A LEAP OF FAITH FIRST STEP

First Step

UCSF Medical Center

San Francisco, California

July 21, 2001

Gia

“Damn,” Jeremiah, the lone male nurse working today said as he washed his hands at the nurses’ station sink. “I’ve been stuck in this room for half an hour. His rectal bag exploded. Code fucking brown.”

“JB… Why do you have to be so graphic?” I asked, chucking the piece of chocolate I was eating into the garbage bag, my appetite for anything brown gone. “Please tell me you gowned up.”

“Gig, there’s no way in hell I would clean that mess up without a gown, a mask, and whatever else I can find to cover myself up,” he commented, his eyes on the double doors through which Jung Jin Lee just left to go to the meeting he had been so keen to mention to me. “What did I miss? And who was that hot dish of a man you were talking to?” He picked up a chocolate square from the box sitting at the nurses’ station, a gift from one of the patients’ family and popped it straight into his mouth without a thought, making me grin. Nurses can eat anytime anywhere.

“You didn’t miss much. Katya got a new patient with a balloon pump in 44,” I answered. “And you need to stop saying stuff like ‘dish of a man’. This is how people get the wrong idea about male nurses.”

“I was just trying to be one of the girls,” he said, putting his hands up in surrender. “And he was dishy. I’m comfortable enough with my masculinity to admit this.”

“As you should.”

Jeremiah was one of a half a dozen male nurses in this ICU, one of the two who worked day shift. His presence and strength were invaluable, as well as the much needed testosterone in an environment dominated by women and their hormones. I also trained him when he was a student and recruited him when he graduated, mentoring him as he passed his boards. Over the years we’ve forged a solid senior-junior relationship, making him a little loose with his opinions and words.

He was complaining about the new schedule when he stopped mid sentence and nudged me on the shoulder. “I almost forgot,” he said. “I have something for you. Wait here.”

I watched as he walked off into the nurses’ break room before I sat myself down on the charge nurse chair. It wasn’t long until I received another page from registration, a new post bypass surgery patient coming from the OR being admitted into our last room. I quickly dialed the on call nurse’s number, ready to apologize for calling her in so early. It turned out that was totally unnecessary as she had been trying to pick up overtime, and a 1:1 assignment is not so bad a way to get it.

By the time I finished the phone call, JB was back at my desk, putting a cream colored envelope over my papers.

“Don’t tell me,” I said happily as I opened it. “Finally. You and Amy are finally sending out invitations.”

Amy was JB’s fiancée, his girlfriend from his college years, and they had been engaged for the last two years. I stood up and gave him a warm embrace, truly happy for him and his soon to be wife. I wholly and totally approved. I’d gone out with the two of them a few times for drinks and she was a lovely girl.

“It’s not for another couple of months, but I know you like really advanced warning,” he said. “Plus I know you probably have your life planned for at least six months.”

“I’ll be there, with a party hat and whistle,” I said as he ruffled my hair and I smacked his arm. “Congratulations.”

“You can congratulate me again once I’ve walked down the aisle,” he said. “Bring a date.”

“No thanks,” I said lightly. “You’re only working eight hours today too, right?”

“Yep. You are too?”

“Yeah… Jess will come in and take charge and Tammy will take your patients,” I replied.

“I’m back tomorrow… Think you can ask them to give me your VIP patient?” He joked. “I’m a huge fan.”

“So are the rest of the other nurses. We’ll see.” I could feel his eyes looking at me as I read a chart and I looked up. “What?”

“Don’t take this the wrong way and I’m only saying this because I love you…, but you’ve been single for as long as I’ve known you,” he said, trying to keep his tone light. “When are you going to put yourself out there? Come to think of it, you haven’t taken a vacation in…”

He looked as if he was thinking and I stayed quiet, unable to answer his question, unwilling to divulge just how long it’s been since I took any time off for myself. I know he means well, but I am tired of everyone worrying so much about my personal life or my lack thereof.

“… I’m just saying,” he continued. “You deserve to be happy too.”

“I am happy. You don’t need to be with someone to be happy.” And I believed that. Some of my loneliest times had been when I was with someone, thinking that just being with someone else should make me happy even if I wasn’t getting everything that I needed.

“Gig…”

“No more,” I said, stopping him. “I’ve had enough of this conversation for one day.” He looked away before putting an arm around my shoulders. “There’s a new patient coming to your empty room.”

He sighed before he pulled out a piece of paper and his pen. “As long as this one doesn’t have a rectal bag, I’m game.”

I smiled at him, grateful for the change in topic. Pretty soon we were busy again as we usually were, and I was grateful. The pace kept my mind off the truth of his words. Still, though, I am happy. I am I insisted. Being alone is not a problem when it’s by choice. And it is my choice. It is with both sadness and acceptance that I admitted this.

*****

Four Seasons San Francisco

San Francisco, California

July 23, 2001

2:30 a.m.

Jung Jin

When I awoke, there was an arm draped over my abdomen, a tickle of hair over my chin, soft breathing from the woman next to me. I tried to ease my weight off the bed, but her hold tightened even more and I forced myself not to cringe. Even in sleep she was getting more possessive. I need to break this arrangement off, and I’ll need to do it soon.

She was already getting attached, and it’s only been a month. I tried to relax myself back on the bed, tried to force myself back to sleep. No success. After a few minutes of trying I knew that I was already up for the next few hours, perhaps for the rest of the day.

I don’t sleep well. I haven’t had a full eight hours of sleep in years. I find that I sleep deeply for two hours and then my body was up, ready to go. I’ve tried natural remedies for my insomnia, over the counter pills, prescribed medications. None of them worked. I’ve even cut back on my coffee intake and still that didn’t help. I would blame the time zones except it didn’t seem to matter if I was here or in Korea… This inability to sleep plagued me wherever I go.

I allowed myself a glance at the woman currently holding me captive and even asleep, she was perfect. Just my type. Just like every woman I’ve slept with in the last few years have been.

Long light lashes rested on a creamy cheek, her highlighted blond hair positioned perfectly over the pillow. A regal nose, plump soft lips. Her limbs were long and slender, befitting her 5 foot 9 frame. Smooth skin just tanned enough to give off the impression of someone who spends time at the beach frequently, though I knew her rosy glow was from regular trips to the tanning salon. Awake she had eyes the color of milk chocolate, trained to cry at the drop of a hat or sparkle with flirtatiousness.

She smelled thickly of the heavy perfume she wore, the one I bought for her, the one I told her I liked. I should have known when she said she was wearing it all the time now that she and I were going to have problems. My mind strayed back to the first time I took her out for a date, her conversation polite but altogether too boring though I didn’t mind. Her incredible beauty more than made up for her lack of passion about her life. She was intelligent enough, her conversation practiced and memorized, designed to lure a man in. And she… She had obviously done her research on me after giving me her number at the bar where we “accidentally” met.

I had planned on ending the date after dinner except she invited me up to her hotel room with a not so subtle invitation for a nightcap. I had told her before I even kissed her that I had no intentions of being in a relationship, didn’t even bother to use the excuse of having too busy a schedule. I don’t have to use excuses. Women knew what they were getting into when they got involved with me.

She had asked me about love and what I thought of it, saying the word condescendingly, patronizingly, as if it was something she herself mocked. Though I had thought that way for years, I found that hearing someone else say it in that way was not satisfying to me. I’ve seen love… True love, in my parents and my siblings’ marriages, in Joon and Na Jeong’s relationship, and though it was something I wanted no part of, part of me still believed that it was possible for other people.

Fully aware of what she expected me to say, I recited the words I’ve said many times before, to many women before, telling them, no, warning them to be under no illusions about me. She had balked at my statement that love was all about power and all about who had the upper hand.

“Love, my dear…” I had said, “Is less about who you love and more about who loves you. You’re dreaming if you think it’s not a game. It IS a game. And the one who wins is the one who loves less, or even better, the one who doesn’t fall at all.” She had asked which role I played, to which I had almost bitterly responded, “Me? I always win. You’d do well to remember that, before you fall in love with me. Which you will, if you insist on seeing me again.”

Before she planted her lips on mine she had responded almost offhandedly that I must have been mistaken, since she didn’t want to see me again, she just wanted to sleep with me. I had found her honesty charming, if not a little contrived. But still I wasn’t one to refuse something that was being offered so readily and by one so beautiful. She said she knew what she was doing and I chose to believe her.

I was single, successful, and in the prime of my life. Why shouldn’t I enjoy the fruits of my labor? Why should I hold back on taking what was being given to me?

It’s not as if there were no advantages to a woman getting involved with me, even if it was just on a purely physical level. I can afford elegant dinners, luxurious vacations. I was always a gentleman and I never did anything that they didn’t like. I was well mannered, polite, and generous. Very generous, in and out of bed.

I tried to make sure that I only ever saw one woman at a time, or at least one woman at a time in whatever country I happened to be in. I made up for what I couldn’t give them with what I can. I showered them with gifts, taking note of what they liked and what they didn’t, making sure that I always left them with something good to remember me by, should it be the last time they see me. I always used birth control and let the woman I’m involved with call the shots. I didn’t ask for fidelity, preferring actually that they get their emotional fulfillment elsewhere. I didn’t ask any questions, never demanded any answers.

In return I received the companionship and affection I occasionally wanted, the company and time of a beautiful woman on my arm, and the freedom to still do what I wanted to do. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, one that I was more than happy with.

Lately though, I’d been noticing that this particular woman had been deviating from our routine. She had started asking me questions, dropping hints about meeting her family and friends. She had started looking over my shoulder when a text message comes through. I’d heard the irritation in her voice when I don’t call quickly enough, the anger when I disappear for days at a time without letting her know.

I was very well versed in the ways before an involvement ends and I can tell that this had ran its course. I knew better than to respond to her text from yesterday, but stinging from that nurse’s dismissal I responded without thought. I had the feeling I will regret this soon.

“How’s JJ?” I heard Angeline ask. Her voice was evenly pitched, orchestrated warmth pouring through it..Not at all like that nurse, belief and conviction in her words

A frown came over my face when I remembered going to the hospital yesterday evening holding a bouquet of flowers for her, to show my appreciation and gratitude that she took care of Joon so well, since she had said that she will still be there when I came back. Imagine my surprise when I was told that she had, in fact, only been scheduled for eight hours and that she had left a few hours before. Puzzled at first I thought they might have been mistaken, because there was no way in hell she could have lied for the sole purpose of never seeing me again. But then again…

She seemed a person who didn’t use words lightly, using them instead to deliver a clear and concise message. And I heard her message to me loud and crystal clear, if not yesterday morning then last night by not being there.

Stay away from me. Stay the hell away from me.

Unfortunately for her I had never found much use in listening to such a senseless and baseless request. She claimed to know people, but she must not know men well. Didn’t she know that the easiest way to attract a man even more is by telling him he can’t have something?

“How’s JJ?” The woman next to me repeated and still I didn’t respond.

What if… What if she had a boyfriend? A husband? I didn’t see an engagement or a wedding ring, but it’s not strange for people in the healthcare field to not wear them. The comfortable way that doctor had stood so close to her implied that she was unattached. On second thought, Americans are very comfortable with physical proximity, whether or not they were in a relationship. One of the first things I learned when I went to uni here is that it is not uncommon for people to embrace and kiss on the cheeks even when they just met. I had spent so much of my time shuttling back and forth from here to Korea and still I feel a culture shock every time I come home, where holding one’s hand pretty much implies a close relationship of some sort.

But still…

Angeline leaned over and whispered my English name in my ear, allowing herself a little lick of my earlobe and I tried to pull away. I felt her graze my lower abdomen with her nails before her lips landed on my neck, pressing kisses down my chest. I tried to close my eyes and enjoy the moment, telling myself that this was what I wanted, but my body didn’t respond. Even as I felt her hand drift over my groin, I felt none of the telltale signs of arousal.

I must be more tired than I realized, I thought, as I disentangled her limbs away from me and sat on the side of the bed, my eyes automatically looking for my discarded clothing. The only light in the hotel room was the one filtering through the large floor to ceiling windows looking out into the city, and I permitted myself the view as I pulled my boxers back on.

“How’s JJ?” She asked again, her voice plaintive.

“You know better than to ask me that question,” I said as I stood up and looked at my watch. Just a bit past 2:30. I still have time to go to the gym by my apartment. I looked back at her and her back was against the cushioned headboard, her hair in perfectly executed disarray. Her lips looked even plumper now that she was biting her bottom lip in feigned hurt.

“I just asked about him because you looked stressed out and distracted,” she complained. “You didn’t speak much at dinner.”

“Do I ever speak much?” I asked, adopting a casual, lighter tone. “You know I don’t talk business with strangers.”

She huffed before she turned the light on next to the bed. When she looked at me again I saw that her eyes had filled with tears, their brown depths looking like melted chocolate, her eyelashes dewy. Amazing. The way women have the ability to turn on the waterworks never ceases to amaze me.

“Is that what I am?” She asked, her voice getting louder, her arm drawing the sheet protectively over her chest. “Am I still a stranger?”

I quietly perused her pained expression, attempting to muster up enough emotion to appear sympathetic to her. “No, you’re not a stranger,” I said. “But I still don’t see a need to discuss my job with you.”

“You don’t feel a need to discuss anything with me,” she whispered. “I’ve seen you almost every night when you’re in San Francisco the last month, and yet you haven’t responded when I asked you if you would like to come visit my family in Napa with me, or even to dinner with my friends. I’ve never even met your client.”

“My client is off limits… And why would I need to do that?” I asked, genuinely curious. “We both know what this is.”

“It may have started out that way,” she said, her chin lifting in defiance, her eyes steeling as she met mine. “But things have changed, or I thought they have.”

I pulled my pants back on before hooking my belt around its loops. Shrugging myself back into the long sleeved buttoned down shirt I wore before she undressed me, I fastened my cufflinks on before I allowed myself to look at her again.

“What’s changed?” I questioned. “I know no more about you than I did when we met, except the sounds you make in bed and what kind of food you like to eat.”

Though the words I said may have sounded cruel, they were not meant to be so. I was neither angry nor bothered about the fact that she was just a little more than a stranger to me, one whose body I knew very well.

“But…” She said, her lower lip trembling. “… But I love you.”

I turned away and stood by the windows when I heard her say this, wondering why hearing those words didn’t incite any kind of response in me anymore. Not pleasure. Not even pain. Just… nothing. It was as if she had just told me that it will rain tomorrow. Three words I once held so dearly, now reduced to nothing more than a meaningless phrase.

“You don’t love me,” I said gently, my back to her. “You don’t know me. You like how I make you feel, the way I treat you. All you’re feeling is a chemical reaction in your body. That’s all.”

“How can you tell me how I feel and don’t feel?” She asked, voice shaky. “I know the difference. And I know you feel more for me than you like to admit to. A man can’t possibly touch me like you have if you felt nothing.”

“Don’t mistake skill for love,” I said as I turned back around, my eyes scanning for whatever else I could be leaving in the hotel room. “I think you’re a beautiful woman, and I’m sure that you will make someone a fine girlfriend. But I’m not looking for a relationship. I told you this before we started… I hadn’t changed my mind.”

