The Timber House
February 19, 2002
“You are the last person I expected to say that you were in Korea,” I said. ”I missed your text. I was still in San Francisco at that time. Weren’t you just here a month ago?.”
Shawn smiled as the bottle of sake was deposited between us. Picking up the fluorescent green bottle of Juyondai, I poured a generous amount to both our cups. On the table sat a plate with freshly shucked oysters and pickled pear jelly, as well as a platter of sashimi, accompanied by bright wasabi and ribbons of ginger. I watched as my friend took a sip of the fragrant and delicate liquor before picking up my chopsticks and helping myself to some fresh tuna.
We were sitting at the lit bar on high red checked stools in the middle of the restaurant. It was still quite full, surprising for a weeknight, though its occupants were mainly foreigners. The bar was flanked on one side by beige and grey checkered armchairs and round wooden tables. The lighting was dim, cozy, meant to emulate the sake bars in Japan. It was one of my favorite places, another testament to my friend’s good taste when I received the text asking me to meet here.
“Why were you in San Francisco again?” Shawn asked over the cup. “I thought you said that you and JJ needed to figure out what you were doing?”
“Nah, it all got ironed out sooner than I thought,” I answered offhandedly before I realized what my friend just said. “What did you say?” I asked, confused, and Shawn gave me a sly smile. “What did you call him?”
“JJ Kim. He IS your client, right?” The question was asked lightly and I raised my eyebrows.
“I never told you his name,” I said. “I could have sworn I never said his name.”
“You didn’t,” Shawn replied. “But how many Korean baseball players with a Korean manager were there in the MLB? I’m not stupid, you know. I figured it out.”
“You’re right,” I agreed with a resigned sigh.
“It wasn’t that hard, Ethan.”
I lifted my eyes in surprise at the use of my English name, before I smiled. “You’re the only one left who even calls me that.”
“Really?” Shawn asked. “What about the woman you were seeing in the States? Did she never call you that?”
Dammit. I had forgotten that I had mentioned her before. Talk about ridiculous and premature declarations.
It’s been three weeks since the last night I saw her, and I hardly even remember her anymore. Not her greenish brownish eyes. Not her mouth with the full lower lip. Not even the heady scent of her.
I don’t remember anything at all.
“She didn’t call me Ethan,” I said quickly, my voice gruff, downing the sake in one go. “She never knew my English name.”
“What did she call you then?” Shawn asked curiously. “Don’t tell me she called you Jung Jin.”
“She never addressed me by my first name. She always called me Mr. Lee.”
“What?” Shawn asked, amused. “No kidding?”
“Nope,” I answered. “She always called me Mr. Lee.”
At this, my old friend broke out in loud guffaws, the laughter thoroughly bemused. I saw a hand fly up to cover the sound before I motioned for another bottle of sake.
“She’s something else,” Shawn remarked. “Really. I love her already.”
“Don’t love her too much,” I snapped. “I won’t be seeing her again.”
Because I’m not ready. Because I don’t think I can give her what she needs. Because I’m not a good man. “Just because. You know it doesn’t take me long to lose interest.”
“You are such a liar.”
“What?” I asked curtly, only to see brown eyes studying me intently.
“I don’t know why you feel the need to lie to me, but I can see right through you. You haven’t lost interest,” Shawn said after eating an oyster. “Sad, though, if that’s true. You looked different talking about her. Happy. Hopeful. Like the guy I met in uni. I thought she’d be the woman to yank you out of your comfort zone.”
“Why sad? It’s not sad. Two people who are not meant to be will never be together, no matter how much anyone insists it’s possible.”
“What about the people who are? Does that same rule apply to them?”
“You don’t believe in destiny,” I reminded my friend. “And neither do I. Serendipity, maybe, but not destiny.”
“Okay,” Shawn said in a voice meant to placate, to patronize.
“And what comfort zone?” I continued, irritated, though I wasn’t sure why. “And even if that was true, why would I even want to be yanked out of that? It’s called a comfort zone for a reason.”
“You’ll find out soon enough that the comfort zone is not comfortable at all… Not when you’re missing out on everything,” Shawn said quietly. Just as I was about to ask for an explanation, a piece of paper materialized on the table and was slid over to me.
“What’s this?” I asked before picking it up.
“The reason why I wanted to meet up. I sold your car.” I gave Shawn a smile before I pocketed the check. “Aren’t you even going to see for how much I sold it for?”
“You know I’m rich, thanks to you and your genius brain,” I said with a thumbs up. “Why are we meeting so late anyway?”
“My girl’s asleep,” Shawn responded. “And I was bored.”
“You actually came here with someone?” I asked, surprised. “You’ve gotten softer with old age, my friend.”
“I’m seeing someone now. I never have to travel alone again,” Shawn responded. “Besides, I’m two years younger than you.”
“Whatever,” I teased. “And sneaking out no less? I didn’t realize you were the type.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Shawn said with a shrug. “Hey, do you still have an account with the Bank of Korea?”
“Yup,” I answered, wiping my mouth with a napkin. “Why?”
“I need a favor.”
I waited for Shawn to share the details of said favor, but no further information followed. What I got instead was silence, and I started tapping a finger against the bar counter.
“Are you going to tell me, then?” I finally asked when it seemed that no explanation was forthcoming.
“I’ll give you instructions tomorrow.”
“Must have something to do with business,” I commented. “Don’t worry… My mouth is zipped.”
“I appreciate that.” Nothing more was said and I had to shake my head.
“I didn’t realize you could be so cryptic about things,” I remarked. “You used to be so obvious.”
“Times have changed, Ethan. And there are lots of things you don’t know about me.” At this Shawn pulled out some cash and laid it on the counter. “I have to go before she realizes that I’ve left her alone. I covered our tab this time so you can’t moan and complain that you always pay. I’ll call you.”
I watched as my friend stood up and then turned and addressed me once more.
“So, if things are done with the woman, does that mean I can fix you up?” Shawn asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Fix me up anytime. Please. Just let me know when and where.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
Shawn gave me a wink and then walked towards the exit of the restaurant with one last wave my way. I stood up from the stool and carried my drink to one of the armed chairs, settling down to enjoy my drink. My eyes wandered over the people in the bar with me, all with other people. Suckers. I’ve never needed to be with anyone else.
My gaze collided with dark brown eyes directly and unashamedly staring at me, painted lips curving into a smile. I lifted my drink her way and her smile widened even more, a practiced blush coming over her cheeks, a hand brushing her hair back to display an elegant neck. She stood up slowly, revealing miles and miles of leg emphasized by the short dress she wore. I watched as she took her wine glass and made her way towards me, hips swaying as she walked.
“Oppa,” she purred as she sat down on the seat across from me, crossing her legs and hitching up her dress even more. “Do you want to have a drink with me?”
Oh yes, I never needed to be with anyone else… but sometimes it can’t be helped, not when all I had to do was be myself and company came flocking. My comfort zone, as Shawn had called it, was extremely, disgustingly, enviably comfortable indeed.
“Who would refuse such an invitation?” I asked. I lifted my hand to motion for a server before I smiled at the woman in front of me. “Not me.”
Park Hyatt Hotel
February 19, 2002
You said you wanted to return his jacket, and now you have the perfect opportunity. Aren’t I the bestest friend ever? Here’s his address and by the way, I reprogrammed his number back in your phone :).
P.S. Explore Seoul for two weeks. On me. Don’t even think about leaving… I have your passport and wallet. Trust me. You need this.
P.P.S. I already told your Mom and your sister. They agree.
“JUNNIE!” I yelled out, rereading the words that she had written, my fist closing around her note, the paper crumpling into a tight ball. “JUNNIE!!!! YOU BITCH!!!”
I stood up and went to the table closest to the bed I just slept in, opening the drawers and checking for my passport and wallet, not entirely convinced that Junnie would have the gall to do this. To me.
She’s been my best friend for over a decade, and she just abandoned me! In another country, no less! Without my documents! If a war was to break out I wouldn’t even be able to go to an embassy. I could get killed and no one would even know I was in the country.
I packed all of my stuff back in my suitcase before realizing I was still in pajamas. I quickly changed into a pair of jeans and a sweater, then my boots, putting my hair back into a ponytail. I looked at the clock and noted with relief that it wasn’t even 8 a.m. yet. Two and a half hours before the flight leaves. Plenty of time. Picking up the phone in the hotel room to request a cab back to Incheon International Airport, it took only a second before someone answered the call.
“Yes, hello, I’m in room 547 and I would like to request a cab, or a car, or anything that can take me to…”
“We’ve been told to expect your phone call, Ma’am,” the voice said politely. “Please hold.”
The call was put on hold before I could even finish making my request, and I wondered whether Junnie had anticipated this, whether she had already put the hotel staff up to this as well. It seemed I didn’t have to wonder for too long since the phone was taken off hold and the call was connected immediately.
“Good morning,” Junnie greeted brightly, her tone smug. “Did you sleep well?”
“Where are you, you crazy bitch?” I asked. “I’m leaving the hotel right now!”
“Too late. The plane will be boarding soon. By the time you get here it will be long gone,” she said calmly.
“What is wrong with you?” I yelled. “You can’t just leave me here! I don’t even have my passport. I’m not a Korean citizen. I’m not supposed to be here without papers!”
“That would be an issue if your passport and wallet are actually out of Korea,” she replied. I vaguely heard the voice of a PA system speaking behind her. “But they’re not. They’re just somewhere unknown to you right now. If there was an emergency I would tell you where they are.”
“What? If there was an emergency? What kind of emergency?” I insisted, my voice panicking. “Have you forgotten I don’t speak any Korean? Or that I’ve never been here before? How am I supposed to go anywhere or do anything?”
“Isn’t it lucky then that you do know someone who just happened to be Korean, who is in Korea, and who speaks both Korean and English?”
“Was this whole thing about this?” I asked back, ignoring her question. “Seriously, Junnie? SERIOUSLY?!?!”
“I thought you’d appreciate the fact that you can multi task. Kill two birds with one stone! You can have your vacation and return his jacket!” She said triumphantly, as if what she just said made complete and utter sense. “It plays to both your spontaneous and organized sides perfectly.”
“You’ve gone insane. Having a boyfriend has made you insane,” I muttered. “I’m not calling him. Hell, no. I’m not calling him.”
“You have to. Because you won’t leave Korea until you return his jacket,” she said sweetly. “And don’t even think about sending it via mail, because I have his number in my phone, too. Don’t think I would hesitate to call him and ask.”
“He didn’t even answer me the last time I texted, Junnie. This is going to seem insane!” I argued. “What makes you think that he would even want to meet up with me?”
“You need to be insane once in a while,” she countered. “Annnddd… the guy was so into you. He’ll meet you, if for no other reason than to find out why you’re in Korea. He won’t be able to help himself.”
“Junnie… I can’t afford to stay here, in this hotel. I need my wallet,” I pleaded. “What kind of vacation will I have with no money?”
I tried to make my voice sound as pathetic as possible, to guilt her into giving in, even as my mind was already formulating a plan. If she gave me my wallet, I can catch the next plane back to San Francisco. If she gave me cash, I could go to the airport and buy the ticket at the counter. As long as she gives me over 1500 dollars, I should be fine. I stood up and started pacing back and forth, covering as much ground as the telephone cord would let me.
“I thought about that too,” she conceded. “Which is why there are fourteen envelopes in the hotel safe. The staff has strict instructions to give you one daily.”
“Wow,” I said, a bit sarcastically, as she dashed all my plans in one instant. “You’ve thought of everything. You’ve covered everything.”
“There’s enough cash in the envelopes for whatever you’ll need… taxi fares, food, shopping…” she continued.
She really did think of everything, which meant that this had not been done spontaneously. These things take planning and preparation, which leads me to conclude that she knew even before we left San Francisco that she would be leaving me here. Perhaps even as soon as she had extended her invitation, and was certainly the reason why she had been so eager to arrange my flight details.
“… And I left a travel and a basic Korean phrase book in your purse!” She said the last sentence in a self-satisfied tone, as if she was proud of what she had done. I plopped myself down on the side of the bed, looking for what to say, trying to figure out how to feel about this situation. I’m still reeling from the surrealness of this whole thing, and I needed someone to wake me up.
“Jun… do you think this is funny?” I asked, my voice small. “Have I become so pathetic that you felt the need to do something like this?”
She stayed silent for a few seconds before I heard a release of breath. “No,” she said gently. “I don’t think it’s funny at all. The future of my best friend’s happiness is no laughing matter, especially to me.”
“Then why?” I asked. “Why would you do this without telling me?”
“You’ve been my best friend for over thirteen years,” she replied carefully. “And I’ve seen you change so much. You never take any chances anymore. You never do what you want to do without spending so much time debating whether or not to do it, until the chance is gone and you no longer have any options.”
“I’ve had to change, Jun. I stood no chance of going forward in my life if I didn’t change. Human beings evolve. It was inescapable and inevitable. I was too soft when we were younger. Too trusting. Too…”
“There was nothing wrong with you! ” She exclaimed. “There was nothing wrong with you. I’ve stood by and supported you with every decision you’ve made so far, haven’t I? ‘Trust me,’ you would say. ‘It’s for the best.’ I did that, even when I wasn’t sure of things panning out because I love you and I know you. Now it’s your turn. Trust me. I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t think it would help. I’ve enabled your inability to properly settle things for too long, and it needs to stop. I won’t stand idly by and watch you live like that anymore!”
“I understand what you’re saying,” I said. And I did, to a certain degree, even though I wasn’t really sure if this had been the only option. My head had already started throbbing and I brought a hand up to ease some of the discomfort away. “But you could have just spoken to me. This was a little drastic, no?”
“You’ve been working nonstop since you and Chris broke up,” she replied. “There was never any time. If I let you decide when, it will never happen. I had to do it. You said so yourself that your time in San Francisco was over. You don’t have a new job yet, no plans of going back to your family. You always wanted to travel. This is my gift to you. Make the most of it.”
“Why Korea, though?”
“You always said you wanted to go back to Asia. Didn’t you buy a ticket years ago?”
“To Japan, Jun. Japan. Totally different country altogether.”
“No shit,” she answered drily. “But I wasn’t going to leave you somewhere where you didn’t have anyone there that you can readily call. Besides, the jacket’s owner is in Korea.” I heard the PA system again behind her and she continued. “I have to go. The plane just started boarding.”
“What should I do now?” I asked.
“Sleep some more and then get breakfast, and then start exploring,” she said. “I’ll call you tonight after I get back from the office.”
“How am I supposed to sleep when my sleeping bag is not with me?” I asked. “Impossible. You know I can’t sleep without that.”
“You slept just fine last night.”
“Only because you were with me,” I said. “I have so many issues, Junnie. Issues that I need to start dealing with, but this is not the place for it.”
“I think it’s the perfect place for it,” she responded. “Far from all the things you know, far from the excuses you always used, I think Korea is the place for you to be right now. And you’re right. You do have some issues. Dealing without that stupid sleeping bag is a good place to start.”
She hung up the phone before I could argue any more and exhausted now, from the flight and from our conversation, I lifted my legs off the floor and curled them on the bed, laying my head back down.
I guess I needed to start doing what she wanted me to do, if I wanted out of here. If she wanted me to see places then I will see places. If she wanted me to go shopping, then I will gladly do that. I’ll do whatever she wants me to do if it means being able to leave, including finding myself, if that’s what she wants.
But I won’t see Jung Jin. No way. In that one condition I will not relent. She’ll have to give in sooner than later. She’ll have to. She can’t possibly leave me here forever.
February 28, 2002
I’m going crazy. I swear I’m going crazy. It’s the only explanation. What else would justify the hallucinations I’ve been having? The only thing that made any kind of sense was if I was going batshit insane. Strangely the thought was reassuring, the idea that it was just my mind playing tricks on me comforting.
I looked outside the glass windows of the restaurant, barely registering that Hye Soo was still speaking to me. One of my hands held my phone, resisting the temptation to text Gia and confirm that she hadn’t been in Korea, though I was fairly positive that she wouldn’t respond even if I did.
I don’t understand why, but in the last few days I was convinced I had seen her two, maybe three times. And in the most random of places.
The first time had been at a coffee shop down the street from my apartment, when while waiting for my coffee to be ready, my eyes had wandered around the tables looking for a place to sit. I saw a woman who looked remarkably like her, though not quite like her as I remembered. My hallucination had sat by the windows, perfectly framed by the sunlight filtering in, calmly drinking something in a cup and reading a book. Her hair was down, longer than I remembered, in loose waves over a high necked blouse. She was wearing a skirt, her legs covered in black tights and heels on her feet, oblivious to whatever else was going on around her, including the interested looks that some men in the coffee shop were throwing her way.
Shocked I had gone to the bathroom and splashed water on my face, telling myself to get a grip. By the time I came out of the bathroom the table I saw her at was empty, the chair pushed back in, with nary a sign that it was ever occupied. Shaking my head I had chalked it up to my recent conversation with Shawn about her and didn’t think any more of it.
Until two days after, at Jamsil Stadium watching Joon train, I had been walking to the bathroom and came across a guide with a group of tourists walking around. This time my illusion had her in jeans and a black peacoat, her hair straight behind her, a burgundy colored cap over her hair with gloves of the same color on her hands. She was studying the pictures of the baseball players on the wall, the only one in the group not immersed in conversation. I stepped away and took a call from one of Joon’s advertisers and when I spotted the group again, she was nowhere to be found. I should have known then that I was just fantasizing her here. Why else would she be in Jamsil Stadium, of all places?
The third time my hallucination showed up was earlier today, when I passed the deck with all the locks on my way to the restaurant. There were couples milling about holding hands and putting locks on, and I had allowed myself a glance, scoffing just a little at the silliness of it all and wondering how many of the couples whose names were inscribed on said locks were still together. A vision in a red coat at one corner of the viewing platform caught my eye, her eyes facing the city’s skyline, her hair in a long braid down her back. Her arms were crossed over her chest, looking completely out of place, the sunset illuminating her in colors or orange and red. I had looked away and closed my eyes for a second, telling myself to stop thinking about her, and by the time I looked again, as predicted, she was gone. My eyes scanned the space, still quite unsure why now of all times I would be seeing her everywhere, and found no evidence that there had been some degree of truth to what I had just seen.
I supposed it was entirely possible that she might be in Korea before I scolded myself. Don’t be ridiculous, I thought silently. Why the hell would she be here? She has a job in San Francisco, not to mention a boyfriend. There’s no reason for her to be here.
“… Can you believe that?” Hye Soo finished and I quickly met her eyes. She was looking at me, her gaze sharp, a smile on her lips. “Have you been listening?”
“Of course,” I responded smoothly. “Of course.”
I picked at the mackerel tartare with shiso and pickled lemon before finishing it all quietly. Across from me Hye Soo didn’t say any more as she ate fresh tagliatelle with mushroom ragu and foie gras, though I can feel her irritation by the way her utensils kept clanking on the plate. I drank all the wine in my glass in one go, then cleared my throat.
