Joon responded. “Why?”
She eyed his plate, still half full with potatoes and vegetables as well as a little bit of steak, with the fork in her mouth and smiled at him.
“Are you… are you going to finish that?” She asked him hopefully. “Isn’t it wasteful to not eat the rest?”
Joon chuckled before lifting his plate and putting it in front of Na Jeong, but not before cutting the steak into smaller pieces. We all watched, amazed, as Na Jeong brightened and dug in. How can such a small woman put away so much food? And where is it all going? Joon’s mother had been the same, when she was pregnant. At the memory I frowned. Seeing my expression and not realizing that it had nothing to do with Na Jeong, Dong Il tried to get her to stop eating with one look, and when that didn’t work, he tried to take her fork outright.
“Ahh, gashina,” he said, as he tried to peel her fingers away from her fork. “Why do you eat so much? Put the fork down. You’re going to make people think we don’t feed you. You’re eating too much… And in front of your in laws no less.”
“Sa-don, she’s eating well,” I said as I smiled at Na Jeong, who was valiantly holding on to her fork. “Na Jeong has a great appetite. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Na Jeong’s mother gave me a lovely smile then, and Dong Il stopped trying to take her fork away, chagrined. Joon looked down at the table and took a sip of water, a grin on his face.
“Besides,” Joon’s mother said. “She’s eating for two.”
All pleasantry disappeared from Dong Il’s face when he heard this and he narrowed his eyes.
“Don’t remind me,” he muttered under his breath. A little louder, he added, “What was her excuse before?” I saw all the women bristle at him and Il Hwa looked like she was about to grab her husband by the neck.
“Sa-don, ” I began, trying to diffuse the situation. I was still thinking for the right words to say when I saw Joon’s mother stand up.
“Na Jeong is a wonderful woman,” she said. “Her passion for food speaks of her passion for Joon. And her passion for life. How is that a bad thing? Your daughter is amazing, and I won’t have you speak about her this way. You men don’t understand how difficult pregnancy is on a woman.”
“Stop reminding me that she’s pregnant!” Dong Il said vehemently, standing up as well. “I’ve only just started speaking to YOUR SON again. I can still change my mind!”
“Appa!” “Yeobo!” Na Jeong and her mother exclaimed simultaneously. Again.
“Now everyone,” I said as I stood up protectively over my son. “Let’s all calm down. The excitement over the wedding and the baby have got all of us on edge and we need to remember this is a wonderful time for our children.”
Mi Sook looked like she was about to say something else again and I shook my head at her warningly. She and Na Jeong’s father continued standing, both stubbornly staring the other down. I saw as Na Jeong tugged at her father to sit back down and after a few minutes he relented. It wasn’t until he was safely back in his seat that Joon’s mother also sat back down and I breathed a relieved sigh. This joining of families is complicated business.
“Omonim,” Na Jeong said, as if looking to start a different topic. “I forgot to thank you for telling me what cologne abonim wears. I would never have been able to find it on my own.”
“Why would you need to buy ahjussi a gift, Jagiya?” Joon asked. “Wedding gifts are for primary family only, right?”
“Joon-ah, you didn’t hear me well? I said abonim not ahjussi,” Na Jeong responded as she finished the potatoes. “Omonim told me what your father wears, and I was able to get it. That stuff was hard to find.” She turned to look at me with a smile. “Abonim, you wear Vetiver, right?” When I nodded she turned an admiring glance back at Joon’s mother. “Ahh, omonim… your memory is great! How can you still remember that after so long?”
Mi Sook started choking on the wine she was drinking and Joon patted her back. She didn’t give her a response, and I was thankful, I think. I don’t need to know why she still remembered that. It doesn’t matter.
“And abonim… Joon and I talked about it, and we can have the traditional wedding in Chungju,” she continued, unaware that her father was still looking at her annoyed. “We’ll have to wait until after the honeymoon though, because we won’t have any time before the wedding in Seoul.”