“Who is she?” The pain disappeared from her eyes in one second and her expression hardened. When I merely lifted my eyebrows in response she let out a bitter laugh. “Don’t play stupid… You must know that I looked you up before even going out with you.”

“What does that mean?”

“He can’t be alone,” she recited, her tone angry. “He always has a woman on standby. He’ll only stick around long enough until someone else interests him. That’s the thing that’s sickeningly attractive about him…”

“Who told you that?”

“You should really think better of it before you sleep with women who run in the same circles, Mr. Jung Jin Lee,” she drawled out. “So who the fuck is she?”

“There’s no one,” I replied, nonplussed.

If she thought that telling me what impression people have of me was going to make a difference, she was very much mistaken. I don’t give a shit what women say about me when it’s those same women who have no problem seeing me and sleeping with me. Those same women used me just as much as they thought I used them. I picked up my wallet and pushed it into my back pocket, then my phone.

“I’m leaving,” I told her as I slipped my socked feet into my loafers.

“When will I see you again?” She asked, her voice small.

“You’re not,” I answered without hesitation. “This is finished.”

“Are you breaking up with me?”

“How can there be a break up when we were never together?” I asked, my voice emotionless. “I had a good time, but you just showed me why it can’t continue. Trust me, I’m doing this for you.”

“You’re an asshole,” she said, voice loud. “And a liar.”

I’ve been called both many times before that it didn’t bother me anymore. I was picking up my jacket to put it on when I saw the small black bag underneath it. I walked over to the bedside table and deposited it there without saying a word.

“What is this?” She asked, pulling the tissue out to lift up a medium box inside. If she opened it she would see a silver Dior necklace, its pendant a brown agat stone, the same exact color as her eyes.

“For you… consider it a token of appreciation for the time you’ve spent with me.”

“I don’t want…”

“Don’t be stupid. Of course you do. You’ve never refused any of my gifts before… I doubt that you would want to start now.” She lifted her eyes at me incredulously, her anger simmering to a full boil.

“Get out,” she screamed.

I stayed where I stood, unaffected by her distress. This scene was uncomfortable but cloyingly familiar. I know women. This is unfortunate and unavoidable at the same time.

“GET OUT!” Her voice was emphatic as she threw the box at me, hitting me squarely on the jaw.

“Excellent aim.”

I picked the box off the floor and put it on the coffee table. I rubbed my jaw with my fingers and noted the stubble there. I need to shave. I started walking towards the door when I heard her voice.

“You know… one day you’re going to fall in love with a woman and she’s going to screw you so badly you will wish that you didn’t hurt so many people before. Karma is a bitch, and she doesn’t play.”

I allowed myself one more look at her and said, my voice flat and controlled, “Too late… That’s already happened.”

“Fuck you.”

“You already did that, sweetheart,” I said as I closed the door behind me and walked towards the elevator.

She’ll no doubt huff and puff for a few minutes but she’ll get over it. They always do. Though she had convinced herself in love with me, I was certain that she was not. Most people are in love with the idea of love, not the actual person.

I don’t blame them.

The sensation of falling is addictive, exhilarating… and over way too soon. Once the first blush of getting to know the other person fades and what remains is just what comes next, the idea is not so attractive. The way I approached my dealings with women eliminated that dilemma. I see nothing wrong with it at all.

I studied myself in the shiny reflection by the elevators and ran a hand through my hair. I looked the same as I have in the last four years. I looked like a man in control all the time. Just what I was aiming for.

After my disastrous almost engagement I had made a conscious effort to make sure that my outer appearance became something that women craved, something other men wanted to attain. I put on about thirty pounds of muscle, making sure to join Joon whenever he worked out. I got rid of my glasses and shed the intellectual but somewhat geeky impression that I seemed to leave people with when they first met me

I became the sort of man I always envied growing up, the sort of man who can walk away from anything or anyone without even as much as a backward glance. The past is the past for a reason. It served no purpose but to remind you of how far you’ve come, how much you had to overcome. It didn’t belong anywhere in the present, or the future.

The ding of the elevator reaching the first floor startled me and I walked out of the elevator and towards the front desk with a smile on my face. The man behind the desk smiled at me as I slid my room key on the counter towards him.

“Would you like your receipt, Mr. Lee?” He asked cordially, fully used to this routine by now. In all the years I’ve patronized this hotel, they have come to know and accommodate my particular habits, fully aware that I will always pay for a full night’s stay even though I very rarely stay for even half the night. Privacy and discretion were very important to me and they definitely afforded me that.

I nodded and tapped my finger on the marble counter as he typed some buttons on the keyboard and pulled the receipt from the printer behind him. He handed it to me and I deftly folded it before I placed it in my suit jacket.

“Thank you,” I said.

He acknowledged me with a nod and I walked out of the hotel before handing the valet attendant my ticket. While waiting I pulled out my phone and pressed a speed dial button.

“Four Seasons In Room Dining,” a friendly voice responded over the line.

“This is Jung Jin Lee,” I began. “I’d like to place an order for the Market Breakfast to be delivered to the room 225 at precisely 9:30 a.m.”

“Same as before then, sir?” He asked. “Only for one?”

“Yes,” I said. “Exactly the same. If you can place the charges on the card on file that would be great.”

“Will do, sir.”

“Thank you.”

I tipped the valet attendant generously when he handed me my car keys. As I drove the less than two mile distance towards my apartment, I barely spared a thought to what just happened a few minutes ago.

The women I get involved with may call the shots while in our arrangement, but they don’t get to control one thing. The ending. I fully decide when that happens. Their reactions may vary but it’s always predictable. There may be anger and there may be some hurt pride but it’s always the same. Same script. Different women. It’s all mashed together in my head now into one indiscernible mass.

I may be a jerk but I’m at least a thoughtful jerk, I told myself as I thought back on the way I always order breakfast for the women I sleep with. It’s part of my routine, as comfortable to me as leaving. I don’t need to feel bad about it. It is what it is. There is nothing to feel bad about.

It’s as if even in this, I won’t allow them to think of me badly. Even in the end, I wanted to be in control. This would bother me had I been the same man that I was years ago, but the man I am now doesn’t really give a damn.

I don’t give a damn about most things, except for Joon and his career. There’s something infinitely more satisfying about investing yourself in things that have fixed and measurable outcomes. I thrive on logic and reason. Relationships have no room for either and that’s the reason why they never interested me much.

But that woman… That nurse… Looked at me disdainfully, and the fact that this bothered me told me that this… Interest was something worth investigating. I have never had a woman look at me with such judging eyes before. I’m just curious, I told myself. Just curious. I just want to know why she disliked me so, without knowing anything about me.

She might expect me to make my moves right away so I will surprise her. I will take my time instead and catch her off guard, strike when she’s least expecting it. She may think she’s figured me out but she has no clue.To say that I was anticipating this battle of wills eagerly was still an understatement.

The game of pushing and pulling had begun again and I don’t intend to lose. She doesn’t know it yet but she will, soon. I play this game better than anyone else.

*****

San Francisco, California

August 10, 2001

8:30 p.m.

Gia

I closed the door behind me as I entered Junnie’s loft, my residence for the last five years. Just like every single other time I’ve come in, my eyes ate up the small details of her home, suitably impressed even with the lights off. It was a beautiful space, very modern and airy. I was lucky to be living here,and with the rent that I’m paying.

I know she’s taking a loss by letting me stay here when she could easily charge someone else more than three times the rent that I pay her. It was an arrangement she had stubbornly insisted on, not wanting to deal with strangers living here. Plus, she added, she visited me so frequently it would be silly to rent this loft out to a stranger and then stay in a hotel when she was here. I’m not complaining.

The hardwood floors gleamed even in the dark and I held my breath as I turned the light on. Beautiful, I thought as the chandelier from the second floor shone its glow over the living room with its high ceilings, over the master bedroom on the second floor, over the appliances and kitchen counter. The two story loft was surrounded only by glass on two walls, with a street view on one floor and the city skyscape on the second. The roof afforded a better skyline view on one side, and a view of Mission Bay, its waters clear and blinding during the day then turning almost black at night, its darkness broken only by the moonlight and the beam from the skyscrapers dotting the bay.

Junnie’s loft looked as it did when I first moved in, everything untouched. I slipped my shoes off and tucked them into one corner by the front door. My possessions and belongings were in boxes and suitcases scattered in the bedroom, my books and clothes the only things I’d brought with me when I moved in. I tried to occupy as little space as I could in Junnie’s beautiful home… A force of habit, one that astounds and annoys her every time she comes.

“Why haven’t you unpacked?” She had asked, her pretty face frowning. “I told you to make yourself at home.”

I didn’t want to tell her that living from boxes is the only way I knew to live, that seeing all my stuff in their designated places was comforting to me. I needed to be able to leave… At a moment’s notice, right away if I had to. Experience had taught me that I needed to be able to do that for me to feel somewhat at peace. You never know when you have to go somewhere. You never know when things change and you have to disappear.

Five years is a long time, and in that period I had developed habits that only my best friend and my sister knew about. I can’t make personal ties with people, places, anything. I’ve become a commitmentphobe. The thought of tying my life to another person’s for an undefined amount of time scared the shit out of me. The idea of committing myself even to a certain place gives me panic attacks. Everything I own is disposable, replaceable. Things I wouldn’t mourn if I had to abandon them or later on, somehow, managed to lose.

I didn’t own any pets, precisely for this reason. Or anything alive, for that matter. The only plant I have is an excellent plastic replica of calla lillies, an impulse buy when I was shopping one day. One that I smiled at now as I reached the second floor landing and turned on the light in the master bedroom.

The bed was made as it was the first night I came in, my sleeping bag and pillow on its side. I put my purse down on the vanity table before rummaging from several boxes to pull out a clean towel and a clean pair of pajamas. I turned the television on in the master bedroom, the sound of people talking reassuring to me. I took my hair down from its ponytail as I walked to the bathroom, my slippers echoing on the floor.

On one side of the bathroom counter were all my beauty products, and I picked out the stuff I will need to wash up. I took a long and leisurely shower then, making sure to wash off the grime from working twelve hours in a hospital. I walked out of the full glass stall when I was finished, standing by the sink to apply my facial products and moisturizer almost mechanically before putting everything back in the box. I’ve done the same skin care twice a day for the last five years, the routine ingrained in my head and my actions. All of it is automatic and something I was familiar with, another of the things I found most comforting. I put on my pajamas and slipped my feet back into slippers, my hair still wrapped in a towel as I made my way back to the master bedroom.

I took out my hairbrush from my purse and turned off the television before making my way down the stairs and turning the television on in the living room. I sat down on the couch and brushed my hair out, my handphone beeping a message on the side table. Lifting it up I see a message from Jessica, one of my good friends and co-workers.

“Gigi… We’re all at The Kezar down the street from work. Do you want to come out for a drink? You left before we could ask. Text me back.”

I thought of putting clothes back on, of putting make up on, of leaving the house after I’d already settled in and shook my head. Typing quickly I responded.

Too tired now. Rain check? Have a good time!

I put it down on the table and walked to the kitchen, my stomach rumbling. Only now did I remember that I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast, having missed lunch altogether. I opened the fridge only to see a bottle of wine greet me and a lone tomato. I opened the cupboards and rummaged its contents, finding mostly spices that Junnie used while cooking the last time she was here.

Dammit. I ate the last ramen packet last night and the last microwave meal the night before.

I was about to look for a delivery menu instead when I found something I could eat. Happily, I pulled out the half eaten bag of potato chips and an almost full bag of gummi bears, along with the wine from the fridge and my one tomato.

I put what’s left of the potato chips on a paper plate, cut the tomato into wedges and added it as well. I placed some gummi bears to the side for dessert and poured what’s left of the wine into a plastic cup.

I chuckled when I thought about how my mother would react if she knew this was my dinner, if she knew that this was usually how my dinners were. I hate grocery shopping and I can’t cook. Junnie owns a rice cooker, but we have no rice. To be honest I don’t really see the point in cooking when I am barely home, usually working four or five twelve hour days every week and cooking for just myself. I thought of the pots and pans that will have to be cleaned after preparing and grimaced. No thank you.

I sat down on a chair by the kitchen counter as I watched the news while eating my dinner. Folding one leg under the other, I had just taken a handful of potato chips when my phone rang. I was almost tempted to leave it be, convinced that it was my work friends wanting to talk me into going out, when I realized it might be work calling and I reluctantly brought my plate and my wine into the living room and picked up my phone.

Junnie. Hmm why is she calling right now? She’s usually in meetings at this time already or on her way to work. I pressed the call button and spoke.

“Hey,” I said, chewing on a tomato wedge.

“You’re home?” She asked, coughing.

“Yeah I just got back to yours a few minutes ago,” I responded, putting my plate on my lap as I stretched out my legs. “Why are you calling at this time? Are you about to go into work?”

“I took the day off,” she said. “I feel horrendous. And my neck hurts from yesterday.”

“What happened yesterday?”

“You haven’t read your email? Some stupid man hit the back of my car… Actually no, his chauffeur hit the back of my car.”

“Are you okay?” I asked, suddenly concerned. I took a sip of wine and placed the phone on speaker, muting out the television with the remote control. “Did you get checked out at the hospital?”

“Yeah, yeah…” She answered dismissively. “They said it might just be a small sprain. I had no choice but to go to the hospital because the stupid man insisted I do so, in case I wanted to sue him later. Ha! Did he think I was poor or something?”

“Don’t rub it in,” I teased. “Plus that’s routine anyway.”

“What are you doing?”

“Eating dinner.”

“Please tell me that you have real food in the house,” she said and I looked down on my plate.

“Of course. I have everything I need. Carbs, veggies, even dessert and wine. I’m fine.”

“You’re probably eating some chips and some candy,” she responded drily. “Your definition of fine is not the same as other people’s.”

“Did you call me just so you can lecture me?”

“I was bored,” Junnie said. “I feel like I should be doing something else besides laying around.”

“Enjoy it. A little r and r is never a bad thing.”

“Fine advice from someone who works just as much as I do,” she said with another cough. She’s right, of course, but there was no shame in that. I may suck at everything else, but I knew I was a damn good nurse. “You need to go out on a date.”

“I’m hanging up the phone.”

“At least for the free food,” she said before I could press any buttons.

“I can buy my own food.”

“But you don’t, ” she answered. ” Fine… if not for that, then for the company…”

“I’m surrounded by people on a daily basis!”

“… The company of people who aren’t in the hospital for work or because they’re sick. I swear sometimes I’m convinced you don’t know how to interact with regular people.”

“I do, too,” I protested. “Besides, why do I need to date when your dating life more than makes up for the lack of activity on mine? I will just live vicariously through you.”

“I have to date as much as I can now, before my parents decide that they’re tired of waiting for me to get married and arranges my marriage themselves. I got away with it before we were thirty but now… I can feel my freedom slipping away every day.”

