AMC: A LEAP OF FAITH

PROLOGUE

December 1992

Gia

“No one will love you like I love you, ” he whispered and I felt the tears fall down my face. I wished I had a sleeping bag, a box even. Anything to protect me from him. “You understand, right?” He asked as I felt fingers grasping my chin to turn my face towards his. His dark eyes bore into mine, his voice lowering even more. “Say it again. Say you’ll leave me again.”

I bit the inside of my cheek as I tried to break my face out of his grasp. Upon seeing this, his hand tightened even more and I closed my eyes as a pained moan came out of me. I was already having trouble opening my left eye. The swelling had begun after the second blow. My tongue tasted the rust on my lips and I shivered in the cold.

My good eye focused on him, his face no longer belonging to someone I knew. Someone I loved. The Marcus I had fallen in love with no longer existed, had ceased to exist two months ago, the first time he hit me, the same time my father threw me out of our house. I had known he was going to be trouble when I first met him, but had forged ahead anyway, my heart convinced that there was more to him than what I first saw.

I might have left him then have I had anywhere else to go. I might have gone had I had the strength, the will. But I didn’t. He promised it was the last time, and it had been… until the next time it happened. Then I realized it had only been the first time, but the realization came too late. I was already way in over my head and had nowhere to run.

It was a secret, he said. Our secret. it had been a secret I had guarded fiercely, believing that it kept us together, holding onto the illusion of what we were rather than accepting what we actually are. It was a secret that I no longer wanted to keep.

“Say it,” he whispered again, his voice deceptively gentle.

“I’m leav…” I was interrupted by a slap to the face and I reeled from the sharp pain.

He hit me with so much force that I fell to the floor, my arm hitting the bookcase on the way down. Don’t cry out loud, I told myself, don’t cry out loud. I pushed myself to the corner of the room and cradled my elbow, the throbbing already starting. I closed my eyes as I tried to quickly think of where I should go, to no success. I opened my eyes to see him stalking to me, his palm open. Crouching even lower, I covered my face with my hands as I prepared myself for another blow.

He knelt down in front of me and I held my breath, the tears drying on my cheeks. He ran a hand down my hair tenderly and I cowered from his touch. I knew better now than to trust his hands again. I knew better than to believe in his ‘tenderness.’ I knew better than to believe in anything anymore.

“You know I’m doing this because I love you, right? Why do you make me do this?” He asked and I didn’t respond. “We have to be together. I’ll kill you if you leave me.”

Why? I thought. Why do we have together? Was this what I deserved? Are you what I deserve?

There were so many things I wanted to say, so many things I wanted to ask. But the fear of more pain kept me silent, my cowardice shaming me, especially now. He waited for an answer for a few minutes and upon seeing that I was offering no response, released a frustrated breath and stood up.

I watched warily as he walked towards the door, convinced that he would turn back to deliver another hit. He hadn’t left me alone in two months. Not for one minute. I doubted that he would today, but this had been the worst of our fights. Maybe this time he will leave. Maybe this time I will have my chance. I didn’t allow myself to breathe until I heard the door close behind him, and only then did I allow myself to cry.

Every blow had hurt. My eye was pulsating in pain, my lip stinging, my forearm bleeding. But none of those things compared to the pain inside my chest. My heart was coiling and clamping, tightening with each beat. Disappointment in him, disappointment in myself mixed and mingled, the feel of it overwhelming and suffocating.

Putting a hand against the wall for support, I stood up slowly and made my way to the bathroom inside the motel room, my home for the last two months. I flipped the light on and turned the faucet to run, my gaze on the blood that streamed down the sink. I washed my hands and dabbed a clean washcloth over my face, careful not to scrape against the open areas.

It was only when I was about to leave the bathroom that I allowed myself a look at my reflection, something I hadn’t done in months. Afraid of what I would see. Afraid of who I would see. Afraid of who I had become.

The person staring at me looked like me, but not like me at all. Besides the shadows under her right eye and the swelling on her left, besides the blood that continued to drip from one corner of her mouth, the bruises still healing on one side of her cheek from the last time this happened, besides all that, what struck me most was the defeat in her eyes, the emptiness. She looked at me blankly from the mirror and I lifted a hand to her, offering comfort. I traced her over the glass and sent a silent apology for my weakness. The gaze looking at me from the mirror deepened and searched, as if asking me a question, as if entreating a plea.

This is enough, she said. No more. Please. I can’t do this anymore.

I closed my eyes as the familiar request ran through me and took a deep breath. Tears started falling again against my will and I covered my face with my hands. It felt like my throat was closing in on me and I forced myself to keep breathing.

In and out. In and out.

The air refused to move and I started coughing while I continued to cry in silence, my chest squeezing inside me. The next thing I knew, keening sounds were coming from somewhere in my throat, and my shoulders started shaking as I wrapped my arms around myself, wondering how I got here, if this was the plan for me.

I knew what I had to do. I left the bathroom and grabbed a small bag from under the bed, the one I never unpacked. It was the only thing I was allowed to bring with me when I left home. With shaky hands I reached into the side pocket and pulled out a small knife. I felt its comforting weight in my hand, the silver tip gleaming in the dark.

I’m the only one who loves you, I heard him say over and over again. I’m the only one who understands you. No one will miss you if you were gone. No one will care, except for me.

For the last year I’ve lived in darkness, feeling my way through the shadows, unable to see where I was heading. The desolation and isolation from losing my family, my only friend, being without their counsel and support, had taken its toll. I wake up most days wondering why I was even waking up. My mind screamed a litany of echoes, pointing a finger directly at me, like a gun; I was the culprit for my situation. Beside me was the ghost of the person I used to be, but there was someone else, too… the ghost of the person I was meant to be. But while the former stood by and blamed and pleaded, the latter was getting farther and farther away every day. The darkness that hovered and blanketed was taking over. I could feel it tugging me closer, the wish to end all of this now the only feeling that was flowing freely through my veins, the only thought breathing in my mind. I rested the cold metal against my wrist and closed my eyes. It’s my fault. This was my fault. It’s time I undo it. It’s time that I end it.

Is that it, then? A little voice asked, sounding eerily like my own, just as the blade pierced into my skin. Has everything come down to this?

My mother’s face flashed in front of me, my sister’s, and finally, my best friend’s. My breath caught in my throat as I thought about the only people who ever really loved me, missing them so much I thought the feeling would choke me. Memories of happier times swirled in my head and I opened my eyes. I have to live. If not for myself, then for them. Surely… Surely there was enough of me left to survive even this. Slowly I pulled the knife away, then stood up and tossed it in the garbage can, uncaring that I was bleeding from my wrist.

I hurriedly gathered what belongings I had around, wiping my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt. I shoved what I could in my bag, my eyes darting around the room to make sure that I wouldn’t be leaving anything behind. I took the change that was on the side table and placed them in my pockets, fumbling with the door as I tried to exit the room.

I looked around when I was at outside the door, making sure that he was nowhere to be found. After confirming that there was no one around, I took the first hesitant step to my freedom. With new urgency I clutched the small bag close to me as I started walking, though unsure of where I was going. It didn’t matter anyway, as long as it was away from here.

The end might still be the same if he found me. I had no doubt in my mind that he was more than capable of doing what he said he would should he discover that I was gone. The ending might still be the same, but I will die fighting. I will die trying. For the people I love. For myself. This cannot be my end.

This thought echoed in my head over and over as my feet quickened its steps and I started to run.

*****

February 1996

Jung Jin

I walked slowly through the front door of the two storey brownstone of her apartment building. The streetlight glowed just outside, the cold nipping at my back. There was a cashmere scarf around my neck, and I pushed my glasses up on the bridge of my nose as soon as I had taken my leather gloves off.

She won’t be expecting this, I thought. There was no way she could be anticipating this.

I came back here as soon as my one client was settled in Japan, had planned on scouting out a new manager for him before the season was out. Kim Jae Joon will be a success, and he will need a manager by his side all the time, which I will not be able to do. I’ve been back in Korea for the better part of the last year, tying up loose ends, convincing my family that I was doing the right thing moving for her. Moving for this. Her life is here. And she is my life. Moving an ocean away is a tiny price to pay to be able to call her my wife. They don’t like the decision I’ve made, but they never liked her anyway… I’ve had to live with that disapproval, and it’s time that they get over it as well.

Anxiously, nervously, happily, I patted the inside pocket of my coat for the small box inside it. My entire future was in this box. I took my time as I climbed up the steps, my footsteps echoing on the hardwood floors. When I reached the landing I shrugged off my coat before removing the woolen cap that was on my head. Resting the thick coat over my arm I pulled out a small piece of paper from the pocket of my trousers and smiled as I read the words.

I love you. I want to spend my life with you. In the last few years you’ve made me happier than I ever thought I could be. You are everything I ever dreamed of.

I promise to always take care of you, to always give you what you want. I don’t have much now but I will soon. I can do that for you… And don’t worry, your parents will come to love me too.

Marry me.