“What traditional wedding?” Dong Il boomed. “How many weddings do you need? And honeymoon? HA! THE PURPOSE OF THE HONEYMOON IS TO MAKE A BABY AND YOU ALREADY DID THAT!”
“Appa, you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack,” Na Jeong said gently. “And yes, a wedding in Chungju. That’s where Abonim lives. Of course we should have one there as well. In fact it will be fun! We’ll make a trip out of it.”
Her father continued glaring at her, then at us, even as Na Jeong kept on talking to her mother and Joon’s mother about the wedding… both of the weddings.
“Lee Il Hwa-ssi,” he said to his wife. “Are you telling me you knew about this?”
“Yes,” she said before turning her attention away from him and clapping her hands. “I’ve never been to Chungju! Sa-don,” she directed at me, “is it okay if I help you plan it? Joon’s Omma will have work, so she won’t be able to help, but with Sook Sook out of school we can come and help you closer to the day.”
I smiled at her before nodding. “Any help will be appreciated. I don’t have any experience with weddings.”
“Pssshhh…” Dong Il commented. “You obviously had a wedding before… What else is there to know?”
“Ahh,” I said. “Joon’s mother planned that wedding.”
“Maybe that’s why it didn’t work out. You should have been more involved,” he mumbled.
“Appa!” “Yeobo!” Na Jeong and her mother said for the third time.
“What?” He asked, blinking at them both. “What did I say?”
“I can’t take you out in public, Sung Dong Il-ssi,” Na Jeong’s mother said, shaking her head at him. “My husband needs a filter. I apologize for him.”
I looked over at Joon and smiled at the serene expression on his face before I replied. My son certainly chose the perfect family to join into. They were guileless, unpretentious and honest, unafraid to speak their minds. What you see is what you get. After his experience with me and his Omma, it must have felt like a breath of fresh air to be around people who say what they mean and mean what they say. I was happy for him. Happy for us, too. I now know why Na Jeong is the way she is.
“It’s okay,” I finally said. “He’s probably right.”
The rest of the meal was spent discussing the dowry or lack of it, with Joon already owning the apartment they will be living in and the two of them having just bought a new sofa. To compromise, Na Jeong and her family will buy the furniture for the nursery instead, and Joon’s mother and I will split the cost for the wedding in Chungju.
Joon’s mother said nothing else to me for the rest of the meal. She seemed distracted, and I would have asked if she was okay, but I stopped myself. None of my business.
We were all preparing to leave the restaurant when Na Jeong turned to me, a shy smile on her face. I smiled back at her fondly and she held a small bag out.
“Your gifts, Abonim,” she said.
“Na Jeong-ah, thank you,” I responded before she impulsively wrapped her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek.
“Thanks for the backup,” she whispered and I chuckled.
Joon had just stopped speaking to her parents when he joined her and put an arm around her.
“Appa,” he said. “Are you leaving again tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I said as I unbuttoned a jacket. “I’ll call you on Monday, like I usually do after go stop.”
“Sounds good,” he said with a smile.
I offered a hand to Na Jeong’s father and he shook it heartily. Na Jeong’s mother took my hand in both of hers and bowed. I bid them farewell quietly and turned around so quickly I almost knocked Joon’s mother down. Extending a hand towards her, I spoke.
“Park Mi Sook-ssi.”
She looked at my hand for a few seconds before lifting her own. I attempted a smile, but she didn’t smile back. Her eyes instead turned again to look at our hands, still touching. She continued to stare at them and I realized that I had been holding on longer than appropriate and pulled away. I walked out of the restaurant and into the elevator before she could say a word.
The Egg and Spoon Race
June 16, 2002
June 16, 2002
I had just opened my newspaper and taken a sip of my coffee when Han Tae Jun walked into the cafe. I stood up to greet him but before I could even get a word in he already had me in his arms in a tight bear hug.
“Kang Ho-yah!!!” He greeted enthusiastically and I couldn’t help but smile. “I thought we were having drinks last night?”
