March 30, 2002
My life has become a comedy.
I am pretty sure it’s against the rules to keep kissing a man who I just asked to be a friend even though I’m pretending to be his girlfriend to stop him from blurting out that we were, in fact, mere acquaintances who just happened to have ran back into each other under the most unlikely of circumstances. In fact, even if it wasn’t against the rules, I’m quite positive it’s against my rules. If my mouth wasn’t so busy I would probably laugh or moan or laugh and moan at my predicament.
I’m pretty sure it’s also against my rules to keep kissing the same man for whom I insist I feel nothing but actually do feel something, even though the last thing I need to be doing is feeling something for him when I refuse to even acknowledge it.
Is it still considered denial if I can acknowledge it as denial?
I sneaked a peek at Jung Jin as his eyes widened in surprise when my lips descended on his. Behind me I thought I heard someone clap excitedly. Right. Ji Soo. The reason why I was doing this.
It seems as though he didn’t notice, though, as his teeth playfully nipped at my bottom lip then licked, before pulling back. He nuzzled my nose with his and I bit back a sigh when his lips traveled to the side of my neck, breathing me in. Again. I tried to stay stiff even as one of his arms wrapped around my waist, bringing me closer to him. Why is it, that even when he’s unable to walk in a straight line, he was still able to do this? And… If he could be like this inebriated, how would be sober?
The thought made me put my hands squarely on his chest to gain some distance, even a small one. His little sister had now pulled up a chair and was watching us with her arms under her chin. She looked like she could use some popcorn.
Against me Jung Jin suddenly stopped moving and I looked at him only to see him slumped on my shoulder, his weight making me sag from the effort of holding him up. Unbelievable. I would be angry but for the fact that he looked so peaceful asleep, his lashes lying innocently on his cheeks. He was perfect like this… so gentle, so sweet. My musings were interrupted by a loud snore and I shook my head. Definitely time to put this man to bed.
“Ji Soo,” I called out. “Can you just…” Huff. “…help me…” Puff. “…get him to bed?”
She quickly stood up and came to my aid, albeit still chuckling. And thank goodness for that, as well. The top of my head barely reached even the lowest part of his neck when he’s standing upright. And even now that he’s not, he was so… long that I was having a hard time maneuvering his limbs into a position that I could somehow control. But Ji Soo, only a few inches shorter, had an easier time.
She easily picked up one of his arms and wrapped it around one of her shoulders, grunting. Side by side the similarities on their features were uncanny. I still can’t believe I didn’t put two and two together as soon as I saw all his sisters since they all looked quite similar. I loosened the arm wrapped around my waist and left it to hang at his side.
“Ji Soo-yah…” Jung Jin suddenly said after opening one eye. He gave her a lopsided grin. “Dangsini waseo.”
“Hmm…” Ji Soo said, wrinkling her nose. “Oppa! Dangsineun nappeun naemsaeyo. Aigoo…” She glared at him and tsked. “Dangsin michyeosso? Juggo ssippo?”
“Ji Soo-yah!” he yelled. “Naneun…” he continued, voice softening, as he pounded his free hand on his chest, “naneun…” And again. “Gia joh-a. Nomu NOMU nomu NOMU nomu joh-a.”
“Aigoo…” Ji Soo nodded at him, then looked at him pityingly. “Araso…”
“Okay, stop,” I interrupted, grimacing as I struggled to stand up. “Please speak in English. I have no clue what you’re saying. All I’m hearing are my name and some sounds and that’s it. For all I know you’re both cursing me out.”
“Sorry, Unnie,” Ji Soo said. “Oppa just said he likes you.” I turned to look at her in surprise. “And I’m like duh… Tell me something I don’t know.” She seemed unaware that I was still just looking at her. “Are you ready?”
I blinked at her in response. “What?”
She pointed delicately at him. “Remember? We need to get Oppa to bed?”
“What?” I repeated before her words finally sunk in. “Right. Bed. Yeah… Let’s go.” I placed Jung Jin’s free arm around my shoulders. “On the count of three. One… two… three!”
Slowly and painfully we managed to drag Jung Jin to his bedroom, despite a few bumps and choice curses. From my mouth, not his. To her credit Ji Soo just took it all in stride and giggled all the way there. I breathed a sigh of relief when we were a few feet away from the bed, and she made no notice of the fact that the suitcases she and her sisters had so thoughtfully brought in here were, in fact, no longer here.
With one last step we got him close enough to the bed that we were able to lay him down. Afterwards we stood up and surveyed the image he made, shaking both our heads. Jung Jin lay face down on the bed, arms splayed wide open, still in his suit, completely oblivious to the amount of effort we exerted doing just this.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen Oppa like this,” Ji Soo said, a curious tone in her voice. “He has really good alcohol tolerance usually.”
“Yeah… Oppa may not like to party but he knows how to drink. He said he got better when he was in uni.”
“Yeah, well,” I said, placing my hands on my thighs to try and catch my breath. “He certainly made up for it tonight. You still got some juice left in you?”
“What do you mean?”
“We can’t just leave him face down like this. If he throws up he could choke. Do you think you have enough energy to help me get him under the covers?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” she said. “Shoes first?”
With a nod we each took a leg and tackled his feet, pulling off his loafers and socks before turning him over to lie on his back. Taking his sleeve off one arm I reached under him so that she can pull it out from the other side.
I had managed to pull the covers from underneath him and was just about to start unbuttoning his shirt when Ji Soo jumped off the bed.
“Unnie, I’m not going to undress my own brother!” She exclaimed, putting her hands up.
“Ji Soo, a human body is a human body is a human body… and he’s your brother!”
“Exactly! He’s my brother! A human body is a human body, but Oppa’s body is Oppa’s body! You can handle this on your own. I’ll be drinking wine.”
She was gone out of the room before I could say any more. I turned my attention to the man still lying unconscious on the bed, then set about to doing my task.
I’ve done this many many times before, I reminded myself, when my hands started shaking at the first button. I am a nurse. I routinely help people dress and undress. I have seen many bodies in my time. A body is a body and that’s it.
I took a deep breath and managed to get one button loose, and then another, keeping my eyes averted towards the headboard, though I couldn’t help but take peeks at the flesh I was unveiling. By the time the third button was loose I had convinced myself that I was totally fine.
Until I realized that my fingers were doing all kinds of things on their own. Lingering on skin that I’m not supposed to touch. Soft, surprisingly smooth skin. My eyes looked down at the sight of his chest, rising and falling with each breath, and I had to stop.
That’s it. I was definitely out of practice. Now I’m molesting a man who I challenged for sex after accusing him of seducing me. At this rate I will be accused of sexual harassment, and I hadn’t even gotten to his pants yet.
In the end I thought it would just be safer for both him and me to leave him as he is. Tucking the covers around his shoulders, I allowed myself one more look before leaving the room, closing the door gently behind me.
“All done?” I heard Ji Soo ask as soon as I had stepped out and I jumped. I turned around and she was smiling at me holding a glass of white wine.
“Something like that,” I said, taking the glass she offered. “I didn’t realize you brought wine, too.”
“I didn’t,” she said offhandedly, sauntering back to the living room. “I broke out one of Oppa’s wine bottles.”
“Do all members of your family just do whatever you want to do?” I asked before I could stop myself.
As soon as the words registered, I followed her, already expecting her to be hurt, or at the very least, offended. Already preparing my apology since the comment had been said without malice though I’m sure it might have sounded otherwise, I was surprised to see her sitting calmly on the couch. Still smiling at me, she poured herself another glass of wine.
“Yeah,” she quipped. “Pretty much. All the women in our family have been raised to speak their minds and to believe that being a woman was no reason to not do what you want. And the men…” She paused as if thinking, then continued with her eyes twinkling in amusement. “… The men are forced to do it because they have to keep up with us!”
I sat down next to her and took a sip of wine, only just now noticing that she had a photo album on the table, already opened to a page.
“Has Oppa ever shown this to you?” She asked and I shook my head no, sitting down next to her.
I looked down at what she was holding and saw pictures much like the ones hanging in the library, though these were in the regular sizes and there were more of them.
“Who took these?” I asked, fingering an edge. “They’re beautifully shot.”
“Oppa. These were all taken when he backpacked all over the place after that horrible woman broke his heart. This was in Japan, by the bamboo forest,” she continued, pointing to one picture, “and then to Mt. Huashan in China, where he climbed this mountain all the way to the top just to have tea.” She sighed. “Ridiculous.”
“Incredible,” I whispered, gaze riveted to the pictures.
“I only meant that it was ridiculous that he went up there just to have tea,” she said. “Oppa has an extreme fear of heights. He almost gave himself a heart attack going up it.”
“Then why do it?”
“I don’t know, but he was hell-bent on doing it, especially after…”
“I know… after she dumped him,” I said. “Sometimes heartbreak makes people do crazy things.”
“She didn’t dump him… he dumped her. Did you know that girl actually begged him to marry her even after he caught her cheating?” She asked incredulously. “Lied to him straight out and said it was just that once. Told him she had cold feet because she knew he was about to pop the question. Who knows what would have happened had he not been confronted by the man he caught her with? He was thinking of taking her back!” She blew an angry breath before downing the rest of her wine and I had to do the same. I was getting mad too.
“He almost proposed?” I asked and she nodded.
“He was going to move for her. Can you imagine?” She furrowed her brows.
I didn’t respond. In truth I didn’t know how to respond. It felt like too much information was being fed into my brain and I was having a hard time digesting it all. Knowing what I knew of Jung Jin now, it was hard to imagine that he was once so… not him.
“Anyway,” Ji Soo continued, “he got his payback in the end.”
“What do you mean?”
“Years later he made a donation so large to the university the man was teaching at that they had to listen to him when he politely suggested that they end the professor’s tenure,” she answered.
“And the girl?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He never saw her again. But as I was saying… he traveled much later after the break-up, though that hadn’t been the plan. He traveled after the…”
Her voice drifted off as she watched me flip the pages, the images offering me a glimpse of where he’s been. A gondola in Venice, the Eiffel tower in Paris. The pyramids in Egypt, Hagia Sophia in Turkey. I saw pictures of the Kenyan desert and the Australian outback, then the greenness of New Zealand.
Having also known the feeling of that kind of betrayal, I only understood the sentiment too well. When things like that happen it becomes necessary to surround yourself in incredible beauty just to restore your faith in something. Anything.
I reached the last page to see the one lone picture of him and I narrowed my eyes at the background. I’ve seen very same spot in magazines before. Machu Picchu. I recognized the stone structures framing his face, though it seemed not the face that I know now.
His face was caught on profile, the sunlight bouncing off his prominent cheekbones. He was more slender then, leaner. His eyes were framed by glasses, his hair shoulder length.
He looked similar enough that I of course knew it was him. But he looked much, much different too.
The boy in the picture was staring out in front of him, his eyes in a pensive gaze. His mouth was unsmiling, stern. He didn’t have the certainty in his eyes that I’d come to familiarize with Jung Jin, instead he looked as if he was searching, as if he was lost. There was a beautiful innocence to him, such a heartbreaking sadness. And still, I recognized the stubborn tilt of his chin. Defiance in the face of pain. Determination.
My heart tightened inside my chest and I swallowed the emotion that came over me. I understand how he must have felt. That feeling was something I also knew too well. Sometimes things happen that we cannot explain, and the only thing we can do is try to make sense of our part in any of it.
I found myself touching his face on the picture, and I heard Ji Soo clear her throat, as if preparing to speak. I dragged my eyes from the page to meet hers, the same eyes I had just been studying, except hers were still clear, untainted by life, like I wish it would always be.
“Unnie,” she started tentatively. “Can you not tell Oppa what I told you?”
“What you told me?”
“Yeah,” she said sheepishly. “Alcohol makes my tongue loose. It’s not a secret but I don’t even think Oppa realizes that I know everything. Especially about what he did to that man. No one would have told me outright, but I heard him and Shawn talking about it.”
“Shawn?” I asked, trying to remember if I had heard that name before.
“Yeah… Shawn’s one of his closest friends from uni,” she explained. “They’ve stayed friends until now. I’m sure you two will meet one of these days.”
Two hours later…
“Wouldn’t your parents wonder where you are now?” I asked Ji Soo, who was still happily drinking wine. From the second bottle she pulled out of Jung Jin’s collection. I hope I wouldn’t have to explain this to him. “It’s almost midnight. Do buses even run this late? I would drive you home except I’ve been drinking too.” I looked at my glass of wine, filled for the third time. “And your brother… well you’ve seen how he is right now.”
