San Francisco, California
January 1, 2002
My plan wasn’t working. Dammit. My plan didn’t work.
I had practically insulted him, thrown everything I thought I knew about him and men like him to his face, and yet he was still here. Still here, even closer, standing behind me, his hand, strong and warm, over mine. He was so close I could almost feel his chest behind my back. I stiffened my shoulders and tried to appear nonchalant, praying that he won’t see through the veneer of indifference I’ve adopted.
“You say you’ve known men like me before, that you’ve loved men like me before, but I can assure you, that you had not,” I heard him say softly from behind me, his voice husky, his accent almost unnoticeable. “Because if you had, you would not be spending tonight alone, celebrating the New Year on your own.”
I couldn’t help but close my eyes as I listened to him, wishing he’d keep talking, happy with just that. The loneliness of the last five years reared its ugly head, reminding me of how long it’s been since a man had been this close, since I’ve let a man be this close. For once I didn’t care that everything I had said was true. The realization made me feel raw and exposed, and I swallowed the lump of fear that was in my throat. This was always how it started… I know this all too well.
I turned around swiftly, before I could guard my eyes. I wanted to ask him why he was here, why he was really here, and what he wanted from me. However, I feared that I would be willing to give him just that right now, whatever the consequence may be. The reminder that for every decision there was an effect made me put my back up, and I hardened my gaze. Above me his face was inscrutable, the dark brown irises focused on me entirely.
He clenched his jaw, bringing focus to his high cheekbones, the almond shaped eyes just above them intent. His lips looked impossibly soft. Even from this angle they looked inviting, warm. I was beset with a curiosity that I couldn’t restrain, and try as hard as I can I couldn’t stop thinking about touching them with my fingers.
“You speak in terms of probability and predictability…” He continued. “And yet you fail to recognize that human beings have something on their side.” I sent a questioning look his way, a little surprised that even after the verbal lashing I gave him, that he could still sound so calm, when other men would not be so. “The ability to make a decision that can change everything. The time to be able to figure things out. You put emphasis on this…” I fought the urge to close my eyes as he smoothed the hair over my forehead. “…But not this,” he finished, pointing to where my heart would be before he pulled his hand away.
“The heart is nothing but a muscle,” I said, forcing my voice to stay emotionless. “It’s too fragile to be trusted with such important matters.”
He continued looking at me, his eyes searching for any truth in mine. And yet he didn’t touch me again. I started panicking when it came to me that I had not wanted him to pull away, that I didn’t want to pull myself away… That I wanted to burrow closer to him instead. Closer to his warmth. Closer to the life that was practically pouring out of him.
“What about attraction?” he asked. “You can deny it all you want but I know what I’ve seen, and I know that you felt what I felt. What of that?”
So he did realize… That I had gone to the roof to escape whatever this was. We were both adults, both fairly experienced. Desire was an emotion we had both felt before. Inside my chest my heart was pounding, unused to the sensations that I was feeling after so many years. I tried to slow my breathing down, though my mouth remained dry. I tried to remind myself… That this was just a physical reaction. I told myself it was just the hormones doing its magic on me, and maybe on him, too. I understood all these things on a purely intellectual level, and knew that if I could just get away from him I would be safe. I would be fine.
“Attraction…” I ground out, as if saying it out loud would convince him, and me, too. “…Is nothing but the outpouring of chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol, into the human brain, making the body believe things that are otherwise false. These hormones account for the building of sweat, the racing heartbeat, the drying of mouths. Everything is accounted for, Mr. Lee. Everything.”
His eyes sparked with annoyance at my insistence on calling him Mr. Lee, as I knew it would. Part of me wondered if I was provoking him on purpose, challenging him to break.
“You forgot one thing,” he drawled as he leaned his big body close to me, his pretty mouth a breath away from my ear. “Perhaps the most important thing.”
I narrowed my eyebrows at the amused tone in his voice, wondering what he was planning on doing. Knowing that there was a big probability that he would kiss me. Isn’t that what people did on New Year’s Eve? The ones in love kiss each other, and those who aren’t find someone to be in love with even for just mere moments, mere seconds. Can I, perhaps, have that as well? Just for a short time? I licked my lips in apprehension, undecided about what to do, waiting for him to tell me the one thing I forgot.
“What?” I asked finally, seeing as he wasn’t offering the information freely, a bit mortified that my voice sounded nervous, breathy.
“Instinct,” he said, before he leaned down and pressed his lips to mine.
I tried to curl my hands into fists, to at least offer some form of resistance. It’s what I would have done any other time, and with anyone else, but tonight I was weakened by my own loneliness, and the sensation of being touched for the first time in what seemed like a million years was a pleasure I could not deny myself even if I tried. The hands that were intending to push clasped, instead, held. They rested on his shoulders, even as his hands traveled towards my face.
His lips were soft, as I thought they would be, his hands cupping the back of my head closer, his fingers running through the tresses. He lifted the weight of it off my neck even as his lips opened and he nipped on my lower lip, causing me to sigh. I felt his thumb brush over one of my cheeks, the pad causing a frisson of sensation that I felt all the way down to my toes. His tongue met mine slowly, leisurely, as if it was the first time that he was doing this in his life. I had watched him for a few minutes, surprised that he dared do what no one had done in years. I saw as his eyes fluttered shut, his face lost in the moment, and heard a moan escape his throat. The sound gave me goosebumps and I closed my eyes, even as I felt one of his hands linger on the small of my back, touching me over a shirt that was, all of a sudden, way too thin and still not thin enough.
And then, just like that, it was over.
It was over… This thing I didn’t want to happen but happened anyway. I should have been pleased, but rather, not for the first time today I felt like crying. I wanted to cry because even in this, I was weak. One touch from him and all my restraint flew out the window. I had known he was trouble, had warned myself of this same exact thing. And yet, with the relief of him pulling away when I knew I wouldn’t have myself came a grief, swift and unforgiving, already mourning the loss of his touch.
I lifted my eyes to his and he looked just as shocked as I felt, though I did not dare show him. He appeared dazed, surprised, and he regarded me suspiciously, as if I had performed some kind of trick on him. He pulled his hands away from me, pushing them in the pockets of his trousers. I tried to speak but no sound would come out, and I placed my hands to my sides, trying not to remember that just a few seconds ago they had been on his shoulders.
“It meant nothing,” he said, his voice defensive. “It meant nothing.”
“I know,” I responded. “I know it meant nothing.”
“I was just proving a point.”
“Which point was that?”
“That you’re attracted to me, too.”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t,” I said quietly, not meeting his eyes. “I just said that it’s not the end all and be all. I was just explaining what you were feeling.”
“I don’t need an explanation.”
“Are you going to slap me?”
I chuckled reluctantly, the sound devoid of any amusement, rusty even to my ears. “I don’t know yet. I’m thinking about it.”
“Who thinks at a time like this?” He asked, as if he was truly baffled.
I was still trying to decide whether to stay or to leave, fairly certain of which way I was going to go. My respite is over… I had promised myself that when the clock struck midnight I would be me again. Like Cinderella turned back into just a regular girl, I too was destined to go back to who I was. But when I looked at him, I felt myself reluctant, suddenly unhappy to go.
I wasn’t sure if it was the fireworks, still shooting up into the sky, or the moonlight casting a shadow on his face. I didn’t know if it was the way the intensity had come back into his eyes, or the way he was looking at me, as if I was amazing and frightening all at once. I had no clue if it was the flush that now covered his cheeks, or the way he ran his fingers impatiently through his hair. I didn’t know for sure what it was, but I wanted to be lost in this moment, too, if only for just a little while longer.
They say a kiss changes everything, that the dynamic between two individuals change when their lips meet. For better or for worse, it had always been the way for me. If that was the case, how much more did I have to lose? He will either become more curious, or he will lose interest. With the man standing in front of me, it could go either way. I couldn’t read the situation clearly, my mind muddled by my own thoughts. It made me feel like I wasn’t really here, and therefore gave me permission to be bolder, to be braver. This will be the first, and the last. This kiss will be my savior, through many more cold and lonely nights. It will be my reminder, that even for just a few minutes, I had been alive and present, an active participant in a life that had been governed by warnings and rules for so long. If that was the case, the least I could do was make it worth remembering, even just for me.
“It was only a kiss,” he said absently, talking to himself more than me. “We’re both adults. It was just one kiss.”
“One kiss?” I asked, taking a step closer to him.
He looked at me warily, as if I was about to hit him.
“Yes,” he replied. “One kiss. Singular.”
“I’m sure you meant kisses,” I said softly. “Plural.”
“We only shared one kiss. I may not know a lot of things, but I can count!” He said, insulted. “There was only one kiss!”
“Not anymore. ”
With that I threw caution to the wind and closed the gap between us. My hands grabbed the lapels of his shirt, my lips pressing against his before he even realized what was going on. His lips were pliant, giving. I slanted my mouth against his as I mirrored what he had done to my lower lip just a few minutes before, eliciting a growl from him. I ran my fingers through his hair, soft and silky to my touch, a bit long for someone so civilized, even as my tongue entered his mouth, capitalizing on his surprise.
It didn’t take him long to figure out what was happening, and the next thing I knew he had lifted me off the ground by my waist, pressing me against the coldness of the steel door leading back to Junnie’s loft. His tongue met mine and I sighed, savoring the taste of him… A hint of scotch, a hint of wine. He smelled of bitter citrus and rosemary, intertwined with something sweet and salty, with a musky, woodsy undertone. The smell was just as layered as the man who wore it, and it enveloped me completely, comfortingly. His tongue moved against mine confidently, unhesitatingly, and I could feel one of his hands on the back of my neck, pulling me closer as I wrapped my arms around his.
We were so close to each other I could feel the pounding of his heart on my chest, I can feel the brush of his eyelashes against my cheek. The sensation was one of about a million I was registering, as if I was experiencing everything for the first time. This awareness of both everything and nothing around me left me feeling overwhelmed, and the feeling was almost too much to bear.
I felt the pad of his thumb trace the line of my collarbone, his lips following the trail. He kissed me as if he knew me. He held me as if he loved me. I knew that it wasn’t so, but it was how it seemed. His mouth lingered on the side of my neck, and I could feel him breathing me in. I opened my eyes and watched him as his eyes remained closed, looking like he was enjoying this as much as I was. How bizarre. I clutched at his shirt, popping a button in the process, but he didn’t seem to notice. I was about to pull his shirt out of his waistband, about to touch his skin, at last, when a sound came from his pocket, and it brought me crashing back to my present surroundings. And not a moment too soon.
We broke apart from each other even as his phone continued ringing, lending a dose of reality to what was an extremely surreal situation. I was thankful, I told myself, as I tried to calm my racing heart. I needed to be reminded that this wasn’t real. He stood less than a foot away from me, his chest breathing heavily, as if he couldn’t get enough air. The color rode high on his cheeks, his eyes dark with desire.
I kept my eyes shielded, my guard already built back up even as I tried to catch my own breath, even as I tried to regain my faculties. My lips felt bruised, tender, and his eyes followed my hand as I lifted it to touch them, darkening even more. His mouth still glistened from my kiss, and he licked at his bottom lip before catching it between his teeth. His hair was mussed, one side of his shirt untucked.
He looked disheveled. Passionate. Delicious.
Even now I fought the urge to throw myself at him, to reclaim the place that I had just occupied. I tried to remember why I wouldn’t give him a chance, all the reasons why he couldn’t be for me, to no success. For once it didn’t matter. For once I didn’t care. I just wanted to be in his arms.
It seemed I had not lost it.
It seemed I had not learned all the lessons life had cruelly taught me. What happened just reminded me that the years I’ve spent trying to rid myself of this… Illness had been in vain.
I met his eyes in alarm, his expression giving nothing away. “Gia…” I thought I heard him say, his voice husky, and I felt panic taking over. With the evidence and the truth of it right in my face, I did what I knew how to do, what I did best. I fled. Like a criminal escaping a crime scene, whether in guilt or denial, I left.
I opened the door and entered it quickly, anxiety rising and building until I had closed the lock behind me. I had to leave. I had no choice. Tonight had to end now.
I had to leave.
I had to leave, because I knew, that it I didn’t, I would find myself running back in his arms, ready to forget everything I’ve worked so hard to protect, just for a taste of something that had eluded me my whole life, no matter if it was real or make believe.
What the hell? What the hell just happened?
One second I was kissing her, not even entirely sure why, and then she was away from me, looking absolutely composed and unaffected, staring me down with her pretty eyes, her mouth pursed in displeasure. I was reassuring myself that I felt nothing out loud, then asking questions about whether I was about to be slapped. She was thinking thinking thinking… In my opinion this woman thought too much. We were counting kisses and arguing semantics, and then…
She had moved so fast I didn’t have time to ask what she was doing, if she was sure, if this was what she really wanted. Had planted her lips on mine so quickly I didn’t have time to even brace myself. Maybe that was for the best. Maybe that was better. Because the sensation of this woman in my arms needed to be experienced fully, needed to be enjoyed without thought. Her lips pressed onto mine without hesitation, tasting of herself and of me all at once. Plump soft lips. A woman surrendered. Irresistible.
Her kiss had rendered me senseless, picking her up and pushing against the nearest hard surface I could find, uncaring that in the night air, the door must have felt cold behind her. Her hands were nimble in my hair, exerting just enough pressure on my scalp as my tongue mated with hers. She smelled like something I couldn’t quite pinpoint, all at once familiar and strange. I was already gone as soon as she started kissing me, was losing my grip on the control I had long prided myself for as our kiss continued.
She had said it herself… that I am a man who practiced control in all aspects of my life, a man not given to being taken unaware by almost anything or anyone. But she… She had surprised me.
Wow. Just… wow.
Who would have thought that her calm and put together exterior was hiding a passionate, earthy woman underneath? And she had lied, as well. Lied to me outright. She hadn’t forgotten how to kiss. She kissed with the skill of one who knew how to kiss, of one who liked to kiss, but with the enthusiasm of someone who’s never had the experience. It was a combination meant to destroy a man’s resistance, not that I put up much of it myself.
In the surrealness of the moment, I had heard a sound. Had convinced myself that it had been an illusion, and if it wasn’t, that it was coming from somewhere else. Between the woman in my arms and the sound of people on the ground and residual fireworks in the air, I didn’t care what the sound was or where it was from. It didn’t matter, not when I was kissing her. The world could have been ending, and I didn’t give a damn. Her lips on mine, her arms around me… They anchored me to this moment, and nothing else mattered.
But… She heard it too. And in the same exact speed that her kiss had started, it had ended just as quickly as well. She bolted out of my arms as if the sound had woken her up from a dream and backed away from me. I had looked at her, with her thick hair mussed from my hands, her lips tender, her eyes still cloudy with passion.
I was fully aware of my own disheveled state, my shirt slightly untucked, my hair in disarray. I was still catching my breath when her stormy gaze collided with mine, as I waited for her to say something, anything. But she said nothing, even as she lifted a shaky hand to her lips, lips that just a few minutes ago I had been tasting, exploring. I will never forget the way those lips felt.
I wanted to ask her what that was, what it meant. I had wanted to ask her why she did that. There were a lot of things I wanted to ask but my voice wouldn’t cooperate. I just stood there, instead, looking at her, relishing the picture she made after kissing me.
Ravishing. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking.
The surge of possessiveness that I felt was wholly unexpected, horrendously premature, and it threw me off balance. It was uncharacteristic of me to want to lay claim to anything, much less anyone. Especially one like her. The most difficult woman I had ever known. She doesn’t even try to be cooperative, makes absolutely no attempt to. She does whatever she wants without considering anyone else. Says what she thinks without examining if it will hurt.
I wasn’t sure what the hell just happened. But I knew I wanted more.
More of her… more of this. There were still goosebumps on my skin where she touched me, my heartbeat remembering what just took place. I could still taste her lips on my lips, and my tongue peeked out and licked my lips in an attempt to savor it again before I could stop myself. Her weight against mine was imprinted on my body, as if branding me for life.
And then she was gone.
In the space of two seconds she had managed to enter the door, even as I watched, unable to do a single damn thing but whisper her name, as if I had known it all my life. Still frozen in place. It wasn’t until I heard the heavy sound of the door locking behind her that I realized that she had left me standing on Joon-ie’s roof, still trying to get myself together.
Rude, thoughtless woman.
I tried to be irritated, I really did. But the annoyance I felt was threaded with satisfaction as well. She may not like me very much, but her response to me told me that she was attracted. Very attracted. Now the question that remained was if she was going to do anything about it… if she would let me do anything about.
“Let.” What a useless word.
I stopped asking for permission to do what I wanted years ago, had stopped being accountable to anyone else but myself. I don’t need her permission to see where this can go. It was a battle between our wills, and I may just have gained an advantage. What chance did she have of winning when her body had already betrayed her?
I tucked my shirt back into my pants and fished my keys out of my pocket, as well as my phone. The phone rang in my hand and I looked down to see that it was Hye Soo calling, prompting me to turn the phone off. I tried to fasten up my shirt only to realize that a couple of buttons were missing. The realization made me shake my head and turn a glance back to the door, where the infuriating woman had disappeared to, no doubt already in bed, thinking nothing of what just happened.
I passed the table on the way to the stairs and saw that the sparklers that I brought with me had remained unused. With a narrowed glance, I left them where they were. There was enough spark between us to set all of San Francisco on fire. Who needs sparklers when that woman was around? Not me, I thought. Not her. With any luck we might manage not to self-combust. Or at least, not separately.
I frowned as I walked towards my car, not even allowing myself one last look up at the loft. How dare she just dismiss me like that? I still can’t believe she just left, especially after the kiss we just shared. Without greeting me a happy new year, even. Stubborn woman.
January 1, 2002
By the time I had unzipped myself from my sleeping bag, it was already daytime. I got up and stretched, then pulled my hair in a ponytail. I pulled a pair of leggings and a big shirt from one of my boxes and changed into it. I grabbed a zip sweatshirt and put it on before putting on a clean pair of socks and grabbing my sneakers.
I drank a glass of water standing by the sink, ignoring the half opened bag of cheez curls and marshmallows on the counter. The bottle of apple cider was still untouched where I left it, something else I ignored.
I looked around the living room for my key, taking no notice of the paper plate on the coffee table, its contents undisturbed, the ketchup face now dried into a sad congealed dark red smile. I grabbed my mp3 player, phone and keys and made my way out of the door, determined to clear my head.
Today is January 1st. A day for change. A start to another year. This gives me a chance to do things over again, and to do it right. It also marked the end of the holiday season, and I had never been happier to wish it farewell. The holidays always put everyone in a strange mood, including myself. But now… now we might all be able to gain back a semblance of normalcy in our lives. No more impulsive kisses. No more acts of spontaneity.
Last night, I thought as I started stretching, was an aberrancy. My last act of rebellion to bid the past year goodbye. It will never happen again. It can never happen again.
I turned onto Brannan Street, still quiet and empty, a contrast to last night’s festivities, then started jogging. As my limbs warmed up I sped up, feeling good for the first time since the holiday season began. I focused my attention on my run and the music that played in my ears, allowed myself to enjoy the city I’ve lived in for the last five years.
I turned a left onto 4th street only minutes away now from my destination. I kept on running and running, my breath coming out in rapid puffs. I continued in this way until I saw the paved track leading me into the park, then slowed down. There were already people here, young mothers with their children, often unaccompanied now with their men by their sides, not surprising since it was still a holiday and most people would be off from work. There were couples milling about, oblivious to everyone around them, focused entirely on each other, whispering, giggling, cuddling. There were also other walkers and joggers already up and about, ready to burn off all the calories from the holidays or like me, are going back to their pre-holiday routines.
I cut through the three acres of green grass with its big trees and walking trails, the glass building on the furthest west side visible even from this distance. I followed the graveled path to the north side of the park, towards Mission Creek, my favorite spot. I walked briskly on the tiled walkway that would lead me towards the water, my heart rate slowing down now.
Once I reached my destination I sat myself down on one of the benches overlooking the creek and then took a deep breath. Growing up in New Jersey, the water was always just a few minutes drive away. Granted the clear California beaches and rivers bore no resemblance to the dirty and slightly muddied New Jersey waters, but here, close to this, I felt closer to home.
I missed my mother. And my sister. Missed the stores I used to frequent when I was young, the bagel shop I used to work at as a teenager. I missed the trail I used to follow in the local park to the dam, a place I had frequented with my first love, missed the sight of old friends and neighbors with whom I had grown up. I missed everything. Including who I used to be.
I knew that the girl I was could never have survived what I did had I not changed, but I mourned the loss of her nevertheless. She was naive, and entirely too trusting, but at least she felt things. She was passionate about things.
She was able to feel excitement and heartbreak and regret. She embraced life and what it offered her, without a thought and without worry. She always sugarcoated her words, mindful of causing anyone pain. She was kind and reckless and a mess, but she had a heart that had faith and believed. She was someone I had mocked many times in my past and made fun of for her impossibly optimistic outlook on the world and and her bottomless capacity to hope. But I envied her innocence and ability to stand her ground as well. And I loved her. I really really loved her. Alas she could not be protected from the tragedy that is life, and now she had turned into me.
I sat back on the bench and closed my eyes, the faces of men I had loved flashing through my memories. My father in his business suit, tucking me into bed. Andrew with his glasses, kissing me behind a bush. Marcus in front of my parents’ house, singing with his guitar. Chris on our first date, sneaking an arm over my shoulder.