“Well, parents do know best,” I joked.

“Shut up. Do you want me to fix you up?” She asked with no hesitation.

At least my best friend doesn’t watch her words around me. People offer to fix me up on an almost weekly basis. But at least Junnie says stuff like this without the usual I-feel-bad-that-you’re-alone-and-might-be-alone-for-the-rest-of-your- life addendum hanging unsaid behind the offer.

“With men in Singapore?” I asked. “That’s a bit extreme.”

“I have friends all over America!” She said. “Besides, what’s wrong with a long distance relationship? I would think that would be your thing with your phobia. Minimal commitment, maximum return if it worked. And just think… if you married a Singaporean, you can move here!”

“Don’t do that,” I replied, picking up a gummi bear. “The idea of living in the same city as you is tempting… But nope. I will never marry.”

“Not all men are like your father,” she said quietly. “Or the men you’ve been with. Look at my parents… They’ve been together forever.”

“Speaking of parents,” I said, steering her attention away from this issue, “my father is convinced my mother is having an affair. Never mind that if she wanted to screw around on him she could have done it when she was thirty years old, not almost in her mid fifties.”

“He’s just…”

“Projecting, I know,” I finished for her. “Guilt complex and all that. I wish they would just get divorced and save Maria and me the misery.”

“”Don’t change the subject. I still think you should have one date, at least,” she insisted. “You haven’t gone out in…”

“I know exactly how long it’s been, Jun,” I said. “I promise you, that if I met someone worth dating that I will try. The pool is kind of limited at the hospital, and that’s where I spend the majority of my time. It’s not as if I am a social butterfly.”

“So rejoin civilization and start going out.”

“And compete with the young and fresh twenty year olds out there swimming in the same dating pool? ”

“Online dating?” She asked.

“There are a lot of crazy people in the world. I don’t want to get murdered.”

“You’re so difficult,” she complained.

“That’s why you love me.”

“Then… What about that guy…” She paused as if thinking. “That guy from last month. The manager.”

“What about him?”

“He sounded interesting. And hot.”

“Have you forgotten me saying that I didn’t like him at first sight?” I asked as I finished up the rest of my wine.

“Seeing as you’re usually very forgiving when it comes to first impressions, your instant antagonism told me that there is some level of attraction there as well,” she retorted back.

I was about to protest but I didn’t want to lie. Who wouldn’t be attracted to good looking men? I can’t lie… Especially to my best friend.

“What’s your point?”

“You said he even showed up to give you flowers when you weren’t there.”

“And…”

“I’m just saying, keep an open mind.”

“My mind is open. It’s wide open,” I replied. “But thankfully that ship has sailed. He might as well have player stamped on his forehead.”

I heard Junnie sigh on the other end of the line and I looked at the television to catch the start of the sports section and baseball news. I was about to look away again, having never ever been interested in sports things, but then a picture of my former patient flashed on the screen and I unmuted the television.

“You are so…”

“Junnie hang on… They’re talking about my patient on tv.”

This morning it was confirmed that the San Francisco Giants have dropped JJ Kim from their roster. Kim had a great 2000 season but was injured last month, the details of his injury still unknown to date. Giants management has yet to hold a press conference about this new development, but it has been said that Kim has left for Korea for the time being. His management has not issued an official statement, but we will be sure to update you with any news as it comes from either camp.

The second opinion must have confirmed the severity of his injury, I thought to myself, wishing that I could just call over to my old employers in New York to find out the details. Let it go, I scolded myself. They’re handling it. He’ll be okay.

“You never did say which baseball player you took care of,” Junnie said as I unpressed the speaker button and put the phone up to my ear. “He must be a big baller if he’s on televised news.”

“I still can’t tell you who it is,” I said. “It’s against hospital policy… You know that. Besides, you know as much about baseball and sports as I do. Which is not much.”

“I might know more than you. Don’t forget… I have friends…”

“… In America who probably watch baseball,” I finished for her again and she huffed. “I’ll call you tomorrow. It’s nine o’clock, and I have work in the morning.”

“You know, your obsession with routines is a little scary.”

“I know,” I answered. “Take your medication and get plenty of rest, okay? Have a good rest of the day.”

“Have a good night,” she answered and I had pulled the phone away from my ear when I heard her add, “… and sleep on the fucking bed!”

I pressed the button to hang up the call with a small chuckle before I brought my plate and cup to the kitchen and tossed them into the garbage. I slowly climbed up the stairs after turning all the lights off and went straight to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I left my hair loose to continue drying overnight and set my alarm for 5 a.m.

I plugged my phone to charge and laid down in my sleeping bag, fluffing my pillow just the way I liked it. It wasn’t until I had zipped myself in the sleeping bag that my thoughts turned back to my former patient.

It’s not every day that I get afforded a view of what happens to one of my patients after they leave my care. It seemed that just as I predicted, his difficulties had only just begun. I hope, for his sake, that he is surrounded by the people who love him. I hope that he realizes that this is not the end of his life. I’ve seen too often what happens when denial fades and one has to accept a diagnosis. More often than not the acceptance happens slowly and in pieces. Oftentimes it’s accompanied by anger and depression. I hope his manager is perceptive enough to catch it before it gets bad, that he remembered my advice.

I know what I spoke of, I thought, as I huddled smaller in my sleeping bag. I tried to make it through all of my worst times by myself, but it had come at a price. I’ve lost so much of myself that I am merely now just a shadow of the person I used to be. Any kind of pain and injury results in scars, and my whole being is made up of them. I’ve learned to accept it, just as I have everything else.

No one can make it through any kind of crisis alone, not without losing a part of themselves. I know I didn’t.

*****

Seoul, Korea

August 17, 2001

4:30 p.m.

Jung Jin

I walked through the lobby of Joon’s apartment building and took the elevator straight to his floor. I haven’t heard from him in days, my phone calls going straight to voicemail. His home phone was also disconnected and though I worried, I think it’s time that I tell him to make a decision about what he will do. That is my job and my responsibility.

I pressed the doorbell once, to no reply. There was no light peeking from under the door and I heard no sound from the apartment either. I pressed the bell again, then again. He needs to stop hiding from all of us, especially me.

After what seemed like the tenth ring, the door finally opened and I saw Joon standing on the other side, his hair longer than it’s been in years, his face pale and gaunt. He cradled his right shoulder with a broad hand, stayed silent. He took a step to the side to let me in and I took one look at him and shook my head without even meaning to.

The apartment was dark and there were things scattered on the floor. I hope he’s not living like this when Na Jeong was around. I usually checked in on her every few days, knowing that she and Joon almost live together when he’s home, and I had noticed that she had sounded exhausted and distracted the last time we spoke. I felt Joon’s eyes on my back as I turned one of the lights on as I passed by the outlet. I sat on the couch and waited until Joon had sat himself down opposite me before I spoke.

“Joon… About your CF contracts,” I began hesitantly. “A few of the sports companies will not be renewing them.” I met his gaze directly and he nodded. “I told them that this is a tricky time and that there’s a big possibility that you’ll recover, but you know that for those companies it’s all about what’s hot now and what the bottom line is.”

He didn’t say anything for a few minutes but I spied the defeat and resignation in his eyes. It’s already been a month and I still have to get used to seeing him like this. It’s so unlike the Kim Jae Joon that I’ve known for years.

“I get it,” he finally said, his voice hoarse from unuse. “That’s understandable, Hyung.”

“Have you made a decision on what you’re going to do yet?” I asked, my eyes fixed on his face, noticing now as I sat across from him that there were dark shadows in his eyes even as he flinched when he adjusted his position.

“About what?” He asked as he leaned back on the couch.

“About everything. Your shoulder. Your apartment in San Francisco.”

“No,” he answered. “I don’t know what I am going to do. Either way, I’m screwed. Let’s call it like it is. Like the surgeon said… If I don’t have surgery I will never play again… Not the way that I’ve played since university. If I get the surgery, maybe I can play that well again, someday. There still aren’t any guarantees are there?”

“There aren’t any guarantees in anything, Joon-ah,” I replied, my tone careful. I’ve never had to watch what I said to Joon, but I’ve never seen him this way, either. It felt like anything I say could break him he looked so fragile. “What do your parents say? And Na Jeong?”

“My parents are probably happy to be right and are just waiting for the perfect opportunity to throw it in my face. And Na Jeong… Na Jeong’s future shouldn’t be dependent on me.”

The words that his nurse told me seemingly forever ago echoed in my head and I ran a hand through my hair. “Joon-ah… It’s okay to depend on other people sometimes.”

He shook his head and closed his eyes. “Not when you’ve never had anyone to depend on.” I recognized the stubborn lift of his chin before he continued. “Then you learn to do it on your own.”

“You can’t always do everything on your own.” I stood up and started making my way to the door, unable to deal with what is going on myself, unable to quell the discomfort nagging at me from this situation, wanting some time to think and adjust my strategy. “Let me know what you want me to tell your landlord in San Francisco… We can’t keep shelling out $10,500 a month on renting a place you’re not living in or are not going back to.”

I didn’t even wait for his response before I opened the door and stepped out of his apartment, taking a relieved breath as soon as I was outside. Pulling my phone out I pressed a speed dial number and waited for a voice to answer the call.

“Hello?”

“Shawn, hey,” I said lightly, addressing my oldest friend from university. “Are you in San Francisco?”

“I can be,” Shawn said. “What’s up?”

“I need a favor. My client had to come home quickly and his apartment in San Francisco needs to be packed up.”

“When do you want this done? I have things to do here until Monday the 20th the earliest.”

“There’s no rush,” I replied. “He’s still trying to figure out what to do. I would go myself but…”

“It’s cool,” Shawn replied with a sigh, familiar with my request. We both travel quite a bit and it wasn’t unusual for either of us to ask favors of each other. “You sound terrible.”

“I do?” I asked. “Don’t worry about it. I’m hanging up.”

“You haven’t called in months and that’s it?”

“We’ll catch up soon.”

I hung up the phone even as Shawn continued to complain on the other line. I ran a hand through my hair as I sent sent a silent prayer that I had friends all over the world. This will get done, and with the utmost privacy as well. Shawn was one of the few people I trusted and I know that trust had not been misplaced.

Though I may not have looked it, I felt worse for wear. My already poor sleeping habits have been made even worse by what was happening now. Every time I delivered more bad news to Joon I felt like I myself would break. Worry and concern ate me up on a daily basis, even as I tried to work on his behalf to keep the lines as friendly as possible with those who have abandoned him at this time. It’s become even more difficult when I fight the instinct to tell them all to go to hell and that Kim Jae Joon will make it through this, that he will come out better and they will all regret it.

I can’t do that.

I don’t have the luxury of saying exactly how I felt about the situation even if every molecule in my body detested keeping the smile on my face as they destroyed everything he had worked so hard to achieve. I get paid to smile and to play nice, even as they annihilated each and every one of his dreams, one by one.

Over the years, Joon had become more of a brother than a client, a far cry from where we started out. His mother had been acquainted with my mother, and I was asked to go see him before he left for Japan. I was given very strict instructions to not tell him of our mothers’ connection, his Omma convinced that he would refuse my services simply for the mere fact that I came recommended by her. I didn’t understand it then, having always been close to my mother, but as the years went by and I got to know Joon better, the more I understood. I had focused on him when I left New York, thrown everything I had into making sure his career took off. I’ve stayed with him through his career in Japan, with the exception a few months, and then America. I watched him fall in love and then get his heart broken and then fall even more in love with the same woman. I had a lot invested in Joon, and not just time, either.

Kim Jae Joon, who looked like he had everything, who had more talent than I’ve ever seen anyone have, had been a lonely solitary figure all his life. An only child from a broken family, he had a strained relationship with both of his parents, both of whom, as far as he knew, didn’t support his choice in career. That he stuck with it for as long as he did was as much about his talent as it was an act of defiance.

It wasn’t until I had asked him over a year ago who he was and he couldn’t answer beyond what his relationship was to baseball that it hit me just how much of his life was defined by the sport that had kept him focused through most of his childhood. He credited baseball with all that he had and depended on it for his future. Until Na Jeong came into his life I didn’t even know if he had any other plans besides being just a baseball player. But she changed all that.

The boy who only thought of baseball finally had love, too, and along with it came happiness and even more pressure to succeed. He worried about his ability to provide for her, about her happiness and wellbeing more than he did his own. An injury is an injury, and its effect is devastating to any athlete. But for it to happen to Joon… was unthinkable.

No one else can possibly understand what he might be going through. I have an insider’s view on his life and I only just comprehended enough. No one else was there through most of his life, over the years to see what he’s had to sacrifice to get to where he is.

My anger for him, at the unfairness of this situation, were simmering inside me and I needed an avenue. He was the one person I could talk to about this and I couldn’t even talk to him, didn’t even want to burden him with more than what he already had on his plate. Trying to do as much as I can while feeling like my hands are tied behind my back, forced to take a backseat on a car that I was positive I was driving… the loss of control was frustrating and it pissed me off.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The elevator arrived on the first floor and I walked out of it then quickly walked out of his apartment building. I needed a distraction, I thought, as I got into my car. And Hye Soo will give me just that.

I scanned the text messages on my phone for the one I received earlier today. Pressing the buttons quickly I sent a message, short, concise and direct to the point.

Banyan Tree Hotel and Spa Resort. Granum Dining Lounge. 8 p.m. You liked their food there last time, as well as their sheets. Let me know if you’ll make it.

I turned the key in the ignition and drove towards Galleria Department Store, remembering that Hye Soo liked expensive gifts. I walked into the store and picked up a purse in the color that I liked, the sales ladies giggling behind me, my custom known to them by now. I gave them all a wide smile and a few of them blushed. The cashier ringing me up handed me my receipt slowly, her eyes meeting mine boldly. I placed the receipt in my wallet, but not before I spied a name and a number on the bottom. She blushed and smiled, as I thought she might, as all of them do, and said my thanks.

Putting the bag in the footwell of the passenger side, I only just had enough time to work out and take a shower before meeting up with Hye Soo for dinner. At least for a few hours, my mind will be busy.

*****

Banyan Tree Hotel and Spa Resort

Granum Dining Lounge

Seoul, Korea

8:00 p.m.

Jung Jin

Kang Hye Soo, the only daughter of one of the richest business men in Korea, smiled at me as she licked the rim of her wineglass, her eyes twinkling mischievously. Older than me by a couple of years, we first met four years ago, when fresh from my break up and the ensuing period that followed she decided that I will do. Not as her boyfriend, but as her bed mate.

Cold, beautiful, calculating Hye Soo. She and I got along famously well in and out of bed. Her short dark hair was cut in an angle, perfectly framing her small face. Wide eyes the color of undiluted coffee. A regal nose. She had a strong chin, picture perfect cheekbones and delicate earlobes. Tall, statuesque and willowy, she was an elegant woman, the most beautiful of all my acquaintances. And I’ve been sleeping with her longer than I had been with anybody else.