“I already made a reservation at Park Hyatt,” Hye Soo said, a lacquered nail running a path down my arm to my hand. “Should we go there after dinner?”
“Whatever you want,” I answered as our plates were taken away.
“How was San Francisco?” She asked, one eyebrow raised, as she poured me more wine.
“It was fine,” I answered lightly, hoping that she would follow suit and relax as well. Though she had a smile on her face, her eyes remained focused, as if she was trying to read me.
Our main meal arrived just then and I focused myself on eating the strip loin in front of me, as she started eating her lobster dish.
“You’ve gone back to San Francisco quite a bit in the last few months,” she said carefully, even as I brought a bite of steak to my lips and chewed on it, its usually succulent taste lost on me with my dark mood. “Quite unusual since Joon doesn’t even play there anymore.”
“You know I still had property there,” I answered.
“I packed up the condo and put it for sale the last time I left,” I finished and saw the gleam of satisfaction in her eyes.
“So whatever was in San Francisco…” she continued. “… is all done now?”
I hope so, I thought, though my mind couldn’t help but stray back to the memory of Gia on the roof the last time I saw her, her arms tightly wound around herself, her eyes lost. The same look in her face before our first kiss, even as she was trying to catch her breath; her cheeks flushed and her long hair brushing my arms.
Every memory was still so fresh in my mind it was no wonder I was imagining her in Seoul. If I continued the way I was going I would find any excuse to go back to San Francisco just to catch a glimpse of her face again, or picking up the phone just to hear her mock and insult me again.
Enough, the little voice in my head said. How can you miss something you never had? How can you lose someone that was never yours? Kisses aren’t promises, and you owe each other nothing. Not one thing. Besides, you don’t make promises anyway. And she… She’s already making promises with someone else. Enough.
“Yeah,” I said as I pushed my plate to the side. “It’s done.” I stood up and pulled out a few bills from my wallet and put it on the table before I held a hand out to her. “Shall we go?”
“Joon-ah,” I started, sitting down on the bench press machine across from the treadmill he was running on. “Let me ask you a question.”
As I watched him press a button on the treadmill to increase his speed, I was reminded yet again that the best part of managing Kim Jae Joon was, actually, not managing Kim Jae Joon. While I do all the paperwork and negotiations for all of his contracts and public relations issues, I have never really ever had to tell Joon how long and how hard he had to work out, or nag him about keeping his body in top shape. I was very well aware that my client had more discipline than even most people I knew, both in business and sport, and tenacity to boot. Those qualities made my job very, very easy. He looked at me as he wiped his brow with a towel, then nodded, but didn’t slow down at all.
“Hyung,” he said. “Had something happened with one of my advertisers?” I shook my head no. “Did the Bears add a condition to my contract?” Again, no. “Then will you just ask your question? You sitting there studying me like that is making me nervous.”
“So…” I started. “Do you remember that time when you liked Na Jeong but you weren’t with her yet?”
He frowned at me even as he continued running. “You have to be a little more specific, Hyung. I wasn’t with Na Jeong for a long time.”
“That time…” I said nervously, not meeting his eyes. “That time you went abroad and played baseball.”
“Hyung,” he repeated. “I’m not following. I’m always going abroad and playing baseball. What is your point?”
“Uhmm…” I waved my fingers through my hair as I searched for the right words to say to not incriminate myself or draw some judgment. “… did you…” I cleared my throat once. “Did you ever see her? Like… In your imagination?”
Joon continued to run, looking at me all the while, then after a few seconds, pushed a button and stopped, drinking from a bottled water as he stepped off the treadmill. He walked over to where I was sitting before he spoke, his eyes wary.
“Who told you about that?” He asked, tone irritated and I breathed a sigh of relief. I’m not abnormal. Crazy, maybe. But not abnormal. “Did my cousin tell you that? I don’t know why I tell Dong Joon half the stuff I tell him. Why did you want to know about that now? She and I are getting married in a few months.”
“I just wanted to know,” I said.
“Don’t judge me.” Joon said and sat next to me on the bench, a towel around his neck.
“How did you get it to stop?” I asked innocently. “I mean… It did stop, right?”
He sighed before he answered. “Did it?” He asked. “I’m not really sure. Back then I thought I was seeing her everywhere because I refused to think about her. I figured my subconscious somehow found a way to still have her in my life because that’s what I really wanted. I found that if I gave myself a specific amount of time to think about her, like two minutes before a game for example, the less I imagined her. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said although my answer should have really been ‘No, not really.’ I think about Gia consciously and quite often, but still the hallucinations persisted. “Did you have to get therapy or… medication?”
Joon looked at me and blinked before he shook his head slowly. “It’s not a medical condition, Hyung.”
The way he was looking at me made me feel self-conscious, and I looked at my watch. “Joon-ah… Keep doing what you were doing. Thanks.”
I had already stood up and was putting my jacket on when I heard Joon’s voice, wryly amused.
“Hyung, what’s the matter?” He asked behind me. “Surely you didn’t come to see me so late just to ask me about me and Na Jeong. And especially not after you told me you would be out for the rest of the night.”
“Did I?” I asked, turning to face him. “That had been the plan.”
Yeah, I thought. That had been the plan. Until Hye Soo and I were getting into the elevator to go up to the hotel room and the elevator next to ours opened. Until I caught a whiff of perfume, the scent as unique as the woman who wore it. Until I allowed myself a glance at the group of suited men walking out and imagined Gia in the middle, still wearing her red coat, her pretty eyes firmly directed ahead, a purse slung over one shoulder.
I had stood in place, my feet unwilling to move, telling myself that it wasn’t really her. That it can’t be her. I was still trying to convince myself of this when the door closed on Hye Soo’s very irritated face. The sound the elevator made jolted me back to consciousness, but not my sanity. Before I knew it I found myself walking towards the lobby, determined to find out once and for all what the hell was going on.
The group of business men was standing by the front door. And she… She had once again vanished. Gone. Of course.
If it was my subconscious that was creating these hallucinations, shouldn’t it at least let me spend a bit of time with her? Was this the best scenario I could come up with? I shook my head at the mediocrity of my imagination. And… Why won’t imaginary Gia still talk to me? How is it, that even the image of her I had conjured up was still as dismissive of me as she was in reality?
“Hyung…” Joon repeated. “Had?”
“Yeah, something came up,” I said, trying to keep my tone light. Unwilling to tell Joon what was really going on, I tried to change the topic. “Why aren’t you with Na Jeong anyway?”
“She and Yoon Jin went out. I had dinner with Samcheonpo and the baby and then went home,” he said with a smile. All the man had to do was hear his woman’s name and he was grinning from ear to ear. “Want to come over tomorrow night? She’s cooking.”
“Tempting, but no. I already have a date.” He looked at me but didn’t ask anything else. “What?”
“Nothing,” he replied. “Just… I just thought you were getting a little more serious when you met Gia Noona. You know,” he said at my questioning look, “like it was different this time.”
“I’m not like you, Joon-ah. I’m not built for commitment. You know that.”
“I’m sounded promising, anyway, while it lasted.”
“Why would I want to change things anyway? I’m happy. Life is good.”
“Okay,” Joon said, not sounding sufficiently convinced, as he adjusted the weights on the bench press.
“My life is perfect,” I insisted as annoyance flared when he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Stop saying okay!” I barked and he looked at me directly, a smile playing on one side of his lips.
I threw a towel at him, which he dodged easily. “I’m leaving.”
Joon nodded in response before calling out that he will call me tomorrow and I made my way out of the gym in his apartment building. I went straight to my car, making sure to blare the music as loudly as my ears can tolerate it so as to keep my imagination distracted, in case it had any ideas about planting her in the middle of the road or in the car next to me. I continued this way even as I drove around the city for an hour, wondering what the hell that woman had done to me, and how to reverse it.
Bittersweet Sound Cafe
March 1, 2002
I unwrapped the thick scarf from my neck as I entered the first cafe I came across, grateful to escape the throng of people on the streets of Hongdae. No one looked at me as I walked in for once and I was grateful. I’ve had enough people looking at me since I came to this city.
It will be two weeks in a couple of days since Junnie left me here, and I anticipated that I would be leaving soon. I had tried to save as much of the pocket money that Junnie had left for me, walking everywhere and spending just a little on food, until I realized that my best friend needed a payback for her deception. And so I had gathered the money I had left over and made my way to the shopping district in Hongdae, buying things for my mother and my sister, almost spending all of it in one go. I already felt a thrill of glee at what she will say.
Still, though, she had been right. Being here was just what I needed to clear my head. Though I had been previously unwilling, I had to admit that it’s already done me a world of good being here and away from San Francisco. Now more than ever I was convinced that I was ready to go back to my life.
The first day I had stayed in the hotel room until a tray of food came, along with a card telling me to go to the hotel spa at a certain time. After eating I put on a pair of yoga pants and sweatshirt before going to the spa, and as soon as I stepped in, a trio of women greeted me and had me in a fluffy robe before I could even say hello. The next thing I knew I was on a chair, a bright white light over my face even as my eyes were covered with a mask, being tortured with pinpricks of pain. I was almost in tears by the time they had directed me to a room with a square tub full of what looked like mud. I had looked at it, horrified, before they took my robe off very efficiently and practically pushed me into it. At least there was champagne on the side, along with fresh fruit, though too fearful of messing up the glass and dropping fruit into the tubful of brown slimy sludge, I could hardly enjoy either.
It had all been worth it, though, especially since I was finished off with a deep tissue massage, my body so relaxed after that I went back to my hotel room and slept without any real difficulty. Even without my sleeping bag. I slept for a good sixteen hours, and when I woke up, it had been with renewed vigor.
I had spent the last week and a half exploring Seoul and navigating the city on my own, even with just my Korean phrasebook. I’d begun frequenting a coffee shop three blocks away from the hotel, my guide book in tow, ordering the same thing every day that by the fifth time I was there I didn’t even need to say what I wanted anymore. As if realizing that I knew no Korean, the barista had taken to giving me a translated version of their daily specials on a piece of paper, which I ordered gratefully to take with me as I toured the city.
The first week I visited Heunginjimun gate, along with Gyeongbukdong Palace, with its grand structure surrounded by water waiting just behind it. I tried to get into the Korean version of the White House as well, only to be told that I had to reserve with a tour group in advance. Disappointed I went to the next item on my list, Changgyeonggung Palace, and brightened immediately. It was absolutely breathtaking and serene, with its pond and botanical gardens. I saved what was supposedly the most beautiful of all the palaces, as the tour book said, Changdeokgung Palace, for last. And it had been worth it. Being someplace so old, so rich and steeped in history, had made me feel grounded. With each day that passed, I felt myself getting more and more relaxed, almost completely away from all that had plagued me back in San Francisco.
I had spent my first Friday here visiting Jamsil Stadium with a tour group, having learned my lesson the first time, surprised to see a group of baseball players practicing on the field. For a second I thought I saw JJ, my old patient, and freaked out when I realized Jung Jin would also be there if he was, and left as soon as we stepped foot anywhere near the field. Determined not to tempt fate by going someplace where he could possibly be, I spent Saturday visiting the monuments to King Sejong and Admiral Yi Su Shin and their museums, marveling at the achievements these men had made for their country and their people, relieved that those were hardly places where Jung Jin would spend weekends frequenting. I spent Sunday at Dongdaemun Market, trying out local street food, as well as picking up the abalone rice porridge I so loved from a restaurant nearby before heading to Cheonggyecheon, the 5.8 kilometer restored stream that magically starts in the heart of downtown Seoul and courses through the neighborhoods of Jongno and Dongdaemun before it meets the Jungnangcheon and eventually empties into the mighty Hangang river.
I had walked around the area, starting from Cheonggye Plaza, with its spiral sculpture and miniature etching of the stream, along with a waterfall and fountain with eight stones, then following the illustration of King Jeongjo’s visit to Suwon Castle, painted on 5120 tiles. It was between the Laundry Site and the Wall of Hopes that I sat myself down on the side of the stream, watching the softly lit water as it flowed peacefully and confidently, always sure of its destination. A lump formed in my throat at the reminder that even the water knew where it belonged, unlike me.
I had spent the last few days around the city, visiting 63 Building with its art gallery, the tallest in the city, the view from its windows almost as valuable as the works of art it held within. I went to Bukchon Traditional Village a few days ago, with its traditional houses, and then to Old Seoul Station for the evening. The next day, I visited Hangang Park then Hanbo Bridge, enjoying the light show as the day turned into night, feasting on a bag of sweet potatoes and fish cakes.
Yesterday I finally found my way to Namsam Tower after having read so much about it in my guide book. As soon as I arrived at the entrance, where the cable cars left from, I had felt out of place though I wasn’t sure why. I was being stared at as the journey to the top of Namsam Tower began, but that wasn’t what was bothering me… After all, that was a fact I had become accustomed to having been in Korea for almost two weeks now. There was something else, something that nagged and made me want to hide amongst the crowd, a feeling that I was almost intruding.
Trudging up the stairs towards the tower, the realization hit that I was the only person not part of a couple. The men were all gently guiding their girlfriends up the snow covered paths, or acting as a safety net for those who were donning high heels. Trying to keep my eyes away from all of the people, I was blown away when I saw tens of thousands of locks everywhere… By the railings, on trees… Everywhere my eyes turned. Fascinated I had spent a good amount of time looking at the locks, running my finger over what had been written on them. Some were expected, with pictures of couples on them and wishes for happiness, or at least I had assumed that’s what they were since I couldn’t read Korean. Locks of all shapes and sizes were affixed wherever possible, some genuine locks, some made from mobile phone covers or scraps of paper. Strangely there was a chopping board with a message of love, a sock, a spoon and a condom. There were also weird shaped benches shaped in a ‘v’, and seeing how the couples were sitting on them, I realized that these had been designed precisely for the purpose of cuddling up to your other half.
I had looked away then, chuckling to myself, when my breath caught as I saw the view before me. Seoul, bathed in an orange and red glow, the urban skyline juxtaposed with views of mountains and rivers.
This city, this place, held magic. It was beautiful, and rich with a history full of pain and suffering, proving its resilience over and over again. This was a place that celebrated both its history and present condition, and I had no doubt that if I ventured outside Seoul, I would encounter that same contradiction everywhere in this country, places where the past and present met and lived embracing both, perhaps not so comfortably most of the time, but did so anyway. Unlike me.
I don’t know how long I had stood there, lost in my thoughts, wondering if this was how I will be living for the rest of my life. I had gone back to my hotel room feeling strangely melancholic, then relieved when I called home and heard my sister’s voice. I had hung up the phone feeling a little better but famished, then walked myself to one of the restaurants on site for a late dinner alone.
Determined to make the most of my remaining time here, I had ventured out today, surprised to discover that it was not so cold. I didn’t even have to wear my coat or gloves, and it seemed the sunny warmer day had driven the people outside of their homes in throngs as well, judging from the amount of people in the streets shopping and hanging out.
Hesitantly I walked up to the counter, only to note with some disappointment and trepidation that the menu was completely in Korean. I was sending an apologetic look towards the cashier as I pulled out my phrase book, until I heard a voice next to me.
“American?” A female voice asked, tone amused. I stood in silence, trying to figure out what she was asking me, exactly. Whether I wanted Americano coffee, such a popular thing here, or if… “Are you American?” Relieved I nodded my head before she moved me gently to one side as she urged me to put my book away. Friendly brown eyes looked me over and she smiled. “What do you want?” At my silence she repeated herself. “What do you want to drink?”
“Coffee,” I replied. “Coffee would be great, thanks.”
She turned to the cashier and gave our orders, before she took my arm and led me to a small table in the corner, the only one still unoccupied.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked as I pulled out a few bills from my purse, some coins clanking onto the table. How embarrassing. This is why people need wallets.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said good naturedly. “It’s not every day that I bump into another foreigner wandering the city alone.”
I mumbled a quick thank you as I looked around the cafe, surprised that it was much bigger inside than it appeared from the outside.
“I got us some beer and soju,” Elena continued as she sat down. “There’ll be a crowd here soon and you’re going to need more than coffee to get in the spirit of things.”
“I didn’t realize that this cafe was so popular.”
“They have live acoustic sets on the weekends,” she said. “They’re usually full. You got here just at the right time.”
Pushing my tote bag under the table, I watched as she took off her coat and took her seat. Framed by thick brown hair, her face was studying me as well, as if I was some form of alien life form. However though her eyes were openly assessing, I detected no malice, just curiosity.
“New?” She finally asked. “Teacher?”
“Pardon me?” I asked. I had no clue what she was talking about.
“Are you new here?” She asked. “Did you come to Korea to teach English?” At my questioning look she smiled. “The expression on your face while you were standing at the cashier reminded me of how I felt when I first came here a couple of years ago.”
“You mean like a deer caught in the headlights?” I asked as she nodded. “I’ve only been here for a week and a half,” I answered. “And no, I’m not here to teach. I’m on vacation.”
“By yourself?” I nodded in response. “I’m impressed.”
“It’s not that impressive,” I said as a pitcher of beer and two green bottles were delivered to our table, along with two dishes, one with dry fish and the other with kimchi. “I’m here under duress. My best friend, who convinced me to make the trip, left me here.”
“Are you sure she’s your best friend?” She asked the question seriously and I chuckled.
“You know, I’m questioning that myself.”
My newly discovered companion looked at me in bemusement before she burst out laughing. “I’m Elena, by the way.”
“Gia,” I said, extending a hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“I don’t know why I had to come here tonight,” I said as I eased my car into a parking space. Beside me my younger sister bristled before glaring at me. “Do you know how long it’s been since I hung out in Hongdae?”
“Oppa… I hardly see you anymore,” she said as she opened the passenger door. She motioned for me to open the trunk and I pressed a button, watching her as she lifted up her guitar case. “And I do know how long it’s been since you hung out with the younger crowd. Why do you think I picked out your outfit?”
I cringed as I took in my jeans and sweatshirt, then the cap on my head. She had me in a puffy coat, as well as sneakers. I’m pretty sure my sister had styled me this way so I would blend in, but I felt like an idiot. It’s been at least ten years since I dressed this way… In fact, I don’t remember ever dressing this way.
“I look ridiculous,” I complained and she took my arm as we walked down the street.
“Oppa… If you behave like a supportive brother and don’t complain for the rest of the night, I won’t tell Omma that you were lying about having a girlfriend.”
She walked ahead of me as I stopped in my tracks, then turned around and looked at me quizzically.
“I saw you with a woman last night. You two looked very chummy,” she said as she walked back to me. “And she wasn’t American.”
“You don’t know that,” I protested. “She could have been.”
“Oppa… I’m not stupid. I’ve seen her pictures on magazines, and American she is not. Kang Hye Soo, socialite and chaebol. The woman Ji Hyun Unnie warned you about. So I figured,” she paused and then pursed her lips at me. “You would never cheat on a girlfriend so the only reasonable conclusion is that you don’t have one. And if you don’t have one, then it’s matchmaking season again for Omma, Ji Hyun, Ji Min and Ji Hee Unnie, so…”
“I have a girlfriend,” I lied.