Ji Soo smiled at me. “Nah. They knew where I was going so don’t worry. Besides I already told them that I was sleeping over here.”
“You didn’t tell your parents we were living together, did you?” I asked. “Because I really wanted to be able to tell them…. wait, what did you say?”
“I said not to worry.”
“Not that part, the one after.”
“Oh… I’m sleeping here tonight. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No… Of course not!” I said a little too vehemently. “But where will you sleep?”
“The guest bedroom, where else?”
I couldn’t respond. How was I supposed to tell her that she can’t sleep in there because I sleep in there when I’m supposed to be sharing her brother’s bed?
I was still thinking about this when she sprang to her feet. “Speaking of bed, I’m tired now. I think I’m going to sleep.” She leaned down and gave me an affectionate hug. “I really like you too, Unnie. I’m so happy you’re here. Good night.”
She was off towards the direction of the guest room, right next to Jung Jin’s room, before I could restrategize. In an instant I was on my feet, too, close on her heels, trying to overtake her without looking so obvious. I was so focused on getting there before she does that I bumped into the table without realizing and ended up wasting a few seconds just getting back on my feet.
By the time I caught up with her she had already opened the door and was eyeing my suitcases, along with the sleeping bag laid out on the floor.
“There is an explanation for this,” I said haltingly. “My suitcases have been unpacked in your brother’s room. We didn’t have enough room in there to keep them…
“Are you and Oppa planning on camping, Unnie?” She interrupted. “There’s a sleeping bag on the floor. Have you been practicing?”
Huh? “Ah…” I stammered. Of course. Why else would a sleeping bag be on the floor? “Yeah we are.”
“Cool,” she said. “Goodnight.”
She closed the door on my face and I couldn’t help but chuckle. She was just like her brother. Always does things without permission.
I walked back to the living room and started tidying up, fully determined to sleep on the couch tonight when it hit me that if she wakes up earlier than I or Jung Jin do, that it would look suspicious. And I doubt he would be much help anyway. I guess this leaves me with no choice, then. Again. How was it that even when the man was asleep he still managed to steer me straight into these situations?
I put the wine glasses in the sink and the leftover chicken in the fridge, all the while muttering to myself.
Those who know me well would say that I’m a serious sort of person nowadays, reasonable and rigid, perhaps a bit predictable, and that’s putting it generously. If I was to tell them the mess I had gotten myself involved in, they wouldn’t believe me. I could scarcely believe it myself.
My life has become a comedy, indeed.
March 31, 2002
I was having the best dream.
I had imagined that I was back in my penthouse, showing up after my night out with Joon and his friends. I had imagined her here, too, as I thought she would be, pushing me up against the wall, standing so close to me. Studying me with a frown on her face, as she always seemed to do.
She let me smell her hair.
That’s when I realized that this whole thing was very likely a dream. She let me get so close to her, close enough to touch. With her so near I wanted to ask what had been weighing in my mind, to put into words the question that hung over us. The same question she posed me, one I had never repeated back at her, afraid of her response.
She had asked me what I was speaking of, as if she truly did not know. And I tried to ask her the question again. As was my way. I always try until I succeed.
All doubts that this might have been real was erased when she rose on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to mine, much like she did on New Year’s Eve. Like my favorite scene in a movie or my favorite stanza in a song, I had so long returned back to that memory, replaying it over and over in my head, if for no other reason than to convince myself that it had been real. Still the memory paled in comparison to what my mind had conjured up now. On New Year’s Eve there had been a frantic urgency, a palpable desperation. But this kiss was sweet and slow, the pleasure unfolding in layers.
But then the strangest thing happened. My youngest sister appeared next to me, telling me I smelled bad and asking me if I was crazy and if I wanted to die. In banmal. Ji Soo would never dare speak to me like that in normal conversation, so of course she would do it in my dream.
But why would I dream of her, too?
That question was silenced and I remembered nothing else. Except a peaceful, dreamless sleep, the likes of which I have not had since before Kelsey broke my heart.
I opened my eye gingerly to see that I was back in my penthouse, under the covers but still fully dressed. I tried to remember how I got here but my mind was refusing to cooperate, the details foggy but for the remains of my vivid dream. I sat up slowly and stepped off to the far side of the bed, ignoring the dull pain on the back of my neck and skull, when I almost tripped on a person, lying on the floor. I opened the curtain slightly to allow a bit of light into the room, then took a step back when I realized who it was.
Gia was on her side, one arm supporting her head, the other wrapped protectively over her front. She was still in a black shirt and jeans, the slippers still on her feet, her hair still bound by a tight knot. My jacket lay haphazardly over her, as if it had been an afterthought.
I wondered why I was in my penthouse and why she was in my room, and began to think. There was no reason why I would end up here as I still had my room at the hotel. There was no reason why she would be here when she was supposed to be staying in my guest room. Unable to come to some kind of sensible conclusion, I deduced the only thing that made any kind of sense.
It seemed that I was now dreaming within a dream.
I have heard of people speaking of this phenomenon before, but had never experienced it myself. Until now. It appeared that my subconscious still had a way of thrusting upon me that which I desired but very rarely admitted to.
She grimaced in her sleep, and I dropped down on one knee in concern, cursing at myself silently for being disingenuous even in my dreams. If I was going to go around dreaming her in my room, I should have at least dreamt her on the bed. She would have been more comfortable there.
I pulled my jacket off of her and placed my arms gently under her, lifting her carefully from the floor. Slowly I straightened my spine and marveled at how real this dream was. She felt solid in my arms, even acting as I would have expected her to act had she not been asleep, wriggling and jerking, still as difficult as she always was. I comforted myself with the thought that at least the Gia I’ve summoned in this dream exhibited the same characteristics I’d long seen in her since we met. It would not be realistic otherwise.
I walked to the bed and slowly put her down, careful not to wake her. That was the last thing I needed. A woman who I had dreamt asleep waking up in my dream. Who knows what kind of questions and propositions my dream version of her would have? The best thing to do was to not risk it at all. Things always seemed to go better when she was quiet.
I took off the slippers she wore and wrapped the covers over her shoulder and lay back on my side, fully content to gaze upon her. Her face, asleep, was peaceful, such as I had never seen her look awake. She appeared devoid of any worry, her shoulders relaxed, the weight of the world finally off her shoulders. A lock of hair had fallen out of her bun and now lay on her forehead. I reached out to brush it back but not wanting to awaken my own self, I just allowed my finger to hover instead, tracing her face as if a glass wall separated us.
I bent an arm under my head as I continued to watch her, my eyes drifting close. It was a very strange feeling, knowing that I was falling asleep inside my dream. For a second I wondered if I should at least take my clothes off and crawl under the covers with her since hello, dream! But then decided against it.
I would never hear the end of it otherwise. I had no doubt that even in this absurd dream, she would not hesitate to kick my ass.
I really should stop drinking.
I could have sworn I went to sleep on the floor, but when I woke up, I was on the bed. Jung Jin’s bed. Without remembering how I got there. I didn’t think I was that drunk when I went to bed… I remembered everything after all.
I remembered cleaning up after Ji Soo went to sleep. I remembered getting my attempt to pull an extra blanket out of the linen cupboard in the guest bathroom thwarted yet again by Ji Soo, who, apparently decided there was no way she could fall asleep without taking her bath. After waiting for half an hour outside the bathroom I finally gave up and dragged myself back into the bedroom.
I remembered everything, but I don’t remember this.
Have I now resorted to crawling into people’s beds in addition to making phone calls?
Doing things like this while drunk is dangerous business. I have never been very good at drinking, which is why it was kind of funny that I liked it so much. I thought that the three glasses of wine I had drunk was okay, but apparently it was not.
Jung Jin remained oblivious to my presence, still laying the way I had left him, still fully dressed. Though I could have sworn that I had placed him under the covers. What had been a very strange night was already turning into a very strange day, though it had barely begun.
I stood up and padded out of the bedroom, careful not to slam the door and wake Jung Jin or his sister, hoping to have a bit of respite before all awoke and I was expected to resume my act. I had just stepped foot in the open area of the living room, was almost by the kitchen, when I realized there was already someone there.
Coffee had already been brewed, and the smell of food was in the air. Delicious food. My tummy grumbled in anticipation. And here I had only planned on eating cold chicken for breakfast.
“Unnie!” Ji Soo called out with a smile, now wearing one of my sweaters, holding out a ladle. “You’re up!”
“Are you wearing my clothes?” I asked, walking over to her and instinctively pulling out one of the Styrofoam cups to help myself to some coffee. Before I could even put it down however Ji Soo had a cup in my hands and what I had been holding had been placed in the trash.
“Yeah,” she said sheepishly. “I was looking for one of Oppa’s but yours was so much softer, and it was sitting on the suitcase.”
I pulled the milk out of the fridge and poured some into my coffee before I sat down. “Why are you up already?”
“I have somewhere to go this morning so I have to go home soon.”
“Whatever you made smells good,” I said as she placed two bowls on the table, one in front of me and another across. “What is this?” She placed a long handled spoon in my fingers.
“Hangover soup,” she responded cheerily. “The rest of it was just stuff I heated up from what Omma had sent and used up the rest of the eggs. I made a lot of soup so that when Oppa gets up he can have some too. He will probably need it more than either one of us.”
“I doubt that he’d be up anytime soon. He’ll probably sleep all morning,” I said, spooning some soup into my mouth and watched as Ji Soo did the same. “This is delicious.”
“You should taste it when Oppa makes it. He cooks better than I do.” Ji Soo smiled. “And him sleeping in is doubtful and highly unlikely,” she continued, helping herself to some rice. “Oppa doesn’t sleep longer than four hours at a time. If at all.”
“Nope,” she said, helping herself to some spinach and egg. “Just watch. He’ll be up in no time.”
By the time I woke up, it was still dark outside. I was alone on the bed, the covers straightened underneath me, my hunch confirmed.
It had all been a dream.
Though it seems that I had made my way back to the penthouse last night after all. It seemed only logical then that I would dream I was in it.
I stopped in the bathroom on my way to the kitchen to brush my teeth and straighten my hair. I took a powdered sachet from the medicine cabinet and poured it in my mouth, wondering if I had any of the ingredients for hangover soup.
But first… coffee. I definitely need coffee.
The guest bedroom door remained shut, no doubt the woman currently inhabiting it still in her own dream world. And probably not dreaming of me at all.
I walked to the kitchen to get the coffee brewing when I saw her already at the table, reading a book. Her eyebrows were furrowed, her eyes focused. I stood by the entryway for one minute, trying to keep my head together. All sense flies out the window whenever I get near her so I need to do my thinking now.
I thought I was being subtle, that I was being inconspicuous when she looked up at me, as if suddenly feeling my eyes on her, and gave me an awkward smile. She stood up and walked towards the stove, then came back with a bowl and sat back down. I walked towards the table and stopped when I saw that it had been filled with various dishes, along with what I had just been wishing for. And hangover soup, too.
I poured myself a cup of coffee before I sat down, then surveyed the offerings. I would have been unimpressed, seeing as I recognized most of the dishes as having come from what my Omma had sent over, but then I saw the rice and realized that she had made that too. She’s learning the lay of the land. Or more specifically, the lay of my land.
I eyed everything appreciatively as I sipped on my coffee and watched as she picked up a sautéed lotus root with her fork. I followed her lead and began to eat even as I surreptitiously kept stealing glances her way.
“Did you sleep well?” She asked, breaking the silence.
“Yes,” I said honestly. “I did.” I took a spoonful of broth. “Did you make this?”
“No,” she said. “You’ve seen what I can make. Which is nothing. Your sister was here.”
“Which sister?” I asked. “I have many.”
“I know,” she retorted. “I’ve met them all.”
“All but one.”
She sounded so nervous all of a sudden that I had to laugh before I responded. “My sister in law,” I said. “Being an ‘in law’ in our family is no real distinction. My parents treat their in laws the same way they treat us.”
She was looking around the table, her eyes darting here and there and I found myself looking around as well, though I didn’t know what I was looking for. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “What are you looking for?”
“Just… something,” she said, still looking around before she met my eyes, chagrined. “I need a bookmark for my book. Actually… your book.”
“Just fold the corner like everyone does.”
“You can’t disrespect a book like that!” She chided. “I love books.” She stood up. “I need to find something. Aha…” She said, her eyes on the counter, then plucked a rose from the vase. From the roses that I’d given her.
She went to the sink and cut off its end, then pulled a paper towel and dried it. Walking back to the table I watched as she carefully turned to where she was reading and inserted the rose between the pages, smiling to herself.