She had been a part of and adored by Seoul high society for as long as I had known her. London educated, fluent in four languages, she spent most of her time now in one of her father’s businesses, taking the reins as she had told me he always wished. Brilliant, articulate, perfect Hye Soo. She had been groomed from childhood as an alpha female and she was my match in every single possible way, including our shared distaste of marriage.

One of my noonas had attended the same university as her, had warned me in fact that she was a man killer, that she would only break my heart. She had told me that Hye Soo would use me and then discard me when she tired of my company. I laughed her warning off, much to her irritation. She only had my best interests at heart, but I was hardly prey. And a heartbreak is only a danger when someone puts their heart on the line. Luckily for her neither Hye Soo nor I had to worry about such things. The reason why we gelled so well was that we wanted the same thing, and only for a short amount of time.

“You look better every time I see you,” she commented with a smile. Her ruby red lips gleamed with the wine and her tongue peeked out to lick them clean. “Good to see you back in Seoul. Tired of sampling exotic delights?”

She asked this question casually, though I saw the keen interest in her gaze. I chuckled in response before posing a question of my own. “What about you? Your boy toy doesn’t mind that you’re out with me?”

The last I heard she had begun seeing someone at least ten years her junior, an actor whose portfolio and reach instantly widened when he got involved with her. Such was the power that Hye Soo wielded, and one that I had taken advantage of myself. She had helped finance my business before I even had Joon as a client, and though I repaid her many many years ago, I always remembered her support. I would consider her a friend except Hye Soo didn’t have friends… she had associates. A person who had nothing to offer didn’t interest her much, and she was as honest about this as she was about everything else.

She waited until the first course was served before she spoke again. Between us were a selection of dimsum, and its aroma wafted over me as I picked up my chopsticks.

“Why? Are you jealous?” She asked, her wineglass suspended mid-air.

“You know that’s not my way,” I answered smoothly. “Jealousy is an emotion I’m not familiar with.”

“I didn’t think so… But to answer your question, he knows better than to demand anything of me,” she said flippantly. “You of all people should know what the deal is.” I chewed on a shrimp shu mai as I nodded and sipped the white wine in my glass. “I heard your boy was injured. I told you to diversify years ago.”

“He’ll bounce back,” I responded with a wipe of napkin on my lips. “Don’t worry your pretty head about my business. I got this.”

She sent me a smile as she helped herself to a steamed dumpling, her mouth pursing appreciatively as she chewed.

“How’s work?” I asked, my eyes studying her face.

“Work is work,” she said, putting her napkin down on the table. “Shall we take this conversation upstairs?” Hye Soo was not coquettish by nature, preferring to straight shoot instead. It’s one of the things I always liked about her. “I assume, of course, that you’ve already rented the room?”

“What do you think?” I asked as she motioned for the check.

Within minutes the server was back with our bill and she slipped her credit card into the check folder without asking me if it was okay. She liked to do things her way, another attractive quality. There was something about a woman completely comfortable in her own skin that I always found completely alluring.

“Excuse me,” I heard her address the server after she signed the bill. “I’d like a bottle of the Krug Clos D’Ambonnay delivered to room… ”

“11F,” I told her.

“…11F in about, say, an hour? You can add it to the room charge,” she finished and I chuckled. Her very expensive tastes haven’t changed one bit. One bottle of the stuff cost three and half grand. “He’ll sign for it when the bottle is delivered. Please make sure it’s properly chilled… it was lukewarm last time.”

I sent an apologetic smile at the server as he mumbled that he will ensure that it arrives just as she had requested. Closing the buttons on my suit jacket I walked over to her chair before offering her a hand. She stood up gracefully, her height made even taller by the heels she wore, her face only a few inches lower than mine. The dress she wore was black and classic, the front with a bateau neckline, barely showing a hint of her collarbone but the backside dipping into a low v, her creamy back completely uncovered. On her feet were open toed sandals, the straps wrapping around slim ankles.

I looped her arm around mine as we exited the restaurant and I was fully aware of the eyes that were watching us. I got what I wanted, what I swore I would have all those years ago, who I swore I would be. The flush of satisfaction was sudden, until I realized that one woman managed to forget me just fine.

Irritation licked at my confidence, my mind still thinking back on what that nurse could have possibly figured out about me that she had found me so distasteful. I was so focused on this that I did not notice Hye Soo frowning at me as I led her towards the elevator. To distract her I lifted the signature brown and gold bag and offered it to her as soon as the elevator door closed.

“What’s this?” She asked, one eyebrow raised.

“You know what it is,” I said as she peeked into the bag, where I am sure she would see the latest offering from one of her favorite brands.

“You remembered what I like,” she commented as she leaned in and pressed a small kiss on my cheek.

“Don’t I always?” I asked even as she traced a finger over the top button of my shirt, deftly unbuttoning it in the process.

She pressed her slender body close to me as she offered me her lips. Without hesitation I leaned down and took her lips in mine, her breath tasting of the expensive wine we just drank. Her kiss was good, very very good. We’ve been doing this for so long I already knew what she liked and she knew what I liked. There was something both comforting and disturbing in that, but now was not the time to worry.

The elevator stopped moving and we walked out of it, already knowing our way to the room that we always used. I slipped the room key in the door and the light had just flashed green when I felt her curious hands on my trousers. I turned the handle of the door and entered the room when she pushed me against the wall and pressed her lips against mine. I didn’t even get the chance to turn the lights on, to enjoy the view of Mt.Namsan or the relaxation pool built into the room. Her lips were persistent, insistent and demanding.

The way she touched me was familiar and possessive, her fingers knowing exactly where to go. She kept her eyes closed and so did I. Our lovemaking has always been this way, pleasurable but clinical. No emotions were involved and I was content with that. Feelings complicate an otherwise perfect arrangement. Our relationship, if one could call it that, had lasted as long as it has because we didn’t fool ourselves into believing that this was more than it was.

And this, I thought as she took my suit jacket off my shoulders and unzipped my pants, is exactly to my taste.

Simple. Efficient. Clean.

No fanfare, no drama, no tears. Just the way I liked it.

*****

San Francisco, California

August 27, 2001

9:00 a.m.

Gia

I pulled the door behind me then stretched my arms over my head, behind my back, and finally, in front of my chest. I bent down to tie my shoelaces more tightly before folding one leg behind me, the backs of my calf touching the back of my thigh, then alternating to the other leg. I secured my ipod to my arm and put my earplugs on. I started walking as my playlist began, its bass and upbeat rhythm waking me up in the best way possible.

It was a beautiful day in San Francisco, the weather not quite cold but not warm as well, perfect for layering during the day and long sleeved hoodies at night. My hair was in a bun on top of my head, my ears unadorned. I wore knee length yoga pants and a loose off the shoulder t-shirt, my sports bra already stifling my skin. I shook off the discomfort as my feet walked down Ritch Street, fairly quiet at this time of the morning

My feet sped up as the music in my ears intensified, and I started jogging. I continued this pace until I turned right on Brannan Street, passing the doctors’ offices and the closed restaurants. I passed by the florist but didn’t stop to enjoy the fresh flowers for sale. I ran for three blocks before turning right on 7th Street then right again onto Bryant.

I was running so fast my breaths were coming in rapidly, my lungs expanding and deflating gratefully. My calves were killing me, the lactic acid building up quickly. But the wind in my hair felt great and I felt free. Running like this felt liberating, like the world was wide open for me to see, like I can do anything I wanted.

I continued running until the sweat poured down my forehead, the beads traveling down the neckline of the shirt I wore. I passed the Justice Hall on my left and a McDonald’s, and i fought the urge to pop in and order a biscuit. I cleared my mind as I ran, getting rid of the tension from having worked sixty hours in the last five days, shaking off the memories that continued to haunt me. I kept running until the next thing I knew, I had once again reached Ritch Street and slowed myself down to a leisurely trot.

By the time I reached Junnie’s loft I was already walking quickly, my mind still focused ahead, so much so that I didn’t notice someone at the front door, sitting on a suitcase, sipping from a Styrofoam cup. I stopped in front of her, finding it difficult to speak from my surprise.

“What are you doing here?” I asked and narrowed my eyebrows as I pulled my earplugs out.

“Hi Sis,” My little sister, said as she stood up. “Missed me?”

*****

4:00 p.m.

“I still can’t believe you’re here,” I said to my sister as she laid herself down on the other end of the couch. “How did you manage to get away from Mama and Papa?”

“I told Ma where I was going,” she said, chewing on a piece of roasted seaweed. “And Papa… well… he’ll figure it out soon enough.”

Her feet were covered in socks that hugged every single one of her toes separately and I shook my head. They’re like gloves for feet.

“What are you looking at?” She asked as she turned the tv on.

“Your socks are freaking me out,” I said as I took the remote from her hand.

“You’re 32 years old and wearing leg warmers… You’re freaking me out, too,” she quipped back and I looked at my legs, indeed covered in leg warmers.

“Don’t forget the big teased out hair,” I teased then picked up a sheet of seaweed seaweed from the packet she was holding. “How’s Matt?”

Matt was her boyfriend of three years, this time around. He had also been her boyfriend in high school before they went off to different universities. It had been amazing for her to figure out that she broke up with him convinced that there must be something better out there only to realize that the guy she had was the best one out there. Some people get it right the first time around. Though I wasn’t so lucky, I’m glad that my sister was. He was a great guy, and one who deserved my sister.

“He’s busy,” she said. “He was promoted recently so more paperwork and less hands on stuff, which he hates, but the pay is better.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“How’s Junnie?” She asked, propping her legs on top of mine, just like we used to do when we watched tv when we were younger.

“She’s good,” I said, scanning through the channels and settling on a cooking program, one I know my sister liked. “You just missed her. She came for a quick visit last weekend, said that she had something she had to do, when really she just wanted to drag me all around town doing menial shit. We can call her later if you want.”

“I want to thank her for the Hello Kitty stuff she sent me. So stinking cute.” She appeared to be thinking about something before she sat upright suddenly. “Should I be bothered that Matt hasn’t spoken about getting married? We’ve been together for three years.”

“You’re only 24 years old… there’s no rush, is there?” I asked back. “It must be bothering you a lot if you felt like you had to go to San Francisco.”

“I missed you,” she mused. “But do you think it’s too soon?”

“No… But listen…” I leaned towards her and brushed a long black lock of her hair behind her ear. “… You need to figure out who you are before you get married. You need to have a profession, an identity. This will sound really pessimistic but you know our family history. God forbid something happened… You two don’t work out years down the line or something happens to him… You need to be able to stand on your own two feet without him.”

“I know,” she responded, laying back down, before sitting back up again. “I want to attend culinary school.”

“Then attend culinary school. No one’s stopping you.”

My sister had her degree in nursing as well, went as far as obtaining her license to practice, but it wasn’t what inspired her. The two months she worked as a nurse made her more miserable than she had ever been. I think it was the best decision she could have made for herself getting out when she did.

“I feel like I’ve wasted Mama’s money, going to college for nursing and still not knowing what I’m doing with my life two years later,” she said quietly. “I don’t want to disappoint her any more.”

“I doubt that you could do that after all I’ve put her through,” I said teasingly. “You’re like an angel compared to me.”

“But…”

“You can never disappoint her, or me,” I told her slowly. “We will always be proud of you, no matter what you decide to do. We just want you to be happy.”

She was silent for a few minutes before I heard her clear her throat. “Mama misses you… You should probably call her or something.”

I didn’t respond and stayed quiet instead. My mother and I have had a contentious relationship for most of my life. She had left to work abroad when I was two years old, and other than her annual visits and the monthly phone calls, it had been as if I didn’t have a mother for the first thirteen years of my life. When I finally joined her, my father and my sister in America, I was a teenager.

The mockery of a marriage that she and my father shared may have broken her heart, but it broke mine too. While my mother was busy working, and my father was busy playing, I had taken up the role of caretaker for my sister, eight years younger than me. I had tried to protect her from the mess that they’ve made of their relationship but I was only able to protect her so much. She grew up in a household bereft with tension and unspoken secrets. The biggest of which was that our parents stayed together though they had stopped being married as soon as my father cheated.

I loved my mother for all she’d done for us, but part of me resented her too.There were times when I looked at her and it felt like I was looking at my biggest nightmare come to life. I had been unsure growing up whether she stayed with my father despite all he did

out of love or a sense of duty, but neither mattered. The fact was that she had stayed with a man who continually betrayed her, over and over again. She continued to support him and be there for him,despite all that he did,and chose to stay married to him, even to this day.

I recognized her weakness in me and I detested it. It was the main reason why I felt the need to move to California.

It hurt to look at her. I hurt for her.

I don’t understand why she can’t seem to sever her ties to him and it scares me that I will be the same way. It was enough to put me off marriage altogether, made me want no part of love. Not that kind of love. Not love that destroyed everything you are.

I lifted my head to see my sister looking at me with her dark brown eyes, my father’s eyes, except hers were infinitely kinder. She resembled my father a lot more closely than I did, and I found it amazing that the same face on two different people could incite both immeasurable anger and overwhelming love. I smiled at her then, my heart full for the first time in a long time.

“I’ll call her,” I reassured her, my tone gentling. “I promise.”

“So…” She started, her voice hesitant. “How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“You always say you’re fine even when you’re not. You said you were fine when you told me what happened with Chris. You said you were fine too when you came home with bruises all over you,” she said carefully and I remembered that day like it was yesterday… the morning I came home and my sister opened the front door to see me shivering in the cold, my arms and legs covered in black and blue marks, one of my eyes swollen shut. She had only been twelve years old then and she burst into tears as soon as she laid eyes on me.

“I’m fine, Mar… really, I am.” I looked away from her searching eyes even as she took my hand in hers.

“Do you still live from boxes?”

“You know the answer to that.”

“It’s been five years… there are men worth trusting, you know,” she told me. Keenly aware of the conversation she wanted to have, I pulled my hand away and stood up quickly.

“What do you want to eat for dinner?” I asked, trying to steer her mind off what I was unwilling to talk about, pulling out takeout menus from one of the kitchen drawers. “Do you want to go out or order in? There are a lot of places around here…”

“Sis, your phone is beeping!” She called out, effectively interrupting me.

“Who’s calling?”

“It’s a text message.”

American, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Greek. Surely she would want something from one of these restaurants. I’ll even let her order from all of them if she wanted.

From the corner of my eye I saw my sister approaching with my phone on her hand, her eyes widening as she looked at it.

“Gia… It’s Jung Jin. Do you remember me? I’ll be really insulted if you don’t… especially since that memorable half hour we shared,” my sister read out loud. I snatched the phone from her hand and read the text message from the unknown number, a frown on my face.

How the hell did he get my number?

“Sis,” Maria said now, her hands on her hips, a curious grin on her face. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

*****

Seoul, Korea

August 25, 2001

8:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

“CVICU, this is Jennifer speaking. How may I help you?” A female voice politely asked in English on the other line.

“Ah yes,” I began. “I wanted to know if Gia… ” Shit. I don’t even know her last name. “Nurse Gia was available.”

“May I ask who’s calling?” She asked and I thought for sure that the lady in question was working today.