I waited for him to sit down before I reclaimed my seat. Motioning for another menu, I perused the cloth wrapped bundle he had placed on the table before responding.
“I was tired,” I said. I wasn’t lying. I had been tired, and had wanted to be alone. “I can change my mind, can’t I?” He opened the menu and flipped his cup the right way up and poured coffee for himself and I pointed at the parcel. “What’s that?”
“My wife’s rice cakes…” he said as he added sugar and milk to his coffee. “… and some banchan. You know she feels bad for poor divorced Kang Ho. She seems to think you can’t make food for yourself. Did you already check out of the hotel?”
“You should have just stayed at ours,” he said. “I don’t know why you insist on staying in hotels whenever you’re in Seoul.”
“I don’t like intruding on other people’s space. I like being alone,” I replied lightly. “And you need to set your wife straight. I managed to raise my son on my own… and I’ve been divorced for years.”
“Has it been years already?” He asked. “I would never have known… you know, since you haven’t started dating or anything. Don’t they have some nice ladies in the country?”
“Tae Jun-ah,” I warned him. “Shut up. You haven’t seen me in months and you still want to talk about this. Really?”
The arrival of the server turned out attention and I sat back and listened to him place an order for the omelet set. I ordered the potato set for myself and waited after she had gone to speak again.
“Tell Min Sun thanks for me,” I said. “I always appreciate her rice cakes, even if they’re made with misdirected pity. Next you’ll be telling me she has a friend she wants to introduce me to.”
“She does have a friend,” Tae Jun said, eyes twinkling, and I shook my head at him. We’ve been friends for over thirty five years and he hasn’t changed one bit. “Yah… I was looking forward to having drinks. It was going to be one night of freedom. We could have relived our youths.”
“Relived?” I asked. “If you mean relived as in drink bottles of soju in between classes and then throwing up behind the bushes you can forget it. Those days are long behind me.”
“He’s good. He’s happy… happier than I’ve ever seen him.”
“And Na… Na Jeong, is it?”
“She’s good too. Those two are sickeningly sweet together. They’d make me throw up if he wasn’t my kid.”
“Kim Kang Ho,” he said, narrowing his eyes at me. “I do believe you’re smiling. Really smiling. I can’t believe you’re going to be a grandfather in seven months.”
“Yeah? Me neither.”
Our food arrived and we started eating in companionable silence. I was halfway through my omelet when Tae Jun asked me the question that I’m sure has been sitting on the tip of his tongue since he came.
“Did you see her?”
“Who?” I asked innocently, even though I already knew.
Tae Jun gave me an exasperated sigh. “Who else? Her.”
“If by her you mean my ex wife then the answer is yes.”
“And…” He prodded.
“Yah… are we ahjummas? You’re so nosy. What exactly do you want to know?”
“Does she still look like an angel?”
“Your words, not mine,” he responded, leaning towards me. “Is she still as beautiful as she was when you were together?”
“She looked…” Amazing. Incredible. Magnificent. “…Like herself.”
“So she is still beautiful, then. How did it go?”
About as well as multiple teeth extractions without anesthesia. “Fine… it went fine.”
“You’re so stingy with the details, Kang Ho-yah,” he said with a frown before helping himself to some good on my plate. “Aren’t I your friend? I’m your only friend.”
“You are not my only friend,” I said, waving his hand away. “And eat your own food.”
“Was her husband there?” He asked.
“Why the hell would he be at my son’s engagement dinner?” My voice came out louder than I had intended and I lowered it before I continued. “No, he wasn’t.”
“But he’ll be at the wedding, right?”
“She said he will.”
“And the ceremony in Chungju? Will he be going there as well?” When I nodded he looked at me disbelievingly. “And you’re okay with that.”
“Me being okay with it is not the point. If she pays for half of the ceremony, as we’ve agreed upon, then he should be allowed to go.”
“Then don’t let her pay for it,” Tae Jun retorted.
