March 14, 2002
I stared at my hotel room ceiling, listening to the clock ticking as I struggled to fall asleep. From my periphery I could see that the city was still alive, the neon lights flashing like multicolored stars outside the window.
I turned onto my abdomen and scrunched the pillow under my head.
All week I’d barely slept, despite doing my usual routine of working out before heading to the office, then visiting Joon at the training field. It seemed that my insomnia was getting worse. I would say that I didn’t know why but I did.
Always in the darkness of night, poised over the oblivion of sleep, my mind releases its breath and thoughts of her come flooding in. As if just waiting for the right moment. As if knowing exactly when I would not be able to fight against them.
I dared not think of her lying in my guest room or of her sitting on my couch. I dared not think of her touching my things, invading the space I’d long held private and sacred, unaware that even by permitting her into my abode, I had already broken one of my rules. I didn’t need to be imagining her as part of my world here at home. She was a part of my closed San Francisco chapter, nothing more.
I had thought that in doing what I could do for her under these circumstances, I would be able to let go of this confusing, exasperating interest, but I was wrong. The questions persisted and swirled in my head. Every. Single. Fucking. Night.
Did she think of me today? Did she miss me, too?
I had long ago vowed that I wouldn’t be that person anymore. So what was I doing?
I barely knew her. She barely knew me.
I knew all this, acknowledged that the way I felt for her made no sense whatsoever.
My mind keeps wandering back to the night in Hongdae, when she admitted while intoxicated that she may have liked me after all. Someone really ought to tell the woman that she is not a very good drunk.
After all the pushing and pulling, all of the rejection, the feeling of triumph had been surprisingly fleeting. The feeling of indignation from her insisting that I wasn’t the Jung Jin she had in her memories lasted a bit longer. Even more confounding was what I felt now… the sense of loss, heavy and dull. It felt like I had missed out on an opportunity.
Like I had, somehow, missed my chance.
I should have stayed that night when I found her on the roof wearing my jacket. I could have talked to her, held her in my arms, offered my company. I could have done many things but I did not.
I chose to be the guy who didn’t follow through, the guy who doesn’t step up when it was actually important. Unlike the man she envisioned me, or the alternate version of me, to be. He would have known what to do. He wouldn’t have been frozen, paralyzed by fear and ego. He would have thought of her first.
She said I’m not him. And she was right.
The way she spoke about him, me, him, had been wistful and dreamy, her voice full of longing. I wanted to be him. The Jung Jin in her mind.
I may not have wanted this, but I… I want her, I admitted silently. I want her.
I want her in a way that defied explanation, in a way that I couldn’t even reason myself out of. San Francisco hadn’t worked out well for me, but we were in Korea now. My home turf. I had the advantage.
One month… She’s here for another month.
My pursuit of her may have started out of curiosity and a sense of challenge, but I think it may be time that I admitted that it had changed from that to something else on her Joon-ie’s roof on New Year’s Eve, before I even touched her, when I watched her wrap her arms around herself and look out over San Francisco.
I didn’t want to acknowledge it then, didn’t even know… That this was no longer just about desire. Or conquest. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was about yet, still, but I think it’s time I found out.
As if finally content with my answer, my brain stilled and silenced, finally granting me reprieve and permission to sleep.
March 15, 2002
I can’t believe it. How could I have left the apartment without the key card that Jung Jin had left?
I had spent the whole day outside, having taken a day trip to the Korean Folk Village, and then had been in such a rush to get to the store to get food before it got too late. I had finished all the food that was in the refrigerator a few days ago, and was rushing around so much that I didn’t even realize that I didn’t have the key in my pocket.
I adjusted the bags that I carried in my hands as I trudged to the nearest pay phone, mentally cursing Junnie for thinking ahead of everything but the fact that my cell phone won’t work in Korea. Putting everything down in one corner of the booth, I pulled out some coins from my pocket, along with my cell phone and retrieved Jung Jin’s number. Inserting the coins into the slot, I read the English instructions on the phone and quickly dialed, hoping to God that he was available.
True to his word he had stayed out of sight since I moved in. Not once did I see him. Not once had he called. I did wonder a few times how in the world he was getting on with JJ if he’s used to living on his own. But this… is for the best. Really. He had done whatever it was that he felt obligated to do, and this situation will be over in no time.
I’ve had no time to worry about what I was still doing in Korea. I’ve kept myself busy most days, finding someplace else to see, another tourist attraction to visit. I haven’t heard from Junnie in the last two weeks, though I wouldn’t really know either since I had refused to check my email for any messages from her. She didn’t know I would be staying at Jung Jin’s, a fact I was loathed to share with her knowing that she would be pleased. For a second I wondered how her trip with her boyfriend was going, then shook the thought away. She needed some time to reflect on her actions. Consider it a time out of sorts.
The phone ringing roused me back to the present and I took a deep breath, already practicing my apology quietly. It was with some measure of part relief and part disappointment that I listened to his voicemail greeting, spoken in what I assumed was Korean. Though I’ve been here for almost three and a half weeks, I still didn’t know any phrases besides the ones I look up on an almost daily basis, like ‘How much is it’, or ‘I don’t understand Korean,’ or ‘I’m a tourist,’ but I didn’t have to know the language to deduce what he must have been saying, so as I always knew to do, I spoke when I heard the beep.
“Jung Jin,” My voice sounded nervous to my ears and I cleared my throat before continuing, though I was unsure about what to do with my heart, now pounding at the mere mention of his name. “I am so sorry, but I’ve left the card key in your ap…lof… penthouse place. I know it’s a pain, but can you possibly come and let me in? Or… you can call one of your neighbors to let me in? I’ll be waiting outside. I’m sorry.”
I quickly hung up the phone and scolded myself. Why was I so nervous? It wasn’t as if I was calling him for a date. Talking under my breath, I reached into my purse for my gloves only to realize that they weren’t there. It didn’t take me long to figure out exactly where they were. They were in the same place I left the key card.
It had gotten a bit colder again since the day I left the hotel in the ensuing days that followed, and I’d had to wear my coat and gloves almost every day since. The hat I wore on my head slouched to one side and I readjusted it before closing my coat and walking out of the booth with my grocery bags back in my hands
I slowly walked back to the apartment building, thinking how the best part of the place was the lack of foot traffic passing by. The only people walking this way were people who lived here. Which made my situation a bit more problematic. To date I have only ever seen two or three other residents in the building, though I spoke to Dong Yul, the full time doorman, on an everyday basis. A lot of good that does me when he leaves at 7 p.m. every evening.
I sat down on the wooden bench in front of the building, holding my purse closer to me as well as my purchases. There had been no real adjustment period needed after I arrived at Jung Jin’s… I did everything the way I always did, right down to sleeping in my sleeping bag. I was used to living from place to place. Over the years I had learned to make do wherever I was. Still, today, I was tired, no doubt a result of my staying up last night, ensconced in watching something on television, not understanding one word, but staying riveted anyway. I closed my eyes for just a minute, leaned back on the bench and prepared to wait.
I could have sworn that I had just shut my eyes when I felt something wet hit my cheeks. The sensation jolted me awake and I saw the white flurries descending slowly from the sky when I opened my eyes. I lifted a hand, palm open, and watched as a few snowflakes landed on me, and allowed myself a small smile.
Having lived in San Francisco for the last five years, I haven’t seen snow since I left New Jersey. Though it was something I quite enjoyed when I was younger since snowfalls accompanied with it a chance of a break from school, I hadn’t been able to enjoy it as an adult. Not when I had to be at work regardless of the weather.
The sight of it brought to mind memories of playing with my sister in the snow, of making snowmen and of the sight of my mother making us hot chocolate as we stayed in, huddled under thick blankets and watching movies all day. Long before life became more complicated. Long before I became the person I am now. The remembrance of such carefree times brought an ache to my chest, and I brought a hand up to rub the feeling away, as if in doing so I could banish it back to the place where it couldn’t haunt me.
But still… Part of me felt a need to recapture some of the magic from those memories, magic I didn’t even recognize until I didn’t have it anymore. As the droplets of snow fell on my face and my hair, I remembered what it was like to be so young and to have no worries, the future ahead happily beckoning me closer. Thinking back on it now gave me a lingering ache, but joy as well. Before I knew it I was standing up and holding both palms out to catch any flake I could with my arms splayed wide on my sides, my face to the sky, allowing myself to surrender and to embrace the moment, if only just for a little while.
“Here, Jung-Jin-ah,” my Omma said, handing me a platter of galbi with a smile. “Eat more. You’re too skinny.”
“Yeobo, why is it when he’s here that you give him all the meat?” Appa complained, taking the plate from her and helping himself to the biggest pieces, pieces that I was sure my mother had caught me eyeing. “He’s not too skinny!”
My mother hit his arm playfully and tried to take the platter. “He doesn’t come here to eat that often,” she said, her eyes narrowed at me for one second. “He thinks he’s all grown up.”
“Omma, I am all grown up,” I teased. “I even know how to cook and do my own laundry and everything.”
“Why wouldn’t you?” She responded smartly. “I do not raise lazy boys. Even your Appa does a lot of cho…”
“Yeobo,” my father interrupted, coughing. “Don’t tell them that.”
“Why?” she asked him. “There is no shame in admitting that you do as you’re told.”
My father glared at her and she gave him a beatific smile before impulsively placing a kiss on his cheek. I shook my head at them as they looked at each other lovingly, then cleared my throat even as both my sisters started laughing.
“Jung Jin-ah,” Ji Hee Noona said, her chopsticks in her mouth. ”Don’t you miss living here?”
“NO.” She laughed at my response. “I bet you do, though… Maybe you should move back in.”
My older sister huffed at my response and inside my suit jacket I felt my phone vibrate. I was reaching in to answer the call when Appa cleared his throat and spoke.
“Now I know you make a living on the phone, Jung Jin,” he said. “But no answering of phone calls while you’re having dinner at this house. It is so rarely that we get to have you here. “
“Appa…” I whined, to the amusement of all the women on the table, and he winked at me. “I am not ten years old.”
“Even more reason for you to have manners at the table.”
“Jagiya, don’t give him a hard time,” Omma said to him. “What if it’s an important phone call?”
“Omma…” I said, trying to distract them. “Are you still calling Appa jagiya? You two have been married for how many…”
“Yeah, Appa,” Ji Soo interrupted. “What if it’s his girlfriend?” I glowered at her across the table, earning a cheeky smile. “Maybe she’s in Korea,” she continued innocently.
I lifted my eyes to her face in alarm, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“I mean… It’s not like Oppa would lie and tell us she’s in America just to so he could avoid taking her home to meet us.” Her eyes wandered all around the dining room table and smiled at the confused faces looking at her, before shooting me a pointed look and a smirk. ”Because it’s not like they’re living together or anything… Right, Oppa?”
“Ji Soo-yah,” Omma said. “What ARE you talking about? Your Oppa already said, his girlfriend is American.” Omma turned her questioning eyes at me. “AND… He better not be living with a woman without letting any of us know. When will we meet her anyway?”
“Ahh…” I didn’t want to keep lying to my family, and I knew had I spoken any more that all my words would have just come out in a stammer, so I stood up, instead, before they could ask me any more questions. “I just realized that I promised Joon that I would meet with him.”
“At night time, Jin-ie?” Ji Hee Noona asked, her face in a frown. “You’ve known about this dinner for days!”
“I know… I’m sorry,” I said sheepishly, even as I already started to shrug into my coat.
I looked at dinner table overflowing with food and was almost tempted to stay, but I knew that if I did, I would be continually interrogated by my two sisters and my mother. The women in my family knew just what to say to get to me to spill the beans, and even more undesirous of the matchmaking attempts that will happen should they find out that I was, in fact, single, it was just much easier to leave, though my tummy grumbled in protest. I bent down and kissed my mother on her cheek, then my older sister, before reluctantly kissing my dongsaeng’s cheek as well, making sure to pinch her cheek extra hard for good measure. Appa stood up and studied my face fondly, but didn’t say a word before shaking my hand.
“Jin-ie, at least let me pack up some food…” Omma started to say, getting up from her chair.
“Omma, I’m fine,” I said quickly. “I’ll call you this week.”
I gave my family, still looking quite surprised by my quick departure, an awkward wave and made a beeline to the front door. I quickly walked to my car, buttoning my thick coat, and putting my gloves on. I didn’t allow myself to think about what Ji Soo just said until I had turned the car’s ignition on.
She knows something. I know she does. I don’t know how she knows, but she might as well have told me outright that she knew Gia was in Korea, and that she was staying in my place.
My stomach growled again and I shook my head. Who cares anyway? It wasn’t as if I had to acknowledge what Ji Soo was saying. Besides, it wasn’t as if we were actually living together.
She’s staying in my place and I’m staying at the Park Hyatt. She wasn’t even my girlfriend, not even a friend. As of a week ago, she was merely my tenant. Something I planned on changing soon.
But… The last thing I needed, while courting her was my family sniffing. I realize that it’s my fault for lying to begin with, but that was beside the point. I don’t want to scare her off before I even got close enough. And the thought of a nosy mother and four sisters was enough to scare even me.
Irritated, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, only remembering now that someone had called to see an unknown number. The voicemail icon blinked at me from the taskbar and I quickly listen to the message.
“Jung Jin,” I would know that voice anywhere, anytime, and I wondered why she could be calling, and at this time. She paused for a few seconds and I heard her clear her throat. “I am so sorry, but I’ve left the card key in your ap…lof… penthouse place. I know it’s a pain, but can you possibly come and let me in? Or… You can call one of your neighbors to let me in? I’ll be waiting outside. I’m sorry.”
I pulled out of the small side street and onto the road, driving automatically in the direction of my penthouse, my mind going a million miles a minute.
All week long I had wondered and thought of her. I’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to see her again. Many times I had to consciously stop myself from dropping in and checking on her, or from calling the house phone just to speak to her.
But now… I didn’t need an excuse. Finally.
She forgot her key card… So she needs me? I fought the smile that was forming unwittingly on my face though even now my heartbeat had already started racing at the sound of her voice. At her use of my name.
She said my name like she actually knew me. As if she might like me. Still.
But… Did she want the Jung Jin in her mind? Or would she be okay with me instead?
The light in front of me flashed orange and then red, and my foot pressed on the brake to stop.
And what if she was? The little voice in my head asked. What if she could like you instead?
Could I become the man that she wanted?
Could I become the man that she needed?
I hadn’t known the answer to that question. I hadn’t known if I liked the answer. And so the question stayed suspended, always in the back of my mind, taunting and mocking me.
I have to try again. Now. Now was my chance.
She may continue rejecting me. She may keep insisting that she and I were too different, that we would never work out. She may do all those things, but I will never know if I don’t try again. And I needed to, if not for her sake than mine.
The worst that could happen is that she says no again.
I was used to that word, had familiarized myself with it when I was growing up, when I was just starting out. It was the foundation upon which I built up my resilience and my perseverance. It was the cornerstone by which I had made my success. I had learned my lesson from having heard many nos. But, I had also learned that sometimes, the stars align and smile upon me, that timing becomes my friend, and what was always a no suddenly becomes a yes.
The snowflakes started falling onto my windshield just as the light turned green. It seemed both a signal and a dare. The opportunity I had wished for, in the form of a forgotten key card. And this time, this time I did not hesitate.
I let the chance go once, but that’s the last time I will make that mistake.
Not this time.
By the time I had arrived at my apartment complex, the snow was falling steadily. It blanketed the ground with a shiny, thin layer, and I pushed my hands in my coat pocket as I walked towards the entrance.
I had just stepped onto the path that would lead me to the front door when I spotted her, standing in front of my building, her arms wide open on her sides. She had her face up to the sky and once I was near enough to close the gap between us, I realized that she had her eyes closed as well.
The crunch of the snow under my feet seemed loud in the silence. I slowed my feet down, and allowed myself a good look at her face, blissfully unaware that she now had an audience. Dots of white kissed her hair, covered by a floppy hat, and her cheeks. Her bare hands were red, wet with snow.
I felt my heart do a somersault and reached a hand out to touch her face, until I realized what I was doing and stopped midway. As if she felt my presence she opened her eyes and vivid green brown irises met mine. Caught by surprise her eyes couldn’t disguise or hide the joy they held. There was still a half smile hovering on the corner of her mouth and I was beset with a desire to kiss her. Right there. Right on the corner, right on the spot where her smile played hide and seek.