“Tell me about her, then,” she ordered, hands on her hips.
“She’s very beautiful,” I said. “And she has great hair.”
She looked at me like she didn’t believe me. “How come you don’t ever talk about her, then?”
“We’re on a break right now,” I said quickly. “Long distance relationships are hard.”
“I won’t believe you until I see her in person,” my sister responded. “Tell her to come to Korea.”
“She has a job, Soo-yah. And a…” boyfriend “… life.”
“Whatever,” she said as she opened the door to a cafe. I looked at the sign and the reindeer drawing next to it on the wall, realizing I had never been here before. “Oppa, find a place to sit. I’m going to see when I’m performing.”
“Why me?” I asked her. “Why didn’t you ask Jung Yoon Hyung to come see you play?”
“Why would I ask Jung Yoon Oppa to see me perform?” She asked irritatedly. “You’re a manager. You have the connections. Your opinion is what counts.”
“I manage a sports athlete.”
“Maybe you’ll want to expand after you listen to me sing,” she said as she handed me her purse. I was about to tell her that I don’t have time to manage another client, that as her brother it would be too much of a conflict of interest, when she pressed a kiss on my cheek impulsively. “Thanks for coming, Oppa. Even if I did have to blackmail you to ensure your cooperation.”
She had disappeared into the back of the cafe with her guitar case before I could even say anything else. Resigned, I walked to the counter and ordered a coffee then sat myself on the front row to have the best view. I may not have come here willingly, but I was here now. Might as well be the most supportive coerced brother I can possibly be.
By my third glass of beer I had learned that Elena was originally from Italy and that she had come here to teach English exactly two and a half years ago. I also learned that she would be leaving in a couple of days, with her last contract having expired a couple of months ago. I don’t know if it was the alcohol or the atmosphere, or maybe it was the situation by which I had found myself in Seoul, perhaps the relief and happiness from meeting someone who spoke in a language I spoke, but I felt an immediate liking to her. We had already exchanged details and I had already told her about how I came to be here before we even had whatever was in the green bottle.
“So,” she said as she chewed on dried fish. “Junnie told you you were going to Singapore and then took you here.” I nodded. “She must have had good reason for it. Friends don’t go around doing things like that for no reason.”
“Who knows?” I asked as I took a bite of kimchi. “She wants me to deal with my issues.”
“And of all the countries,” she continued, thinking. “Why not another English speaking one? There are tons of beautiful countries where you can find yourself. Ireland, for example. Even Italy has more English speakers. Why Korea?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “She wants me to return someone’s jacket.”
“Why can’t she return it herself?”
“It’s a long story,” I said. “But she says I never settle things properly. And the jacket belongs to someone I…” kissed “…knew. He’s in Korea.”
“Ahhhh,” Elena said as realization seemed to dawn on her. “As I thought. How did I know there was a man involved?”
“I’d only ever seen him once or twice, haven’t actually spoken to him in two months,” I said, annoyed, intentionally leaving out the detail about our history of kissing and gifts. Or was it gifts then kissing? “She thinks I need to end things cleanly. Why does it need an ending when it never even began?”
“Did you like the man?” Elena asked before drinking a sip of beer.
“That’s besides the point.” I watched as she opened a green bottle and poured two shots.
“So you did.”
“I didn’t say that.” This said with a straight face.
“You didn’t have to,” she retorted. “The way you just avoided talking about him just told me you did. Was he handsome?”
“Very,” I answered reluctantly as I drank the shot and made a face. “This stuff is lethal. It kind of tastes like vodka, but deadlier.”
“You’ll get used to it,” she said as she downed her own shot. “So what happened?” She asked. “With the handsome man?”
“You know how there are some people you meet that you just know are very bad for you?” She nodded. “He was one of them.”
“But not so bad that your best friend didn’t hesitate to leave you somewhere where you only had him to call should you need help,” she countered. “I wonder why that is. Surely that is the question you should also be focusing on. Sometimes the people around us see things more clearly than we ever could.”
I was about to ask her to explain when a tap on the microphone had me turning towards the stage area. A man came up and cleared his throat before speaking. Before I could even ask Elena what he was saying, she had already begun translating for me.
“The performer tonight is someone who goes to Seoul National University,” she said, pointing to the tall, exquisitely pretty girl, dressed in jeans and a sweater, behind Light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, delicate almond shaped eyes. Beautiful. She looked familiar, like I had met her before, though I knew for sure that I had not. “Her name is Lee Ji Soo.”
The cafe was so packed there were people standing behind us, and the crowd started applauding as the girl took the stage, her guitar strap over one shoulder. She said a greeting in Korean and bowed, before sitting herself on a stool and the lights dimmed, a single spotlight focused on her. I stole a glance at Elena to see her smiling at me and while unsure if it was from what I had been drinking that had me feeling more carefree than I had in a long time, I offered a returning smile anyway.
Directing my attention back to the stage, I held my breath as she closed her eyes. As soon as the room quieted I heard the first strum of the guitar. I looked around as everyone waited, and for the first time in years, I felt like I was actually a part of something, though I was pretty sure that of the number of people here, that I was the only one who had no clue what she was singing about.
An hour later, Elena and I stood by the door, with my scarf and her coat back on. It was still fairly warm outside, and it looked like Hongdae was only just waking up. I looked through the glass panels of the door, my eyes straying back to the girl who just performed for us, only to see her speaking to a man wearing a cap, his face unseen.
“She did really well, right?” Elena asked. “Ji Soo,” she added, nodding her head towards the singer.
“Yeah, she did. That was amazing,” I agreed. “And I don’t even know any Korean. I liked her first song the best though.”
“Ah,” Elena remarked. “Lalala.”
“Yeah…. That’s the name of the song,” she replied. “It’s about a girl who can’t stop thinking about a guy who broke up with her. She’s singing about why she can’t seem to break her habits of thinking about him, buying things for him. Then she says that she’ll change, just like he had.”
“So basically like every girl thinks after a break up,” I commented, drawing a laugh from Elena.
“Yeah, pretty much,” she said with a soft chuckle. “Are you tired?”
“No, strangely not,” I said as I wrapped my scarf around my neck. “You?”
“A little,” she said. “I drank too much soju. And you, didn’t drink enough.”
“I’m a little buzzed, I think.”
“They’re having a party at Hongdae Park… do you want to go?”
For a second I considered saying no, about to say that my partying days were long behind me. But she looked at me so hopefully and she was leaving soon. And isn’t this kind of thing why I was in Korea? Not the partying per se, but the new experiences. Junnie wanted me to take chances. She would be happy to know that I’m over here doing just that. And not by myself, no less. Before I knew it I had nodded my assent and let her lead the way.
“Ji Soo-yah, I didn’t realize you were singing a whole set, not just one song,” I said to my sister. “Yah… You did well.”
“Really, Oppa?” She asked as she tugged on a sleeve. “I’m so glad you liked it. You don’t know how much that means to me!”
I looked at my sister smiling at me, her face remarkably like mine, from her eyes to her nose to her mouth, and I felt myself soften. I don’t spend anywhere near as much time with her as my Hyung and Noonas spent with me. Brotherly concern washed over me, and I narrowed my brows.
“Yah… are you dating?” I asked. “You better not be dating.”
“OPPA!” She complained. “You can’t tell me not to date. I’m twenty two years old!”
“Still not old enough,” I said as I took her guitar and led her out the door, where most of the spectators had already gone. Self-consciously I straightened my sweatshirt under the coat my sister made me wear.
“If it was up to you I’d be single forever!” She said.
“Young boys only want one thing,” I continued. “And you… are way too pretty for your own good.”
“You realize your boyfriends will have to pass through both me and Hyung, right?” She pouted at me even as she nodded silently. “Are you ready to go home?”
She shook her head no. “They’re having a silent disco party at the park,” she said. “Can we go there?”
“What the hell is a silent disco party?” I asked.
“Come on, Oppa,” she said as she took my arm. “Come with me and you’ll find out. It’s only a few blocks away.”
“I’m thirty four years old,” I said as I tugged her towards the direction of the car. “I’m not meandering about in the streets like a kid. Let’s drive there, like civilized people.”
“Oppa, did anyone ever tell you how inflexible you are sometimes?” She asked as she opened a car door.
“Who, me?” I asked as I started up the car. “Let’s go see what this silent whatever party is all about.”
“Are you serious?” I asked Elena as she handed me a pair of headphones. “So all the people here are about to start dancing to music only they can hear.”
“It’s not so random,” she said as she steered me towards a tent a stone’s throw away from the park. “We’ll all be listening to the same music. We all get to dance, and we won’t be breaking any noise ordinance laws. Everyone wins.”
“But,” I said as we sat down on a couple of chairs. “Wouldn’t we look a little crazy?”
“Which is why we’re about to start drinking before it starts,” she answered before speaking to the lady coming around collecting bottles. “Besides, we won’t look crazy at all if everyone else looks as crazy as us.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You will,” she replied confidently. “I got us some soju.”
“Soju?” I asked. “I was going to ask you what that was.”
“The stuff in the green bottle. You said earlier it tasted like vodka.”
The lady came back with three more green bottles and Elena wiggled her eyebrows at me.
“You ready?” She asked mischievously. “This is going to get you warmed up.”
“I don’t need warming up,” I said as I suspiciously watched her fill a shot glass with the stuff.
“On the contrary, my dear. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who needs to loosen up more than you. You’re on vacation, not in prison.”
“You’re right,” I said as I clinked my glass with hers and swallowed the liquor in one shot, trying not to scrunch my face as the bitter liquid went down my throat. I really should have eaten something before I started drinking, I thought, as I remembered that I haven’t had anything else to eat since breakfast. Oh well. It’s too late now. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like I’m by myself. With this thought in mind I helped myself to another shot, and then another.
By the time I had found a parking spot the park was already full of people, long pillars of light set up around the park, red, yellow and orange balloons on trees. Up ahead there was a pojamangcha, and I was tempted to go and get a drink until I remembered that I had brought my car and my sister, who now excitedly tugged on my arm.
“Oppa, this way.” We approached a table, neon green bracelets and several headphones on its surface. “Two, please,” she said to one of the people behind the table. They handed each of us bracelets and headphones before Ji Soo led me to a bench. “Oppa, in five minutes the party will start. You put on your headphones and then the music starts. And then you dance!”
I blinked at her even as I looked at the headphones in my hands. “Are you serious?” I asked. “And I’m supposed to do this sober?”
“Oppa, you’re driving.”
“I know that,” I said. “I’m not dancing.” When she frowned at me, I shrugged. “I can’t dance.”
“Then just listen to the music,” she said. “That way you can listen to what we’re listening to. Otherwise we’ll all just look weird to you.”
“Fine,” I said, knowing that my sister would never let up unless I agreed. “Fine.”
When was the last time I felt this relaxed?
Elena and I walked out of the tent twenty five minutes after we went in and what had been a light buzz was now on full blast. Already there were somersaults in my belly as we walked along a paved path back to where the party would be. I watched as Elena put on her headphones and I followed suit. In my ears Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule were singingrapping about something being funny, and I smiled. At least this was a song I knew.
I felt lightheaded, without a care in the world. Right now I could be in San Francisco or Korea and it wouldn’t matter. It didn’t matter that Teddy was dead and that I hadn’t spoken to my father in years. It didn’t matter that I got dumped two months before I was supposed to get married. Or that I gave up my job. Or that I slept in a sleeping bag. Nothing mattered, I thought as we neared the dance floor, where the party was already in full swing. Except now.
The strobe lights were going, painting the party goers in hues of purples and blues, the lights changing as the music pulsed to the beat. There were people with glow sticks and bracelets, already dancing freely, the space jam-packed with people.
Elena and I placed our coats and belongings on a table and walked to the middle of the dance floor. The music changed to another song I knew, and fueled by soju, my new best friend, I didn’t wait until the music started before I threw my hands up in the air and let loose, surprising Elena, and I admit, surprising even myself.
The lights dimmed for a minute as the music changed in my headphones. Ji Soo had already left me fifteen minutes ago, claiming to have seen a few of her friends from uni, though I had a feeling this had been her plan all along.
I was still standing on the sidelines, watching incredulously as the crowd in front of me danced in some type of organized chaos, wondering what anyone who passed would think if they saw this but couldn’t hear the music we all heard. Pretty strange. Times had definitely changed since I was in my twenties.
I adjusted the cap on my head as I took off the puffy coat, feeling stifled even while wearing just the sweatshirt and my jeans, figuring that it must be from the lights and the heat generated by over a hundred writhing bodies. I felt distinctly out of place, as I often did in functions like this even when I was younger. This was definitely not my scene, and seeing as my sister did not appear to need a ride home, I decided that it was time to go home.
I was about to walk back to the table to return my headphones when the lights started flickering and the sound of bass came on in my ears. In front of me people heard it too and cheered in excitement. Their enthusiasm was infectious and I found myself staying where I stood, my eyes scanning the dance floor for any sign of my sister, concerned that she might have started drinking as soon as she left my side.
On the headphones the music kept its upbeat tempo before it slowed… slowed right down, the lyrics seeming to echo in the sudden silence. I blinked as the song’s bass line restarted, accompanied by a single flash of light.
A flare of light. A blink. I opened my eyes and I saw her, in the middle of the dance floor. The woman I wanted to forget but couldn’t. The bane of my existence.
She was laughing with a brown haired woman in front of her. My heart started beating faster, harder, so different to the scene in front of me, where everything seemed to slow down so much it felt like it was at a standstill. Everything around her blurred and faded and she was all I could see.
The light flashed again and I tried to adjust my eyes in the darkness and tried to take a better look. I was unsuccessful but it wasn’t necessary. In my ears the bass continued, this time accompanied by the song’s melodic rhythm, the vocals joining back in.
Another blink and she was still there. Hadn’t disappeared as she did every other time I’d imagined her. My mind was playing tricks on me again. Except this time, she was actually interacting with someone else, with what was around her.
What the hell is going on?
In the pulsating, oscillating lights I could see her so clearly, as if she was really here, wearing a camel colored top over jeans the color of indigo, both molded to her form. Her legs were covered by boots the same color as her sweater. Loose long hair behind her, cascading in waves down her back, and then a thick strand clinging defiantly over one shoulder as she moved to the music, her eyes closed, a small smile on her face. She looked lost in the moment, not unlike how she looked when I kissed her. Or was it when she was kissed me? My mind was all over the place, and I couldn’t figure that one out. Her hips, covered in tight denim, swayed to the music as the tempo sped up and I swallowed.
I closed my eyes to will her image away, convinced that this was yet another figment of my imagination, convinced that when I opened my eyes that she would be gone again. Joon said that it passes after a couple of minutes. Joon said I’m not crazy. Right. I’m not crazy… so when I look again she should be gone.
I opened my eyes slowly, and she was… gone. I looked around me and could not find a sign of her. Walking straight into the dance floor, getting pushed around by the dancing bodies, I craned my neck all around. And there, in a not so far distance, I saw her and the brown haired woman she was speaking to giving their headphones back to the table before picking up their belongings and walking away. Or maybe… it was just the woman I had imagined her talking to that was doing all those things. I wasn’t quite sure, but enough was enough… I think it’s time to confirm, once and for all, if I had, inarguably, certifiably, lost it.
I kept my eyes on the brown haired woman, as opposed to Gia, seeing that whether or not I had made Gia up, the woman she was speaking to certainly seemed like a real person. I watched as the woman and my hallucination disappeared into the women’s restroom, and I followed. For a second I was tempted to enter the restroom, but even I can admit that might be a little too much. I parked myself outside the exit, instead, ignoring the strange looks that were being directed my way by several women who passed me by. I pulled the cap lower down on my face, trying to be a little more inconspicuous, and prepared to wait.
Elena mouthed something to me and I looked at her, perplexed. She was waiting for an answer expectantly, and I pointed to my headphones, now playing Daft Punk, one of my favorite songs from last year. She leaned over me and lifted one side of the headphone, then yelled.
“ARE YOU HAVING A GOOD TIME?”
‘YEAH,” I said, trying to keep my head steady even as the rest of my body moved. If my head just stayed in one place I would be okay. If I just moved slowly, I would still be okay. But I whipped my head around too quickly, and it was over. I felt something in my abdomen churn, and I started sweating, the salty taste quickly in my mouth, a surefire sign that I was about to throw up. I may love soju, but apparently, it did not feel the same about me. I knew I should have eaten something. I knew it.
“YOU’RE LOOKING A LITTLE GREEN!” Elena said and I nodded. I felt her lift my headphones off my head then take my hand. From flitted eyelids I saw her put our headphones down on a table and grab our stuff before leading me to a clearing in quick steps.
Bad idea… the motion of moving did nothing but make my nausea worse. There were too many bodies here, too many people. The lights were making my head spin, and I quickly pushed a clear path through the crowd, using my arms, my vision blurry. I felt a steadying hand on my back and I looked behind me, reassured when I met Elena’s eyes. Still the nausea and claustrophobia persisted, and I struggled to get some air.
Finally, finally… I could breathe. I bent down towards my knees, covering my mouth with a hand, trying to breathe more slowly, trying to focus my eyes on the pavement. She tugged on my hand and I let her lead me to the women’s bathroom, quickly locking myself into a stall, my knees hitting the cold floor almost as soon as I saw the toilet.
I threw up what I could, which, surprisingly, wasn’t much, which meant that I felt no better than before. Outside the stall, Elena was knocking and speaking softly, and I unlocked the door. I walked out and tried my best to give her a smile, though I was sure that it came out more as a grimace, before heading straight to the sink to wash my face.
I took the paper towel she offered me gratefully, trying to still my surroundings. Unsuccessfully. In fact I felt worse now than I did before.
“Are you okay?” Elena asked gently.
“No,” I replied, my voice shaky. “I forget sometimes that I’m not as young as I used to be.” Though my words sounded fine in my head, vocalizing them had been a little trickier. The sentence sounded slow coming from my mouth, my voice slurring. “I’ll be fine,” I tried to say as I dried my hands.
“Yeah, I think it’s time I bring you back to your hotel.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I said as we walked out of the bathroom. “I can get myself into a cab. You stay here and have some more…” My words stopped when I met a familiar set of eyes outside the bathroom. Same nose, too, and same lips. I know those lips. At the reminder I felt my face crumple, completely forgetting to finish my sentence altogether. “Oh no,” I moaned as a wave of nausea passed through me. “I must be really drunk. I’m imagining him now. FUCK!!!!”
I had just finished speaking when I found myself doubling over and throwing up. Straight onto the shoes of the stranger who looked remarkably like Jung Jin. Twice.
I was still looking for the right greeting, not dissimilar to how I did New Year’s Eve, when my eyes collided with hers. Fixing a smile on my face, she was still in the middle of speaking when she saw me. I could practically see her pale as she spoke again, a hand over her abdomen.
“Oh no,” I heard her say weakly. “I must be really drunk. I’m imagining him now. FUCK!!!!”