“This is Lee… this is Jung Jin Lee,” I corrected, remembering that Americans don’t say last names first. “My client was a patient of hers a month and a half ago.”

“She’s not working today, Mr. Lee,” she answered. “Did you want to leave a message?”

“Ah… no…” I stammered before I forced my voice to even out. “Is there any way you can give me her address?”

“Hold on one second,” she said. “I’ll let you speak to the charge nurse.”

Elevator music came on as my call was put on hold and not even a few seconds later, another female voice picked up, but not the one I was so dying to hear.

“CVICU, this is Jessica speaking. May I help you?”

I took a deep breath and spoke. “Yes. This is Jung Jin Lee and my client stayed in your unit for a few days in August. Gia took care of him and he wants to send her flowers to thank her so I wanted to know if I can get her address.”

“I remember you, Mr. Lee… I was the charge nurse on shift when you came back with the flowers.that evening” I searched my mind for the memory and remembered her as well. Petite, shoulder length blonde hair and blue eyes. “But… We’re not allowed to give out information about staff,” she answered softly. “And… company policy prevents us from receiving gifts that are worth over twenty five dollars. So… if you don’t have any other reason why you would want her information I’m afraid I am no help to you.” She didn’t hang up the phone as I thought she might do and instead paused for a few seconds, as if giving me time to rack my brain for some sort of excuse.

I felt something akin to disappointment at her words. Feeling inexplicably desperate, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “I’ll give you one of JJ Kim’s autographed press release pictures.”

“Mr. Lee,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t have any other reason why you want to get in touch with her? Any other reason at all?”

“I would like to get to know her better,” I finally said after a brief hesitation, seeing no justifiable reason to lie. “Is that reason good enough?”

“It is for me,” she said, chuckling. “I can’t give you her address outright but I’ll give you her cellphone number and you can hash it out with her. Are you ready?” She asked and I quickly pulled out a pen from my pocket and flipped one of my business cards to the blank side. She recited each digit slowly and then sighed when she finished.

“Got it,” I responded. “And thank you.”

“Don’t tell her it was me who gave you her number, okay? She’ll kill me.”

“I won’t. Thanks again… and have a great day.”

“You too, Mr. Lee.”

I heard the telltale click of the call ending and pressed the end button on my handphone. I set my phone and the card that now had her number down on the table and looked at it for a short while before picking both back up and quickly programming her number into my phone and placing the card in my wallet. I started typing out several messages, wondering which one will best incite a response. I must have picked up my phone fifteen times and consequently erased the first fifteen messages before settling on one that was flirty and short.

The woman’s indifference has thrown me off guard. I felt like I was off my game, that one wrong word from me was going to send her scurrying as far away as she could as quickly as she could. There’s something about that woman that makes me nervous.

But… How much further away can she go? We’re separated by five and a half thousand miles right now. With this thought in mind I typed my message and smiled when I pressed the send button.

Well, that will get a response. It might incite a slightly annoyed response, but at least I will get a response.

*****

San Francisco, California

August 24, 2001

5:00 p.m.

Gia

Gia… It’s Jung Jin. Do you remember me? I’ll be really insulted if you don’t… especially since that memorable half hour we shared.

I reread the message for the third time, all too aware of my sister’s gaze watching for a reaction. I was still wondering how he got my number, convinced that he must have lied to someone at work, used some bullshit reason like I want to get to know her better, I want to send her flowers… typical player lines. I would know. God knows I’ve dated enough of them.

I closed the message and put my phone on the counter, not bothering to reply. I opened more drawers and pulled out more menus for even more takeout places. My sister continued leaning against the kitchen counter, now holding a lollipop.

“So… who’s Jung Jin?” I heard her voice ask from behind me and I pretended not to hear her. “Who’s Jung Jin?” She repeated and I still didn’t answer. “Who’s Jung Jin? Who’s Jung Jin? Who’s Jung Jin?” She kept on repeating the question annoyingly, the way little sisters are inclined to do from birth, until I turned around and glared at her.

“How long were you staying again?” I asked. “What are you? Ten years old?”

“I’m staying for a week,” she said smugly before smiling and sticking her tongue out at me. “Who’s Jung Jin?”

“He’s no one,” I relented, finally, realizing that she wasn’t going to let this go that easily. “What do you want to do for dinner?

“What about the half hour you shared? He said it was memorable.” She emphasized the word with an accompanying wiggle of her eyebrows. “What could two adults have been doing in a half hour that would be memorable? Talking? Drinking coffee? Kis…”

“We didn’t share half an hour doing anything together, much less anything memorable. I only saw the guy once.”

“Ah… so you do admit that you know the person,” she said smugly. “Jung Jin. A Korean name? What’s his English name? Most of the Koreans I know go by their English names in America. You must be well acquainted with him if he told you his real name. How romantic!”

“Maria,” I said warningly, before her overactive imagination had me walking down the aisle with a man I didn’t even like. “… It’s not an alter ego. He’s not a superhero. He’s just the manager of one of my former patients.”

“Speaking of which, I figured out who you took care of, you know,” she said and I breathed a sigh of relief that she had moved on to another topic altogether. I saw her walk back to the living room and open her laptop and I picked up the menus I had pulled out and brought them with me as I sat back down on the couch.

My sister started typing something on the computer and I tried to figure out what I wanted to eat. Greek, definitely Greek, I thought as I watched a chef make baklava on television. I haven’t had baklava in a long time and just the thought of all that paper thin phyllo dough cushioned by crushed nuts and honey made my mouth drool.

“Mar… look up this restaurant’s menu while you’re online,” I said. “I don’t think they deliver but we can go get it. The name is Taj Mediterran…”

“Ohmygod, so sexy! I KNEW the name sounded familiar!” She exclaimed with a squeal and I looked at her questioningly.

“What?”

“Your Jung Jin!” She said as she nudged my side. “Did you know that he was named one of the Bay Area’s Most Eligible Bachelors for two years running?”

“So everyone keeps telling me,” I said as she turned her computer around and showed me the homepage for his fan club. I shook my head at the absurdity of a manager having a fan club while she continued to moon at his pictures. “And he’s not my Jung Jin.”

“Text him back!” She urged, pulling on my sleeve. “Text him back!”

“No… I have nothing to say to him.” My sister continued to pout and I looked at her sharply. “I said no. That’s the end of it.” She blinked at me a few times to try to get me to do as she wanted, the expression on her face so much like when she was a little girl and I softened. “You should get dressed so we can get some food.”

I ruffled her hair and went back to the kitchen, opening my phone to erase the message once and for all, which is precisely what I should have done to begin with, when my sister quickly intercepted my phone.

“Sis, I need your phone,” she said. “Mine’s dead and I promised Matt I would call him at 7 p.m. New Jersey time.”

“Use the house phone,” I said, trying to take it away from her. “Junnie has free long distance.”

“I can’t use your house phone in the bathroom!”

“Then wait until you get out of the bathroom! What could be so important that you have to talk to him while you’re in there?” I asked, but she quickly walked away from me without answering my question. “Get ready for dinner… and erase that fucking message!” I called out behind her and I heard her huff before agreeing. Which of my requests she agreed to I wasn’t sure but I hope that she does both. I watched her retreating back disappear and sighed affectionately.

What a brat.

*****

Seoul, Korea

August 25, 2001

8:10 a.m.

Jung Jin

I pushed my phone to one side of the table as I opened the newspaper to read. The toast and eggs I made after sending Gia a text ten minutes ago stayed untouched, my cup of coffee cooling with every minute. After reading one article I picked up my phone to make sure that the sound was on, then put it back down and took a sip of coffee. I read another article and picked my phone back up, wondering if I had been given the wrong number. I tried to read a third article and gave up in frustration.

I was sure she was going to respond back. I really was. Was my message not casual enough? Not friendly enough? It might be the wrong number, I thought as I quickly drafted another message and sent it before I could change my mind. I should at least find out if it’s the right number.

Is this the right number?

I finished my cup of coffee in one long gulp and shoved my breakfast in my mouth, alternately staring at my phone, willing it to ring, and glaring at it, mentally telling it that I don’t give a shit, and scolding myself that it mattered so much. I was about to bury the phone under the newspaper to detract myself from looking at it any further when it beeped and I picked it up quickly.

Will you be home for Chuseok? Omma wants to know.

A text from my oldest Noona, one that I didn’t respond to as I put my phone back down and put it on silent. Just see if I will respond if you do answer, directing my thoughts to the stubborn woman determined not to acknowledge me.

My phone vibrated in my hands and I opened the message, reminding myself not to answer.

Jin-ie… it’s Omma… u’ll b around 4 Chuseok, right?

Knowing that my mother will hound me constantly if I didn’t answer within seconds, I picked up my phone and called the house. I heard my father’s gruff voice answer the phone and I grinned.

“Appa, it’s Jung Jin.”

“How is my favorite son doing?” My Appa jovially asked and I softened as I imagined his lined face, still so distinguished looking at his age and his head full of gray hair. He had a loud voice but he was all sweetness inside. I worshipped my father as a child and that feeling had not changed over the years.

“Appa… You tell that to both me and Hyung all the time,” I teased. “Make up your mind, would you? He’s either your favorite or I am.”

“Psshh,” he grumbled.How can I have a favorite when both my sons are as handsome as I am?”

I openly chuckled as he continued talking about his gardening, a hobby he had taken up after he retired. My father can talk about this for hours, and seeing that I called the house specifically to speak to Omma, I interrupted him when he took a breath.

“Appa… let me take you out to play golf in a couple of days,” I said. “Just you and me. No women allowed.”

Are you going to pay?” He asked dubiously. You tricked me last time.”

“Appa… That’s because you’re so easy sometimes,” I said. “So you want to go out on a date with your son? ”

“Call,” he replied smartly and I marveled at how on the pulse my parents were with the modern trends, including the vernacular. Their phones were even more advanced than mine. They each had laptops of their own. I’m pretty sure either one of them can outtype me as well.

“Appa, is Omma home?” I asked, looking at the clock. 8:15 a.m. “She just texted me a few minutes ago.”

“Hang on… Hang on… there’s my beautiful wife, walking towards me now,” he said merrily. Here’s my beautiful wife, smacking my butt.”

Yeobo!” I heard my mother exclaim and I laughed when I heard my father plant a loud kiss on… something.

It could be anything… I never know with my parents. Still so sickeningly in love after all these years. It is with both envy and pride that I noted this fact. If ever two people were truly meant to be together, it was them.

“Jin-ie! Did you get my text message?” She asked me, her voice sweet, my favorite sound in the world.

“I did,” I said. “But Omma… when did you start abbreviating words on your texts?”

“I type faster that way and I still get my point across. That’s what young people do nowadays, don’t they? That’s what your nephew told me a couple of weeks ago.”

My nephew, Jun Seok, already six years old and smart as a whip. I should have known he would be teaching my parents these newfangled ideas.

“Omma… You’re almost sixty years old.”

“Age is nothing but a number, uri adeul. And I don’t feel a day over twenty, maybe thirty five the most!”

She tsked at me over the phone and I couldn’t help but smile. My mother married my father at 19 years old, had Hyung at 22, then another child consecutively 2 years apart. By the time she was 40 I was already twelve years old and my Hyung had just started attending uni. She thought her childbearing days were over until they found out that they were pregnant with my youngest sister, and my father strutted like a proud peacock for months as my mother glowed with joy.

My mother was a tiny woman, but all of us knew she was the heart and soul of our family. My father revered the ground she walked on, though, I admitted, she always appeared to feel the same for him. Both from middle class families, they both held jobs and built our lives with their own hard work and dedication. Though they would be considered more affluent now than middle class, they had never forgotten where they came from and instilled in all of us a rigorous work ethic and a healthy respect for our professions.

“With Joon home this year, does that mean you will be here for Chuseok?” I heard her voice ask.

“Ah…” Though I wanted to see my family, the thought of spending more than a couple of hours in the company of my overly nosy and matchmaking noonas and dongsaeng was enough to give me palpitations. “I don’t know yet, Omma. Maybe.”

“Try to be here, Jin-ie. Your nephew and nieces want to see you,” she said.

My phone beeped with a message and I took it off my ear to look, convinced that it would just be another of my noonas asking me the same question, when I saw who it was from and almost dropped the phone. My mother kept talking in my ear and I interrupted her, earning another huff.

“Omma… I just received a message that I have to answer. I’ll call you in a couple of days.”

“Are you eating enough? Don’t make me send your sisters over with the banchan.”

“Omma, I’m fine. I have to go.”

“Give Joon my regards, I’m sure he’s going through a…”

“Omma, I have to go.”

“Fine… fine… your father and I were just about to take a walk anyway.”

“Tell Appa I’ll pick him up at 9 in two days.” I said, relieved to be getting off the phone to read my message.

I hung up the phone to my mother laughing and placed it on the counter. Respond in a few minutes, I told myself. She made you wait almost twenty five minutes. At least wait for the same amount of time. You’re a busy man.

Well, maybe just half that time, I told myself, but no less than half.

I poured myself another cup of coffee in the meantime, making sure to take my time adding the milk and sugar. I walked around my apartment a few times, trying to get rid of the excess energy. After what seemed like 15 minutes I finally lifted up my phone only to discover that it’s been barely five. It’s the intention, I reassured myself as my finger pressed the message button to read, it’s the intention that counts.

Yeah, it’s the right number. Sorry it took forever to respond. My sister is visiting.

She has a sister! I have sister! In fact I have several! That should count for something. I smiled when I realized that we had something in common, though her reply was a little more informal than I had expected. I was thinking of an appropriate response when the phone vibrated again.

This is THE Jung Jin Lee, right? JJ Kim, the famous baseball player’s manager? You have a dimple on your left cheek?

The way she phrased her questions made me narrow my brows. She didn’t seem like someone who was impressed with Joon’s status when she took care of him, or mine. She didn’t even appear to be taking much notice of me that morning so I was confused that she even realized I had a dimple. Maybe it was all a front. Maybe she had been interested and just couldn’t show it. Feeling suddenly buoyed by her friendliness, I decided to forge ahead with what I wanted to know.

Can I have your address? I wanted to send you something.

Within seconds I got my response and I grinned. That’s more like it.

I can’t give you my address so quickly! What if you’re a stalker? However… just for future reference, in case you wanted to know… I love white flowers. Eskimo roses, small world dahlias, calla lillies. You can win me over with white flowers.

A little surprised at her willingness to reveal information but grateful nonetheless, I sent another text.

Thanks for the heads up. Any more tips?

It took another couple of minutes to get a response to that particular question.

Why? Are you trying to court me?

I thought about her question for a few beats, a little embarrassed for her at her use of the antiquated word, before I sent a response.

Maybe.

Convinced that she might send a more distant response to my last text, if she was even to respond at all, I was about to put my phone down when one more message came through.

Think about it some more and text me back tomorrow at the same time! TTYT!