The things she does, the way she does things, should have stopped surprising me long ago, and yet they haven’t. Her joy in the simple things, her care in those she touched, as if everything and everyone was precious, made me curious and not a little envious. She lived with no real urgency, grounded in each and every moment.
It made me wonder if this is how she would be with the one she loved, as well. And how she would respond if she was to be loved in that same way. I could picture her blooming with such care, letting go of all the worries that she carried with her, her mouth constantly in a smile, her eyes finally free.
I saw her watching me, her eyes inquisitive. I wondered why until I realized that I was the one who was staring at her and quickly turned my eyes away. I brought the soup bowl to my mouth to deflect her gaze and attempted to maintain a calm composure.
I may emotionally be there; she was nowhere near where I was. I would need to tread carefully if she was to even get there.
“You never answered my question,” I said after a long while. “Who was here?”
“Ji Soo,” she said. “She left already.”
“How did she know to make the soup?” I asked, trying to find out if there might have been anything real about what I had dreamt. Wishing that some of it was.
“She was here when you came back,” she said. “Before you passed out.”
“And that’s all that happened?” I asked, and she met my eyes directly and nodded. “I came back and passed out? Nothing else?
“Nope,” she said, picking up her spoon and resuming her meal. “Nothing else.”
April 1, 2002
Someone was following me.
I could feel his beady eyes on me as I turned the corner on the next stretch of my run. I wasn’t exactly sure when he saw me, when he started. But I’d been running every day for the last few weeks in the same route, so he could have started anytime. I usually wore my earphones on my run, but today, today the batteries finally died and without my charger I was forced to do without.
Outside some stores were already opening, the sun shining brightly. I could smell coffee and fresh baked bread in the air. There were people walking on the streets, already on their way to work, to school or wherever else they may be heading.
It always felt good to be a part of the crowd, unnoticed and invisible, much like I had lived my life in the recent years. It was why I went out to run when I knew it would be busiest outside. Not only did the crowd distract me, but there was also less chance of standing out, then. It always comforted me, relieved me.
I don’t know why he singled me out, but I could hear his breath as he followed me. I ran faster and he did as well. Irritated now, I urged my legs to keep going. Not long now until I reach the road that would take me back to Jung Jin’s penthouse. I was so focused on getting back that I failed to see the empty pallet blocking the path until it was too late.
I hit my shin on the wooden pallet and went flying onto the ground, landing at least on my bottom. Mortified I lay there for a few seconds, trying to figure out how to get up with a bit of dignity. People were still walking around me, though some stopped to look at me curiously before resuming what they had been doing.
At least, though, at least… it seemed I had finally lost him. I breathed a sigh of relief, thanking the heavens that he had gone away.
April 5, 2002
I walked into Jung Jin’s library and returned his book back on his shelf then sat back on the office chair by the computer, looking out of the windows overlooking Seoul. After giving him the cash to cover what I promised I would, I hadn’t heard from him since. Nor has he given me an answer to my proposition. Still. I still don’t know, either, exactly when this party was supposed to be taking place. Though it wasn’t for lack of opportunity that I hadn’t asked.
Over the last week there had been unexpected visits from Jung Jin’s sisters. Sometimes they came individually though more often in multiples. I had been tempted many times to just ask when this party was going to be, but afraid that I would sound nervous and let on that Jung Jin and I had been lying to them, I chose not to even bring up the topic instead. I don’t want to lie to them any more than I have.
But how long can we keep up this ruse? If they were to visit any more, or visit at just the time that someone who lives here should be here, they would know. And I was running out of reasons as to why Jung Jin was never ever home.
We have to figure something out.
After a brief hesitation I powered up Jung Jin’s laptop and signed in. No matter when this party will be it doesn’t change the fact that I needed to start making plans for when I go back to America.
I have to go back. I will go back. When the time comes, I will leave.
I opened my email and skipped through the advertisement and junk mail, surprised to see one from Junnie from today. I opened it quickly and read through it, wondering what she had to say for herself.
It started with an apology, which was a good sign considering the fact that Junnie absolutely detested apologizing for anything. Even when she was in the wrong. And then I read the rest and leaned my back against the chair.
She was giving me my freedom back. After all this time. Finally. I can leave whenever I wanted.
The thought did not bring the pleasure I expected, or the satisfaction. Unwilling to examine if there was a reason why and what that was, I reread the email, timed an hour ago, and picked up the phone.
This was the longest time that Junnie and I haven’t spoken, and I didn’t even know where to begin. I hated to admit it but she was right. It had done me a world of good to be away from San Francisco.
I looked at the clock and tried to talk myself out of it, thinking that it might be too late. Until I remembered that it was a Friday night and that she had said she would be up as she was still in Europe time from her recent trip.
With a deep breath I dialed her number and waited for her to pick up.
“Hello?” I heard her say and smiled. No matter what had gone on between us, my best friend’s voice still managed to cheer me up with one word.
“Hey, it’s me. I just read your email,” I said. “How was your trip?”
“It was good… it was good. My boyfriend and I are still together, so it couldn’t have been that bad.”
I started chuckling, remembering all the times when she had told me that the best test for a relationship us by going on a trip together. Junnie never did believe a theory until it had been proven, and I suppose this had been the experiment.
“How are you?” She asked. “Still mad at me?” She paused and waited not even two seconds before she sighed in feigned resignation. “You always were a bitter bitch.”
Her comment made me laugh out loud and just like that, all sins were forgiven. She knew I wasn’t even the type to hold grudges for too long, at least not when it came to people I cared about, so I knew she had only said that for the sheer purpose of inciting a reaction.
“You’re the bitch,” I said. “And yes, I’m still mad.”
“I don’t believe you. Or you wouldn’t have called tonight.”
“You’re right,” I agreed readily. “I hate it when you’re right.”
She sounded so smug that it made me smile. For better or worse, Junnie and I always understood each other. The reminder of this just reiterated to me how much I had missed her and how much we had to talk about.
“By the way,” she said. “Which number are you calling from? I tried to call the Park Hyatt earlier and they said you checked out not long after I last spoke to you.”
“Ah…” I searched for an answer, trying to look for one that wouldn’t sound so unbelievable and found none.
“Did you get an apartment or something?”
“Yeah,” I said, seeing my out. “Something like that.”
“Key money in Korea is insane, though,” she continued. “And you don’t have identification. And even if you did they would never rent out short term, at least not for cheap. Unless…”
“Unless what?” I said, fiddling with the phone cord.
“Unless you’ve moved in with someone,” she concluded. “Are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Living with someone?”
“Kind of,” I said then shook my head. “Well, actually, not exactly.”
She started laughing. “The cryptic answers you’re giving me tells me you don’t want to talk about it, so I guess at least I’ll let you go this time, since you’ve just forgiven me and everything.”
“Who said I forgave you?”
“You have. I hear it in your voice. You sound good. Not exactly happy, but not unhappy, either,” she retorted. “So, did you read my email?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“I had to go straight back on a business trip or I would have been able to handle it a lot sooner, but in about a week and a half you should be able to get your documents and your money. Are you ready to leave Korea?”
“Ah… about that…”
“You don’t sound as excited as I thought you would,” she said.
“I’m excited. I’m bursting with excitement.”
“Liar,” she scolded. “What did I tell you about lying to me?”
“I’m not lying,” I protested. “It’s just that there’s this thing…”
“This birthday party thing that I kind of promised I would go to.”
“And I can’t renege on my word.”
“So what does that mean?” She demanded. “Don’t tell me you’re actually going to stay.”
“Only until after the party.”
“I have to say… I’m surprised,” she said carefully. “You’re not the type to make promises.”
“I know,” I agreed. “It’s a long story.”
She muttered something and then released a breath. She sounded as if she was about to say something else when an alarm started ringing from somewhere in the penthouse and I quickly stood up.
“Oh my God… the rice! I forgot about the rice!”
“What rice?” Junnie asked, sounding confused. As if sensing that no answer was forthcoming she repeated herself. “What rice?”
“I wanted some rice so I thought I’d cook some.” The alarm sound was still going off and I started to smell something burning. “I have to go.”
“Wait… you’re cooking rice? You don’t cook, though. ”
“I thought I got it,” I said, picking up the call on a cordless phone and then hanging up the other line.” I mean, how hard can it be? God knows I’ve watched you and my mother enough times.” I walked to the kitchen and heard a beep on the phone, but didn’t know how to switch phone calls so I just ignored it instead. “Oh no,” I moaned, staring at the blackened pot and the cremated rice inside. “I thought since I learned how to work the coffeemaker that I would know how to do this, too. How the fuck do I turn the stove off?”
“Turning it the opposite way of how you turned it on would usually do the trick,” she said. “But hold on. You know how to use a coffeemaker now? And you’re using a stove?”
“Yeah,” I said absently, doing as she said to do. With relief I watched as the light on the stove panel turned off. “The rice cooker was speaking in Korean and it freaked me out so I just decided to cook rice on the stove.”
“But you never even learned to use the stove in San Francisco. You’re more of a microwave kind of girl nowadays.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I said, bringing the pot to the sink and debating whether I should take its lid off. It didn’t look good.
“And you only drink instant coffee.”
“Yeah, I know.” I stopped speaking when I thought I heard the buzz of the intercom but since I heard nothing but the continuous noise coming from the smoke alarm, I just dismissed it. “But hey, I thought, let me try something different.”
“You don’t like to try anything different.” She said the line with such certainty, sounding so confused, that had I not had an emergency in my hands I would have definitely spoken about it.
But right now… I lifted the pot’s lid and started coughing when the smoke billowed out and enveloped the whole kitchen in a smoggy haze.
“Junnie, I think I have to go now.”
“You and I will definitely need to speak again, and soon. I think that a lot more has happened than you are letting on.”
“Yeah,” I said, ready to say just about anything to get off the phone. “I’ll call you in a couple of days or so.”
I hung up the call and placed the pot in the sink, and then grabbed the first magazine I could find and started fanning the device the sound was coming from. All the while thinking that he’s going to be angry when he discovers that I almost burned his place down.
I knew there was good reason why I didn’t cook.
“Who did you say you were?” I repeated on my hand phone as I exited Jamsil Stadium and pulled my car keys out of my pocket.
“This is Song Jin Choi from Security in your building, sir. The smoke alarm in your penthouse has been going off for the last ten minutes,” he said. “We tried to call your home phone, but no one is picking up. We tried to buzz ourselves in but no one would answer. The next step would have been to call the emergency services had you not picked up your hand phone. Is everything okay?”
“I’m… not sure,” I said. I haven’t been in my place for a few days. “But I’m literally three minutes out at the stadium. I’m on my way.”
I hung up the phone and quickly pulled out of the parking lot, trying not to worry. It’s just a smoke alarm… That thing goes off sometimes when I light a candle. It’s okay, I told myself. Nothing to worry about.
Don’t overreact, I told myself. She’s a nurse. She’s fine.
I was about to run the stoplight when my phone rang again, and thinking it was Gia I picked up the phone and stepped on the brakes, cursing out loud.
“Where are you?” I asked in English, trying to make sure that my concern was not audible in my voice.
“Jung Jin-ssi,” I heard Hye Soo say on the other line. “You’re running late.”
“Joon’s game just finished,” I answered, reverting back to Korean. “I think we might have to reschedule.”
“What?” She asked, and I detected annoyance in her tone. “But I’m already at the restaurant and the room is already booked. I already…”
Even as Hye Soo continued speaking, I thought about why Gia wasn’t answering the door or the phone. She could be in the shower. Or asleep. What if something was wrong and she was sleeping?
“There’s something going on at home,” I said, distracted, wishing this damn light would turn green soon.
“Is your family okay?”
What if Gia had been drinking again and was unconscious? I did notice that there were two bottles of wine missing from the wine cooler.
“What?” I almost yelled into the phone.
“Is everything okay?” Hye Soo asked.
No one even knows Gia’s here. She hasn’t even spoken to her best friend in weeks.
“Lee Jung Jin-ssi…”
“I have to go,” I said curtly, pressing on the accelerator when the light turned green.
“Why are you in a rush?”
I’m in a rush because I’m worried. I’m in a rush because she could be hurt, could be in pain, could be whatever. “I have to go home,” I answered. “Now. I have to go home.”
Hye Soo was silent on the other line and I thought she had hung up. Almost wishing it was so, I surprised myself at how much relief I felt believing that that was the case. But then she spoke.
“Strange. I don’t believe I have ever heard you refer to your place as your home,” she said softly. “But then again you have never canceled as many plans with me as you had recently.”
“I have to go.”
“Then go.” Her voice had taken on a hard edge. “I heard you the first time.”