She blinked at me a few times as her mouth kept opening and closing, as if looking for the right words to say. Her tongue peeked out to lick at her lips and I did too. I watched as she followed the movement with her eyes and a pink blush covered her cheeks.
“Jung Jin,” she finally said, her voice husky, a little breathy, and I smiled. “You came.”
Of course, I wanted to say. I will always come when you call.
But knowing she wouldn’t believe me if I said those words and not wanting to break the moment, I stayed quiet instead.
I took the step that would bring me closer to her even as she continued to watch me with her wary hesitant eyes. I righted the hat sitting goofily over her head and took her hands.
“What are you doing?” She asked, trying to pull them away. “What did I tell you about grabbing me all willy…”
She stopped speaking when our gazes met. The air became charged, tense. I wondered what she was thinking, what she was feeling. I wondered what she was doing, what could have possibly put that smile on her face. In the space of a heartbeat, I wondered many things, not the least of which was… If it was possible to catch fire while standing in the middle of a snowstorm.
When I opened my eyes, I found Jung Jin standing less than three feet away from me, his dark eyes on my face. His thick hair was mussed, snowflakes clinging to its tips. His mouth was fixed in a resolute line, his lips pursed shut. The way he was looking at me echoed the last time we stood this close… One perfect night a few moons ago.
One of his gloved hands was suspended in the air, his fingers seemingly reaching for me. I tried to search for the right words to say but I couldn’t even muster up enough courage to call out a hello. I could feel my mouth opening and closing, my breath visible in the cold. I licked my lips in nervousness and he mirrored my action, his tongue darting out to moisten his own. Heat kindled and spread, warming me from the inside out, making me unaware that my hands were bare, making me forget that how cold it was out here.
I know those lips, I thought as I felt a blush cover my cheeks. I’ve kissed those lips.
It’s been a couple of months already and the memory should have long faded from my recollection by now, but the details remained sharp, its edges focused and clear. I remembered everything.
That memory had been my friend for the last two months, what I always returned to whenever I felt lost or alone. At first it came without consent, assaulting me with emotions I would rather forget. But then it had come so often that I stopped minding, and soon I found myself even welcoming its intrusion.
This man. A thumb traveling leisurely on my cheek. The taste of scotch on my lips, his eyes shuttered. His weight pressed insistently on mine.
And now he was here. And I was here. The fates must be having a great time poking fun at my predicament.
“Jung Jin,” I said now, my voice nervous and low. His name was etched into my tongue like a familiar taste, and I couldn’t help the fluttering in my chest as I said it out loud, the same way I felt the first time I had done so. “You came.”
His mouth broke into a smile, his left cheek dimpling, but he remained quiet. His gaze stayed intent, focused as he took a step closer to me. Without a word he reached out towards me before I could take a step back, and I noted sheepishly that he was merely fixing my hat.
I was so busy being relieved that I didn’t realize that he had taken my hands in his. His grasp was firm and steady, his body heat transferring onto me, even through his gloves. His palms engulfed mine, and yet we still fit perfectly. The thought made me smile.
It felt nice.
I like it.
Realizing all this I was jolted back to what I was doing and immediately attempted to pull my hands away.
“What are you doing?” I asked halfheartedly, forcing my voice to sound annoyed. “What did I tell you about grabbing me all willy…”
I made the mistake of looking up just then and our gazes clashed. His eyes from this close, under these lights, looked different. He dwarfed me by at least three quarters of a foot, even with my boots on, and our close proximity was making me light headed. Unhinged. I should pull away, but for some reason I couldn’t make myself move even if my life depended on it. I stayed locked and frozen in place, almost afraid to as much as breathe, as if in doing so I might find myself away from him, or even worse, I might get even closer.
He was just a familiar face, I reminded myself. Just a familiar face in a strange place. Of course I would feel attached. Of course I would…
He brought my hands to his lips and my inner ramblings were cut short. Is he going to kiss my hands?
“What…” I stammered. “What are you doing?”
“How can you go out without gloves in the winter?” He asked, a stern look on his face. “And what does it look like I’m doing?” He brought my hands back up. Towards his lips. Again. “I’m warming you up.”
I bit my bottom lip as I watched him, suspicious. What he just said didn’t sound quite right. “You don’t have to do that. What are you really doing?”
He sighed before sending me an exasperated look. I met his eyes directly with a glare and he let out a small chuckle, but made no move to release me.
“I’m wooing you.”
I felt a whoosh of warm air on my hands and watched silently as he blew. Had I not been taken by surprise, I would have totally, definitely objected to this. I would have… Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on in my head at the moment I was so wrapped up in the image of him with his lips puckered, his breath kissing my now entirely too warm hands. In fact if they felt any warmer I might just combust.
Awareness simmered under the surface of my skin, sensation bubbling up right where he and I connected. My heart started pitter pattering in trepidation or anticipation, I wasn’t quite sure, and I took a long breath.
“What?” I asked, convinced I must have heard him wrong. “What did you say?”
“I’m wooing you.”
Without letting go of my hand, he walked over to the bench where my purse and purchases were sitting and picked them up before leading me to the apartment complex’s front door. He waved his card and walked in, dragging me in with him. We were almost by the elevators when I realized that he was still holding on to me and I broke my hand free from his grasp. He turned around and looked at me questioningly.
“Hold on… ” I asked. “You’re wooing me? Why?”
He grinned at me, his face breaking out into that little boy smile that I lovehatelove. “I told you… I like you.”
“But… You said I was a pain in the ass. Before.”
“I did?” He turned away from me and walked off before stopping by the elevators and pressing the button to go up.
“Yeah… a week ago,” I answered, catching up to him, annoyed that he hadn’t as much as turned around.
Finally, he looked back at me and nodded. “I remember now,” he answered casually before stepping into the elevator when the door opened. Facing me with a smile he said, “You ARE a pain in the ass. But you’re a pain my ass.” I tamped down on an indignant response. It was not the first time I was hearing this. Before I could say anything, he spoke again. “It’s okay. I can handle you.”
“I don’t need to be handled,” I said adamantly. I am really too tired for this.
“We’ll agree to disagree on that.” I was about to argue that we are not going to agree to disagree on anything when our gazes caught and I was silenced almost instantaneously. There it was again, the way he was looking at me. Like I was a piece of cake. Or an oasis in the middle of the desert. My breath caught in my throat, I could do nothing but stand there as the elevator doors started closing and he put a hand out to stop it. “Are you coming in?”
The casual way he was talking about “wooing” me, the way his eyes regarded me, had taken me off guard. I was still looking for an appropriate response when it dawned on me that he had not just opened the front door as I had requested but seemed to be making his way up to his penthouse.
“Wait,” I , putting my hands up. “Just. Wait. Where are you going?”
“Why?” I asked, panicking. He and I can’t be within closed walls together! At least not the way I was feeling right now. Not tonight. Not ever again.
“Aren’t you full of questions tonight,” he answered with a shake of his head. “Because I live there.”
“No,” I countered. “I live there.”
“The last time I checked it was still my place.”
“That I’m paying for,” I argued.
“On a discounted rate.”
“I’m still paying you,” I insisted.
“Which you insisted on doing. I was ready to let you stay here for free.” The elevator next to the one he was in opened and out came a few people, looking at us in interest. “Do you really want to have this discussion here?”
I frowned at him and his smile only got bigger. “This was not part of the agreement.”
“Neither was calling me while I’m having dinner with my family because you forgot the key card that I had left specifically for you.” Whatever retort I was about to say died on my lips and I zipped them shut. “Are you coming?”
“For the record, I’m getting on this elevator under duress.”
“I’ll make sure to note that in our documents,” he teased.
“There are no documents.”
“Do you want me to have them drawn up?” He asked wryly.
I glowered at him and stepped into the elevator pressing the button for his floor and keeping my eyes fixed ahead. From the elevator door’s image I could see him chuckling behind me. Against my will the tiniest of smiles formed on my face as well, then instantly disappeared when he met my eyes in the reflection.
Stay cool, I told myself silently once I’ve dragged my gaze from his and fixed it on the numbers lighting up over the door. Stay cool.
Her nails were painted blue. Indigo so dark they almost appeared black in this light. For the life of me I couldn’t drag my eyes away from her fingers. I watched as they fiddled with her long hair, tucking and untucking the honeyed strands behind an unadorned ear.
I had parked myself on the farthest corner of the space, relaxing my stance so that I could watch her to my heart’s content. She was looking at the numbers over the elevator door, then to the buttons on its side. Then to the cream colored floor under both our feet. She was looking… at everything but me.
The silence in the elevator was broken only by classical music, though she didn’t seem to be paying much attention to that either. She ran a hand over the filigreed walls, over the metal rails meeting from one corner to the next. I imagined her hands on me instead, traveling lazily with the same care, and the thrum of tension inside me intensified.
Thankfully the elevator dinged when we reached the top floor and I stayed still as she shakily tried to punch in the numbers that would allow us both access to the penthouse on the keycard. Had she forgotten already? I thought, as her first entry was rejected, and then the next.
I took the three steps that separated us, reaching from behind her to press the numbers. I could have sworn I saw her bite her lower lip. There was a tendril of hair caressing the side of her neck and disappearing into her coat, and I was about to touch it when the door suddenly opened.
Without saying a word she exited the elevator quickly and almost tripped on the slippers by the entrance of the penthouse. She had straightened herself before I could even offer my assistance, had her feet into the slippers I had bought for her before she moved in.
I entered my penthouse, putting my slippers on, and walked straight to the living room to sit down on the couch. I watched, amused, as she sat down on the opposite end, then stood up, then sat down again.
“So,” she started hesitantly. “I’m not sure how this works.”
“How what works?”
“If you were a guest I’d offer you a drink,” she said, her hands primly in her lap, her coat still buttoned to her neck. “But since you own the place, I’m not sure if you should be offering it to me instead.”
“Just…act like I’m not here,” I said softly.
She mumbled something under her breath, indecipherable from this distance.
“Do what you had planned before I came,” I urged.
She looked at me in confusion, before blinking her pretty eyes.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Why exactly are you here?”
I searched for a response. I myself didn’t have a clear strategy when I came in either. But I saw a movie in her plastic bag, along with some food, and invited myself to her plans. Whatever they may be. Knowing she’ll just balk if I suggested outright that she share my company for a little while, I decided to goad her instead.
“I came to collect on my fee,” I said smoothly, then held back a grin when her face paled.
“What fee?” She asked. “The rent?” I didn’t respond. “I haven’t spoken to Joon yet so you’ll have to wait a little while longer.”
“Not that. My fee for being the awesome landlord that I am and providing my services off hours.”
“You being able to charge me for extra things wasn’t part of the contract,” she argued, her voice stiffening.
“We don’t have a contract… yet,” I said. “And coffee would be good.”
“The verbal agreement then,” she replied. “If I had known that you would just come in and out as you please I would have put it on paper.”
She stood up and unbuttoned her coat before resting it on one arm of the couch before walking to the kitchen. I stood up and walked towards one of my windows, the sound of her puttering about in my kitchen behind me. As she busied herself with whatever she was doing, I took a measuring and thorough look at my home.
My years of living with many sisters had taught me that the first thing women did when they settle into a new place was to nest, to add touches that would make an unfamiliar place home. My brothers in law complained that they always seemed to start out small, whether it was bringing in a plant, or scatter their well-loved books around. These things were small enough to go unnoticed, designed to lull a man into a sense of comfort before making drastic changes to a man’s space.
My eldest Noona painted her then boyfriend’s apartment pink. Then hung up pictures of the two of them everywhere. My second Noona rearranged the furniture, just the way she liked. Then moved the contents of her closet from our parents’ house into his, delegating not even a fourth of the space for him.
It had been their way of saying ‘your home is my home now.’ ‘We are in this together.’
There were none of those touches, either big or small here. The place looked as it did the day that she moved in. Nothing had been put out of place, even the pillows on the couch were positioned as they had been when I stayed here. There was no stray piece of clothing strewn carelessly over the table, no magazines to be seen anywhere. It was almost as the place had been unoccupied in the week she’s been here.
It was surprising, disconcerting.
I turned towards the kitchen and watched as she balanced two Styrofoam cups on her hands, before laying a paper towel out and placing them both onto the coffee table, along with a plastic spoon. She went back to the kitchen and grabbed a small carton of milk, then sat down and pulled a few sugar packets out of her purse, resting them between the cups.
Puzzled I made my way back to the living room and sat myself down.
“I thought I told you to make yourself at home,” I said quietly, uncomfortable as I watched her tear open the sugar packets carefully before pouring it into her cup.
“I did.” She stirred her coffee with her spoon and took a sip.
“I don’t think so,” I said, lifting the coffee to my lips. I unknowingly made a face when the taste hit my tongue. “This is instant coffee.”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “What’s the matter?”
“Why would you make instant coffee when there was a perfectly functional coffee maker here?” I asked, confounded.
“I didn’t know how to work your machine,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders. “Are you a coffee snob?”
“No, but… It’s really easy to use. You just have to learn how to use it.”
“Besides,” she continued, absentminded, as if she didn’t just hear me. “I won’t be here long enough for it to make a difference.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that you should enjoy it while you’re here.”
“I don’t want to get used to it so much that I miss it when I’m not here anymore.”
She had responded so casually and so offhandedly that I had no doubt it’s really what she thought. And not just about the coffeemaker but about everything else as well. In one instant I remembered our conversation in the car the day she moved in.
“If you depend on someone too much it becomes a habit, and then where will you be when they leave?”
I knew the truth in her words, had once believed them myself, so why do those words, coming from her mouth bother me so?
I thought she had been speaking about people, but looking around now, I guessed that she thought the same of… Everything. I fought the sudden burst of temper flaring inside me. She wasn’t preparing to be left, not this time. This time she was the one already preparing to leave.
Now that I’ve made up my mind to win her heart once and for all, she won’t have it so easy. I drank the rest of the coffee in one go, ignoring the burn on my lips.
I looked at her sipping on her coffee innocently, completely oblivious to me, and I clenched my jaw in frustration. I won’t make it easy for her to leave Seoul. Or me.
I’d already surrendered to whatever thing we have brewing between us, but I won’t be the only one yanked out of my comfort zone. If she thinks that she will be able to leave in three weeks without another thought then she has another thing coming.
Jung Jin had gone quiet. Deathly quiet.
No more playful teasing quips, no more smooth lines. He’d gone completely, utterly silent.
I would think that he’d zoned out except I still felt his eyes on me, watching me intently. Watching my every move, as if strategizing on what his next move should be.
He must really hate instant coffee.
He’d stayed quiet even as I brought the movie to the living room, pocketing the key access card and my cell phone from the counter. He’d stayed quiet even as I laid out the dishes I had bought from the store onto the coffee table. Even as I placed two paper plates next to them, along with some plastic utensils. Though I saw one corner of his eye twitch, he remained quiet.
Maybe he just doesn’t like using plastic anything. But I don’t like using real things. Not really. Disposable things make no mark, disposable things hardly bear any weight. Disposable things spoke of the temporary, of freedom.
I was so used to my own habits and being able to do them in private, unnoticed by anyone else, that I failed to realize how bizarre it must appear to other people. Especially one like him.
Self-consciously I pulled my hair into a loose bun.
He said he wanted to know me, and this was a part of me. Maybe if he saw this part… Maybe he won’t be interested anymore. Strangely the thought didn’t bring the flush of satisfaction that it would have done months ago.
I pushed the thought away as I picked up the remote control to start the movie, until I realized the remote control was in Korean. I was about to ask Jung Jin which button to press when I looked over at him and saw that he was staring at the television.
I looked at the remote control in my hands and looked for the power button, to no avail. I pressed a couple of buttons to try and see if I could figure it out, to no success, either. After multiple attempts, I was about to give up when I saw an arm reach out, palm outstretched. I turned to Jung Jin and saw him looking at me expectantly, his face now relaxed. I handed it over and sat myself down on the floor, on the spot closest to the table, and picked up a pair of chopsticks.