I recited the words under my breath, hoping that I will be able to deliver them without a stutter. My hands started sweating despite the cold and my heart beating in anticipation inside my chest, I blew on them quickly, remembering that she didn’t like me touching her when they were so.

I had loved only her for the better part of my youth, had spent my university days bettering myself so I can be good enough for her. She was my dream, any man’s dream, really, come to life. I was lucky that she even dared look my way.

I stared at the door in front of me, knowing that once I take a step inside I will take the most important step towards my future. For the briefest of seconds I was tempted to knock, but spurred on by my emotions I pulled out my key and inserted it into the knob. In fifteen minutes the caterers will arrive and we will celebrate our engagement with a lavish dinner, just as I know she liked. She will be wearing the extravagant ring I bought for her, in the style that I knew she preferred.

I turned the doorknob and entered the door in quiet steps, wanting to surprise her. The first smell that hit me was the thick scent of jasmine and coconut, the way she always smelled. The lights were off in the apartment, save for one peeking out of her bedroom. I smiled when I realized that she must be indulging herself to a night alone again, just like the women she liked to watch on television did.

I know her, this woman that I love. And she, she is the one for me. I could have, would have, and had already done everything to ensure that she loves me as much as I love her. My future will be hers, if she will take it. The rest of my world, too, if she wants that as well.

I smiled to myself as I slipped off my shoes, reminded that she doesn’t like scuffs on the wooden floors of her immaculate home. It was time.

*****

February 1996

Gia

I don’t believe in fairy tales.

When I was seven years old I loved the most handsome man I had ever seen. He wasn’t very tall but he had skin the color of three quarters milk and one quarter coffee. He had dimples one on either side of his cheeks and another on his chin. He wore his hair neatly and wore suits all the time. Everyone said he was a business man, an office man, and they were right. Everyone said he had been charming, as a boy then as a teen, and now as a man. They were right about that also. Everyone said women loved him. They were right about that, too.

My father was the shiniest, brightest star in my galaxy. He was the man I idolized, the man I adored, and my young world revolved around him. I lived for his smile, so very much like mine, and for his praise. I lived for the time he would tuck me into his chest as he read me a story before bedtime. Growing up without my mother he was the one person whom I loved indisputably, unquestionably. One day… I thought, one day I would marry a man just like him. That’s how I thought for most of my childhood.

My father left to join my mother in America when I was seven years old, leaving me alone in my grandparents’ big ancient house, fully dependent on his family’s goodwill and generosity. He took me for a movie and a chocolate shake before he left, just as he knew I liked. I cried through most of it, feeling like I was losing my best friend. But my parents gave me the best gift not one year later when my sister had been born. She was the love of my life. She still is.

Like the princess stuck in the tower I waited for five years until my father came back. And when he did it further reinforced the thought that he was someone I could believe in, the only person I could depend on. Until one night, the lights went out, as they so often did at that time. And I meant literally, not figuratively. It was the summer of brownouts/blackouts in Manila, and we had all come to expect it on a daily basis.

My father and I had found ourselves sitting on a couch, and perhaps emboldened by the darkness he felt the need to confess. He told me about his other woman, his other child. He told me he had other women, and other children too. He told me he once loved my mother but he no longer did. He asked for my understanding, and for my forgiveness.

I was only twelve years old. What did I know of forgiveness? Although, even then, I think I must have known it wasn’t my forgiveness he should have been seeking, but my mother’s.

There had been many tears then, but they hadn’t been mine. He had tried to comfort me, and he perhaps sought some comfort as well, but the only thing I was able to do was scoot to the furthest side of the couch, effectively refusing what he offered and denying him what he wanted as well. Shocked I had sat there frozen, though my young mind already knew it to be true, long before he even left.

It had been in the way he would disappear at night when he thought I was asleep and didn’t make another appearance until morning. It was in the secret pictures in his wallet and his late night phone calls. It was in the pitying eyes that my aunts and uncles sent my way and the way my mother’s name was mentioned under whispered breaths. Though I didn’t see these facts right away then, I saw them all too clearly that night and every night that followed.

And still, when the lights came back on not even an hour later, I marveled how one hour of darkness changed my world. In less than sixty minutes my father was transformed from the first man I ever loved to the first man who broke my heart.

I don’t believe in fairy tales. But once upon a time I did.

The first time I fell in love was at fifteen years old. Armed with knowledge I had derived from books, music, and movies, I had anticipated the moment for as long as I could remember. I had expected bells and whistles, maybe a bit of magic. There had been none of those, but it had still been special.

He was also fifteen, nine months younger than me. He had blond hair and bright blue eyes, made even bluer by the thick glasses he wore. He liked to chew gum and play football. He had been the first boy who had shown me friendship and kindness. I mistook both as interest and paid the price of an unrequited love.

We shared our first kiss in a laundry room, in the basement of an old friend’s house. My first kiss had been the result of a game kids had no business playing. I thought it had been fate, though looking back now that it seems closer to serendipity than that.

It took him over a year to see me as more than the girl who sortofkindof had a crush on him, more than the girl who was mostprobablydefinitely his best friend. After believing that he would never see me as more I finally had the title I so longed for.

I became his girlfriend.

I became the girlfriend whose hand he only held in private. I became the girlfriend who never met his family though we had been together for five years. I became the girlfriend who never quite lived up to his idea of his dream. I was neither blond or blue eyed. I was a bit too smart for my own good and a little too short. But yet, I kept on insisting, to comfort or convince myself, I was his girlfriend.

When we went to different universities we had been unafraid. Young and hopeful we made promises that I had been sure we were going to fulfill. I believed then that our futures will be as linked as our pasts had been. I had been his girlfriend then, but he promised… he promised that one day I will be his wife.

I was proven wrong once more.

I became the girlfriend whom he forgot to call, the girlfriend he spoke to less and less. I became the girlfriend who nagged him to stop partying, who told him to slow down with his drinking… And eventually, I became the girlfriend he left behind.

I don’t believe in fairy tales. But there had been a time when I wanted to… I really really wanted to.

I fell in and out of love a couple more times after the first, both times with men who carried the qualities that I once loved about my father. I always went into every relationship blindly, trusting my instinct, rather than my head. Always beginning with the rush of blood to my heart and ending with a kick squarely on my ass. My relationships all ended with nary a tear from their ends but plenty on mine.

I have a sickness. A sickness of falling in love quickly and without any thought. A sickness of loving the idea of love more than love. A sickness of loving the possibility of the person I’m with more than who they have shown themselves to be. That belief in who they could be, of me being the only person who really sees them had proven to be my undoing over and over again. I convinced myself that I could love enough for two and time and time again I was forcefed my lesson.

I don’t believe in fairy tales. And even if I did I didn’t think they would ever happen to me.

When I was twenty two, I fell in love again. Learning from my past I deviated this time. Realizing the error of my ways, this time, I fell in love with a man who was as different from my father as anyone could possibly be. He was romantic, funny, kind to children and small animals. Except he wasn’t very kind to me. After a few months of bliss, his kisses turned to slaps, and then eventually, to punches. The petty jealousy I once adored coming from him transformed into obsession and an unquenchable, unsatisfied need to possess.

My heart had rebelled against what my body had to endure, and eventually somehow, and some way, I managed to break free from the neverending cycle of happiness and violence. I walked away with bruises but with my head held high, though I knew, even then, that I was no longer whole. That there was a chance I would never be whole again. The innocence I once had and once scoffed at was gone, replaced instead by distrust and wariness.

I don’t believe in fairy tales. But I still hoped, once, that if they did exist, that one will lose its princess and it will find her in me. I thought that now was my time. Finally. My fairy tale had found me.

He will be proposing tonight. I can feel it in my bones. I heard the nervous way he’s been talking to me since he went back home. We haven’t been together long, but I could read him like a book.

Will I accept? Should I accept?

As I stared at the flames in front of me I thought about how faith and trust are funny things. Love, too. I wondered how people always gave all of them automatically, as if they didn’t have to be earned. I thought of how these things superceded everything else and made everything unnecessary. I hadn’t thought like that in years. I have been more distrustful in the last four years than I ever was for most of my life. I no longer believed unconditionally, though I wished I still did.

But soon, I thought, soon, I will be getting married. Finally I had found the man I’ve been waiting for. Never mind how much I’ve had to give up to get here. Never mind that there are times when I still believe that I’m not quite ready. Sacrifices have to be made for even a taste of happiness. I loved him and he loved me. That was all that mattered. He made me laugh and when he kissed me, I could forget that fairy tales aren’t real. He made me not care that fairy tales aren’t real.

I went into this relationship not with the ignorant bliss of one who’s never been hurt. I’ve earned my happiness. I had paid for it with sweat, tears and yes, even blood. I will agree to bind my life with someone else’s not with the belief that he is flawless but with the acceptance of the fact that human beings are not infallible. I was promising to love him through that, and despite it as well. I believe now that even love can be approached with the sensibility of tipping the scales, where if the positives outweigh the negatives, then surely it was the right thing to do.

I am older now, wiser. And I feared growing older alone. I am twenty seven years old. It’s time to get married.