The world had been brighter then, better. The future was mine for the taking, all my dreams carried by the wind. I believed in love’s power then, wholly convinced that it was always enough, that it would always be enough. I tried to believe the best in people then, as well as the best in myself.
The pictures in my mind’s kaleidoscope changed and I felt my throat tighten. My father in the dark, crying for himself. Andrew leaving for university, never to come back. Marcus with a blood covered fist, except the blood that covered it was not his but mine. Chris at the altar, waiting for someone else. My heart squeezed and clamped, remembering the feel of betrayal, the memories too much to take in.
Perhaps what scared me most was the fact that I always thought that I was an an intuitive person, someone who had an outstanding grasp on people’s characters. Even then. I thought that I would know when someone was wrong for me. I might have, I don’t know. The problem was, that once I was in love I forgot all of that.
Everyone has a blind spot. Love had been mine.
Once love came into the picture I ignored everything else. I instantly forget to put myself first, to protect myself. I defended all of them and how I felt, convinced that the greater the opposition was to the relationship, the greater the love was.
That I could convince myself that things were right when they had been so blatantly wrong, that I could find ways to justify abandonment, abuse and infidelity… this was the part of me that I loathed. I had learned to look past glaring flaws, reminding myself that if I truly loved I would accept all those things. I know that I’ve come a long way, but still I knew that particular weakness lived deep inside me, like a cancer, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to destroy me completely, once and for all.
This was the weakness I’ve carried since I was young; the overwhelming desire to be loved trumping all logic and common sense. Finding loopholes in obvious shortcomings and forgetting every sin done unto me. That behavior made no sense at all when it’s closely examined, which is why I told myself that I can no longer do that. I can no longer be that girl. That’s become the rule that I lived by and one I hadn’t broken in years.
Rules existed for a reason. Without them the world would have chaos and disorder. There’s a reason why human beings have brains and decision making skills. Emotions are annoyingly, predictably, and sadly, too fickle. And I… I have never mastered the art of feeling anything halfway, which was why now, I’ve decided not to feel at all.
It was better for me. It was healthier for me. Self preservation is key. I may not be fully living and feeling, at least not by others’ definition, but I was surviving. After having had my heart broken one too many times I had finally learned to put myself first.
I opened my eyes just as an eagle soared above me, its wings fully extended, head held up high. I watched as he flew through the sky, and wished that I had that same freedom.
I wanted to be liberated from my past and put all of its mess and disasters behind me. I wanted to fly unencumbered by fears. I wanted a future only owned by me, my happiness not dependent on anyone else. I wanted myself and my heart, healthy and whole.
Jung Jin’s image flashed in front of me, his eyes searching, the moonlight kissing his face. My heart started racing as if it remembered him, as if it knew him. That alone was the biggest indication of why he and I could never be. Inequality in a relationship always happened when two distinctly different people try to make a situation that was never supposed to work work. It’s like trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. It might be doable but it will never fit permanently. Never. There will always be gaps where the hole should have been filled. I am too smart now to even begin something that seems destined to fail.
He is playing a game, a game whose stakes just got higher because his assumed opponent was winning. He failed to realize that I was not playing the game, that I had already bowed out before it even began. He was a man who didn’t like to lose, making him a danger to my peace of mind and my sanity. I know this just as sure as I know the sun would rise tomorrow.
I already knew last night that in the light of day I will be forced to confront with the truths I’ve learned to live by in the last few years. That love was a commodity I could not invest myself in, that my life was no fairy tale. I’m the only person ultimately responsible for the care of my heart, no one else. I get to decide what happens to it. No one else. This is what had preserved me all these years. And the man who had stood in front of me was someone who could take it all away.
And I would have let him. Would have offered it all on a plate. Consequences be damned.
Never again, I decided, my one and only resolution for the New Year. He and I can never cross paths again. I will do everything in my power to make sure that it is so. It’s the first time in many years that I am making a New Year’s resolution, and perhaps the only time when it really mattered. I broke one of my rules last night, and it will be the last time.
Because though I can’t see just yet what the consequence of last night’s mistake will be, I already knew it didn’t bode well. Not for him. And definitely not for me. That being said, I will not stand back and be a witness to its unfolding, not when I can still do something about it. The girl I used to be may have been fooled, but the woman I’ve become won’t be. I will not be fooled by anything anymore.
With this in mind, I pulled out my phone and ignored the number of missed calls from an unsaved number, though I knew whose number that was even without a name attached to it. I scrolled down my contacts list until I found the name I was looking for then pressed call.
“Hey,” I said when the call was answered after two rings. “Hi Dr. Ste… Marc,” I corrected myself. “Did you still want to go on that date?”
January 2, 2002
The woman is driving me up the wall.
For the last two days I had called her phone to ask about my suit jacket, or so I kept trying to convince myself, and she won’t pick up. She didn’t even have the consideration to just turn her phone off, or to pick up and tell me she didn’t want to talk. Instead every phone call had rung at least four times before going to voicemail, which told me that she had enough time to screen her calls before deciding that she didn’t want to speak to me. Every damn time.
I shook my head as I sat on the hood of my car. This is ridiculous. It’s not my fault I left my suit jacket here. If she hadn’t fled the roof so quickly and actually allowed me to exit the apartment like anyone normal would any guest, I would have surely realized that my jacket was still on her couch and I would have picked it up before I left. This is her fault for being so rude.
I checked my watch to see that it was already 6 a.m. I had called her job last night and found out that she was working this morning, and so here I was, with a cup of coffee in one hand and an everything bagel with cream cheese in another, waiting for her to come out of her house. I wondered if she took her coffee with cream and sugar, and scolded myself for caring. The woman served me cheez its and marshmallows deliberately, thinking it would dissuade me.
It wasn’t even light here yet, and I already felt like a fool. I don’t know why I felt the need to buy the woman food when she’s the one who’s being obstinate. In fact I never know why I ever do anything with that woman. My actions confuse even me. I have never ever had to work this hard for anything. Never.
I have always been intelligent, never requiring much hard work to pass my classes. To be perfectly honest I breezed through high school without much effort, and university with just a tiny bit more. Graduate studies were a fraction more challenging, but not so much so that I struggled. In other words, I have never needed to push myself much in any aspect of my life. Things always came to me easily and I was happy with that. It saved me from exercising too much energy in any one thing. Life is meant to be lived, not be wasted working.
But she’s… hard work. A pain on my ass. A thorn on my side. Her stubbornness was exceptional, the likes of which I had never experienced before. I do way better with gentle, easy to please souls. Why can’t she be one of them? I don’t mind intelligent battle of the wills, even. It’s all foreplay anyway.
Until now it never actually occurred to me that a single person can annoy me so much. A beautiful woman, at that. Didn’t she know I was leaving tonight? With the negotiations about Joon’s various contracts needing to be dealt with I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back here again. Not that she’s giving me much incentive to come back right now. In fact she’s in real danger of making me never come back again.
The way she’s acting you would think the woman wasn’t just kissing me the way she was kissing me not even two nights ago. No one… and I mean no one can tell me that that kiss was one sided. I am aware that I don’t know everything, but I happen to know a lot of things and kisses happen to be one subject I am very knowledgeable in. Everything about that kiss… both kisses, actually… had been nothing short of perfect. I feel neither shame nor self consciousness admitting I was looking forward to a repeat of that experience. At the thought I felt a small smile form on my lips despite my exasperation.
That mouth of hers… is going to cause so much trouble for me. Who knew that her lips, always given to frowning whenever she sees me, was capable of all that?
What is wrong with me?
It’s not even daytime yet and I’m already spouting rhetoric. Something about the woman reduces me to this. And I don’t even care. Even so I was certain that a kiss between us will happen again. I’m sure of it. I know this as surely as I know the stars will come out at night. The chemical reaction that happened between us on New Year’s Eve, as she had so eloquently described it, cannot possibly be contained. If we were kept in the same space it will happen again. Except next time she won’t catch me by surprise. Next time I will be ready.
I saw the light come on at her door and straightened myself to a standing position, already practicing my smile. I had dressed casually in jeans and a sweater, wanting her to see another side of me. A different side. Maybe a side that she could picture herself with. Like tonight. Maybe she would go out with me tonight, before I leave. Maybe she’ll even come with me to the airport. I can’t remember the last time anyone saw me off, or even welcomed me home, for that matter. Not like Na Jeong always sent Joon off. Not like the way she always welcomed him home either.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy for them… no one can be happier, in fact. For as long as I’ve known Joon he’d loved Na Jeong, and as his friend I was just as happy as he was when she reciprocated his feelings. But it doesn’t change the fact that being around the two of them makes me feel a twinge. Not of envy, not really, but of something else. Like I was missing something. Something important. Something beautiful. And I don’t like missing out on anything.
The thought brought a frown on my face just as her door opened, and my eyes traveled over her in one minute, one second, devouring the sight of her. She was dressed in her black scrubs, her lovely hair in a wet knot on top of her head. She had no makeup on, her face completely bare, and my heart still started racing. I keep hoping that with if I saw her enough that these feelings will abate. God knows it’s worked for every other woman, but it’s not working. The more I saw her the more I wanted to see her. The more I thought of her the more I found myself thinking about her. It’s disconcerting, though I really shouldn’t be thinking about that now.
I barely had enough time to call out a greeting when I saw a cab pull up to the curb and she got in. She was there and gone without a single glance my way, her head turning to the opposite side as the cab passed my car. I stood there in shocked silence, unable to do anything else but blink, the cup of coffee still in my hands. I stayed that way even as the light on her front porch turned off and seeing that was what jolted me back to reality and I went back to my car in frustration.
What the hell? I thought as I quickly unwrapped the bagel I had bought and chomped off a bite. I took off the lid to the coffee I’d so thoughtfully brought with me and lifted it to my lips, burning my tongue in the process.
What an atrocious way to start the day. I got up early for this?
I was still seething as I drove, all of a sudden needing a shot of soju. I followed the signs to head to Oakland, where the nearest Koreatown is, wanting at least to fulfill this one wish, since that woman so readily dashed the only other wish I had before I left. Who needs her anyway? There are people who like my company, who beg for it. I don’t need her.
Magic mouth, I thought pettily as I drove. Magic mouth, my ass. Trouble mouth. Horrible mouth. Who needs to kiss her? Why would I want to kiss her again? It wasn’t even that good of a kiss anyway. Forget her. She can just go kiss herself.
“Hello Joon-ah?” I said slowly, my voice slurring.
I looked at my phone curiously, trying to determine what time it was in Korea. Wondering why Joon wasn’t answering the phone. Having travelled between Seoul and San Francisco for a couple of years, this… figuring out of the time had always been automatic, something that required no thinking anymore. But I guess after six… no seven bottles of soju, it was an almost impossible task, and I pulled my fingers out to count. It’s 11 p.m… no… midnight in Korea. No doubt Joon will already be in bed, cuddled up to Na Jeong. That bastard.
He has abandoned me. We were supposed to be lone wolves together, alone for the rest of our lives, fully content with our single statuses. He’s a goddamn major league baseball player, I thought as I finished the seventh bottle of soju, my face grimacing as the bitter liquid went down my throat. He should be happy being single.
“Yah, Joon-ah, you better be working out every day like I told you,” I said slowly. ” I was thinking, right? Why do you want to be married now? At the peak of your career? At the prime of your life? Are you an idiot or something?”
I opened the eighth bottle of soju as I tried to focus my eyes on the kimchi in front of me, grabbing a piece with my fingers. It was on its way to my mouth successfully when it slipped through my fingers and a piece landed squarely on the front of my very expensive sweater.
“Shit,” I said, ignoring the fact that I was by and large speaking to myself. “Yah… how do I get kimchi stain off from a cashmere sweater? Wake Na Jeong up and ask her for me.”
I held the phone to my ear, wishing that I could hear a friendly voice, any voice. But I really knew that it was one person’s voice that I wanted to hear, though I’m loathed to admit it.
“Joon-ah… why are women so fucking difficult? Actually no… women aren’t difficult as a whole, but this one particular woman is. She’s so ridiculous it’s enough to turn all my hair to gray. I’m telling you. She’s something else,” I said, pouting. “Has anyone ever kissed you and then pretended you didn’t exist? Like I was standing there, right there… and she didn’t even fucking look at me. Fuck her. Fuck San Francisco. This city hates me.”
I lifted the bottle of soju to my mouth and took another long swallow.
“Doesn’t she know who I am? I am one of this goddamn city’s most eligible bachelors and I’m running around buying all kinds of shit and showing up at people’s houses. Like I was a stalker or something. What the fuck?” I shook my head and leaned back on my couch, putting my feet up on the coffee table. “It’s because of that Joon. Not you. She has her own Joon… can you believe that? Joon, Joon-ie… Her best friend. She talks about him like he’s her favorite person. I bet she’s waiting for him, just like you pathetically waited for Na Jeong. Except she’s been waiting for him for a decade. I hate that asshole.”
I closed my eyes as my head started throbbing, already slightly aware that the headache that would result from this will be horrendous. I knew there was a reason I never imbibed too much liquor. I blinked at my apartment, the sunlight from outside shining so brightly that it made me squint my eyes. Damn sunlight is mocking me, I was convinced of it.
I need to sleep.
I’m flying out tonight, and I need to sleep now. Just for a few minutes, I promised myself. Just a few minutes. I laid myself down on the couch, phone still on against my ear. I’ll never get to sleep, I thought. I’m too fucking annoyed and I won’t fucking fall asleep. Fuck her. I was still thinking this to myself when my eyes closed on their own accord, and contrary to what I believed, I fell asleep anyway, still cursing the woman whose main purpose in life, it seemed, was to piss me off.
January 6, 2002
“You what and what?” I heard Junnie’s voice ask over the phone. “I’m in Bangkok for a few days and all this happened?”
“Technically that’s not true,” I said as I pulled what was left of my salad out of a brown bag. “New Year’s Eve happened when you were passed out.”
“Don’t argue semantics with me,” she warned. “My point is, you’re just telling me this now?”
I lifted the lid off the container before I pulled out a plastic fork from the drawer and started eating still standing up.
“Tell me again,” she demanded. “Just to make sure I heard you right.”
“The manager kissed me on New Year’s Eve,” I said as I chomped down on some kale. “And I’m going out on a date.”
“Swallow what you’re eating and then speak,” she said. “I can’t understand what you’re saying with all the crunching going on.”
“Why are we friends again?” I asked. “You’re insanely bossy.”
“I’m no more bossy than you are,” she retorted. “What are you eating anyway?”
“Hatch salad. Mixt Greens,” I answered after gulping some water. “I went up to Mission today and went to a couple of places.”
“By yourself?” She asked, and I could hear the disapproval in her voice.
“Yeah. And what’s wrong with going out on my own? It was a beautiful Sunday and I had nothing to do so I visited a couple of museums and had a picnic at Dolores Park,” I replied. “I had a good time.”
“But couldn’t you have a good time with other people around you? You spend too much time alone as it is.”
“I promised myself that this year I will make more of an effort to enjoy my own company and get to know myself better,” I said. “Who knew I was such good company?”
“This whole getting to know yourself concept is great, but you already know yourself,” she said. “That was never the problem.”
“What’s the problem, then?” I said as I brought the salad and bottled water with me to the living room.
“Accepting is the problem,” she answered softly. Before I could ask her what she meant, she continued to speak. “I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to change the topic and it’s not going to work.”
“I told you there’s nothing to talk about. It’s no big deal.”
“It’s your first date in a few years,” she argued. “Do you have an outfit planned?”
“I haven’t thought about it yet, and let’s face it, most of the time the man had seen me I was in scrubs so I’m sure anything other than that is an improvement.”
“That’s true,” she agreed. “Besides you have a great wardrobe anyway, if you can be bothered to actually use your clothes. But I’m sure you have something there that would impress the manager, even one for a Major League Baseball player.”
“Why are you bringing him up again?” I asked. “What does this have to do with him?”
“Hold on… didn’t you say you were going out on a date with him?” She asked, puzzled. “I’m pretty sure that’s what you said. You’re confusing me.”
“I said I was going out on a date… not that I was going out on a date with him.”
“But you just kissed him a few days ago!”
“Junnie, are you judging me?” I asked. “I didn’t realize you were such a traditionalist. Kissing and dating do not go hand in hand. It’s not as if I make a habit of kissing men and then going out with other men. It was the first kiss I had in three years, and I’ve known Marc for longer than that.”
“Marc? The surgeon?” She asked. “But you said you two didn’t have chemistry or sparks or whatever else you called it.”
“He’s a great guy, Junnie,” I said with a sigh. “He’s comfortable. He’s a good choice.”
“Comfortable?” She asked, concern in her voice. “That is not the word you use to describe a life partner.”
“What life partner?” I asked. “You shouldn’t worry so. I’m not marrying the man.”
“You may not be marrying him, but I know you. You’re not the type to just go into things all willy nilly, especially with someone you have to see on a regular basis. I don’t know if I should be pleased that you had obviously thought about this or nervous that you felt the need to.”
“I have to think about everything now, Jun. I can’t afford to make any more mistakes,” I said softly. “I’ve made too many already.”
“You’ve just been with the wrong people,” she tried to say. “They were all…”
“They were all different from each other, Junnie. All of them couldn’t be more different from one another if they tried,” I interrupted, my voice getting louder with each word. “Know what the common denominator was? Me. They can’t all possibly be the problem, so that only leaves me. And the first step to changing myself is by changing the way I think and the way I approach relationships.”
“So you’re going out with a man who reminds you of your favorite couch.”
“And what’s wrong with that? He’s a good man. He makes me smile and he makes me feel safe,” I said. “He doesn’t make me lose my mind. I can think straight around him. We can have conversations, smart conversations. I can see us having a healthy and practical discussion about our future, should that topic arise. I thought you would be happy that I took your advice and am now putting myself out there.”
“I am happy for you,” she said. “But I don’t want you to settle.”
“When did going out with someone who was so obviously right for me become settling?” She didn’t respond. “Why? Because he doesn’t make me feel like I can’t breathe? Because I don’t lose my senses around him? That’s overrated,” I said. “Those things fade too… and then what? I’d rather that a relationship is based on more reliable qualities like friendship and mutual respect than…”
“Instinct?” She said and I quickly shut up, the memory of Jung Jin saying that same word before he kissed me still so fresh in my mind. “Attraction?”
“Yeah. Better a relationship be based on something real than something that you only convince yourself is real.”
She stayed quiet for a few minutes and I got the impression that she was thinking about what to say or how to say what she wanted to say in a way that wasn’t going to get my back up. That’s the problem when you’ve been friends with someone for a long time… You know even their silences, and though I didn’t want to carry on with this conversation, I also knew Junnie wouldn’t let it go that quickly.
“What about the manager?” She asked. “Why can’t it be him?”
“It just can’t. He’s a player, Junnie.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I can only assume, but he’s the type of guy you would totally warn me about. And you would be right. He strikes me as someone who likes the chase but once a woman is on board he would backtrack and be like ‘Uhmm this is not what I wanted.’ He probably gives his bed mates gifts to thank them for their company and shit like that, even as he’s planning on dumping them.”
“That’s a bit harsh, even from you,” she chided. “Even if he was like that, it didn’t sound like that was how he was approaching you though. The flowers and chocolates are a bit predictable, but the man sent you medication and food as well, without asking for anything back in return. Tell me… he was a horrible kisser, right? I know that’s like a deal breaker for you.”
“Too much saliva?” She interjected. “Not enough tongue? Too much tongue?” Her voice was insistent, nosy. My best friend knew that besides my sister she was the only one who dared ask me questions like this. “Did you feel like he was eating your face? Did he…”
“JUNNIE!” I yelled and she stopped abruptly. “It’s not that. It was…” Heartstopping… Incredible… Perfect. “… fine. It was fine.”
“So why not him? You already got to second base with him.”
“Are we in middle school or something?” I asked. “How can you say stuff like that with a straight face?”
“I’m just saying,” she said. “But why not him? I haven’t heard a legitimate reason why. You say he’s a player, but even players can be reformed.”
“Not by me,” I said. “I don’t have time to be rehabilitating and reforming players just so they can turn to me once they’re ‘good’ and thank me for the experience and for teaching them so much about themselves and then move on to someone else. I can’t do it again. I won’t do it again.”
“But you said he’s handsome and he’s charming, good with words…”
“They all were, Junnie. That hardly qualifies him as a good partner.”
“Is it because he reminds you of your father?” She asked quietly.
At the mention of my father I felt myself clam up. “This discussion is finished. I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I said before she could ask any more questions. “Don’t you need to do some work?”
I hung up the phone even as she continued protesting, exhausted now. I propped my feet up on the couch even as I turned the television on and off for a few times, still thinking about what she said. I didn’t think of it consciously, but was that the reason why I was so insistent on not giving him a chance? Because he reminded me of my father?
Over the last five years, after Chris, the civil relationship I once tried to maintain with my father had dwindled away to nothing. Perhaps having experienced first hand what he had put my mother through had made me less forgiving, made me less inclined to understand. I had trusted him once more than I trusted anyone else, and he had betrayed my trust. Of course it would be natural that I would distance myself from anything that even reminded me of him, from anyone who even made me think of him.
Jung Jin, apparently, did, even in a completely subconscious way. This realization did nothing to change my mind, although some may say that it is wrong and unfair. All it did was reiterate the reasoning behind my decision not to see him again.
I’m doing the right thing, I told myself. Of course I am. There is no cause more worthy than watching out for the fate of my heart. And that is squarely based on what my brain says, not my heart, contrary to what other people think.