Before I could even spoon my food onto my plate, however, Jung Jin stood up and made his way to the kitchen. I looked behind me and saw him pulling out a couple of plates, along with a bamboo tray and wine goblets, from the cupboard and utensils from the kitchen drawer. Piling all of them on the tray, he pulled out a bottle of wine from the small stainless steel wine cooler next to his fridge, one I had never dared open, and tucked it under one forearm before walking back to where I was sitting.
He sat down on the floor across the table from me and wordlessly started opening the various containers of food and transferring them onto the small plates and dishes and chucking the plastic stuff in the discarded trash bag. Without even asking for permission. Like he was the one inviting me to eat.
“Are you a plate snob as well?” I asked as I watched him move the last of the dishes.
He didn’t answer my question and popped the wine bottle open effortlessly. He poured a bit onto the glass he placed closest to me and then filled his almost to the brim. I don’t really know what I did that made him upset, but… “We’re adults,” he finally said, taking the wooden pair I held in my hands and replacing them with the metal ones he had taken from the drawers. “Why eat with plastic anything when there’s real stuff around?”
I didn’t respond. “Are you doing this as part of your threat?”
“What threat?” he asked, picking up a dumpling and eating it in one bite.
“The whole ‘wooing me’ threat,” I answered. “And who said you could eat?” I recognized that I was being petty now, since I had lain out a paper plate for him, but I didn’t care. This whole conversation has me feeling decidedly uncomfortable and edgy.
“It’s part of my fee,” he answered nonchalantly.
“We really need to discuss this fee that you keep bringing up,” I grumbled. “You can’t just spring this stu…”
“You could let me eat,” he interrupted, breaking into a mischievous grin, “or, you could give me a kiss… right here.” He pointed at his cheek. What? I was still trying to figure out if he was joking when he spoke again.
“Besides, that wasn’t a threat,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “It was a declaration of intent.” He put the napkin down on the table and looked at me directly,
“A what?” I asked.
“Declaration. Of. Intent.” I frowned at him before I drank all my wine in one go, unsettled by his words. “Romance is never a bad thing, though I may be a little rusty.” He poured more wine onto my glass, unperturbed that I was now glaring at him. “You’re so pretty when you’re mad.”
”Please don’t try to worm your way out by saying completely unrelated things. “I dragged my eyes away from his. “Romance? Romance… I don’t need romance.”
“I do,” he said, and drank his wine before resuming his meal.
“What’s the use of romancing someone when you’re so blatantly ignoring the request of the one you’re supposed to be winning over?”
“I can do whatever I want,” he replied. “I should be able to employ whatever method I deem appropriate.” My mouth widened in disbelief. “And… Are you censoring me in my house now?”
I was still processing the first part of what he said, trying to figure out exactly what he meant by ‘whatever methods he deemed appropriate,’ when his question registered. “You know what? If you’re going to keep bringing up that this is your house, I’m going to move out.”
“And go where?” he asked, smirking.
“I don’t know,” I said loudly, before dropping my voice. “I’ll find another handsome man and convince him to let me stay at his place for free.”
He chuckled. “So you think I’m handsome.”
I blinked at him a few times and his smile widened even more, making what was already a handsome face even more extraordinary. I frowned in annoyance. ”Just eat,” I said. “Eat everything… Watch if I care.”
Her eyes were shooting light brown daggers at me. And it didn’t matter. I was here with her.
As soon as I realized that she saw this stay in Korea as nothing more than a minor disturbance in her life, that she probably thought of me as someone temporary, the way she thought of everything else, had made me inexplicably angry. For a second I wanted to leave and let her be, thinking that if this was how she wanted to live her life, then that was her business. But then…
I was no quitter.
The fact that she thought this way only just made my job more interesting. What fun was there in changing someone’s mind when they already thought the same as you did?
It will not be easy, I thought, watching her from one corner of my eye as she struggled to use the metal chopsticks, much in the same way as she struggled to figure out a way to work the remote control. And just like then, she refused to ask for help. Stubborn woman.
In front of us the movie was playing, the English subtitles flashing on the screen, the sound of Cha Tae Hyun and Jeon Ji Hyun speaking as she wrestled with the chopsticks before putting one of them down and spearing a dumpling with the pointed end of the other. She brought it to her lips and took a small bite, her gaze riveted to the screen, as if we weren’t just speaking about romance and my intentions a few minutes before.
She laughed at something, completely oblivious to the fact that I was watching her and I directed my eyes to the screen, wanting to see what it was that amused her so and saw as the male lead was carted off to jail. I found myself chuckling too, though I don’t recall having been this amused even when I watched it the first time.
We continued in this way, with her watching the movie intently, barely sparing me a glance, and me watching… Her… Watching the movie through her eyes was an experience foreign to me. Her expressions kept changing, wholly unaware that my eyes were fixed on her like a magnet, and though I had watched this story before and quite enjoyed it, but I felt no inclination to watch it again, not when there was someone infinitely more interesting next to me.
Her expression changed as I heard the opening strains of Canon in D played and I diverted my attention to the screen, the female lead on the piano playing the song, the male lead wearing sunglasses and a face mask. Gia’s mouth widened as he pulled a rose out of the metal Chinese food delivery container that he carried and slowly walked down the stairs, removing his mask. Her eyes softened when the music soared and the male lead handed the female lead the rose, then smiled as the two leads stood on stage, grinning at each other, even as the music lifted and descended.
Liar, I thought, smiling to myself. You said you didn’t like romance.
Looking at her now, I don’t think a woman has ever needed romance so badly in her life.
She tried to pick up some noodles with her metal chopsticks, her efforts awkward, and I shook my head. She will be stubborn until the very end. At this rate I will eat all the food she had bought before she finished her plate.
Her eyes still on the screen, I took her chopsticks and replaced it with the fork, then watched as she dropped it into her plate and brought the now full fork to her mouth. She looked at it in puzzlement before looking at me sheepishly.
“I’m usually good with chopsticks, but they kept slipping,” she said, by way of explanation.
“It was painful watching you eat,” I said gruffly. “Or not eat.”
“Thanks,” she said softly and I craned my ear to hear her better.
“What did you just say?” I asked. “I could have sworn you actually thanked me.”
She smiled at me then, her expression completely unguarded for a few seconds, and I felt my heart still. Then it skipped and raced, my hands all of a sudden clammy against the stem of the wineglass I was holding. The moment was over too soon, and she brought her gaze back to the movie, now playing its final scenes and finally ate her meal.
When the closing credits started rolling through the screen, I leaned back against the couch and drank my wine. From the corner of my eye I could see Jung Jin doing the same, though his eyes were not on the screen but on me, as they had been for the whole movie.
He stood up and started gathering the dishes on the table, along with the plastic bag full of rubbish, before tossing it in the garbage and bringing the rest to the kitchen sink. Just when I thought he was done, he came back to the living room with a rag and started wiping the coffee table clean, lifting the wine bottle and his glass carefully before putting them back.
He reclaimed his seat then, pouring more of the wine, and said nothing. Our gazes met as I took a sip of my wine, and I self-consciously looked away when I saw that he was fixated on my lips, a blush forming on my cheeks.
I know that expression now. His eyes were veiled and hooded, the way he looked seconds before he kissed me. His hand was wrapped around his wineglass, his finger traveling leisurely over the stem. I know how those fingers feel, too. They had lingered on my skin the same way.
Jesus. I think I may have drunk too much.
Nervously I stood up and made my way to the kitchen, then ran the faucet on in the sink, then began washing the dishes. I kept myself fully absorbed with the task for a few minutes, finding comfort in the sheer mundaneness of it, until I saw him stalking over towards me, already pulling his shirt sleeves up and joining me by the sink.
“What are you doing?” I asked dubiously. If he thinks to seduce me while I have breakable things in my hands…
“I’m helping you,” he said, pulling a clean towel from the cupboard and holding a hand out for the plate I was rinsing. I looked at him disbelievingly before I handed it over. He dried it effortlessly, as if he’s done this sort of thing a million times before, and placed it on the counter.
I continued washing the dishes quietly, and he continued drying them just as silently. I would say it felt comfortable and natural except it didn’t. I was so markedly uncomfortable, what with avoiding looking at him and steering my arms away from touching any part of him. It didn’t help that every so often I would catch him staring at me, and that he stayed in such close proximity, brushing a stray hair from my forehead, rolling my sleeves back up when they started falling into the sinkful of water.
He needs to stop touching me. If he just stopped I’d be okay.
“So,” he said softly. “What did you think of the film?”
“It was good,” I said, grateful for the distraction. My thoughts were wreaking havoc with my senses. I’m sure the multiple glasses of wine I’d drunk wasn’t helping. “Interesting. But…”
“But what?” he asked, seeing that my words had trailed off.
“But don’t you think it’s a little too far-fetched to believe that she was the girlfriend of his dead cousin?” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “That’s crazy. And unlikely. I mean am I supposed to believe that of all the people, in all of Seoul, the two of them would meet and fall in love?”
“Sometimes it just happens like that,” he said and I gave him a doubtful glance.
“How?” I asked.
“Maybe the same way you found yourself in Seoul and in my apartment.”
“She didn’t have a thoughtless best friend. And we’re not in love.” He said nothing and I pressed on. “Plus we aren’t speaking about this, but that. The focus on the whole concept of destiny is bit misleading. ”
“You don’t believe in destiny?” He asked, surprised.
“No,” I answered definitively, washing the last of the dishes and giving it to him. “Destiny is but a state of mind, a series of coincidences. It is a romantic notion at best, and at worst, the excuse that people use to explain why, rather than taking charge of their own lives, they are lying in wait, instead… Believing that what’s meant to happen will happen, regardless of whether or not they do the right thing.” I looked at him. “How can I subscribe to that idea? That’s absurd. Why… Do you?”
“Destiny is but a state of mind, a series of coincidences. It is a romantic notion at best, and at worst, the excuse that people use to explain why, rather than taking charge of their own lives, they are lying in wait, instead… Believing that what’s meant to happen will happen, regardless of whether or not they do the right thing,” she said, her voice without a shadow of a doubt, then turned her eyes at me. “How can I subscribe to that idea? That’s absurd. Why… Do you?” She looked at me closely, as if truly curious as to my answer
Well… now that she had given me her whole speech about how ludicrous an idea destiny was, how was I supposed to respond? Did I believe in destiny? I used to believe that I didn’t, but now… “No,” I said unconvincingly, even to my ears. “Of course not.”
“Then we’ve agreed.” She wiped her hands on a paper towel and leaned against the kitchen counter.
She looked at the clock on the wall, and for a second I wondered if she was giving me a hint to go. But I wasn’t ready to go. I wanted to keep talking to her, to keep listening to her.
“Do you like Korean food?” I asked quickly, wanting to extend our interaction a little bit longer.
“To be honest,” she started, looking thoughtful. “I never had much Korean food before, with the exception of Korean barbecue and kimchi. But yeah… since you sent that rice porridge from Spoon, I’ve grown a bit fonder of it.”
“What you bought from the store was a good call. They’re quite well known for making delicious jap chae.”
“Jap chae?” she asked.
“The noodles with the beef and vegetables,” I clarified and she nodded.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “But the noodles that your cook left in your fridge was better.”
I was pulling out the bag of coffee from the pantry when I heard her. “I don’t have a cook,” I said without turning around. “I made that.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Invite me to dinner again and I’ll cook for you.” I said, measuring out coffee beans and putting them in the grinder before pouring it in the coffeemaker. She’d gone quiet and I turned around to see her anxiously watching what I was doing. “What’s wrong?”
“What are you doing?”
“Making you proper coffee,” I answered, noting that her eyes had once again become unreadable. “It’s the first in my plan of action.”
“I’m going to get you so used to this coffee,” and me, “that you will miss it,” and me, “when” if “you leave.”
“I don’t like coffee that much.”
“You will,” I answered confidently. “You’re so used to having average things that you don’t realize that things could be amazing.” I kept my words vague, partly hoping that she doesn’t get the double entendre. The last thing I needed was to scare her off. Again.
We stayed standing in the kitchen as the coffeemaker did its magic, after which I handed her a cup. Wordlessly I grabbed my coat, still sitting on the arm of my sofa, and put it back on. It wasn’t until I was almost in front of the elevator bay that I realized that she was now standing behind me and I turned around, catching her by surprise.
I looked at her face, so beautiful, looking up at me in alarm. My fingers itched to loosen her hair from her bun, wanting to see it tumble over her shoulders.
“Are you leaving?” She asked, her intelligent eyes fixed on my lips, something that I’m sure she would deny if I pointed it out. The color was high on her cheeks, making me wonder what she could possibly be thinking about.
“I am,” I said, watching with satisfaction as her breath hitched when I leaned towards her to push the button for the elevator on the wall behind her. “Unless, of course,” I continued, “you think I should stay.”
“I am,” he answered. I held my breath as he leaned over me, anxious and nervous all at once, not quite sure if I wanted him to do what I thought he was going to. Embarrassed, it wasn’t until he had straightened that I realized that he had only been pushing the button for the elevator. Duh. “Unless, of course… you think I should stay.”
He had said the last line so smugly I found myself glowering at him, and earned another grin.
“I mean it is snowing outside…” he continued in a half laugh.
“More reason for you to leave now before it accumulates.”
“You’re heartless,” he said in feigned hurt. “It’s a lucky thing I like you so much.”
His eyes darkened above me and I looked away. His presence, the wine, this damn weather… I was overstimulated, and I was having a hard time keeping my thoughts unjumbled. My heart tripped in my chest as he leaned towards me once more.
He’s going to kiss me, I thought, and rather than turn my face away I stayed still instead. Something is definitely off with me.
Either that or I had definitely forgotten how to be in the company of a man I was clearly still attracted to and still behave like a fully functioning adult.
“You don’t have to look so panicked,” he whispered before running a finger down my cheek. “I’m not going to kiss you.”
“You’re not?” I asked, genuinely surprised. “I thought you were wooing me?”
“I am wooing you,” he said, shaking his head. “But…You’ve had a bit of wine. You’re in a strange place, in a strange country. You’ve been under stress and probably feeling a bit disconnected. If I kissed you now, I will always wonder if you knew what you were doing.”
He paused and I felt a smoothing hand over my hair, much like he did the first time he kissed me, eliciting the same exact reaction as I closed my eyes.
“The next time I kiss you…” he continued, “should there be a next time, you will want it just as much as I do, and you will not only be aware, but a willing participant.”
I opened my eyes to see his fixed on my lips. I was still trying to formulate an appropriate response when the elevator door opened behind me and he stepped in.
“Thanks for dinner,” he said with a smile, and then he was gone.
I stood by the door in shock, both at myself and at him, my hands trembling on the coffee cup I held, still trying to catch my breath and calm my racing heart. I was surprised to realize that I had a great time, and that I didn’t want him to leave, just yet, despite what I said. I must be lonelier for company than I thought.
I brought the coffee to my lips as I sat down on the couch, left in a daze. Then cursed at him mentally when I tasted the brew, rich and delicious. I kept frowning even as I kept drinking, wishing that I could have told him it tasted no different than the stuff I was used to.
This coffee is amazing, dammit. I hate it when he’s right.
Sajik Baseball Stadium
March 22, 2002
“Ah, no thanks,” I said to the woman in front of me, one self-proclaimed biggest fan of Joon’s, after she invited me out for a drink.
I had seen her sashay her way from the bleachers to the sidelines, where I and a couple of the managers were, waiting for the players to come out of the locker room. We were in Busan for the weekend for two pre-season matches. Joon’s team won the first of two just minutes ago, and the second was scheduled for the morning. I can’t go back to Seoul until tomorrow evening.
It was just as well. I’ve tried to stay away from my penthouse and the woman currently staying in it for the past week. As much as I wanted to see her I thought she needed a bit of time to digest what I had said and figure out how she felt about it.
The woman in front of me cleared her throat and I looked at her. Her hair was cut shoulder length, curled at the ends, her face flawless. She was beautiful enough, poised enough, if inappropriately dressed for a baseball game.
“No thanks,” I repeated.
Any other day I would have said yes. Every other time I wouldn’t even have hesitated. But now I felt no reason to, felt absolutely no compulsion to say yes.
What was the point when I already had a woman I liked and I knew exactly where to find her?
The woman in front of me smiled politely and then walked away without a backwards glance, towards the direction of another manager. No doubt to tell him how big of a fan she was of his client. Not that he would mind, of course. Neither would he remember that he was married with children. And she probably wouldn’t care, either.