The woman I’ve become knows of betrayals but still chose to hope. I still chose to believe… Because sometimes that’s all anyone can do to be happy. And though I hated to admit it, I know in my heart that I still hoped it was this. That the girl who once didn’t believe in fairy tales was now, finally, living out her own.

*****

JFK International Airport

New York City, New York

March 1996

Jung Jin

“Are you going on a trip?” The cab driver asked me, and surprised I lifted my eyes, meeting his in the mirror over the windshield. He had been chattering the whole ride to the airport, friendly in the way most cab drivers in the city are.

“I’m going home,” I said. My voice sounded brusque to my ears though I didn’t mean for it to be so. He looked away from me as he eased the cab towards the curb.

“It’s 47 dollars, sir,” the cab driver said, turning the upper half of his body around with an engaging smile.

I pulled my wallet out and handed him a hundred dollar bill. “Keep the change,” I said, willing my voice to be more amiable. I stepped out of the cab with my one bag over my shoulder, and went into the airport without looking back.

As I waited in line at the ticket counter I mentally ran down the list of the things I had to do. I’ve already closed the lease on my apartment here, the check from my security deposit safely in my briefcase. I’ve already notified the phone company, the water company, the electric company. I’ve already sent all my belongings back to Korea a week ago. I’ve already enquired and closed on an apartment in Gangnam over the phone, and I will sign the papers and hand over the check when I get back, then move in the next couple of days, just in time for my possessions to arrive. Then after that… I will go on a trip before eventually joining Joon in Japan.

My life will go on as before.

I stepped up to the counter with my passport in heavy steps, the bag on my shoulder getting heavier by the minute.

“I’d like a ticket to South Korea,” I said with an open, although not too genuine, smile.

“When were you looking to leave?” The woman behind the counter asked, her brown hair in a tight bun low on her neck. The blond roots on the crown of her head told me her hair was dyed.

“As soon as possible, please.”

She typed a few things on her computer, her focus fully on the task at hand. As she did so I continued to study her, as I did most people, making note of the small details.

There was a blue and red scarf on the pocket of her black jacket, her makeup flawless. Cares about looks, maybe 25 years old. A ring sat on the fourth finger of her left hand, a plain gold band, the solitary stone small but of good quality. Engaged. There was a spot of red on her badge and my eyes drifted to the garbage can behind her where I spotted a fast food wrapper. Breakfast. Ketchup.

My mind worked this way automatically, the way it’s always done. My observation skills are nothing to laugh at. I am the most perceptive person, or I was unless I was in love with you… Then I was blind as a bat.

“We have no direct flights to Korea right now,” she said, her tone impersonal. She looked at the clock behind her and I realized that she must be getting off night shift.

“I have to…” I started, my tone curt. I saw her eyes narrow in momentary annoyance and decided to change my strategy. “I have to get back to Korea today,” I repeated, my tone gentler and more coaxing. Leaning over the counter in mock whisper, I continued, “I wanted to surprise my fiancée. It’s her birthday today.”

The lie passed easily through my lips and without guilt. I was not a liar by nature, but I needed to leave this country now. I’m coming to understand that people respond better to lies, especially when it’s catered specifically for them, to make them believe that we shared more of a connection than we actually did. The ring on her finger told me that she herself is engaged, and would be more sympathetic to my plight with this particular lie. I can almost see the sympathy forming in her gaze and I gave her my most charming smile. Yes, people respond better to lies. I know I did… I had for the last year, and maybe even longer than that, had I been willing to open my eyes. And now that fact has just been reiterated once again.

“We don’t have any flights to South Korea, Mr.Lee,” she repeated again before her face broke out into a conspiratorial grin. “But let me see if there are any with just one stop. That won’t be a problem?”

“Not at all,” I said smoothly. “I don’t want to keep you longer than I have to. You must be getting off your shift, I’m sure you can’t wait to go home.”

She sent me an appreciative smile before looking back at her computer. “There are open seats on our flight from Tokyo to Seoul. But none on the flight to Tokyo. Hmm,” she said, her eyebrows furrowing. “I can issue you a ticket and you can be first on the standby list for this flight, if you’re okay with that. Even if they can’t take you on this flight, they’ll be able to honor it for the flight leaving for Tokyo this evening. Will that work?” When I didn’t respond, she said, her tone comforting, “You’ll be a day delayed but I’m sure she’ll understand.”

“Yes, that would be perfect,” I said. “I really appreciate your doing this, Miss…” I looked at her name tag. “Miss Michelle.” A blush formed on her cheeks even as she continued typing the details on my passport onto the computer. When I heard the telltale sound of the boarding pass printing, I breathed a sigh of relief. One step closer. Thank God.

“Thank you,” I said as she handed me my boarding pass and my passport, I gave her the handkerchief from my suit pocket. When she looked at me questioningly I gave her a sheepish smile. “There’s ketchup on your badge,” I said softly before turning around and walking towards the departure hall.

I passed through customs in no time and made my way to the gate. There were a lot of people in the airport, walking somewhere, shopping, eating. I paid them no mind. All I wanted to do was to go home.

I found an empty seat by the gate and exhausted, sat myself down. I took off my glasses and pressed fingers to the bridge of my nose, trying to ease the pain throbbing in my head.

I pulled out the Japanese newspaper that I had picked up not even two weeks before, the one I haven’t had a chance to read yet. I really should focus pay more attention to how Joon is doing in Japan. With everything going on I haven’t been as attentive as I would like, as I should be. I’ll become a better manager, become the best manager than I could possibly be.

My life is wide open now, to do with as I please. I owe no one any explanations, nor did I have any obligations to anyone else but myself. It’s a good thing the proposal didn’t go as planned. It’s the best possible thing that could have ever happened to me.

I spent the first two days after that night locked up in my apartment, dazed and crying for the wasted six years of my life. On the third day I just stopped. I stopped when I realized that really, she did me a favor. Why would I want to be married before I’m even thirty? There was so much of the world still to see, so many people still to meet, so many things still left to do.

My eldest brother is already married, with a baby on the way, fulfilling my parents’ need for a grandchild. Two of my sisters are also married, with my other one in a relationship. I never have to get married if I don’t want to. And I don’t want to. Not anymore.

Love is a fool’s emotion, the goal when you have nothing, or everything, else. It’s the word people use to justify inexcusable behavior, to make sense of everything that has no business making sense. It brings grown men to their knees and makes idiots out of perfectly reasonable human beings. It’s used to cajole and manipulate, to fulfill selfish needs. Love? I scoffed. Love means nothing. It means absolutely nothing, in the scheme of things.

Focused, driven people have no need for love in their lives. Ambition will fulfill what love can’t. Success will make up for what not having love means. To expect a person to be with just one other person for the rest of their lives is an antiquated way of thinking. Human beings are not meant to be monogamous. A committed relationship breeds boredom and if human beings were meant to be comfortable with that, why have we been genetically geared to be fickle?

Never again will I be fooled by such a changing emotion. Never. I will become successful and I will let my head guide me through life, not my heart. The heart is but a muscle and has no business calling the shots. It’s way too fragile and way too sensitive to be given such importance. Reason and sense are more trustworthy. Logic will never lead me astray.

“Mr. Lee, please come to the ticket desk at your departure gate,” I heard the PA system call out. “Mr. Jung Jin Lee, please come to to the ticket desk.”

I stood up, passport and boarding pass in hand, as I approached the ticket counter. The attendant behind the desk took both without looking at me.

“A seat just opened up on this flight,” she said, her eyes fixed on the computer. “You got lucky, as well, as it’s a business class ticket.”

She proceeded to reprint me a new boarding pass and I took it with a quiet thank you. It was only then that she looked up at me and I smiled. Though the rest of me wasn’t memorable I knew that my smile was. It’s been my strongest quality since I was young.

I had been forgettable for most of my life. This was a fact I have long since accepted. No longer. My intelligence and my personality have always carried me through, but, I realized recently, even they meant nothing without a high social standing and physical charm. People are predictably shallow that way. Shallow and superficial. That’s okay, I thought. I can change. I will change.

I will become the man that no one will be able to ignore, the sort of person who commands attention just by walking into a room. I’ll become someone unattainable, someone unforgettable. It’s time to put myself first, regardless of how other people feel.

This, I thought as I pulled out the small box from my pocket and looked at it for a few seconds, is my time to shine. I clenched a fist around it once before I chucked it in the garbage can. And that, I thought as I joined the queue of people waiting to enter the plane, was the best place to start.

I will never need anyone else again as long as I have myself and everything else that I want. Everything else, not everyone else. Never again will I let another person dictate my fate, nor will I allow another to have so much say in my happiness.

Love is a fool’s emotion and I am no fool. Or at least, I am not anymore. I always did come to things a bit later than everyone else but still… Still… Late is better than never.

*****

Brooklyn, New York

May 1996

Gia

“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked my best friend of eight years as I stepped into my apartment. “And how did you get in?”