It wasn’t until I laid my head down on the end of the couch that my eyes zoomed in on the piece of clothing resting on the other end. I raised myself up and picked it up, already knew whose it was before I even looked at it. I would recognize that scent anywhere.
Is fate playing a joke on me now? I thought. Why did he leave something behind?
The solution was simple enough. Get his address and send it to him… but that would mean that I would have to get in touch with him, after I’ve already erased his number. It was an easy enough option, nothing to be worried about. And it beat the hell out of the other choices, situations which involved me seeing him again,or keeping something that was his with me for life.
I can do this. I will do this. It was just a question of when.
January 8, 2002
I had just switched the car gears onto P when I heard three swift knocks on the driver’s side window of the car and Na Jeong came into view. She motioned for me to roll down the windows and I fixed a smile on my face before I complied.
“Jin-ie Oppa… why are you in your car still?” She asked, adjusting her purse on her shoulder. “Joon’s in the house already.”
“Ahh, I just got here a few minutes ago.” I pocketed my phone before I took my key out of the ignition and stepped out of the car. “Do you need help with those?” I asked, eyeing the bags that she had with her.
“I’m okay,” she said. “It’s just some beer and bulgogi for the bibimbap.”
“You better let me take a bag,” I said as she started walking towards the entrance of the apartment building. “Joon will never forgive me if he knew I didn’t offer to help.”
“You’re right.” She handed me the bag with the beer as she adjusted her hold on the cloth wrapped package she carried.
“How are things?” I asked and she beamed at me.
“Perfect. Things are great!” She replied enthusiastically as she entered the elevator and I followed.
The door closed and we stood side by side, her eyes on the numbers that flashed as we passed the floors, as if she couldn’t wait to get home. The elevator door opened not before long and we both stepped out, walking companionably towards Joon’s apartment when my phone beeped and I fished it out of my pocket. Ahead of me Na Jeong waited until I waved her off.
“You go ahead,” I said. “I’m right behind you.”
She nodded and I looked at my phone to see a message from Gia. Huh. Now she wants to speak to me? I hesitated opening It for a second, wondering if she just texted me to tell me to get lost, but I pressed the button anyway, awash with curiosity.
Please send me your address so I can send your jacket back.
I checked my watch and saw that it was only 4:30 a.m. in San Francisco. She must be working today if she’s up this early. Tempted to ask if she was sleeping enough, I was almost halfway through typing that text when I realized that that was all she had to say. One sentence.
No hello… no how are you. No I was thinking about you. No I missed you. I should feel lucky I even got a please. Someone needs to teach this woman some manners. A little politeness wouldn’t hurt. A few courteous greetings wouldn’t have killed her. I thought about how to respond before I hastily typed a reply back.
Keep it until I see you again.
It only took a few seconds before I received a response.
That won’t happen again. I’m busy.
My fingers rapidly moved over the keys to answer and pressed send.
Think you’re the only one? Keep it until I see you again. And I will see you again.
Knowing damn well that I will never stop looking at my phone and waiting for a response I turned the ringer off before putting it back in my pocket. Sure… she could still send a message and no doubt it will greet me when I look at my phone again but I’d rather deal with that later, when I’m alone and can think clearly, and not in the presence of the most loved up couple I have ever seen in years. Being around them makes me soft.
I walked towards the apartment until I reached Joon’s door, not even bothering to knock seeing as Na Jeong had left the door open. I entered the apartment and went straight to the kitchen just in time to see Joon lean down to give his fiancée a kiss. I averted my eyes even as I saw his broad hand on her back, his head dark against hers and one of her hands already in his hair, her engagement ring glinting in the light.
“Joon-ah… Domesticated already?” I asked, my voice amused when he straightened himself and I noted the pink apron he wore, the ruffles on the hem making him look even more ridiculous. He smiled at me as Na Jeong unwrapped her arms from his neck.
“I walked in with him,” Na Jeong explained. “He was parking the car when I was walking up.” She turned to me and smiled, her face totally, completely happy. “Jin-ie Oppa, sit down, please.” I noted a slight twitch in Joon’s eyes, as Na Jeong said the word Oppa so sweetly and fought a smile, despite my dark mood. “Jin-ie Oppa,” she repeated and I thought Joon was going to explode. “Do you want something to drink? We have coffee and tea, of course, but we also have… Uhmm… Water, juice, wine, and beer.”
“Na Jeong-ah… Coffee will be good,” I answered as I sat down at the kitchen table. We have serious business to settle tonight and I needed a clear head.
Na Jeong pulled out some cups from the cabinet and filled the kettle with water before putting it on the stove. She kept a hand on Joon’s back the whole time, her face occasionally looking up at him, her eyes shining with love. A feeling of envy came over me and I tore my gaze away from them to look at the kitchen table.
“Joon-ah,” I said and he turned around to look at me. “I brought all the paperwork…”
Na Jeong turned around so quickly she almost knocked Joon down. “Jin-ie Oppa, nope,” she said sternly, her face resolute. “We’re not talking shop until we’ve eaten. Those are our house rules. Food before business. My Joon needs to eat.”
Na Jeong started slicing and dicing vegetables for dinner as the kettle boiled. I watched as Joon fixed the coffee, then remembered that I hadn’t put my phone away and it was still in my hands. I sat it down on the table and looked up to see Joon standing over me with a cup of coffee in his hand. He placed it carefully in front of me and shook his head, walking back to the counter before I could ask him what he was shaking his head at.
I stayed sitting, my thoughts straying back to Gia, thinking about what she could be doing. I lifted my eyes to see Joon leaning back against the counter, eyes firmly on me.
“Is Noona still giving you a hard time?” He asked quizzically. “I heard your message. Were you drunk when you left it?” I looked at him in question, not really remembering much from that phone call. “You were cursing a lot.”
Another reason why I’ve made a conscious effort in recent days not to drink too much. The hangover that I woke up with had been horrendous, and I still cringe when I remember it now. The twelve hour flight that followed didn’t help any. I thought by the time I stepped foot in Korea that I was going to pass out.
“Rule number one, Kim Jae Joon-ssi, gentlemen don’t get drunk,” I fibbed, meeting his eyes directly for effect. “They get tipsy, but they never lose their heads in drink. You cannot be so inebriated you don’t have any control of your situation or your surroundings. Why do you think I never let you drink while you’re in season?” He didn’t offer a response and I decided to tease him a little to change the topic, knowing that he will take the bait. “Although there was that one time… In Japan… Ah, when was it? Ah… It was right after you found out that Na…”
He was over me with a hand over my mouth before I could say anything else. I pried his fingers away to see him looking at Na Jeong, who was fully focused on what she was doing. Joon shook his head at me quickly and I chuckled. Guess they still had secrets from each other after all.
“You were saying? About Noona?” He asked loudly, raising his eyebrows comically. At the swift change back to a topic I didn’t feel like talking about I wanted to throw a chopstick at him, but I didn’t dare. Na Jeong will hurt me if I so much as hurt a strand of hair on her precious Joon.
“Have you tried romancing her?” Na Jeong asked, turning around with a wooden spoon on her hand. “It doesn’t work for me personally but I know most women are into that.” She put her spoon down and brought some side dishes to the table before sitting down across from me. “Jagiya, can you grab the remaining side dishes, please? The beef’s almost done. I just have to fry the eggs.”
“Na Jeong-ah… I am a great romancer. I am very very good at romance,” I told her, my winning smile on my face for proof. “I sent her flowers at work, only to be informed later on that she gave it to a patient. I sent chocolates, too, only to be told that she shared it with all the nurses and didn’t eat any herself. She’s so stubborn. I mean… She’s nice enough in texts, when she can be bothered to answer it. I’m busy, she says. Well I’m busy too!”
It wasn’t until I saw Joon holding back a laugh before his eyes widened that I acknowledged that I sounded like a deranged desperate person. Which I was not. I just have some days like this, which seemed to be happening more frequently since that woman came into my life.
Na Jeong stood up and patted me sympathetically on the shoulder, Joon’s eyes narrowing at the action. “Oppa… I know how it feels to deal with someone so stubborn. Do you know I wrote Joon 134 emails? And no response. None. At all. I’m still waiting for responses to those emails.” She turned to look at him with feigned hurt and I watched with satisfaction as Joon turned bright red.
“Yah… I didn’t know about them!” He protested.
“I even went to San Francisco and waited at a restaurant for two hours!”
“I didn’t know about that either!”
Na Jeong had a hurt look on her face and I could fully sympathize, as I was sure it showed on my face, judging from the way Joon cringed at both of us.
“Na Jeong-ah… Haven’t I made it up to you already?” he asked. “Besides, we’re not talking about us. We’re engaged to be married. We were talking about him.” He sat down once he brought the remaining side dishes to the table. “Hyung… Noona will come around. She did. I did.”
“Oppa…” Na Jeong said as she placed a plate of bibimbap in front of me. “Maybe San Francisco is just not good for romance. I mean I didn’t have much luck there until Joon and I were already together. She needs to come to Korea.”
“Maybe… But how do I convince her to come to Korea? She won’t even go on a date with me.”
“Hmm… I’ll think about that and let you know,” Na Jeong said as she deposited a plate in front of Joon and sat down with her own plate.
The bibimbap in front of me looked amazing, the fried egg on top cooked perfectly, and I dug my spoon in and took a bite, unable to remember the last time someone else had cooked for me.
“Wow… Jeong-ah… You are a cooking goddess,” I said sincerely. Women cook the best food. Except one woman. I’m still convinced she really knows how to cook and was just trying to discourage me. “Forget this guy and run away with me. Please.”
Na Jeong blushed even as Joon bristled next to her.
“Should I?” She asked, wiggling her eyebrows.
“SUNG NA JEONG!” Joon exclaimed. “You agreed to marry me! Look at that rock on your finger! We are as good as married.”
“Is that right? I can still change my mind. ” She asked and turned to him, eyes blinking innocently. “But… What to do then? Because I’m crazy in love with this guy.”
She pressed a kiss on Joon’s cheek and he smiled fully, until he saw me help myself to some kkakdugi.
“Hyung… That’s mine,” he said ineffectively even as I’d already eaten it and was helping myself to a second bite.
“Na Jeong-ah, this is delicious,” I commented, ignoring him. “Do you know what I missed the most when we were in America? Good Korean kimchi. All the varieties. You just can’t find that there. Do you think you can pack some of this up for me? This is probably the best radish kimchi I’ve tasted in a while. Almost as good as my Omma’s.”
“Of course.” “NO!” Na Jeong and Joon said at the same time.
“Fine,” she said, sending a stern look her fiancée’s way. “I’ll make you some, Oppa.”
“No,” Joon said stubbornly. “Na Jeong makes this just for me. I eat it every day. You can’t have any at all.”
“Kim Jae Joon,” I said, clucking my tongue at him. “You’re so petty.” Even as I continued eating I thought of how I would react if the woman I loved did something just for me and then offered to do the same for someone else, whether I would react the same exact way. I honestly didn’t know the answer to that question. I haven’t loved a woman in a long time, but if my new found possessiveness was any indication of how petty I could truly be, then there was a high probability that I would. “Na Jeong-ah…” I conceded. “Maybe just give me the recipe?”
“You can’t have that either!” Joon pouted. “It’s a family secret.” He whispered something in her ear before she shook her head at him.
“Sent,” she told me before turning back to Joon. “You’re lucky I love you.”
“I know it,” he agreed.
I was about to tell them to cut it out before they made me sick or jealous or both when my phone beeped with a message. Despite my earlier decision to not deal with any messages from that stubborn woman until I got home, I picked it up anyway just to make sure that it was from her.
I want to send it to you, not give it to you in person. Why can’t you grant me this one request?
I quickly read her message, the smile already forming on my face before I could stop it, forgetting that I had an audience watching my every reaction. This woman… she knows just what to say to keep me hooked, the opposite, I was sure, of what she had been intending. Unable to help myself from trying to elicit a reaction out of her, I thought about my reply before I sent it.
Well… I want to see you again and you won’t grant me that either, so I guess we’re at an impasse. Keep my jacket and don’t see me again. Or give it back to me if and when you do. Your choice.
I put the phone in my pocket, the smile staying on my face. She may piss me off, but her blunt honesty was also fascinating. And she keeps me on my toes, something no one else managed to accomplish in recent years.
“Oh, Hyung…” Joon suddenly said. “You never did tell us what Noona’s name is. I can’t refer to her as Noona forever.”
Gia-ssi. Gia-ya. Uri Gia. I grinned before responding. “It’s Gia,” I answered, liking the way her name sounded from my lips, happy to actually say it out loud and to someone else in addition to Joon, as if I hadn’t just imagined her the last few months… as if I just made her real somewhat, in my world at least.
The flabbergasted way Joon and Na Jeong kept looking at each other and then at me, both faces identical in their expressions with their chopsticks mid air, made me realize that never had I ever mentioned a woman’s name around them. Never. No big deal, I thought as I carried on eating. No big deal. There is a first time for everything after all.
By the time Joon, Na Jeong and I had ironed out a plan for his immediate future, which in some ways was her immediate future as well, it was already almost midnight.
It’s just a little past 8:30 a.m. in San Francisco and I pulled my phone out as I walked off the elevator and straight out of the front lobby and towards the parking lot. I called directly to Gia’s job, knowing that she’s less likely to answer her hand phone if she was working. I waited until a familiar voice came on the line, one that I had spoken to a few times in the past.
“Good morning. CVICU, this is…”
“Good morning Jennifer,” I said. “This is Jung Jin Lee. May I speak to Gia please?”
“Mr. Lee,” she said. “She’s in a meeting right now.”
“Can you take a message down for me?” I asked as I hastily tried to think of a message that would get her to call back. Should I say there’s an emergency? I shook my head. I should know that the woman doesn’t take to jokes like that well. Should I just be honest? Should I…
“I’m sorry Mr. Lee, but I’ve been given strict instructions not to take any more messages,” she said uncomfortably.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “How can she not want messages when she works there?”
“I meant any more messages from you,” she said with a nervous laugh. “She says she’s perfectly able to handle her own love life, without any of us facilitating or meddling.”
“Really?” I asked, when she gave me no response. “I meant, really?”
“That’s what I said, as well, but it seems that she’s going out on a date tonight, so I guess she is able to..”
“She’s doing what?” I asked into the phone. “I don’t think I heard you correctly.”
“She’s going out on a date,” she repeated. “I don’t know the details, Mr. Lee.” I heard her release a breath before she continued. “I don’t even know why I keep giving you information anyway. I feel very uncomfortable about this… like I’m a mole in a covert mission or something. She’ll never forgive me if she knew.”
“She won’t know,” I tried to reassure her. “Tell me about the guy. Please.”
She sighed audibly before she reluctantly responded. “You know as much about him as I do.”
“What do you mean?”
Is she going out with someone I knew? Someone I was acquainted with? A teammate of Joon’s?
“It’s Dr. Stevens,” she whispered. “I only know it’s him because he visited earlier and said he’ll meet her at the movie theatre at 8. I have to go.”
She hung up the phone before I could ask any more questions and I looked at my phone in irritation. Dr. Stevens? I racked my brain for the face to match the name when it hit me that the only Dr. Stevens that I knew of was the surgeon in charge of Joon’s case when he was injured.
That guy? Seriously? That’s her type? Seriously? She would forego a date, one date with me to go out with him? Seriously?
I supposed he had his positives. He’s okay looking… in that American football player way. He’s a surgeon, but that’s so cliché. She never struck me as the type of woman to bow to such conventions. And I guess that he was nice enough… in a boring way. If I was a woman… wait… why am I thinking about this? Seriously? What did he have over me?
Will she kiss him like she kissed me? The thought of her using those lips on someone else… a frown came over my face and I narrowed my eyes at my phone, as if it was its fault. Is this what jealousy is? Or like how I react every time she mentions her best friend’s name? What a strange… annoying emotion. I suddenly felt like punching something for no good reason at all.
I need to calm down. It’s only one date. Just one. But still, it was one more than I ever got from her. It won’t turn into anything, I told myself. The guy didn’t even offer to pick her up from her place. Big mistake on his part. Women appreciate unexpected acts of chivalry. Well… normal women. And I’ve long established she wasn’t one of them, remembering the way she looked when she opened the door on New Year’s Eve. I grinned to myself and then frowned, reminded that the woman was going out on a date for the first time in many years in a few hours, and it wasn’t going to be with me.
I hope it sucks.
UCSF Medical Center
San Francisco, California
January 25, 2002
I was closing the blinds in Teddy’s room, having just had the time to walk in here a few minutes before after yet another busy day, when I looked behind me to see him reading something on his table.
“What’s that?” I asked as I walked to his bed.
“The heart doctor wants me to consider getting this new thingamabob… he says that he thinks it can help my heart,” he said, handing me the brochure. “Do you know anything about this?”
I looked down at what he had given me and tried to keep my expression neutral. His heart must not be doing any better since his latest echocardiogram. Reserved for patients who are awaiting heart transplants or in end stage heart failure, the LVAD is a mechanical device that will literally connect one end to the left side of his heart and another to his aorta, to facilitate the pumping of blood from his lungs to his heart and then to the rest of the body.
“Yeah, of course, Teddy,” I said. “I’ve had patients who got these before.”
“What do you think?” He asked, his voice serious.
“There are studies that show that it’s extremely effective in treatment of congestive heart failure, in conjunction with a strict regimen of diuretics and other medications.”
“I already heard that speech from the doctor,” he said. “I’m asking what you think. Do you think I should do it?”
“Teddy,” I started, taking his hand in mine as I sat down on the side of his bed. “This is a very personal decision, and as your nurse, I can’t give you a medical opinion. You know that. It’s beyond my scope of practice and ethically inappropriate.”
“And as my family?” He asked and I looked at him in surprise. “Don’t look at me like that… You’re closer to me than some of my children have been in the last few years. I trust you. I trust your judgment. Forget that you’re my nurse for a minute, and tell me what you think as someone I love.”
“It’s risky,” I said honestly. “What the doctor wants is to implant this permanently, which means that you would have open heart surgery and will be opening yourself up to any and all complications associated with it. It also involves anesthesia, which, as you know, is also risky with your compromised respiratory status. On the upside it’s remarkably efficient and has been known to increase life expectancy for a couple of years. I really appreciate that you have so much faith in me, but I think that you need your family here to make this decision with you.”
He stayed silent after I spoke, his eyes fixed on my hand, still holding his.
“Teddy,” I said softly. “You should call them and ask them to come and see you.”
“Already done,” he said quietly. “One of my kids is driving down from San Diego on Sunday and the rest are flying in on Monday. I haven’t seen them all together in years.”
“Good,” I said, relieved. “I think it will do you a world of good to see them. You guys can sit down and write down some questions together to ask the surgeon when he rounds on Monday.”
“Yeah.” His expression stayed somber until the theme song from MASH started and he immediately brightened, then gave me a sly smile. “Onto a happier topic,” he began and I narrowed my eyes at his more upbeat tone. “So… a little birdie told me that you have a surgeon boyfriend.”
“Is there anything you don’t know?” I complained. “You are way too involved in your nurses’ business.”
“Your co workers are happy for you,” he said. “And they knew I’d be happy too. You want to tell me about him or do I have to guess?”
“There’s nothing to tell…” i answered. “He’s incredibly kind, very intelligent. There’s no one better at his job, or his specialty. His patients all love him, as does everyone who works with him.”
“And you?” He asked over his glasses, making him look very wise indeed. “Do you love him?”
“Hold your horses,” I said. “It’s only been two weeks.”
“I knew I was marrying my wife two days after I met her.” He looked at me directly, as if expecting me to challenge him.
“It was a different time then,” I countered. “Dating has changed a lot in the last seventy years.”
“You young people make it more complicated than it has to be,” he argued. “You still didn’t answer my question. I’m assuming it’s a no to loving the talented surgeon since you’re so unwilling to talk about it.”
“I like him, Teddy. I like him a lot. With time it can turn to love. With enough time, it will turn to love.” I said my words forcefully as if the conviction in my delivery was going to persuade him.
“It won’t work,” he said, shaking his head at me. “Mark my words, my girl. It won’t work.”
“It’s been many years since my Marie died, but I haven’t forgotten what a woman looks like when she’s talking about a man she envisions herself with for life. And you don’t have it… That twinkle in the eye when you talk about him, the soft giggle. You could have been talking just now about what you had for lunch.”
“He’s a good man, Teddy,” I said. “If you knew him you’d understand.”
“Good he may be, but that doesn’t mean he’s for you,” he said. “You deserve to be swept off your feet… to love so much that it hurts. You have too much life in you to accept anything less.”
“I’m not built for that kind of love, Teddy,” I said. “He offers me something better than that. Friendship, affection. He and I are so compatible it’s scary. We like the same type of movies, the same type of music, the same type of food. And…” I stressed, about to deliver the last, most convincing point, “… he always agrees with me about everything.”
He shook his head at me. “All fine and well but you don’t need someone else like you. You’re not right all the time. You’re the type of woman who needs someone who will challenge you and tell you when you’re wrong sometimes. It won’t work.”
“Of course it will,” I insisted.
“If I am wrong, I will sit on the front row at your wedding and be the first to congratulate you. I am telling you… I am no betting man, but I will bet on this. It won’t work.”
“What about the manager?” He asked suddenly.
I looked at him in astonishment, a frown instantly forming on my face and his keen eyes didn’t miss the sudden change in my expression, his mouth curving into a smile. I haven’t thought of Jung Jin since I started going out with Marc, had already obliterated him from my memory.