“Then why are you still on the phone with me?” I asked. “I’m hanging up.”
I hung up the phone as I pulled into the parking lot and parked my car. Not bothering to even lock the car door, I ran to the front entrance and swiped my card, heading straight to the elevators.
As I rode up in the elevator that was moving too fucking slow for my liking I just kept thinking about how I would find her, worry eating me up so much it felt like a knot had formed in the pit of my stomach. I felt nauseous and lightheaded all at once, my hands shaking as I pressed the numbers on the keypad, and I could hear the smoke alarm ringing even through the elevator’s steel door.
The door opened and I practically ran out, heading straight to the guest bedroom where I thought she’d be, then to the bathroom when I didn’t find her there. Overcome with panic, I went to the kitchen and saw her through the thick fog of smoke, frantically waving a magazine around by the smoke alarm, cursing at it in English.
She’s okay. She’s fine.
She’s okay. She’s fine.
I was so relieved that I almost thought I would pass out. I was so relieved that before I knew it I had stalked over to her and enfolded her in my arms, much to her shock and dismay.
“Are you okay?” I asked and she didn’t respond. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, confused. “What’s wrong?”
I felt her turn her head to look at me, and not wanting her to see how much I had worried, I kept my face turned away.
“Jung Jin?” She repeated. “Please tell me what’s wrong.”
“Nothing,” I said, comforted by the feel of her now.
“Then why are you squeezing me so tight?”
Her voice was petulant, as if she was about to complain, and finally, I allowed myself a smile. I loosened my embrace but did not let go.
“Just two minutes,” I said softly, wanting to linger like this for just a few more moments, long enough to have the sensation of holding her branded into me. Real. Solid. Here. “Can I do this for just two minutes?
“You’re doing what?” I asked, not quite believing my ears.
“I’m moving in,” he replied, face inscrutable, his jaw clenched.
Jung Jin and I were sitting in the living room, just minutes after he had stormed into the penthouse. I had been still trying to get the thing to shut up when he had taken me in his arms and held onto me so tightly that for a second I had wondered if he was drunk again.
But he hadn’t smelled of alcohol, nor had he been swaying on his feet. His touch had felt sure and solid, his concern palpable. I hadn’t been sure what had happened, but he had been so worried I hadn’t cared. He had seemed fully content to be holding me and I had willingly cooperated. I was not so petty as to begrudge him such a small thing. And he did ask for permission, after all.
“Why?” I looked at him still sitting across from me, his eyes fixed on me. “Why do you have to move in?”
If he thinks to seduce me this way…
“Before you start hypothesizing in your head, let me put it on the record that I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it for my penthouse.”
“But it’s fine!” I protested. “It was just a smoke alarm. There wasn’t an actual fire.”
I looked over at the culprit, now dislodged from its place, hanging from but a couple of wires, battery disconnected.
“If you had windows it would have been fine,” I said then looked away. “I’ll never try to cook again.”
“You were cooking?” He asked. “I thought you didn’t cook?”
“I don’t.” I lifted my chin. “I was trying something new.”
He grinned at me then and I shook my head. Wasn’t he just annoyed a few minutes ago?
“Anyway,” he said. “The baseball stadium is closer to here than the hotel, and it’s not like we’ll constantly be on top of each… err… in each other’s space so…”
“What about JJ?” I asked, remembering just now how he had lied and told me that he was staying at his, interested how far he will take this lie.
“What about JJ?”
“I thought you two were staying together?”
He looked momentarily confused, but then held his ground. “Joon’s getting married in a few months. I’m sure he would like to be able to spend time with his fiancée in private.”
So he will still go along with this story. If that is the case…
“It shouldn’t be a problem, right?” He asked, interrupting my musings. “You wanted to be friends.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“If we’re going to be friends, we should be able to live in the same place with no problems.” He smiled at me and I frowned. “You and Jun lived together and you’re friends.”
“You know damn well that’s different!” I balked at his pointed use of the word ‘friends’. Like he didn’t quite believe me. Why does he always bring Junnie into arguments?
“It shouldn’t be,” he countered. “You and Jun are friends. You and I are friends. Same thing.”
This was the answer to our predicament, the one I was trying to solve before the alarm went off. If we were to actually cohabitate he will be here whenever his sisters drop by again. I wouldn’t have to lie.
But to be in such close proximity all the time…
I was the one who suggested the friendship, so I should be able to at least follow through. As long as I didn’t try to jump the man we will be okay. As long as I remembered not to drink.
“When is the birthday party?” I asked, aware that I will only have to stay with him with him until then.
“I thought I told you… In about three weeks’ time.”
Three weeks. I can definitely do three weeks. No problem. I can do this. But if I was to agree, there should at least be some form of compromise. He still hadn’t agreed to being just friends. He should, at least, give me that.
“Here’s my counter offer,” he said, his back relaxing onto the back of the sofa. “You let me move in and I’ll try the friends thing.”
“You will?” I asked, slightly relieved that I didn’t have to argue and negotiate some more. I was horrible at it and more often than not found myself on the losing side.
“Yes,” he said. “Do we have a deal?”
The glint in his eye should have made me suspicious, but he was giving his word. I reached out a hand and offered it to him, and he took it silently without saying anything else.
April 12, 2002
Friends. The thought made me shake my head.
It’s been a week since I moved back in and we had just finished eating, were sitting on the couch, as we did every evening. I had the television on and was on my laptop, and she, reading another book. Her toes were peeking from under the throw over her lap, and she had a cup of tea on the table.
I found myself watching her as she sat there, as I so often did, my thoughts turning to the past week.
The transition into our arrangement hadn’t been as awkward as I had imagined it would be. In truth I was amazed that after the difficulties just getting her to even speak to me the first few months we’ve known each other, that she had been so willing to participate. I supposed it was because I dangled the right carrot I’m her face.
Despite what I felt for her, I had managed to keep a respectful distance and let her dictate the pace and extent of our interactions. I didn’t push for more time or more information. She came and went as she pleased, did her own thing, gave me my distance.
In truth we have developed a pattern of sorts. I always awoke before she did and took a shower in the master bathroom before getting breakfast ready. She would wake up every day just before I leave for work and go on her run. In the evening I would come back and she took care of dinner, though by taking care I meant that she brought it home from wherever she may have been for the day.
There had been no more embraces or kisses, no more talks of seduction or romance.
I would think that she was completely living out the idyllic, friendly life of her dreams, would be more concerned that I had been well and truly friend zoned. Except for the one fact despite living in close proximity, we weren’t exactly living in close proximity.
She still makes a conscious effort to sit a certain distance from me, to avoid bumping into me. She turns away when our gazes meet, but looks at me when she thinks I’m not looking.
The woman still feels something, despite her silence.
To be fair, I’m not exactly comfortable either. I use sitting in the living room as my excuse to listen to her laugh, or to watch her as she reads. I use our meals to hear her speak, and our arrangement to stay as close to her as she would allow me to be, just to make sure that I don’t make her bolt.
“Are you okay?” She suddenly asked, her face in a smile. “You’re staring a hole through my head.”
Am I okay?
If by okay she means that I no longer want to kiss her, then no, I’m not okay. If by okay she means that I no longer like her, then no, I’m not okay.
But no one gets anything without working for it. Great rewards only come through paying one’s dues. I know all this, had given Joon this same pep talk for many many years. But doing things my way didn’t earn many of her smiles. And doing it her way did.
So that’s what I’m doing. I’m putting in the work and paying my dues. All with the added challenge of having the woman that I like close enough for me to touch but with a big sign saying “friend.” That I consented to.
I’m an idiot. The thought made me shake my head. Again.
Next to me my phone rang and I looked at the caller before I picked it up. “Where have you been?” I asked as I picked up the phone.
“Here and there,” Shawn responded. “But I’m back home now.”
“What’s up?” I asked, looking at the time. I haven’t received a phone call from Shawn this late unless we were in the same city. “Are you in Korea?”
“Not yet,” Shawn said. “But I will be tomorrow. Do you remember the package I left you?”
April 17, 2002
“Unnie,” Ji Soo said, climbing up on the bed in the guest bedroom, where I was sitting, a pile of clean clothes in front of me. “Is the American school system different from going to school here?”
“Well,” I said. ‘I’ve never gone to school here, but I knew you guys go to school six days a week up through high school, right?” She nodded. “Yeah, we don’t do that. I think your school year term may be a little different with months and stuff, but I wouldn’t think it would be that different.”
She kicked off her slippers and leaned back against the headboard and I had to contain my smile. It was a good thing that Jung Jin moved back in when he did, as well, since Ji Soo had taken to visiting at odd hours during the week and weekend. If I didn’t know better I would think that she was testing us to see if we were really living together. Lucky for us, she had visited a handful of times when Jung Jin and I just happened to both be here at the same time.
She was always so friendly and so warm, and I guessed that since all their sisters were significantly older, that she didn’t feel like she had much in common with them. I was also older, but only by ten years, closer even than the age gap between her Jung Jin, and I was thinking this was why she gravitated to me. Nevertheless… it didn’t matter. I quite liked all of Jung Jin’s sisters, and most especially Ji Soo, who reminded me so much of Maria that it lessened the feeling of missing my own sister by just the tiniest of fractions.
I looked over at her now, as I folded the last of my laundry, and watched as she fiddled with her braid. She had stopped here half an hour ago, claiming that her class ended early and she didn’t want to go home yet. Somehow or another, she invited herself to dinner, and has been peppering me with questions about America as I tried to do my chores.
“Why so interested in America all of a sudden, Ji Soo?” I asked.
“Well, you know…” she started, leaning on one elbow to look at me. “Oppa went to uni there and so did Jung Yoon Oppa. All my sisters have gone there at one point or another, except for me. “
“You can always visit,” I said. “It’s not going anywhere. You can come visit me when I go back.”
I didn’t even realize what I had said until the words have all come out of my mouth, and I sneaked a glance over at her and caught her frown. “So you’re still going to leave, then?”
“I have to,” I said, trying to sound matter-of-fact. “My family is in America, as is my job.”
“Which you don’t have right now.”
“You know,” I teased. “I think I regret telling you about me not having a job. Since you not only share your brother’s face but his strange sense of humor, as well.” She stuck her tongue out at me and I chuckled. “Anyway, you already have a leg up over a lot of other tourists. You are fluent in English, which is so important, including the vernacular.”
“What’s vernacular?” she asked.
“Street talk,” I answered. “Who taught you how to speak like that anyway?”
“Ahh,” I said. “I didn’t realize English was routinely taught as part of your curriculum here.”
“It wasn’t,” she said. “It may be different now. But our parents sent us to special classes from as soon as we started school, so that it can totally be integrated into our education. Which, really, when I think about it now, was the best way to go. I’d heard that it’s a lot more difficult for adults to learn a different language than it is for children.”
“I could see that,” I agreed. “I grew up bilingual, also. It never hit me how lucky I was to be raised speaking two languages until I had to take foreign language classes in school.”
“They taught you different languages?” she asked, interest in her gaze
“Yeah,” I said. “We were given lessons in Spanish, German and French. To be honest I don’t remember most of it unless it struck me as particularly useful or memorable.”
“Say something!” she demanded. “Spanish first.”
I set the clothes I was folding on top of the dresser before sitting myself next to her. “Buenos dias. ¿Como estas?”
“What does that mean?”
“Good morning,” I said with a laugh. “How are you?”
“How useful is that when you won’t understand what their answer will be?” she asked, making a face. “Now say something in German.”
“You’re so bossy,” I said. “Darf ich bitte auf toilette gehen?”
“What did you just say?”
“May I go to the restroom?” I replied. “I told you… most of the stuff that stayed with me are practical things.”
“Do you remember anything in French?” she asked and I had to think about it before I nodded.
“Tu me manques.”
“What was that?” she suddenly asked. “Your face got funny for a second.”
“That phrase is quite possibly most favorite in the world,” I said. “Technically it means I miss you, but the literal meaning is even better.” She nodded at me in expectation, urging for me to continue. “You are missing from me. Even better than I love you, don’t you think?”
“Why?” she asked, putting her face in her hands as she waited for me to respond.
“I love you is so commonplace,” I said. “In English especially, you use the same phrase when speaking to anyone… family, friends, lovers. It’s just one phrase. And so often, people use it without even knowing what it really means. But when you tell someone ‘you are missing from me,’ it connotes something else entirely. It’s like telling someone ‘you are inherently a part of me and I feel it acutely when you are not here.’ Like living without your soul or living with half a heart. It’s almost equivalent to saying ‘I am not the same without you.’ It may just mean I miss you, but encompasses absolutely everything. Longing… need… love. All those emotions, in one single phrase.”