Junnie turned around, her hands on her hips as she looked me up and down. “You should stop hiding your extra key under your doormat. I told you multiple times that it’s not safe,” she said sternly before walking towards me. “You’ve lost weight. I would say it looks good but it doesn’t. You look like shit,” I saw her brown eyes look me up and down before she added, a bit more quietly, “at least you’re working.”

“Good to see you too, Jun,” I said before giving her warm hug. I released a happy breath as I let her perfume waft over me. Junnie still smelled the same, even after all these years. “When did you get in?”

“Not long ago,” she said as she pulled away. She walked towards the kitchen and it was only then that I noticed the bags on the counter. “But long enough to see your empty fridge and buy some stuff. I only have the five days off so I have to fly back to Singapore on Tuesday.”

“Really?” I asked as I slipped my shoes off and joined her. “You bought enough food for weeks.”

“You don’t think I know how you eat when you don’t live with other people?” She asked, no judgment in her voice. “Humor me. It’s the only way I can make sure you have food to eat even after I go back.” She swatted my hand when I tried to pick up a piece of sushi with my fingers. “Go wash up. I’ll get dinner ready.”

I nodded and made a beeline to my bedroom, ignoring what is hanging in front of my closet. I grabbed a towel and a pair of sweatpants and a tank top before making my way to the bathroom. I took a long shower, as I usually did after a twelve hour shift, and by the time I came out of the bathroom and went to the kitchen the table had already been set, a plate of noodles in the middle, with some Vietnamese rolls and sushi to the side. I was chewing on a roll when I looked around the apartment and Junnie was nowhere to be found. Did she leave again already? I thought, then shook my head when I saw her purse sitting on the coffee table.

“Junnie?” I called out as I walked around my tiny apartment. “Jun?”

I saw the door to my bedroom slightly ajar and walked in to see my best friend staring at my closet, her mouth slightly open. She looked at me incredulously and I resisted the urge to shrug my shoulders.

“What is THIS doing here?” She asked and crossed her arms over her chest.

“It didn’t fit it my closet,” I said, looking at everywhere else but her.

“I don’t mean what is it doing in front of your closet,” she said flatly. “I meant why do you still have it?”

“I don’t know.” And I didn’t.

I don’t know why I kept the wedding dress I had bought for a wedding that will never happen. I don’t know why I did that. I had planned on reselling it when my engagement was broken off, but lost my nerve last minute. I didn’t want to have to explain why I no longer needed the dress, just like I didn’t want to have to explain to my parents why we had to contact all the invited guests to tell them that the wedding has been called off. I had spent the whole night in the damn dress, admiring the way it fit over me, reveling on the luxury of the fabric, even as my emotions stayed numb. I don’t know why I still find myself tracing it with my fingers when I do notice it’s there. Maybe I do it to remind myself to not believe next time. Maybe it’s to remind myself to not be so naive. I don’t know.

“Don’t tell me you sleep in here with this thing hanging right here staring at you?” Junnie asked and I was roused from my reverie.

“NO! I’m not that bad,” I protested. “I sleep in the living room.”

“How long?” She asked. “You guys broke up a couple of months ago.” I saw her eyes move towards the corner of the room and I almost cringed in embarrassment. “What the hell are those?”

I moved towards the pile of gifts wrapped in various shades of gold and silver, arms splayed on both sides facing her. “Wedding presents.”

She waited for a few minutes for me to elaborate and realizing that I wasn’t going to, marched towards me and grabbed my arm. “We need to talk,” she said, dragging me out of the bedroom and sitting me down on one of the chairs by the kitchen table.

“Jun,” I said as soon as she sat down. She didn’t respond but proceeded to serve noodles onto our plates instead. “Junnie…”

“Eat,” she ordered. “Let’s eat first.”

I wrapped some noodles with my fork and took a tentative bite. Chilli crab noodles. The familiar taste hit my tongue and I smiled. Junnie always cooked me this when I was down, even back in our uni days.

I sat back and perused my friend from across the table. Her face didn’t betray her twenty seven years, looking exactly as she did when we first met six years ago, the day I showed up in my dorm room, expecting my roommate to be a prissy princess. Junnie was a princess, or as close to one as I’ve ever met, though she was hardly prissy. She came from old Singaporean family money, her American education the only act of rebellion in a life filled with doing what was expected of her. Still it had been love at first sight and we quickly became inseparable.

Loyal, kind, generous Junnie. She was the most honest person I had ever met, without an ounce of duplicity. Except for the year after uni not one day had passed that we didn’t speak in some way. She was my closest friend, someone who knew me better than I knew myself. Someone I considered closer than some of my own family.

“What did you tell your parents?” She asked, taking a sip of water and putting her fork down.

“I told my parents that the wedding’s off,” I said. “My mom was shocked but she didn’t ask any questions. My father assumed it was my fault and I didn’t correct him. In other words everyone reacted as expected.” I picked up a piece of sushi from the plate and dipped it into the wasabi before the soy sauce and plopped it into my mouth. “Maria was supportive, as she always is. You know my sister.”

Junnie nodded before picking up a roll. “We need to return those gifts.”

“Of course,” I said. “I would have done it sooner but I’ve been busy working.”

She nodded again and I continued to eat. This is why I love my best friend. She doesn’t ask any unnecessary questions and gets right to the point of what needs to be done.

“I’m going to ask you once, just once, what your wedding dress is doing in your bedroom.”

“Uhm, hanging out?” I tried to say jokingly, earning a glare from my friend. I sighed before continuing. “I don’t know. I spent so much money on it and it seemed wasteful that I just resell it for less than I paid for it. Plus it’s pretty.”

“I’m going to hit you,” she said in exasperation. “I am seriously going to hit you. That’s a crazy reason for keeping a wedding dress that you won’t use. It’s not as if you’re going to reuse it for the next time you get married.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Because I’m never getting married.”

“You can’t say that,” Junnie tsked. “You never know what will happen in the future. Not everyone is like your rat of a fiancé.”

“It’s not just about him, though,” I said, my tone calm. “He didn’t help things but he’s not the only reason why I don’t want to. I’ve been thinking this way for a while.” I paused, pushing my noodles around with my fork. “Junnie… I think something is wrong with me.”

“Huh? Are you sick?” She asked, concerned.

“No… I meant emotionally. Did you know that when I broke my engagement off that I didn’t even cry? Not one tear. I was more worried about the invitations than I was about losing my fiancé. ”

“It was the right thing to do after everything that’s happened,” Junnie reasoned. “When you’re doing the right thing why would you…”

“I haven’t cried in four years.” Not since Marcus… though I didn’t say it out loud. Nothing riled my best friend faster than the mention of my abusive ex, the reason for our one year separation.

“You’ve been through a lot in the last few years,” she replied. “More than anyone should, really. You’ve always felt too much and after that asshole… Well…”

“Which one?” I joked. “There’s been so many that I can’t remember anymore.”

“You know which one,” she said. “But yeah after that, it’s totally understandable that you would opt not to feel anymore. You’ll be okay. We need to get rid of that dress though.”

“Yup.”

“Have you thought about what I said?” She asked. “About my friend…”

I shook my head before responding. “Isn’t it a bit too soon to be trying to set me up with someone? You’re supposed to be like, ‘take your time, find yourself,’ shit like that… What kind of best friend are you?”

“You’re more self realized than anyone else I know,” she said, putting her napkin down. “It’s not like you have to marry him. Plus, I’ve known the guy for years.”

“NO,” I responded firmly. “I don’t want to be the cause of why you’re no longer friends with this person. And he’ll hate you once he realizes that your best friend is a mess and you set him up with her.”

“He’s a catch… You’ll regret it.”

“You think he’s so great, you go out with him.”

“No… And ewww. He’s like my brother,” she said, making a face. “You should have just gone out with him in uni, like I told you to. You should really listen to me more often.”

“I listen to you enough. I don’t want to make your head bigger than it already is.”

She threw a roll at me and I laughed. “Do you still have your California nursing license?”

“Yes.”

“What are you doing when your contract runs out this month?”

“I don’t know yet,” I answered. “Maybe travel a little bit? I still have my travel voucher from a couple of months ago.”

“I just closed on a property in San Francisco and I need someone to sublet. Want it?” I blinked at her and she grinned. “What?”

“Only you, Junnie, only you would talk about buying a house like you just bought a pair of shoes,” I complained. “I swear, I was born into the wrong family.”

“Seriously, though, if you get a contract in San Francisco and you need someplace to stay, you can live there,” Junnie said. “I’ll give you a discount. Plus you can keep the place maintained. I trust you.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, pulling my hair into a ponytail after I put my utensils down. “Thanks for dinner. Do you want to go out for a drink or what? Visit our old haunts?”

“Nah… Why don’t we do something else that we used to do?”

*****

Two and a half hours later…

We found ourselves both lying flat on our backs on the living room floor, charcoal masks on our faces, cucumbers over our eyes. There were two and a half empty bottles of red wine between us and I was feeling relaxed for the first time in months.

“Do you have work tomorrow?” I heard Junnie ask next to me.

“Nope. I’ve worked the last three days,” I said. “This is just like old times. Ah… I feel good.”