The way that her companion was scrutinizing me was unsettling, and I felt a part of me wither under her gaze, though I couldn’t show her that. I straightened my spine a little more, trying to make myself look confident, at least, despite my current outfit. I was so busy trying to make her companion ease off on the glaring that I didn’t notice that Gia was now leaned over onto herself until it was too late.
I heard the sound first and though it made me cringe, it still didn’t quite prepare me for the sight of her actively retching. On me. Her shoulders were heaving with the effort, beads of sweat on her forehead. Her friend ran to the bathroom even as I lowered a hand towards Gia’s back, my palm hovering mid-air for a nanosecond, still wondering if she was really here. When I heard her groan, however, my only concern was not of my shoes, but of her and the state of her well-being, all thoughts of real and unreal forgotten. My hand landed gently on her back, patting a bit awkwardly at first, and then rubbing in circular strokes, trying to offer some comfort. She tried to wave my hand away but I kept doing what I was doing, not entirely for her sake, but mine. I had to do something. But still, her continued protests established that I hadn’t imagined her, ergo I’m not crazy AT ALL. It also made me realize that she hadn’t changed at all. Damn woman was as stubborn as ever.
Her companion came out of the bathroom and pulled my arm away, shoving a handful of paper towels onto me. She placed a wet paper towel on Gia’s forehead, helping her back to her feet. Gia still looked pale, her hands shaky. I bent down and wiped my shoes clean, trying not to flinch. I’m no wuss. I can handle this.
“Thank you for your help,” her friend said in Korean, before leading Gia away by the arm.
“Where are you taking her?” I asked in English.
“Is it any of your business?” She asked, responding back in English, an eyebrow raised. “Do you two know each other?”
Mine, the little voice inside my head said happily, before I quickly shut it up. “She and I were… are friends. If you would tell me where to take her, I can drive her there. I would feel a lot better if I could do this. You don’t look completely sober yourself.”
“She said she was alone in Seoul,” her companion argued. “How do I know you’re not some pervert?”
“I’m not a pervert.”
“I need proof,” she insisted. “I will never forgive myself if anything happened to her.”
“Neither would I,” I said before sighing in resignation. “She lives in San Francisco.”
“Good guess,” she said. “Not convinced.”
I looked at Gia, eyes already half closed, swaying next to her. Gia looked like she was about to fall straight onto the pavement and I put a steadying arm out before the brown haired woman blocked me.
“She gets drunk easily,” I said.
“Duh,” the woman said, her tone sarcastic before she started leading Gia away, her steps not altogether in a straight line.
“She has tattoos…” I called out and watched as she turned back around, dragging Gia along, and I looked on in concern. “She has tattoos.”
“Where?” she asked suspiciously, looking Gia up and down. “She doesn’t seem like the type.”
“Convenient then that she’s wearing knee high boots,” her friend said with narrowed eyebrows.
“Upper right back, directly over her scapula,” I said, my mind automatically going back to the moment when I saw each mark revealed, even when she was fully dressed, which, strangely made it a bit more alluring. I cleared my throat before I continued. “Left arm. Left lower back, a lotus flower.”
The brown haired woman continued looking at me, her expression a cross between disbelief and amazement. She blinked at me before she dragged Gia to the bathroom despite said’s dissent. I heard her complaining even from outside the door, her low voice thick with discontent.
A few minutes later, they both came back out, the companion looking a bit friendlier but Gia looking a bit worse for wear. She was practically asleep on her feet.
“Satisfied?” I asked, holding an arm out.
“Did you leave your jacket with her?” The question was asked suddenly, curiously.
“Yeah. In San Francisco,” I said. “She told you about that? I thought she’d forgotten.”
She guided Gia to my outstretched arms, and I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until I was able to hold her up.
“She’s staying at the Park Hyatt,” she said. “But she never told me her room number. I doubt that you would get it out of her as well. She’s pretty out of it now, but they should know her. She’s been there for almost two weeks.”
“She’s been in Korea for two weeks?” I asked. Notcrazynotcrazy, I thought, my concern appeased. She nodded in response. “I’ll figure out what her room number is,” I said as Gia’s head dropped onto my chest, one of her hands landing dangerously on my abdomen.
“Do you need help?” She asked, handing me a heavy tote bag. “I stay in the opposite end of town but I can help.”
“I should be okay,” I answered, putting the tote bag over one shoulder. “Just… just help me get her arms wrapped around my neck.”
I bent down in front of Gia and her companion said nothing. She just looked at me disbelievingly until I nodded my head, at which point she lifted Gia’s arms and placed them securely on my shoulders, then weaving them around my neck. Placing a firm grip behind her thighs and trying my damnedest not think about where my hands are positioned, I stood up with just a little effort to see her friend studying me with a hesitant smile on her face.
“I didn’t realize Korean men actually did this in real life, outside of dramas,” her friend said.
“She’ll be okay,” I reassured her, shrugging my shoulders. “I’ll take care of her.”
“Please tell her to call me when she wakes up. I should have known when she didn’t know what soju was that it was her first time.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. Thanks.” I nodded at her and then turned towards where I had parked my car.
How was it that just two hours ago, she was a hallucination and now she was back in my arms? Her head lolled on my shoulder as I walked slowly, trying not to disturb her overly much. Her breathing on my back was steady, her warm breath on my neck. As soon as I realized how close our proximity was my heart started jackhammering in my chest, the rhythm almost painful. I could smell her around me, the scent tinged with a little alcohol. She hiccupped against me and I softened, reminded of the time she did the same over the phone, the first time she called me.
I felt the brush of her face on the crook between my shoulder and my neck and tried to keep my eyes focused ahead as she sniffed.
“You smell like him,” she whispered. “You smell just like him. I didn’t think I would ever smell him again.”
“Who?” I asked, keeping my voice soft, not wanting to panic her.
“Jung Jin,” she said, her voice breathy, husky. “My Jung Jin. You smell exactly like him.”
I wasn’t sure how long I had closed my eyes, but a sudden motion snapped my head forward and jerked me awake, though I kept my eyes closed. Was I dreaming? I wondered since I was moving forward but not walking on ground. My mind cloudy I was about to fall back asleep when I registered that my arms were around someone’s neck, and instinctively I leaned my head closer, trying to take a closer whiff. If I was dreaming surely I was allowed to do this… and if I was dreaming, I knew exactly which scent would greet me.
And sure enough, it was the same smell on the jacket that I kept in my apartment, the jacket that I kept so selfishly that hit my nose. The jacket I wore the night that Teddy died. The jacket I’ve worn many nights after that, the smell comforting and reassuring, my only companion during those endless nights of loneliness. I had worn it so much that the smell had almost faded, and now had disappeared altogether since Junnie had it washed. The scent enveloped me, made me feel safe and secure. Smelling it again made me feel so happy I could have cried. Except I don’t cry. I can’t cry. Just another thing I can’t do. But still, the smell was here. It was here again.
“You smell like him,” I said softly. “You smell just like him. I didn’t think I would ever smell him again.”
“Who?” A familiar voice asked, and I smiled when I realized how amazing my brain was. How did it know that was the voice I wanted to hear? Funny. I haven’t had such vivid dreams for as long as I can remember.
“Jung Jin,” I said, feeling safe enough to actually say his name out loud. “My Jung Jin. You smell exactly like him.”
“What?” The voice asked, the tone shocked.
“My Jung Jin. You sound like him, too.”
It was quiet again and I laid my head down on a surface, wondering why it felt very much like a person. Had I dreamt this too? That he was carrying me? But why on his back? Why not sideways, like couples did after they’re married? Or facing each other, like they did in the movies? I guess my dream wasn’t progressive. But still, this felt nice. Holding another person so close, feeling the strength of his back on my chest, his hands securely holding my thighs. I would be nervous that my bottom was about to be touched, but my dream wouldn’t do that. Surely I would have created a dream man with manners.
“I don’t know why I dreamt him in your clothes,” I marveled. “Because my Jung Jin doesn’t dress like you.”
“Oh yeah?” The voice asked with a twinge of amusement.
“He’s always so put together it’s annoying,” I complained. “Not a fucking hair out of place. Pretty, though. Pretty Jung Jin. He looks best under the moonlight. Did you know that?” The person carrying me didn’t respond. “I think… I think I really really liked him.”
“I don’t know why I dreamt him in your clothes,” she said, her voice wondrous. “Because my Jung Jin doesn’t dress like you.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked and smiled at her continued use of ‘my’. It was proprietary, and under other circumstances it would have bothered me, but it didn’t tonight. I think the shock of actually seeing her was still messing with my head a little.
“He’s always so put together it’s annoying,” she grumbled. “Not a fucking hair out of place. Pretty, though. Pretty Jung Jin. He looks best under the moonlight. Did you know that?” I did? No, I didn’t know that. “I think… I think I really… really… liked him.”
At her words I felt a surge of triumph, but not wanting to bring attention to what she just admitted for fear that she would retract it, I acted like it was no big deal. Even though my heart was rejoicing in my chest. Even though a knot of dread had already settled in the pit of my abdomen. This was what I wanted, maybe months ago, but I had already walked away… I had already made my decision. Even this helping her … was just to verify that I wasn’t going crazy.
“Liked?” I asked, my voice hoarse, gravelly. ‘You don’t anymore?”
“I can’t,” she insisted. ‘I can’t. It’s not allowed. I won’t let myself.”
“Why?” Leave it alone, Jung Jin. Leave it be. It doesn’t matter.
“Because. I’m too old now,” she whispered. “I’ve already made so many mistakes. I only like bad guys, guys who can hurt me. I can’t do it again.” I heard her sniffle behind me, her lips resting on my neck. The sensation made me close my eyes even as she continued speaking, her voice sad. “He can hurt me.” My eyes opened and I stopped walking. “I promised myself, five years ago… that next time, next time, I will try loving someone good. This time, I’ll belong to somebody good.”
Her words stopped me in my tracks and I opened my eyes. She’s right, of course. Wasn’t this the same conclusion that I myself had deduced the night I decided to walk out of her life? I knew this. I accepted this. And yet, hearing her say it out loud still stung.
“Funny, then, that my heart seems fixated on him. I’ve only seen him a handful of times at most, and yet I see him all the time. Like everywhere. I thought I was going crazy!” She continued. “But the guy I see isn’t the bad guy that I’m convinced he is. My Jung Jin… the Jung Jin I see all the time… is kind and loving. He’s thoughtful and sweet.”
“Your head was right,” I said curtly as I rounded the corner to where my car was. “You got it right the first time.”
“I know,” she said mournfully.
My temper flared and I pulled my car keys out of my pockets. Her easy acceptance of my agreeing with her pissed me off, for no real reason. I’ve only ever known the woman to be contrary, and she chooses now to not be? What did I want her to say, exactly?
I opened the door and dumped her unceremoniously on the passenger seat, expecting her eyes to open in alarm, convinced that she was still half asleep. But when I looked at her her gaze was already on me, watching closely.
Her eyes, eyes I’ve only ever seen with a touch of hardness and full of judgment and defiance, were soft, tender, almost. Her mouth was fixed in a half smile as she examined my face and I fought the urge to smooth a thumb over her cheek.
“Why are you telling me this stuff?” I asked as I bent down and fastened her seat belt.
“Because this is a dream,” she said softly. “My Jung Jin is perfect, but he doesn’t exist in real life. I’m not that crazy.” She said the last line like she was actually proud of herself for knowing this. “And even this… isn’t real, so it’s okay. You’re not him, so I’m not breaking the rules.”
“What rules?” I asked. “Who needs rules?”
Her reply was reminiscent of our conversation after I kissed her. The thought that she might have dismissed everything involving me as an illusion made me shake my head.
“Look at my face!” I said, trying to sound calm but the sentence coming out in a bark instead. “How am I not him?”
“My Jung Jin is more handsome than you,” she said calmly. “And he doesn’t have a temper.”
The man who looked like Jung Jin was mad. His nostrils were flaring and his eyes were shooting daggers at me. How weird. Why was he so angry? He shook his head at me, and his ears were getting red.
Was he cold? I wondered if I should warm his ears up, but I thought he might freak out even more if I touched him. And I thought I would wake up once I did, so I just looked at him. I could do with a little more time with the man who looks like Jung Jin. Even though it’s only in a dream.
“Look at my face!” He barked, his voice no longer calm. “How am I not him?”
“My Jung Jin is more handsome than you,” I said. “And he doesn’t have a temper.”
“Why are you yelling at me?” Now his whole face was getting red. “This is very bizarre. I’ve never had a dream where the person in my dream with me was so confrontational and argumentative.”
He grabbed my hand and held it to his face. “Stop saying this is a dream,” he said in a low voice. “Does this not feel real to you?”
My gaze grazed over his perfect nose, his lips that were now set in a stern line, and his clenched jaw. His eyes were irate, but still so pretty. It reminded me of the way my Jung Jin had looked at me in the moonlight and I suppressed a sigh. This dream makes me happy, even if he was yelling at me. Before I knew it, I was brushing my fingers over his cheekbones, touching his eyelashes, my fingertips kissing his lips. Things I would never do if I had been sober. Things I dared not do awake. The anger that was jumping out of his eyes changed to something else. They were no longer irate, but the intensity in them burned just as fiercely. It made me feel hot and cold at the same time, and I instinctively burrowed closer to him, as I did New Year’s Eve.
“What are you thinking?” he asked, his eyes fastened on my lips.
“I’m thinking this is the best dream I’ve ever had,” I said with a soft smile. “It’s good to see him again. I can’t believe I’ve conjured him up so well. Down to his dimple. My favorite thing.”
He glared at me before he straightened his spine, and then slammed the door shut.
I looked over to the passenger side once I reached the foyer of the hotel to find her asleep, her head resting against the glass windows of the car. I took off my seatbelt and got out, handing the keys over to the valet attendant.
“Mr. Lee!” he greeted. “It’s good to see you! How are…”
His words trailed off in surprise as I opened the passenger door, leaning over Gia and taking her seatbelt off.
“Sir!” He said in alarm. “Why is Miss Gia in your car?”
“Good,” I answered. “You know her. Before you go anywhere can you help me with her?”
“Of course,” he said. “Let me go get a wheel…”
“No… I just need your help propping her up so I can carry her in. “
“You don’t have to do that,” he protested. “We have wheel…”
“It’s fine. I got her,” I said and saw his eyes widen before he nodded.
I should do this, at least. One last thing to do before I don’t see her again ever. I’m not even doing this for her. I’m doing this for my peace of mind. How am I supposed to sleep tonight if I knew she was wandering about all over Seoul drunk? No… the only way I can wash my hands off of her altogether was if I knew she was safely in her hotel room, asleep. Then I can really walk away.
She complained a bit and slapped the valet’s hand away when he tried to help her up, but didn’t wave my hands away. Asking him to step aside, I placed her arms around my neck and boosted her from the passenger seat without as much as a peep from her. Her soft fingers found my hair under the cap and she swayed towards me trustingly, even through half lidded eyes. In the light I could see that her eyes were tawny tonight. The color of whiskey. My favorite drink.
I positioned myself in front of her and lifted her legs towards my waist, and she fell back asleep as soon as I had, softly snoring on my shoulder. I motioned for the attendant to hand me the tote bag that was sitting on the footwell of the car, its heavy weight making me wonder what she could have possibly been carrying in it.
The attendant opened the front door to the hotel and I strode in, uncaring that my arrival had caught the interest of several people in the lobby. The man standing behind the counter was already smiling at me, until he saw the woman asleep on my back, her bag over one of my shoulders. He also looked me over once, then twice, and I was reminded once again of how I must look in this getup. This is the last time that I will ever allow Ji Soo to tell me what to do.
“Woo Young-ssi,” I said, addressing him before he could even eke out a greeting. “Do you know this woman?”
“Yes, she’s one of our guests,” he replied. “But Mr. Lee, is she okay?”
“She’s fine… she just needs to sleep it off. Soju,” I added by way of explanation. Several men exited the elevator and walked by, eyes curious towards me and I flushed. I know how this must look. For a second I wanted to call something out in my defense, but then heard Gia moan. Right. She’s what’s important right now. The sooner I can get her up to her room, the sooner I can go about my life. “I need her hotel room number. And a key.”
“Mr. Lee, you know you’re one of our VIPs, but that’s not possible,” he said. “That’s against our rules.”
What the hell was up with people and rules tonight? “You know me,” I said smoothly. “You can vouch for me, so can your manager. So can Kim Jae Joon.” He was about to object, and my patience was wearing thin. I grabbed my wallet and slid two bills towards him. He took them and quickly pocketed them, before getting on the computer.
“I’ll do this just once, Sir,” he said. “And if she complains…”
“I’ll handle it,” I said confidently. “I know her. She and I are… friends.”
He looked at me dubiously, but didn’t say anymore.
“How many keys would you like?”
“Just one,” I replied. “I will only need one and will hand it back before I go. I won’t be coming back.”
“Whatever you say, Mr. Lee.” His voice had sounded unassuming enough, but something about it still rubbed me off the wrong way. It must just be one of those nights. “She’s in room 547.”
“I won’t be coming back to see her,” I insisted.
“Of course not, Sir,” he said as he placed a key card on the counter.
He smiled at me politely and I bit my tongue in exasperation. There is something wrong with people tonight. How dare he imply that I would come back for her? He doesn’t know me. I looked at him sullenly one more time before I grabbed the key and headed to the elevators, pushing the button for the fifth floor. In front of me, there was a reflection of the elevator door. Me with a scowl, and she, oblivious, peacefully asleep.
I walked out of the elevator, hands firmly on her legs, and headed straight to her room. Impossible, I thought, as soon as I saw that she had been staying in the room opposite of the one I always used with Hye Soo. I inserted the key card onto the door and entered the hotel room, identical to the suite I always occupied, except this one looks like it hasn’t been used at all.
I thought she had been here for two weeks?
The bed was perfectly made, two suitcases and a box by the closet. There were no pieces of clothing strewn over furniture, no shoes unpacked. Everything was put away neatly, clinically. I lowered her and her bag on the bed before walking towards the windows to close the blinds. It was only then that I saw something that caught me by surprise.
There was a sleeping bag, laid out next to the bed, a pillow inside. It was obviously new, the tags still on the zipper. Was she planning on camping in Korea? If so, was she practicing in her room?
Strange. The woman was strange. Interesting, but very strange.
I peeled my eyes away from the sleeping bag and turned one of the lamps on to see a blinking red light on the hotel phone. I briefly considered listening to it out of curiosity, but stopped myself. Maybe it was her boyfriend. Maybe her Joon. There were many probabilities to consider when it came to this woman. None of my business. The issue of whoever could be calling her is none of my business.
No sooner had I closed the blinds that I saw her climb into the sleeping bag, her steps swaying from side to side. Before I could ask her what was going on, she had already zipped herself up and disappeared from my view. I could honestly say that I had no clue what the hell was going on, or why I was still here. I found myself getting angry that I had been forced to do this, questioning where the hell her boyfriend was that she was traveling to Korea on her own.
At the reminder, I blew a frustrated breath out, trying to control my temper.