The professional baseball scene was rife with such men, and women, unfortunately. The fame and prestige clouds members of both genders the same way. Though I had turned a blind eye in the past, it hasn’t been something I wanted to get involved with in the recent years. I may have loved the attention of beautiful women, but I never had to pick them out of the baseball scene’s fish bowl.
In that sense, I was extremely relieved that Joon had never been the type to want to immerse himself in that scene either. Unlike other managers I had never worried that he would get himself involved in unsavory business, things I might need to gloss over or cover up. He always knew who he wanted and though he dated a bit in San Francisco he was always private and discreet, not to mention careful in his choice of women.
It was probably the reason why, with the exception of a few women in San Francisco and Japan, I had not involved myself with anyone else in Korea. Except Hye Soo.
She texted me this past week and asked to meet, a message that I have yet to answer.
Should I talk to her and tell her that we can’t see each other anymore? Considering our history I had no doubt that she would just laugh it off and wish me well. She had always been aware of what our connection was, but things might change if I was the one to call things off. Women like her didn’t like their pride injured. But then again, what woman did?
And if things don’t work out with Gia, the possible awkward conversation would have been for nothing. I shouldn’t burn my bridges before I had another one built.
That’s not to say that if she asked I wouldn’t tell her per se. Just that I won’t be offering the information explicitly.
I flipped open the phone in my hand and reread her message then deleted it without a second thought. Hye Soo would understand. After all, she was just like me.
March 23, 2002
I came out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around my hair and pajamas on, and opened the door to Jung Jin’s office. I felt good after my run this afternoon, good enough that I felt like venturing around his office, curious as to what I might discover. I turned the overhead lights on, and padded on the wooden floor towards his computer. In front of the monitor was a taped piece of paper with login instructions and information, just as he said.
I fingered the paper and played with the idea of getting in touch with Junnie, then decided against it. It’s only two more weeks. Surely I can hang on for two more weeks. I haven’t had much difficulty staying here and for the most part I had been okay. I refuse to call her and ask to be sent back before I finished the month. Maybe it was time I finished something… anything. Even if it was just this.
Jung Jin hasn’t made an appearance since that night we watched a film, though he did leave a message earlier saying he will be in a place called Busan if I needed him. Try as I might I could not help but think of him, even when I didn’t want to. If his goal had been to plant the seeds that night then he had certainly succeeded. I’ve since then wondered if I read him completely wrong and should have given him a chance in the first place. It didn’t matter anyway, not when I will still leave when it was time. This should be in roughly thirteen days, if I counted correctly. And just as I had planned, Korea will be put behind me.
“Wooing.” I shook my head. He’s ridiculous.
I leaned back on the leather office chair and perused my surroundings, surprised to see that all the walls were covered in books. Jung Jin didn’t much look like the reading type. I found myself getting up and walking from wall to wall, looking at thousands of book titles, my fingers lightly touching the covers. The wall behind the chair, flanked by two large windows, was a framed picture of Seoul, right next to a framed picture of the New York City skyline.
Why would he have a picture of that? That was something that would belong in my house, not his.
I jogged through my mind for any recollection of him mentioning New York City when I came across a memory from the first day we met. He mentioned Columbia University to Marc as they were speaking. He must have spent quite a bit of time living there then. Of course. That would be why he was fluent in English.
Under the two frames photographs were other smaller pictures… some places I recognized, and others I did not, including one of a large building, looking completely separate from the others. I leaned in to take a closer look, thought I spied the letter “L” on one corner of the building, and shook my head. There was nothing unique about it, nothing that would distinguish it from any other building. It could be anywhere.
The ringing of the intercom jolted me and I stepped away from the picture and made my way out of the office, searching for where the intercom could possibly be. It rang again and I walked towards a white box next to the elevator and pressed one of the buttons, though I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to do. Apparently I did the right thing since a voice came through the line, except the problem was, that the voice spoke in Korean.
I never expected any visitors while I stayed here so I never even thought to ask Jung Jin how to work this thing. The voice kept speaking and I didn’t understand a word, though I did keep repeating one of the phrases I knew, which was simply, “I don’t understand Korean.” After a few more presses of different buttons, something beeped and the voice stopped.
I unwrapped the towel from my hair and laid it around my neck as I walked to the kitchen to prepare my dinner. I had picked up some triangle seaweed looking things and a container of potato and apple salad from the convenience store two minutes away from the penthouse.
I had just pulled a plastic fork out of its box and stuffed one of the triangles in my mouth when I heard the elevator stop. Without thought I walked over and pressed the lower button, the one that Jung Jin told me would open the door from the inside. Expecting to see a delivery man, I was surprised to see the most beautiful woman I had ever seen gracing the doorway. I quickly took in what was hanging off my teeth and swallowed it in one go.
To be fair she looked just as surprised to see me, too, the smile I had spotted quickly disappearing as she walked into the penthouse without hesitation, forcing me to take a step back to get out of her way.
I tried not to stare at her, but it was impossible not to. Slim and statuesque, she was at least nine inches taller than me, made even taller by the shoes she was wearing. I had to crane my neck to look at her face, with her tall nose and plump lips, her complexion without any blemishes. The clothes she wore spoke of wealth, as did the way she carried herself.
Self-consciously I noted my still partially wet hair, uncombed, and my pajamas, my favorite pair, also, about ten years old. I also noted that I was barefoot, and ridiculously wished that I had been wearing my heels instead, just so that when she looked down at me, it didn’t quite feel like she was looking down on me. Which she was definitely doing right now.
I met her eyes, such a pretty, light, almost tawny brown and found that she was examining me as closely as I was her. It was only as my gaze traveled lower that I noted that she was holding a bottle of wine on her hand, which she quickly placed in her Hermès bag. Authentic, too, I was sure of it. I doubted that this type of woman owned fake anything.
She looked at me dismissively and walked straight to the living room, as if this was something she did regularly, leaving me no choice but to follow behind her. She sat down on the couch without waiting for me to speak and I sat down as well, unsure about what to do. I didn’t even know who she was. Or what she was doing here.
She said something in Korean to me, her tone clipped, and I could only look at her before saying “I don’t understand Korean, please speak in English” softly, grateful at least that I knew how to say this. For a second I had hoped that she didn’t know how to speak English and that she would get up and leave after realizing she wouldn’t be able to communicate with me, but that hope was dashed as soon as she opened her mouth, her English coming out confidently and fluently, her pronunciation better than Jung Jin’s, her accent completely undetectable.
“Really,” she said. “Jung Jin had mentioned hiring a housekeeper, but I would have thought that he would hire someone who spoke Korean, at least. I told him to leave the hiring of domestic staff to me but men never listen, do they?”
I fought the flush of indignation even as I felt my cheeks color in anger. “I’m not his housekeeper,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’m a friend.”
“Funny… Jung Jin has never mentioned you,” she said icily.
“Funny,” I echoed. “He never mentioned you either.”
Her eyes hardened at my response and I fought the small feeling of vindication. Even so I had to remind myself to keep it cool, since she obviously was not expecting to see me here.
“He’s been forgetful for as long as I’ve known him,” she said with a tight smile. “And for as long as we’ve been together. Where is he anyway?”
At her words I felt myself deflate, but if they were, in fact, together, why would she be asking me that question? Shouldn’t she already know? “You tell me… you are his girlfriend,” I replied coolly. “I’m just a friend he’s allowing to stay here. But shouldn’t you already know that too?”
She ignored what I just asked her and stood up before I could read the expression on her face. She walked towards the piano, her back now facing me. “He always cooks me dinner here after one of my business trips. It’s what we always did.”
“And yet you don’t know where he is.” Her mention of him cooking dinner for her suddenly put a bitter, rancid taste in my mouth.
“Jung Jin and I have a special relationship,” she said. “We don’t have to tell each other everything. Some secrets are good in any relationship, right?” She raised a sardonic eyebrow at me and I didn’t respond. “It keeps it exciting. Tonight was supposed to be a surprise.”
I stayed quiet, unwilling to divulge that her words were having their effect on me. I watched as she ran her fingers on of the wall.
“Do you know how long we argued about what color to paint these walls?” She turned around and faced me with an all too practiced smile. It didn’t meet her eyes, and I felt like I was being sized up by a much larger, more efficient predator. “I’m glad we went with my choice.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” I finally asked. “I don’t need to know the details of your relationship. I told you, I’m only a friend, if even that. I needed help. He helped me out. Period. We’re not living here together.”
“Oh,” she said with obvious relief. She walked back to the couch and sat back down, her face more relaxed. “I’m sorry about that,” she said, though she didn’t sound sorry at all. “Jung Jin has this problem.” Her voice dropped lower and she spoke to me confidentially. “He likes women. Especially women who are a challenge to him. He likes to shower them with chocolates, flowers, gifts. Makes himself available to them until they give in and then boom! Interest gone.” She then gave me a laser like glance. “I should have known, though, when I saw you that it wasn’t so. You’re not really his type.”
I stayed frozen in my seat, unsure how to respond, wondering if it was possible to be insulted more than I already have, gauging how hard my punch would have to be to take her down completely. Though I knew I was upset, I also knew that it wasn’t just because of her supposed relationship with Jung Jin, but also at the not so veiled barbs directed towards me. I’ve had people speak badly of me before, but never quite in this way. She laced her words with poison, designed to scorn and shame, and I had never been one to take things like this lying down. Not since Marcus.
She was still prattling on and on and I’ve tuned her out for most of it until it seemed that she was about to stop. “…because really… I would hate to have to tell you something I’ve told his many women before.”
“What was that?” I asked, my voice flat.
“Enjoy it while you can because he always comes back to me.” Her eyes steeled as they met mine, her tone devoid of any pretense. She wasn’t talking about the other women at all. She was talking to me.
She stood up and made her way back to the elevator, pressing the button to go back down to the lobby. It wasn’t until the door opened and she had stepped in that she turned around and spoke again. “If you get in touch with Jung Jin before I do, tell him to come over to my apartment later.”
I didn’t wait for the door to close before I sat back down on the couch, my emotions tangled up. I should be relieved, I thought, relieved that I had been right after all. I should have known. God knows experience had taught me that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. I should have known.
It’s not that I believed her, because I did not. What she said, the way she said it, a woman like that wouldn’t say those things like that if she didn’t feel threatened about her place in a man’s life. Her man’s life. And had he really been with her, someone who looked like her, someone who acted like her would not have any qualms to just throw me out of his house. If she was his girlfriend, she would have been absolutely in the right to do so. Therefore… Her willingness to speak to me so boldly but her hesitation to actually do something about it told me that she was, perhaps, someone who wants to be important to him, or even more believable, someone who once was.
I recognized almost as soon as she said them that most of her claims were false. And yet… somehow I feel like in between the spiked words and not so subtle insults lay the truth, unsaid, but no less hurtful.
I acknowledged it myself, back in San Francisco… That I was a challenge to him. I had deduced it even then that that was perhaps the reason why he was so interested. He did send me flowers and chocolate. He did make himself available to me. All these were true. So however I may feel about it, she knew him. That fact lent a degree of credibility to what might could have easily been dismissed as pure fabrication. It also didn’t change the fact that she knew I would be softening, that I would already be giving in. And more than likely… he knew it too.
I was just as predictable as the rest.
Anger thrummed inside me, at him and myself, in equal measure. With no one to talk to and unable to do anything about it, I remained sitting on the couch, seething, even as the moon came out and the darkness took over.
It was already dark by the time we came back to Seoul. I had tried calling the penthouse on the way back from Busan to see if Gia wanted to watch a movie with me, but I never received a response despite all the messages I left. I had dropped Joon off at his place and had a coffee with him and Na Jeong an hour ago, and only just had enough time to take a shower and nip to the store to grab a bouquet of flowers and chocolates for Gia before heading back to the penthouse.
I looked at the white flowers and the big box of chocolates sitting on the passenger seat waiting for the traffic light to turn red and flushed. The gifts weren’t very original but it was all I could come up with on short notice. Besides… she had said she enjoyed both the last time, so I didn’t think it would hurt to get more. Maybe this time… maybe… she might actually get around to thanking me. Unlikely though, I thought to myself and chuckled. The woman was as unpredictable as they come.
I parked my car in the lot before walking to the front entrance of the apartment building, unwilling to admit even to myself how much I looked forward to seeing her. I wanted to hear how she’d spent the last week, if she had a nice time, what she ate. I wanted to hear her laugh and complain, even if she was complaining about me.
I entered the building with a single swipe of my card and walked straight to the elevators.
I barely had any time to pack anything the day she moved in. I was wearing my oldest pair of jeans and an old sweatshirt, but I don’t think she’ll mind. She was no Kelsey, who preferred me dressed to the nines at all times in her company. If I played my cards right maybe she’ll even let me stay for dinner. Whatever that may be. I’d be happy with chips and gummy bears if it meant that I was eating them with her.
When the elevator stopped at the top floor I entered my pass code without hesitation. This was the advantage I had over her. She can never close the door on my face.
I was surprised as the door opened and I was met with the penthouse completely in darkness. I felt for the light switch on the wall and turned the light on, only to see Gia sitting on the couch, her face turned away from me, unaware that she was no longer alone. She didn’t even look behind her. It was as if she was frozen and I wondered if something had happened.
I cleared my throat and she stood up, her arms crossed over her chest, already in a defensive pose. Her expression was wooden and flat, her eyes remaining that way even as she fixed a smile on her mouth. She was dressed in pajamas, her feet bare. Her hair hung uncombed over her shoulders, her shoulders stiff.
Something definitely happened.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I could feel the tension bouncing off her and was almost afraid to approach her.
Her eyes zoomed in on what I held in my hands and the smile disappeared. “What’s that?”
“Flowers. Chocolate.” I lifted them up so that she can see. “For you.”
“Why?” She asked, her eyes blazing.
“Because… I like you. Did we not just have this conversation a week ago?”
“Do you like me or do you want me?” She asked, her tone deathly calm.
“Is there a difference?” I asked, confused. “Are you going to tell me why you’re standing there looking like you’re ready to stab me?”
“There is a difference. You say you like me, but why?” She asked.
I searched my mind for a simple answer… That she was pretty, that she was intelligent. But none of those things explained nor encompassed why I gravitated towards her. How can I explain that she makes me feel alive? That for the first time in five years she made me want to hope again, to love again, to believe in… something again?
How can I tell her all those things when she won’t even tell me what’s wrong? Why was I supposed to share everything all at once when she’s still giving me nothing to work with?
A ball of anger formed at the pit of my stomach and I fought to rein it in. One of us has to be calm. One of us had to stay cool. Seeing as she already had time to stew and brood over this issue still unknown to me, it seemed that I was the only choice.
“You can’t even tell me,” she said. “You don’t even know why.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you anyway,” I said calmly. “Do I like you? Yes. Do I know why? Not always. Not exactly. I don’t need an explanation to feel how I feel. You’re beautiful and interesting. You’re a challenge to me and I want to figure you out.”
I realized what I just said and immediately regretted it, already wanted to backpedal, to take it back. It may have come out that way but it wasn’t meant that way.
Her gaze hardened as she looked at me, and I expected a barrage of stuff, or at the very least, angry tears, but neither came. Instead she slowly pulled her hair back with an elastic band and tied it behind her, her face fully illuminated and even now, even with rage written on all her features, I still had to catch my breath as I looked at her.
Her hand was on the top button of her pajama top, and she popped it open. I watched silently, unable to help but look, as her flesh came into view. She popped the next button and then the next, and then, the next. By the time I realized what was happening her top was already halfway open and I glimpsed fabric the color of navy and directed my eyes to the floor.
“What are you doing?” I asked, telling myself over and over not to look.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” She asked. “You only want me because I’m a challenge, right? You only want me for this. So let’s get this shit over with. Let’s get that itch out of your fucking system. Maybe then you and I can have an actual conversation. Maybe then you will get your answers and leave me alone because frankly I liked you better when you weren’t trying so hard to get into my bed.”
My eyes shot up to her face. “If you’re going to go there, technically, it’s my bed.” I clenched my jaw, anger taking over me as well. “And what?” I asked. “Number one, I don’t have any fucking idea what the hell happened while I was gone, so you need to stop speaking like I have this premeditated plan to seduce you. Number two… I have never had to force either my attention or my company on a woman. Ever.”