Her final text baffled me even more, seeing as my first impression of her was that she was quite a serious sort of woman, and certainly not the type to use abbreviations like my mother. TTYT? Ah, I thought… Talk to you tomorrow. Maybe that’s the in thing to do now… it is what younger people do, after all. And she IS American.

Still it didn’t diminish the fact that that went a lot easier than I thought it was going to. It turned out that Gia on the phone was a lot warmer than Gia in real life. She gets full marks for professionalism though. I would never have guessed that she would be so receptive. My mood suddenly lifted, I decided to take a shower and go to the gym, but not before I went to the florists and started researching white flowers.

*****

San Francisco, California

August 24, 2001

5:40 p.m.

Gia

By the time I went downstairs with my shoes in my hands, my sister was lying back down on the couch, still typing buttons on my phone. She’d only been gone for a day… what in the world could she and Matt still have to talk about? I cleared my throat and she pressed another button on my phone before shutting it and handing it over sheepishly.

“Who were you texting?” I asked.

“Matt. He had a question. He wanted to know where I put his shaving supplies when I last cleaned.”

“Is he going out or something?” I asked as I checked my purse for my wallet and put a sheen of gloss on my lips.

“No,” she answered as I saw her stand up from the corner of my eyes. “Why would you think that?”

“Who shaves at almost 9 o’clock at night?” I lifted my eyes to hers and she quickly looked away.

“He likes to shave the night before work.”

“It’s Friday,” I said, slipping my feet into my closed toe wedges. “Does he have to work Saturdays now, too?

“Why are you grilling me?” She asked with a frown.

“Why are you so defensive?”

“Anyway,” she said. “I think you should give Jung Jin a chance, but I think he should court you. Like they did in the old days.”

“You’ve been reading too many romance novels. We are in the 21st century. No one courts anyone anymore.”

“That’s the problem nowadays,” she said, her voice comically serious. “But don’t change the topic. I like him! I think he’s nice!”

“You also like celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins. Blech,” I said, making a face. “And you’ve only seen his pictures. You like his face. You don’t know him. You can’t always judge a book by its cover.”

“Neither can you,” she quipped back.

“Duly noted,” I relented, not wanting to argue any more about such a ludicrous subject. “Did you erase the message?”

“When have I ever not done something you told me to do?” She asked. “You’re so bossy.”

I shook my head at the familiar complaint. “Are you ready?”

She nodded and walked towards me then. Dressed in a blue floral dress with a yellow cardigan and black tights and flats, she left her shoulder length pin straight black hair down, her fringe pulled back with two bobby pins. I myself, relishing the idea of having a meal with another person, had dressed up in a sleeveless playsuit with its v-neck neckline made up of two pieces of fabric crisscrossed over each other, leaving just a little bit of skin exposed. I wore this with a burgundy blazer over it and black matte tights on as well. I kept my hair up in a sleek ponytail and I had barely any makeup on except for a lip tint in a dark shade of red. Silver hoops graced my ears and I carried a black studded tote on my lower arm. My sister whistled when she saw me and I gave her an embarrassed smile.

“Who are you trying to impress?” She asked cheekily, running a finger down my blazer. “Velvet?”

“Leather, believe it or not,” I answered. “I paid the equivalent of a paycheck for this.”

“I can see why. You should dress up more often. You look great,” she commented. “I wish I had your eyes.”

I pinched the tip of her nose before I put an arm around her shoulders, urging her out the door. “I love your brown eyes,” I said to her with a smile. “You are beautiful just the way you are.”

My sister impulsively gave me an embrace and I grabbed her hand and twirled her around as we stepped out of Junnie’s loft, just like I used to do when she was a little girl. As I listened to her laugh as she circled round and round, I thought to myself that I may have been unlucky in love, but I had plenty of luck in other types of love, the best other types of love. I was grateful for that, along with the other blessings in my life. Other people had even less and they managed to be happy.

If this is all I will ever have, I’m okay with it. I can definitely live with this.

*****

PAUL Bakery

Seoul, Korea

August 28, 2001

9:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

I sat by the windows at my favorite bakery enjoying a cup of coffee while I waited for Joon. I’m actually surprised that he called so soon after I last saw him, and that he wanted to meet up outside. I hope Na Jeong had knocked some sense into him because Joon defeated is just not something I will ever, nor would I ever, want to get used to.

I’ve been sending texts to Gia for the last three days, always anywhere between 8 and 9 in the morning, and she’s proven herself to not be stiff at all. She was extremely cordial on the phone, albeit via text messages, and surprisingly candid about her likes and dislikes. If I didn’t know better I would think that she was setting me up to succeed.

Over texts she seemed outgoing and happy go lucky, a far cry from the woman I first met. That she had been so open about her life has taken me aback, and in some ways I was a little disappointed as well. I thought she was mysterious… it turned out she wasn’t that at all. She was actually a little simpler than I first thought, definitely more in line with most of the women I’ve dealt with.

Still… I would like to see her again, at least to investigate further if the attraction I felt when I first saw her was just a direct result of the situation we had been in, or whether it was more. Thinking that she might actually say yes if I were to ask her the question I’ve wanted to ask since I met her, I decided to bite the bullet and just ask.

Typing quickly, I sent the following message:

Do you want to go out with me the next time I’m in San Francisco? I’m coming back in September.

Her response surprised me, especially since she’s been so attentive the last few days.

No. You look like a player. And I don’t go out with players.

Now she’s just playing hard to get… I put my phone down and glared at it, not even realizing that Joon had already arrived.

I felt a hand on my back and I turned around, standing up with a smile automatically coming over my face as I studied him up and down. Dressed in a suit, he looked more like himself than he had in the last month and a half. He offered a hand and I shook it heartily before we both sat down.

The server came just a few minutes later and dropped off our menus. I knew what I wanted to order… I’ve been here many times before and I always ordered the same thing. I waited until the server had disappeared into the kitchen before I spoke.

“Joon-ah, you’re looking better,” I said as I took a sip of my coffee

“I feel better,” he replied

“You still having the nightmares?” I asked, aware that he’s been plagued by nightmares the last month that he’d been home.

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

I watched as he looked out the front window as he spoke and my phone vibrated to see a message from my Hyung asking me to call him tonight. I pushed my phone to one side as I turned my attention back to Joon and smiled.

“And Na Jeong?” I asked, remembering that she didn’t sound well the last time I spoke to her. “How is she dealing with all this? ”

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

I chuckled at his inane question. Sometimes I still have to remind myself that Joon is inexperienced when it comes to relationships. He’s loved Na Jeong for so long I forget that he’s never been with anyone else.

“I always knew that she was a tough cookie,” I said. And I did… Na Jeong was one of the strongest women of my acquaintance. No one else could have borne the difficulty of a long distance relationship as well as she had. “I was worried the last time I saw you but I knew you guys were going to be okay. Na Jeong wouldn’t let you go at it alone… That’s just the type of woman she is.”

Joon looked up as the server came with a basket of bread and our plates. We were eating companionably for a few minutes until I heard him clear his throat.

“Hyung,” I heard him say and lifted my eyes to his. “I have an appointment this afternoon with an anesthesiologist. ”

“Have you decided on getting surgery then?” I asked as I took a bite of my omelette then dabbed my mouth with the napkin.

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

Though I’ve never heard of this type of treatment before, I trust that Joon and Na Jeong have done their research. Plus Joon’s cousin is a medical resident. Just the fact that Joon is even telling me about it tells me that he’s already made up his mind. And once Kim Jae Joon has made up his mind there was no undoing it. He had been the same with Na Jeong.

“Keep me abreast, hmm?” I requested and looked down at my phone, curious if Gia had sent any more messages and pleased when I saw that she had.

I wasn’t too harsh, was I?

“Hyung… Are you expecting an important call or something?” Joon asked before I could pick up the phone and type up a response. “You haven’t stopped looking at your phone since I got here.”

I felt a blush warm cover my face for only the second time in the last five years and looked away. “Joon-ah… I met someone.”

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

Well… That wasn’t exactly true. It was just something I liked to tell Joon to remind him, in case he forgot, that I had made him my main priority all these years.

“Ahh… When we were back in San Francisco, I stopped at the hospital and saw your nurse. You know, to thank her for taking care of you. It’s the polite thing to do. I am polite.”

“Polite, my ass,” Joon huffed. “Don’t think I did not notice it. You were checking her out even as I sat in the hospital about to lose my future.”

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

“Hyung, I was just teasing…” He relented with a grin my way. “I’m happy for you, she seemed nice.”

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

“Hyung… You are a player,” he said, no judgment in his voice as he took a sip of water. “You were always a love ’em and leave ’em kind of guy.”

“That was true years ago but I’m getting older,” I said, though I wasn’t really convinced that that was true.

That I even said it made me feel self conscious that if Joon knew my history with women he might not like me much either and my expression sobered up. He stopped laughing suddenly before he spoke.

“Cheer up, Hyung,” he said encouragingly. “It’s only been a few months. She can’t possibly be tougher than Na Jeong. It took me six years to win her over.”

“I’ll persist…” I said determinedly, meaning it this time. “I’m going to wear her down.”

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

I nodded as I finished the last of my eggs and Joon did the same to his. I could feel his eyes on me as i typed a message back to my Hyung, promising to call him after he got out of work, noting the time on my phone and realizing that I probably won’t hear from Gia again until tomorrow at this time. It’s so weird. Why does she insist on the same time everyday?

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

I was touched by his words, never ever having seen Joon go through anything like this before, never ever having heard him say these things before either. He and I… we had a silent understanding of our relationship. And we both knew that we had long stopped being just manager and client half a decade ago.

“I thought that went without saying,” I began. “But Joon-ah… Seriously, seeing you grow up not only as a baseball player, but as a person too, was a joy to watch. No matter what happens with baseball, you will be successful. I mean that.” Suddenly remembering what I brought with me, I reached under the table for the paper bag I brought. “I almost forgot… The rest of your stuff is at my place. But I thought you would want these.”

He opened the bag and lifted a black and orange kid’s jersey, no doubt for Na Jeong’s baby brother, and checked the bottom of the box, where his ring was. It’s a good thing I had one of my friends from uni pack up his stuff… Someone that I trusted, and I thank the stars that I had the foresight to insist on discretion. The box full of Joon’s valuables came yesterday via FedEx and I picked out what I thought he would deem most important.

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

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

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

I sincerely doubted that Gia would react well to anyone referring to her as his woman, but Joon released a chuckle at my response before speaking again. “Hyung… I returned the money you sent back to your account this morning. I appreciate the gesture but you earned that. Don’t even try to resend it… Because I will just return it back to you.” He slipped some cash into the check holder and said no more.

Though I didn’t say anything either, I know that he knew that my “quitting” had just been a ploy and a declaration that I was going to be there for him no matter what. I have no immediate intention of giving Joon up as a client, wanting to give him as much time as he needed to recover and rehabilitate without any pressure from me. I have plenty of money saved up and my apartment had been bought outright a few years ago, so I can afford not having an income for a while.

“I have to go,” Joon suddenly said. “Call me when you get back from San Francisco and we’ll hang out. I think it’ll be nice spending time with you without you bossing me around, don’t you think? We’ll both be men of leisure after all.”

“Yeah, I’d like that,” I replied as I stood up. “You didn’t have to pay for breakfast.”

“Hyung, I know. It’s the least I can do.” We shook hands and in a rare fit of affection, I put an arm around his shoulder.

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

“I will.”

I sat back down and watched as Joon exited the cafe, his face to the sun and I smiled. I felt proud that I have been and continue to be a part of his struggle and his journey. He’s a good guy and he deserved everything good that came his way.

Maybe one day I will be just as worthy, but I doubted it. The last few years had only convinced me that I may never ever be worthy. That doesn’t mean I still won’t go after what I want, just that the prize may end up being something that someone better deserved. I felt no guilt about that or remorse. It’s a dog eat dog world, the survival of the fittest. I’m determined to win everything in life and nothing will ever stop me.

*****

The City Club of San Francisco

San Francisco, California

September 29, 2001

8:00 p.m.

Gia

This, I thought as servers in white tuxedo jackets came around with more champagne and trayed canapés, is why I always try to go to every wedding I’m invited to. For someone like me who doesn’t cook, wedding receptions and cocktail hours is like heaven. I helped myself to a flute filled halfway with champagne and a strawberry wedge, then to the trays with the stuffed cremini mushrooms and caprese skewers.

I and a few of my co-workers were in a room at The City Club, one of the most glamorous wedding venues in San Francisco. All of them came with their boyfriends or husbands, except for me. I would be bothered but for the fact that I could have chosen to take someone as my date but I chose not to. A wedding is hardly the best place to take a first date, what with about one hundred spectators and the neverending supply of free alcohol.

I patted my back for my foresight in deciding against the fitted navy dress that I had first picked out for this occasion, choosing instead on an emerald green Prouenza Schuler number with black grosgrain ribbon on the shoulder straps and waist. It was almost two years old but still a classic, another impulse buy. It had a crossbody neckline and a crisscrossed back, the skirt falling just a bit over my knees in a pleated accordion style, giving me plenty of space so I can eat as much as I wanted. My legs were covered in black tights and my feet in my round toe Christian Louboutin pumps, almost four years old. I had my maroon Burberry hooded trench over my arm and carried a Judith Lieber clutch, both three years old.

It is with a bit of mortification that I realized as I chewed on crunchy shrimp toast that I had fully realized my philosophy. I always believed that my wealth should always be right where I can see it, and right now all of my life’s earnings were held in suitcases and boxes in Junnie’s bedroom. I earned a good living, though my bank account would disagree. I have invested most of it on clothes, shoes and accessories. I believed fully in self-gratification, and shopping is something that I found enjoyable, as well as owning a wardrobe full of beautiful things. Beautiful things, I realized with even more embarrassment, that I never ever get the chance to wear. The last time I even had a chance to dress up was New Year’s Eve almost three years ago, when Junnie had guilted me into going out by declaring since two days prior that she had flown to San Francisco to mend her broken heart and she didn’t want to stay home.

Picking up another glass of champagne, I made my way to a table that had an ice sculpture of two doves and plates of seafood. There was a mountain of shrimp cocktail and fresh oysters, as well as crabcakes and ceviche. My mouth watered as I picked up a small plate and heaped it full of the offerings and almost got a heart attack when I heard someone’s voice next to me.

“You certainly eat a lot for such a small person,” the voice teasingly said and I turned to where it came from to see Marc Stevens grinning at me. “There’s still dinner, you know.”

I chuckled as I looked at him, decked out in a suit and tie, his hair slicked back. I watched as he also helped himself to a plate and then filled it with food before leading me by the elbow towards one of the stand up tables that littered the space.

“You’re late,” I chided him. “You missed the ceremony.”

“I’m a surgeon. I didn’t think I was going to make it at all,” he responded, nonchalant. “Besides, I’m just here for the free food.”

“Ah..” I carefully peeled the shrimp before popping it in my mouth, conscious that he was watching me. “Weddings not your thing?”

He carefully squeezed a lemon over an oyster shell and spooned a dab of cocktail sauce over it before taking the whole thing in his mouth. He took a long swallow of champagne before he responded. “I love weddings.”