‘My Jung Jin doesn’t have a temper,’ she had said so sweetly, her words still echoing in my head. Shows much she knows.
‘My Jung Jin is perfect… more handsome than you.’
There was a bitter taste in my mouth, the same taste I remember when I think of the way she spoke about her Joon, when I saw her out on a date. Jealousy. To this day I was still unfamiliar with it and it still caught me by surprise. Except this time, I was jealous of… myself?
Ridiculous. Utterly, completely, inarguably ridiculous. I’ll be glad to get out of this peculiar world that she inhabited.
I spared her another glance, now contentedly ensconced in her dream world, no doubt back with her convoluted image of me and walked out of her door, seething. I took the elevators down to the first floor and handed the key to Woo Young, who barely looked up at me from his computer, his hand on the phone and speaking quietly and I was relieved. I had just turned to head to the front door when I heard his voice call out behind me.
“Mr. Lee,” he said. “Should we do the same service for Miss Gia that you like?”
I turned around and threw a puzzled glance at him. “What do you mean?”
“You always send breakfast up, Sir. At exactly 9 a.m.” He said, looking at me as if he couldn’t believe that I had forgotten my routine. “The same breakfast, no matter who the recipient was.” I looked at him blankly but didn’t offer a response. “It’s your routine, Sir.”
“No,” I said. “Do no such thing.”
“But Sir, seeing her condition when you came in, I think it might help.”
I considered his reasoning and found a little merit. But then I remembered Gia’s insistence that I was a dream, her obvious attachment to whatever image of me she’s imagined. I remembered her boyfriend. Asshole. I bit back a curse and spoke.
“No. Don’t feed her anything!” I yelled and walked out.
My responsibility ended here… I’d done more than I should have. Her boyfriend can handle the rest, even from San Francisco. I managed to do stuff from Korea when she was in another continent. He can do the same. Who lets their woman go on a trip on her own?. Well… he can worry about her now. Asshole.
Park Hyatt Hotel
March 2, 2002
If I woke up one more time to the loud ringing of this phone, I thought, I will throw it out of the window. This was the first thing that came to mind as I tried to open one eye. My throat was parched, a slight aftertaste of liquor and bile, my head throbbing insistently. Automatically I unzipped the sleeping bag to reach for the water bottle I always kept next to me, but felt nothing but plush carpeting, as opposed to the hardwood floors in Junnie’s apartment.
I was succumbing back to the sleep that was still tugging at me, still pondering my forgetfulness, when I remembered that I wasn’t in San Francisco. I was in Korea. I’ve been here for two weeks. I opened my eyes as the facts came back to me, my mind enlisting the events of the previous days, starting from how I got here to my last memory, walking into some kind of tent and green bottles, and quickly unzipped myself and sat up, almost afraid of where I would find myself if I looked around.
The smell of alcohol told me that I had drunk more than I should have, though I was fully dressed, which I noted with some solace. I was sitting on the sleeping bag I had purchased on the first day I ventured out of the hotel, so that was also a relief. The room was still dark, the blinds drawn, but I can see my suitcases where I had placed them, my purse on the bed.
I stood up and sat on the side of the bed, trying to remember how I managed to come back to my hotel room. I poured the contents of my bag and examined them, noting that the purchases I had made for my mother and sister were all there, as was the money in the envelope that Junnie had left it in. I pulled a piece of paper out and read it, the address in Italy ringing familiarly. Elena. I met her at the cafe. We were supposed to go to a disco party. She must have taken me back here. But how? She was only taller than me by a couple of inches, and she weighed no more than I did. No matter… however she did it I was grateful. I looked at the two numbers on the bottom of the paper, one labeled ‘K’ and the one underneath it labeled ‘I,’ and deduced that those must be her phone numbers.
I should call her and thank her, at least.
I stood up quickly and was nauseous instantly, so I just slid up the bed instead, towards the phone, where a red light was blinking. I pressed the message button and closed my eyes.
“It’s me,” I heard Junnie say and cracked an eye open. “Where are you?”
Ha… now she calls. The last time she called me was the same day she left me here. Almost two weeks of no communication and she now wants to know where I am. She should know where I am. She left me here.
“It’s me,” I heard her repeat, her voice miffed. “Are you still mad at me? Call me back as soon as you get this message.”
I shook my head, wondering what could be so urgent that she now wanted to speak to me. Unless… she was calling me with my flight details. I knew it, I thought with some satisfaction, I knew she wouldn’t just leave me here hanging like that. The phone rang again and I already knew without picking the call up that it must be my best friend again, doing what she does best: harassing the shit out of me. I thought about ignoring her calls a few more times, bent on letting her stew a little bit longer, but gave up. I know Junnie. She’ll just keep calling until she gets a hold of me, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway. Reluctantly I picked up the phone and mentally prepared for the litany of questions I was about to hear.
“Where have you been?” Junnie asked, her voice expectant, not waiting until I even answered her question before asking her next one. “What have you been doing?”
“What do you think I’ve been doing?” I asked, rubbing my head with a hand. “I’ve been doing what you told me to do. I’ve been reflecting, exploring, etcetera, etcetera.”
“You sound terrible,” she commented. “What’s wrong?”
“I had a little too much to drink last night…”
“You got drunk? You’re not supposed to be getting drunk in Korea! You’re by yourself!”
“Please stop yelling,” I said, every word she’s saying ringing loudly in my ears. “And who left me in Korea by myself? Besides, I wasn’t alone.”
“You finally called the manager?” Her voice was surprised but elated. “I’m proud of you.”
“I didn’t say I was out with him.”
Just the mention of Jung Jin brought uncomfortable memories back, such as all those times I thought of him as my Jung Jin while I was in San Francisco, making up a completely different image of him in my head than he probably was in reality.
There was something else, as well. A detail played hide and seek with my brain, nagging at me and making my head throb even more. I was forgetting something important.
“Who were you with then?” Junnie asked. “Did you date someone while you were there?”
“Jun, what the hell makes you think I can do in one night something I hadn’t been able to do in the five years I was in San Francisco? I went out with Elena.”
“Someone I met in Hongdae… she’s from Italy. Anyway, I’ve done what you wanted. When am I flying back out?”
“Did you meet the manager?” she insisted.
“I don’t need to. I have his address… I will just mail it while I’m here,” I said. “When am I flying back out?”
“You can’t fly back out unless you meet with him,” she answered stubbornly. “That’s that. It’s out of my hands.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Nothing… nothing,” she replied.
“And if I don’t? You can’t keep me hostage here forever. I’m pretty sure that they have visitor time limits on how long I can stay.”
“It’s six months for American citizens, so that’s not an issue.”
“I guess you’ll be staying then. But you’ll have to stay someplace else.”
“But you only left enough cash for fourteen days,” I argued. “How am I supposed to stay here much longer?”
“I gave you more than most people earn in Korea in a month. I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” she said calmly. “Of course this process would be a little easier if you asked someone in Korea where to look for someplace to stay.”
“This is manipulation and you know it,” I said, sitting up.
“I gave you my terms, and you didn’t follow it,” she responded. “You can’t get your ticket unless you see him.”
“I’m not one of your employees,” I said hotly. “You can’t keep me here against my will.”
“Junnie…” She hung up the phone before I could say anything else. “I HATE YOU!!!”
A string of curses came out of my mouth even as another wave of nausea overtook me and I fought to keep the contents in my belly down. She’d crossed the line… and when I see her next, I’m going to throttle her. If I see her next. The last time she did anything like this had been a few years ago, when she practically held me hostage on New Year’s Eve.
She doesn’t mean it. She’s just bluffing. My best friend is a lot of things but she isn’t cruel. She just wants me to return the jacket. That fucking jacket. Who would have thought that something so ridiculous would be the reason why I am someplace I had no business being at? I glared at said jacket, still in the garment bag on the lounge chair, and crawled back in the sleeping bag and closed my eyes. I will deal with this shit later, once I stop feeling like smashing my head against the wall .
This is really the last time. I mean it this time. I’m just making sure she doesn’t get sick. This is just common courtesy. Nothing more. Nothing less. She can never say, after today, that her Jung Jin is more thoughtful than I am. My feeling inferior to her version of me is illogical. The woman drives me insane.
I ignored the look that the valet attendant gave me as I handed him my keys, the same one from last night, and wondered why it had to be him again today. Don’t these people get days off?
I secured my hold on the paper bag I carried, and trying to adopt the most aloof expression I could, I walked to the front desk. There was no one there yet and I rang the bell, thinking that it’s quite improbable that the same front desk person from last night would be working today as well. I turned around to watch the comings and goings of hotel guests while waiting before I heard someone behind me.
“May I help…” I turned around with a smile on my face when Woo Young grinned at me widely. “Mr. Lee! I didn’t expect to see you back so soon!”
His enthusiasm, as well as his smug smile, made me frown. His words seemed harmless enough, heartfelt enough, but the tone in his voice told me that he had expected me to come back, after all. He’s judging me. I know he is. I felt myself flush uncomfortably, and was tempted to tell him to stop whatever he was thinking, until I remembered that I needed his cooperation.
“Woo Young-ssi,” I said, trying to be amiable and courteous. “Has Gia made an appearance today yet?”
A knowing look passed over his face. “Ah, no. Miss Gia hasn’t come down yet,” he said innocently.
I blinked at him. “Ah…”
“She didn’t come down for breakfast, either. Nor did she answer her 8:30 a.m. wake up call.” I looked at him closely, wondering how he knew all this. As if seeing the question on my face, he explained, “I work sixteen hour shifts, sir. I usually come in at 7 a.m. and leave before midnight.”
“You work hard,” I said, never having noticed in the times I had ever visited the hotel that he seemed a constant fixture at the front desk. ‘Woo Young-ssi,” I said, gentling my voice even further as I pulled my wallet out and took out a couple more bills. “I need another key.”
He smiled again knowingly but said nothing else. He busied himself on the computer and had a key card on the counter before I could even say anything else. He left the bills on the counter and tried to wave my hand away when I tried to push it closer to him.
“You’ve given me more than enough last night, sir,” he said. “Besides, I’m doing this for Miss Gia, too. She didn’t look well last night. If you hadn’t arrived, I would have checked on her myself before I left work.”
I looked at his face, open and genuine, and acknowledged him with a nod but didn’t take the bills back. The guy worked sixteen hour shifts… he may not want the money, but I was sure he could use it anyway. Quickly I made my way to the elevators, catching it just as the door was about to close, squeezing myself with the group of business men, relieved that I dressed a bit more like myself today. I stepped out once we reached the fifth floor and strode towards her room, my footsteps making barely a sound on the carpeted floors.
I stood at the door, my hand knocking softly. I pressed my ear to listen from any sound coming from inside when I didn’t get a response, but still heard no sign of activity. At first I just thought that she may still be asleep and almost left the bag of
juk and walked away. But then my thoughts started running away from me, as they often did when it came to anything related to that person, and images of her getting sick, throwing up, choking while asleep ran through my mind. She was here by herself. No one would even know if something happened to her.
I knocked on the door a little bit more loudly, panic quickly overtaking me. This woman. There was still no response and I pulled the room key out from my pocket, not even hesitating to use it. I strode into the room urgently, making no notice of the fact that the blinds were open, and the sleeping bag was nowhere to be seen. All I kept thinking about was making sure that she was okay. My eyes were unfocused, blurry, already preparing myself for the worst, trying to catch my breath just so I could calm myself down.
And then I saw her, standing by the windows, an almost ethereal light behind her and stopped in my tracks. She was wearing nothing but a towel, her long hair behind hair, dripping water on the carpet. The scene seemed hauntingly familiar, though I couldn’t pinpoint how. I am 100% sure I have never walked in on this woman practically undressed before. Behind me the door slammed, a little delayed, and her head turned. It whipped around before I could even examine the thought further, so quickly that I had no chance to apologize or look away. Her moss green gaze was stunned, and then incensed.
She was fine. She was well.
Better than fine judging from the expressions had played out in an instant on her face. I was relieved, then captivated, my heart skipping a beat, the sensation making me feel light headed.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice indignant, clutching the towel more closely around her.
The thing about bath towels in Korea, I thought, even as she waited for an answer, was that they were tiny, which I hated most times. But the thing about bath towels in Korea… was that they were tiny, a fact which I loved, right now. My eyes feasted on her light brown skin, from her shoulders to her legs, then down to her feet, her toenails painted a dark plum. The butterfly on her ankle caught my eye, its colors vivid and alive. My eyes lingered over the curve of her calf before I reluctantly brought them back to her face, unpainted and bare, my favorite. She was still glowering at me, unmoved and certainly unflattered by my attention, and I found myself smiling at her even as her frown deepened.
“So…” I started, trying not to sound smug, but failing. “Do I still look like your Jung Jin?
By the time I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag, it was already almost half past two. The pain in my head had dulled significantly, but the ache was persistent. I walked over to my suitcase and pulled out the small bottle of Ibruprofen, popping two in my mouth with a swallow from the bottled water on my bedside table. I pulled off my boots and walked to the bathroom, stepping under the shower once the water had warmed.
While washing my hair I tried to remember what had happened last night. I can only remember Elena, up to the moment she poured the soju into my shot glass, right after we were given our headphones for the silent disco. Did I really go to one of those? It’s a shame I couldn’t remember, because that sounds like something I would thoroughly enjoy. Or something I would have thoroughly enjoyed years ago. I rinsed my hair of the conditioner I had lathered it with then decided that I really must call Elena. I bet she would give me all the answers I need.
I pulled a towel off the rack and started drying my hair, wishing not for the first time that my best friend warned me of this trip, to give me the chance to bring some of my own hair equipment. There was a hair dryer in the hotel room, but it did nothing for my thick hair. And I had bought a simple curling iron from Lotte Department Store as well, but I wasn’t sure if I was using it properly since the instructions were in Korean. I looked at myself in the mirror, the towel that I’d wrapped around my hair drooping sadly to one side from the weight and the one I had wrapped around myself barely covering my chest and scarcely reaching mid-thigh. Just what was wrong with the towels in Korea? Two weeks later I had yet to find an answer to the question… Why are their towels so tiny?
I pulled the towel off my hair and hung it back up. What’s the use of a towel that won’t stay on long enough to actually do its job? I sat down on the side of the bed and lathered moisturizer on my skin while looking out the windows, the sight of Seoul still surprising to me even after almost two weeks here. I was just thinking about how much this city had enchanted me, how much I wished I had more time, when I remembered the conversation I had with Junnie this morning, the little detail that she had stressed about having to stay longer and for an indefinite amount of time, a puppet to whatever game she was playing. All because I didn’t return the stupid jacket. Unable to do anything right now but curse, I let a few choice ones out of my mouth as I stood up to open the curtains.
What do I do now?
The question hovered in my mind as I continued to look out of the windows. I used up most of the money she had given me, but I had no choice. I had planned on paying it back as soon as I had access to my bank account anyway. The devious woman made sure to just give me a little bit less than what I would need for a flight home. I would know… I walked every day to the hotel office center to look for flight deals back to San Francisco. That left me with no choice but to contact him, to do what she wanted me to do all along. I’d never been one to respond well to any kind of manipulation, but if that was her condition, then I guess that’s what I had to do. I didn’t even have to look for his number. I already had it.
I’ll call him. But not today. Maybe tomorrow, or the next. Does it really matter? Of course, the little voice in my head reasoned. The sooner you return his jacket, the sooner you can go home. I sighed in resignation. Resistance, it seemed, was futile. Or at least it was when the outcome had been predetermined, and out of my control.
I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t even realize that someone had come into the room… at least not until it was too late. I heard the door close before I could call out that the room was occupied, and my gaze flew in alarm to meet my intruder, who had seemed stunned, at first, but who soon recovered quickly. His gaze traveled over me intently without disguising his curiosity and I belatedly realized that I was still in a towel. His eyes narrowed as they seemed to focus on my legs, and I found myself lifting my chin in defiance even as goosebumps formed on my skin wherever his eyes had grazed.
What? I wanted to say. It’s not my fault the towels in this country are ridiculously small. But saying so would mean acknowledging his appraisal of me, acknowledging that I was looking at him looking at me. And I wasn’t going to do that, lest he get any ideas. It only just dawned on me as we continued looking at each other, without actually looking at each other, that Jung Jin was in my hotel room. In Korea. He had known I was in Korea. Without my telling him. But… How?
“What are you doing here?” I asked, relieved to hear that my voice sounded clear and uncompromising in its annoyance. The hows can come later, once I had ensured that he was aware of my displeasure.
He seemed fixated on my towel, even as a flush covered his cheeks. Interesting. Was the man embarrassed to be here… or was he embarrassed to be here while I stood dressed in nothing but this? Seeing him so obviously disconcerted brought a flush of momentary feminine victory, until I saw his eyes again. The surprised haze was gone, replaced by wry amusement then tense awareness. It was the same expression on the face of the man I once kissed in the moonlight, on a New Year’s Eve not so long ago. Except it felt like it’s been forever. An eternity. Infinity. And we were no longer on my home turf, but his. The ball just changed hands, and he knew it. The dimple on his left cheek deepened as his face bloomed into a smile.
“So,” he said, his voice just as I remembered, just as I had tried not to think about. “Do I still look like your Jung Jin?”
What? How did he know about that?
I tried to keep my expression neutral even as I felt my cheeks burn with mortification. My mind ran through any options of how he could have found this out. Dear God… I didn’t, by any chance, call him drunk again, did I? I walked over to the bedside table and opened the drawer to see my handphone where I had left it yesterday, and still powered off.
I looked behind me to see him unabashedly watching me, and I glowered.
“Aren’t you going to say anything else?” he asked. “Like hello, Jung Jin. It’s good to see you. I’ve missed you.”
“Mr. Lee,” I said, putting my hands on my hips. “Please get out.”
“I brought you some abalone rice porridge, just as you like,” he said, offering a paper bag, as if in conciliation. “Let’s talk.” When I didn’t respond, he sauntered to the chair by the desk and sat down. “I’ll start. Call me Jung Jin. It’s good to see you. I’ve missed…”
“Get out,” I repeated, my voice coming out in a growl. “Can we talk after I get dressed?”
“Please,” he said, waving a dismissive hand at me. “Feel free to do so. It’s not as if you have anything I haven’t seen before.”
At his casual statement, I was reminded once more why I preferred the Jung Jin I had made up in my head to this one. I blinked at him, unsure whether to hit him or scream, when I noticed that his ears were still red, and that his hands were tapping the desk, his gaze resolutely fixed away from me. So… it seemed he wasn’t as unaffected as he was pretending to be. He looked nervous, sheepish, as if he couldn’t believe he was doing this either. Whatever his reason was for insisting to stay in the room even after I asked him to leave, I was in no mood for these games. First, Junnie, my best friend… that bitch. And now, this man. I have had enough of people toying with me for one day.
“Really?” I asked, deliberately drawling the words out. He must have heard something in the tone of my voice because he turned his head to meet my eyes in surprise. I fingered the corner of the towel and lifted it slightly. “I suppose you’re right. We are grown-ups after all.”