“You mean you’re drunk,” she said. “You’re already slurring.”

“Whatever.” I took a deep breath and tried to keep my face straight lest my mask cracks. I carefully lifted my tumbler of wine and sipped it through a straw. “Junnie… Do you believe in love?”

“Of course,” she replied definitively. “Don’t you?”

“I think I believe in it a little too much. I believe that it needs to be honest and kind and faithful. I believe in it so much that if defending that belief means I’m going to be alone forever because I won’t settle for anything less, then that’s what I would do. It seems too high an expectation. No one will ever live up to that.”

Junnie turned on her side as she took off the cucumbers from her eyes. “You know… You like to act like you’re this cynical bitch but you’re really not. You’re really a hopeless… Pitiful… Romantic.”

“Did you just call me a bitch?” I asked, indignant.

“Yeah. What are you going to do about it?”

I didn’t respond, keeping my eyes closed. “Want to hear something sad?”

“No.”

“Too bad,” I continued. “You’re going to hear it anyway.” I hesitated for a moment then spoke. “I would have stayed.” I swallowed the sudden emotion that I felt. “If I knew that he really loved me… if he had asked me to, I would have stayed. I still would have gotten married.” Junnie didn’t respond and I kept on talking. “But he didn’t. That’s sad. What’s even sadder, though, is that I would have sacrificed my beliefs and who I am for this one person. And that I really thought I could convince myself that I was happy, that I could have been happy, somehow.”

Junnie stayed silent, her dark brown eyes looking at me through the holes in her mask and I gave her a small smile.

“‘I’m sorry. I love you.’ I might have stayed if I just heard those words. That makes me angry and morose at the same time. Like just realizing this killed a part of my soul. I think about it over and over again, and analyze everything he did, everything he said, where I could have possibly gone wrong. That I am blaming myself for it, that that’s my first instinct, tells me that I’m really fucked up in the head.”

“You’re not fucked up,” she said with a delicate shrug of her shoulders. “You just want to be loved, that’s all. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m going to tell you something and you have to remember it, okay?”

“What?”

“You are a beautiful human being. You deserve to be with someone who thinks you’re extraordinary. We all have to live with too much mediocrity in life as it is. At least, in love, it shouldn’t be so. One day… One day you’ll find a man who will see you the way I always have, the way the people that truly love you always will. And then… And only then will I hand you over because I’ll know that you’ve finally found someone who deserves you.”

“I miss him,” I said quietly, hesitantly. “He made me laugh.”

“I know… But you’ll laugh again. Maybe not with him but you will,” she said just as quietly. “It’s his loss.”

I laid back down after drinking the rest of my wine, and stared at the ceiling until I felt Junnie pulling on me to sit back up.

“What?” I asked, annoyed. I think I’ve drunk a little too much since the world was now spinning. I shook my head and closed my eyes, breathing slowly as to get my bearings.

“Know what will make you feel better?” She asked, eyes laughing. “Come on.”

Minutes later, we found ourselves buried in a mountain of taffeta and silk, scissors in our hands. The fireplace crackled and Junnie raised her eyebrows at me, the masks on both our faces washed.

“You ready?” She asked and I cringed. Was her voice always this loud?

I nodded and put my scissors to where the bodice of my wedding dress started, the sweetheart neckline giving way with each cut. Following my lead she started on the other end and we both continued to cut the dress I thought I was going to be married in into little scraps, little bits that reminded me of what was left of that relationship. How fitting, I thought. How so appropriate.

It seemed only right that this is how this ended up, too. With each closing of the scissors I felt myself feeling lighter and lighter, as if the weight was being lifted from my shoulders. We started laughing and I am sure we would appear like crazy women to anyone who saw us right now. I started laughing so hard I had a hand to my belly and I sent an appreciative look towards Junnie. She winked at me as she filled up my glass with what was left of the wine.

Soon the laughter died down and she wrapped an arm around my shoulders. Though I felt a deep sorrow, no tears formed in my eyes. I think there does come a time when a person has cried so much there were just no tears left to cry. This, perhaps, is the most painful grief of all, one that can’t even be expressed outwardly, but remains inside a person, simmering and eating away what’s left of their faith. Like an infection, a cancer, my heart had changed, had transformed over the years into something that barely resembled what it had started out with.

I threw the bits of fabric into the fireplace, finally letting go. Junnie watched me in silence, and continued watching me until I tossed the last piece in. I watched the dress I had tried on so excitedly disappear in the flames, along with the hope with which I bought it, the dreams that he and I shared, the future that we were supposed to have together. My eyes stayed fixed on the fireplace until the last scrap had burned away, until all that was left, all that could prove that a dress once existed here, were ashes.

“It would have been my wedding day tomorrow,” I said softly, when at last it was all gone.

“I know,” Junnie said, her voice soft and comforting. “I’m sorry I came so late.”

I nudged her shoulder in response and attempted a smile. “That’s what happens when my best friend is a million miles away.”

“You’re going to be okay,” she said. “You’ll bounce back…. You always do. You know what they say… What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that.”

I’m tired of bouncing back. I’m tired of getting stronger. I just want to be happy. That’s what I wanted to say, but knowing that Junnie will only worry if I verbalized these thoughts, I just stayed silent instead. Still I was flattered that she still had an unending faith in me. At least one of us still did.

*****

UCSF Medical Center

San Francisco, California

July 21, 2001

Jung Jin

I listened to the worry in Na Jeong’s voice as she spoke to me. Sung Na Jeong, always so outspoken and vocal, had gone quiet, as if she was at a loss for words. I understand, I thought to myself as I looked outside the hospital windows. I’m worried about him too.

I felt eyes on my back and knew that Joon was finally conscious. Keeping my voice low, I said, “He’s awake. I have to go.” At her protests and insistence I added, “Yeah, I’ll call you later.”

Keeping all expression out of my face I walked slowly towards his bed and sat myself down on the chair closest to him.

“Joon-ah, how are you feeling?” I asked gently. At least, I thought, at least he looks exactly as he did before this injury. Looking at him right now, he looked like the Major League Baseball Player that he was, save for the sling on his right arm.

“I feel a little loopy and I’m nauseous,” he said slowly as I watched his eyebrows narrow in concern. I could almost hear his sigh of relief when he lifted his left hand and felt his chain. I know what’s on that chain. Na Jeong’s ring. “What happened?”

“You blacked out and they gave you Morphine,” I responded. His concerned eyes were trying to read me, and I looked away. Joon and I have worked together for so long that I know what he’s thinking most of the time, what’s going on in his head without even telling me. I know he’ll ask me next what is wrong with…

“What’s going on with my shoulder?” He asked. I detected the concern in his voice and I stayed silent. “What’s going on with my shoulder?”

Immediately my thoughts turned back to what the surgeon had told me after he was admitted last night, after his MRI results came back. I closed my eyes and searched for the right response, trying to do so carefully, fully aware that Joon’s reaction will be hugely based on what he sees on my face.

“Joon-ah… Maybe I should have the doctor explain it to you,” I said.

I pressed the nurse call light button before he could ask me any more questions and he stayed quiet. Grateful for this I said no more. It’s best that the surgeon explain all this to him.

The door opened and his nurse walked in, a warm smile on her face. Who is this? I thought. Was she here last night when he came in?

I jogged my memory and came up blank. I would remember if she was here. My brain had been trained to do this, my livelihood totally dependent on how quickly I can suss a person out and how quickly I can make them trust me. I have a talent of remembering everything about a person even after I first meet them. A photographic memory. And I would have remembered her.

Long brown hair flowed on her back in a ponytail, thick and threaded with streaks of gold. She kept her face turned towards Joon and I could barely make out her features. She didn’t appear very tall, wasn’t very slender, but she walked gracefully and confidently.

My phone vibrated just then and I looked down to see an SMS from the Giants manager and was typing out a response when I heard her voice.

“Your call light was on,” she said in English. “Did you need some help?”

Her tone was friendly, warm, but her voice… Her voice was low, perfectly modulated, smooth as silk. I immediately forgot what I was doing and looked up. As soon as I did I quickly regretted it.

Almond shaped light brown eyes blinked at Joon as she waited for a response. A small nose sat in the middle of her face, delicate. Her lips were unpainted, the lower lip fuller than the top. She wasn’t conventionally pretty but her features were interesting. Exotic.

I watched as her eyes took Joon in, traveling over him and studying him, as they drifted over the almost empty bag of fluid that was connected to his arm, over his bedside table and the sling on his shoulder. She appeared to be noting everything in the room and I was surprised at the intelligence in her gaze. Her smile revealed a row of straight teeth, and I was struck by the genuine sympathy in her expression. Curious now I wondered if the softness that I glimpse now carried over to every person that she meets and berated myself for the thought.

She wasn’t strikingly beautiful, not at first. Not my type of beautiful. Or at least I didn’t think so until now. I noted my slight interest and all at once I wished she would look my way. Alas her attention was fully on Joon as she spoke to him and she barely spared me a glance.

I shook my head at myself, reminded of why we were even here in the first place when I felt Joon’s eyes on me, as if expecting me to answer her question. Her question… What was it again?