“That’s rare for a man to admit to.”

“i’m a rare sort of man.”

And he is. I can fully admit that. But… I put too much importance on fireworks and butterflies, and he gave me neither.

“What?” he suddenly asked. “Do I have something on my face? You’re looking at me like you’ve never seen me before.”

I shook my head no and continued eating. I could feel his eyes on me as I dug into a crabcake and finished off my glass. I had eaten nothing all day, choosing to sleep instead after working yesterday, and preparing for the wedding. A lock of hair fell onto my forehead from the loose bun that I had tied behind my neck before I saw him wipe his hands on a wet serviette provided for the guests and lift his hand towards my head.

I lifted my eyes in question only to see him watching me intently, eyes fixed on my lips. I know that look. I had not been so far removed from the ways of dating that I don’t recognize the way a man looks at a woman when he’s thinking about kissing her.

I waited for the slow unfurling of warmth, for the sudden racing of heartbeat, but though I was curious, I felt neither. What I felt instead was fondness and gratitude… that such a man was my friend, and that he treated me with such appreciation and respect. It’s been too long since I had anyone look at me in that combination of awe and interest. A faced flashed in my consciousness and I quickly pushed it away. That man didn’t look at me with interest or awe… he looked at me like I was a challenge to be conquered. Like he was a hunter and I, an oblivious prey. I felt a frown come over my face and shifted my focus back on my plate.

“Is the crabcake bad?” Marc asked me. At my questioning look, he added, “You look like you ate something bad just now.”

“No,” I said. “The crabcake is delicious. I was just thinking about something…” Someone. “…unpleasant.”

He looked like he was going to ask me something else when one of the staff members came into the room and asked the guests to move to the main ballroom. I watched as Marc took both our plates and gave it to the waiter milling around. He took my elbow and guided me to the table holding guest names and their assigned seats, smiling at me when he discovered that we were sitting at the same table.

I let him escort me into the softly lit ballroom with its high ceilings and art deco touches. Framed floor to ceiling windows graced opposite walls of the space, affording the guests the perfect view of the Financial District on one side and Mission Bay on the other.There was a parquet floor in the middle, directly behind my seat. Each table had a long cylindrical glass vase, filled with wooden branches dotted with orange orchids and crystals scattered around it, along with votive candles.

It’s a good thing that I only live a mile and a half away from here, I thought as the world started spinning slightly and I felt a strong hand on the bottom of my spine. Marc deposited me onto a chair before he said that he will be right back and I tried to remember just how much champagne I’ve already drunk. My co-workers soon joined me at the table with their significant others, all of them chattering away. I was tempted to close my eyes for just a few minutes to get my bearings when I heard the voice of the host for the reception asking all the guests to stand up to welcome the bride and groom.

Reluctantly I stood up, one of my hands flat on the table and fixed a smile on my face as Jeremiah and his bride entered the ballroom hand in hand and walked directly to the center of the dance floor. We all stayed standing as the band at the front of the reception hall began playing the wedding song for the newly married couple. I recognized the opening strains of their wedding song came on, the female vocalist taking the microphone.

The smile stayed on my face as I watched Jeremiah turn his bride around to face him, his hand on her waist, her head lifting to beam at him. He ran a tender hand down her long red hair, his forehead coming to rest against hers. The guests remained silent, watching the couple raptly.

I’ve dreamed of you, always feeling you were there,

And all my life, I have searched for you everywhere…

I caught your name in the morning sun,

I heard your whisper in the breeze at night…

I prayed one day that your arms would hold me tight.

The singer’s voice was heartfelt and clear, echoing against the walls beautifully. Jeremiah and his new wife continued to sway slowly, hands tightly intertwined, even as I saw some guests dab at their eyes.

And just when I thought love had passed me by, we met…

That first look in your eyes I can’t forget.

You melted me with your tender touch…

I felt all fear and sorrow slip away,

Now here we stand hand in hand, this blessed day.

I promise you as I give to you my heart

That nothing, nothing in this world shall keep us apart…

Come happily ever after be the man I’ll love until the very end,

I’ve dreamed of you my great love and my best friend.

The chandelier over them glowed brightly, its rays bouncing back on the crystals on the table, making the whole room look surreal and romantic. They were both so intent on each other it was as if none of us existed, like it was just the two of them. And in some ways, it was.

Their journey in life started now, along with its joys and sorrows. And though I had long promised never to enter into such a promise myself, my traitorous heart still continued to yearn for a love like that, a love that still made promises even without any guarantees for a happy ending.

For God must know how I love you so

He’s blessed us here today as man and wife…

Come dream with me as I’ve dreamed of you all my life…

Come dream with me as I have dreamed of you all my life.

I watched as they smiled at each other, mouthing the last two lines. Come dream with me, as I’ve dreamed of you all my life. The line was an invitation and a request, encompassing both past and the future, acknowledging the kind of life one had lived before meeting the other, wishing that from that day forward, their match would share in all of their hopes for the future.

I get it, I thought as I tried to valiantly keep the smile on my face, those were my favorite lines too.

That line was what sealed that song for me too, when I had been planning my own wedding, a lifetime ago. The memory of that time was so vivid, as was the pain, and before I had the chance to hold it back, I was transported to that day when my life was irreparably changed again.

“I met someone last night. We slept together.”

I held the phone tightly, not quite believing my ears. I had spent yesterday at a bridal shop with my bridesmaids for the alteration fitting of their dresses, dropping off non refundable deposits at the DJ’s, the florists, the caterers and the venue. I didn’t hear from him all day, and convinced that the stress of wedding planning had gotten to him, I thought against calling, wanting to give him a bit of space to breathe and unwind.

I pulled my car over to the highway’s shoulder, even as I noted the time and realized that I would be late to work.

“Who was it?” I asked, my voice pitifully small. My hands were shaking so badly I held the phone with both of them to keep the phone from dropping.

“Does it matter? I cheated on you and that’s what you want to know? Not why?”

I didn’t need to know why. Not then anyway. All I could think about was how I would explain to my supervisor why I was late to work, if I would be able to drive. The invitations had already been sent. Our wedding was less than two months away, and he just told me he cheated on me with someone that he had met in one night.

“Do you still love me?”

I can fix this, I had thought. If he still loved me I could forgive him and we will be alright. I can fix this. I will fix this. Isn’t love all about loving someone through the good and the bad? Isn’t it about understanding that no one was perfect and that people made mistakes? If he still loved me we could overcome this.

“I don’t know.”

“Did you ever love me?”

“I… don’t know that, either. I think I need to be alone. I just need some time. To think.”

That answer is okay, I had thought to myself even as my heart broke inside my chest, you know he’s like this. Indecisive and somewhat banal, Chris was someone who danced around asking me out for about a year before he did. It took him two years to decide if he believed in marriage and another six months to propose. He always took forever deciding what to order when we went out to eat and always left the big decisions to me.

I had reassured myself with this, fully prepared to stick by his side once he had expressed his remorse. Which, I had been positive, he would in time. Except he never did. He never said he was sorry, nor did he ask to be forgiven.That he had reacted in such an uncharacteristically thoughtless way had surprised me and made me question if I had known the man I loved for three years at all. I was convinced I did, had thought that if anyone knew him, it was me… and yet, I never could have foreseen that I, the woman he once promised he would love and protect for life, would become a forgotten afterthought so quickly, made into a mere insignificant part of the landscape of his past. And the man who could never make decisions, the man who claimed he needed to be alone, the man I thought I knew… married the woman he cheated on me with not even six months later.

As the wedding song faded and the other guests sat down as the servers came back with even more champagne, I was frozen in place. My past lived inside me like something that was alive and breathing. Its hold on me had not loosened over the years. It was as real to me now as my present.

Palpable. Tangible. Perceptible. I am a prisoner of my memories and my sins… And for the first time in a long time I acknowledged that I was still alone.

I always know this fact, of course, always reminded of it whenever I am around people who are happy. This fact was as apparent to me as the color of my eyes or the shape of my mouth. I always thought that being alone and being lonely were two separate forms of being, that the two were not mutually exclusive of each other. But right now, surrounded by love and people in love, I knew that I was not only alone, but that I was lonely too. I can’t ever remember in the recent years feeling as lonely as I did at this moment. It just reiterated to me that I needed to move on and move forward, that I needed to make some changes in my life.

Butterflies and fireworks have proven to be nothing more than an illusion of love, a clever disguise, meant to distract a person from focusing on the stuff that really mattered, like security and stability.

For once I would like to be the one who loved less.

For once I would like to be with someone I could trust wholeheartedly and without hesitation, someone who accepted me unconditionally. Excitement and attraction are overrated. I learned this lesson a long time ago. I didn’t need a repeat in education.

“Are you okay?” I heard a voice ask and I turned a dazed look to where it came from, seeing Marc looking at me in concern.

Him, it dawned on me suddenly. I should date a man like him.

Marc Stevens is the type of guy that I should date. He’s a talented surgeon, funny, ridiculously intelligent, and extremely kind. He’s stable and secure and he didn’t make me feel like a crazy person. I could moderate myself with him. I wouldn’t suffer extremes in emotion with him. I can be someone respected and articulate, nowhere like the lovesick fool I had been in the past. Yes, I should date him.

Impulsively I grabbed his wrist and despite the curious way he looked at me, he followed me out to the venue’s lobby. I hadn’t even had a chance to put my coat or my clutch down what with having had to stand up for the first dance as soon as I had reached my seat.

“Marc,” I started, as his eyes widened in surprise at my use of his first name. Somehow, I thought, saying Dr.Stevens at a time like this just didn’t seem fitting. Besides, if I’m going to date the man, I should probably start calling him by his name. Ask him. Just. Ask. Him. “This is going to come from out of the ballpark, but do you…”

“Marc, darling!” I heard a female voice call out behind me and I watched as a gorgeous tall blonde woman walk over to his side, planting a kiss on his cheek. “I’ve been looking for you. I was stuck at work until about half an hour ago. I just had enough time to change and take a cab here.” As if noticing for the first time the he wasn’t alone, she turned to me with a polite smile. “Oh, hello.”

“Hi,” I mumbled back.

Dumbass. Of course he came with a date. Who else comes to a wedding without a date but you? Though I felt no real disappointment, I still flushed in embarrassment. This is what I get for doing things impulsively.

Crash… and burn. I knew there was a reason why I was meticulous with planning things before actually doing it. Being spontaneous had never ever been my strong point and I was crazy to think that had changed.

“What were you saying?” Marc asked asked and his date looped a possessive arm around one of his. A tense silence grew between the three of us and shook myself mentally.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, trying to make my voice sound even. “It doesn’t matter.” I turned to his date with a cordial smile. “It was nice to meet you. Enjoy the reception.”

I walked away from both of them and straight to the open bar. I felt somewhat unglued, my head all over the place, and I didn’t want to be here anymore. Must be all that champagne, I thought. I had drunk more than I’d eaten. That’s why I felt this way. Just like I always went to weddings for the free food, being surrounded by lovey dovey things had always been what detracted me, as well. There was no greater reminder of one’s aloneness than being around people who all had someone.

I was about to order a margarita, seeing no harm since I was already half intoxicated anyway, when the bartender left to go to the kitchen for more ice. I tapped my fingers on the counter for several seconds, the bottles of champagne casually left on the side calling my name. Before I knew it I had swiped a full bottle and placed it under the coat that was resting on my arm. It seems that this momentary lapse in judgement or the alcohol didn’t dull my conscience enough because even as I walked away I fought the feeling of guilt so strong I had to go back quickly and deposit a fifty dollar bill behind the bar just to ease my mind.

I walked off the lobby and straight out onto Sansome Street, where there were young people walking around, quite a familiar scene on a Friday night in San Francisco, even more so tonight as it’s clear and beautiful. I began walking towards Bush Street, filled with its sky rise buildings on both sides of the street, where I thought for sure I would be able to hail a cab. I quickly shrugged back into my coat, before remembering to hide the bottle of champagne inside. After several unsuccessful attempts at getting a cab to stop, I started trudging my way back to Junnie’s loft, my feet familiar with the route.

As soon as I was out of the crowded areas and I had turned into one of the smaller side streets where there were no tourists or people, I took the bottle of champagne out and tore off the wrapper around its rim, twisting the metal loop at the top to loosen the metal cage around the cork. I started rotating the cork on the rim, gently at first, trying to get it to move up to the top so that I can get to the good stuff, then when that didn’t work I started doing it more vigorously. All the while trying to make my way home. There was no grace to what I was doing, or the way I was doing it. In fact, if I wasn’t already me, I would be embarrassed for myself.

I thought I had enough time to prepare myself for the cork coming out when I pressed my thumb against it. I thought I had directed the bottle away from me. I was wrong, I realized as the cork flew out of the bottle and hit me on the forehead, splashing champagne all over my coat. Of course. What a fitting ending to such a night.

I stopped where I stood and took a big gulp of champagne, realizing that I was already on Tehama Street, with its apartments and its houses. Three more turns and I will be home. Three more. I walked down the street, champagne bottle in my hand, my head already beginning to pound. Champagne and I are not usually friends, but it had been the only thing available and it was right there. Also, I paid for it. Margaritas didn’t come in bottles, unfortunately.

I was walking and drinking as I was turning to 3rd Street, then as I made a right onto Bryant. I was lucid except for the fact that my high heels were preventing me from walking in a straight line, so I decided to take them off. It’s okay, I thought, I have tights on. It’s okay. I kept my eyebrows narrowed, fully focused on the path I was walking. A handful of people passed me by on the street and started talking under their breaths, like they knew how long I’ve been single and judging me. I glared at them and they quickly averted their eyes, walking away from me even more quickly. So I’ve been single for years… who are they to judge me? So I haven’t kissed anyone in three years… how can that be used against me?

It’s been so long since I had been on a date that I don’t even think I remember how it went anymore. It’s been so long since I had been kissed that I think I’d already forgotten how to do it. It’s been so long since I had slept with someone that I’m convinced in my present state that I had regained my virginity.

Though I felt extremely aggrieved by these things, the tears did not come, as they would have done nine years ago. I just want to have a good cry, an emotional catharsis. I wanted to purge myself of all these feelings, really believed that if I could just do that, I would feel a whole lot better. But even my eyes… PART OF MY OWN BODY!… won’t cooperate with me. I sniffled at the unfairness of my life. What had I ever done… that I can’t even cry when I want to?

I finally reached Ritch Street, and with one hand holding my shoes and the other grasping the champagne bottle like it was my lifeline, I walked towards Junnie’s loft, my head heavy, feeling like it’s swaying from side to side, my clutch under one arm. I blinked hard a few times and took a couple more swigs of the champagne, grateful that there was still some left. I pulled out the key from my clutch and managed to open the door after the fifth attempt. This one little thing made me so happy that I wanted to celebrate, but there was no one to celebrate with. I took another gulp of champagne as I sat down on the couch, noting now that the bottom of my tights now had holes. I set my shoes on the couch with me as well as my coat, wanting to keep both close to me, like I did the bottle of champagne, which I now held close to my chest.