“Are you denying that you want me, then?” She interrupted. She stayed standing where she was, making no move to cover herself, her mouth in a resolute line.
“I will never deny that I want you. I am a man. But I don’t want you like this.”
“You like me without knowing why. You want me but on your terms. You don’t always get to call the shots. You don’t even know me!”
“I know you,” I said. “I know enough.”
“And yet you come here every time without warning, not even giving me the choice to say no,” she said, her voice breaking. “You do what you want without asking me if it’s okay, if I’m okay with it. For as long as I’ve known you, you just did whatever you wanted.”
“You never said no.”
“I never said yes, either.” I looked at her eyes, and what I saw in them made me take a step back. “You must think that since you know other women so well that you know me too. But other women… dream of being swept off their feet. You know what I dream about?” I didn’t respond. “Freedom. Something my best friend took away when I was left here without my money or my identification, dependent only on you. Something you take away every single fucking time you make any of my choices for me.” She paused and took a deep breath. “You know what the worst part is? This is the time I can say I owe you nothing, except that’s not exactly true, is it? Because I owe you a lot. I can’t even be properly angry with you because that shit is hanging over my head.”
“You’re the one who’s keeping tabs. “I looked at her then, and her eyes were furious. Even so she was glorious in her anger. Her cheeks were flushed, her lower lip in an angry pout. The skin revealed by her open pajama top looked luminous. Begging to be touched. To be kissed.
“Yeah, I am. Because I’m the one with a debt to settle. The thing is, though, is that you can do whatever you want, really. You’re bigger than me, stronger than me. If you really wanted to, you can make me bend to your will.”
I stiffened at her implication, insulted that she would even think that I was capable of doing what I think she’s implying. She had already forgotten what I said. I have never had to force a woman to do anything. Before I could say anything, though, she spoke again.
“Do you know what it’s like to feel so helpless?” She asked and I didn’t respond. “So let’s just do this. Let’s settle my debt. Then we can finally be even, and it can be on my terms. Are you in or out?”
I dragged my eyes away. I remained silent, incensed at both her and myself. I wanted to correct her, to tell her that wasn’t the case for me, when something about the way she said those words rang true, and I couldn’t even argue.
“Are you in or out?”
I didn’t even dignify her question with a response. I was insulted that she expected me to just say ‘okay, let’s go have sex.’ That’s not what I wanted from her. I was too angry right now, so rather than saying something that might make the situation worse, I just stayed quiet, instead.
“Since you’re obviously not going to take me up on my offer, I’m going to move out tomorrow,” she said quietly. “I appreciate all you had done for me, but I think it’s best for us both for me to leave. I’ll get your money back to you as soon as I’m back in the States. I hope you’re listening very carefully because I will only say this once.” She paused and took a deep breath. “I won’t be another one of your conquests.”
She turned and disappeared into the bedroom without waiting for a response. I left the penthouse and the apartment building, confused and angry, unable to understand what it was that I did that was so wrong that she out of nowhere came at me like this. Because I brought flowers? Because I brought chocolate ? I swear to God… I will never understand women.
This… is all that Joon-ie’s fault. If he never left her, she would not have found herself stranded here, and none of this would have happened. Fucking Joon-ie. As if I needed any more reason to hate him.
March 24, 2002
After a sleepless night, I wearily got up from my sleeping bag feeling even worse than I looked. I dragged myself into the bathroom and washed my face, then to the kitchen and made some coffee. As I drank I allowed myself a look at the penthouse that I lived in for the past three weeks, and acknowledged that I will miss being here. I felt safe here. Secure. No matter what I said last night in the midst of my breakdown.
And I will miss him.
I didn’t even give him the message from that woman, though I’d be lying if I said I was sorry about that. I felt no remorse from doing that whatsoever. Had they been in such a close relationship as she had been keen to tell me, she can contact him herself. Besides, he left before I could tell him anyway.
Him leaving when he did should have made me happy. After all hadn’t that been my goal? Surprisingly, though, I found that it had the opposite effect. In the light of day I can admit that I might have overreacted, but even still… I couldn’t say that any of the things I said were untrue, or that I didn’t mean any of them. But… I got caught up in the moment and stopped thinking. I merely allowed myself to just say whatever it was I was thinking, no matter the consequences, still not wanting to admit what the real issue had been.
The truth of the matter was, that even though I had been upset with him, I was angrier with myself. I never brought up the woman who visited because it didn’t matter. She may have made me think, insulted me and upset me, but I knew that ultimately she was of no consequence.
The problem wasn’t her. It was him. It was me. Or, more importantly, him and me. In the same thought. In the same sentence. In the same space.
I lifted Jung Jin’s cordless phone off its charger and quickly dialed Junnie’s number, one of the few phone numbers I didn’t have to look up. The phone rang twice and then the voicemail for her office picking up. Wondering where her secretary was and already fearing that Junnie might fire her if she knew that she let the voicemail pick up during office hours, it wasn’t until I was halfway listening to the message that I even realized that it was Sunday. I really need to get myself together.
“Hey Bernadette, it’s Gia. I’m not sure if Junnie was back or when she was coming back but if you can give her this message I would appreciate it. Please let her know to call me as soon as she gets in. I’ll be at the Park Hyatt.”
I hung up the phone and shook my head at myself then walked back to the kitchen. I had just opened one of the cupboard doors to root for some cleaning supplies when something caught my eye. I slowly walked towards the counter and picked up the bouquet of white flowers that Jung Jin had brought last night, along with the box of chocolates. Unable to help myself I opened the box and started eating, saving my favorites for last, and found a vase in which I can keep the flowers. I may not be here anymore, but he can still enjoy it. It seemed a waste to throw them away when the thought behind them could have very well been genuine.
I closed the box of chocolates and resumed what I was doing, making sure to wipe all the countertops and tables, washing all the dishes and putting everything back where they belonged. After tidying up the place I took a quick shower and got dressed before I began to pack.
The best part of how I lived was that packing took no more than five minutes. It took longer to roll up my sleeping bag than it took to gather all my belongings together. Once I was sure that I had everything, I left the key card on the table and proceeded to go down the elevator. I had the odd feeling that I was forgetting to do something, though I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.
It wasn’t until I was almost on the first floor that figured it out: I had forgotten to call a cab. I scolded myself silently for having forgotten such a simple thing. These cabs have been my lifeline since I came to Korea; I still had no clue what the bus routes or bus schedules were.
The elevator stopped, its door opening slowly and for a second I was tempted to just use the payphone outside but I didn’t have any more change. Besides, my hair was still wet… Did I really want to be waiting in the cold with all my stuff? Better wait upstairs until it arrives, I thought. At least it’s warm upstairs. With this in mind I pressed the button to go back up, and waited for the door to close. It was about to do just that, when I saw a hand fly in to stop it.
The door reopened and the sight of four women greeted me. All very beautiful and dressed nicely. All carrying cloth covered parcels in varying sizes. They all looked strangely familiar, though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. I haven’t met anyone else in Korea besides Elena, the hotel staff, the doorman and that woman from yesterday. I didn’t realize I was staring until the tallest one raised an eyebrow at me before stepping in. The other three smiled at me as they followed, all speaking in Korean on top of one another.
I moved to the corner of the elevator, pushing my suitcases with me and distracted myself by staring at the floor. I was surprised to realize when I heard the sound signaling someone’s arrival on their floor that we were already at the top floor. My stop. They must have forgotten to press their button.
How do I even point that out? It’s not as if people came with an “I understand English” stamp on their foreheads. Maybe I can act it out… like Charades. Except I was always shit at Charades, I thought, and shot the idea down. I was still figuring out what to do when the tallest of the women pressed the buttons on the keypad.
Don’t tell me, I thought. I was only just calming down. Don’t tell me it’s even more of his women that have come to tell me off. And now they’ve gathered together. Like a gang. Like a telling me off gang.
When the door opened the women filed and walked out, as if they’ve been here many, many times before, much like that woman yesterday did, still talking amongst themselves. For a second I was tempted to just go back downstairs, but why should I? Until five minutes ago, I lived here. Until last night, he liked me.
They all turned around, as I lodged my foot on the elevator door to keep it open. And then, to narrowed glances, I grabbed all of my belongings, took a deep breath, lifted my chin and stepped in.
I picked up the phone that was annoyingly ringing on the side table and promptly hung it back up. I was in no mood to talk to anyone. Especially at, I opened one eye to look at the time, 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Especially in the mood I’m in. People are fucking rude.
The phone rang again and I sat up, glaring at it, even as Shawn’s name flashed across the screen. I opened the phone and pressed the receive button, hell-bent on giving my friend a piece of my mind.
“What?” I answered gruffly and hear Shawn chuckle.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing. Why are you calling so early?”
“Well,” Shawn started. “I was eating breakfast and realized that you never specified which account you wanted the money wired to. You never told me where you were buying property so I didn’t know whether to send it to your American account or your Korean account.”
“My Korean account, Shawn,” I said, running my fingers impatiently through my hair. “I’m only waiting for my apartment in America to sell before closing that account.”
“You’re selling your place?”
“Yes. I told you… I was done with San Francisco.”
“You told me you were done with your woman, not San Francisco,” Shawn argued.
“Whatever… And she’s not my woman,” I insisted.
“Just send it to my Korean bank account.”
“You are in a shitty mood. Women problems?”
“No, Shawn, not women. Woman. Singular.”
“One kiss,” Gia had said forever ago. ” Singular.”
“I’m sure you meant kisses. Plural.”
“We only shared one kiss. I may not know a lot of things, but I can count! There was only one kiss!”
In the present I closed my eyes as I remembered her lips on mine, so sweet in their urgency. Like she wanted me too. Like she wanted me as much as I wanted her.
“At least it’s just one,” I heard Shawn say helpfully and I pushed the memory aside. “Could be worse.”
“This one’s enough. I don’t need other women when I can barely handle this one.”
I hesitated before I responded. “Yeah.”
“Didn’t you say you were done with San Francisco? What are you doing back there if you were done with the city and your woman?”
“She’s not my woman,” I said. “And who said I was in San Francisco? I’m in Seoul.”
“And she’s in Seoul?”
“You’re really nosy right now. Yeah she’s in Seoul.”
“It’s a long story,” I said curtly. I need some damn coffee.
“I’ll look forward to you telling me this story,” Shawn said.
“Which I never will.”
Shawn chuckled heartily on the other line before catching a breath. “Seriously, though, you want to tell me what the matter is? I could give you some advice.”
“I don’t think I should be taking advice from someone who’s single.”
“Hey,” Shawn protested. “I told you I was seeing someone now.”
“I would tell you what the matter was except I don’t really know myself. I’ve been away for the last couple of days and I picked up flowers and chocolate for her on my way back. She freaked out on me as soon as I got back!”
“That doesn’t sound right.”
“That’s what I thought!” I was about to elaborate when the phone beeped, a message coming through.
“Do you have to go?” Shawn asked. “I just heard a beep.”
I lowered my phone for a second to look at the recipient, almost dismissed it when I saw my eldest Noona’s name flash through the screen. Something, though, something made me wait, and I stood up in panic when I read her message.
Jin-ie, we’re on our way to yours. Omma sent some banchan. See you in a few.
Shawn was still speaking on the other line and I got back on the call. “Shawn, I have to go,” I said, looking for all my clothes and putting my jeans on hurriedly.
“Is everything okay?”
“No… Yes… no… I have to go. My sisters are about to ambush my place. I have to get there before they do!”
“It’s not the first time they’ve done that, Ethan… it won’t be the last. Why the panic?”
“There’s a woman at my place.” Where was my shirt?
“What woman? I thought you liked a woman in San Francisco who just happens to be in Seoul?”
“The San Francisco woman who just happens to be in Seoul just also happens to be in Seoul staying in MY place.”
“How did all this happen?” Shawn sounded genuinely baffled.
“I don’t really know how she just happened to be in Seoul,” I answered, distracted, pulling a clean pair of socks from the drawer.
“I meant how did she end up at your place.”
“I didn’t give her much of a choice,” I said. “I already told the landlady she won’t be taking the apartment. She didn’t have enough money for the hotel.”
Shawn sighed on the other line. “Because you wanted to keep an eye on her?”
“Yes,” I said, looking for my shoes.
“Let me guess… you came back from wherever you were and just showed up in the house, right? You didn’t even knock or anything, right?”
“How did you know?” I asked, standing straight up.
“I know you,” my friend responded. “You can’t just decide things for people, Ethan. You have to at least give her the freedom to decide whether or not she wants to see you.”
“It’s my place,” I said, irritated.
“It’s her home right now. How would you feel if someone just did that?” Shawn chuckled. “And bringing such unoriginal gifts as well. No wonder she freaked out.”
“What’s wrong with chocolates and flowers?”
“Nothing, except that’s what you always give to women,” Shawn said. “She probably thought you were just trying to get in her pants. Were you just trying to get in her pants?”
“No,” I said hotly. “I wasn’t. But I wanted to see her. I wanted her to know I was thinking about her. I wanted…”
“That’s what you wanted,” Shawn said impatiently.
“Sometimes taking control is the only way to get what you want. You never know when life is taken away from you so you have to take the opportunity whenever it arises. If that means taking advantage of the situations that can sway a decision my way, then so be it. What is so wrong with that?” I said.
“That’s all fine and well with business, Ethan, but women are not like that,” Shawn advised. “Why didn’t you ever tell her you’re coming?’
“I don’t know,” I said uneasily. My mind wandered back to all of her pleas to leave her alone, her requests to stop contacting her, her absolute determination to cut ties with me. I remembered my insistence in pursuing her, my reasons as to why I even began, and the many times she rejected me. “She might have said no.”
“Then let her say no. Just once… just once, put yourself in her shoes,” Shawn said. “Imagine this… you’re in another country, you don’t know anyone, and the one person you know, someone that you depend on, keeps making passes at you, and not only that, but doesn’t even give you enough respect to knock on the fucking door. I bet you’d feel helpless, too. It’s not a good feeling.”
“How the hell do you know this shit?” I asked. “You’ve been in about as many relationships as I have.”
“Yeah,” Shawn agreed. “But I’m not an idiot like you.”
“Shut up,” I said. “This psychobabble is giving me a headache.” I made my way to the bathroom. “Seriously Shawn, I have to go. I can’t have my sisters chance upon her alone.”
“Hold on… If she’s there, where are you?”
“At a hotel.”
“You’re really going to have to explain all of this to me one day,” Shawn remarked. “But why does it matter? It’s not like they’re about to catch you guys naked. What’s the girl’s name anyway?”
“Gia?” Shawn repeated.
“Yeah,” I said. “Gia. My woman.”
“I thought she wasn’t your woman.”
“Shawn… She’s not my woman yet. I’m hoping I still have a chance but… I promise you,” I said, closing my eyes in mortification, thinking about the many times that I’ve claimed her as my girlfriend to my sisters. “I promise you… That she will never agree to be my woman if my sisters get to her first.”
Don’t look away, I told myself. Don’t. Look. Away. Out of all of these people, you have the most right to be here. At least you were here on invitation. They were not. Not yesterday, not today.
We were all standing by the elevator, clearly at an impasse, as all four women looked me up and down and I tried to do the same. I refuse to be intimidated. Just because they’re all beautiful and tall and well-dressed doesn’t mean that they’re better than me.
The one in the back, with long hair, tugged on the tallest one’s sleeve and said something in Korean. The tallest woman darted her eyes at me, as if gauging if I understood, then whispered something back. The one with medium length hair laughed and the one next to her did as well. Are they… Are they making fun of me?
I can handle people talking about me behind my back, can even handle it when they’re doing so to my face in another language when I’m outside. I understand that I am the visitor to this county and as such would have to deal with people looking at me like I was an alien. But being insulted in my own home, or what had been my home until five minutes ago, was a bit too much to bear.
“I don’t understand Korean, speak in English,” I said loudly, deliberately leaving out the word I thought to mean please.
Identical shocked eyes addressed me and I crossed my arms over my chest.
“I told you she was here,” the one with the longest hair said, finally speaking in English. “I told you I saw her with Oppa.”
The tallest woman silenced her with a hand, before turning her attention back to me. “You’re a very little person.” The line was delivered in a curious tone, as if she really was surprised, and I tensed my shoulders instinctively.
“It’s not my fault you’re all freakishly tall.”