Once I remembered, a smile automatically came to my face. My smile will disarm her, just as it does everyone I meet. It is and has always been my ultimate weapon.

“He’s awake,” I said in English, flashing her my grin. “Is it possible to speak to his physician? ”

I fully expected a blush to cover her cheeks, a shy smile, fingers brushing back her hair. Women liked my smile. It’s not with vanity that I say this but as more of a statement of fact. I was still preparing a response to the predictable show of coyness when she turned her eyes my way, all lightness erased from them. Though her expression remained even I felt her eyes studying me now with an air of detachment. She was openly scrutinizing me and for the first time in years I felt uncomfortable.

“I’ll page him and let him know,” she replied, her voice curt, before addressing Joon again in a softer tone. I vaguely heard her ask him questions and for his part Joon answered her, his voice slow but clear. I was still reeling at the quick dismissal, as if she had sussed me out as well and had come to a very unpleasant conclusion. “Let me go page him. I’ll come back with some medication for the nausea and some crackers and soup. You have nothing in your belly and you probably shouldn’t eat too fast.”

She took his water pitcher and left the room without another word for me. Joon and I waited in silence, and I was reminded again of what we had to do, pretty nurse who appeared to dislike me at first sight notwithstanding.

I’m able to compartmentalize better than anyone else. Another of my talents. Why would I care about what one person thought of me? Joon will be here for a few days and then he will be discharged, and it’s not as if I will ever have to see her again. I haven’t cared what anyone thought about me in years… But then again I haven’t had reason to either.

Still, though, a question nagged in my brain and I was irritated that I was even wasting my time thinking about it. What if I have I lost my touch?

Annoyed and a bit concerned, I finished drafting my message to the Giants manager before a text message came through. Opening it quickly a smile of self satisfaction formed on my face.

I miss you, handsome. Let me know when you have time. You know where to find me.

I sent a quick response and leaned back on my chair. I definitely still have it, no matter what sort-of-pretty judgmental nurses think.

*****

Gia

“Thank you,” JJ Kim, my Very Important Patient, or so I have been reminded enough times, responded and I smiled at him.

I studied his face, unease evident in his expression, hoping that the pain medication he was given right before I came on shift will continue to keep him comfortable. His color was pale, no doubt front the queasiness he just admitted to, but the nausea medication I’ve just given him will take care of that. The IV on his left arm looked good, with no sign of infiltration. His vital signs looked good as well.

He’s handsome, very handsome, and he’s also very very worried. He’s trying to hide it but it’s there. I know that the surgeon has yet to speak to him but I’ve seen his chart and I’ve seen his films. His injuries are fairly minor to a regular person, more of a nuisance really… easily fixable, if not without a lot of rehabilitation time. But for a ballplayer… I nipped the persistent, yet distant concern immediately. I’ve been a nurse for ten years, a third of my life. I know how to be therapeutic and empathetic without getting too close.

Still… Though… He has options. It will be okay. There are always options when money is not an issue and these professional athletes certainly have enough of that.

“You’re welcome. The doctor is outside… He’s just reviewing your chart and the radiology reports, and he’ll be right in.” Though I directed my statement to both my patient and his handler, I only looked at Mr. Kim. “Please call if you need anything. It’s the red button on that thing right there.” I pointed to the nurse button on the call bed resting on the bed, feeling the unnamed man’s eyes on me. Irritation nipped at my temper and I resisted the urge to tell him to cut it out.

I know it’s not my makeup since I don’t wear makeup at work. I don’t have any other patients so I know it’s not because I have bodily fluids on me. The frank way he was assessing me was pissing me off. His client is in the hospital, scared to death, and he’s checking me out like I was cattle. I swear… Some people have messed up priorities.

Unable to stop myself I met his eyes directly and narrowed my gaze. The smile on his lips just got even wider and fully irritated now, I left the room.

The other nurses I worked with were gathered at the nurses’ station, talking quietly amongst themselves. There might have been a giggle here and there too.

“Gigi, check your pager,” Jennifer, the unit secretary said. “The clinical supervisor just asked where the new admission is going.”

I nodded at her before sitting down at the charge nurse seat, picking up my pager and writing the details down. “Katya,” I called out to the blonde nurse standing nearby. “You have an acute MI coming into 44 from the cath lab with a balloon pump. Might be a therapeutic hypothermia case. Let me know when you get report… We might have to change your assignment to 1:1.”

“Okay,” she said before sidling up to me, the other nurses behind her. “So Gig.. Did you see him?”

“See who?” I asked, nonplussed. I was trying to figure out which patient I will have to reassign. Hmm. This pneumonia patient has passed his vent trials and have been maintained on Bipap for 2 days and they’re only suctioning him 3 or 4 times a shift. Maybe… If I give him to Bekah…

“You know…” Katya continued behind me and I looked up with raised brows. “JJ Kim. Is he as handsome as he is in pictures?”

“Who?” I repeated. “I have the list of patients on our unit in front of me and I don’t see a JJ Kim on here.”

“Well of course he’s not on there, ” Chelsea, one of my other younger nurses said. “He’s more than likely using an alias.”

“And patients use aliases for privacy concerns, don’t you think?” I asked and they all looked properly chagrined. “Ever heard of HIPPA?” In unison all the nurses nodded almost comically. “And what’s the fine for a HIPPA violation?”

“Ten thousand dollars,” they all said in unison again and I smiled.

“Any of you guys have ten thousand dollars to spare? Because I don’t.” I picked up the phone to call registration with the room number before I spoke to them again. They all looked so disappointed that I decided to relax a little and throw them a bone. “But if you’re asking about my patient, then yes, he’s very very handsome. Even more so than whatever pictures you might have seen him in.”

“And his mana… I mean his visitor?” Bekah asked, her face widening into a smile.

“What about him?”

“Is he handsome too?” I looked at all their expectant faces and sighed. I won’t get any work done until I’m done answering their questions. Nurses are persistent when they’re focused on something.

“How do you know about his visitor?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. Is it normal for an athlete’s manager to be as well known as the athlete?

“How can you not?” Christy, who just came from the supply room asked, her arms filled with IV fluids and a suction canister. “Jung Jin Lee was named one of the Bay Area’s most eligible bachelors for the second year running. He even has a fan club.”

“That’s crazy,” I said, shaking my head.

“But is he handsome too?” Christy asked again, as if just now realizing that I dodged the initial question.

“I guess so,” I responded. He is handsome, in an I-know-how-good-looking-I-am sort of way, in a women-fall-at-my-feet-on-an-everyday-basis sort of way. In an I-definitely-disliked-him-at-first-sight sort of way.

Call me judgmental but I don’t trust handsome men. I don’t. Experience has taught me that handsome men don’t try as hard in keeping their women happy because they don’t have to. Handsome men are generally attention seekers and are the kind of men I tend to stay away from.

“The patient is more handsome, in my opinion,” I said and they all smiled.

“Yeah, but the patient has a girlfriend and has been very vocal about his love and devotion for said girlfriend in all his interviews,” Donna, a brunette nurse said. “The visitor is a confirmed bachelor.”

“I’m not surprised,” I muttered under my breath and started charting on my patient. When I looked up a few minutes later all the nurses were still gathered around and I spoke. “Don’t you guys have work to do or something? Do I need to start delegating some of the stu…”

My tirade was interrupted by the double doors of the ICU opening, followed closely by a stretcher and a number of nurses, along with Dr.Othman, one of the cardiovascular surgeons. He acknowledged me with a smile and said, “44, right?”

“Yes,” I said, standing up from my seat. “Katya… Did you get report?”

“My phone didn’t ring.”

“Well your patient is here,” I said. “Jen, page Respiratory and let them know he’s vented and order a couple of pumps from sterile supply. Bekah, grab a suction setup and a yankauer. Katya, go get report… I’ll meet you in the room.”

I watched as everyone dispersed to their respective places, focused solely on the matter at hand and smiled. This is why I love nursing. The excitement and adrenaline rush is one thing, but seeing teamwork come to life… It’s an amazing thing. World renowned athletes and their managers momentarily forgotten, I cleared my mind and walked into our new patient’s room.

*****

By the time I came out of the room, properly assured that the patient had been settled in and the equipment has been set up as it should, JJ Kim’s surgeon was standing by my desk, writing on the chart. I quickly delivered the soup and crackers I promised to my only patient’s room, relieved that this time, his manager was too immersed with whatever conversation they were having to even notice me. I closed the door behind me quietly and walked towards the nursing station until I was standing next to him.

“Hey, Dr. Stevens, how’s it going?” I asked politely and earned a frown.

“How many times have I told you to call me Marc?” He asked. “You’ve known me since I was a senior resident and you called me Marc then.”

“That was a long time ago,” I said. “You’re chief of ortho now. Surely you’ve earned the doctor title.” I read over his shoulder and saw a prescription for oral pain medication. “Are you releasing him already?”

“Tomorrow, probably,” he said. “They weren’t receptive about surgery. How were his labs this morning?”