“How do you know about him?” I demanded.
“Everyone knows about him,” he said as he looked back at the television. “I’m assuming he’s LJJ?”
“Teddy, what the hell… are you psychic?”
“You forgot to take the card out of the flowers you gave me. I couldn’t help but read… and when I read I had to figure out who it was, and the other nurses were all too happy and willing to tell me all about him.”
“They need to stop talking about me,” I said. “And so do you.”
“The sparks flying out of your eyes at the mere mention of him tells me right away that you feel more for this unnamed manager than you do the amazing surgeon.”
“Yeah, like annoyance, anger, irritation,” I replied. “All negative things.”
“Ah… but the sudden flush in your cheeks indicates to me that what you feel isn’t just that. And it’s not indifference. Definitely not ambivalence,” he countered. “Promising… extremely promising. Congratulations… it seems there is still some fire in you left.”
I was about to tell him to stop it when my pager vibrated in my pocket and I looked at it to see that it was Marc. Feeling guilty about what me and Teddy were just talking about, I quickly put it away to see Teddy still watching me.
“Was it your wonderful boyfriend?”
“Teddy we’re not teenagers… we don’t need labels. And yes, it was him.”
“I know…” he said. “Your expression didn’t change at all.”
“I have to go. I have a date with my man friend tonight,” I said, putting emphasis on the words, just to make myself clear, in case he still had some doubts.
“Will you be back tomorrow?” He asked, his face hopeful.
“I’m off this weekend but I’ll be here Monday. Try to rest this weekend… You don’t want your family seeing you all tired.”
I had my hand on the door handle to leave his room when I heard him call out one last time, his voice amused.
“It won’t work!”
I shot him a fond glare before I closed the door behind me. As soon as I was back at the desk I called the number that Marc had paged me with and sat down.
“Hey,” he said, his voice husky. I feel something, I told myself, willing my heart to do something, anything. “There’s a trauma case that I have to do tonight. It’s a teenager with two fractured tibias and both his wrists broken also. I’ll have to cancel tonight.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s fine.”
“Are you sure?” He asked. “I’m so sorry.” His voice held a hint of disappointment at my response, though I wasn’t sure why he would be disappointed.
“It’s fine,” I insisted. “Really. I’m tired anyway.”
“Should we go out tomorrow instead? I’ll let you pick the restaurant. You and I like the same types of food anyway.”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll text you the name of the restaurant and what time to meet me there in the afternoon tomorrow.”
“I can always pick you up.”
“I’m perfectly capable of getting someplace on my own. I’m good.”
“But..” A voice in the background interrupted him mid sentence and he quickly got back on the phone. “They’re rolling the kid in now. I’ll call you later.”
“No worries,” I said. “I’ll probably go to bed as soon as i go home. Just… do your thing.”
“Okay,” he replied. “So I’ll speak to you tomorrow?”
“Yes. Definitely,” I said. “Good night.”
See? I thought smugly as I hung up the phone. We are on the same page. There’s no drama when someone has to cancel… no fuss. We are in the same field, we understand each other. There are no arguments about restaurants and plans because we like the same stuff. It’s so simple. So easy.
Teddy is wrong. This will work. Just like a mathematical equation with a clear and definite answer, there is absolutely no reason why two like-minded individuals with common interests wouldn’t be able to make a relationship work. And even if there was… I’ll make it work even if it killed me.
Spoon Korean Bistro
January 27, 2002
I rubbed my hands together after I sat down in one of the back tables at one of my favorite restaurants in Koreatown. I’ve only been back in San Francisco for less than 48 hours but the cool weather tonight had me in the mood for Korean food. I didn’t feel like grocery shopping or cooking so I had driven to Oakland instead, knowing that this place will have just what I was craving. I wore a baseball cap on my head and one of my hooded sweatshirts, my legs in tracksuit bottoms. For a second I wondered how Joon will react if he knew I was dressed like this and it made me laugh out loud.
I quickly perused the menu and decided on what I wanted before motioning for a server and placing my order. A bottle of soju. An order of ttukbaegi gyeranjjim and eomuk soondoobu jigae. A side of bindaetteuk. It seemed like a lot of food but I hadn’t eaten anything all day, having spent most of it trying to kick off my jet lag. I needed the sustenance for the days ahead, already anticipating the battle I will have to fight with one specific woman.
I was still trying to decide when I will see Gia, looking for the perfect opportunity to strike, if there was to be one. Two damn weeks of telephone silence. Two weeks. It was as if she disappeared from my life altogether. Ever since the night of her date…. I have heard nothing else from her. There is something wrong with the picture when I would have been perfectly happy with even just a text arguing some more about the status of her seeing or not seeing me. I would even be glad if she called me drunk and cursed me out.
The soju came just then and I poured myself a generous shot. The food came thereafter and I dug into the stew enthusiastically, uncaring that I looked like a glutton sitting by myself eating enough food that could feed four or five people. I had just picked up a fish cake from the stew and had it halfway in my mouth when the door opened. I looked away and focused on my food, determined to shove as much as I can in as soon as possible, when I heard a woman’s laugh.
That laugh. I know that laugh. God knows I’ve heard it enough in my memories. Throaty and rich, the sound was enough to rouse me from my food hypnosis and made me look up. Don’t tell me she’s here? I thought. Because if she is then destiny is really messing around with me. She doesn’t even know that I was back… in fact, no one but Joon knew that I had flown back here.
I quickly scanned the restaurant to the other people here who were already eating before I even sat down. There was a woman by the entrance, talking on the phone, her back to me. I supposed from the back it could be her, but she didn’t dress like that. She didn’t wear her hair like that either.
The woman was wearing her hair in a sleek ponytail behind her, silver hoop earrings on. She wore a black turtleneck over skin tight blue jeans. My eyes wandered to her legs, covered by knee high boots with heels that are so high they can be used as a weapon. The woman was dressed like a New Yorker, the outfit so austere, a stark contrast to the casual way San Franciscans dress. This was a city of sunshine, the hippie capital in the 60’s. People didn’t dress like that here, at least not from what I’ve seen.
Definitely not her.
She never wears her hair so severely, preferring instead to keep it in a messy knot atop her head, or falling in finger combed waves when it’s down. I leaned back on my seat and continued to watch as the woman who stood by the door spoke animatedly on the phone, her hands, unadorned, gesticulating as she carried on with her conversation. The door opened again and a man entered, his face hard to see. He had a military cut hairstyle, his hair almost blond. He was wearing a pair of jeans with a long sleeved shirt, topped by a plaid button down shirt. He leaned down and gave the woman a kiss on the cheek as she put her phone away, wrapping an arm around her shoulder as they faced the greeter.
I was so busy watching the man and the way he was looking at his companion that I only looked at her face casually, quickly. Maybe had I examined her more closely I wouldn’t have been so surprised. But I didn’t and I was.
They started walking towards my table, with him in front of her, and she had been blocked from my view. It wasn’t until he sat down and I glanced at her face that I realized that the woman standing not even five feet away from where I sat, was the woman I’ve been thinking about entirely too much, though she didn’t look much like herself.
With her hair up, her face was all I could focus on, the shadow on her eyelids making her eyes so big they looked like they were taking up half her face. Well… That and her mouth, all shiny and glossy and pink, the fullness made even more apparent by whatever she wore on them. The sweater she wore showed no skin but she could have been undressed it fit her so snugly.
I grappled between my emotions, torn between frustration and desire, and with a bit of confusion in the mix, thrown in for good measure.
Dressed like this she looked nothing like the woman I thought I had come to know, and yet my reaction told me that she was one and the same. The sudden knot in my abdomen, the heat spreading and extending, my heart pounding in my chest. I should be used to this by now and yet I wasn’t. It takes me by surprise every time. I already thought her beautiful before, even with the black goop just washed from her face. But seeing her this way, I was struck again, as if I was seeing her for the first time. This woman appeared strong, confident, without the flash of vulnerability that I had found so puzzling, devoid of the defiance I had seen the last night I saw her. She didn’t look very different from the other women I’ve slept with in the past. It should have dispelled my interest and shattered my illusions, and yet… The fascination continued. I became even more mystified, wondering which side of her that I had seen was truly her, if all these sides that were appearing were all her. A woman of contradictions, more complex than I think even she realized.
I lowered my cap over my eyes, determined not to be recognized, even as I continued to sneak peeks at the woman who had just leaned over to put down her purse. I quickly changed seats so that my back was to her when she sat down, wanting to at least hear her voice.
He didn’t kiss her lips, I reminded myself. He didn’t kiss her lips. This could just be a friendly meal, maybe even a professional one. She could be hiring him for something, or he could be an old friend. He could be Joon!
I craned my neck and leaned my face closer, trying to be discreet, when I looked up and saw the ahjumma that ran the place blinking at me.
“”Are you okay?” She asked, putting down a pitcher of water.
“Ne. Gwenchanayo,” I answered, glad for once that I had my native tongue to revert to at times like this, but even more glad that there was someone who understood. “Kamsahamnida.”
She looked at me suspiciously, like she didn’t believe me, before she walked away. I peered behind me to see Gia and her friend opening their menus after they placed their drink orders. I noted with some relief that neither of then ordered alcohol, remembering her tendency to loosen her lips when she’s been drinking. I watched their server come back with their drinks and made a show of eating my kimchi with gusto.
“What do you want to eat?” I heard her ask, her voice amiable and polite.
He spoke to the server, his voice cheerful and courteous. “Can we have the spicy rice cake stew, an order of fried dumplings, and… what was it you said you were in the mood for again?”
“Porridge,” she said. “Abalone rice porridge.”
The woman might think she had done an adequate job of getting rid of me, but she hasn’t. At all. Why else would she order the same exact thing I sent her from the same exact restaurant I sent it from? I was still there in her mind… maybe not consciously, and perhaps without her consent, but I was.
The server walked off with their menus and I resumed eating, still waiting for their conversation to begin.
Wait…this is Dr. Stevens? I turned around quickly to catch a glimpse of the man she was having dinner with and confirmed that it was, in fact, the surgeon who took care of Joon. I hadn’t expected him to look so… normal out of scrubs. The last time I had seen him he had a surgical cap on his head and he looked nothing like this. Are they out on their second date? He moves damn slow.
“Why do you still call me Dr. Stevens? I have a first name,” he said drily. “You know my first name.”
“Give me a break,” she answered, her tone unapologetic. “I’ve been calling you Dr. Stevens for years.”
That’s right, I thought as I spooned some stew into my mouth. You call me Mr. Lee, so keep calling him Dr. Stevens. I’m okay with that. Calling him that implied that they were still strangers, that things haven’t progressed at all. I mean they’re only going out for the second time in…
“We’ve been dating for two weeks,” I heard him say and I bit back a curse as the words registered and the scalding liquid hit my tongue.
“We’ve been dating for two weeks,” Marc said as he smiled at me and I looked away. “We’ve spent every day off you had together in the last nineteen days.”
“You make it sound as if we’ve been inseparable, when that’s a little hard to do when we have opposite schedules,” I responded. “Besides it’s not every day off. We didn’t see each other yesterday.”
“I’m so sorry about that… the case from yesterday afternoon ran late and by the time I was done…”
“It’s fine,” I said, giving him a smile. “I had things to do anyway.”
“Like what?” He asked, his tone curious but not pushy.
“Chores,” I answered without hesitation. “Laundry.”
He chuckled heartily, the sound making me smile as well. “You say those things that you ‘had to do’ like they were preferable to going out on a date with me. You do realize that if people didn’t know you they’d think you were absolutely, inarguably callous and brusque? Fortunately for me, and you, I find your honesty refreshing.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I think.”
I looked at the man in front of me, sipping on his drink and thought about how right it was that I decided to give him a chance. This is our sixth date in two weeks, quite the feat really when I don’t even like to date, and we haven’t run out of things to talk about. It was nice going out with an adult… one who had interests and hobbies and can talk about politics just as easily as he spoke about everything else.
He took me to the movies on our first date, a foreign film, before he even knew I liked them. For our second date we went on a nighttime bike ride through San Francisco, saw the city in a whole new light. Our third date was at Golden Gate Park, lazily drifting about in feet pedaled row boats, then a picnic on the grass. The fourth date was dinner then drinks at Top of the Mark, where we could see all of the city that neither of us were born in but have come to love in panoramic view, its beauty and lights in full glory. The fifth date was dinner at Cafe Jacqueline on Telegraph Hill, where we wined and dined on figs wrapped in prosciutto and various perfectly seasoned, perfectly balanced souffles.
Every date had been planned by him, executed skillfully. He was always the perfect gentleman, opening doors and pulling out my chair, never asking me to split the bill though I had offered more than once. He spoke without conceit or arrogance, like a man who knew himself, who liked himself. The more I knew him the more I found myself enjoying our time together, more convinced with every date of how well suited he and I really were.
As I sat here I wondered how much longer I can dodge kissing him, though. I’m no prude, but the timing just never felt right, and I’ve never been one to force a situation. Not that I’ve ever needed to. I can sense that he’s been wanting to kiss me since our fourth date. And for a second, I was tempted until I unintentionally turned my head last minute and his mouth landed on my cheek instead. In his typical fashion he laughed it off then teased me about it, and I should have been somewhat disappointed, at least, but I felt relieved instead.
The food came just then, its aromas making my mouth water, distracting me from what I was just thinking about. I watched as the server placed an earthenware pot in front of him and a bowl in front of me, along with about eight little dishes with morsels of different items in each, as well as the dumplings between us. I licked my lips in anticipation and looked up to see Marc watching me closely, and gave him a sheepish smile. He waved a hand at me as if telling me to start eating and I picked up the spoon and unashamedly dug in.
“You look great, by the way,” he said quietly, his eyes sincere. “I don’t think I told you yet.”
“Thank you,” I said sincerely. “So do you. Who knew you cleaned up so well?”
He picked up a dumpling and dipped it in soy sauce before he brought it to his mouth, then smiled at me as he picked up some potato and apple salad.
“This place is great,” he said. “But it’s a bit out of the way from San Francisco, no? I didn’t realize the public transportation went here as well.”
I had already mentioned even before our first date that I didn’t drive, and thankfully he didn’t probe why and just accepted it as is. “I didn’t take the bus here,” I said distractedly, more focused on the rolled egg that I was trying to pick up with a chopstick. “Jung…” I stopped and looked up quickly to see if he had noticed my tongue slip before I continued to speak, which, thankfully, he did not. “Junnie sent me something from here when I was sick.”
I heard a cough behind me and I turned around, only to see a man wearing a baseball cap picking up a glass of water, his face hidden.
“Junnie is your best friend?” Marc asked, eyebrows raised.
“One of the great loves of my life,” I said with a grin.
“I don’t realize I had competition,” he joked, as if we hadn’t spoken about her before. “Is Junnie single?”
“For now,” I responded. “Jun is never single for long.”
“Why is that?”
I appreciated that Marc wanted to know about my friends, my family. He’s so thoughtful that way, and talking about them made me feel just a little closer, as if every time I mentioned their names, I was closing the gap between all of us. Junnie, though, convinced that I was heading for a disaster with my dating decisions has waged a one woman campaign to boycott any conversations about Marc. She’ll get over it. With enough time she’ll learn to accept that Marc was here to stay.
“Rebellion? Sheer hardheadedness? Junnie doesn’t like to be told what to do.”
“So a bit like you, then.”
We carried on eating in comfortable silence, with only an occasional commentary on the food, but the silence didn’t make me nervous, didn’t make me wonder what he could be thinking. The relationship that we had was pleasing and reassuring, a steady ride on a train on stable and flat ground as opposed to the nauseating, dizzying roller coaster rides that I had put myself in in the past.
“Did you hear what happened to JJ?” He suddenly asked.
I lifted my eyes to him in surprise before I shook my head no. I couldn’t very well tell him that just twenty six days ago I was making out with JJ’s manager against the rooftop door.
“He recovered completely… can you believe that?” He said, impressed. “I heard he refused the MLB offers so that he can stay in Korea.”
“I’m glad,” I said. “I’m happy for him.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know how to get in touch with his manager, do you?”
“Why do you need to get in touch with him?” I asked, hoping that my voice didn’t betray anything.”Why would I know how to get in touch with him? I haven’t seen him in wee.. since JJ was in the hospital.”
The man behind me started coughing violently again, and for a brief moment I wondered if he was choking and if I should offer some help. Before I could say or do anything, though, Marc spoke again.
“I would call JJ myself but I don’t have his number,” he said. “Besides, everyone knows that when you’re dealing with an athlete of that caliber, you don’t get anywhere with him without going through his people. Maybe I can look up his name online… what was is again? I wish I had asked for a business card now when he and I were walking out.”
“Jung Jin Lee,” I said, and the mere mention of his name brought me back to the last night I saw him, his hand grasping the curve of my hip firmly, his lips fused on mine. “I think that’s his name.”
“Maybe he can tell me the name of the doctor who did the prolotherapy. I want to know how he did it and what kind of Physical Therapy they used and all that.”
“Sorry,” I forced out. “I don’t have any way of getting in touch with his manager.”
“That’s too bad,” Marc said, disappointed. “Prolotherapy really should be a more widespread and widely practiced therapy here as well. I mean, so many studies have shown that…”
He launched on a subject that thankfully had more to do with medical issues and less with baseball player managers who I may be more than a little acquainted with, whose jacket may still be on the couch in the house I lived in. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to open up that can of worms. I had already pushed him to the back of my head, so I just chose the better of the two options. But still… guilt nagged at me as I watched how unconcernedly Marc was speaking, blissfully unaware that I was hiding something. There’s nothing for him to worry about anyway, so it is of no consequence. I already made my choice, before the options were even laid out.
“…What do you think?” He asked, his tone expectant.
“I think that…” I’m a liar. I’m a terrible person. “… That you’re right.”
His eyes searched mine then, even as his mouth broke out into a smile. “You and I think exactly alike.”
I nodded at him and fixed an answering smile on my face. Of course we do.
I can’t believe I’m doing this.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’ve lost my fucking mind.
All my accomplishments in the past, all the cool points I had gained from being, well, cool. All boiling down to this moment of insanity. I stayed eating at the restaurant even as she lied about her Joon sending her medication, endured as her surgeon boyfriend fumblingly flirted with her. She claimed not to know me while saying my name with that honeyed husky voice of hers, conjuring up a mirage of fantasies and memories in my already jealousy clouded head. The first time I hear her say my name, not just my English name, but my given name, and she said it to someone else. Even so, the wait had been worth it. I want to hear her say it again, and again, preferably while I’m kissing her, but beggars can’t be choosers and I will take my name on her lips whenever I can.
She’s lost her mind too, if she thinks this thing with her surgeon boyfriend is going to last when she doesn’t say his name the way she says mine. I bet if I could have seen her eyes I would have seen that she didn’t look at him like she looked at me, either. She’s become deluded, my absence in her life has made her crazy. How else can anyone explain why she was going out with someone she treated like nothing more than an acquaintance or an old friend?
I turned around when she stood up after their meal, her attention diverted to everywhere else but the man sitting at the table behind theirs, not even sparing me a glance. I reclaimed my original seat, watching the two of them as they exited the restaurant, his hand on the small of her back.
They stood at the sidewalk speaking for a few minutes, her arms relaxed on her sides. I could see her facial expression from the glass that separated me from them, and though her expression was open and friendly, her smile looked rehearsed. I waited for them to part ways, sure that if she didn’t let him drive her there then certainly she would insist on taking herself home. For once I thought that her uncooperative nature would be a boon, but she surprised me yet again when she allowed him to guide her to his car, a black Lexus RX 300 SUV, just what you’d expect a young hotshot surgeon to drive. The truck was expensive but boring… a bit like the man who drove it actually, before I berated myself mentally for being so contemptible. I had nothing against the man, except for the fact that he had succeeded where I did not. That alone made me even more ridiculous than normal, more shaken than I have been in years, and I am beginning to realize why envy is one of the deadly sins.
I found myself bolting to my feet and slapping a few dollar bills on the table before I even got my check, not even waiting for my change. I hopped into my own car, mind focused entirely on following his car, a million different thoughts running through my head all at the same time. Is he taking her to his place? Is she going to let him into her house? The questions kept coming and I tried to take a calming breath, but my nervous system had already kicked in and I was physically incapable of stopping now even if I wanted to.
Fight or flight, that’s what the biology book called it, something I had been reading since I was here last, trying to verify that all the things she was explaining about a body’s reactions were true. I’ve never fled from anything in my life, at least not in the last five years, so fight it is. Well… maybe not exactly fight… I am no barbarian. But I have to see this to the end, whatever that may be, whether or not it was something that I would rather not see.
And so here I was, speeding down Route 80, the only way back to San Francisco from Berkeley, my eyes zoomed in on the black truck even in the dark. I had loved driving down Oakland Bay Bridge in the past, with the sight of Treasure Island in the distance, soaring over Yerba Buena Island and its distinctive lighthouse, another place I had frequented often when Joon was playing in San Francisco, but not tonight. Tonight I was racing down the highway, my grip firmly on the steering wheel, my eyes fixed ahead, my heart racing inside my chest.
I navigated through the traffic entering the city, following them as they stopped at the toll gate, then Rincon Point, then crossing San Francisco Trail and The Embarcadero. Spear St., Main St, 2nd Street. We were all definitely heading to her place, unless he lived in SoMa as well. A sharp turn on 5th Street confirmed my suspicion, as did the following left turn back on crowded Bryant Street. I already knew the way back to her place from where we were… signaling then passing them to get there first. Once I turned onto Ritch Street I parked my car the opposite way of oncoming traffic, far enough from her front door so as not to be noticed but close enough to see what was going on.