All but the tallest woman laughed good naturedly, and I think I might have even drawn a couple of an admiring looks.
“You don’t look like Jung Jin’s type,” the third one observed, she of the page boy cut, looking like she just walked out of the pages of a fashion magazine.
“So I keep hearing,” I muttered darkly. “Yeah, well… He’s not my type either.”
“Who are you again?” The second one asked her tone just a bit friendlier and very, very curious. “And why are you here?”
“I could ask the same of you.”
“We asked you first,” the tallest one said, blinking at me. The woman could kill with her eyes.
“My name is Gia and I live here,” I said defiantly.
I expected more questions and more glares of disapproval. I expected more insults and more attempts at making me feel bad. What I did not expect was the collective sigh of relief and delighted squeals, as well as the outpouring of arms that came towards me, even as I tried to back up against the wall, bumping into my suitcases in the process. I was bracing myself for an all-out assault, had already placed my arms over my face, when I was enfolded in a… group hug?
“What a relief!” The tallest one said, her tone now gentle and kind, as she smiled down on me. “You should have told us this from the beginning.”
“We were so looking forward to meeting you,” another voice said, her words muffled. I was having a hard time hearing in this sea of womanly love.
“You’re just as pretty as Oppa said,” someone said, and I felt a hand down my hair. “And your hair is so beautiful.”
“Omma will be happy you’ve come to meet us.” Another voice. “She’s going to love you.”
“She’s not talking,” the tallest one, the one closest to me, said again. “Maybe she needs some space.” Space. Yes. Space. I definitely need some space.
They were first speaking in English, but then reverted back to Korean as they stepped away from me. I took a deep breath and looked at all them warily while they, in turn, all smiled back at me.
“Now that you know who I am,” I said, interrupting their excited chatter. “Please tell me who you are.”
“I’m Ji Soo, the youngest,” the one with long hair said from the back.
“I’m Ji Min,” the one with the shoulder length hair said, along with two fingers, like a v sign. For peace?
“I’m Ji Hee,” the one with the short hair piped up, with an accompanying wink as she held up three fingers.
Their names were all so similar that for a second I wondered if Jung Jin just liked to date women with similar names. I mean… Ji Soo, Ji Min, Ji Hee, and me. Gia. No doubt this last person will have a similar name as well. But why were they so friendly? I have never met exes that were this…
“And my name is Ji Hyun,” the tallest one said as she herded the rest of the women and they all walked to the living room.
I waited until they sat down and unbuttoned their coats before I spoke to them, still standing, still confused.
“Thank you for telling me your names,” I said. “But you didn’t really tell me who you are.”
“Ugh… Oppa,” the one called Ji Soo grumbled. “He’s such a pain.”
What’s Oppa? I was about to ask when the one called Ji Hyun spoke.
“Jung Jin never told you about us, I’m assuming,” she said and I shook my head no. “We’re his sisters.”
“All…” I cleared my throat. “All of you?”
“Yep,” the one called Ji Hee said as she put her feet up on the coffee table. “All of us.”
Is there such a thing as a telepathic connection? I thought, trying to send a message to Gia in my head, to not even let my sisters in the penthouse. Except Ji Hyun Noona had my passcode, has had it since she oversaw the initial interior design project when I bought it since I had been in Japan with Joon, the year before she and her husband moved to Taiwan.
I was told that my eldest sister was not going to be back in Korea until the end of the week, but I had no doubt my other sisters had already covered the bases. I’m sure that all of them have access to the penthouse… something I really should change soon. I tapped on steering wheel impatiently as I navigated the Seoul traffic a few minutes later, now showered and dressed in a suit.
They will blindside her. I needed to, at least, make sure that I warned her. And also make sure that she tells them nothing.
I quickly pulled out my phone and pressed the speed dial button for the penthouse. It kept on ringing and ringing, for what seemed like a million times, and I hung up when the answering machine kicked on. They must already be there. If Gia wasn’t answering, they must already be there. Or… she could still be mad at me. Either way, I thought, as I made the last turn towards the apartment complex, I should try one more time.
I dialed again and listened to the incessant ringing as I steered my car into the space and parked. Finally, the call was answered and I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard Gia’s voice, as out of breath as how I felt, as if she had rushed to answer the phone.
“Hello?” She greeted.
“Hey, it’s me,” I said nervously, the memory of our last conversation still fresh in my mind. ”Are they there?”
“Yes, they’re here,” she said quietly. Dammit. The fact that she didn’t even ask me who they were already told me that my sisters have made their appearance. “Did you know?”
“Of course not,” I replied. “They just texted me out of nowhere.”
“Don’t look behind you,” I advised. “They’re probably watching you.”
“Okay,” she answered. “But why do you sound like that?”
“I have a huge favor to ask,” I paused and took a deep breath. “If you do it I will grant you one request. I will do whatever it is that you ask for… No questions asked.”
“Anything I ask for?” She asked, suspicious. I was so used to her voice sounding like this that when I heard the familiar thread of doubt, it felt like all was right again.
“Was that a yes?” I asked.
“So you’ve agreed? You can’t take it back.” I had to make sure that she understood what I needed for her to do, because it was very likely that she will take it back once she hears my favor.
“I’ll do whatever I want.”
“Fine,” I conceded. Stubborn woman. “Whatever they say, whatever comes out of their mouths, whatever it is… no matter how ludicrous it sounds. Please, PLEASE, please just go along with it.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I know you don’t, jagi,” I shut my mouth as I realized what I just said. “But please just do this for me.”
“What does that word mean?”
“Huh?” I asked, pretending to not know what she was talking about.
“You said a word in Korean. Ja-gi. What does it mean?”
“It means please.” The lie slipped easily from my lips. It was the first thing that came to mind.
“Are you saying okay to my explanation or my request?”
“Both, I think,” she answered with a huff.
“Just… hold them off until I get there.”
“You’re coming?” She asked, now sounding worried..
“Yeah, I’m coming.”
“I have to go. Jagi, hurry,” she said innocently and hung up the call.
I stared at my phone even as the call ended thinking about how many ways the woman will kill me when she finds out that jagi doesn’t mean please. I am so dead.
But hearing her voice… calling me that… was worth it. I wouldn’t even mind if I died a thousand deaths if she called me jagi just as many times.
“Sit down, sit down,” Ji Min urged, patting the seat next to her. “We won’t bite. You have to excuse Unnie… she’s like a mama bear when it comes to Jung Jin.”
“Unnie?” I asked.
“Ah, it means older sister. You can call us,” Ji Hee said, pointing to herself, Ji Min and Ji Hyun, “that. We’re all older than Jung Jin. Ji Soo is the youngest.”
“Is this all of you?” I asked. I didn’t realize that Jung Jin came from such a large family.
“No, no,” Ji Hyun Unnie said.
“You don’t have to look so scared,” she chided with a pat on my shoulder. “We only have one more sibling, our oldest brother. And that’s a good thing. Jung Jin is not the eldest son.”
“That’s true,” Ji Min Unnie said, nodding.
They all exchanged glances and I watched them, puzzled. As if seeing my confusion, Ji Min Unnie spoke. “The eldest son carries a lot of responsibility, and by extension, so does his wife. Jung Jin is the younger son, so you won’t be bound to those same duties if you two were to marry.”
“Marry?” I asked and they all nodded. Why do they think we’re even close to being married?
“Do you want some water, Unnie?” Ji Soo asked. “You look a little pale.”
She got up and walked to the kitchen without waiting for a response, then I heard the cupboards and the fridge being opened. She came back with a glass of water and handed it to me with a smile.
“I told all of them,” she said, and waved a hand over her sisters, “that I saw Oppa piggybacking you in Hongdae.”
“Elder brother,” Ji Hee whispered.
“Jung Jin said you are American?” Ji Hyun Unnie asked.
“And what do you do?”
“I’m a nurse,” I answered. “That’s how I met Jung Jin.” I felt a blush cover my cheeks at the mere mention of his name and wished I could disappear. “I took care of his client.”
“And was it love at first sight?” JI Soo asked, resting her face on her hands. “I knew Oppa’s face was good for something.”
“Good,” Ji Hee Unnie said. “He needs to work hard for some things.”
“And yet you’re here now!” Ji Soo said with a sigh. “A love story spanning continents. Oh… how romantic! I always knew Oppa had it in him!”
I tried to smile but I was afraid it came out more as a grimace.
“Do you have any other siblings?” Ji Hyun Unnie said and I nodded. At last, a topic I was comfortable talking about.
“Yes, I have a younger sister.”
“Another sister!” Ji Soo exclaimed with a clap of her hands. “I’m so happy.”
“Ermm,” Ji Hee said, clearing her throat. “If you and Jung Jin met in the hospital, then that must mean that you’ve only known each other for a few months.” I lifted my eyebrows questioningly, wondering what she was getting at. “But I saw the suitcases you had with you. Are you moving in?”
“No,” I said lamely. “Not exactly.”
“We won’t judge you if you tell us you’ve been living together already,” Ji Hyun Unnie said as the house phone started ringing. “Our family is progressive.”
I think my brain must have shut off as soon as this conversation started because I was having a hard time responding. I’m not exactly sure what Jung Jin told them, but they seemed to be under the impression that we were in a relationship.
“In fact, just to prove our sincerity, we’ll help you move your stuff in.” She stood up and motioned for her sisters, and before I could clarify, they were all gone, with my suitcases, off to Jung Jin’s room.
I took a few deep breaths as I struggled to get a handle on this situation. The house phone rang again and I stood up, then took the call in the kitchen.
“Hello?” I said hesitantly, knowing damn well that if the person didn’t know English on the other line that they wouldn’t answer. On the other hand, it could be…
“Hey, it’s me.” At the sound of his voice I was partly relieved and mostly uneasy. The last time we shared a conversation I ended up half naked and hysterical. “Are they there?”
“Yes, they’re here,” I responded, knowing exactly who he was referring to. I wondered if he already knew they were coming and asked. “Did you know?”
“Of course not. They just texted me out of nowhere.”
“Oh.” He sounded as if he was being honest. His sisters all came out of his bedroom just then and sat back in the living room. I quickly averted my eyes and turned my face towards the cupboards.
“Don’t look behind you,” he said. Too late. I looked over one shoulder very discreetly to see that they were, indeed, watching me. “They’re probably watching you.”
“Okay.” He was silent on the other line and I asked, a bit nervously, “But why do you sound like that?”
“I have a huge favor to ask.. If you do it I will grant you one request. I will do whatever it is that you ask for… No questions asked.”
“Anything I ask for?” I repeated, making sure I heard him correctly.
“Was that a yes?” he asked.
“So you’ve agreed? You can’t take it back.”
“I’ll do whatever I want.” I glared at the phone. This man…
“Fine.” He stopped speaking for a moment and I waited for what he was about to say. “Whatever they say, whatever comes out of their mouths, whatever it is… no matter how ludicrous it sounds. Please, PLEASE, please just go along with it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t,jagi… But please just do this for me.”
“What does that word mean?” I should have really told him that was something else I didn’t like. People speaking in another language to me, knowing damn well that I couldn’t understand.
“Huh?” He asked, sounding convincingly confused.
“You said a word in Korean. Ja-gi. What does it mean?”
“It means please,” he answered, no hesitation in his voice.
I racked my brain for some of the Korean phrases I knew that used the word please but came up blank. I didn’t know enough about the language to make that determination anyway. For all I knew Koreans had ten different words for please.
“Okay.” I finally said.
“Are you saying okay to my explanation or my request?”
“Both, I think,” I answered quietly then jumped when Ji Hee appeared in front of me. I gave her a sheepish smile and mouthed, ‘Jung Jin’ and she nudged me playfully. Grinning at me she grabbed a juice bottle from the fridge before going back to the living room.
“Just… hold them off until I get there.”
“You’re coming?” I asked, unable to hide my nervousness. This is the first time we’ll see each other since our big whatever.
“Yeah, I’m coming.”
I looked over at the living room and saw that his sisters were all motioning for me to come over.
“I have to go. Jagi, hurry,” I said and hung up the call.
Hold them off… hold them off… I searched my brain for any diversional tactics and came up with nothing, until I remembered that there was something I forgot to do before I almost moved out. I pulled a plastic plate out and rummaged the fridge and then the cupboard, and quickly created a crudité platter.
It didn’t look half bad, I thought as I looked at the carrots and tomatoes on the plate, the cubed cheese, pineapple and the potato chips. This was even better than the one I served Jung Jin. At least there were vegetables on here. And fruit.
Feeling quite accomplished I balanced it on my hands and brought it to the living room, wiping the coffee table with my forearm before putting it down.
The women all looked at it, then at me, then began to laugh.
“What?” I asked. “Does it not look appetizing?”
“Gia-ssi,” Ji Min Unnie started. “Do you not cook?”
“Of course I can!” I said, feeling defensive. “Just not very well.”
“Ah,” Ji Soo said. “For a second there I thought you were a vegetarian.” She picked up a carrot and munched on it thoughtfully. “That’s so fitting that Oppa ends up with a woman who can’t cook. Lucky for you, he can.”
“He can?” I asked. So… he wasn’t lying about being able to do that.
“Yeah,” Ji Hee Unnie said. “Our brother has always been a bit better with chores than the rest of us. I guess it’s what happens when his sisters all bully him into doing their chores for them.”
“It was always so easy to order him around… he was such a shy kid,” Ji Min Unnie added. “Remember when he was young? All skin and bones, no matter how much he ate. But he was smart though, too smart for his own good sometimes. And a bit too nice for his own good too.”
“Don’t even get me started on how he looked during puberty.” JI Hyun Unnie laughed. “So awkward. He was always tripping on his feet and then he started wearing those thick glasses. Remember his obsession with long hair in his teens?” All the women laughed, except for Ji Soo.
“I don’t remember that,” she said, grabbing a handful of cheese.
“You’re twelve years younger than Jung Jin,” Ji Hee Unnie told her and then directed her attention to me. “We all thought Jung Jin was going to be our maknae, until Ji Soo was born.”
“You know,” Ji Hyun Unnie said, her face pensive. “I wondered for a long time whether he was going to be okay. He was so wimpy as a kid.”
“He was?” All the women around me nodded.
“He was scared of everything. I mean… everything,” Ji Hee Unnie said.
“He said he was scared of heights,” I said.
“That’s new,” Ji Min Unnie said, thinking. “Back then it was dogs, bees, bugs… you name it, and he was scared of it. His fear of heights and dogs I could understand, but everything else…” Her phone vibrated and she looked at the screen then excused herself as she took the call.
“I can’t imagine him being scared of anything really.” I voiced the thought out loud, more to myself than his sisters.
“Well he was,” Ji Hee Unnie said. “At least now he has finally grown into his skin.”
“I worried, too, that he would end up with a bad woman,” Ji Hyun Unnie continued. “I worried about him most when I moved abroad.” She then turned to me and gave me an authentic smile. “But I’m glad he has you now.”
“Tell us honestly,” Ji Hee Unnie asked, “you liked his face first, right? That’s what made you interested?”
“No… actually it’s what deterred me. He was, is, too handsome,” I said without thinking, honestly, and didn’t realize until the words have come out of my mouth.
“What did you like, then?” Ji Min Unnie sounded insistent and I realized all four sisters were waiting for a response.
“I saw him in the park. Talking to an old lady,” I said, and was surprised to realize that I meant it. “I thought he was kind. It surprised me.”
“Yeah, he seems really cold sometimes, right?” Ji Hyun Unnie asked. “He’s a softie really. He just doesn’t like to show it.”
“What are you saying about me?” I heard Jung Jin’s voice ask and I stood up in alarm.
We had been so immersed in our conversation that we didn’t even notice that the door had opened. Panicked I wondered how much of our conversation he heard, but when I looked at his face, he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Jin-ie!” Ji Hyun Unnie greeted. “I was surprised to see that you weren’t here when we came.”
“Noona,” he responded, walking towards her and giving her a loud kiss on the cheek.
“Elder sister. From male to female,” Ji Hee Unnie whispered in my ear and I gave her a grateful smile.
“I had some business to take care of this morning,” Jung Jin continued. “I thought you weren’t flying in until the end of the week?”
“The kids’ Easter vacation already started from school and my in laws decided to take them to Japan,” she answered.