Ji Soo’s gaze softened and I blushed. I’m getting soft. I sounded just now as I did years and years ago, back when my life revolved around love.
“I wish I knew what that meant,” she said wistfully. “To feel that much for someone else. I’ve never been in love so I wouldn’t know.”
“You will,” I said. “You’re beautiful and smart and funny and kind. One day you’ll know.”
“How does it feel to be in love?” she asked and I lifted my eyes to meet hers. “I mean you and Oppa are living together… so you must be in love, right?”
“Being in love… is not really describable,” I said, abashed, completely ignoring her last question altogether. “It’s never happened to me like this before, but I suppose the best description of love I had ever heard was this, ‘Love is friendship caught on fire.”
“What does that mean?”
“I guess you can think of it this way,” I said, trying to explain. “Imagine someone you consider a close friend. Someone you can confide in, someone you listen to someone you care about so much you think about them before yourself, and then you add the butterflies and the attraction. It’s like being with someone you absolutely respect and trust but can’t stop kissing. Like that.”
Ji Soo sighed. “I can’t wait to have a boyfriend like that. That sounds so nice.”
“Doesn’t it though?” I asked. “Maybe that’s why it doesn’t happen too often.”
Ji Soo sighed again and then she brightened, her eyes directed at the door. She jumped out of bed and I followed her with my eyes, only to see Jung Jin, finally home from work. Our gazes collided and I turned away, wondering how much of mine and Ji Soo’s conversation he heard, embarrassed that I was so sentimental even for just a few minutes.
“Oppa!” I heard Ji Soo say. “Unnie said I could stay for dinner.”
“Did she?” I heard Jung Jin’s voice ask. “What should we cook then?”
“Let’s not cook.” Ji Soo’s voice trailed off as she made her way to another part of the penthouse. “I’m in the mood for jjampong and jajangmyun.”
“Fine,” he said resignedly. I was still busying myself with straightening the bed covers, running my hands over creases that didn’t exist, when I heard Jung Jin’s voice, directed at me. “You coming?”
“Yeah,” I replied, and raised myself off the bed, following him and sister as they bickered their way to the living room.
I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it.
The woman in my penthouse, the one who claimed not to need romance, was a hopeless romantic. It was such a contradiction that I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
I had come home a little earlier than usual, after Joon’s post-game interviews were done and over with and the traffic from Incheon hadn’t been as crazy as I anticipated. I didn’t usually get back to the penthouse until about quarter to eight every night, so I was looking forward to spending a quiet dinner at home with Gia. If I’m lucky she might even invite me to watch a movie with her, or one of the dramas that she had taken to watching.
It was with some surprise, then, that I came back and didn’t see her in the living room or in the kitchen as she usually was this time of day, more than often unwrapping and plating what she had brought us for dinner.
I heard her voice coming from the guest bedroom as I walked around, and I was convinced she was on the phone. With her sister, perhaps, maybe with Joon. Though I didn’t quite feel a violent reaction to hearing that man’s name anymore, I had to admit I still wouldn’t mind punching him just once. But as it stands, it didn’t seem like he had any romantic interest in her at all, which made me wonder if this was a painful one-sided love for her, except she didn’t seem that romantically inclined towards him either. I don’t know… they have a weird relationship… one that I can’t figure out. Something was just not adding up. I try not to think of it too much since it gives me a headache, as it was starting to do now.
“Tu me manques,” I heard Gia say, almost dreamily, and I hovered just outside the guest bedroom door.
“What was that?” I heard a familiar voice ask and peeked around to see my youngest sister sitting on the bed, completely engrossed in their conversation. “Your face got funny for a second.”
“That phrase is quite possibly most favorite in the world,” Gia responded. “Technically it means I miss you, but the literal meaning is even better. You are missing from me. Even better than I love you, don’t you think?”
“Why?” I swear, my sister was so nosy sometimes.
“I love you is so commonplace,” Gia explained, before she launched on why she thought the phrase was so special. I was more than content standing here and listening to her speak. Especially when she sounded like this. It was so reminiscent of the first day we met, the first day I found myself inextricably tied to her.
“I wish I knew what that meant,” my sister said. “To feel that much for someone else. I’ve never been in love so I wouldn’t know.”
“You will. You’re beautiful and smart and funny and kind. One day you’ll know.”
“How does it feel to be in love?” I heard Ji Soo ask and I took a tiny step closer towards the room to hear better. “I mean you and Oppa are living together… so you must be in love, right?”
“Being in love… is not really describable. It’s never happened to me like this before, but I suppose the best description of love I had ever heard was this, ‘Love is friendship caught on fire.”
“What does that mean?” Ji Soo asked and I nodded silently. That was my question too.
“I guess you can think of it this way,” I said, trying to explain. “Imagine someone you consider a close friend. Someone you can confide in, someone you listen to someone you care about so much you think about them before yourself, and then you add the butterflies and the attraction. It’s like being with someone you absolutely respect and trust but can’t stop kissing. Like that.”
My sister continued to speak but my mind was elsewhere, already burning with questions. What if… the attraction came first and then the friendship? Does the order matter? Will those two things going out of order negate the whole specialness of that kind of love? And what was so important about being friends with the one you love anyway? I was still thinking about this when I heard Ji Soo’s voice.
“Oppa! Unnie said I could stay for dinner.”
“Did she?” I watched as my sister walked towards me before giving me a noisy peck on the cheek. Gia’s eyes met mine, and I saw color bloom on her cheeks before she looked away. “What should we cook then?”
“Let’s not cook.” Ji Soo said, shaking her head. “I’m in the mood for jjampong and jajangmyun.”
“Fine.” There was no sense arguing with any of my sisters when they almost always got their way. I watched as Ji Soo walked off towards the kitchen before I turned my attention back to Gia, who seemed suddenly fascinated with the bedcovers. “You coming?”
“Yeah,” she said and got up off the bed, staying a safe distance as Ji Soo and I walked into the kitchen.
I pulled out the menu from one of the drawers and directed my sister to order the food and as she did Gia and I sat down on the couch, markedly apart from each other.
“How was work?” she asked softly, before giving me a soft smile.
“It was good,” I answered. “How was your day?”
“Good,” she said. “I came back to see Ji Soo already waiting for me.”
“She always seems to be here. I’m sorry for that.”
Gia shook her head at me. “I don’t mind. She’s great company.”
I was just about to say something else when Ji Soo came back, holding the cordless phone, and narrowed her eyes at us. “What did we tell you guys about just acting normal when we are here? Oppa, go sit with Unnie… you two obviously want to sit together, so I don’t know why you’re being weird.”
I scooted over closer to where Gia was sitting, trying to still maintain a couple of inches between us. She was so tense I felt bad, until I realized that she wasn’t tense, as I thought, but nervous when she licked her bottom lip. I want to do the same. She looked over at me as if she felt my eyes on her, the gold flecks in her eyes sparkling under the lights.
I thought she was going to tell me to move over some, that I was sitting too close. I thought she was about to push on my arm when she lifted it from my side and wrapped it around her shoulders, earning a smile from Ji Soo. I allowed myself a nuzzle of her hair, currently in a ponytail down her back, since it seemed I had an excuse.
“You two are so cute,” Ji Soo said, sitting herself down across from us and sighing.
“What did you say about her being great company again?” I whispered to Gia and she shot me a look that told me to shut up, before breaking out in peals of laughter, the sound of which made me chuckle in return.
After stuffing ourselves with a spicy seafood noodle soup and black bean noodles, I had just settled myself on the couch with a cup of tea in one hand and my book in another when Ji Soo spoke.
“Unnie… Tell me what your favorite meal is,” Ji Soo said. “The next time I come I’ll cook it for you.”
I thought about it for a second. “I don’t know if I have a favorite meal…”
“If you were in death row and they asked you for your last meal what would you tell them?”
“Am I on death row?”
“No,” Ji Soo said. “It was a hypothetical question.”
“Well, my not so hypothetical answer is this. Aged steak, cooked medium rare with herb butter, creamy polenta, and haricot vert with slivered almonds,” I replied, mouthwatering though we just finished eating. “And a slice of chocolate cake.”
“I can do that,” she said and I gave her a smile.
“Are you leaving already?” I asked as she stuffed her books back into her bag and started gathering her belongings.
“It’s a weeknight,” she said. “And I have an early lecture in the morning.”
“Okay,” I said, looking over in the kitchen where Jung Jin was already cleaning up. “Jung Jin, you heard, right? Ji Soo is leaving.”
“Yep,” he said, wiping his hands on a paper towel.
“Do you have any work to do tonight?” I asked, and he thought about it before he responded.
“Nothing,” I said casually. “It’s just, if you’re here anyway, why don’t you give your sister a ride home?”
“Unnie, I’m fine!” Ji Soo said, darting her eyes at him.
“You heard her… she says she’s fine.”
“But why have her take the bus when you’re right here?” I asked, confused. “I think you should give her a ride home.”
Ji Soo looked over at her brother, a pout on her mouth and I had to laugh. Maria has employed that same tactic on me successfully many times before.
“Are you two ganging up on me already?” Jung Jin asked, annoyed. “I worked all day.”
“If you’re going to make such a fuss about it, give me your car keys,” I said, standing up, “I will drive her home.”
“When was the last time you drove?” Jung Jin narrowed his eyes at me and I didn’t flinch.
“Five years ago,” I responded, getting up from the couch. “So if we get in an accident and someone gets hurt, just know that had you just done what we were asking you to, none of it would have happened. Will you be able to live with that?”
His eyes sparked with irritation, but then he relented. “Fine, fine…” I watched in amusement as he grabbed his jacket from the closet and made his way out the door, not even bothering to wait for his sister.
“Unnie, you’re the best,” Ji Soo said as she leaned down to give me a hug. “You’ll fit right in our family. And Ji Min Unnie was right… our Omma is so going to love you. “
“So, yeah…” Ji Soo said as I turned onto the driveway of our parents’ house. “I don’t know what you did to win Unnie’s heart, but you need to keep doing it. I love her. I will never forgive you if you lose her.”
“What the hell, Ji Soo-yah,” I said. “I’m your brother. You’re supposed to be loyal to me. She has her own sister taking her side, she doesn’t need my sisters.”
“Another sister… and she’s only a couple of years older than me. I can’t wait,” she said wondrously. “I hope her sister is just like her.”
“She seemed nice, anyway, when I spoke to her.”
“You’ve met her family?” she asked, sounding both irritated and surprised at the same time. “Before you even had us meet her?”
“You don’t have to sound so offended. It wasn’t exactly like that,” I said, trying to calm her ruffled feathers. “It just happened that way.”
I probably owed her sister a gift… without her none of this would have even happened. I made a mental note to do just that when I realized that I won’t be able to do that without asking for information from Gia. Who might just possibly accuse me of having designs on her sister. Again.
“Anyway, good night,” I told my sister as she stepped out of the car. “Give Omma and Appa my love.”
“Yeah,” she said slyly. “You know you can bring Unnie over before the birthday party, right? I know you’ve been avoiding coming to family dinners because you’re scared to bring her home.”
“I’m not scared,” I said. “Just… go in already.”
She gave me a discerning smile and practically skipped to the front door before waving back at me.
“You okay?” I asked Gia when I looked over at her and saw her book open on her lap. I had just gotten back from dropping Ji Soo off, and had just opened my laptop to check my email.
“Yeah,” she said thoughtfully. “It’s just… being around your sister, makes me miss my own sister. Makes me miss Joonie. The way the two of you are just reminds me of how long it’s been since I had been in the company of people I don’t have to explain anything to.”
“You don’t have to explain anything to me.”
“So you say. But I still do.” She paused and fiddled with her hands. “There are just things that I can do with my sister and with Joon that I can’t possibly do with you.”
I know she was also speaking about her sister, but my brain clung to what she was saying about her best friend. “What can you possibly be doing with your Joon that you can’t do with me?” I demanded.
“Everything,” she said. “Things I would never do with you.”
“I can do everything with you that Joon can.”
She shook her head no. “I don’t think so.”
Twenty minutes later…
Jung Jin hovered over my face as I lay on the couch holding the tube that I handed him just minutes before. His face was covered with a black mask, his hair held back by a headband, now wearing an old shirt and sweatpants and I suppressed a laugh.
“This is what you and Jun do?” he asked disbelievingly and I nodded.
“We do other things, too, as you will find out later,” I said. “And don’t talk too much, your mask is drying already and you don’t want it to crack.”
He patted his face. “This feels weird. Like cement is drying on me.”