I sat there in the dark, for God knows how long, drinking what’s left of the bottle, with my shoes and my coat, trying to make myself cry. Nothing was working. It’s official. My life sucked.

I pulled my phone out of my clutch, determined to get to the bottom of this, wanting to someone to listen to me, someone to tell me that I wasn’t crazy. Junnie. My best friend. Where the hell is she when I needed her?

I tried to access my phone logs to look for her number, but I couldn’t remember my password. I can almost hear her lecturing me about programming my speed dial buttons, which, four years after I had changed my phone, I still hadn’t done. My eyes felt so heavy that I could barely keep them open, and the only light in the room was the one coming from the screen on my phone and its buttons. Opening one eye, I started typing J-U-N, not even bothering to finish her name. I didn’t need to… Doing this always went straight to her phone. I pressed the call button and held my breath, then released it when she finally picked up.

“Hello??? HELLO??? It’s me,” I said slowly. “You’re at work, right? I think I remember you said you had to work this weekend. That’s why you’re not saying anything, right? That’s okay… THAT’S OKAY! You can just listen to me. Don’t interrupt, okay?”

My bestie was so wonderful that she took just what I asked her to do to heart and said nothing, though I could hear voices speaking in a foreign language behind her. She’s definitely in a meeting, or at the very least, in her office. She’s always this quiet when I call in the middle of a meeting, but I knew that she was listening so I went ahead and spoke.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I was touched or kissed? DO YOU??? Three years! Do you know how long it’s been since I last had sex?” Just thinking about this was making me agitated and miserable, and my voice got louder until I was yelling into the phone. “FIVE FUCKING YEARS… MAYBE EVEN LONGER!!!”

*****

Seoul, Korea

September 30, 2001

12:30 p.m.

Jung Jin

After calling my Hyung the day I met up with Joon for breakfast before his treatments began, I realized that there was no way that I would be able to get out of going home for Chuseok this year. Hyung had tried to guilt me first, dropping lines like his children missed me, our parents haven’t seen me in soooo long. And when that didn’t work, he threatened to tell Omma and our sisters about my less than savory personal life and I had to give in. My Omma and my sisters will kill me if they knew, which is why I made sure all these years that with the exception of Hye Soo, I never dated women who the women in my life knew. I knew better than to shit where I ate.

And so here I am, on the day of Chuseok, sitting with the other men in my family watching television while the women cooked food. And why I had spent all day yesterday with the same men digging up weeds and cleaning our ancestors’ burial mounds. Everyone was here, even Ji Hyun Noona, my oldest sister, who lived in Taiwan with her husband and their three girls. Well, almost. My second oldest Noona will be coming later on, having married an eldest son and therefore had to perform the family rituals at his parents’ house, along with their children, another niece and a nephew. With both my third Noona and dongsaeng unmarried, they were both in the kitchen helping with the rest of the cooking.

Most of the food had been prepared yesterday, the ancestral offering the first on our list this morning. Several of our relatives had already come and gone, and though my Appa was dozing off on the couch, as was my Hyung, I was wide awake, unable to nap.

I had a nephew climbing on my back and one on my lap, and a third, still a baby, in my arms. The television was on and I was pondering why I had not received any messages from Gia since over three weeks ago. She had contacted me the sixth night since she began doing so with a cryptic message.

You might not hear from me for a while. Do not… and I mean DO NOT contact me unless I contact you first. Now that I know you better, here’s my address, but use it only under the direst of circumstances… 234 Ritch Street, San Francisco, California 94107. Don’t stalk me.

I had shaken my head, baffled at her instructions and convinced that I would hear from her again the next day, but I didn’t. Maybe she had gone on a trip… but why would she give me her address then? Maybe she was about to go on a trip. That made sense. She might not have reception where she was. That also made sense.

The baby in my arms had fallen asleep and so did his brothers, one on my father’s lap now and the other on the floor next to me, and I quietly stood up and placed the baby gently on the crib. With so many grandchildren around, it’s a good thing my parents kept a crib in the house for precisely this purpose.

I went to the kitchen to grab something to drink when I felt all the women in my family watching me. I turned around and raised my eyebrows and still no one spoke. I was about to leave them to it, convinced that they had been talking about me when my Omma patted the empty seat next to her and urged me to sit down.

Reluctant but aware that I can deny my mother nothing except another daughter in law and even more grandchildren, I sighed and sat myself down and waited for the inevitable talks of me getting older alone, already practicing my excuses in my head. For a minute I wondered who was going to speak first, placing my bet on Omma, who knew that I would be less likely to lie to her, or my oldest Noona, who knew me well that she was able to discern instantly when I was lying.

“Jin-ah…” Ji Hyun Noona started and I took a sip of coffee. “Do you remember Soo Jin? My friend from high school? She has a niece, a year younger than you, who just got her master’s in art from Korea National University. She was hired as the new curator at Leeum Museum of Art in Yongsan-gu directly after finishing her internship at MOMA in New York City. I believe she was headhunted before she even graduated.”

“Wow,” my Omma praised and the rest of my sisters, as well as my sister in law, nodded in approval. “That’s amazing!”

I attempted to look nonchalant, trying to figure out a way around this. Not having strategized earlier though I knew I should have, I was at a loss for words.

“And…” My oldest sister continued, pulling a picture out a little too quickly from her purse, as she put it on the center of the table with a flourish so exaggerated as to be spontaneous. “… she’s a beauty! Perfect wife material! Perfect mother material! She can play the gayaggeum, too!” Her voice lowered and she coyly looked away. “My friend wants to set you two up. I think it’s a great idea.”

My mother darted a glance at me while looking at the picture, which I haven’t even seen yet. “Yes,” she said. “She looks like she would suit you well. Look how big her eyes are!” She pushed the picture my way and I saw a glimpse of a pretty woman with shoulder length black hair and wide set eyes, a tall nose and plump lips. I could pinpoint at least two spots on her face that was made perfect by surgical means. Her teeth were a little too straight, her pose a little too practiced.

“Not interested,” I said, pushing the picture away.

“You’ve been single for years!” Ji Soo, my dongsaeng said, frowning at me. “You need to start dating again. That bitch had her claws on you too long.”

“Ji Soo-yah!” Our Omma scolded in mock surprise at her use of such a word, though not very convincingly. We all knew there had been no love lost between my family and my ex, and that my mother feigned irritation when she really thought as much as well.

“I am dating. In fact…” I paused, trying to think of an acceptable reason why I would refuse to be set up and finding none, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “… I have a girlfriend.”

I watched as all the women at the table shared incredulous looks, my Omma and dongsaeng’s mouths opening in amazement.

“What?” Omma asked. “I don’t think I heard you right.”

I helped myself to one of the moon cakes on the table, popping it in my mouth before I responded. “I have a girlfriend.”

My third Noona frowned at me. “How long have you been with this girlfriend and why didn’t you tell any of us?”

“Because you’re all nosy,” I answered quickly then tried to stand up before my sister in law pulled me back down.

Just then my oldest brother walked into the kitchen to see the women huddled around me. He took one look at all of us, walked to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of juice, before looking at all of us again.

“What’s up?” He asked.

“Jung Jin has a girlfriend.”

“What? Jin-ie doesn’t have girlfriends.”

“That’s what we’re saying!” Our youngest sister exclaimed, nodding. “I think it’s a ploy. Ji Hyun Unnie wanted to set him up with someone and now he’s blatantly lying to us.” She turned accusing eyes my way. “You are definitely at another level, Oppa. Who lies to family about shi… stuff like this?”

I looked up to catch five women glaring at me, all in varying degrees of disbelief and annoyance. “Ah…”

My phone vibrated in my pocket, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I looked down and tried to control the surprise that came over me to see when I saw who was calling. Gia. She’s never called me before. What great timing! I showed my vibrating phone to my family, her name clearly flashing on the screen. “I do too have a girlfriend. Look… she’s calling me right now!”

I casually pressed the call button only to hear her voice come through the line before I could even say hello.

“Hello??? HELLO??? It’s me,” I heard her say slowly, wondering why she’s speaking so loudly. Her voice was as lovely as I remembered, low and smooth, slick like honey. My heart leapt inside my chest even as I fought to keep my face from breaking out into a smug smile. “You’re at work, right? I think I remember you said you had to work this weekend. That’s why you’re not saying anything, right? That’s okay… THAT’S OKAY! You can just listen to me. Don’t interrupt, okay?”

All the women in my family were behind me, all vying for a spot closest to the phone.

“She’s speaking in English!” My oldest Noona said.

“American?” Omma mouthed at me and I nodded distractedly.

They all started speaking amongst themselves, and I only caught bits and pieces of their conversation I was trying so hard to pay attention to what Gia had to say, wondering what was so important that she decided to call me instead of text, and on such an important day as well.

Surrounded by a half dozen voices speaking in two languages was distracting me way too much and I stood up despite my family’s protests and left the kitchen, making my way to my father’s garden where I could be afforded a bit more privacy. Gia had stopped speaking and for one second I thought that she had changed her mind about speaking to me. I had just stepped out into the garden and sat myself down on a bench when I heard her speak again, and never ever had I been more thankful that I had the foresight to actually be somewhere by myself.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I was touched or kissed? DO YOU??? Three years.” THREE YEARS? Wow. Three years. My mind was boggled and even if I had wanted to speak, even if I had been allowed to speak, I wouldn’t have known what to say. “Do you know how long it’s been since I last had sex?” No… I thought. I don’t know. Her voice was rising with agitation, as if just the thought made her angry and i started getting nervous. Why would she call me just to talk about this? It’s not even afternoon here. “FIVE FUCKING YEARS… MAYBE EVEN LONGER!!!” She screamed out the phrase five years as if it was a disease and I held the phone away from my ear. I heard a sniffle and then a hiccup. Had she been drinking? So that means that she didn’t go on a trip? Before I could ask her to slow down and tell me exactly what the matter was she spoke again. “I’m like the forty year old virgin except I’m not forty and I’ve had sex before.”

“It’s like I’m numb most days. I can’t feel happiness or sadness. I can’t even cry!” She continued, and I heard sounds as if she’s walking around. “My tear ducts have dried up! Just like my vag… OWWWW!” I knew what direction her sentence was going, had already started sweating bullets that I was relieved when she hurt yourself, the relief from her not actually saying the word trumping my concern. Someone should give the girl lessons in first conversation etiquette. I know she’s a nurse and talks of body parts is nothing to her, but other people, normal people, aren’t usually given to speaking so casually about these things. “Damn, fuck, shit, fuck…” She started swearing and I literally placed the phone away from my ears. Na Jeong likes to curse but this woman might just take the cake. “I stubbed my toe!” She declared mournfully. “I stubbed my toe and it hurts and I can’t even cry or have sex!”

I fought to contain the chuckle of amusement running through me, even as I only got more confused. What does stubbing her toe have to do with having sex? It didn’t seem like an appropriate time to laugh, though, or ask any questions she sounded so miserable.

“The thing is… It’s not even about the sex. I… I don’t even remember what it’s like to be touched by someone who loved me anymore,” she continued softly. “Like… I think about it, I think about it really hard, and I wonder if I’ve ever really been touched by someone who loved me.” She let out a small burp and I cringed. She’s definitely been drinking.

“Have you ever been so lonely that you think it will eat you up from the inside out? I’m lonely.” Her voice had softened to barely a whisper. “I’m so lonely so often that I think it’s just a part of me now. I don’t even think it’s loneliness that can be fixed. If I did I would have surely kissed someone or slept with someone by now. It’s the kind of loneliness that changes a person, the kind of loneliness that makes people do crazy things… things they wouldn’t normally do.” She paused and I heard her take a glug of something, as if she was drinking straight from a bottle. “Like you… it makes you date all these people without ever giving your heart away. And me… it turned me into a criminal!”

Fully confused now about how she knew about me and my personal life, as well as how she became a criminal, I was trying to find the right words to say without distressing her even more when she spoke again.

“I stole a bottle of champagne today,” she whispered conspirationally. “I couldn’t even do it properly. I ended up paying fifty dollars for it, more than what it was worth. I don’t even like champagne! I even failed at being a petty thief! WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?” I ran a frustrated hand through my hair, fully given up on being able to follow this conversation logically. “I think you’re lonely,” she continued to say. “And I’m lonely. We should just spend our lives together so we don’t have to be lonely anymore. We make each other laugh, we’re great friends. You treat me better than some of my ex boyfriends ever did… Who needs love when you have friendship? Right? RIGHT?” Feeling like she actually was expecting an answer to that question I had just cleared my throat to speak when she interrupted me. “I wish you were here, Joon.” Huh? “I really really miss you Joon-ie.” Her voice was soft, plaintive, petulant.

Who the hell is Joon??? Did she keep in touch with my Joon? I thought darkly before I shook myself. Joon would never do that to me, or Na Jeong. So she must be talking about another Joon? Jesus, how many Joons does this woman know?

Annoyance flared at me then, irritated at the thought that this must be why she hadn’t gotten in touch. She’s been busy with her Joon-ie. I don’t have to listen to this. I was about to tell her that she should really check who she was calling before speaking so candidly about her sex life when I heard a soft snore. Great. First she called me thinking I was her Joon, then she had the audacity to fall asleep without letting me say a word.

“Hey,” I finally said, trying to rouse her back to consciousness. “Hey.”

I heard a soft moan, and then another snore. I stared at my phone in amazement, wondering where the hell this woman came from. How can the same woman whose expression was so guarded be this open to a complete stranger?

She didn’t think you were a stranger, I reminded myself. She thought you were her Joon, which means that she and this person must be so close that 1) he is the first person she calls when she’s emotional, a fact that didn’t make me happy at all, 2) that he would stop whatever he’s doing to listen to her talk about inane things, which also didn’t make me happy, 3) that she feels comfortable enough with him to speak of such matters without hesitation, which definitely did not make me happy, either, 4) she knew him way before even knew I existed, which told me he already had the upper hand, which of course, didn’t make me happy, and 5) their relationship is close enough that she would willingly spend her life with him without being in love with him.

This whole situation just made me unhappy all around, and made me realize that the woman I met may not be as straightforward as she appeared to be. I thought I had figured her out with the casual way she had texted me, but she managed to surprise me again.

I definitely have to go back to San Francisco, I thought.Between my one and only client still in treatment and then needing rehab it will be awhile until he will need me to do anything for him. I need to figure out exactly who this Joon is and who he is to her. I had never been competitive by nature but this… Joon that she spoke so fondly to had just brought out a part of me that I didn’t even know existed.

I know one thing for sure, though… it’s about time that I give this Joon a run for his money. He’s dreaming if he thinks this battle had been won. I haven’t even started. Oh no, I thought as I hung up the phone, I haven’t even begun. He doesn’t get to have first dibs on her because he knew her first. It doesn’t work that way… not in my world. And she might have meant to call him but it doesn’t change the fact that she spoke to me. That’s what matters.

That… is what ultimately counts.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s