“His BUN and Creatinine are a little elevated but the fluids will fix that. It’s not as if he has any renal history. Want to tell me why a surgical ortho patient was admitted to cardiovascular intensive care to begin with?” I asked. “I’m surprised they let you admit him here.”

“Surgical Trauma ICU was full when he got here… so was Neuro ICU,” he said, closing the chart. “You guys can handle it. And he’s a Very Important…”

“… Patient, I got it,” I said. “Well I’m glad he won’t stay here long. They’re getting a second opinion, I’m assuming?”

“You know it,” he said, smiling at me. “I’ve answered your question, now it’s your turn to answer mine.”

“You didn’t ask me a question.”

“I’ve been asking you the same question for five years,” he quipped back, his voice getting low. “You want to go out with me?”

I looked at his handsome face and softened. I can remember when he was still a resident, as kind then as he is now.

“My answer now is the same as it’s always been… You know I don’t mix business with pleasure.”

“Come on,” he said teasingly as he tightened his surgical cap on his messy mop of blond hair. “It’s not as if I’m asking you to marry me.”

“Well I would definitely have said no to that,” I retorted back, just now noticing that Jennifer was listening to us a little too closely. “Doctors make bad husbands. And surgeons, even worse.”

He looked at me in annoyance, then amusement. “Want to just make out then?” he whispered in my ear. “I’ve been told I have very talented hands.”

I looked at him in surprise, shocked at his glibness. “Wow… Is that the line you surgeons use on women?” I asked teasingly. “I would rethink that pickup line because it’s really lame.”

He burst out in gut busting laughs and I couldn’t help but laugh too, for once uncaring that other people may be listening. I may be at work but I am still allowed a little fun. God knows I don’t get to have enough of that.

*****

Jung Jin

I tried to keep my attention on Joon even as his kind of pretty nurse returned and started checking on his sling. I kept my eyes fastened away from her even though her perfume wafted over me when she got a little too close to where I was sitting. I breathed a sigh of relief when she finally left the room without even turning her sort of lovely eyes my way and watched as Joon gingerly tried to eat some soup and crackers. I made a mental note to pick up some Korean food for later, in case he gets an appetite by tonight. That would make him feel better, I thought. It will make him feel like he was closer to home, closer to Na Jeong. Hopefully he still had some of her kkakdugi left in his apartment. Seeing that he was falling back asleep, I stood up and made my way towards the door.

“I’ll be right back,” I called out to Joon. “I have to call the Giants and let them know what’s going on. I’ll also ask the nurse for your medical records for tomorrow.”

I stood in the space that separated the actual hospital room from the rest of the unit. Ante room, the sign said, I noted with a little curiosity. I don’t know what that means but it doesn’t matter anyway. I looked at my phone to connect directly to Dusty Baker, Joon’s current coach and waited for him to answer.

“Hello.”

“Mr. Baker, it’s Jung Jin Lee. JJ is still in the hospital and won’t be released until the morning.”

“How does it look?”

“He has a SLAP and a rotator cuff tear. The surgeon wants to operate, but we’re going to get a second opinion and let you know.”

“Jung Jin, I hate to do this, but you know the money people are also riding my ass hard. I know I’ve brought up JJ’s contract renewal a few months ago, but it’s all come down to this,” he paused and I heard him take a deep breath before he spoke again. There was hesitation in his voice, as well as regret. A very telling tone of contrition… and I already knew I wasn’t going to like what he was about to say. “The second opinion will decide whether we will renew. I fought as hard as I could, but it is what it is. We haven’t won the World Series in years and we need to have the strongest team possible.”

“Of course,” I said calmly though my heart deflated at his words, concerned for Joon’s sake. “As soon as I know, you’ll know. I’ll call you as soon as we’re done with the appointment.”

I hung up the call and debated whether to tell Joon what he just said, but when I opened the door I saw him looking out the window, his face unguarded, his eyes lost in thought. The sorrow I saw there made me hesitate and I closed the door again, determined to get to the bottom of this first before delivering any more bad news.

I walked out of the ante room slowly, my mood already dark. Joon may be a client but he’s more like my little brother now. He will take this hard. I breathed deeply a few times, composing myself before I approached the nurses’ station. My eyes wandered around the counter and brightened when I caught sight of his nurse at one end of the station, looking over Dr. Stevens’ shoulder, then narrowed when I saw him smile at her. She looked even shorter from this distance what with the surgeon’s football player build dwarfing her.

I approached them then, but they were so engrossed on what they were talking about that they didn’t even notice me. My frown deepened even more when I saw the surgeon I thought of of as likable until this moment lean down and whisper something in her ear. Her mouth widened in response before she said something back. She was nowhere this expressive before. Professional, efficient… Yes. But not warm. She was to Joon but not towards me. You’re not her patient, asshole, I scolded myself. Why does she need to be warm to you?

My musings were interrupted by the sound of his laughter, thoroughly amused, then hers. Her laughter was just like her. Low and melodic, the sound strangely fascinating and beckoning. She laughed like someone who didn’t have a care in the world. Like someone who didn’t realize how good she sounded laughing. Like someone who didn’t laugh nearly enough.

That she deemed this doctor worthy of this but not me further reinforced my opinion that she does, indeed, have very bad taste. Nurses and doctors? How cliché.

I cleared my throat when I was directly behind them, and the laughter died on her lips when her kind of pretty eyes met mine. Dr. Stevens turned to me, warmth and humor in his gaze, and I was beset with an inexplicable need to wipe the smile off his face.

“Mr. Lee… Did you need some help?” He asked in an amiable tone. I don’t know why he’s so damn happy. Or why he’s so damn friendly.

“Yes,” I responded back, the smooth smile back on my face. “I wanted to know where the billing department is so that I know where we can settle our bill tomorrow.”

“It’s on the ground floor of the hospital, right past patient registration,” he responded easily. “In fact, I pass that on my way to the OR… Why don’t I show you where it is now?”

My eyes darted to Joon’s nurse, only to see her look away.To change topics and distract him, I decided to go another route altogether. “Dr. Stevens, you look familiar to me, somehow…” He didn’t. “By any chance… Did you go to university on the East Coast?”

His smile got even wider before he responded. “Yes… As a matter of fact I did. I attended UPenn’s fast track medical program. Did you go there as well?”

UPenn? That’s a great university. Not better than mine, though. “Ahh, no. I did my post graduate studies in Colombia University,” I said, attempting to sound sheepish, embarrassed. For good measure, I added, “I graduated magna cum laude in 1995, for both my MBA and my finance degree.”

Dr. Stevens looked properly impressed then, and I sneaked a glance over at Joon’s nurse. What is her name? How could I still not know after all this time? Her eyes were going back and forth between me and the surgeon, her mouth pursed shut.

“Do you play sports, Mr. Lee?” Dr. Stevens asked, curious. “JJ is an amazing ballplayer. I just wondered if you two played any sports together.”

“I can play a little basketball,” I lied. I may be tall but I don’t play basketball. I used to be passable, but haven’t even tried in the last few years… not since…

“It’s clear I’m not needed in this conversation and I have a lot to do, so…” Joon’s nurse interrupted, as she looked at the surgeon next to me. “Dr. Stevens, I’ll talk to you later.” She turned her eyes to me. “Mr. Lee, please let me know if Mr. Kim needs anything else.”

I nodded in response, annoyed that I still don’t know what her name is.

“Yeah… See you later, Gia,” Dr. Stevens said. “Page me if you need anything.”

She walked away with a wave of her hand, not even bothering to look back.  Jia? It’s a common enough name in Korea, but I have never met a person with that name here in America. Gia. I like it. It suits her, somehow.

“Shall we walk to the billing department?” Dr. Stevens asked, turning to me.

Dammit.

I followed him away from the nursing unit, my eyes still fixated on Gia, who was now sitting at a desk, staring at her computer, fingers typing furiously. The surgeons’ steps were long and confident, and feeling challenged, I tried to match him stride per stride, before I realized what I was doing and stopped. I pulled out my phone before we can even exit out of the double doors and spoke into it.

“Hello? Yes?” I fake asked. Dr. Stevens stopped and I made a show of covering the mouthpiece before saying, “You go on ahead, Doctor. I have to take this call. It’s one of the managers for the Giants… You know…” To make my point I even shrugged my shoulders as if asking, “what can I do?”

He offered his hand then, and I reluctantly took it, just a little upset by the fact that he stayed so nice even when I was trying to intimidate him. I waited until he disappeared past the double doors before I put my phone back in my pocket as I stared at his back. When I looked behind me I saw a brown haired woman at the main desk watching me owlishly and giving me a polite, if not completely unknowing, smile.

I straightened my jacket and smoothed my shirt down before I approached the counter behind which Gia sat, her face completely focused on whatever she was reading. I stood for a few minutes, just watching her work, fully unaware that I was there. I am not used to this… Being in the company of a woman who really didn’t give a damn that I was right in front of her. I took this opportunity to study her even more closely.