They should only be minutes behind me, as I put my car on Park and prepared to wait. As I tapped my finger anxiously on the steering wheel I questioned the sense of what I was doing here in my head, a nervous knot in the pit of my stomach. This is crazy behavior. This is insanity. This… could get me arrested.
And yet I stayed, knowing I should go but unable to, the time passing by merely minutes but feeling like they were hours. Finally, after what seemed like eternity, a set of headlights appeared on the left side of the street, the truck slowing down as it approached her loft. His truck decelerated and then stopped, the sound of the engine grinding to a halt.
I watched as he opened his car door and stepped out, straightening his shirt and looking both ways before he walked to the opposite side and opened her door. He held out a hand and I held my breath, but she made her way out of the door without his aid, and I could all but see the disappointment in his body language.
The light turned on by her front door as they neared, the sensor actively engaged. Just when I thought that they would both enter her loft and disappear from my view, they dawdled at the front door instead and I felt relief, blessed, palpable relief. She is not letting him in. This date will end at the door.
The man she was with kept his eyes to her face, and as apprehensive as I was, I couldn’t even blame him. I would look at that face too, devour the sight of her, had I been in his position. In fact it was what I did do when I was in his shoes.
I wondered if he would notice the gold flecks in her eyes, the slight opening of her lips as she caught a breath. I wondered if she smelled as delicious as I remembered, creamy musk with rose and vanilla, deep jasmine, tuberose and violet with a hint of lilac and magnolia. Even if I was to gather all those scents into a bowl, it still wouldn’t capture the way she smelled. I wondered if her skin would warm to his touch, the way it did with mine.
It appeared as if they were saying their goodnights, as she inserted a key to the door. He hovered behind her, his blond hair made even lighter by the glow overhead, his shoulders partially shielding her from my view. My hands folded into fists involuntarily, sensing the threat, wanting to do something about it though I knew that if I did, she would never forgive me. That thought that glued me to my seat and fixed me in the car.
She turned around and looked up at him, and from this distance I couldn’t tell if she was smiling or frowning. I couldn’t see if her eyes were staying open or fluttering close. I couldn’t hear if she was giving refusal or murmuring her assent. All I knew was that they were standing close to each other, and she wasn’t pulling away. And not a breath later, a slight movement. Her chin upturned. An invitation. I saw him lean down as he cupped her face, and decided that for me this was enough. I didn’t need to see any more.
I released a breath and closed my eyes, something inside me brewing like a bad storm. The kind that annihilates everything it touched. The kind that leaves only pieces behind. I changed my gears and drove off, my foot deliberately forceful on the accelerator as I raced away from where I knew she stood waiting to be kissed by another man, determined to erase the memory from my mind, as quickly as possible, in any possible way I can.
I stood by Junnie’s front porch, trying to look relaxed, trying to feel relaxed, as Marc stood a few feet away from me. He said something that seemed funny and so I smiled, already well aware of what reaction was needed out of me. He said something else and I nodded, though I couldn’t process his words properly. There was a question hanging in the air between us, an unspoken request. I knew it when he tried to hold my hand as we walked, when he tried to help me down in the car. I had somehow managed to avoid doing both, much to my mortification, my body already deciding for me before my mind could even insist that I at least try.
For most of my life I had lived my life in this way… my mind, my body and my heart all seemingly at odds with each other. It’s only been in the last few years that my mind had managed to curb the other two. And my mind had decided that I would give Marc a chance. So whether or not they like it, my body and my heart will follow, if I just held my ground. Even when I allow him to kiss me. Especially then. What kind of relationship can I foster with a man when I continually evade his touch? I mentally shook my head at myself, feeling bad instantly for all my covert and not altogether conscious refusals. Something has to be done about that. Anything.
“Do you want to come in?” I asked impulsively. “I actually have some coffee.”
“Should I?” he asked, his face brightening.
He grinned at me and I looked away before pulling my keys out. I was inserting my key into the doorknob when I felt him behind me, his shadow falling over mine. I felt his eyes on my neck, on my back, and I was struck by a sense of deja vu. The memory of Jung Jin doing the same exact thing assaulted me, no longer by surprise but no less unwanted.
I felt a hand on my back even as I turned around in question. Marc stood over me, his blue eyes searching mine. I attempted some lightness and offered him a smile, though he did not smile back. His hand reached out to touch my face, and I closed my eyes.
Goosebumps traveled on my spine, a million different explosions on the surface of my skin, not for the man who stood before me, but for the recollection of another man who did. Something about the way he had looked at me that night stayed with me, a touch of provocation, a hint of anger, a glimpse of tenderness, all in a man who only just appeared to be teasing and competitive from the outset. It was this paradox that I found myself thinking and wondering about as I lay in bed at night and as I wake in the morning, always before consciousness sets in and before my wall was back up.
I felt Marc’s hand on my face, his thumb brushing my cheek softly, the same exact thing Jung Jin had done, but it felt nothing like it at all. It was the puzzle, the seeming contradictions that I wanted to figure out, I insisted, as I lifted my chin towards Marc, offering what I knew he wanted, determined to banish thoughts of Jung Jin away. There was silence, inaction in the air for a few seconds and I kept my eyes shut, afraid of what will happen if I opened them.
I felt him lean over me, and I waited. I heard the distinct sound of a car speeding off, unable to understand why, during such a pivotal moment, my thoughts were running a million miles a minute around what was going on around me, when I should be completely focused on what is about to happen.
Mentally scolding myself, I waited for the inevitable contact on my lips. Softly… he would kiss softly, because that was Marc’s way. Thoughtful, considerate, agreeable. It was why I decided to be with him, and his kiss would be just like him.
A few beats passed and still nothing happened, and I opened my eyes in alarm.
I looked at his face nervously, wondering if something was wrong. His eyes traveled my face warmly, genuine affection in his gaze. He had a wistful smile on his mouth, and I instantly softened even more.
“What’s wrong?” i asked, licking my bottom lip in trepidation. “I thought you…”
“I don’t generally make a habit of kissing a woman who looks like she would rather be doing anything else,” he said, his tone deceptively light, the emotion in his eyes directly conflicting with his words. “Even one as beautiful as you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my words heartfelt. “I didn’t mean to look like that.”
He traced a finger from my forehead to the tip of my nose. “I will never make you do anything you don’t want to do, or force you into a situation that you are not ready for.” He leaned down then, his presence strong and comforting, and placed a soft kiss on my forehead.
“Thank you,” I said, with some measure of relief. “Thank you.”
He smiled widely at me before he wrapped his arms around my waist. “I’m going home before I forget all my good intentions. You are too much of a temptation, especially for someone trying too damn hard to be a gentleman.” I nodded under his chin before he turned the doorknob behind me and pushed me gently into the doorway. “Make sure you lock up, okay?” With that he waved and then walked back to his car, not even waiting for a response from me.
I watched as he entered his truck and drove off, still standing frozen where he left me. All at once I felt remorse and abject shame, a part of me just now realizing the grave injustice I was doing such a good, honorable man. I need to do better, need to be better. I reminded myself of this, resolved myself to focusing my energy into doing just that, even as I closed the door shut.
Four Seasons Hotel
January 28, 2002
The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the skyline of San Francisco’s Financial District, still awash with lights, Yerba Buena gardens in the distance. I blinked a couple of times, trying to reorient myself, realizing instantly that I was not in my own condo. The sheets that covered me were white and not pale grey, as was the pillow that I laid my head on. There was a fitted bench by the floor to ceiling windows, and an armed wingback chair in the corner. My clothes lay in a heap on one side of the bed, along with my shoes, my handphone on the table next to me.
A soft snore on the other side of the bed made me turn my head, already expecting what I knew I would see. Long ink black hair over the pillow, a slender arm over the sheet, an outline of a woman. I jogged my mind for the memory and remembered going to Twenty Five Lusk after hightailing away from Gia’s loft. It was close enough to my own place that should I have one drink too many, as had been my intention, I could catch a cab without any real difficulty.
My intention had been just to bury my head in drink, focused only on erasing the memory of seeing Gia about to be kissed by someone else as well as the thoughts that followed. I was angry and frustrated, driven by feelings that I haven’t felt in years. With the state of my emotions completely unraveling, it was then that the woman that now lay next to me walked up to where I sat and offered her company.
What was her name? It starts with an S, an American name though she was of Japanese descent. Stephanie? No… that’s not it. Sophia? That’s not it, either. Samantha. Yes, that’s right. Samantha.
I had wanted only to forget, until the attention showered by the woman next to me had reminded me of who I was, and of how others see me. It was a welcoming change to the neverending rejection I’ve had to go through since I met Gia. I’ve never had to work so hard at convincing a woman and I still didn’t need to. WIthout doing anything at all, I could still get anything I wanted, anyone I wanted. And just like that, it felt like something clicked in my head, and everything was back to status quo.
In the haziness of the night and no doubt encouraged by the alcohol and the woman who flirted unabashedly with me, I reverted back to who I always was, the man I’ve been in the last five years. I accepted her advances without offering any of my own. I gave her my English name though she insisted on calling me by my Korean name, making me realize that she had known who I was before she even spoke to me. That might bother anyone else, but not me. I am proud of what I’ve accomplished, I am proud of who I am, the fact that people knew me.
The flattery and the compliments that I was being showered did nothing but bolster my perception. So when she invited me to spend the night, I didn’t even take a moment to think about it and said yes without any hesitation. I took her back to the hotel I always used and to the room I always reserved. I touched her like I have every woman before, as I’m sure I will every other woman after.
We didn’t speak of futures or feelings, she didn’t open my eyes to any realities about myself that I didn’t already know. The pattern, the predictability of it, the inevitability of it, comforted me temporarily, gave me just what I needed last night. It gave me momentary satisfaction, the feeling still lingering until now. I was a man who made no promises, someone who knew myself enough not to set anyone up for disappointment. Samantha knew that before she had spent the night with me, accepted it without question.
I stood on the side of the bed, feeling more like myself than I have in months, before I gathered my clothing and shoes and went straight to the bathroom. I took a leisurely shower and got dressed, combing my hair with my fingers, before leaving the room. I took the elevator down to the first floor before stopping at the lobby.
“Mr. Lee,” the man behind the counter said with a smile. “Long time no see. Would you like your receipt, sir?”
I nodded without saying a word and waited for him to print out my receipt. He handed it to me with an affable smile and I folded it before placing it in my suit jacket.
“Thank you,” I said. I had just turned around when I remembered something else and addressed the man at the counter, who looked up from his computer expectantly.
“Did you need anything else, sir?”
“Yeah,” I answered. ‘The other favor you’ve done for me before…”
“Do you still have the number for the manager at James Allen?” I asked, remembering the name of the jewelers I had used in the past and he nodded. “Kindly call him as soon as you can and tell him it’s for me. Have them deliver a bracelet to the woman in the room I just paid for.” I opened my wallet and fished a hundred dollar bill and slide it on the counter over to him. “Make sure it’s delivered before she checks out. Tell him to charge it to the account on file.”
He nodded at me and I walked off. I pulled out my phone and pressed a speed dial button as I was walking out of the hotel and waited for the staff to answer the call.
“Four Seasons In Room Dining,” a polite voice greeted.
“This is Jung Jin Lee,” I started. “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 verified. “Only for one?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Exactly the same. If you can place the charges on the card on file that would be great.”
“Will do, sir.”
The valet attendant came back with my car and I palmed a 20 dollar tip over to him before getting into my car. I drove home languidly, finally relaxed, more comfortable than I have been in months, with no other thought in my mind besides getting back to Korea and getting back to my life, closing my chapter in San Francisco for good.
UCSF Medical Center
January 28, 2002
“Hey Teddy,” I whispered as I leaned down towards his bed.
His eyes were closed, no doubt from the combination of sedative and analgesic that he had been given. His night shift nurse said that his carbon dioxide level had risen to a critical point and that he had been agitated, confused. It was the only way they were able to keep the BIPAP on him overnight. The intensivist had wanted to put him on the ventilator, but the pulmonologist had disagreed, said that if he was to be intubated, that there was a big possibility that he would never come off. His heart and lungs were too weak, and his organs were shutting down one by one.
With his family due to arrive today, no advance directive or medical power of attorney in place, they had opted to wait, placing him on the mask to give him as much oxygen as possible, supporting him with diuretics and pain control.
I glanced at the monitor next to his bed and noted with some relief that his vital signs were at least reasonably stable. His blood pressure was lower than I liked, but his heart rate within normal range. His oxygen level were hanging on above 92%, his respiration shallow but regular. The physicians say that his heart cannot take any more, but I knew Teddy. I had seen him this sick before… and he had bounced back. He can bounce back. He will bounce back. He always does. He is a fighter, and there’s plenty of life left in him.
I sat down on the chair next to his bed, taking note of everything that had gone on since I was here a few days ago. His catheter has been reinserted, an arterial line in his arm. There were two drips hanging and connected to a central line on his neck to keep his blood pressure stable as they continued to try to forcefully get the excess fluid out of him. There was a feeding tube down his nose to give him nutrition as he was unable to eat. That which Teddy never wanted to happen had happened again. He was held down by tubes and drips and hoses, the man lying in the hospital bed unrecognizable even to me.
I pressed his hand for a squeeze and saw as his eyes twitched behind his lids. He was struggling to open his eyes, and my heart tightened inside my chest.
“It’s okay,” I said gently. “You don’t have to open your eyes. I just wanted you to know I was here. I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner, but it’s been crazy out there today. You know how it is… typical Monday. Just sleep.”
I smoothed the white hair on his head and was just pulling my hand to leave the room when I felt his grip tighten. I looked down at his face and saw his eyes, a more subdued blue, looking straight at me. I gave him a small smile and sat back down, and it wasn’t long after that he started trying to speak behind his mask.
I’m not sure if he realized that I couldn’t understand or if the message he wanted to say was that important, but upon realizing that I could not comprehend him, he started struggling against the mask and trying to pull it off from his face, getting red from the exertion, the monitors now alarming from all the activity.
Kristy rushed through the door in concern, then appeared relieved to see that I was there.
“Everything okay, Gig?” She asked. “Does he need more Ativan?”
“It’s okay,” I responded. “He was just trying to speak. Grab me a piece of paper and a sharpie and I’ll see if that will calm him down some. Maybe he just wants to tell me something.”
I turned to him with a frown after his nurse had nodded and left again, and said, in mock dismay, “Teddy Feldman… now I know you like having the attention of all the women, but this is not the way to get it. Am I not enough?” I continued to hold his hand, running my thumb reassuringly over the back of it until I saw him calm down and give me a small smile. “There you are,” I whispered. “Let’s wait until she comes back and you can write to me instead. Don’t spend your energy trying to speak… just relax, okay?”
He nodded once and I smiled at him. I felt his eyes watching me as I took his call bell and turned the television on, scanning through the channels and not stopping until I reached the one he always liked to watch. We sat in silence for a few minutes, or as silent as the room could be with the sound of the television playing. I had turned the volume high enough so as to distract him from the sounds coming from the various equipment connected to him. Teddy hated the bells and the whistles. He always did, since the time I first met him.
Kristy came back a few minutes later, with a few sheets of paper and a marker. She delivered it to me with a hesitant smile, then left the room again. It was a bad call giving Teddy as he was now to a fairly inexperienced nurse. She only graduated two years ago, and she had never taken care of one so ill. I felt her nervousness every time she asked me a question and every time the monitor made a sound. I was making a mental note to speak to the night shift charge nurse to make the appropriate assignments for the morning when I saw Teddy motioning for the paper and the pen.
I placed the paper on the table then rolled it in front of him, before uncapping the marker and placing it in his hand. I waited for him as he wrote shakily, his once neat handwriting now enlarged and askew.
I nodded and picked up his glasses before carefully setting them on the bridge of his nose. He started writing as soon as I was done, his handwriting more on a straight line.
“I know… but you can’t drink yet,” I said. “You have to keep your mask on, at least for another couple of hours when they check your blood gas… maybe then we can disconnect you for a few minutes and give you a sip of water. Do you want me to sponge out your mouth?”
He shook his head vigorously then wrote again.
“No,” I replied. “Not yet. I’m sure they’re on their way. They’re arriving today, right?”
He nodded, then resumed writing.
Must see them. Good husband. Bad father. Need to say sorry. Need to be forgiven.
“I’m sure you weren’t a bad father,” I tried to reassure him. When he tried to protest, I said, more firmly, “you need to take my word for it. I’m the expert on bad fathers. You may have made your mistakes, but who hasn’t? No one is perfect. No one is expected to be perfect.”
He looked at me with his innocent eyes, and I fought the worry that had begun spreading through me. He continued writing something down, a small smile on his face, then proudly pointed at it with the marker.
I shook my head before I responded. “You would be proud to know that I messaged him earlier, asking to meet up,” I answered, failing to add that I had only done so to give his suit jacket back and close that door conclusively. “But seriously,” I said with feigned pique, “of all the things you can think about right now, you would choose to think about that?”
He wrote his response then looked at me. He held my gaze for a few seconds, his eyes never leaving mine, not even for a brief moment. I read what he wrote and thought I felt my heart break inside my chest.
Need to make sure you’re taken care of. Need to make sure my Gigi will be happy before I die.
“You’re not dying,” I stated, my tone resolute. It was the tone of voice I used when I wanted no dissent, a warning not to argue with me. I shook off his concern dismissively, as if in doing so I would shake mine off as well.
I hesitated a few seconds before responding. Nursing 101 taught me never to promise anything to a patient that I was not sure I would be able to do. But it also taught me to always maintain a healthy emotional distance from the people I took care of, and I had long broken that rule with Teddy years ago.
“I promise.” I pursed my lips at him and then in a lighter tone; “You’re not going anywhere. Didn’t you promise to be there when i get married? I’m never getting married, so you’ll have to live forever.”
He gave me another toothless grin and I had to smile as the man I had known and taken care of for years made an appearance. I stood up and was about to make my leave, sure that I had stayed too long, aware that as long as I was here he wouldn’t rest, when I felt him tug on my scrub jacket and I looked down. He was writing something else, his strokes quick, as if what he was writing was urgent. I waited until he was finished before I capped the marker and lifted the piece of paper to read it.
No vent. No tubes.
“I know you hate the mask even, Teddy,” I said. “But right now it’s what we have to do. Hurry up and get better so we can start taking some of this stuff off, okay? You can complain to me all you want then. I won’t even stop you. Now rest. Nurse’s orders.”
I rolled the table off from his lap as he continued to watch me with his eyes. I turned down the lights but kept the television on, remembering that Teddy always liked when there was sound in his room. I exited the room with one more glance back at him, his glasses still in place. A ball tightened in my abdomen as I walked back to the desk, fighting a feeling of fear away. For as long as I’ve known Teddy he had always been sick, but never had he spoken like this. Never.
The many years I have spent taking care of critically ill people taught me that at some point during a long hospitalization, feelings of hopelessness sets in, as well as some depression as well. It should have been expected, since he had spent every holiday here, with no one else but us keeping him company. Even more so now that he can’t even be here wearing his normal pajamas, hooked up to every tube there was, unable to eat, unable to move, and unable to have a conversation.
The situation fits right into what happens… Ericson’s stages of psychosocial development theorized that in a human being’s older years, he contemplates his life, reflects on everything he had done and weighs all of the consequences of said actions. A scenario including a serious illness would, of course, exacerbate and emphasize such concerns even more. It all made sense. In fact it was actually more unusual that Teddy had not spoken like this until now.
And yet… the feeling of uncertainty persisted, a heavy weight on my spine, a lump in my throat. This was a feeling I was all too familiar with, an impending sense of doom. The feeling nagged and nipped, distracting me… It made me not want to go far from his room, a hesitation to not leave him alone. Sending Kristy a message on her phone, I advised her to keep a close eye on him and lay off giving him sedatives for a few hours. The way I was feeling there was no good reason to tempt fate.
I walked back to the nurses’ station and went straight to the back, the designated space for the forty four heart monitors, watching and recording the cardiac rhythms of all the patients on the unit. I scanned my eyes through all of them, ensuring that everyone was doing as they should, paying close attention to Teddy’s, relieved that his heart rate was stable, albeit on the low side of normal.
I slowly walked back to my desk, rubbing one side of my temples in a circular motion, forcing myself to relax. I sat down on my chair and picked up the phone to place a call to spiritual care, asking them for a consult. Teddy will appreciate someone visiting him, and sometimes just seeing the chaplain is comforting to patients. I placed my head in my hands and closed my eyes after I left the message, made myself breathe in and out a few times, attempting to wrestle this insistent uneasiness out of me.
I still had my eyes closed when the hairs on the back of my neck rose just a half second before I heard the sound that no nurse ever wanted to hear. It was an alarm, a continuous beep, signaling that a patient’s heart just stopped. It signaled the end of life, and I jumped to my feet as soon as I heard it, turned around quickly to the monitors to see where it was coming from, only to see a flat line where Teddy’s heart was just beating a few seconds ago.
I felt frozen for one second, immobile. Like the moment had slowed down and I was watching outside of myself. The sound reeled me back, reminding me of what was happening now, what I needed to do now. Adrenaline pumped into my system, my mind and my body taking over, while my heart took a backwards step.
“CALL A CODE!” I instructed the secretary as she scrambled to get on the phone.