“And Hyungnim?” Jung Jin narrowed his eyebrows even as his eldest sister wrapped an arm around his waist.
“He had to work. He’ll be here this weekend.”
He nodded and proceeded to greet all his sisters before standing next to me. My heart started racing at his proximity, even though he was still a couple of feet away.
“Come now, Jin-ah, you don’t have to be shy. You two have been living together for weeks and you don’t even greet her?” Ji Min Unnie teased. “You can kiss your girl in front of us. We won’t tell Omma and Appa.”
“We heard Joon’s team won the match,” Ji Min Unnie said as she took a tomato from the plate and popped it in her mouth.
“Yeah… he did great,” Jung Jin said, deflecting Ji Hee Unnie’s comment.
“Of course he did,” Ji Soo said. “Because he’s awesome that way. I swear, if he wasn’t so happily taken I would have totally crushed on him.”
“Don’t let Na Jeong hear you say that,” Jung Jin warned.
“Oppa, you still haven’t greeted Gia Unnie,” Ji Soo said with a wink towards him. “You don’t have to be bashful. We know you must be dying to kiss her after your weekend away.”
He leaned over me and hesitated, and I forced myself to relax as he kissed my cheek. I did agree to go along with his request. We broke apart almost immediately after and I lifted my eyes to see Ji Hyun Unnie frowning at us.
“Did you two get into a fight or something? What kind of welcome was that?”
“I’m disappointed in you, Jin-ie. You know better than to act all cool.”
“Jagi, it’s okay,” I quickly said as I positioned him in front of me, knowing his sisters would be watching. I saw them all smile and knew I had said the right thing. I said please and told him it’s okay. I was holding up my end of the bargain.
His dark eyes looked at me quizzically and with hesitation, as if waiting for permission, and I softened. I gave him a little nod, and he leaned down, brushing a thumb over my cheek, and pressed his lips to mine. He smelled of everything I loved, sunny days and rainy days melted into one. Flowers and chocolates and candles and music. He was everything all at once, and I found myself closing my eyes even as my hands snaked their way to his hair, completely forgetting that his sisters were all still there, watching us intently.
By the time I opened my eyes he had already pulled away, his eyes unreadable. A broad hand lingered on my neck, and he didn’t let go, even as his fingers brushed over the line between my eyes. A small smile hovered on the corner of his mouth, and I found myself running a finger over it.
I felt dizzy and hot and my eyes glazed as I noted the worry in his. I didn’t think I had, but it seems I had forgotten what it was like to be kissed by him. I thought the memory was enough, but it wasn’t. Not even close.
“Omo… omo…” I heard Ji Soo say and I turned and saw her, a hand over her chest.
Ji Hyun Unnie cleared her throat and then started handing her sisters their coats. “Right, I think that’s our cue,” she ordered. “Jin-ie, Omma sent a ton of banchan so you two should be okay for food should you not come up for air anytime soon. We’re leaving.”
“But…but…” Ji Soo protested as Ji Hee Unnie dragged her by the arm towards the elevator. “At least let me put my coat on!”
“You can put it on in the elevator.” Ji Min Unnie gave us both a knowing smile. “You two be careful. Omma and Appa are progressive but not that progressive.”
“Ah, I almost forgot,” Ji Hyun Unnie said. “Our son, Jin-ie’s oldest nephew, is having his birthday party in a few weeks. Make sure Jung Jin brings you. We’ll try to hold Omma off until then but she might not be willing to wait much longer. Our mother is anxious to meet you.”
“Noona… Gia might have plans already…”
I glanced at the elevator to see four identical pairs of eyes looking at so hopefully I had to look away. I can’t possibly tell them that if everything works out as it should, that I would no longer be here. They had been so kind and welcoming that I didn’t have the heart to say no.
“We’ll be there,” I said, much to Jung Jin’s surprise.
“Thanks for that,” I said as I sat down across the dining room to Gia, minutes after my sisters have left with coffee she had prepared.
“It’s fine,” she replied as she took a sip of her coffee. “It didn’t take much effort. The coffeemaker dud all the work. ”
“I was thanking you for going along with everything.”
“That’s what I meant, too.” She nodded. “Your sisters are great.” I nodded with a small smile. They are great. “I didn’t realize you were all fluent in English.”
“Yeah,” I said. “My parents thought it was important. Plus Ji Hyun Noona’s husband is Taiwanese, so we have to communicate with him in English.”
She was fiddling with her fingers nervously, as if looking for something else to say, coughing and clearing her throat a couple of times. After last night’s debacle I wasn’t that eager to get into this woman’s bad side again so I just kept quiet. The silence lengthened and grew, and I saw her nod, as if she made up her mind about something.
“Okay, this is weird,” she blurted. I didn’t respond though I knew exactly what she was talking about. The camaraderie we shared just a week or so was gone, replaced instead by this tense, awkward silence. “I’m sorry about last night.”
“No… I’m sorry,” I said. “You were right.”
“No, I overreacted,” she said quietly, eyes averted. “I may have hurt you with my words, and that hadn’t been my intention. I can get callous when I’m upset, and I apologize for that.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I really should have knocked. And really… it’s okay. I’m tougher than I look. Besides,” I added. “You saved my ass today.”
“Speaking of today,” she said, clearing her throat. “I would like to know why your sisters think I’m your girlfriend.”
“My sisters have a nasty habit of trying to fix me up,” I explained. “I mean… you’ve met them. I didn’t want to deal with it, so I told them you were my girl. It was the only way I knew to get them off my back.”
“Except now they really think I’m your girlfriend.”
“I’ll fix it,” I said quickly. “But yeah… about that party, you don’t have to go. I’ll take care of that, too.”
“I never break my word, not if I can’t help it. They love you a lot and I don’t really want to cause any trouble between all of you,” she said. “When is it anyway?”
“About three weeks’ time,” I said. “I know you were already planning on being gone by then…”
“I’ll go,” she cut in. ‘I already told them I would.”
It took a few minutes to process what she just said. I lifted the coffee cup to my lips and took a sip. It wasn’t instant coffee… so she learned to use the coffeemaker! Between this and her declaration that she will be attending my nephew’s party I found myself smiling fully at her. She returned my smile hesitantly but looked away as soon as our gazes met. This was perhaps the only conversation in the world where both participants refused to look at each other for most of it.
“What about your job?” I asked quietly.
“I have nothing to go back to,” she answered.
“And your place?”
“I have nothing to go back to,” she repeated, meeting my eyes and then looking away. “I told you.”
I kept asking inane questions, questions I was sure she had answered before, but I was trying to distract myself from the memory of the kiss we just shared. It was dancing around in my head and it was driving me crazy, if not crazier. “Why didn’t you stop me from kissing you?” I suddenly asked, unable to help myself.
There had been something different… in the way she had looked at me. Her eyes had softened, gentled, and then beckoned. She nodded as I sent her the unspoken question and then lifted her chin in offering. Towards me. I had watched as the green brown pools of her eyes disappeared as she shut them ever so softly when my lips descended on hers. She had made a sound when our lips connected, a sigh, as if she’s thought about it too, just like I have.
“We made a deal,” she said. “And I told you… I never break my promises.”
“Of course,” I said. “Of course.”
“Besides… it’s not as if we’ve never done that before.”
Our eyes met and I looked away, but my hands itched to hold hers, which were casually draped over the table. To ward off the temptation I busied my hands with my cup instead.
“I owe you a boon,” I said. “For what you did. I rarely make promises, but I did today. I’ll make good on our deal. Do you want to stay here for the rest of the time you’re in Korea?”
“Will that count as my one request?”
“No,” I said. “It’s an extra.”
“Then yes, though I’ll have to move my clothes from your room,” she said, amused. “Your sisters move quickly.” I looked at her in question. “Don’t ask.”
I nodded in response. “You kept the flowers,” I observed, seeing the bouquet I had brought back now in a vase. “I thought you didn’t like them.”
“How could I not?” She asked. “They’re beautiful. I should have thanked you last night, not have freaked out like a crazy person.”
I wanted to tell her that she didn’t seem like a crazy person. Not at all. Not after I’ve thought about it. She was emotional, passionate, but not crazy. Shawn was right. I should have tried to understand her.
“So…” She continued, looking thoughtful. “I have a proposition for you.”
“A proposition?” I asked, already getting the feeling that I wouldn’t like what she was about to say.
“Yes,” she nodded. “Something that might prevent repeats of last night’s thing.”
“Thing?” I repeated, feeling very much like a parrot.
“Dispute, argument, disagreement, quarrel, debate… thing.”
“Ah,” I said. “Last night’s fight.”
She nodded seriously. “Can we…” She started hesitantly. “Can we try being friends?”
“Friends?” I repeated dumbly. Friends?
She nodded. “Friends. I really think we’ll just do better if we didn’t have this thing between us hanging over our heads. We can see each other sometimes and spend time together without this weird tension. Maybe if we’re friends we’ll be able to speak to each other honestly, without fear of judgment or fear of rejection. Since it seems my stay in Korea has just gotten longer, I think it’s a good plan.”
I don’t think ‘it’s weird tension,’ as she called it. I’m fairly positive it’s called attraction. Desire. I wanted to tell her this, but she looked so earnest sitting there, her hands folded into each other, as if she really thought that by labeling us thus it will erase whatever it was that was simmering between us. Now was probably not the best time to tell her that I heard what she said to my sisters about what she had liked about me.
“Is this your request?” I asked. “If so I would have no choice but to do it.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I would rather that this is a decision we both make.” She held out a hand. “Deal?”
I took her hand, so small in mine, and squeezed. “I haven’t agreed, yet,” I said and she tried to pull her hand away. “But I’ll think about it.”
“That’s good enough for me,” she said, relieved. She smiled at me then, an open smile, a trusting smile, an all teeth showing smile, and I savored the sight.
How many times have I wished for this? How many times have I said that I would give anything to see her looking at me like this?
Maybe this friend thing does have its merits.
March 30, 2002
I hope that he didn’t mean by being friends with me that it meant he never had to see me. He never agreed, I reminded myself. Only you did. It’s been six days and Jung Jin had disappeared. Again. Except for one phone call telling me he’ll pick up the utility money tomorrow, I haven’t heard from him at all. Though who was counting? At least he was letting me pay that. I actually feel like we are well on our way to this whole friends thing, where we both pay for stuff and we can hang out.
I’ve busied myself reading some of his books, surprised to discover that he liked history, just like I did. I penned my first email to Junnie in weeks, explaining that I wasn’t at the Park Hyatt, as my message said, but at an apartment, instead. I would have told her where I was staying, except I knew she would never get off my back.
I also discovered Jung Jin’s music collection and realized that his music taste was eerily similar to mine. This meant, of course, that neither of us had an exact preference. I found CDs of every genre, from classical and techno to disco, to pop, rap and R&B, movie soundtracks and of course, traditional and modern Korean music.
I had familiarized myself with the TV, the DVD player, his sound system and yes, even his coffeemaker. I tried to make rice, too, but I was freaked out to hear the rice cooker speaking to me in Korean and quickly turned it off.
I’ve done some more sightseeing and seen more films at home. I’ve eaten just about every type of Korean cuisine there was and tried every street food. Though it had been tempting I had not touched the food that his mother had sent over, saving it instead for when my friend eats with me. Which, I thought, now that we had a deal, he would be doing sooner than later.
So when is he coming?
I sat cross-legged on the floor, feeling a bit down. I missed Junnie. I missed my sister and my mother. For a second I was tempted to call my family, but then thought against it. It will just make me feel more depressed.
This will not do, I thought, as I sprang up to my feet. I like being alone. I was used to being alone. I can’t be this mopey person. I’ve been moping for too damn long. I need to make myself feel better.
Remembering what Junnie and I used to do in our uni days, I picked out a Donna Summers CD from Jung Jin’s music collection and popped it into the CD player mounted on the wall. I turned the volume on full blast and fast forwarded to one of my favorite songs. I positioned myself in the middle of the living room and picked up the remote control. When the song began, I closed my eyes and tapped into my inner rock star
At first, I was afraid, I was petrified…
Kept thinkin’ I could never live, without you by my side…
Park Hyatt Hotel
I walked out of the shower, a towel wrapped around my waist and looked at my phone. Two missed calls from Hye Soo. A message from Joon.
I ignored the missed calls and went straight to messages to read Joon’s reply.
I’ll meet you there at 8 p.m.
I closed my phone and sat down on the side of the bed. The thought of Hye Soo nagged and nipped, and I knew that I couldn’t possibly put off speaking to her any longer. Not if I didn’t want to piss her off.
I opened my phone again and drafted a message, read it and reread it before I pressed send. I merely told her that I was busy all this week but that I would be happy to meet for dinner sometime next week. I even let her choose the restaurant this time. She deserved that much, though I knew I was uneasy for no reason. Hye Soo will do as she always did, and keep moving even before the dust even settled. She and I can be “friends.”
I don’t need any more friends.
I wasn’t lying to Gia when I told her I would think about it, although I was fairly sure as to what I my answer will be. Things didn’t quite work out the way I wanted doing things my way, so now I am doing things differently. I’ll do it her way, but I really wasn’t convinced that it would work. Hesitant to tell her all this I chose to stay away instead. If I didn’t see her I wouldn’t have to give her an answer. If I never gave her an answer, I will continue not to be bound by said answer.
It all seemed so simple in my head, so why did it not feel right?
In the middle of my concert for one, I thought I heard the bell ring, though I had convinced myself that I had just imagined it. The second time I heard it, I knew I wasn’t fooling myself and stopped the music. I practically ran to the elevator and pressed the button to open the door, straightening my hair with my hands, even as I acknowledged that it couldn’t be Jung Jin. The man had always let himself in before… I don’t see why he would stop now. The door opened and my mouth opened in surprise.
“Mr. Kim! What are you doing here?” It’s funny because I always knew what Jung Jin did for a living, but I didn’t really connect that Jung Jin that I met months ago to the Jung Jin I knew now. At least not until his client and my former patient is looking me in the face.
“Please, Gia-ssi… Call me JJ…” he said in more deeply accented English. “That’s what they used to call me in America.” I smiled at him, studying him as he studied me as well. He looked happy, healthy. A little bit broader than he was the last time I saw him, none of the uncertainty in his stance. Being home has done him good. “You don’t look like yourself,” he observed as his words trailed off.
I raised an enquiring eyebrow before giving him my response. “Please, JJ, if we’re going to drop formalities, just call me Gia. And what do you mean I don’t look like myself?”
“Just… You just look different, Gia Noona,” he said. I was nodding my head, remembering the definition given to me by Ji Hee Unnie even as he spoke. “Noona means elder sister… We say that as a sign of respect. Hyung… Ahh… Jung Jin Hyung would never forgive me if I spoke to you so casually.” He poked his head inside the penthouse. “Is… Is Hyung here?”
“No… Why would he be here?” I asked. “I thought he was staying with you. I’ve been staying here since the beginning of the month and he said it was fine.” Had he lied to me?
“Ahh, I remember now,” JJ said and I frowned. “It was just miscommunication. Don’t worry about it.”
Miscommunication? I don’t think so. I didn’t believe him, but if he was hell-bent on covering Jung Jin’s tracks then I will just play along with it.
“Noona… How long will you be staying here?” he asked. “I’m getting married in a few months’ time and I would like for you to come.”
“Ahh JJ… I am not really sure yet how long I’ll be here,” I said honestly. “But if I’m still here I will definitely come.”
I smiled at him then and he looked taken aback. “Do you… Do you want me to tell him you came by?” I asked. “He’s supposed to come by tomorrow to collect rent.”
“He’s charging you?” He asked, disbelieving.
“I’m no charity case, JJ. I offered to pay.” I lifted my chin in defiance.
“And he let you.” His tone still was still incredulous and I shook my head.
“No man lets me do anything.” JJ looked like he was about to start laughing any minute.
“Noona… It’s okay. I’ll text him,” he said and I nodded. “I hope to see you again soon.”
“Me too, JJ. And congratulations to you and your fiancée,” I told him warmly and smiled. I pressed the button to close the door and went right back to what I was doing.
But my mind can’t help but wonder. His sisters seemed to have been under the impression that he was still living here. JJ thought he would be here. So if he wasn’t staying with JJ and he wasn’t staying with his family then where the hell was he staying?