Not taking my eyes off of his, I lifted an eyebrow as I loosened the towel around me, telling myself not to move, not to turn around in modesty. Two can play this game. I am a nurse, I reminded myself. The human body is nothing to me. At first his eyes remained adamant, even as I slackened the one piece of fabric inch by inch, but… just as it was about to come off once and for all, he stood up so quickly his knees hit the bottom of the desk and his whole face reddened.
“I’ll…” he stammered, then coughed and cleared his throat. “I’ll wait outside.”
He walked out of the room without another glance at me and I started chuckling. This day was getting better already. Now all I had to do was return his jacket, and that will be that.
“Get out,” she said, her normally low voice even lower, the resonance echoing right through me. Her eyes were shooting so many sparks that I was half afraid she was getting ready to jump me. And not in a good way. “Can we talk after I get dressed?”
“Please, feel free to do so,” I said, leaning back on the desk chair and trying to appear nonchalant. “It’s not as if you have anything I haven’t seen before.”
I wasn’t sure why I was playing with her, except it’s what I always did. To all women. Although, I don’t recall ever having this much fun trying to piss someone off. I can’t help it. She looked so pretty mad. She looked genuinely baffled and I thought of telling her I was just kidding before she actually called security. But then…
“Really?” Her voice was confident, challenging. There was no hesitation or sign of shyness in her eyes either, when my gaze met hers. My eyes didn’t as much meet hers as they fell. My eyes fell into hers, even as a small smirk formed on the corner of her mouth. “I suppose you’re right. We are grown-ups after all.”
Her fingers took hold of one corner of the towel even before I could tell her that I only meant for her to change in the bathroom, that I would stay right where I sat, because even now I still couldn’t quite believe that she was here. I expected her to back down, to run off… instead she merely raised one eyebrow, her expression mutinous, achingly beautiful. She began tugging at the material and I started sweating, my fingers closing into themselves. Her skin still gleamed of moisture and I wanted to touch her.
I was no inexperienced teenager… I thought I could handle it. My eyes stayed on her hands, even as she continued unfastening the towel. I thought I saw a flash of skin and quickly averted my eyes and stood up, hitting my knees in the process.
“I’ll…” My voice sounded uncertain, nervous. I coughed and cleared my throat. “I’ll wait outside.”
I walked towards the door hell-bent on getting out as quickly as possible. I needed to regroup. To restrategize. Who would have thought that woman was not going to back down? I was astounded by her audacity, never once ever thinking that she even had that side to her. Cool, reasonable, logical Gia wasn’t supposed to do that. Sure she did some crazy things when she’s had alcohol, but she’s SOBER!
I heard her laughing as I closed the door and rested my back on the wall, still trying to make sense of what just happened. And how it was possible, in one split second, that the woman had gained complete control of this situation, even when I was supposed to have the advantage.
“Why are you here?” I volleyed the same question back to her a few minutes later, while sitting on one of the couches in the suite, with her a safe distance away from me. She was now dressed in jeans and a slouchy shirt, her hair still loose on her shoulders. I kept my eyes focused on her face to ward off any memories of her in that towel.
“I came to return your jacket,” she responded. She cocked her head towards her side and I followed her eyes to the garment bag on the couch.
“I meant why are you in Seoul?” I asked.
“I was abducted.”
“Joonie told me we were going on vacation and then left me here.”
Joonie. That name. Again. I fought the instant displeasure at hearing that name. Again.
“Why would your best friend do that?”
“Beats me,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “It’s actually quite good that you showed up when you did. I was just getting ready to call you.”
“You were?” I smiled, then frowned. “Why?”
“I have to return your jacket, or I wouldn’t be able to go home. Joon said that unless I saw you I can’t fly back.” I wasn’t quite sure what my jacket had to do with her not being able to go anywhere, but she didn’t offer any other explanation. “I was left in the hotel room with nothing but a piece of paper with your address and your phone number in my phone.”
“How did your friend get that information?” I asked, uncomfortable at the idea that Joonie had so easily done what took me months to do with Gia. I supposed it was one of the great disadvantages of being pretty well known.
“Joonie probably did a full background check on you,” she said offhandedly. She must have caught the concern in my eyes, because she tried to give me a reassuring look. “Don’t worry… that’s nothing that my best friend hadn’t done before. Joon is a little…”
“…crazy?” I asked and she glared at me.
“Protective.” She narrowed her eyebrows. “Being thorough is never a bad thing. We always take care of each other.”
“When you’re not leaving one another in strange countries, you mean,” I said, a little curtly and she blanched. “Oh I forgot, you’re the only one getting left. Where’s Joonie now?”
“I’m not sure,” she said with a sigh. “Joon’s always on business trips.”
“What did your boyfriend say about you going on a trip with Joon?” I asked, distracting myself by looking at one of the magazines on the coffee table.
“Obviously I’m on a trip by myself, number one,” she said, tucking her toes under her. “And number two… what boyfriend?”
I flipped a magazine page. “The man from the hospital.”
“How did you know about that?”
I looked up at her question only to decipher nothing from her face. Something happened with the surgeon boyfriend, then, since she’d already put her guard back up.
“Number two… what boyfriend?” I asked, puzzled.
The way he was perusing that magazine made me think that it had to be the most interesting magazine in the world. I would think this was just regular chit chat except for the sharpness that crept into his voice when he said the word ‘boyfriend’.
“The man from the hospital…” he answered flippantly, trying a bit too hard to keep his tone bored.
“How did you know about that?” I dated Marc way after he had gone back to Korea, so he couldn’t possibly referring to him. Who else could he be referring to?
My heart started racing painfully in my chest as his face came into my mind’s view, the memory still as poignant as the day I lost him. To this day the pain hadn’t abated, nor lessened. As I had learned to do, I pushed the memory of him aside and locked the feeling away. At my silence Jung Jin raised his head and I averted my gaze.
“What?” He said lightly, as if trying to sound apathetic. “He break your heart or something?”
I swallowed the lump of emotion that rose up in my throat, my eyes burning instantly with unshed tears. I haven’t cried still. Sometimes I wondered if I was still able to. Did he break my heart or something? Break, shatter, annihilate. Pick your poison. The word didn’t matter… not when the reality was unchanged.
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “You can say that.”
“So that’s why you had to leave?” He asked curiously, though there was an edge to his voice now that wasn’t there before.
“One of a few reasons,” I replied but didn’t elaborate. Now was not the time to be sharing other things about myself, not with someone who seemed to always know where he was going in his life and what he was doing.
“When are you leaving?”
“In the next couple of days if all goes to plan,” I said, then softened my voice. “Which is why I need you.”
“What?” He blinked at me. “For what?”
“I need you to tell Jun that I’d returned your jacket,” I said. “Or at least stick around while we speak in case confirmation is needed.”
“That’s it?” He asked, relieved.
I nodded then lifted the handset of the hotel phone. “Hello,” I said as the call was picked up. “Woo Young? How are you feeling? You didn’t seem well a couple of days ago.”
“I’m fine, Miss Gia. Are you feeling better?”
“Ah,” I said, figuring that he must have seen me last night. “I am, thanks.”
“What can I do for you?”
“I need you to connect me to Junnie… ah, Junnie Ch…”
“I’ll connect you to her, miss. Please hold.”
“Hang on,” I said before he could transfer the call. “Did you see who brought me home last night?”
“Mr. Lee brought you to the hotel room on his back,” he said and I could hear the chuckle in his voice.
“Mr. Lee brought me back?” I asked, putting my hand over the phone, not wanting Jung Jin to hear what I was talking about. The language barrier was sometimes tricky. I could have sworn he said Jung Jin brought me on his back, when I was sure he meant that he brought me back.
“Mr. Lee brought you on his back,” he repeated and I shook my head. Impossible. There was no way I would forget something like that, no matter how drunk I was.
“If there’s nothing else, I’ll connect you now.”
The line went silent before I heard a couple of rings, then Junnie’s trusty assistant answering the call.
“Bernadette,” I said warmly. “It’s Gia… is Jun in a meeting?”
“Ah,” she said, a little uncomfortably. “She’s not in a meeting.”
“Great!” I exclaimed. “Why did they connect me to the office? I need to speak to…”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” she interrupted, a little timidly. “She and her boyfriend had gone on a cruise.”
“What? When?” I asked. “We just spoke a few hours ago.”
“She left not long after you two spoke,” she added. “He picked her up.”
“Okay,” I said, trying not to panic. Junnie goes on trips all the time… she usually comes back in a couple of days. No big deal. Across from me Jung Jin continued to read the magazine, seemingly oblivious to this conversation. “When are they coming back?”
“They went on a cruise to Europe,” she said. “So… in one month?”
“WHAT?” Gia stood up and started pacing the hotel room floor. “Repeat that for me one more time.” The person on the other line must have told her something she didn’t like, judging from the look that came over her face. “So there’s no way to reach… Okay. As soon as possible, please. Yeah, okay.”
She sank back on the couch, then crossed her arms in front of her, saying nothing. At all. The silence was so loud I cleared my throat just to break it, noticing just now that I had adopted that particular habit of Joon’s. Her silence made me somewhat nervous, and I waited for her to say something. Anything.
“AHHHHH!!!!” She suddenly burst out. “I’m going crazy. I’M GOING CRAZY!”
“What happened?” I asked and she turned her incensed eyes on me.
“Joonie’s on a trip,” she said. “For a month. I can’t leave Korea for another month.”
What? I don’t understand. She has to leave soon. She had to. As long as she left, I could go back to my life. This… was only a momentary distraction. I was banking on her leaving. She can’t not leave. This will not do.
“Of course you’re leaving,” I said.
“How will I leave without any money?” She asked. “The room’s paid for until tomorrow but then I only have less than 2 million won to live on for a month. That won’t even cover a week here.”
“But… There’s enough money there to buy you a plane ticket,” I reasoned. “Even if there wasn’t I can lend you the rest.” Her expression brightened for just a brief second before it deflated again. “What?”
“Joonie has my passport.”
“I don’t think I heard you correctly,” I said. “Say that again?”
“Joon. Has. My. Passport.” She covered her face with her hands. “I have no identification here. Not even anything I could bring to the embassy. What the hell? How could…”
“How did Joon end up with your passport and wallet?” I asked, frowning. Somehow I doubted that she would just willingly give those up for safekeeping. Not her.
“We had the same hotel room…”
“You two shared a hotel room?” I asked, standing up. She shared a hotel room with a man? Seriously?
“We always share hotel rooms,” she said, shaking her head at me. “To save money. It used to be that we shared beds, too. That’s besides the point, anyway. How am I going to find a place to stay for a month and live off of this money?”
“I’ll help you,” I said before I could even examine what I was saying. “I’ll help you find a place.” She looked at me in astonishment and I stood up. “I’ll pick you up in the morning. 10 a.m. at the hotel lobby.”
She blinked at me and I walked out of the door, then straight to the elevators. One last thing, I told myself. I’ll do just this one last thing. It’s not as if I was still interested on her anyway. I wasn’t. I had no need for a woman whose heart was freshly broken by her own admission, or one who routinely shared a bed with her best male friend, one she stuck with despite the fact that he obviously didn’t care enough about her welfare after he left her. The woman came with baggage and I needed none of it. I only just unloaded my own. So, I’ll just make sure that she’s someplace safe, and leave her to it.
March 3, 2002
“You really don’t remember?” Elena asked over her cup of caramel macchiato. “You don’t remember seeing him after the disco party?”
We were sitting at one of the tables in the cafe, with its hardwood floors and the walls covered in greenery. It was the cafe I had been frequenting for the last two weeks, though I usually sat at the table in the corner by the windows.
“No,” I said, stirring my hot chocolate unnecessarily. Thinking back now I vaguely remember some type of dream with him in it, but that’s happened before, so that wasn’t something that even warranted closer inspection.
“How did he even know I was there?” I insisted.
“Seoul is not a big place.”
“It’s not that small, either. People don’t just randomly bump into each other.”
“They do in dramas,” she said brightly.
“This is not a drama,” I said and Elena shrugged her shoulders.
“Maybe… it’s destiny!” She said the last word with a dreamy look in her eyes and I mentally shook my head.
“I don’t believe in destiny. It was a lucky coincidence at best.” I lifted my cup to my mouth. “I didn’t do anything stupid, right?”
“Like what?” She asked, picking on a danish.
“Like…” like kiss him. Or talk about my feelings. “Like… anything.”
“I can only vouch for what you did before he took you away, on his back of all places.” Elena sighed, and then grinned at me. “So… besides throwing up on him I can’t tell you if you did anything else.”
“That’s good,” I said as I brought the cup of hot chocolate to my lips. “It’s very unlikely…” Her words finally registered and I had to sputter out my drink. “I threw up on him?”
“Well… on his shoes.”
“That’s much better then,” I said, my tone slightly sarcastic. “You should have told me this from the get go!”
“He didn’t seem bothered… overly much.”
Elena smiled at me and I found myself reciprocating, grateful to at least have someone here to talk to, her imminent departure notwithstanding. There must be something about foreigners in a strange land bonding almost instantaneously. But then again I always felt more comfortable with strangers than people who knew me. Or I was. Until him. Still, it was good to know that he was the only stranger I had felt distinctly uncomfortable with. And she and I did share alcohol… and what bonded people more quickly than that?
I looked over at Elena and she was still grinning at me. She appeared to want to talk more about Jung Jin and not really wanting to spend the remaining time she had in Seoul doing that, I changed the topic instead.
“What time is your flight?” I asked.
“1 p.m.” Elena put her cup down on the table.
“Ah,” I said, relieved to remember why I had called her to meet me so urgently. “Do you know of any places that sublet for a month?”
“What’s the budget like?”
“Not much.” I wrote down a figure on a piece of napkin and slid it over to her.
“Hmmm, twenty million is about twenty thousand dollars… that will get you a luxury hotel for a month,” she said. “Like where you’re staying now.”
“Oops,” I said, erasing the additional zero I had mistakenly added on the number then turned the napkin back to her. “I meant two million.”
“It’s impossible to find a short term rental for that cheap. The key money alone is more than that. Hostels are probably the best option for that type of money,” she said, and at the confirmation I felt myself deflate. Of course. “Why… who’s it for?” I pouted and then pointed a finger at myself, and she blinked at me before raising an eyebrow. “You?” I nodded. “I would lend you money but I don’t have any.”
“That’s okay,” I said, waving my hands at her. “I only asked you because you’ve lived here for a couple of years.”
“If I had known a week ago I would have asked them to hold my apartment a while longer.” She blew a breath out then looked back at me. “But… I thought you would be leaving not long after me.”
“That’s what I thought too.” I responded sheepishly. “But Junnie… know what, it’s a long story.”
“You seem to be full of long stories.” Her remark was said casually though I felt myself redden. “Speaking of which, we still haven’t finished talking about the last long story I tried to get out of you.”
“Which one?” I asked, pretending not to have any idea what she could be talking about.
“The one where there’s an insanely handsome man chasing you and you’re trying to run away, as opposed to towards him,” she said, her voice amused. “I was completely in doubt when he presented himself as someone who knew you, you know,” she continued, oblivious to the fact that I had already moved on to another topic intentionally. When I didn’t respond, she continued speaking. “But the man knew more about you than I expected.”
“Did he not tell you my name?” I asked, curiosity getting the better of me. “You would have known if he had just done that.”
“Yeah I thought that too.” She agreed, looking as if she was thinking. “But then he was like she’s from San Francisco! She can’t drink! She has tattoos! Like it was a trivia game show.” She met my eyes and gave me a sly smile. “I’m not going to ask how he knows where all your tattoos are…”
“It’s nothing like that!” I protested, reading into the implication. “He must have seen them when he saw me.”
“I was completely dressed!” Well I was… That time.
“Of course you were.” She continued watching me from the rim of her cup.
“Don’t patronize me.” She merely chuckled in response. “He’s a player,” I added, by way of explanation. “And players aren’t built for love. Or at least not the kind I want. I already made my mind up that the next person I’m with needs to be someone whole, even before I came along. The next person I’ll love needs to be a good person with or without me. I play by the rules. He doesn’t. Even from just the premise alone we are doomed.”
“Ogni regola ha un’eccezione.”
“What does that mean?” I asked even as she took my pen and wrote something on a piece of paper.
“Look it up,” she said. “It’s something Italians like to say. I believe there is an equivalent in English.” She handed me the paper before getting up from her chair. “I have to go. I still have to finish packing and then head to the airport by 11. Come visit me in Italy when you get out of Seoul. I’m pretty sure by then you’ll have another long story to tell.” I was just about to tell her that I having another story was unlikely when she wrapped her arms around me and handed me the piece of paper. There was an address written on it and I looked at her questioningly. “That’s the address where I stayed the first month I was here. It’s not the Park Hyatt, but it’s clean and it’s cheap. I think you’ll be okay staying there, if you’re only here for a month.”
“No, hell no, absolutely not,” I said, resolute, as Gia walked around the apartment whose address was on her piece of paper. It was windowless, and tiny. She’s tiny and it still looked tiny. There weren’t even any deadlocks on the door. “You can’t stay here. It’s not even eight
“Okay…” she said, her face in a frown as she looked at me. “… I don’t even know what that means. I don’t speak Korean.”
I sent the landlady avidly watching us while standing outside an apologetic smile and she beamed at me.
“It’s not even thirty five square feet, ” I said. “And there’s no bed.”
“I have my sleeping bag,” she said dismissively. “I’ll take it.” I crossed my arms around my chest but said nothing when her eyes steered towards the landlady, as if urging me to translate. “Tell her I’ll take it. And that I’ll pay cash.”
“No.” There is no way, none whatsoever, that I will allow this woman to stay here like she was some kind of penniless beggar. “This place is tiny. There’s no kitchen. And the bathroom is just a hole in the floor. Without a shower.”
I said the last sentence emphatically, trying to appeal to her vanity. Never had I met a woman who didn’t prefer the modern shower to bathing from a pail of water.
“So?” She asked stubbornly. “Less space means that it would be much easier to keep it warm. I don’t cook so I don’t need a kitchen. And no shower means less water used. I don’t see what the problem is. I’ll take it.”
“You can’t stay here,” I insisted. “You’re a tourist.”
“I believe I stopped being a tourist the minute my best friend took all my money away,” she said.
Her eyes were looking at me like I had gone insane. And in some ways I think I might have. The plan was for me to make sure she was someplace comfortable and safe, so that I didn’t have to waste any more of my time worrying about her. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I knew she was in this place. This was counter intuitive to my plan of action. Unacceptable. My phone rang and I irritatedly pulled it out, saw Hye Soo’s name and rejected the call.
“I can’t afford to stay anywhere else,” she added. “And I’m cranky and tired. We’ve already been to every hostel in the city. Those that were acceptable had no vacancies. The rest you found fault with. They were either too far, too dirty. Too small, too many young guests. It’s only a month. I’m sure I will be okay.”
The landlady coughed before asking me in Korean whether we had made a decision. I answered her, politely and in my most charming voice, to give us a few more minutes to have this discussion and she smiled at me again, revealing a smile full of missing teeth. I asked her to wait outside for us and she nodded before padding away.