The other nurses around me rushed for the crash cart and I ran back to Teddy’s room, only to find him in the same position I left him in, his glasses still in place. I dropped the head of his bed down, checked for airway and breathing, frightened when I didn’t see the rise and fall of his chest. I kept my fingers on his carotid artery, where there was no pulse.
I didn’t look at his face, couldn’t look at his face. Because I knew that if I did I would be unable to do this. This was just a body. Not Teddy. Not the man who had been a grandfather figure to me for so long. Not the patient I had spend many hours with, laughing and talking. Not Teddy with the bright blue eyes, life jumping out of his gaze, the sly smile and easygoing laugh. Not Teddy. Not Teddy.
I placed my hands on the sternum, my left hand over my right, and pressed down. My body took over the way it always did, to counter what my heart had never had the strength to do.
I had packed the rest of the clothes from my wardrobe into three suitcases, along with all of the framed photographs. On the kitchen counter was my passport and my itinerary for tomorrow morning’s flight back home.
I will miss San Francisco… this city had been my second home for a couple of years now, and I had enjoyed my time here, but my time here is over.
The company that I spoke to had assured me that it would sell quickly, as it was in a prime spot in San Francisco, that I should be able to make a profit on what I had paid for it. Those things don’t matter to me. I just want to sell it as quickly as possible. There was no reason for me to have it here when Joon is getting married in a few months and had settled back in Seoul. Renting it out will be too much trouble when I am so far away, and I had never been one to be hands off with all my real estate though I knew there were perfectly efficient management companies who would be more than happy to handle that for me.
I stirred the coffee that I had just made before taking it with me to the living room, along with the contract for the real estate company that I will use to sell my condo. I sat down on my couch, briefly considered sending it to Seoul as well before I realized that would cost more than its worth, and shook my head at myself. My apartment back home was perfectly furnished, with a piano in the living room to boot. I had no real need for any more furniture, much less one that I only wanted to keep purely for sentimental reasons.
I took a sip of my coffee as I read over the contract, almost missing the fact that the second page was an addendum pertaining not the sale, but the lease of the condo instead. I quickly stood up and walked to the counter to retrieve my hand phone, determined to get all this taken care of before I hop on a plane back, and with the office closing in half an hour, this needed to be taken care of as soon as possible.
I opened my phone on the way back to the couch, only to see the messaging icon blinking at me on the top of the screen. Not even realizing that I had received it and not really knowing who it could be from, I dragged it down and clicked on it, my face frowning as I read the message and saw who it was from.
I’m free tonight if you are. Please come and get your jacket if you’re in San Francisco. I would offer my address but you already know it. I should be home by 7:30.
“How long has it been?” the doctor asked the nurse taking notes.
“Twenty five minutes. He’s been down for twenty five minutes.”
The doctor looked at the defibrillator, then at the patient. “I’m going to call it. Even if we got him back now there’s no guarantee that he hasn’t been hypoxic for too long.”
“No!”I found myself saying even as all eyes turned to me. Panic and fear rose inside me, my heart pulsing in irregular beats. “Continue compressions! He’s been brought back before. We can bring him back again. Continue compressions!”
“Gigi…” A voice, Jeremiah’s voice, said, hesitant and worried all at the same time.
Without any kind of acknowledgment or reply, I set him aside and began pushing on Teddy’s chest again, even as I noted that rigor mortis was already setting in, that his body was beginning to stiffen. His skin had lost the color of life, his eyes still open. I was compressing hard and fast, just as I was taught, though I’ve never done it with this much desperation.
“Come on, Teddy. Come back,” I whispered. “Dammit Teddy. COME BACK!”
I felt the incredulous looks from the people around me, looking at one another as if they couldn’t believe I was doing this. I could feel beads of sweat running down my temples, the memory of his hand, warmly holding mine still fresh in my mind.
Promise? He had asked, my response ringing in my ears. I promised him. I promised him. My mind battled with my emotions, with one part of me acknowledging that I had already lost him and the other fighting that idea just as ferociously.
No. It cannot be. I promised him that I wouldn’t let him die. I always kept my promises. This reminder pushed me to keep on going, even as everyone around me had already seemingly accepted the truth.
“Time of death. 4:22 p.m.,” the doctor said. “Someone call the family and let them know. Page me when the death certificate is ready.” He looked at me sympathetically one more time before he left the room.
The other people started leaving the room one by one, until only I and Jeremiah remained. I could feel the watchful eyes of the nurses that worked with me, the nurses that knew me, as they watched from the door, as if giving me some space. A couple were openly crying though I could only hear them, didn’t have time to look at who it was.
I continued with my compressions despite the fact that the code was over, my arms getting tired but not so much that I would be forced to stop. I continued counting out loud, my back hurting from the exertion. I didn’t know how long time passed, how many minutes I did this. Time was no longer of the essence to me. I would have done this forever if I knew it would bring him back.
“Gigi,” Jeremiah said beside me, and I ignored him. “Gigi…”
I pretended not to hear him, even as he continued speaking. I pretended not to see him, even as his forearm tried to stop me. I pretended it was just me and Teddy in this room together, doing what we always did. Laughing and talking, his teasing voice in my ears.
I felt a strong grasp on my arm, signaling me to stop. An unfamiliar hand. I looked up to see Marc, watching me with an unreadable expression. He kept his grasp on my hand before he spoke quietly.
“It’s over,” he said. “Gigi… its over.”
I shook my head at him, not wanting to accept what he was telling me. I looked at my glove covered hands, still on Teddy’s chest, begging for a chance to undo what just occurred.
“You’ve done everything you could do,” he said quietly, never releasing his hold on me. “You’ve fought for him, but now you set him free. He’s gone.”
As I looked into his kind blue eyes, empathy and sympathy pouring out of them, I felt something inside me crumble. Crumble was perhaps too mild a word to describe what I was feeling. It was more of a shattering, an implosion within and of itself. His hand stayed on me, offering comfort, offering peace of mind. Two things I had no use for. Not when I’ve failed.
I fought against his grasp, tried to resume what I was doing, when he wrapped his arms around my waist and tried to peel me off of the bed. I closed my palms as he turned me around in an embrace, my fists landing on his chest. He tried to smooth a hand down my hair, an act of familiarity I was not comfortable with, an assumption of intimacy we didn’t have. When his arms still wouldn’t relent, I struggled even harder to be set loose.
“Let me go,” I said. ” Who do you think you are? Let me go.”
His hold loosened and I broke free, meeting his eyes with an expression that made even him step back. I needed to get out of here, I needed to escape. The walls of the room were closing down on me, suffocating and stifling. My heart continued to skitter in my chest in trepidation and panic, my throat closing in itself.
I ran out of the room and pushed past the nurses who were waiting for me outside his room. I ignored the looks that I was being given by physicians and staff alike and walked straight into the break room. I went to the bathroom, turned the sink on and splashed my face with cold water. My breaths were still fast, as if I couldn’t get enough air.
I tried to slow my breathing down, aware of what I needed to do. I can’t afford the luxury of grief. Not when I had to go back to work. There were other people to take care of. Other people who needed me, other people to think about. I retied my hair with shaky hands, avoided looking at the mirror. I washed my hands thoroughly even as I tried to regain my control. I walked out of the bathroom with my head and chin held high, my face expressionless, and walked back onto the floor.
I wiped a gym towel over my forehead even as my legs continued to burn, a deep ache in my left thigh coming to life, and still I pressed the button on the treadmill to go even faster. I ignored the pain and kept going, aware that it was only temporary, as pain always was in all aspects of life.
I had gone to the gym this after I received the message, felt the need to work off the excess energy, not wasting too much of my time to analyze why a single message should throw me into a tumult. As had been my pattern for the last five years, I started with my run, was already on my tenth minute mark. I will push through the next fifty minutes in this pace before I allow myself to slow down. I always did the same in life, though I was nowhere near slowing down anytime soon. There was still a lot for me to do.
The music from my sound system blared as I continued running, the sounds of Usher’s butter smooth voice filling the room. I double checked and triple checked my mental list, ensuring that I will be leaving nothing behind, making sure that I had addressed everything. I already took everything in my office and packed them in boxes, and they were already well on their way to Korea via FedEx. My most important documents sat in my briefcase, ready to be taken with me on the plane. I had already dealt with my finances here, had left only enough funds in my American bank account to cover the utilities for at least six months. I had already given Shawn instructions to sell my car whenever a business trip in San Francisco comes up, which, seeing as my friend keeps a home here as well, will surely happen sooner than later. I had spoken to the limo service here and in Seoul picking me up to and from the airport tomorrow first thing this morning, had refused the generous offer that Joon had extended when I spoke to him last, fully aware that it would be in the middle of the night when my plane lands. Everything had been itemized, taken into account. Everything is ready.
Gia’s face flashed in my head, and though I forced myself not to feel a thing, my traitorous heart had already jumped in anticipation, expectation thrumming in the pit of my stomach. This meeting changes nothing, I tried to tell myself. This changes nothing. It’s time for both of us to go back to our normal lives and move the hell on. Hadn’t she already begun without me?
I pressed the button to increase my speed some more, my legs screaming in protest. The pain was like an old familiar friend, someone I didn’t mind seeing once in a while, but nothing I would want to be with all the time. But still, this sensation kept my mind off the discomfort in my chest, suspiciously close to where my heart should be.
“Gigi,” Kristy said, relieved to see me. “I already called the family and they’re stuck in traffic but they should be here in about forty five minutes. What else do I need to do?”
My mind was still in shock, and I was having trouble registering and processing her words, the answer to her question stuck in my throat. I felt unstable, ungrounded, unglued. As if it wasn’t really me who was standing here but just an image of me. I had never lost a patient on my watch, but I did today.
“Kristy… Get the death certificate out and call organ donation,” Jessica answered for me and the younger nurse nodded, grateful for the instruction. My coworker grabbed my arm and searched my eyes, sighing as she did so. “You need to sit down and have some water. We were all close to him, but no one more than you. Teddy is… was…”
“He’s an organ donor,” Kristy interrupted as she ran back to us. “They want his eyes.”
That’s good, I thought, though I didn’t voice the words out loud. Those beautiful eyes will live on even after he’s gone. Mayne one day I’ll bump into someone and see his eyes again.
“We need to do post mortem care and get his corneas ready,” Jessica said. “Let’s get him cleaned up before his family gets here. The room looks like a warzone.”
“I’ll do it,” I said, my voice hoarse and both nurses turned around to look at me, worry in their gazes. “I’ll do it.”
“Gigi, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Jessica said as she rested a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll take care…”
I had walked away even before she could finish her sentence, before she could argue her case. I grabbed some clean linens out of the closet then walked straight into Teddy’s room, closing the door behind me. To their credit no one poked their head in, to ask me if I was okay. Of course I’m okay. When was I never not?
I went straight to the sink and ran the water, waited for it to turn warm before I placed several washcloths under the faucet. I took a deep breath before turning back to him, the picture he made a far cry from the man I always knew, the man I always loved. I grabbed some normal saline from the crash cart and placed a few drops into his eyes, trying to remind myself that this was just another patient’s eyes. I’ve done this a hundred times before. I covered his eyes with gauze before proceeding with what else needed to be done.
I took a syringe and pulled out his catheter, took a boat of gauze and started taking out his central line, his arterial line. I pulled out his feeding tube before unhooking his compression boots. I disconnected the endotracheal tube and pulled it out, knew for a fact that wherever he was now, that he would finally be smiling.
No tubes. No vent.
In the end I had allowed them to break the last request he had asked of me. It seemed only fitting that I was the one to undo it. It was the least I owed him, having broken so many of my promises already.
I ran a warm washcloth over his face, then down his neck, then the rest of his body. I took off his blood soaked gown and replaced it with a new one. I combed his hair just the way he always did, placed the part just the way he liked. I put a clean pair of socks on him and made sure to clean his hands, making note that he still wore his wedding ring, though Marie had been gone for two decades. Without prompt Jessica entered the room and joined me, then Jeremiah. Within a few minutes more than half the nursing staff were in the room, all silent and subdued, respectful of the last gift that we could give him, the last act of kindness we could perform.
There is a grace and a quiet dignity every time a nurse says goodbye. Goodbye is a word forced onto us, under many different situations. Sometimes it’s a happy one, sending the patients home, knowing that they’re going back healed and complete once more to the life that was waiting for them while they were hospitalized. Sometimes it’s filled with hesitant but finite hope that the patient will not come back under the same circumstances, that the next time we meet, we will share but a passing look, a handshake or an embrace, away from the four walls of the hospital. Somewhere unaffected by illness and pain… anywhere else but here.
And then there is this kind of goodbye. The final kind. The kind where not one word gets spoken, as if they weren’t needed, armed only with hearts full of wishes that the person we’ve taken care of will be filled with the peace and light that so few experience during their lifetimes, and even more seldomly in the immediate period before their death.
My heart tightened in my chest as I realized that the other nurses I worked with had also loved Teddy, that they, too, needed to say their goodbyes. No one stood idly by, everyone finding something to do, whether it was to pack up his things, or fold the clothes in his closet, though they were all already folded neatly. They cleaned the surface of the tables, got rid of all the tubes and hoses that he had hated alive. Behind us the theme song from MASH still played out loud from the television, the show he never neglected to watch.
We all did the chore silently, no one speaking a word. We turned him carefully as we changed his linens one last time, making sure that he was on a clean bed, devoid of any blood. Any evidence of the violence that was involved in trying to save someone’s life erased.
When at last we were done, I took a step back and breathed a sigh when he appeared as he should, albeit with two patches of gauze over his eyes. I lifted his glasses and cleaned them, trying to.ignore the blood on the lenses before I folded them and placed them on top of his bag of belongings.
“Thank you,” I said quietly to my team. “You all worked hard.”
They started dispersing, one by one, ready to move on to the next task, I’m sure grateful for it, even. They all left one by one, until only I remained. I stood by the windows, the blinds still wide open, just the way he always liked, the sunlight from beautiful San Francisco lending a contradictory brightness to how I felt.
“It’s a beautiful day, Teddy, ” I said. “You sure know how to pick them. You’re playing a joke on me, right?”
The silence continued but if I was to close my eyes I swear I could hear him chuckling. I had just walked over to his bed to tuck the top sheet and blanket around his shoulders when I saw a crowd of people enter the door.
There were three women and two men, one of the women openly crying while both men were already in a heated argument. I stood straight and stepped to the back of the room, ready to give them some privacy, when I heard one of the women speak.
“Why is there something covering his eyes?” She asked, turning a panicked gaze to me. “What’s wrong with his eyes?”
“He’s signed up to be an organ donor,” I explained. “We have to follow protocol until the organ donation team can come here and speak to you.”
“You’re taking his eyes away?” She exclaimed, horrified. “But that would mean he won’t have an open casket funeral! You can’t do that!”
“It won’t affect that at all,” I said.
“What if we say no?”
“It’s not up to you… it’s what he wanted.” I tried to keep my voice professional but the last sentence came out a little curt. Four years I’ve taken care of him without seeing any of them. Four years. And they dare defy something he wanted to do for someone else? “It’s what he wanted.”
“I’m sorry… Who are you?” One of the men asked, the taller one with grey hair. He looked like a more slender, younger version of Teddy and it hurt to look at his face. “Are you his nurse?”
“I’m the charge nurse,” I said. “I’ve taken care of him for years.”
“Can we speak to his nurse?” The same man asked and I nodded briskly.
“I’ll send her in.”
I walked from the bed towards the door slowly, partially reluctant to leave. I felt protective of him, even still. Maybe even more so now. I had just grabbed the opened the door by about an inch when I heard the voices and I stopped in my step.
“You should have checked on him more often,” one voice said accusingly. “You only live an hour away.”
“Why is it my responsibility? I have my own life,” another voice responded. “He always sounded fine whenever I called him.”
“When did he never?” A female voice. “He was fine. Just like he was when mom died. Who takes a trip so shortly after their wife dies?”
“Are you still on about that?” The first voice asked. “Everyone has a different way of grieving.”
“Grieving my ass,” another female voice said. “He was relieved when Mom died. It’s not as if he was ever there anyway.”
“He tried the best he could!” I said before I could help it, way before the warning bell in my head rang. “You shouldn’t be speaking disrespectfully today, of all days.”
They all turned around to look at me, their gazes scornful. I would have withered under their scrutiny but my own grief kept me defiant.
“Who are you again?” The oldest woman asked, standing up. “You may think you know our father, but you’re not the one who had to grow up without him. I suggest you keep your opinions to yourself.”
“There is nothing that he could have possibly done that would merit such rudeness at this time,” I said, still trying my best to be polite. I turned around and addressed them all. “He has missed all of you, every time he was here. He always spoke of you and how proud he was of how well you all grew up even when you never called or visited. You are here now. I beg of you, to just let him rest in peace.”
“We always sent flowers and cards, gift on his birthday and christmas. Father’s day presents despite the fact that he was an absent father,” the younger man, the one who didn’t look like Teddy, said, a bit defensively. “We sent him money, paid his utility bill, paid for groceries. We did more than he deserved from us…”
At his words, anger, blessed, white hot anger rushed through my veins. The feel of it relieved me, unburdened me. It was a feeling I could harness and control. In front of me I could see the outlines of their bodies, their faces, but my anger pulsed so strongly and I was unable to focus. On anyone. Anything. There was a bitter taste of rust in my mouth, the taste of holding my tongue back, holding my words back.
“… He’s lucky that he’s even a part of his grandchildren’s lives. If it was up to me…”
“YOU LET HIM DIE ALONE!” I said, my voice coming out forcefully, unable to exercise any more restraint. “You let him die like a man who had no past, no family. He didn’t have a hand to hold, didn’t get a chance for a last embrace. He died like a man who had no ties, a man who was unloved. He had to beg all of you to even come today. He never even had the chance to say goodbye. Will never get the chance to say ‘I’m sorry, I love you, be happy.’ He won’t ever get the chance to do anything else ever again.” Somewhere in the middle of my tirade, the anger had balled itself tightly on the pit of my stomach, cushioning the sorrow that I knew I couldn’t handle. They all continued to look at me in shocked silence, no one even daring to breathe. ” Even now… You still don’t get it. You don’t get it, do you? He’s dead,” I said, and the sound of my own voice saying the words out loud crushed what was left of my control. “He’s dead. Gone. He’s never coming back. He held on as long as he could. He could have lived, if he had anything to live for. But none of you could even give him that. Shame on you. Shame on all of you.”
I walked out the door without giving any of them a chance to respond, not even bothering to close the door behind me. A crowd had gathered just outside the door, and I kept my eyes ahead as I made my way back to the nurses’ station. I had just reached the main desk when i saw my manager standing there, a frown on his face.
“Gigi,” he said softly. “My office.” I opened my mouth to protest and it seemed he knew it as well. Because before I could even say anything, he said, his tone more abrupt, his voice denying any chance of a reprieve, “Now.”
I followed him to his office and watched as he sat down. He motioned for me to close the door and I knew that I was in trouble. He signaled for me to sit down, his eyes raising in question, as if he couldn’t believe that even now I dared to be insubordinate.
“I’d rather stand,” I said woodenly, much to his consternation.
“Do as you wish,” he said, frustratedly running a hand through his brown hair. “You always do anyway.”
I was tempted to ask him what he meant, but not wanting to get in even more hot water than I was no doubt already in, I kept my mouth shut.
“I don’t suppose you don’t already know that the way you were speaking to Mr . Feldman’s family was unacceptable and wholly inappropriate, ” he began.
“His name is Teddy. When did you start calling him Mr. Feldman?” I asked.
“I need you to apologize,” he said, his tone resigned, not answering my question. “Before they file a complaint.”
“I’m not apologizing for anything,” I snapped. This was not up for debate or discussion, no matter how anyone felt about it. “I don’t ever say shit I don’t mean.”
“Watch your language,” he warned.
“You should have heard the way they were talking about him,” I said. “There is no way I would allow anyone, much less a family I had never seen in all the years I had taken care of him, speak badly of him. There’s no way…”
“There’s no way, there’s no way,” David interrupted. “There’s never any way with you.”
“What does that mean? I’m only saying…”
“You’re not the only one who’s grieving!” He barked. “You don’t think any of us are hurting, too? You think you’re the only one who is mourning his death? Teddy was someone we all loved, though I doubt none of us love him more than his family.”
“I fully stand behind everything I said.”
“You sympathize more with the dead than you do with those they left behind. You’re not the one who will have to make arrangements for his funeral, or the one to pack up his house. You won’t have to tell his grandchildren stories of him just to keep his memory alive. They have to do that. They do. Not you.” He paused before taking a deep breath. “You’ve crossed the line between patient and friend and I don’t think you’re in your right faculties to be doing things that may affect your career.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.
“You’re a great nurse, the best one I know. But in the last few years I feared you’ve become desensitized to this work. Except with Teddy.”
“I either feel too much or not enough, David. Make up your mind.”
“When was the last time you took a vacation?” He suddenly asked and I straightened my shoulders automatically, already assuming a defensive posture. “When was the last time you took a break?”
“Are you asking as my boss or a friend?”
“That doesn’t matter when that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about.”
“You’ve spent the last five years working four, five 12 hour days per week,” he said, looking away from me. “This is hard, mentally exhausting work. We all need time away to decompress and reprioritize, and I think you should take this time to do just that.”
“I don’t need a vacation,” I replied. “I don’t need anything. I just want to do my job properly.”
“Take two weeks off… go home, rest. Whatever. Just get away from here and recharge.”