“It’s called a charcoal mask for a reason,” I said. “Are you going to do it to me or what?”
The question came out in a way I hadn’t intended, and I pursed my lips shut. His eyes drifted over my face, the expression loaded and charged, and I swallowed. This was not a very good idea. Slowly he unscrewed the cap from the tube and squeezed the bottle, all without breaking our gaze. I was all of a sudden too aware of what position I was in, the armrest on the couch suddenly uncomfortable. I was about to shift my position when I felt a finger land on my face, the cream cold against my skin.
I forced myself to stay still, even as his arm brushed against my chest. Jung Jin was over me, his face focused on his task, meticulously applying and reapplying. I was not, however, in such a calm state. He bit his bottom lip in concentration, seemingly unaware of my discomfort. His nearness was wreaking havoc on my nerves and by the time he had applied the mask to my whole face, I felt wired from the very tip of my head all the way down to my toes. When he was done I practically jumped off the couch in an effort to put some distance between us.
It wasn’t enough that I had forced him to put his arms around me in front of Ji Soo, I thought, now I have done this as well. And while the man was doing something as innocent as putting a face mask on me.
“Sit on the couch,” I said, still berating myself mentally for having such thoughts. When he looked at me in that way that he looks at me, I felt like jumping out of my skin. “SIT ON THE COUCH!” My frazzled emotions were making me irritable and he looked at me in dismay before doing just as I asked.
“Okay, jeez…” he said. “I’m sitting.”
I pulled the clear bottle of nail polish from my box and set it aside, Holding my hand out to him, he hesitantly put his hand in my hand and I slathered lotion over it, before starting my massage. All the while not looking at him. AT ALL. I’ve done this so many times with Junnie, could almost do it in my sleep, so why did this feel so different?
His hand felt big, even between both of mine. It wasn’t smooth all over, either, but calloused in some places. There was a scar over his left hand and though I wanted to ask what it had been from, I focused myself on finishing the task at hand. I rubbed and kneaded, even as his eyes continued to watch me, his expression subdued but no less intense.
I didn’t release a breath until I was done painting all his nails, at which point I puckered my lips and blew, just like he did for my hands that snowy day weeks ago. The reminder brought a flush to my cheeks and I started blowing faster, making him look at me in amazement before breaking out into laughter.
“What?” I asked. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” He said, trying to control his expression. “Nothing.”
She looked like a chipmunk blowing on my nails furiously, as if she was competing in a blowing competition. She let her cheeks puff up with air before releasing it, then doing the same thing again, except in double time. And with the black stuff on her face, it was hilarious, and I found myself laughing uncontrollably.
“What?” she asked, frowning at me. “What’s so funny?”
You look adorable. “Nothing,” I finally uttered. “Nothing.”
She sat back on the couch and avoided looking at me, and I allowed myself a glimpse over at her. I am so done. The whole time I was putting the mask on her face all I kept thinking about was how much I wanted to lean down and kiss her, black mask and all. Who thinks like this while putting a mask on a woman’s face?
And so I had drawn out the process as long as I could, perhaps applying more than what was necessary. I liked having her looking up at me from that position and being able to stare at her without having to make any excuses.
When my nails were dry, she pointed to a nail polish bottle in the color of plum before sitting stiffly before me. I took her hands, so small in mine, and tried to mimic what she had done for my hands, pressing and rubbing, enjoying the fact that I was able to do this with her consent and cooperation.
I applied the nail polish on as carefully as I could, only messing up in a couple of places, and when I was done, she pulled her hands away quickly, making a show of surveying my work.
“It’s good,” she commented. “Not as good as Joonie, but serviceable.”
There it was again. That hated name.
“What else does Joonie do well?” I asked sarcastically. He seemed like the perfect man.
She started counting on her hands. “Joon can cook, clean, manage a household budget and run a business.”
“Fucking Joonie,” I mumbled under my breath.
“What did you just say?” she asked and I shook my head, as if I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Can Joon kiss well?” I asked, prayingnotpraying that she will answer.
“How the hell am I supposed to know that?” she asked, baffled. “Joon is my best friend.”
I followed her to the bathroom and watched as she turned the faucet on, before proceeding to wash her face. She was still indignant when she was done, moving aside to help me wash my face, then drying it when it was done. She kept throwing me dirty looks but it doesn’t diminish the fact that she was still touching me, that she doesn’t stop touching me, however innocent it might be. It also does nothing to lessen the pleasure I feel from the touch of her hands on me, nor the warmth that blossomed whenever her eyes traveled over my face, however angrily she was doing it.
“So?” I asked curiously. “You two have never…”
“I don’t know what sick fantasies are going on in your head, but no.” She bristled at me, exasperated. I followed her back to the living room where she laid out two bottles of something else and patted the seat next to her forcefully. When I was seated, she gave me another frown. “I’m very open-minded, but I don’t go around kissing friends.”
She poured some liquid onto a cotton ball and started dabbing it on my face and then quickly following up with some cream. “You kissed me.”
“How do you compare that to me kissing Joon?” she asked incredulously.
“You’re friends,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “We’re friends. What’s the difference?”
“I’m not even going to answer your question,” she said sternly as I imitated what she just did with the various creams and potions. “Besides, you and I have never really kissed.”
Her statement stopped me in the middle of applying face cream on her face. “Excuse me?’ I asked. “We have kissed. Many times.”
“Not that many,” she said. “And not exactly intentionally. The first was New Year’s Eve which doesn’t really count since everyone kisses someone on New Year’s Eve. The second time I was pretending to be your girlfriend. And the th… and that’s it!”
“So you think none of those kisses count?” I asked softly, allowing my eyes to linger on her lips. “I can rectify that situation. All you have to do is ask.”
“No, thanks,” she said, quickly getting up. “I promised myself that the next time I kiss anyone it will be for the right reasons.”
“Which are?” I asked, wondering how it was that the tides changed so quickly.
“Because I like him, because I want to be with him,” she answered, her voice soft. “Because I feel like if I didn’t I will die.”
The huskiness in her voice brought back all the memories and fantasies of kissing her, and I found myself getting angry at this nameless, faceless man with whom she was planning her next kiss.
As if I needed more fucking competition.
April 20, 2002
“I can’t eat that,” I said, taking a closer look at what he had pointed at. “No way.”
It’s been almost two weeks since I agreed to him living back at the penthouse and now we were grocery shopping together.
How in the world has this happened? I really didn’t know for sure.
I thought we had been living comfortably, except I wasn’t comfortable at all. Half the time it had felt like we were dancing circles around each other. Still, I had tried to carry on with my routine as best as I could. I ran every morning and went out every day. I tried to ignore that there was another person in the house, but that’s become increasingly harder as I wake up every morning and there’s breakfast on the table and whenever I would buy something for dinner, I was reminded that I was buying for two. I hadn’t ventured back into the kitchen since the day the smoke alarm went off, and I felt no desire to, either.
Even so, we had gamely put our faces on and did an acceptable job of playing at being friends. It was a new experience. One of the few that I had immersed myself in recently. I surprised myself at how easy it was, after all, to try new things.
Jung Jin had only gotten more respectful and more attentive since he became my friend. I wasn’t comfortable with that, either, and the way he was acting was making me paranoid. As if something else was going on that I had no idea about. As if I was living some kind of parallel life and this Jung Jin was not really himself. As if I made it all up in my mind.
“I thought you said you wanted sashimi,” he said, the sound of his chuckle interrupting my thoughts. “This is kind of like it.”
“Yeah, but sashimi is fish,” I said, forcing my face to relax and pasting a smile on my lips. “These look like little pe…”
“We’ll have pork belly,” he said, leading my arm gently away from the tank of phallic looking fish. “That was my first choice anyway. You’re the one who wanted fish.”
We made a brief stop at the butcher’s counter where Jung Jin bought an inordinate amount of pork belly and I wondered how many people he was trying to feed. I looked at our cart, filled with fresh fruits and vegetables for him, mostly ramen and canned goods for me. Honestly, no two people had ever been so different.
As we walked I tried not to notice how the women turned and looked, some with not so open, but more often with open, admiring stares. For his part he seemed oblivious and unaware, walking directly to the checkout line. I stayed a few feet away from him, aware that my proximity was garnering me some attention as well.
I watched as he made conversation with the cashier, who then blushed at his attention, before I pulled money out of my purse and offered him half of what the register’s total was. He waved me away, at first, tried to refuse the cash I was holding out. However, it seemed he realized that I was not budging and that the cashier was watching us, amused, and sheepishly took it finally and paid.
“You are damn stubborn,” he said as I picked up half the bags.
“Friends split bills,” I said. “It’s what Junnie and I always did.”
“I’m not Junnie.”
“But you are, however, my friend.”
He muttered something under his breath as we walked out the door and towards his car. Next to me he was still talking and I had zoned out. No doubt he was still complaining about me.
Why did he like me again? Damned if I knew.
I found myself watching an old lady as she crossed the street, obviously struggling with her bags. Jung Jin had just opened the trunk of the car when the old lady dropped a bag and apples came tumbling out. I didn’t wait to see if anyone would help before I walked over, already thinking about how to explain that I was helping.
I bent over and started grabbing the apples and putting them back in her bag, even as she waved my hand away, to my surprise. She started saying something in Korean and I shook my head and told her I didn’t understand. She didn’t seem to hear me as she tugged the bag closer to her but I didn’t relent. All I wanted to do was help carry them to where she was going.
“I’m trying to help you,” I said to her in English loudly when she tugged again and started yelling in Korean. For a second I was tempted to just leave her be, but I didn’t want a repeat of what just happened.
“Let me help you,” I urged, trying to peel her fingers from the bag.
She frowned at me and kept tugging. Though she was a couple of inches shorter than me, the woman was stronger than she looked. People were stopping and watching and I turned around with a slight shrug of my shoulders. I don’t know what made me keep playing the game with this deceptively frail looking woman, but she was getting more irate by the minute before she looked at me one last time through narrowed eyebrows.
She lifted a hand and I thought she was about to let go. I really did. Or that she finally understood what I was trying to say and was now giving up the struggle. But the next thing I knew I was being hit, pelted by bags, along with a palm here and there. By a lady old enough to be a grandmother. For trying to help.
I really should have just minded my own business.
“Friends split bills,” she said, her voice stubborn. “It’s what Joon-ie and I always did.”
“I’m not Joon-ie.”
She had accused me in the past of bringing up her best friend’s name in discussions, but she’s the one who won’t stop talking about him.
“But you, however,” she quipped, “are my friend.”
“You don’t have to say it so often,” I muttered under my breath. We walked towards the car, our bags in hand. I popped open the trunk and placed what I had been carrying inside as I spoke. “I already know we’re friends,” I said, a bit more loudly. “You tell me all the time that we’re friends. I know that. Why do I need reminding?”
She didn’t respond and I chuckled. I guess the questioning was kind of rhetorical, but still I was pleased that I left her speechless. That’s never happened before.
Hold on, that’s never happened before.
I turned around to her to see if she was okay, when I realized she wasn’t even standing next to me. I looked around and I couldn’t find her anywhere.
What the hell?
I closed the trunk, frustrated, and wondered where she could have gone.
Maybe she decided to walk home. I wouldn’t put it past her to do something that crazy. Maybe she decided to…
I heard a commotion a few feet away and saw some people gathered. Wondering if she was one of the spectators I started walking closer to see if I would find her there. Imagine my surprise when I did find her there. But not as a spectator but the spectacle itself.
She was playing tug-of-war with an old woman, over a bag of… apples? What the hell? We didn’t buy any apples.
“You can’t take my apples!” The halmoni yelled.
“I’m trying to help you,” I heard her say loudly. Didn’t she know the lady probably doesn’t understand?
“Why are you talking to me like I’m deaf? Impertinent, rude girl… “The halmoni’s voice was getting louder with agitation with each word. “I’m going to hit you!”
“Let me help you,” Gia said. She was actually trying to get the halmoni’s fingers off the bag. Bad move. I’m going to have to intervene. It seemed she only just now noticed that there were people watching them and she shrugged her shoulders, as if unable to figure out what to do. I had just taken the first step towards them when I heard a loud smack, and then a voice. Gia’s voice. “Ow! My head!”
I watched in alarm as the halmoni started hitting her with a hand, and that not making enough impact, with her bag. I walked over to the both of them and broke them up, holding them both apart. I must be doing a great job, since all the blows that halmoni had been directing towards Gia were landing on me, instead.
“Halmoni, calm down,” I said, my pointer finger up, and flashed my trademark smile. She didn’t smile back.
“Is she with you?” She asked, with a dirty look directed towards Gia.