“You should just stay in the hotel,” I said. “You’re already there anyway.”
“I can’t afford to stay one week there, much less a month,” she argued. “I should know… I checked. Even at the discounted rate I would need at least another nine million won to stay there for the rest of the time I’m here. The other hotels are just as expensive.”
“I’ll lend you the money.”
“And what?” She asked. “And owe you for the rest of my life? No, thanks.”
“You should research some more before you decide. Take a few days…”
“You do realize that while we’re here arguing a non-issue, since the last time I checked this was my decision, that my funds are dwindling even more? I’ve already missed the checkout time, which means that I will have to pay for tonight at the hotel. Every day that I spend researching would be another day I would have to pay for. I can’t be dawdling about… not to the tune of more than 200 dollars a day. This is okay. I’ve lived in worse…”
She stopped abruptly, as if she revealed too much, and turned away. What did she mean worse? Worse than this? Impossible. With Joonie as a best friend I doubted that would have been possible. She didn’t appear to come from that kind of family as well.
“Just…” she said, exhausted. “… tell her I’ll take it and that I’ll move in tomorrow.”
She walked out of the apartment and I followed her. The landlady turned to us expectantly and I walked over to her.
“I’m sorry for disturbing your Sunday,” I said. “She won’t be staying here.”
She nodded at me, still smiling, and I wondered if she heard me correctly. Deciding that we needed to get out of here before the words registered, I took Gia’s arm and urged her to walk out. We walked down the steep steps silently, and I looked over at her to see her focused intently ahead.
Her hair was in a braid today, held back away from her face. She was wearing a scarf over her coat, her legs in black jeans and boots. She held her purse protectively over her chest. We passed by a bar on the way back to the car, and thought I heard whistles when she walked by a group of men. She tried to appear as if she didn’t hear them but I caught a small flinch and I stopped. I glared back at them until they averted their eyes then caught up with her and spoke.
“Do you really want to stay here?” I asked in a low voice. “Look around you. This place is surrounded by bars and nightclubs. You think those cat calls are bad? People only get rowdier at night.”
“Elena recommended this place,” she said stubbornly, increasing the pace of her strides. “She wouldn’t tell me it’s okay unless it was.”
“It probably was when she first got here,” I tried to reason with her, remembering that she mentioned on the way that this was where her friend had stayed two years ago. “It’s changed a bit since then. Will you really be comfortable coming home at night by yourself? I can’t believe you’re being so nonchalant about this.”
She kept on walking and I grabbed her arm, my hold not letting go until she stopped and I turned her to face me. She put both her arms up over her face and I was taken aback by the action, and she seemed to be, as well. Because as soon as she realized what she was doing, she shook her arm loose and looked at me, her eyes burning.
“I don’t have much of a choice,” she said quietly. “I don’t know what Joonie was thinking, but it is what it is. How exactly do you want me to act? You want me to be hysterical and weepy?” Not quite knowing how to respond I stayed quiet instead. “I’m no damsel in distress, Mr. Lee. I’m not wasting precious time and energy trying to figure a way out of a situation that I have no control over. This is my situation. I’m trying to do my best with it. The other conditions of my being in Seoul are set in stone right now, therefore I have to adapt. It’s what people do, Mr. Lee. It’s what grown-ups do.”
Her insistence in calling me Mr. Lee to my face when I knew she called me Jung Jin when I’m not in front of her or when she’s drunk brought a new wave of annoyance, and before I knew it, my fingers had my hands were reaching for her again and she narrowed her eyes at me, a warning in her glare.
“What business is it of yours anyway? What I do is none of your concern,” she said coldly and before turning away. I was about to follow her when she turned on her heels and fixed me another look. “Oh and I don’t take well to men touching me in anger. Don’t ever grab me like that again.”
I watched as she marched towards the car, my hand still mid-air. She hadn’t raised her voice, but I got her message. She stood by the passenger door, her eyes fixed on everywhere but me. I walked over and unlocked her door then opened it, staying put until she was in the seat, the belt fastened securely. I went to the driver’s side and inserted the key in the ignition before I spoke again, my voice calm, betraying none of the irritation I felt at her obstinacy.
“I apologize for grabbing your arm earlier,” I started, my voice low. “But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m the only one you know in this country right now, so everything you do is my concern. While you’re in Korea, your welfare and safety are my responsibilities. I am your guardian while you’re here, do you understand?”
“I am a grown woman,” she said, her voice just as firm as mine was. “I haven’t needed a guardian in more than a decade. I can take care of myself. I’m not one of your clients, Mr. Lee. You don’t get to manage me.”
“And if something happened to you?” I asked. “What then?”
“If something is meant to happen then it will.”
“You’re a woman who likes facts, so let’s look at your current facts,” I said. “You’re in a country you don’t know. You can’t even speak the language. You don’t have any of your identification, no proof that you’re an American citizen. You don’t have any money.” She stayed quiet, looking out the window. “You may not care that something might happen but I’m sure your family will. And your best friend too, whatever the intention might have been when you were left here. Even if you don’t think about yourself, think of them… and still tell me that you are perfectly fine staying someplace like that.”
She remained quiet for a few minutes before I heard her speak again. “What’s your solution?” She asked quietly, resignation in her voice.
“Stay in my place.”
Her head turned to me quickly, a flush on her cheeks. “I can’t stay with you.”
“Why not?” I asked flippantly. “You stayed with Joon in the hotel. I have two bedrooms. We don’t even have to share a room.”
“Joon’s my best friend!”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked. Best friend he may be, but he was still a man. So am I. What’s the difference?
“Joon and I have known each other forever. We’ve met each other’s families….” Her continued mention of her close relationship with a man who didn’t even think twice before leaving her did nothing but nag at my ire. “…and you and I are practically strangers.”
“Who’ve kissed,” I interjected, earning a scowl.
“I’m sure I’m not the only woman you barely knew that you’ve kissed,” she muttered.
“Same goes for you.” The words came out before I could help it and I silently scolded myself for my pettiness.
“Anyway… I don’t see you offering to live with any of them.”
“Is my presence the only objection you have to accepting my offer?” I asked and she looked at me warily. “Then I’ll stay with JJ until his season starts. It’s only for a month then you can leave and put this all behind you.”
“How much will you charge me for rent?”
“You don’t have to pay me. The apartment is fully paid for.”
“No.” She was shaking her head and I rubbed my temples with my fingers. This woman. Her bullheadedness will kill me. “I’m not a charity case.”
“I’m not losing any money by having you stay there. I don’t have to pay a mortgage whether or not it’s occupied,” I said. “But if you’re insistent on paying, then just pay for the water and utilities.”
“I’d rather that it be called rent.”
There were a lot of things I would rather do myself, including point out to her that my apartment would cost even more than the hotel room she refused to borrow money from me for, but too tired to engage in yet another argument, I decided to just go with whatever will get her to agree.
“Fine,” I said, shaking my head.
“Fine.” She added, as if wanting to have the last word. “I need to tell the landlady I won’t be moving in tomor…”
“Already done,” I interrupted and watched her eyes narrow. ‘I do have one condition.”
“What?” she asked, suspicious.
“You need to start calling me Jung Jin.”
She huffed in exasperation but said nothing else. I remained quiet, as well, waiting for her to agree. After a few more seconds she finally spoke. “Fine,” she mumbled under her breath.
I smiled as I pulled the car out of the parking space and onto the street, trying to savor the small victory, until I felt her burning a hole in my head. If looks could kill… I would already be dead ten times over. I wiped the grin off my face and focused on the road instead, rather than the woman currently murdering me with her eyes. We spent the ride back to the hotel in utter and absolute silence.
March 3, 2002
“Are we alright?” Hye Soo asked, an uncharacteristic doubt in her voice. In front of her the somen noodles that she had ordered remained untouched. Her elegant fingers were wrapped around the handle of her wineglass on the table, the onyx ring on her right hand glinting in the candlelight. It took me a minute to digest that she had said ‘we’ and not ‘you.’ Even longer still to formulate a response. As if sensing my hesitance, she repeated herself. “Are we?”
“Of course we are,” I said with a practiced smile. “Why wouldn’t we be?”
We were sitting in an alcove at the restaurant, the monochromatic walls and floor even more stark in the soft glow of the lights. I could hear voices across the way and upstairs, but we were somewhere isolated enough to still have some privacy. Just as I knew Hye Soo preferred.
“You didn’t answer my call earlier.” Her keen gaze was fixed on me, and I chewed on my food, the taste just as exquisite as the last time I was here.
“I was in the middle of something,” I answered. “You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I do.” She said the words lightly enough, but I heard the hard edge in her voice. It had been subtle, hidden under harmless words, but I had known Hye Soo long enough to catch it right away. “Why did you change our dinner plans?”
Her question was asked suddenly, and I examined her face. “I thought you needed a change in environment. We don’t always have to eat at hotel restaurants.”
“There’s a reason why we always ate at those restaurants,” she said. “If you can call what we do eating, since it’s been a long time that we actually stayed long enough to finish a meal.”
“Yeah, I know.”
She said nothing as she took a bite of her food, then motioned for the server to take it away. She had done the same with her first course, though I had been too busy thinking about what Gia was doing to question her then. I watched as the server had refilled her glass and brought her third dish before I started eating again.
“Are we still on for after?” She had her fork in her plate but seemed to just be pushing the food around.
“Why is it,” I said. “That we can never seem to have a conversation beyond business and bed?”
The smile she gave me was steely, cold. “Are you kidding me, Jung Jin-ssi?” She asked. “We’ve been sleeping together for five years and only now you’re asking me this? I know you very well. One word about, God forbid, feelings, and you would have never seen me again.” I said nothing because she was right. I put my fork down and wiped my mouth with a napkin. “You never answered my question. Are we still on after?”
“I…” I said, downing my wine in one swallow. “I don’t think so. I’m exhausted.”
Her face hardened. “Of course you are. Is there something you need to tell me?”
“No,” I said. “Nothing.”
“You and I,” she said. “You and I have never been dishonest with each other. I never figured you to be someone who would feel the need to lie to me. About anything. You said there was nothing to share, so I will believe you. I will give you one more chance to tell me if something has changed.”
I detected a warning in her voice and narrowed my eyes at her. What, exactly, was she trying to tell me? What was she implying? If I wanted to say something I would have said it already. She and I are both very aware of the kind of relationship she and I shared. I was uneasy, unsettled. I blame it on Gia’s sudden appearance in my life. As soon as she’s gone I was certain that things will be back to how they always were. To how they were always supposed to be. That thought was comforting to me, once, but tonight it left me feeling even more restless. I ignored the discomfort and smiled at Hye Soo, trying to appear as aloof as I always was, as aloof as she always knew me to be.
“I’m fine,” I reassured her. “It’s been a crazy couple of days. I’ll be back to normal again, soon. I’m sorry that I’ve been so distracted. If there was something to share,” I continued, “you would be the first to know.”
March 4, 2002
After barely four hours of sleep, the last thing I wanted to do was sit at my office for a morning filled with business meetings, but here I was. My office was on the 38th floor of the building, and I looked out of the windows of the conference room onto the sight just outside, where the exhibition center and ASEM tower were. I did so while vaguely listening to one of Joon’s sponsors, as he attempted to negotiate his fee.
“… offered more but let’s face it…” their representative said, a man by the name of Go Kwang Sik, “… the injury had done nothing but lessen his popularity, and he would certainly be more valuable had he stayed in America. Our offer is fair, and you know it. We stayed with him through his…”
“Kim Jae Joon is valuable no matter where he is,” I said, swinging my chair around, and he looked up from the file he held. I supposed I gave off the impression that I hadn’t been paying attention, or that I didn’t care most of the time, but I always listened. And I always gave a damn. While there was truth in what he said that they didn’t drop Joon during his injury, I knew that it was less about integrity as it was about not wanting to pay the monstrous fee that came from breaking a contract. I understood this very well, and I bristled at his reasoning.
“In the last two months since he started playing competitively again his popularity had broadened even more significantly. He is currently one of the most well-known and relevant names in Korean athletics. You know what they’re calling him?” I asked and he shook his head no. “The comeback kid. Women love him. Men want to be him. He’s handsome, talented, marketable. And he’s a damn good human being. He’s playing in Korea not because he didn’t have another choice, but because he wanted to, because of love, the same reason why he is still playing baseball. Ever since the interview he gave practically shouting his love for his fiancée, he had only gotten more popular, even with fans who didn’t follow baseball before. You know which demographic he had flocked to your product since the last campaign?” I paused only long enough to let him process the information I just spat out, and he shook his head again. “Women… And the last time I checked, they were your target market, no?”
“Ah…” he stammered, trying to look for the appropriate document to confirm or negate what I just said.
“Your last quarterly report showed that until you did the last winter campaign with Joon your sales among women have been teetering precariously low,” I continued. “So much so that the higher ups poured a couple of billion won into getting a new advertising firm to figure out how to engage the women.”
“How did you know about that?”
I smiled with no real amusement and ignored his question. ”But… after the winter campaign sales among women rose up by 39%. In the first month… and it’s still going up… all from one commercial and him saying in a newspaper interview that his fiancée liked your energy drink as well.” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I make it a point to study everything that has to do with my client. You realize, of course, that if we actually asked for, say, royalties from all your sales because of him, that what you had been paying him wouldn’t even come close to the actual figure that your company had received from his advertising power. Or you yourself had received, since I heard that everyone in that last winter campaign received a bonus. But… Since you obviously don’t find his image that valuable, maybe it’s time that we sever this relationship and for us, and by us I mean Joon and I, to find a sponsor who sees his worth.”
He paled under my scrutiny, then stared at the folder in front of him again. “Fine, fine… we won’t change the amount. 5 billion for two years.”
“Ten,” I said. “You not only insulted my client, but me as well.” I looked at him directly, noting his uneasiness. “Did you expect me to let you rob him blind? Your main competitor has been calling us for months, but Joon insisted we stay with you. He said the fact that your company was the first to approach him when he was barely in the professional league meant something. My client is loyal to the core. I, however, am not.”
He said nothing as he reluctantly made a change to the contract in front of him. I stood up and offered him a hand, and he stood up as well, his expression slightly puzzled.
“I won’t tell Joon what you said,” I said. “And email me the contract when it’s been officially modified. Give your CEO my regards.”
At the mention of his boss’ name all color disappeared from his face. “Are you going to tell him what happened here?” he asked, his voice shaky. “I would appreciate it if…”
“I don’t have to tell him,” I interjected as I buttoned up my suit jacket. “Because you will. I’m sure he’ll want an explanation why Kim Jae Joon’s fee just doubled.”
I bowed then motioned towards the door, and after a few minutes he took the hint, albeit nervously. I watched as he gathered his paperwork and walked out of the conference room and waited for a few minutes before I grabbed my briefcase and walked out myself.
I passed the reception and perused the young man sitting behind the counter, my assistant. He adjusted his glasses higher on his nose and noticed me standing there after a few seconds, then smiled awkwardly. This kid, I thought, needed a makeover. I pulled my wallet out and placed a credit card on the counter.
“I’m off for the day,” I said and he nodded. “I have my handphone if you need me.” Again, he nodded. It was probably a bad idea to hire someone who was so obviously uncomfortable speaking for a position that required him to speak the majority of the time, but I couldn’t help myself. He reminded me so much of myself when I was his age it was eerie.
I pointed at the card on the counter and he looked at me questioningly. “Get yourself a new suit and some contact lenses.” He was about to nod again and I stopped him before he could. “And just say something.”
He stood up and bowed. “Thank you, Mr. Lee.”
The gratitude in his voice echoed what had been in my voice so long ago and I flinched. He was so earnest in his thanks that I felt uncomfortable.
“I didn’t do it for you,” I muttered. “You represent me and this company so you need to look better.”
“Of course, Mr. Lee,” he said softly.
I can’t see his face but his ears reddened and I regretted my harsh tone almost immediately.
I looked at him for a few seconds more as he kept his head down and shook my own, then walked towards the elevators.
Park Hyatt Hotel
March 4, 2002
I wiped the sweat off my forehead with a small towel as I walked inside the hotel lobby. I took a long swallow of water as I pulled the earplugs off my ears. The burn on my legs was comforting and familiar, making me feel less like I was in a foreign country and more at home. It was what I needed right now, in these conditions and in this state of mind. I waved at Woo Young, the hotel front desk attendant as I made my way towards the elevators and he acknowledged my wave with a smile.
People say that the most efficient way to get a puppy to adjust to his new home was to take him for a walk. Right now I’m starting to think that it worked for people too. Going back to my routine even in the most bizarre of circumstances helped. I hesitated before I stepped out of the hotel an hour and a half ago, afraid of getting lost, but I soon found out that I was okay as long as I stayed within the perimeter of the hotel grounds, the building in sight.
I had to be outside. I needed to be outside. I needed to feel the sunshine on my face and the wind in my hair. The hotel room was comfortable and luxurious but I was starting to feel suffocated. A feeling I was all too familiar with. It happened more often sooner than later, and that I knew I was stuck in Korea for another month exacerbated the feeling more. It wasn’t Korea as much the idea of being stuck somewhere fixed that choked me. It had happened every time I had stayed anywhere for any length of time for the past few years. San Francisco had been the exception, though I knew it was always because I was still mobile. I could leave whenever I wanted. I never acknowledged the city as home. But now…
I stepped out of the elevator and checked my watch as I walked to the room. Inserting the hotel room key out of my hoodie and into the reader, I waited for the green light before I walked in, heading straight to the shower, and ignoring the ringing in the hotel room phone.
I washed up quickly, then got dressed, gathering my box of toiletries and setting them aside to pack last. Looking at my suitcases I realized that there was at least some benefit to the fact that I never unpack. It made the process of leaving, something that was always inevitable for me, so much more efficient and quick. There was no chance of reminiscing as I packed. There was no time to feel as I tried to put my possessions back in place. It made something that was so often accompanied by so much emotion clinical. Drama-free. Easy.
I hefted the larger suitcase onto the bed and pulled out a dress. My favorite. It was a warm day in Seoul, and spring was finally in the air. I felt good, though a little out of sorts still and wearing my clothes, dressing the way I always did before my life was spent in scrubs brought a small measure of ease. I laid it on the bed and smoothed a hand over the ridiculously feminine hem, over the bodice that was so meticulously crafted. I scanned the room for anything I could be leaving only to note with satisfaction that there was none. I was nothing if not an expert in not integrating myself anywhere.
I dried my hair, a process which took twice as long as it would have my own hair dryer, then curled it in loose waves. I only had blush and mascara on, my lips stained in light gloss. For so long when I was a teenager I watched my mother put on her makeup and wondered why she did the same routine every single time. But now I understood. Just like soldiers prepare for combat, the same way athletes perform their pre-game rituals, my mother put her makeup on like it was an armor. One thing she can do to make herself feel ready for life. It was a habit I had adopted, and watching my face transform in the mirror, I marveled at how something so small could do so much. I may not look completely sure of myself or what I was doing, but I at least looked the part.