“Does my wi-… my ex wife strike you as the type of woman who needs anyone’s consent to do anything?” I retorted back. Mi Sook has never needed anyone’s permission. Not for big decisions like leaving her husband and child. And certainly not for matters as trivial as this.
Without answering my question my friend looked away and focused his attention on his plate again.
“That’ll be weird.”
“What will be weird?” I asked.
“You’ll be in your house with your ex-wife and her new husband,” he said slowly. “Whom you’ve never met.”
“She’s Joon’s mother. It’ll be fine.” When he looked at me doubtfully, I put my cup down emphatically. “It’ll be fine. We were fine. It’s only one day. It’ll be fine.”
He said nothing else and continued to study me as I finished my breakfast and downed the rest of my coffee. As we were bidding each other farewell, he reassured me that he will be at the wedding next Saturday, along with his wife. I was glad for that, at least, else Joon won’t have many people on his side of the hall.
As I was driving back to Chungju, I thought back on all of Tae Jun’s questions. I know he’s worrying for me, as he always had, and I don’t get it. I’m not even thinking about it, and I doubt that she is, either. And yet I couldn’t keep my mind from straying back to last night. Or wondering why continues to wear the locket I gave her, after all this time.
June 17, 2002
I was glad I had lecture end early today. I was still feeling off and I was happy to get out of work. I stopped at the shopping center to kill some time and bought Na Jeong a pair of earrings, thinking it will go well with her wedding dress. I went to the grocery and purchased the ingredients for tonight’s meal.
I had prepared my husband’s favorite foods for dinner. The table was filled with several plates, with seullongtang in a tureen in the middle. With him coming home increasingly late during the week and always away on business trips during the weekend, it seems that dinner is the only meal we share together nowadays.
I wore his favorite dress, and put my hair down, just as I know he likes. I did my make up in a way that I knew he approves of and wore the earrings he gave me for my birthday last year.
He came home late last night from his trip, and I was awake when he came into the house, though I pretended not to be. He went straight to the shower and then to bed without as much as a hug for me.
When I was sure he was asleep, I climbed out of bed and went straight to the laundry room, where I know he’d put his overnight bag. I also knew that he wouldn’t be bothered to wash his clothes at night and will get up extra early the next morning to do it before I could.
I had opened the zipper to see several white shirts and pairs of pants, along with dirty socks and underwear. I found nothing that was suspicious, and I sat down on the cold floor and questioned what I was doing. I was acting like a crazy person. I was acting like I would have acted twenty years ago. I shoved them all back in his bag and pretended I did nothing. I went back to bed and tried to go back to sleep. And the next morning I got dressed and went to work.
And now I sat, in my beautiful house, surrounded by my beautiful things and was fiddling with the locket on my necklace. The table was set for two, and flowers on the table, like there always was. There was a bottle of wine chilling in the fridge, and the aroma of various dishes filled the space. I was staring at my cup of tea, knowing full well that I haven’t touched it since I made it, a few hours ago.
I’ve been feeling unsettled since Saturday night, and I refuse to acknowledge why. Because it’s of no consequence. Because it didn’t matter. I saw the man I once promised my life to for the first time in twenty years. Of course it’s only natural that I have some sort of reaction. I’m not a robot. Just because I’ve trained myself to not feel or react doesn’t mean I don’t have the ability still.
Kang Ho was the face from my past, the past I’ve tried so hard to forget, the past I’ve tried so hard to overcome. Being around him again did nothing but convince me even more that our parting had been inevitable. You cannot live your life productively loving someone that much. No one can. It was always meant to fail.
We had been from different worlds, and we had different priorities. Mine had been him. His had been everyone else. The taste of bitterness came up on my tongue and I swallowed it down. I managed to move forward in life despite him before and I could do it again.
Never mind that he looks like he did when I loved him. Never mind that he still made me feel as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. What he remembers is who I was. And who I was had been a woman in love with him. I am no longer that person, and he was the reason why.