Her eyebrows were arched ever so slightly, her skin the color of very very light honey. Her eyes, which appeared light brown from a few meters away, were actually a combination of brown and green, flecks of gold scattered through it. Remarkable. They tilted at the corners, suggesting an Asian heritage… But not Korean. Her hair looked thick, heavy, the ponytail now pulled on her nape in a loose bun, the tendrils stuck to her neck. She wore plain earrings on her ears, the rest of her unadorned. Her fingers weren’t elegant, not slim like I liked, but they moved with fluidity and confidence, with controlled energy, just like the woman who owned them.

By the time I looked at her face I only just noticed that she was watching me studying her and for the first time in almost a decade, I felt a blush form on my face. What the hell is this? Not used to the sensation it felt like my face was on fire and I wanted to walk away before I made a fool out of myself. Her eyes were inquisitive, cautious, before the expression disappeared and she looked at me the way she did in Joon’s room. I was impressed. I didn’t think anyone can pull off putting a mask on as well as Joon and myself, but it seemed that I was wrong.

She stood up and addressed me then, her voice distant, professional and annoyingly impersonal.

“Did you need anything else, Mr. Lee?” She asked.

“Yes.” Your number, if you please. A smile at me, even better. I bit back these requests and said, instead, “We’ll need a copy of his films and his radiology report for the second opinion. The doctor said to let you know.”

She nodded. “Dr. Stevens already wrote the order to give those to you. Radiology is making a CD of his films as we speak.”

“Great. Thanks.” Wanting to look cooler than I’d looked the whole time she had interacted with me, I turned around and started walking back towards Joon’s room, shaking my head at myself. What an idiot.

“Mr. Lee…” I heard her say behind me and I smiled triumphantly before looking back at her with my expression flat. “I won’t be here tomorrow when JJ gets discharged so…” She was started writing some numbers on a piece of paper, and I wondered whether she was giving me her number, even without my prompting. I can’t say I’m disappointed, but I really thought it was going to take longer than one hour to make such progress. Women are so predictable sometimes, even intelligent ones. A little push and pull and a man can have them eating right from his hand. She handed me the piece of paper and I flashed her another of my signature smiles. She responded back with a tight smile herself before she spoke again. “I wasn’t sure if you already had a second surgeon in mind, so I’m giving you the contact information for one of the best shoulder surgeons in America. His name is Dr. Edward Craig and he practices at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. If you can’t get an appointment…”

“They’ll make time for us,” I interjected without any hint of conceit. “I’m sure it won’t be any problem.”

She chuckled lightly before she spoke again. “Mr. Lee… Dr. Craig has a three month wait list for new clients. I would know… I used to work with him. He deals with professional athletes on a daily basis, so I’m afraid even Mr. Kim’s celebrity status won’t change that. BUT… If you tell the receptionist I sent you, they may be able to find a spot for him somewhere. You might have to come in before office hours, but that wouldn’t be a problem, right?”

I shook my head no.

“This is a very difficult time for both of you,” she said softly. “I know you didn’t ask for my advice or my opinion, but like I said, I won’t be here tomorrow to discharge him, so I’ll say my spiel now.”

“Do you need to talk to him?”

“No, this is my spiel to the family and friends,” she said. “A lot of things will change with this injury… He’s going to be adjusting on a daily basis. He might be scared, he might be angry. He might lash out.”

“Not Joon,” I said, referring to him by a name that no one but his closest people called him as before I could stop myself. “Joon will never be like that.”

“Mr. Lee…”

“Please, call me Jung Jin, or my English name, if it’s more comfortable,” I insisted. “It’s…”

“I’d rather not,” she interjected, but when she spoke again her voice was softer, her tone gentler. “I’m just saying… You would be surprised at how unpredictably people respond in times of crisis and illness. Even the kindest ones.”

“You seem to have a lot of experience with this type of situation,” I observed.

“Not really… It’s not every day I take care of injured world renowned athletes. But I may not have a lot of experience with this, but I have a lot of experience with people,” she corrected me. She looked away for only a brief second before she met my gaze again. “Athletes, millionaires, business men, nobodies… Injury and illness don’t care about status. In this situation it doesn’t matter how much a person has or how much money he makes. Pain and sickness are the great equalizers. Mr. Kim seems like a great guy…”

“He IS a great guy,” I interrupted. “The best.”

“You’d do well to remember that throughout this process. Remind him of it, too, as much as possible, as often as possible. Even when he’s not doing good things, even when he’s not acting like himself,” she said, her voice impassioned. I was struck by the emotion I saw in her eyes, making them more green than brown, transforming her somewhat lovely face into something more beautiful than I have ever seen in my life. “He’s going to go through the worst before it gets better. He’ll need the support and understanding of the people who love him because he won’t make it out of this by himself. Very few people can, and not without losing a part of themselves.” As if realizing that she had divulged more than what she had intended, she quickly quieted and gave me an awkward smile. “He must be looking for you… You should probably go back to his room. Thank you for your time.”

I turned to walk to Joon’s room before I turned around and walked back to where she was still standing. “I have to leave for a meeting in a few minutes…” I started.

“Okay,” she said, sounding momentarily confused.

“I have to leave in a few minutes, but I will be back tonight. Will you still be here then?” She said nothing but she nodded her head in affirmation. I smiled at her then, the first authentic smile I’ve had since this morning, since she met me for the first time, and I could almost see her eyes transform. Just a few minutes ago, those same eyes were burning with emotion, but now… Now… They were careful, wary. They became even more guarded by the minute. I’ve taken her by surprise. Good. I can work with that. “I’ll see you later,” I said, giving her a wink.

My heart was beating fast in my chest as I made my way back to Joon’s room and I felt more alive than I have for a long time. I felt a genuine, confounding interest for this woman who spoke with intelligence and passion, who felt things for people she barely knew. She made me want to see the world through her eyes, to see the things she sees, to feel emotions as she does. No one has piqued my interest like this in years, and certainly not this quickly. I thought I had become so indifferent to this type of emotion that I was no longer capable. But now it seemed that I was just waiting for the right person to come along to become interested.

Gia-ssi, I thought, my brain reverting back to my native tongue automatically. Gia-ya. I smiled at the familiar version of her name and wondered if there will ever come a time that I can call her thus.

Of course I will, I reassured myself. I have never set a goal for myself in the recent years that I haven’t been able to meet. I have no plans of messing up my statistics now. I will shower her with so much charm she wouldn’t know what hit her. She may know people, but I… I know women.

*****

July 21, 2001

Gia

I watched as the suited man in front of me turned around in the direction of my patient’s room then turned back around and marched to where I was standing. I felt unbalanced, my mind slightly askewed. I spoke too much earlier, revealed too much. I forgot for one second where I was and my mouth had run away from me.

“I have to leave for a meeting in a few minutes…” He started, his voice confident.

“Okay,” I responded, not getting why he’s telling me what his plans are.

“I have to leave in a few minutes, but I will be back tonight. Will you still be here then?”

I won’t, I thought. I’m only working eight hours today and will be long gone by the time you get back. A feeling close to disappointment ran through me so suddenly I was surprised. The intent way he was looking at me made me feel self conscious and I found myself nodding in response. I was about to backtrack and tell him that no, I will not be here tonight, but I will be here the day after tomorrow when he smiled at me and I felt my heart drop.

He had smiled at me before… A well-practiced, rehearsed smile, revealing a straight row of perfect white teeth. It was the kind of smile people used for pictures, for press releases, for interviews. But it didn’t meet his eyes. Even as he had been smiling, then, he still looked like a predator, coolly detached, watching and making note of what’s going on with keen eyes. I thought it cold, then, but looking at him now, I preferred that smile to this.

This smile is all warmth and all joy. His eyes crinkled at the corners, and I could only see a little bit of his irises. This smile was slightly asymmetrical, higher on the right side than the left, his left cheek indented with a dimple, making him look as he might have looked as a little boy. This was the kind of smile that can break and had probably broken many women’s hearts. This was a smile that can slay me.

I felt myself stiffen up at the realization, berating myself automatically. Even after all I have been through, even through all the conditioning I have put myself through… It seemed my taste still ran towards men who I know are bad for me from the beginning. I recognized the quickening of my heartbeat as he continued to stand in front of me, the counter separating us not feeling like much of a defense against him. It made me even more determined to nip this in the bud, to stop it from progressing. I have learned my lesson. No good ever comes out of trying to change a man. No good ever comes out of trying to hold down a man trained to love and leave a woman. Trying to keep a man who’s had plenty of practice doing just that close to me is a battle I’ve lost before… one I will continue to lose if I kept on playing this game.

And he is one of those men. I know he is. I wouldn’t be attracted to him if he wasn’t. Another one of my weaknesses. It seems my whole being was completely made up of them, no matter how far I thought I’d come.

“I’ll see you later,” he said casually, giving me a wink.

I didn’t give him a response but gave him a hesitant smile instead, the smile not quite meeting my eyes, the smile always meant to push people away. His smile got even bigger as he turned around and walked off, not realizing that if I had my way, that this would be the last time we will see each other again.

Goodbye, Jung Jin Lee, I thought. Have a nice life.

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