I lifted the dress over my head and onto my torso, the once snug fit just a little looser. I zipped the dress on its side and set a cream colored blazer aside.
I walked to the phone and dialed the front desk and asked once someone answered if they had hotel trolleys available. I had offered to get it myself until Woo Young silenced me by saying he had already dispatched the bellboy up to help with my luggage. I expressed my thanks and hung up, then slipped my feet into my shoes, a pair of cream colored heels.
As I waited I sat down on one of the couches, my suitcases already back by the door. The garment bag sitting on the armrest caught my eye and I added it to the rest of my stuff, determined once and for all to return it this time. All of this was that jacket’s fault. All of this.
A soft knock on the door prompted me that help had arrived and I opened the door to the see the young bell boy standing on the other side. His eyes widened as he saw me and I patted my hair self-consciously. I must have overdone it, I thought, since he obviously couldn’t believe it was me even though he had seen me almost every day for the last two weeks. I smiled at him and he blushed shyly, averting his eyes.
Did I really look that different? I glanced at my reflection as I passed the mirror and decided that I didn’t. No, not really. Maybe an upgraded version but I still looked like myself.
He placed my suitcases onto the cart without saying a word and I rested my blazer over one arm, following behind him as he walked to the elevator. We rode down to the front lobby and I asked him to park the cart by the front door as I completed the checkout process, making my way through a crowd of men in business suits.
Woo Young had the same reaction to seeing me when I showed up at the counter, his jaw dropping momentarily, though he recovered a bit more quickly.
“Miss Gia,” he said. “You look exceptionally beautiful today.”
“I do?” I asked then smiled. “Thank you.” I handed him my key. “For everything. You’ve been a great help the last couple of weeks.”
He grinned back at me as he typed something on the computer, his fingers moving in rapid strokes.
“Miss Chen already settled the bill,” he informed me.
“Thank you for everything,” I said quietly and offered a hand, which he eyed in surprise. “I made sure to write a good review on the feedback card,” I added with another smile. “You do a wonderful job. Don’t work too hard, do you hear me? Take a vacation from school and work sometimes.”
“Thank you,” he said, shaking my hand. “It’s been a pleasure having you here. I hope that you found someplace comfortable and safe to stay at for the duration of your time in Korea.”
I smiled though said nothing else as I turned away from the counter, my eyes on my cart holding my belongings. Comfortable? Maybe. I had no doubt that Jung Jin’s apartment would be just like the man itself. I almost laughed at the look that came over his face when he saw the apartment that Elena had sent me to. The man was used to more luxurious surroundings and was a bit of a snob. Safe? Perhaps from everything else but not from my landlord.
I was almost by the cart when I remembered that I forgot to ask Woo Young something and I walked back to the counter.
“Woo Young,” I said. “Can you please call a cab for me and give them this address?” This was something I had asked so often of him to do, having learned from my first attempt at giving an address in English to a Korean speaking cab driver which ended very badly and with a very high fare.
“Sure thing,” he said. He lifted the phone’s receiver and dialed a number before he put it back down after a few seconds of waiting. “I don’t think I need to do that.” He smiled and I lifted my eyes in question and followed his eyes to the front door, where Jung Jin stood, chatting with the bell boy watching my stuff.
He was dressed in a black suit, a gray buttoned down shirt under the jacket. His trousers were perfectly tailored, the fit emphasizing his long legs. His hair was brushed back from his face, a watch on his wrist, a big smile on his face. He threw his head back and laughed at something the bellboy said and hearing the sound of it echoed through me, my heart beating inside my chest. It brought me back to the first time I heard it, so many months ago, at the park in San Francisco.
How did I end up here?
How did I end up here with him even after promising to myself after every time we had met that I won’t see him again?
He ran his fingers through his hair, and the small action brought me back to another memory. New Year’s Eve. While I was trying to make sense of why he kissed me.
I pushed the memory away as I stood in place, tempted to run again. Away from him. Away from here. Anywhere would do, as long as he wasn’t close enough for me to touch.
Woo Young’s words came back to me. Comfortable? Probably not, with the way I was feeling. Being in his space probably wouldn’t help with that, but it was too late. Safe? I was beginning to doubt that I would ever feel safe again. That word would never apply to me as long as that man was around. My sanity, my resolve, were all in danger as long as that man was in my life. I acknowledged this, even as I knew that I could not do anything about it now. The only hope I have is that he will honor one promise he had made to me. I will be okay as long as he stayed away.
“So I said to him, right, I do too know Kim Jae Joon’s manager and he is that tall!” Shin Ho, the bellboy said and I laughed out loud.
I had gone straight to the hotel to pick Gia up to take her to my apartment after my last meeting. Of course the stubborn woman didn’t answer my call to inform her of my arrival, though, maybe, that was a good thing. She probably would have insisted that I don’t pick her up, that she would call a cab. She may be used to doing what she wanted, but she failed to factor something in. I always do what I wanted, too.
I already anticipated another round of negotiation and bartering and ran a hand through my hair. Why did she have to make everything so difficult? My phone vibrated in my pocket and I pulled it out, seeing a missed call from Joon, and a new message from Hye Soo, a frown forming on my face as I read it.
Dinner tonight? Let me know and I’ll make the reservation.
I closed the phone without responding, unsure for the first time in a long time how to answer. The terse dinner we shared last night still weighed on me, and I was in no mood for another interrogation. Part of me admitted that this thing with her may have outrun its course, but a bigger part of me, the saner side of me knew not to shake the status quo. Things will come back to normal soon enough, like I told her last night, and I truly believed that. As long as Gia left in one month, then everything will be okay. I made a mental note to text Hye Soo back later. Much later.
I put my phone away and was bidding Shin Ho goodbye when my eyes noted just now the luggage on the cart next to him, a familiar sleeping bag bundled on the bottom, as well as a garment bag on top. A garment bag I knew. I didn’t have to ask Shin Ho whose belongings these were. I scanned the crowd in the hotel lobby foyer, looking for her. As I thought, she was going to make her move without me. Annoyed I continued to look, searching for the distinctive bun on top of her head, for the ponytail behind her, or a long braid. I found no one wearing their hair that way in the crowd of business men in front of me.
And then… A vision in pink and cream damask appeared in front of me, a woman barely recognizable. I’ve seen her in scrubs, in jeans, in a towel, with black shit on her face, with no makeup on. I thought that she couldn’t be surprise me anymore, but I was wrong.
The dress she wore was unassuming enough, but the way she wore it, the way it molded onto her transformed it. The dress looked like it was made for her. The neckline and hem were modest, covering everything it’s supposed to, but still revealed too much for my comfort. Her skin had a healthy glow, dewy and soft looking. Her hair was left loose to curl behind her, her eyes framed by long lashes. Her lips looked pillow soft, shiny and pink. She looked confident, a woman comfortable in her own skin. Beautiful. Irresistible. And completely unaware.
I saw as some men turned to look her way as she walked a direct path towards me, her face already in a frown. Even so. That didn’t detract from her loveliness, and I had to make a conscious effort to keep myself from staring at her. She stopped in front of me, a few inches taller than I was used to seeing her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, shrugging into a cream colored blazer, her purse over one shoulder. If the way she looked even for one second made me think that she was someone else today, the tone in her voice reminded me quite abruptly that she was still exactly the same.
“If you had answered my phone call you would have known that I was planning on picking you up.” She smiled at Shin Ho, whose gaze was riveted on her, and I wondered why she smiled that way at everyone but me. “Are you ready?”
“You didn’t have to pick me up,” she said, her voice quiet. “I would have been perfectly capable of finding your apartment.”
“Who was questioning your capabilities?” I asked, shaking my head. “Humor me. I was already in Gangnam, and we were going to the same place. Why wouldn’t I pick you up?”
She already started lifting her suitcases from the cart without answering me. I tsked under my breath before motioning for Shin Ho to take over, giving him my car keys. Times like this is when it’s nice that the hotel staff knew me, or more importantly, that they knew how I tipped. He nodded once before gathering her luggage and she stepped to the side.
“I could have done that, too.”
“I know you could have,” I said, trying not to let my impatience show. “But why would you? This is his job.” She gave me an answering glare.
“You’re such an arrogant…”
“Do you really want to have this conversation here?” I cut in.
“I don’t need to owe you more than I’m already going to.”
At her statement I looked at her disbelievingly. “Who’s keeping tabs? I was only trying to do something nice, trying to be efficient. It saves you money and it saves me time. A ‘thank you’ would have sufficed. ” She looked like she was about to argue some more and I cut her off. “You know… I think I’m starting to get why Joon would leave you behind.”
“What does that mean?”
“I mean that you are such a pain in the ass sometimes,” I said curtly before placing a hand on her back and guiding her out of the door and was relieved when she allowed me to even do this without making a fuss. I wanted to get away from the curious glances already being sent our way by the other guests, something else she had seemingly not been aware of.
“You know, some of those articles about you lauded you for your charm,” she said. “Though I don’t know why.” I put my sunglasses on before I allowed myself to look at her.
“And I thought you were supposed to be courteous,” I replied. “My charm didn’t work on you… so I’ll stick with honesty, instead.” Shin Ho finished loading the car and I handed him a couple of bills, then opened her door. “Let’s go.”
We didn’t speak again until we were about five minutes away from my apartment. She had her eyes fixed outside the whole time I drove, her expression flat. If only she wasn’t so pretty today I would have definitely been harder on her… maybe even left her at the hotel.
She craned her neck to look up at the apartment building facade as I pulled into the apartment parking lot. Next to me I heard her clear her throat before she spoke.
“It’s not that I’m not appreciative. And I don’t mean to come off as rude,” she said softly. “But I’m really not comfortable with people doing things for me.”
“I can see that, though I fail to understand why.”
“The only person anyone needs to lean on is themselves.”
“I agree with the importance of self-reliance,” I said. “But if people want to help, why not let them?”
She was quiet until I parked the car and then she responded. “Leaning on people is dangerous. Most people are unpredictable, changeable. If you depend on someone too much it becomes a habit, and then where will you be when they leave?”
“Some people don’t leave.”
“All people leave, whether by choice or circumstance,” she responded wistfully.
“I don’t agree.” She kept her eyes away from me. “Besides, what’s so wrong about doing things for other people?”
“Nothing, except no one does anything nicely for no reason. People always expect something back in return. No one gets anything for free.”
“Even a random act of kindness?” I asked.
“Even a random act of kindness makes the person doing it feel good,” she responded. “I didn’t say that it’s always a bad thing. ”
“Especially love,” she responded. ‘You think most people love selflessly?”
“Fine,” I relented. “Maybe not love. What about wisdom? You can get that without having to do anything but grow up.”
“That, too.” Her gaze hardened. “The price for wisdom is pain. Humans learn so little from happiness. Pain, however, is a great teacher. It’ll teach you its lessons, whether you like it or not. And certainly regardless of whether or not you’re ready.”
She said nothing else, but it had sounded as if she broke the initial silence with a precursor to an apology so I stopped speaking. I figured she needed some silence to build herself up to actually saying it, but she remained tight lipped. We were sitting in the car in the parking lot, and I turned to her.
“Aren’t you going to say anything else?” I asked, finally, wanting to get on with the day already and get past this little hiccup.
“Like what?” She said, baffled.
“I thought you were going to say that you’re sorry for your behavior, like most women would.”
She looked at me in surprise. “I wasn’t trying to apologize,” she said. “I just felt the need to explain myself a little, and to reiterate this… please don’t do anything else for me. I don’t like it.”
She got out of the car and stood outside before I could say anything else. I had to take a few deep breaths to calm down the sudden rush of anger before popping open the trunk of the car.
I should have said my little speech about not helping me with anything until I got my luggage in the apartment, I thought as I struggled into the door with my two suitcases, my purse, my sleeping bag, and my cosmetic case. There was a doorman behind the counter who was eyeing me with some amusement as I walked in, huffing and puffing. Jung Jin stood by the elevators with his face expressionless, his arms crossed over his chest.
I definitely should have worn more practical shoes as well. it was such a beautiful day outside and I saw my dress and I thought that I should at least wear it once while I was here. My choice in footwear left me feeling as if I was going to topple over at any given time and I can’t do that. Not when I had an audience. And especially not right after I gave Jung Jin my independent woman song and dance.
I entered the elevator with all my stuff in tow, Jung Jin silent. We didn’t exchange any words as it went up up up, all the way to the 29th floor. He typed in a few numbers on a keypad to the side of the elevator buttons and I looked on in confusion.
“The code is 7943,” he said. “Remember it because I’m the only one who knows it.”
“7943,” I repeated. “But who needs a code to get out of the elevator?”
The door opened and my eyes widened. The elevator didn’t open to a hallway, as I was expecting, but to a magnificent space. As in, right in the middle of it. Jung Jin stepped out and then turned towards me. I dragged all my belongings as I stepped in, my eyes drinking in the sight before me.
What appeared to be a living room, elevated by a step, surrounded on all sides by floor to ceiling windows, each framed separately, the view overlooking Han River and Seoul, the only wall I could see taken by a large television. Impossibly long curtains at each of the windows’ sides. Floors the color of mahogany gleaming in the light, the industrial looking light fixtures on the ceiling a shiny chrome. There was a large leather sectional facing the windows, an apothecary style coffee table in the middle, in one corner of the living room a piano, and right next to it, a fireplace. It brought to mind cozy nights by the fire and my breath hitched in my throat as my eyes continued to wander leisurely.
Ahead Jung Jin took off his shoes and put slippers on, then took my suitcases from my hands and planted them… somewhere else. I walked in slowly, wondering whether I should have brought slippers as well, when Jung Jin appeared with a pair of pink slippers and placed it on the floor. Before I could say thank you, he was already gone again, and I slipped my feet in gratefully. I made my way towards the windows, only now noting that one of them was not a window but a door, leading to a railed deck area outside. There was a kitchen to the right of the living room, almost as large as Junnie’s had been in San Francisco. The counters were topped with black marble, the appliances the same color chrome as the light fixture in the living room.
Jung Jin appeared to stand by my side, and I turned to him.
“You lied to me.” He looked at me questioningly and I smiled. “You said I was staying in your apartment.”
“This is my…”
“This is no apartment,” I said. “This is a palace.”
“I like it,” he said, sticking his hands in the pockets of his trousers.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
He looked taken aback by the compliment, as if he wasn’t quite sure he heard me correctly, but I wasn’t lying. It truly was a beautiful place. It was masculine but not intimidating, grandiose, but still inviting and warm. It should have looked excessive, and yet… it did not. Everything looked like it belonged here, like it belonged to him. His place was a paradox, just like him.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, and for a second, I tried to hear any sign of facetiousness in her tone, but I couldn’t detect any. She so rarely complimented me about anything that it had taken me by surprise and I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Really. Your interior decorator had done a great job. This is lovely.”
I turned away from her as I felt myself flush in pride. I had decorated the place myself, picked out every detail from the exact shade of the floor, to the bulbs that were in every light fixture. Every nuance had been to my taste and my specification, and I was fiercely protective of it.
I can count on one hand how many people I have allowed here, with the exception of my family. In all the years I had owned it, none of the women I had dated has ever been brought here. It was my sanctuary, my private oasis, and I just offered it to the woman next to me on a plate.
Something about seeing her in the middle of all things that are mine, looking as if she absolutely belonged here, as if she had always belonged here left me feeling disconcerted, and I found myself babbling.
“Thank you,” I said. “I hope you’ll feel comfortable here. The doorman is only here until 7 p.m., but the doors can only be accessed by card which I’d left on the counter for you. Guests can only be buzzed in, so you don’t have to worry about strangers just coming into the building. This area is really safe, and Lotte Mart is only a ten minute walk or a five minute cab ride away. There’s a park a couple of blocks up the street, and that’s where the bus stop is, as well.”
She nodded as she walked towards the windows, a hand touching the curtain. I watched as she looked out into the sight that greeted me every morning and every night, the sight of my city right outside. So close I could almost touch it. She traced a finger over the surface of the glass, as if touching the tops of the buildings and the clouds, a small smile on her face. That my place would bring such pleasure to her brought a measure of it to me, as well, and my heart started pounding in my chest.
“Do you have the top floor all to yourself?”
“Why the top floor?” she asked. “Because of the exclusivity of it?”
“Nah,” I responded, “I have a fear of heights.”
“That makes absolutely no sense.”
“Maybe,” I said, looking away. “Maybe not.”
She looked at me one more time like she was trying to figure me out and I gave her a small smile. “Anyway,” she said, then bit her lower lip. “Thank you.”
She walked towards the kitchen, and I half hoped that she would open the refrigerator. I had rushed home after dinner with Hye Soo, my arms laden with groceries, then spent the night preparing some food. Alas, she didn’t do any such thing, bypassing the kitchen and walking back towards me.
“Where did you put my stuff?” she asked.
“Ah…” I said. “I put all of them in the back bedroom. The sheets are clean, and it leads to the deck as well. I wasn’t sure if you would like it but if you don’t…”
“I’m sure I will,” she said.
I lifted my eyes and met hers, her gaze direct and unafraid. It only now just dawned on me that we were in my place, just the two of us, in my city. She was in my place, in Seoul. She will be sleeping in the bedroom right next to mine, touching my stuff, sitting on my couch.
So close. Too close. What was I thinking?
My thoughts jolted me, and I had to remind myself to get a grip. This is temporary. Just until she leaves. She was somewhere secure and comfortable. I had done my job. Satisfied with the thought, I looked away and walked back towards the elevator.
“Make yourself at home. Feel free to use the phone and call whomever you need to,” I said, slipping out of my slippers and back into my shoes. “There’s a computer in the office, as well, in case you want to check your e-mail… I already changed the keyboard to English. There’s a washer and dryer in the laundry room, and…”
“I got it,” I heard her say right behind me and I turned around in surprise. She had moved so quietly I didn’t even realize it. “I’m sure I have plenty of time to figure it all out.”
“Well, then…” I said. “Take care.”
“I will…” she said, then offered me a hand. I looked at it before I lifted my hand to hers, her grip strong and confident. “… landlord.”
I nodded and stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor, fully ready to leave, when I heard her voice again and I faced her.
“Thank you, Jung Jin.”
The elevator door closed as I was still registering that she actually said my name. Out loud. To me. While sober. By the time the elevator stopped on the ground floor I was smiling from ear to ear, and I wasn’t even sure why. People say my name all the time. But she never had, not to my face. Not willingly. Not until today.
Such a small, insignificant thing, and it made my day. Maybe my week, even.
She said my name. Finally.
I pulled my phone out of my suit pocket as I walked out of the apartment building, the call answered by a familiar voice. Even then I couldn’t help the cheeriness in my tone even as I cringed at myself.
“Woo Young-ssi?” I said, once the call connected. “It’s Lee Jung Jin. I need to rent a room… no, not for tonight, for a month.” I grinned when I heard the disbelief in his voice and his request to repeat myself. “Yes, you heard me correctly. I’ll need a room for a month.”