I sighed to myself thinking of how i used to be. How can anyone possibly function with that much emotion? How can one ever make the smart choices based on feelings? Intelligent choices are based on logic. On reason. Emotions and feelings do nothing but color one’s conscience and decision making abilities. I was much better off living sensibly. A bit boring and predictable perhaps, but excitement had never been my forte.
The door opened slowly and I pasted a smile on my face. Standing up gracefully, I tried not to notice that my hands were still shaking as I took the bottle of wine from the fridge. My husband walked in, dressed in his work clothes, and smiled at me.
Has it always been this way? That my heart didn’t jump when he smiles at me? I never paid attention before but the contrast was even more stark now that i remembered how much my heart raced when Kang Ho as much as looked at me, much less smiled. My husband walked towards me and planted a kiss on my cheek, and still I felt nothing. Impulsively I turned my face and planted a kiss on his lips, much to his surprise. Again, I felt nothing.
What a relief. Things are as they should be.
He eyed the food on the table appreciatively and sat himself down. I went to the cabinets and uncorked the wine, pouring him a glass before he was even seated. Shrugging off his jacket, he had already started eating by the time I set the wineglass down in front of him. The smile felt frozen on my face and he looked at me questioningly. I’m sure he’s wondering why I’m smiling. Why wouldn’t I be?
“Joon’s getting married on Saturday,” I said, my voice well modulated and cordial. “You remembered, right? I already told them you’d be coming. They’re looking forward to seeing you.”
I added the embellishment without any thought. I’m pretty sure my son is ambivalent about his stepfather, if he can even be called that, at best and wouldn’t care either way, but no matter. He is still my husband.
“Of course I will. I might even socialize,” he answered with a smile. He helped himself to the seullongtang and I watched as he spooned the soup into his mouth.
“How was Hong Kong?” I asked.
“It was great,” he said smoothly.
I bet it was. The remark came so suddenly in my mind that i fought to rein it in.
“How was your weekend?” He asked.
“It was fine,” I replied, the role of dutiful wife fully ingrained in me now.
We will talk about the weather next, and maybe some news. He will ask about my lectures and whether I will be getting a promotion soon. It’s the same conversation every night, and in the same order.
Tell me something that made you smile today, I heard Kang Ho whisper to me, a hand brushing my hair back, so many years ago. How frivolous. Why would anyone want to know that?
Kang Ho’s hands were even more calloused now. His face harder. Just like I wasn’t the woman he married, he wasn’t the man who broke my heart either. He was no more than a stranger to me. A stranger with a familiar laugh, the sound rumbling through me as if he was holding me close.
“How was your son’s engagement ceremony?” My husband’s voice asked and I was brought back to the present.
“It went well,” I replied automatically, though in this instance I supposed it was true.
As well as it could have gone, under the circumstances. I’m just glad that the first meeting is over with. Maybe now I won’t be like this every time I see him. I will be more prepared.
The way I feel right now makes me thankful that I got out of that marriage when I did. There is always an imbalance when one loves and feels more than the other. It’s better when expectations are set forth in the beginning so that there will be no disappointments. Joon and Na Jeong are the exception. They are exceptionally lucky.
But to me… this… comfortable companionship is preferable. Even if we weren’t all that comfortable and we weren’t really companions. We had friendship, once. It was why I married him. How novel to be in the presence of a man and not feel like your heart is about to jump out of your chest. How lovely it is to be in a relationship with someone whose moods and feelings didn’t affect yours.
Yes, I preferred this.
I am not built for passionate, all or nothing love. I had that once already and it almost killed me. This I can live with. And even without it I know i will survive. I am okay with that. What I can’t live with? Failing again. Failing at another marriage. I won’t fail again. Not if I can help it. No one will get to make this decision for me.
“It was really warm today, don’t you think?” He asked me and I smiled. Just as I predicted. It’s comforting having things in my life that are set in stone. Even if we were just an illusion of a happy marriage, I will hold onto it for as long as I can.
This marriage will work, because I will it to. My life will go on just as before.