“I told you,” I insisted. “I’m fine.” At his doubtful expression, I said, with even more vehemence, “I am.”
“That wasn’t a request.”
“Is this a suspension or am I fired?”
“I am asking you, as your friend, to take some time for yourself. I am telling you, as your boss, that I will not accept a no.”
“What if I said that I don’t want to and that I won’t?” I asked, fearing nothing now.
“Insubordination will not be tolerated,” he said, his voice calm but I could gauge his temper simmering beneath the surface. “You work here. I am your boss. I gave you an alternative before I am forced to write you up, then it will be out of my hands. The higher ups take complaints like this very seriously, and I won’t be able to protect you then. You know this. Take it.”
The resoluteness in his voice was meant to intimidate me, to make me do as he wanted, to convince me that he was doing it for me. Instead it had the opposite effect. His words had done nothing but just rile me up even more. No one tells me what to do. Ever. No one needs to protect me either.
“If you’re not going to apologize then I will write one for you and you’ll just need to sign it. When you signed on to become an employee of this hospital, you promised to be respectful of patients and families alike, to take care of everyone the same way. To not pass judgement. What you did just a few minutes ago is in direct conflict with those core values, and I cannot turn a blind eye. This is not negotiable.”
I have long ago stopped apologizing for how I feel and what I say. I have long ago stopped living by everyone’s code while neglecting mine. I am the one who has to live with my choices.
“Then I quit.”
The words came out before I could even think about it, before I could even consider it seriously. For a second I thought about taking it back, telling him I didn’t mean it. But upon closer examination I felt no reason to. Because I do mean it. To do what he is telling me to do is equal to saying I was wrong. And yes, I admit I could have found a better way to express how I felt, but I wasn’t wrong. Not in this. Not this time.
“I’ll leave,” I said, taking my badge off and laying it flat on his desk. “It won’t take long.”
“You won’t leave,” he said, his tone somber. “Not yet, at least. Not when Teddy is still lying in his bed. I know you. You won’t leave until you’ve properly sent him off.”
At the reminder I felt emotion overcome me. Unable to deny the truth in his words, I stayed silent, though I made no move to put my badge back on. I swallowed what I felt and left the room without a backwards glance.
I went home after my workout, drank beer from the bottle and ate a slice of pizza. I was calm and composed, the way I had always been. It felt like a fog has lifted and I could see everything clearly again. The path that I had set before me, lit up more brightly than it ever did.
I opened my laptop and read over all my emails, flagging those that needed to be addressed as soon as I was back in Korea, made a list of the calls I would have to make in order of priority. I was doing everything I always did, things that had been done so many times I didn’t even have to think about doing them anymore. There was comfort in familiarity and I found the feeling reassuring and safe.
So when a message from Hye Soo came through my phone, I opened it quickly and replied, the way I had always done. Hye Soo knew me and accepted me. Hye Soo knew me and liked me. The man I saw in her eyes was a man worth admiring and worth emulating.
In that sense maybe, Gia had been right… what had been one decision had turned into a routine, and now a habit. But those habits… Those habits that she had referred to with more than a little hint of resentment had actually served me well. I could do worse than being the man that I am.
“The organ donation team are speaking to Teddy’s family right now,” Jennifer said as I sat back down at my desk, conspicuously trying to check the drawers for anything I might be leaving behind. “They’ve given the okay to release the body to the morgue. They said the funeral director will pick him up tomorrow.”
I heard what she said but didn’t respond, choosing merely to nod instead.
“Are you okay?” She asked, worried.
“I’m fine,” I said, pocketing the small picture of me and my coworkers pinned behind the computer. “I’m good.”
I pushed my chair back and stood up, aware that all of the nurses I worked with were all making their way to the desk, concern apparent in all their faces. I fixed a smile on my face and walked over to them, placing a hand on Jessica’s shoulder.
“What happened?” She asked.
“Nothing,” I lied. “JB, come help me with Teddy. We have to get him ready to go.”
I walked off too Teddy’s room, with Jeremiah closely following behind me. I waited until the door was closed behind him before I picked up the body bag that someone had thoughtfully placed in the room.
“JB,” I started as I took the bag out of its packet and began unfolding it. “You’ll be taking charge more soon and you’ll be doing the schedule too.”
He stood on the other side of Teddy’s bed, eyes solemn. Shoulders already braced, like a kid about to hear bad news. He said nothing though his eyes tried to meet mine and I avoided it.
I ran a tender hand over Teddy’s forehead, my heart still aching. A small current of amusement passed through me as I imagined him listening to this conversation, glad to hear news before most of the staff did.
“When you do the schedule remember that Jess can’t work weekends unless she signed up for it because of the kids, and Tammy needs to be charge at least once a week since her energy level hasn’t been the same ever since they put her pacemaker in. Chelsy can’t take any isolation patients because she’s pregnant, but don’t tell anyone yet.”
All I got from him was continued silence, even as I began laying the bag flat on the bed, taking out the tags that came with it.
“Jennifer can’t stand Sheila so make sure they never work together, and Robbie’s birthday is coming up. I already ordered the cake to come that day.”
“I don’t need to know this stuff,” he finally said, voice angry. “Why are you telling me this? I don’t need to know this stuff.”
“All the education materials are in the drawer next to the charge nurse computer, including the packets for the new nurses just coming off orientation. There’s also some chocolate in there, for when everyone’s having a bad day, and the critical care quiz cards I use when I do the blitz.”
“I don’t want the responsibility. I don’t need it. I’m perfectly happy just doing my job so keep the information to yourself,” he said. “I don’t need you to share the responsibility… Besides you’re here practically every day. If I needed to know anything I would just ask you. And if you’re not here I’ll just call you. So I’m flattered that you think I’m ready…”
“You are ready,” I interrupted sharply. When I saw the expression on his face, genuine confusion, a little fear as well, I gave him a small smile. “I just quit.” His eyebrows narrowed and I could practically see him chewing the words, as if forcing himself to spit it back out to me. “Don’t make this any harder than it already is. I need you to step up, JB,” I said softly. “I can trust you to take care of the others, right?”
“If I said no, will you stay?”
“It’s done,” I answered even as he shook his head. “It’s done. I already turned my badge in.”
I tied a tag on Teddy’s big toe, my heart heavy. I took his hand in mine, like I had so many times before, a million times before.
“But Gigi, was it because of what just happened? You know well back you up. We can still fix this. We can still…”
“No more,” I said, too exhausted to talk about this anymore. “This discussion is over. Help me do this, JB. Let’s finish this and send Teddy off well, hmm?”
Though his eyes burned with more questions he did as I requested and turned Teddy on his side as I carefully laid out the bag underneath him and then gently laid him back down for me to turn him the other way. He pulled on the bag until the only thing that was left was to zip him up.
I looked at Teddy one last time, brushing a thumb over his cheek, knowing that this will be an image I will force myself to forget as soon as I leave the room. Trying to memorize the memories, the happy memories I had shared with him. Trying to remember his voice and the last few words he said to me. Reminders that he was here and that even just briefly he had allowed me into his life and cared for me just like my own flesh and blood would.
JB took the zipper near his legs and started closing the bag, as if knowing I wouldn’t have the strength to do it myself and just as he reached his face, he stopped and looked away, as if giving the two of us a few minutes alone.
“Goodbye, Teddy,” I whispered as I leaned down and pressed a kiss on his forehead. Something close to hysteria was bubbling inside me, wanting to break out.
I took the zipper and closed it over his face, not stopping until the bag had closed completely. Silently I tied the second tag outside the bag before I took my gloves off and washed my hands, Jeremiah behind me, his staid eyes meeting mine in the mirror.
I looked away and walked out the room without another word for him, walking straight to the break room. I took the lock off and took my purse out, taking out the pictures of Junnie and my family that I’d hung up inside, thank you cards from my old patients and coworkers. It didn’t take long. I kept my locker just as I had learned to keep my life, organized and all in one place.
“It didn’t have to be this way, Gigi,” I heard behind me and turned around to see David standing by the door, hands hesitantly on the table. “What I’m asking you to do isn’t much.”
“What youre asking me to do is impossible. If there’s one thing I take pride in, David, it’s my sense of integrity. It may be harsh and judgmental at times… I admit that, but I do what I can do so that I can preserve at least that,” I said. “Everything I am, everything I believe in, I’ve had to build from scratch. I don’t have a lot, but I still have that. That’s still mine… And if I don’t stand by my beliefs who would?”
To that last question he didn’t have a response, and I walked towards the door before turning back to him. “Thank you for everything, ” I said, and walked out.
I took a quick shower and then got dressed, my black trousers and button down shirt as natural a choice to me as my skin. I looked at myself in the mirror as I got ready, pleased to see the image that I had worked so long and so hard to attain looking back at me.
I still see glimpses of the old me sometimes whenever I looked in the mirror, the picture entirely too sad in my eyes. There was a time I had been just a boy, earnest in my devotion, my heart full of love. He was kind and he was good, and neither did anything to help him along. The man I am is ruthless, and all too often cruel in my frankness, lacking tact. The boy that I was still lived inside me, as I had seen in the last few months, but thankfully he was once again gone, reminded once again why hope was not an emotion I often indulged in.
Involuntarily I wondered what Gia would have thought of the boy I had been, in my thick glasses and my unfashionable clothes, my conversation awkward. She would have probably dismissed him, as everyone had done. If I couldn’t impress her with the way I was now, there was no way I would have impressed her with who I was then. I didn’t like who I was, which is why I transformed into this.
Tonight will be the last time. I will never see her again, for the rest of my life.
The thought hit me suddenly, and I was surprised that it elicited even an ounce of sadness. We had only visited each other’s lives for a brief moment, and now we will part again, as I’m quite sure we should have done months and months ago. I supposed that it was only fitting that I said my goodbyes properly… I’m sure she’ll be relieved to know that I had given up. I will come over and wish her well. I will be confident and aloof, the way I should have been to begin with. I think it’s time that she met the real Lee Jung Jin.
This was the thought I kept repeating in my head as I locked my apartment door and got into my car. I was ready to end this in a definite way… and yet, I couldn’t stop my mind from wondering what the point of all this was, why our paths collided in the first place if it was only going to come down to this.
I was able to take the service elevators down to the first floor, avoiding the rest of my co-workers, feeling no need to explain myself. I don’t need to. They will all find out soon enough. I tightened my hold on my purse as I briskly made my way through the hallways of the hospital I’ve worked in for the last five years, my eyes firmly ahead. I was so focused on where I was going that I almost bumped into someone and didn’t realize it until a steadying hand was on my arm and looked up to see Marc studying my face.
He smiled at me before he noticed the bag on my shoulder. “Are you going somewhere?” He asked and I pulled my arm from his grasp.
“Yeah, home,” I said. I was about to tell him I’ll call him later, really not wanting to be here anymore. “The bus is coming in ten minutes so I have to go.”
“I’ll drive you,” he said. “My residents are rounding on my patients and my partner is in surgery today. I’m on my way back to the office anyway.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said.
“I insist,” he said, his voice careful and I looked up and saw that his eyes, always so lighthearted now looked serious. “We need to talk anyway.”
If I was able to feel any more emotions today would I have felt something when he said that last sentence? The question begged to be analyzed if I had the energy left to do so, but I didn’t. And so I allowed him to lead me out of the hospital with a hand on my back, then straight to the parking deck where his truck was.
He opened the car door, as he always did, waited for me to be seated before he walked to the driver’s side and sat himself down. He said nothing as he eased his car out of the parking deck and onto the street, the air between us noticeably tense. His foot pressed on the brakes as the stoplight ahead turned red and then I heard his voice.
“I bet you didn’t even notice that I was wearing a suit, right?” He asked out of the blue and I turned surprised eyes his way, just now noting what he was wearing. It was only now that it even hit me that I had never seen him in a suit, not in any of our dates. His eyes stayed looking ahead on the road, a pensive smile on his handsome face.
“I’m sorry, Marc,” I said. “It’s been one of those days. You look really nice in your suit.”
The car started moving again and he grew quiet once more. For a second I was tempted to turn the radio on just to break the silence, but thought against it. If he had wanted to turn the radio on he would have done it already. The quiescence continued as he drove the twenty minute drive back to Junnie’s loft, only interrupted by the sound of the motor revving up and down as he changed gears. He parked the car right in front of where I stayed and I already had my hand on the handle of the car door when I heard his voice again.
“It’s not just today,” he said quietly. “You’re next to me but you’re really not. You look at me but you don’t really see me. When you asked me earlier who did I think I was to try to hold you, to try to comfort you, I realized that I couldn’t give you an answer, because I didn’t have an answer.”
“I just said that in the spur of the moment,” I responded quickly. “And all the things you’re saying, they’re not true,” I said. “Today’s just been a bad…”
“I’ve known you for five years, and for so long that control you always had… it fascinated me. You always seemed like someone who was always put together, someone who couldn’t be ruffled, at least not easily.” He paused and I watched as he took a deep breath. “I thought that was who you were, but today, when I watched you trying to bring your patient back, I realized that that’s not the case at all.”
“Teddy was someone very close to me,” I choked out. “I wasn’t myself.”
“Now I think you’re lying,” he chided. “Because I don’t think you’ve ever been more yourself than you were at that moment.” He ran a hand through his blonde hair and the frown on his face made me anxious, nervous. “You and I… it’s not going to work.”
January 28, 2002
My hand hovered over the doorbell, only a slight hesitation before I pressed the red button. There was no response from inside the house, no answering sound. Did she forget that she sent me an invitation to get my jacket?
I pulled out my phone from my jacket and dialed her number, only for the call to go straight to voicemail. I waited at the door, not sure if I was relieved or disappointed, before I stepped away from the front door, my car keys already in my hands.
I was just opening the car door when I tried to call her once more, to no response, again. Dammit. I really liked that jacket. Just one more try. I was about to walk back to the front door and knock, in case she was in the bathroom or something, when I found myself looking up towards the roof. It was where I last saw her, where I held her… Where I kissed her, for the first and last time, and was surprised to see the lights on.
She must be up there, I thought. Of course she wouldn’t even want me in her house. Good thinking. I don’t want us within four walls, either.
I closed the car door and climbed up the stairs, my hand firmly on the railing. tonight will not be a repeat of new years eve. I don’t need to hear her say no to me again, don’t need her opening my eyes to anything else. I just need my jacket. That’s it.
I kept repeating this to myself as I continued the climb, forcing my eyes to stay ahead, to not look down. The reminder of my fear kept me distracted for a second, as it always did, and I closed my eyes just as I hit the last step, then took a deep breath.
I sat on one of the lounge chairs on the roof, the beautiful flowers and the twinkling lights failing to brighten my mood up like it had always done before. I felt raw and numb at the same time, exhausted. Tired of today, tired of my life.
Even when I try to make the right decisions I still fail. Even when I try to do my best, it’s still never good enough. Sometimes I wonder why I still try, when the outcome is the same.
Thoughts of Teddy filled my head before I pushed it away. Though death was a concept I’ve long familiarized myself with, the idea that he was gone was something I still couldn’t handle. I had made a promise to him and I broke it. I had failed him, just like I had failed everyone else in my life, including myself.
His death served as a reminder of what happens when you let your walls down and allowed yourself to make connections. Everything ends. Everything. Nothing is permanent, not life, nor love. All relationships have a beginning and an end. The tighter we hold on the worse the pain when it’s time to let go.
I’ve never mastered the art of saying goodbye. For as long as I can remember I fought against it tooth and nail, cried a million a tears whenever it happened. I had never learned to do it gracefully, my fingers always having to be pried loose from what I was holding on to. Even when all I’m holding on to was air. I was never good with goodbyes… and even after having so much of my adult life bidding farewell to almost everything, I still wasn’t. Letting go seemed to be a lesson I can’t seem to learn and so I’ve trained myself not to hold onto anything instead. Except with Teddy. I thought I knew what I was doing with him, though I still held a bit of myself back, but now I realized I didn’t do any such thing. Not at all.
Today was my punishment for breaking the rules. I was never supposed to stay in one place for so long. I was never supposed to get that close to him. I was never supposed to cross that line, and now we both paid the price for my mistake. Something solid lodged itself into my throat and I swallowed it down, the sorrow and the grief locking my heart into a vice.
My mother once told me that I always loved too much, felt too much, held on too tightly. She said I believed in things too much, hoped too much, just everything… too much. It makes whatever happiness I felt the highest of highs but every loss the lowest of lows, and after having felt the roller coaster of those emotions for many years, living and loving that way wore me out and I just couldn’t anymore. I chose not at all to too much. The people who felt nothing don’t get hurt. The people who don’t hold on don’t feel the pain of having to let go.
I wish I was one of those people. Now more than ever, I wish I was one of them. I thought I was well on my way, but today happens and I am reminded once again that even unlearning to feel was something I failed at.
The words Marc said as he dropped me off at home rang in my ears, reminding me of another thing I couldn’t do. I thought I had done a fine job of hiding how I felt, hiding who I was, but it seems I had not, after all. It took only a few minutes to undo all the things I thought i had convinced other people I was.
I looked at the distance even as I remembered all the things he said, my arms wrapping around myself.
“You and I… it’s not going to work out.”
“Why?” I asked. “You said yourself we were compatible. It makes sense for us to date.”
“We are compatible, scarily so. And I know that you’ve tried. You were always honest enough, always polite enough. You were open and kind and funny. On paper we would have been the perfect couple. A bit cliché, maybe, but we would have been perfect. But you know just as well as I do that that’s not enough.”
“So you’re dumping me because I was emotional for a few minutes?” I asked, my voice dull.
“I’m not dumping you… how can I when we never even got that far? This isn’t going to work because those few minutes that you were ’emotional’ as you called it, I realized that you actually weren’t a composed person at all. Not controlled at all… At least not when it involved someone you love. I didn’t realize until then that you’re never like that with me. Never. Not once have you ever looked at me with anger or annoyance, or so much happiness that it bounced right out of your eyes. You look at me kindly, like I was someone you respected. You look at me fondly, like I was someone you appreciated. But you never looked at me like I was someone who you can’t imagine your life without.”
“When did not being able to live without someone become a prerequisite for a relationship?” I asked. “Why would anyone even want someone who can’t live without them?”
He didn’t respond.
“I didn’t realize that you were such a romantic,” I said. “There’s no one that anyone can’t live without. Binding yourself to anyone based on need is recipe for disaster.”
“I dont need you to need me… That’s not what I’m asking for, but I do need you to feel something. Anything. But I’m coming to realize, even if you don’t say it, that I don’t affect you enough to make any difference in your life. If I canceled a date for whatever reason, you say okay, without any questions. If I don’t call you say okay, without demanding an explanation. Losing me won’t break your heart,” he continued. “Not that I want to break your heart… just… I don’t want to be the guy you were with because it made absolute sense. I don’t want to be just an accessory to your life.”
I sat back on the chair, my hands on my purse, confused. Confused as to why he doesn’t feel it would work, when every equation says it will. Confused that apart from this curiosity, I felt no pain, no anger.
“I know myself,” he carried on, his voice holding just a twinge of sadness. ” I’ve been that guy before who will keep trying and trying, hoping to change your mind about me, taking whatever scrap of affection you give me and twisting it so I can convince myself that you do feel something. I could and have spent years doing that before. I can’t do it with you.” He turned to look at me in the eyes. “You can’t force yourself to feel something that you don’t feel. And I can’t be with anyone who had to force themselves to feel something to be with me.. We all only live once, so we should at least spend it with someone that we love like crazy.”
“But that’s not what I want,” I said, my voice flat. “I don’t want to love someone like that. Loving without thinking is how people get themselves in trouble. Love should be approached very sensibly… A relationship is more about having the same goals than it is about emotions. Love can develop with trust and friendship and mutual respect. You don’t know what will happen in…”
“I bet you weighed the pros and cons before you agreed to go out with me,” he said. “You don’t think I didn’t find it weird that after five years of saying no you were finally saying yes? I don’t want someone who looks at me and has to argue with themselves why they should or should not give me a chance. I deserve someone who will love me whether or not it made any kind of sense.”
I could not give him a response and so I kept my eyes averted, focused on my hands as they held onto my purse.
“You’re a wonderful person. I don’t regret having spent the last few weeks getting to know you,” I heard him say, “I think I really could have loved you, and we really could have been happy. But I don’t want to be someone you settled for. That would be way too pitiful. I hope in time you will see that I am right.”
I didn’t say anything for a few seconds, tired from talking this out. He had already made up his mind, and I had already argued my case. A part me knew that he was right. He did deserve more.
“You’re a good man, Marc Stevens,” I said honestly, my voice quiet, thick with emotion. “One of the last ones left. If I could choose to love anyone, then I would choose you.”
“I know,” he said with quiet resignation. “But that’s not exactly what I wanted to hear, and this is why we can’t continue.” He met my eyes. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being the man that you only loved because you chose to. I don’t deserve that. Neither do you.”
I had stayed still as he lifted his hand and brushed a hand on my hair, wondering why my heart won’t race for this man. Trying to figure out what was so wrong with me that I would let someone like him go.
“You should go in,” he said. “Before I change my mind.”
He made his voice sound lighter, more teasing, but the look in his eyes was anything but. Even in this he was trying to protect me, to relieve me of the guilt when he and I knew damn well that it was my fault.
He was right, I thought, I didn’t deserve him. I don’t know what I deserve. I don’t know anything anymore.