I walked into the bar that Joon had mentioned in his text, the one where he and his friends were planning to meet on a rare night out. He greeted me a wave and I approached him.
“So you decided to come out,” he said as I pulled out a seat next to him, motioning for a server as soon as I was seated.
I ordered a whiskey on the rocks as soon as the server came and I could feel Joon’s eyes on me, but he said nothing. I, too, remained silent, still lost in my thoughts, until the server came back with my drink and I took a long swallow.
“Are you going to tell me why Gia Noona is staying at your apartment?” He finally asked, breaking the silence.
I ran a hand through my hair and looked at him. “Do I have to?” I asked as I took another swallow of my drink. He nodded and I sighed before I spoke. “She needed to get away. I had a place to stay, so I offered it up.”
“And where are you living?” Joon’s eyes were looking at me with his eyebrows narrowed.
“The Park Hyatt… Where I told you to meet me,” I said grudgingly. “I don’t really feel like talking about this right now.”
I finished my drink even as Joon continued to look on in concern. I knew he was worried.
“Hyung, what’s the matter?” he asked.
“She wants to be my friend,” I finally said, knowing that he would only keep worrying if I didn’t tell him. “I have enough friends. And she wants to be my friend. We’ve kissed…” From the corner of my eye I saw his mouth widen. “… And she wants to be Friends… Friends…”
I looked at him for an explanation. Joon had plenty of experience being friend zoned but he did nothing but look back at me.
“There’s something there, Joon-ah. I feel it. That woman,” I said with a tone of resentment. “That woman… She’s gotten under my skin and I need her out.”
“Well you’re not going to do that with her living at your apartment,” he said. “What were you thinking? And… Why can’t you two just stay there together?” He continued. “You’re adults. Surely if she feels nothing for you that wouldn’t be a problem. I mean you’re like a live in translator slash tour guide. She’ll only have to pay half of what she’s paying you and you won’t have to live in a hotel. Plus, if she saw how awesome you are… She might be persuaded to give you a shot.”
I must be getting tipsy already because his plan was making sense. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? Why didn’t I put it like that sooner? But… how to convince her? Maybe if I put it in the sensible way like Joon just did, I would be able to persuade her.
“Hey… Have you already started the party without us?” Cho In Sung, Joon’s catcher from university, said as he walked in with the rest of Joon’s friends. He lifted a glass to greet them and I forced a smile on my face.
“What are you two talking so seriously about?” Joon’s cousin asked as he picked up some peanuts from the dish on the table.
“Oh… Not much, just how to win a woman’s heart,” Joon answered. “Hyung here is having a problem. Does anyone have any suggestions?”
“I’m no good with romance,” Sung Kyun said. “Yoon Jin and I had our first kiss on a fishing boat.”
“I just called Ae Jung on the phone,” Haitai said.
“Jin Yi approached me,” Binggrae said as he motioned for the server.
“So did Yoo Mi,” Jung Gook, Joon’s old rival for Na Jeong’s heart, said proudly.
“Misoo and I met in college, so… There wasn’t that much wooing to do, really,” In Sung piped in.
I fought to contain my annoyance. “Wow… You guys… Show off why don’t you? Joon here had to wait six years and all of you hardly had to work at all.” And I… I’m still waiting. I shook my head as the server delivered the bottles of beer and soju.
Then started speaking about something and I zoned out and continued to drink, only occasionally offering commentary and opinion. It’s a good thing that I came out after all, I thought, since I’d probably be doing the same had I stayed in my hotel room. Except I’d be doing it alone.
“Joon-ah… How do you feel about being a married man in a few months?” Samcheonpo asked from the end of the table. “I know you already gave the answer to that interview but I’m curious to find out whether that was just for public relations’ sake, or…”
“For the record, I had nothing to do with that interview,” I said loudly. “He wasn’t coached or he wouldn’t have practically spilled his heart out to a reporter.”
“Hyung… What’s the use in lying?” he asked me. “It was much easier to just tell the truth.”
“Tell that to YOUR Na Jeong,” I told him. “She called me and practically cursed me out when she found out that I didn’t give you clear instructions to not. Say. Her. Name.” I chuckled at the memory.
“Yeah… She’s a gangster,” Jung Gook said. “Scary woman. Just be glad she didn’t speak to you in person. You might have ended up with a black eye.”
Everyone nodded at the table except for In Sung. “She looks so gentle, though…” he said and Samcheonpo snorted.
“Yah… Don’t let that face fool you. She can throw it down better than most men. Joon-ah,” Samcheonpo said, lifting his glass for a toast to Joon. “Here’s to you and your brave soul.”
We all lifted up our glasses and clinked it together as Joon smiled. I zoned out again and kept drinking, trying to keep up with these younguns well into the night. By the time we left the bar quite a few of us were openly swaying while walking. Including myself.
“Yaaaahhh…. Let’s goooo… Let’s goooo tooo a noraebannggggg,” Binggrae said, putting an arm around Joon. Joon nodded even as all our other companions agreed.
I stood on the side of the street, my head spinning and raised my arm to hail a cab.
“Hyuuuuung!!!! Wherrreeee arrree yooouuu goooiinggg?” I heard Joon ask behind me.
“I goott toooo gooo tooo mmyyyy appparrrtmeeent and puuuutt my foooot down,” I replied, nodding at him determinedly
“Hyung… Are yooooou druuuunk?”
“Joon-ah… How many timessssss did I have to tell yooooou that gentlemen don’t get druuuuunk? I’m tipsy. Thaaaatss… That’ssss aaaaall.”
He started laughing loudly even as a cab slowed down to a stop. I entered the cab with a wave at Joon and sat down. As soon as I was seated my phone rang and I picked it up, hoping it was Gia but knowing it wasn’t.
“Ethan,” I heard Shawn say from the other line.
“Whaaaaattttt????” I said. “Wwwwhhhyyyy aaarreee yooouuuu calllinnnnnggggg meeee?”
“Are you drunk?”
“I’mmmm tipppssssy! Notttt druuuunnnnk…” I took a deep, calming breath. “Yahhh… whyyy is my wommmaan so diffiiiicult? I can’t beeee her friennnnddd, but nowwww she askkks meee to be, and I’m suppppposed to beee okaaayy with itttt. Donnn’t you thinnnnkk that’s craaazzzy?”
“What?” Shawn asked, confused. “I have no clue what you’re talking about..”
“I knowwwwww,” I said mournfully. “No oneeee… noooo onnneeee…. undeerrrrerstaaaands.”
“It’s obvious I won’t get a decent conversation out of you today,” Shawn complained. “Just… just check your email.”
My friend hung up chuckling, and I cuddled my phone to my chest. Why won’t Gia call me? I had to tell her I needed money yesterday just so that I would have an excuse to call. She must think I’m so petty. I don’t need her money. She’s already broke.
“Customer,” the cab driver said in front of me and I smiled at both of him.
“Ahjuussssssi,” I said, relieved. “Do youuuu understaaaaand what I’m goiiiinnngggg throuuuuugh?”
“Ah…” they said, shaking their heads. “You haven’t told me where you wanted me to take you.”
I was only somewhat lucid long enough to tell the cab driver my address in Gangnam before I promptly fell asleep.
I was sitting on the couch, exhausted from all my dancing around, staring out the windows. Next to me was the book I was currently reading, one of Jung Jin’s books from his shelves. The music player was playing another one of his CD’s, the soundtrack from ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ an old movie I liked as well.
I curled one leg under the other and leaned back on the couch, wondered if I should just go to sleep. Or take a bath. I was still trying to decide what to do when the intercom buzzed. I walked towards it, wondering who it could be, when I pressed the button and heard a familiar voice.
“Unnie!” I heard the voice say. “It’s me, Ji Soo… can you let me in?”
Quickly I pressed the button that would open the door and in came Jung Jin’s youngest sister, armed with a bucket of food and a plastic bag full of beer. Over one shoulder was a guitar case, and she wrapped her arms around me as she entered.
“Ji Soo,” I said warmly. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to hang out with you and Oppa,” she said, walking straight to the living room and putting down what she had brought and the guitar case before heading to the kitchen. She had already grabbed some plates from the cupboards by the time I returned to the living room. “Where is he anyway?”
“He’s… out,” I said.
“Oh yeah?” she said, sitting down on the floor and pulling out a can of beer. “That’s a little rude. You just started your domesticated lives yesterday.” She patted the seat next to her and I immediately complied as she pulled another can of beer out and handed it to me. “You have to excuse him… he’s only been in, like, one serious relationship and he’s completely inept.”
“Oh really?” I said, popping the can open.
”Yeah,” she said as she opened the container she brought and put a chicken drumstick and put it on a plate. She put it in front of me and she got up, muttering something in Korean. I watched as she walked to the kitchen and straight to the fridge, pulling out one of the plastic containers she brought and bringing it back, along with a couple of chopsticks. “But don’t worry because it was forever ago and she was a bitch!”
I choked on the beer I was drinking. “What?”
“Yeah, she was a total lying cheating bitch.” She nodded at me as she pulled out a big piece of chicken and bit into it, then offered me a napkin. She opened the container she brought and picked up a piece of kimchi. ”Nothing like you.”
“Thank you,” I said, not really knowing what else to say. “Why are you here anyway? Don’t you young people have better things to do than hang out with us old folks on a Saturday night?”
“I finished my gig and there was nothing going on in Hongdae, so I thought I’d come over,” she said. “I thought for sure Oppa would be here, though. I even brought his favorite fried chicken. He’s usually home on weekends.”
She nodded absently. “He’s not really into the party scene, which is weird, I know, considering his job and everything. He gets invitations left and right but he doesn’t really like to go to most of them. Unless, of course, Jae Joon Oppa is obligated to attend.”
I nodded though I wasn’t really sure what she was talking about. I was, however, surprised to find out that Jung Jin wasn’t such a social butterfly. That completely contradicted his image. Not wanting to dwell more on what else I could have gotten wrong about him, I decided to divert the topic back to her.
“Are you still in university, Ji Soo?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said with a smile and a hefty bite of kimchi. “I’m in my last year in Yonsei University, majoring in music, hence the guitar case.”
“And you said something about a gig?”
“Yeah… I have a regular gig on the weekends at Bittersweet Cafe in Hongdae.”
What she just said struck a familiar chord, and I shook my head when it dawned on me that that was why she seemed so familiar last week, and then again a few weeks ago. She performed at the same cafe where I met Elena. Sitting with her right in front of me, I couldn’t believe that I never made the connection until now. It was so obvious.
She looked like a more feminine, more delicate version of Jung Jin. They had the same eyes and the same nose, the same mouth. She even had his dimple, in the same spot, the same lopsided smile. I am an idiot.
“I’d rather spend time with Oppa than anyone else, anyway, and of course, you, now…” she continued, biting her lower lip.
“But, aren’t all your sisters at home?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied. “But I’ve always been closer to Oppa. Ji Hyun Unnie is so much older than me, so is Ji Min Unnie, plus they just want to talk about their kids half the time. And don’t get me wrong… I love my nieces and nephews, but I don’t really have that much to say about them except they’re cute. Our oldest brother, Jung Yoon Oppa, is funny, but he works a lot, and Ji Hee Unnie is out with her boyfriend. But Jung Jin Oppa is cool, and he doesn’t talk to me like I’m still a kid… most of the time.”
I chuckled at the annoyed tone in her voice. It reminded me of how my sister talks about me, as well.
“And,” she continued. “Oppa likes all types of music, just like me.”
“You’re very talented,” I said honestly. “I heard you play in Hongdae.”
“Yeah… I was there acciden…. I was there with a friend when you performed,” I told her.
“You should hear Oppa play,” she said, munching on a chicken wing. “He used to be so good.”
“He plays?” I asked and she nodded, then pointed to the piano.
“He used to,” she said. “He hasn’t for a while.”
Hmm… it was weird to keep finding more things out about Jung Jin that I wasn’t quite expecting. I wasn’t sure I liked it. “Did you say that you saw me and your brother in Hongdae?” I suddenly asked, remembering something. She didn’t respond, as if trying to remember if she actually said that. “When you guys came over last week… I thought you said you saw your brother with me.”
“Oh… yeah.” She finished her can of beer. “I saw Oppa walking all fast like he was about to start running or something so I followed him and then by the time I almost caught up to you guys, you were on his back and he was carrying you. I must say… it was very romantic. I felt funny, you know… like I was really proud of him for being so chivalrous. I guess… I guess that’s how I knew he must really like you. I’ve never seen him do anything like that before.”
“Not even with…”
“Nope,” she said, shaking her head. “Not even with her. It made me feel bad.”
“Why?” I asked, helping myself to another piece of chicken.
“Because just minutes before I was accusing him of making you up and lying to all of us,” she said somberly. “It’s just that he’s so different now sometimes from the Oppa I remember growing up with that it feels like I hardly know him at all. Slicker. You know what I mean, right?”
“I think so,” I said uncertainly.
“Like I wouldn’t put it past him now to lie to us, but the Oppa I grew up with wouldn’t have, and I guess for a second, or maybe more than a second, I actually believed that he was capable of deceiving us. And the thing is… though he’s super cool now, I would still be disappointed if he lied to any of us. As I’m sure Omma and the rest of our sisters would be,” she said, her expression pensive. “Not necessarily about the not having a girlfriend part, but about the lying. So, it makes me feel super bad, especially now that I’ve met you and you’re just as great as he said. That’s why I brought the ‘I’m sorry I doubted you Oppa’ chicken, except now I finished most of it before he even got home.”
She started laughing and I tried to laugh as well, except now I was the one who felt bad. I can’t keep deceiving her. It’s just not right. She obviously adored her brother, which I’m sure she will still do even after she finds out the truth.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said suddenly. “Keep eating… That way I can tell Oppa I didn’t finish his chicken singlehandedly.”
While she was gone I took that time to think of a possible segway to let her know that what she thought I and Jung Jin were, was not true… debating with myself whether it was my place to tell her. I was still thinking about it when the elevator door suddenly opened and Jung Jin walked into the penthouse, singing to himself and almost stumbling. I got up quickly and approached him, instinctively wrapping one of his long arms over my shoulder. The last thing I needed was a medical emergency in my hands.
I am on vacation, dammit.
He reeked of alcohol, and I walked him towards a wall so that I can prop him up. Once there I studied his face, to see how drunk he was, and took in the flush in his cheeks and his unfocused eyes, closing on their own accord. He opened an eye as I leaned over him, supporting his weight with my body.
“Gia-ya,” he said, smiling goofily at me before his expression became serious and he tried to pull away, though where he thought he was going I didn’t quite know. He practically crawled in. “I have to do it over!” he said. “I didn’t knock…or ring the doorbell or whatever… I have to do it over!”
“I’ll let it go today,” I said. “Just. stay still. Please.”
“Jagi,” he said, pouting. Please what?
“Jagi?” I asked him.
“Don’t lean so close to me. I can’t think when you’re this close,” he muttered.
“I think it’s because of the alcohol, not me.”
“Nope,” he said, and I saw him clench his jaw before burying his nose in my hair. “Definitely you. You smell so fucking good.”
“That… might be the fried chicken,” I said.
“Nope.” He shook his head slowly. “You smell like paradise.”
I heard the door close somewhere behind me and saw Ji Soo from the corner of my eye walking out. She stopped in her tracks when she saw us and I gave her a sheepish smile.
“But… “ Jung Jin said. “Are you sure you want to be just friends?”
He asked the question in an almost whisper and I feigned ignorance. “What?” I asked, more for Ji Soo’s sake than his. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t?” He asked, eyes narrowed in confusion. “You said you wanted to be just…”
As soon as I realized what he was about to say, I put my hand over his mouth. His little sister was standing there, watching us, a bit incredulous but happy, and I realized that though I didn’t want to keep lying, I couldn’t let her find out like this either. I don’t want her getting disillusioned with her older brother. I don’t want to hurt the girl who welcomed me with open arms and brought me chicken and beer.
I dragged my hand away from his mouth and gave him a silent command to keep quiet. I thought that it had worked, that he had fallen asleep. I was about to ask Ji Soo to help me bring him to the bedroom when I heard his voice again, except this time, much, MUCH louder.
“Should we just be…”
He never got to finish his sentence, never even had the chance. Because before he could get us both in more hot water than we already were, I had planted my lips on his and shut him up.