“Yes. She’s mine.” I answered without hesitation. Thank God we were speaking in Korean or I had no doubt all this violence would have been redirected towards me.
“She was trying to steal my apples!”
I held a conciliatory hand out lest she thought of hitting either of us again. “She wasn’t,” I assured her. “She was just trying to help.”
“Help, my ass. I was just trying to cross the street and the next thing I knew she was trying to steal from me.” She continued to speak with accompanying movements of her hand and then directed another glare at me.
“What is she saying?” Gia said in English from behind me, poking me with a finger. “What is she saying?”
“Shh,” I said, turning back to her. “Be quiet for just a second. You’re so noisy.”
“Halmoni, no, she wasn’t,” I said. “She was trying to help.”
“Help me do what?” She frowned at me.
“She wants to know what you were trying to help her with,” I told Gia as I turned around to look at her, only to find that she was also glowering at me. Great. Now I have two women both displeased with me, and over what?
“I wanted to help her carry her bags to the car,” Gia said with a sigh. “Was that wrong?”
I gave the old lady Gia’s answer and she looked at me, confused. “But I don’t have a car.”
“She says she doesn’t have a car,” I told Gia, getting a headache from all this back and forth.
She blinked at me a few times, silent, and for a second I thought we would apologize and that will be that. We will be able to go on our merry way and forget this incident ever happened. But then I saw her brighten, saw her mouth already forming into a smile. Already I knew what she was about to say and I rubbed my forehead in resignation.
“Great!” She said. “But you have a car! Then we…”
“Don’t say it,” I grumbled. “Don’t you dare say it.”
“… can drive her home!”
I was sitting on the floor at the old woman’s humble home, minutes after Jung Jin drove her there, with my prodding. I looked up to see him standing around uncomfortably, and I patted the seat next to me. He shook his head no before darting a look at our hostess as she efficiently boiled water for tea and prepared something in the kitchen. I nodded at him more vehemently and patted the floor again. After much hesitation he finally did as I urged and sat down.
“Why did we have to come in?” He whispered.
“She offered,” I said. “Don’t be such a snob. The place not grand enough for you?”
“I didn’t say that,” he said, peeved.
“You didn’t have to,” I said. “I saw the way you looked around when we first walked in. I’m surprised you didn’t find a newspaper to sit on.”
He looked so uneasy that I had to stop myself from telling him to deal with it. Is this the same guy that sat on the edge of a mountain in Peru looking like a hippie and going backpacking all over the world? Things have certainly changed since then. But then again isn’t that what happens? Things change. As do people. As do feelings. Everything changes.
I looked around and couldn’t understand his unease. It was small but it was clean, obviously well taken care of. Sure, it wasn’t what he was probably used to, but I would be happy with this.
“If you’re so bothered by it, then go wait in the car,” I said testily. He is a snob.
“And how will you two speak?” He asked.
“I don’t need to know Korean to tell her I appreciate her hospitality. Kindness doesn’t need any words. Neither does gratitude.”
I was about to say something else when the woman came back with a tray bearing cups of tea and a tray of food. My mouth watered when I realized that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and gave her a grateful smile. She said something to Jung Jin in Korean and then nudged her head my way and he spoke.
“She said she’s sorry for the misunderstanding earlier. She really thought you were trying to steal her bag.”
“Tell her it was fine,” I said and he relayed the message. “What’s that?” I asked in a softer tone, referring to the pink pieces of something still wiggling on the plate, along with small bowls of sesame oil, red pepper paste and kimchi.
“It’s the thing you didn’t want to eat,” he said. “The thing you said that looked like…”
“I know what I said.” I pursed my lips and gave the old woman, now looking at me expectantly, an awkward smile. She looked so proud to be able to serve me this that I was conflicted about what to do. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings or make her think I didn’t appreciate it at all. Especially since she thought I was a thief.
She was speaking in Korean and Jung Jin said something back to her and she looked crestfallen, and immediately I felt horrible. I am in Korea. This is what they eat. I should at least try it.
She was about to take the plate away and I put one of my hands over hers.
“You don’t have to eat it,” Jung Jin whispered. “The last thing I want is you throwing…”
His voice faded as I took a pair of chopsticks, took a deep breath and ate a piece.
“What’s that?” She asked softly next to me, and I followed her eyes to the plate that was laid in front of us and almost started laughing.
“It’s the thing you didn’t want to eat,” I told her and watched as she paled. “The thing you said that looked like…”
“I know what I said,” Gia said in a clipped tone.
She was looking at the plate so intently as if she wished it would disappear, all the while giving halmoni a sheepish smile. In front of us the halmoni was waiting for her to take the first bite. It was Korean custom to let the guest eat first, both a sign of welcome and respect.
“I wish I had something better to serve,” halmoni said softly. “It was all I was going to have for dinner.”
I looked at her lined hands and kind face and immediately regretted that I had been so hesitant to step foot in her home. I’ve been living the lifestyle I’ve had for so many years now that I had forgotten that most people didn’t have it so easy. My parents would no doubt lecture me at my attitude, much like Gia did.
Speaking of Gia…
She spoke to the halmoni respectfully on the drive here once she had agreed, obviously wanting to ease her worry. I watched from the rear view mirror as she fastened the halmoni’s seat belt and made sure she was comfortable. She took all her bags going up the stairs to the halmoni’s house and when the halmoni extended an invitation she readily agreed, despite the fact she had no clue who this woman was or where she lived, if she was stepping foot in a mansion or a hovel. And now, she was sitting on the floor like she’s been here before, fully at ease until she saw the spoon worm just a few seconds ago.
It was the same thing I saw at the park in San Francisco with Gertie, the same way she took care of the rose before turning it into a bookmark. It was in the way she did everything.
She made me want to be better. If not for myself then to be worthy of her.
I stole a glance at her and waited for her to tell me to refuse, but she was still staring at the plate, now looking a little green.
“Halmoni,” I said. “She doesn’t eat spoon worm.”
“No?” Halmoni asked, looking disappointed. “I don’t get many guests so I don’t usually have anything on hand to serve people. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said, trying to reassure her. “This is more than generous. Thank you so much.”
“I should probably take it away, then, if she doesn’t like it. Maybe I could cut some apples,” she said as she was standing up, her hand already on the plate.
“You don’t have to eat it,” I said to Gia. “The last thing I want is you throwing…”
I stopped speaking when I saw that Gia had put a hand on halmoni’s arm, then picked up her chopsticks. She didn’t even hesitate. She picked up a piece and swallowed it without flinching.
“It’s delicious,” she said, smiling at the halmoni then looking at me. “Tell her it’s delicious.”
“She said it’s delicious,” I said to the halmoni and watched as a smile blossomed over the woman’s face. She took her hand off the plate and sat down, watching Gia as she made a show of picking up another piece and dipping it in sauce before eating it.
Gia dipped the biggest piece from the plate in the sesame oil and offered it to halmoni with a smile, and the other beamed at her before she took it. The two of them continued to eat companionably together, not even able to speak in the same language, but apparently understood each other all the same.
I wasn’t sure whether she really thought the fish was delicious or she was just being polite. I wasn’t even sure if she was going to be sick on our way home. But I do know that at that moment, I felt immeasurable respect for the woman beside me, and unworthy to be the one who sat next to her.
“I’ll be right back,” I said to the both of them, to one in English and Korean to the other, standing up. “Give me two minutes.”
The old woman and I were still eating when Jung Jin stood up.
“I’ll be right back,” he said to me then turned towards our hostess and spoke in Korean. “Give me two minutes.”
He disappeared out the door and I sighed. Maybe his sensibilities just could not handle it anymore. He barely ate anything or drank his tea. While he was gone, we continued to eat in comfortable silence, with her occasionally looking at me and smiling. I took every piece she offered me and did the same to her, much to her amusement.
By the time we had finished the plate a few minutes later, Jung Jin still hadn’t returned. He was probably already waiting in the car, just as I had told him to begin with. It’s just as well. If he wasn’t going to be polite, at least, then he didn’t need to be here.
Not really knowing how to say goodbye when we were done, I merely said thank you in Korean to the old woman and bowed before I made my way out the door. I waved at her on my way down the stairs and watched her disappear from view, grateful that the misunderstanding had been cleared. I was about halfway down the stairs when I bumped into Jung Jin on his way back up, surreptitiously placing something behind him when he saw me.
“Where are you going?” I asked. “I already thanked her for us.”
“Nowhere,” he said unconvincingly. “I have to go back anyway.”
“Why?” I asked, trying to figure out what he could possibly be hiding.
“I… uh… I left something behind,” he stammered. Yep. Definitely lying. “Here,” he continued, handing me the car keys, “I’m right behind you.”
I took it and nodded, keeping my face neutral, as if I wasn’t onto him and watched as he made his way up the stairs quickly, bringing his hands to his front so that I didn’t see.
I let two minutes pass before I climbed back upstairs and then craned my neck into the old lady’s house to see if I could see him. I couldn’t see anything from the front door and so I went to the side, where I was sure that I had seen a window and peeked in.
Sure enough, there he was, standing with the old woman and giving her a plastic bag of something. I watched as she opened it and pulled out the pork belly that Jung Jin had insisted on buying at the grocery store. The old woman tried to give it back but he was insistent, dismissing her refusal with a wave and another of his charming smiles. I softened as the old woman gave him a smile so bright it completely transformed her face. Somewhere inside me, something shifted just a little bit, and I looked away.
It was just like how it was with Gertie, I thought, the first time I really felt like he could be someone worth knowing, that maybe I had been wrong. Sometimes I wonder if he realized that small acts of kindness count for as much, if not more than grand displays, if it’s done with the best of intentions and honesty. Maybe he didn’t. Most people don’t.
But he’s learning. There may be some hope for him, yet.
I guess we’re not having pork belly for dinner, after all.
April 22, 2002
“Junnie… you’re kidding, right?” I asked my best friend as I ate breakfast, Jung Jin frowning at me over the table. “What did I tell you about meddling in my life?”
The eggs and bacon that Jung Jin had made sat on my plate, untouched. As was the coffee next to it. I was just about to start eating when Junnie called.
“What?” She asked. “You sounded so well the last time I spoke to you that I thought you were ready.”
“For a date?” I said, and Jung Jin’s eyebrows shot up. I stood up from the table and walked towards the windows. “Junnie, I don’t really think I should be dating while I’m here. I’ll be leaving soon.”
“Yeah, soon. But not yet,” she argued. “That’s why you need to go on at least one date while you’re there. What’s the fun in taking an extended vacation if you don’t get to enjoy the company of the opposite sex at all?”
“Being in a relationship has turned your brain to mush,” I said. “Seriously.”
“I thought you said you were trying new things? Think of this blind date as that,” she reasoned. “Don’t tell me you’re still hung up on the manager.”
“I wish you’d stop calling him that,” I whispered furiously. “He has a name.”
“So you are still hung up on him,” she said. “Even more reason to go.”
“It’s too late,” she said. “I already made the reservations. He already agreed.”
“It’s one date, okay? Do it for me,” she said. “I will never be able to look him in the eye again if you don’t show.”
“Who is it, anyway?” I asked. “A friend?” She didn’t answer. “A client?”
“You could say that.”
“You’re not helping his case by not giving me more information, you know,” I complained. “Is he traveling here or is he Korean?”
“Something like that,” she said and I made an indignant sound. My best friend is so ridiculous sometimes. “Just go and find out. It’s a free meal.”
“For fuck’s sake, Junnie, I am perfectly capable of buying a meal,” I said. “I’ve been eating well since I came to Korea. Eating full meals and everything.”
“It’s the last time I’ll try to set you up,” she said. “Just go on this date and I won’t try to find a boyfriend for you ever again.”
“Fine, do you have the information?” I asked walking back to the kitchen. At the table Jung Jin was still eating, as if unconcerned.
“Right, are you ready?”
I pulled a pen out of my purse and tore a piece of paper towel. “Yes, go ahead.”
“Top Cloud Cafe and Grill, Jongno Tower 33F, 6, Jongno 2-ga, Jongno-gu,” she said. “The reservation is at 8 p.m.”
“I got it,” I said. “This is the last time, Jun.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, openly laughing. “Ha…”
I hung up the call on her without letting her finish, already annoyed. Why a blind date today of all days?
“Who was that?” Jung Jin asked, chewing on a piece of toast as I returned to the table.
“Junnie,” I said, debating whether I should tell him, then biting the bullet and doing just that. “Apparently I have to go on a blind date.”
“That’s nice,” he said, sounding sincere.
“Is it?” I asked. Is it? Is he not… jealous? He looked over at the piece of paper I had written on.