I don’t love him, I silently admitted. But I respect him. I like him. I tried to be who he thought I was, but the reality of me had been too real, even for him. If I was an emotional woman I would have been labeled clingy and dependent. Be the way I am and I am called indifferent and distant. There was no winning either way. Not for me.
Maybe some people are just not cut out for relationships. Relationships required a certain kind of strength and a certain kind of optimism. It required two people to open their hearts at the same time, the ability to share happiness and pain, the willingness to be vulnerable and to trust, the intuition for faith. Things I no longer had.
I wonder what my mother would think if I told her that yet again, I had messed up. She and I seemed to be in the same trajectory, both alone but in different ways. She was married to a man who didn’t love her and trapped in a marriage that she herself couldn’t break away from, afraid of being alone. Being alone never scared me, but becoming like her did. It was, perhaps the only thing I feared. I’ve seen what happens to people when they allow themselves to love too much.
Without a job, without anyone, without a plan, I waited for the eventual panic to set in, but it didn’t come. Or maybe it was there, hidden under the desolation that I’ve come to know in the last few months. I’ve never taken the time in the last five years to get acquainted with the feeling, always managed to push it away when I felt it coming over me, but recently I had been unable to do so.
I feel it taking over me, transforming me yet again, into another version of me that I have yet to know. Life had always managed to do what I fought against. In trying to preserve what little bits of me I did like I had become someone else altogether. The solitude I once sought had become loneliness, and it never subsided, never abated, no matter how much I did.
There was a breeze in the wind and it carried with it the scent of the flowers that surrounded me in Junnie’s rooftop garden, as well as the smell of the sea and fresh cut grass after the rain, two scents I had come to associate with this city. And over and above those things, threaded in the air was something else. Something dark, elusive, untouchable. The scent of a man that I once kissed, in one moment of perfection in my all too imperfect life.
If I closed my eyes I could see him again, as he had been that night. I had sent him a message this morning but never received a response. It’s just as well. I couldn’t deal with another goodbye, not tonight. Not even if it was something I wanted, something I had insisted upon.
Just as I had done every other time days like this had happened, I reminded myself to breathe in and out, hoping that tomorrow I wouldn’t need to do that anymore. I do better being alone, I reminded myself. I like being alone.
Tonight, though I wished that I wasn’t. Even if it’s just to hear someone else’s voice telling me that it will be okay, that I’d been forgiven for all the mistakes I made. Even if it was just to see someone else’s eyes looking at me, with a reflection of myself I still recognized. Someone to bear witness to this small piece of my life. Even if it was only to feel another human being’s touch, reminding me that I was part of a much bigger picture, that my life wasn’t an entirely solitary experience. Someone to attest that I was here, that I lived and loved in the best way I can, however imperfectly.
A city of almost a million people, and no one here for me. The memory of Jung Jin came back to me without warning, his fingers pressed on my back, every part of me he kissed materializing into something tangible. The look in his eyes made me feel real, like I was someone who truly existed. I wrapped my arms more tightly around myself, clutching his jacket, as if in doing so I can be transported back in time, back to before today happened, and back to his arms.
In the immediate period of my first and only heartbreak, I had fled to Japan to check up on Joon, before taking off yet again to wherever my feet wanted to take me. I went off on a journey in search of myself but discovered the world instead.
I had seen some of the most beautiful places, the world’s incredible beauty right before my very eyes. I’ve walked through the bamboo forest in Japan, visited Macchu Picchu in Peru, seen the pyramids in Egypt, heard the echo of my voice inside the ruins in Rome, and stood in awe before the temples in Greece. Every place I visited was ingrained in my mind, each a precious memory. Every place so beautiful it almost brought me to my knees, their history and the stories they carried touching a part deep inside me. A part I didn’t realize I even had. A part that I’d forgotten again since.
In the hustle and bustle of life and how quickly it moved, those places I’d seen became part of my past, closer to the man I was then than the man I am now. Just like I had made a conscious decision to become a different man, I kept the memories of those places locked away, tucked away, a reminder of a very enlightening but painful time in my life.
I had seen a lot of places, met a lot of people. I thought that I had seen everything that the world had to offer me, believed that nothing else I will see could possibly be more beautiful.
And this… I will remember this.
I stood at the top step of the stairs, my eyes glued to the woman in front of me. The lights on the roof twinkled merrily, a direct contrast to the sight she made. Even from this distance I could see the sorrow in her eyes as she stared into the distance. And yet she still looked brave, defiant, magnificent. A wave of emotion passed over me, my heart beating so loudly I could almost hear it in my ears.
I tried to remember where I was and what I was doing, but my mind stayed stubbornly uncooperative for a few seconds, devouring the way she looked. I found myself wondering how a woman can look both vulnerable and strong at the same time, the paradox unsettling. trying to regain back some of my composure, I wrestled with the thoughts in my mind and tried to look away from her. And yet…
Just one more minute, a voice inside me protested. Just a minute more.
I watched as her arms wrapped more tightly around herself, her face frozen in an expression of abject longing. If I could have I would have pulled out all the stars from the sky that she stared at so intently and lay them at her feet. A million wishes. A million of her wishes fulfilled.
I continued looking at her, wishing that she would turn and look my way when I saw what she was wearing. My jacket. It engulfed her, the shoulders way too wide on her frame, the sleeves too long on her arms. She had it on over her uniform, her hair in a long ponytail behind her.
The sight of her with my jacket on unglued something inside me and I felt a desire to stalk over to where she was and shake her. I wanted to demand her for answers, though I wasn’t even sure what the questions were myself. There were many things I wanted to know, and yet… I still felt a part of me hesitate, the taste of indecision on my tongue.
I have never been one to question the validity of my actions or justify my decisions, even to myself. But this woman… This woman wasn’t quite what she seemed. It made me feel unguarded, unprotected, defenseless.
I realized that this is a woman not to be trifled with, not a woman to play games with. my reaction to her every time I see her told me that this was a woman who can take apart everything I know and render them useless. She would demand things and ask for things… things I am not prepared to give, things I didn’t have, things I am not ready for. She would expect things like forever and always, concepts I had long ago abandoned and rejected.
The realization made me take a step back instead of a step forward, reeling in refusal, of this, of her. It felt like everything I had ever done in my life had led up to this… all my successes and all my sins, culminating into this one moment.
Tonight was a game changer, and I felt the gravity of it in my bones. Do I step up or bow out? Unsure of the answer, I found myself sitting down on the top step of the stairs, all of a sudden more fearful of the woman with whom I shared this space without her consent than even my fear of heights. My stomach was doing somersaults, and I felt suddenly nauseous, light headed. I closed my eyes as i tried to regain my composure, telling myself to go now.
Go away. As far away from here. As far away from her as my feet will take me.
I ran a frustrated hand through my hair. What have I gotten myself into? I thought. How did I get here?
As my eyes couldn’t help but drift back to her, it hit me all too quickly that tonight was my test. A test to see if I could see something through to the end, to become the man I thought I could be years ago… and I knew even now, stuck between leaving and staying, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was going to fail.
February 15, 2002
I was on top of a step ladder, cleaning the top shelf of Junnie’s cupboards when I heard the front door open. I looked behind me as I heard it close shut and slowly went down the steps, wiping my hands on a piece of paper towel. I had just stepped on the floor when I saw Junnie’s face come into view and I looked at her in puzzlement.
“Why are you here?” I asked as she put her overnight bag down on the kitchen table. “You didn’t tell me you were coming.”
“Is that how you greet your best friend?” She complained. I smiled and walked over to her before wrapping my arms around her neck in a warm embrace.
“It’s good to see you,” I said as I pulled away. “Why are you here?”
She shook her head at me. “I had something to do in San Francisco,” she answered, unwrapping the scarf around her neck and unbuttoning her coat. “How are you?” She asked, her eyes looking at me in concern.
“I’m fine,” I responded absently.
And surprisingly, I was. After what happened with Teddy and Marc and Jung Jin, the haze of the last few months was finally lifting and I was beginning to feel like myself again. I had learned to push away memories of Teddy’s death as soon as it came up and spent no time thinking about anything else besides my future. Now, at least, I had another ten months’ worth of reprieve before the holiday season and the cycle begins once more. Hopefully by then I’ll be somewhere else, somewhere new… somewhere far far away from here.
“You sounded rough the last time I spoke to you.” I heard Junnie say as she walked over to the fridge and looked over its contents, settling on a bottled water before she plopped herself down on a chair. “And you haven’t answered the phone the last few days I called. Are you really okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, sitting down across from her. “You know me.”
“I do know you.” Her brown eyes traveled over my face in concern. “That’s why I was worried.”
“I thought you would say that.” She sighed. “Anyway, I got tired of playing phone tag.”
“You know I went home for Maria’s birthday.”
“Hotel?” She asked, knowing full well what I was going to say.
“Where else?” I replied drily. “My father and I can’t stay under the same roof. Not unless you want someone killed or disowned within twenty four hours.”
“So you did see your dad?” She asked carefully. “I’m surprised.”
“I didn’t say that,” I said. I stood up and made a show of washing my hands, the sound of the tap running muffling my response. “I didn’t see him at all.”
I dried my hands on some paper towels before grabbing the last bottle of water from the fridge and sitting back down. I followed her eyes to the two suitcases and a cosmetic case by the door, as well as some boxes, all already taped up and ready for shipping.
“What’s that?” She asked with a frown. “Why are all your stuff by the door? Unless, of course, you’re moving someone in without telling me?”
“You hungry?” I asked, trying to change the topic. “It’ll take me just a minute to change…”
“… out of your hip hop princess outfit?” She finished, her eyes travelling up and down over me. I looked down and noted my denim overalls over a tank top, then smoothed a hand over my bandanna covered head. “You’re not answering my question. Why are your suitcases by the front door?”
“I can’t afford to live here anymore, ” I answered with a shrug. “Going home, realizing that there was no way I could live near my parents, made me seriously think about what I’m going to do next.”
“And what’s the verdict?” She said, uncapping the bottled water and taking a sip.
“I don’t know yet,” I answered truthfully. “I’m thinking of just renting a car and driving cross country back to the east coast. Maybe on the way back I’ll get to scan some other places and figure out where I’ll want to stay next.”
“You’re seriously planning on staying in the middle of nowhere,” she said disbelievingly. “You don’t even know any of those states.”
“I do, too.”
“Name one, then.”
I tried to visualize the map of America in my head, trying to pinpoint one of the states in the middle. My mind was coming up blank so I pictured my driving route back to New Jersey instead. Jackpot.
“Nebraska!” I declared triumphantly. “See?”
“You’re going to work in Nebraska,” she said, blinking at me. “It’s called the corn husker state.”
“So? I like corn,” I said, defensive. “I’ve husked corn.”
“You’re a city girl,” she said. “You can’t live in Nebraska.”
“I didn’t say I was going to stay there forever,” I said. “I was thinking of doing a couple of contracts while I figure out what to do.”
She continued frowning as she checked her phone. “I still don’t know why you don’t just stay here,” she said. “I’ve told you to take your time.”
“I’ve overstayed my welcome here. Besides, I can’t keep mooching off your generosity, Jun,” I said. Upon seeing that she was about to protest, I held up a hand to silence her. “I told you I would only stay here until I got my retirement contributions out and then I’ll go. The funds were in my checking account as of yesterday, so I need to get a move on.”
“I still don’t think Nebraska is the answer,” she insisted.
“You’re more fixated on Nebraska than I am,” I teased. “What have you got against that state?”
I got up to put the spray of Lysol away and when I came back, I saw Junnie standing up as well, holding Jung Jin’s jacket in her hands by the bedroom door. The last time I saw that had been when I took it off the morning after Teddy’s death, all of sudden remembering my unanswered message to him. I snatched it off her before she could say anything and dropped it on top of one of the boxes, a detail she didn’t miss as she raised an eyebrow.
“Tom Ford?” She remarked, impressed. “I didn’t realize that the surgeon had such good taste. Do you have news, then? I knew you were being too quiet. Is the drought over then?”
“Junnie, don’t be crude,” I said. “It’s nothing like that. And it’s not Marc’s.”
“I don’t get it,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“Marc and I stopped seeing each other almost three weeks ago. I thought I mentioned this to you.”
“No, you didn’t tell me,” she said with a shake of her head. “I told you it wasn’t going to work.”
“Don’t start with the ‘I told you so,’ Junnie. That it didn’t work out bears no reflection on his character. He’s a great guy.”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t,” she said. “He just wasn’t for you. So… spill the beans. Who is the owner of the jacket?”
“You know who the owner of the jacket is. He left it on New Year’s Eve.”
“The manager?” She asked, a grin on her face. “Tell me more.”
“There’s nothing to tell, Jun.” Her smile widened even more and I threw a towel at her. “Cut that out. I have other things to worry about besides the state of my love life, or my lack of one.”
“If there’s nothing to tell then why are you still in possession of his very expensive jacket?” She asked.
“I never got the chance to return it?” I replied, walking to the bedroom with her closely following behind me. “I would have sent it to him but I don’t have his address and he refuses to give it to me.”
“Uhm… ever heard of the yellow pages?” She asked, sarcastic. “And barring that, the Internet!”
“He doesn’t even live in San Francisco,” I said. “The yellow pages has no information on him. And I doubt that the Internet will track down a Korean address.”
“Why Korean?” She asked curiously. “Has his client been transferred?”
“No,” I said, looking back at her. “He lives in Korea.”
“And his client? Is he Korean too?”
“I thought I told you this,” I continued. “Both he and his client are Korean.”
“I would have remembered if you told me,” she said. “Is he Korean American or Korean Korean?”
“Why does it matter?” I asked. “Would it make a difference if I said he was Korean Korean?”
“No,” she said quickly before looking away. “I was just curious.”
I opened the dresser in the bedroom to make sure I had taken everything and satisfied that I had, I closed the door and almost got a heart attack. Junnie was standing behind the dresser door, watching me with an unreadable expression in her eyes.
“Do you have your passport here in San Francisco?” She asked.
“Yeah,” I said, suspicious. “Why?
“Come with me to Singapore. Before your road trip, come with me.”
“Why?” I asked. “I was just there last year.”
“I have a new boyfriend,” she blurted out. “I want you to meet him.”
“Yeah. I have a boyfriend now!” She said, taking my hand imploringly. “He hit my car!”
“He wasn’t my boyfriend when he hit my car. He hit my car first and then he became my boyfriend.” I was still looking at her incredulously and she scowled at me. “You don’t have to look so shocked.”
“When did this happen?” I asked.
“It’s a long story,” she said with a dismissive wave of a delicate hand. “I’ll tell you about it on the flight to Singapore.”
“You’ve gotta be shitting me,” I said, still not quite believing my ears. Junnie was never one to jump into a relationship lightly, much less give out labels with that much importance without consulting me first. “How can you have a boyfriend and not tell me?”
“You didn’t tell me about your New Year’s Eve kiss!” She retorted back.
“I did!” I protested. “Eventually.”
“I also told you,” she said. “Eventually.” When I continued glowering at her, she turned her brown eyes back at me pleadingly. “Come on… it will be fun. Who knows when you’ll get to do it again? You’ll be husking corns or shucking corns or whatever people do in Nebraska soon.”
“Junnie,” I said, trying to be reasonable. “I can’t afford to travel right now. I have to save as much money as I can. Who knows how long it will take me to find another job?”
“Even more reason for you to come with me,” she countered. “Just a couple of weeks. You won’t even have to pay for a hotel room, just your fare.”
She continued pouting at me even as she kept her grip on my hand. The thought of going somewhere else was too much a temptation for me to resist, and she knew it too. My best friend knew just how to capitalize on my restless feet. Before I knew it I had pried her fingers away and was nodding my assent.
“Fine,” I said. “Just tell me who you’re booked with and I’ll call to get my flight arranged.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I’ll take care of everything.”
Park Hyatt Hotel
February 18, 2002
I stretched languidly on the bed, the crisp sheets tangled around my legs, savoring the sensation when I vaguely remembered how long it had been since I slept on a bed, Bleary eyed I sat up slowly and looked around, trying to remember where I was. Pieces started coming back, one by one, until I was fully aware of what led me to be in this hotel room.
Junnie and I were on our way to Singapore, by way of Seoul, since there were no direct flights from San Francisco. When she made our reservations she had told me that there was a fifteen hour layover and convinced me to go to a hotel room and get some sleep before our morning flight. We ordered room service when we got here last night, along with a bottle of wine, and then two. I finally fell asleep four and a half hours ago, and I was already waking up. I laid back down and perused my surroundings, noting that Junnie must have closed the curtains before she fell asleep, the beautiful panoramic view of the Seoul skyline now covered by cream colored curtains. There was light coming from a small lamp by the door, illuminating the hardwood floors, perfectly matched with the wooden panels on the walls, as well as the wooden headboard against which I now rested my back. To my right sat a sage colored lounge chair and in front of me was a wooden partition, separating the spacious living space from the bedrooms.
I had questioned her why we needed a suite when we were here for less than twenty four hours, but she had insisted that her reward points entitled her for an upgrade, to which I shook my head but too fatigued from the travel, I hadn’t argued any more. There had been no point. Junnie always did what she wanted to do anyway.
Speaking of Junnie…
I looked over at the identical bed next to mine, surprised to see it empty. In the background I heard the faint sound of the shower running from the bathroom. Junnie must have become immune to jetlag, what with her frequent traveling. She had slept even less than I did, but she was already up and about, even with our flight not leaving for another six hours. Even so we didn’t have to be at the airport and checked in for another two.
I glanced at the table next to me, making sure that my passport and wallet were there. I noted the time on the small digital clock before I picked up the phone and requested a wake up call at 7:30 a.m. For a few minutes I debated whether I should just stay awake and have an early breakfast downstairs, maybe make my way to the hotel gym and run some of this anxiety off. I wasn’t sure why but I felt a niggle of nerves about something, unable to pinpoint what could be causing it. It certainly wasn’t because I never traveled before, seeing as I traveled all the time. Or I did before San Francisco. And obviously it wasn’t because I was traveling on my own, since Junnie was with me.
I wondered how long she had been up and why I wasn’t roused when she first went into the bathroom, until I remembered that I always did sleep better on a bed, though I only ever managed to sleep on one when I was with someone I trusted. Might as well make the most of it while I’m with my best friend, I thought, chuckling. Before I could ponder any more of my quirky habits, however, my eyes closed to their own accord, and sleep overtook me, all intentions of getting breakfast and going to the gym quickly forgotten.
“Hello?” I said groggily into the phone. It had rung continuously for what had seemed like a million times, the ringing echoing in my ears even now. I lifted my cellphone sitting on the table, only to realize that it was still in San Francisco time, 4:30 p.m. Hearing no response on the other line, I repeated myself. “Hello?”
“This is the front desk calling with your wake-up call, Ma’am,” a deeply accented female voice responded politely. “Would you like a second wake-up call?”
I reluctantly propped my weight up on one elbow before sitting up all the way, brushing my hair away from my face.
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Thank you very much. Please let us know if you needed anything else.”
I said another thank you before I hung up the phone, clutching the sheet around me though the room was warm. The curtains were still drawn, the room dark, and I wasn’t sure if the sun was already up. I sat on the side of the bed, yawning and stretching my arms above me, my head still heavy from sleepiness, my eyes still groggy. I looked behind me to Junnie’s bed, no activity coming from the lump under her sheets.
“Who takes a shower and then goes back to sleep?” I complained under my breath, shaking my head. My best friend was just as weird as I was.
I stood up and pulled the curtains open, my breath catching at the sight of Seoul under the morning light, all the buildings I had only seen lit up last night now in full view. The city was already alive, cars on the road, people on the streets. Just as it always did, the sight of someplace new took my breath away, an undiscovered treasure.
“Junnie, wake up, it’s already 7:30,” I called out even as my eyes continued to take the sight in front of me in, my feet already itching to explore. Maybe if Junnie woke up now we’ll have a little bit of time to walk around a little before we made the almost hour long trip back to the airport. I didn’t get a response and I looked behind me. “Junnie, wake up.”
Again, the lump on the bed didn’t move, nor did I hear Junnie complain and moan about my waking her up so loudly, as she usually did, and curiously I walked over to the bed to take the covers away from her. I had only just grabbed one corner of the thick duvet when I realized that her bed was unoccupied, that the figure of her body that I thought had been on the bed, was just the covers perfectly positioned to appear like a body in the dark.
Wondering what the hell was going on, I was about to walk over to the bathroom to see if she was there and was playing some kind of trick on me when I saw something laying flat on the lounge chair by the windows.
I quickly walked over and picked it up, a piece of paper drifting onto the floor. Figuring it must be the receipt, I didn’t bother checking it before I held the clothes hanger in front of me. The garment bag was stamped with Park Hyatt in bold scripted lettering, and I hesitated briefly as I tugged the zipper down. Somehow I had a feeling I was going to regret opening this, and I stopped. Sitting down on the lounge chair I glared at the garment bag before picking up the piece of paper off the floor. Recognizing Junnie’s neat handwriting, I read what she wrote even as my mouth opened in disbelief and exasperation, disbelieving of what she had done. I stayed sitting in shocked silence as I let my brain process and digest what I just read, my eyes drifting in panic over the side table, only to find it empty. My mind was going a million miles a minute, panic already setting in, as well as anger.
“JUNNIEEE!!!” I yelled once I had regained the use of my voice. “This isn’t funny! You’re just messing around with me, right?” There was no answer from anywhere in the hotel room, no sudden appearance of my best friend laughing as she always did when she played one of these pranks on me. “JUNNIE!!! YOU BITCH!!!”