“Yeah, you need to go out and have fun,” he said, meeting my eyes.
“Do I?” I asked. Do I? Why is he not getting jealous?
“Top Cloud is a great restaurant, as well,” he continued, his voice calm. “It’s a good mood setter.”
“IS IT?” I asked, not realizing that my voice had almost taken a hysterical edge. He doesn’t care at all.
“Yeah,” he said, opening the newspaper. “I’m happy for you.”
“You are?” I asked and he nodded. I bit my bottom lip and stood up.
“But… What if any of your sisters see me?”
“Unlikely,” he said lightly. “None of them hang out in Jongno.”
“Great, that’s all sorted, then. Nothing to worry about,” I said. “I’ll be sure to have an amazing time. Who knows? The guy might end up being the love of my life. Have a great day at work. I’m taking a shower.”
I marched straight to the bathroom, incensed. I was so pissed that I completely forgot to grab my clothes from my suitcase before I ran the shower. I went under the water so upset that I ended up scrubbing my skin raw.
Fine, I thought, he doesn’t care. Then I wouldn’t care. I’ll make sure to look my best tonight and show him that I absolutely am ready to date. That I’m single and ready to mingle. Let’s see how he likes it then.
The thought made me feel just a little better though I still left the shower with a scowl on my face. I was so busy plotting ways of making Jung Jin pay for not caring that I didn’t even stop to think about why, when this was what I wanted, what I always claimed I wanted, I all of a sudden wanted to cry.
What is wrong with this damn traffic? Why is it always when I have to be absolutely be somewhere that I always seem to get stuck in it?
I had planned on going home early enough so as to catch Gia before her date, but an impromptu meeting with one of Joon’s new advertisers had me delayed by forty five minutes.
She had looked so nervous this morning after her conversation with Joonie, as if she didn’t know if I had been listening. I had tried to force myself to look relaxed the whole time to make it as easy on her as possible. I had to hold myself back as she made conversation about her date, reminding myself that this was how a friend would act. I was trying to be like Joonie, who apparently was so cool about this being a friend business that he would set her up with another man himself. What a friend he is.
I hate that fucking word.
And now here I was, racing to Jongno, to see her at her date. The woman is driving me crazy. What the hell happened to all her talks of freedom?
What did she say this morning?
“Maybe he’ll turn out to be the love of my life.”
So she basically wanted to be just friends with me but not with anyone else? How the hell does that make any kind of damn sense? My hand phone rang over the dashboard and I answered, putting the phone on speaker.
“WHAT?!?!” I barked into the phone before turning my wrath to the car in front of me, currently going at about ten miles per hour less than the posted speed limit. “What the hell is wrong with you, asshole? Some of us have places to go, motherfucker!”
“Wow,” I heard Shawn say drily. “You ARE strung up.”
“I’m not in a very good mood,” I said. “What’s up?”
“You tell me… You’re the one sounding like you’re about to kill someone. Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”
“Nothing… Everything,” I said.
“Do you need a hug or something?” Shawn asked, trying not to laugh.
“Why?” I asked. “Are you giving it to me?”
“If you want me to.”
“Hell no,” I said. “Listen, I don’t really have time to talk right now.”
“Why?” Shawn asked.
“Gia’s on a date.”
“She’s still there?” Shawn asked. “I thought she would have left by now.”
“She promised to go to my nephew’s birthday party,” I replied absently. “But listen…”
“What’s the matter then? I thought you two were just friends?”
“She said we were,” I said. “I only said I would try. I’m not very good at trying, Shawn. To be honest I’m kind of shit at it.”
“I may have a solution for you,” Shawn said.
“I don’t have time to talk about problems and solutions right now.”
“Just hear me out…” Shawn continued and I pressed on the brakes as I reached the valet stand at the restaurant.
“I’ll call you later,” I cut in before hanging up, giving Shawn no chance to finish.
I straightened the cream colored cardigan I wore as I sat in the restaurant, waiting for my date. Too nervous to drink wine, I sipped on some water instead. The last thing I needed was to go back to Jung Jin’s drunk.
I looked out of the window, out into Seoul, lit up by what looked like a hundred million stars, and wished I had brought my camera. Even after all the time I had spent here, I still felt like there was more to discover, every single day.
By the time I was getting ready for my date I had calmed down some. I had stopped plotting out ways to make Jung Jin jealous and just resigned myself to the fact that he was giving me precisely what I wanted.
Gratitude. Relief. Those are the emotions I should be feeling. I had kept reminding myself of this fact all day long that by the time I actually left for my date, I almost believed it.
I checked my watch for a second time and noted that he was already ten minutes late. Not a good start. My tummy grumbling I let myself relax against the chair and prepared to wait.
“Did a Gia arrive for her reservation yet?” I looked at my phone to see Shawn calling for the fifth time since I ended our call. I rejected the call and directed my attention to the woman in front of me.
The hostess’ eyebrows lifted slightly though she looked at her book. “Yes, she did. Are you here as her dinner companion, sir?”
“Ermm, no…” I stammered. “Can you possibly tell me the name of her companion?”
“I’m afraid not.”
She tried to lessen the blow with a polite smile but it didn’t work. My phone vibrated for the sixth time and I rejected the call again, seeing that it was Shawn.
“In that case, then, do you have any tables available?”
“Yes, we do.”
She looked me up and down and all of a sudden I was too aware of the ridiculous all black outfit I wore, along with a baseball cap. Had I found my black sunglasses, I would have worn that as well. I thought she was going to turn me away, tell me I wasn’t in the proper dress code, but she did not.
“Did you have a preference for your seat?” She looked at me for a response while picking up a menu. I felt my phone vibrate and looked down. Shawn. What the hell? I rejected the call for the seventh and final time before powering off my phone. “Do you want a table in the middle of the restaurant or one by the windows?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said then thought about it. “Actually, on second thought, I only have one request. Can you make sure it’s within visual proximity of where Gia is sitting?”
“Excuse me?” She asked, asking for clarification.
“Make sure I can see her.”
“Ah,” she said with a knowing smile before walking into the restaurant. “Please follow me.”
Thirty minutes late. Unbelievable. What kind of person did Junnie set me up with?
I had long since finished all my water, and had now moved onto white wine. Fuck it. If I’m going to have to wait then I’ll wait with wine.
I started tapping my finger on the table, trying to expend some of my nervous energy. I wouldn’t have to do this long since I can already foresee that my apprehension will soon turn to anger.
I can’t believe I got dressed up for this shit.
I watched her as she sat alone, looking out of the windows, fingers tapping the tables.
Her hair was over a cream colored sweater, such as I’d rarely ever seen whenever we were at home. She had styled her hair into loose curls, the long length kissing her chest. Her eyes looked smoky even from this distance, her lips painted a ruby red.
She looked impeccable, just as I thought she would be.
Looking at her now it was hard to believe that this is the woman I shared every morning and every evening with, that she slept every night in the room next to mine. But how was it, that every time I saw her, the more time I spent with her, the more beautiful I thought she was?
It wasn’t even the way she looked right now, though she was still lovely. But even when she first wakes, still groggy from sleep, or right after her run, her cheeks flushed from the effort. I even found her beautiful when she’s doing off on the couch, too stubborn to actually go to bed. I found her beautiful in every single way, her every single expression exquisite to me.
From what I heard this morning this date of hers was supposed to have been here thirty minutes ago. And yet here she was, dressed up and ready, with no one keeping her company. That Joonie has horrible taste. Why would he set her up with a man who can’t be bothered to show up on time?
I would give an arm and a leg to be the one she’s waiting for. He is an idiot, whoever he is.
The basket of bread in the middle of the table is mocking me. As hungry as I was, I couldn’t even be bothered to pick one up. The mere thought of chewing exhausts me already.
I stared at the wine in my glass, wondering if I should order some more. Whether I will be here long enough to be able to drink all of it. Why I was still hanging around when I already knew he wasn’t going to show.
The server came around once more, and he seemed uncomfortable with my demise. I pasted a smile on my face to make him feel at ease, and resisted the urge to point out that as uneasy as he was coming around every so often to ask a woman stood up for a date if she wants to eat something, I was that woman and deserved to be more uncomfortable than he is. But that would make me look petty, and he was only doing his job, so I decided to bite my tongue instead.
It’s been almost an hour.
In that space of time, I’d seen many people come and go. I felt myself stiffen as they all passed; reminded once more that I was alone. Not just in this country, but everywhere I go.
Jung Jin’s face flashed in my mind, and I started tracing the linen covered table with my finger, remembering how he looked asleep, and when he first wakes up. In my mind I could see him puttering about in the kitchen as I watched discreetly, sneaking peeks from behind my coffee cup. He always made me breakfast. Always an American breakfast, as well. I could see him sitting on the couch not far from me, working or watching television, relaxed and unobtrusive, allowing me my space and my silence.
But… Not even three weeks after he moves in and already the sheen was fading. A mere month ago he might have been jealous of the thought of me going out with another man, but now he barely bats an eyelash. He was supportive. Friendly even. He might as well have pushed me out the damn door.
He’s doing what I asked him to do. I needn’t be upset. This is what I wanted.
I sipped on my scotch as I waited with her, the minutes ticking by, wondering how long she was going to stay here for.
I was surprised to realize that though I was relieved that I had less competition that I was upset for her as well. Was this what being a friend was? Sure I’d been friends with Shawn all these years, but this was different. Not necessarily bad, but definitely not what I’m used to.
The guy is not going to show. And she’s pissed.
The nervous energy I had sensed when I first arrived had now been replaced by anger. I could see the tension in her shoulders as she stayed sitting up staring at her wine, the forced smile on her face every time the server came around to her table, the stubborn tilt of her chin as people came and went.
She hadn’t so much as touched the bread.
We usually eat dinner as soon as I get home from work so she must be hungry by now. She gets irritable anyway when she’s hungry, so she’ll be even more irate tonight.
I have to do something. Anything. I would do just about anything to make her smile tonight.
But what to do?
I thought about it and then thought about it some more. I kept coming up blank until an idea came to me.
With renewed energy I put aside what’s left of my scotch and got up. I may not be able to do anything to make her feel better here, but I can at home. Our home.
I walked off smiling, liking the sound of that.
I called time on my ‘date’ after an hour and fifteen minutes.
I could see the line of people outside the door, waiting for a table, and here I was, occupying one on my own, not even eating but drinking water. I could sense the impatience in my server’s demeanor as he came around one more time.
Jung Jin would probably be out and about, as he usually was on a Monday night, taking care of things here there and everywhere or watching guard at JJ’s game. He might not even be back until later, when I was already asleep.
I pulled out a bill from my purse and placed it on the table, leaving my server a generous tip, then stood up and made my way towards the exit.
Happy birthday to me.
I entered the penthouse with my bags in hand.
Whistling to myself I walked over to my CDs and tried to look for a particular one, but couldn’t find it. Settling on another soundtrack instead I was about to pop it into the player when I saw that what I had been looking for was already there.
Did I forget to take it out the last time I listened?
Not able to remember if I did or I didn’t, I shrugged my shoulders and pressed play. This had been the soundtrack to a part of my life that seemed so long ago, but hearing it again brought back only good memories.
I walked to the kitchen as the strains of piano music began, pulling out my purchases, then set about making our meal, happy to finally have something to do. Besides stalking her like a weirdo.
I placed a pan on the stove to heat, along with a vat of water. Busying myself with my task, I worked carefully and quickly, though unsure of when she would actually be back. Though Jongno was only twenty minutes away, it would take her at least half an hour from the restaurant to the penthouse, and that was if she left right after I did. Which I doubted she did. That woman is stubborn to a fault.
Whenever it may be, she will come back here, and I wanted to make this meal special. I cook breakfast for us every morning, but this… was different.
I was cooking for her. Really cooking for her. None of the half ass eggs and bacon that I make daily. None of the ramyun that she’s even seen me make occasionally or the serving up of dishes made by my mother.
I was cooking specifically for her.
I was hungry but I would have been content with picking something up on my way back to the penthouse. But I didn’t. Rather than doing that, I chose to do this instead, wanting to make her day somewhat better, in the one of the only ways I knew how to. I wanted to make her smile.
It’s amazing how one simple task becomes something else when you’re doing it for the one you love.
Did I just think love? Say love? I paused what I was doing momentarily as I allowed the truth to sink in. My heart did a somersault in my chest, and I placed a hand to ease the discomfort. Of course, I thought. Of course.
It explained everything… And still nothing at all. What I felt for Gia feels nothing like what I thought I felt for Kelsey. I would have done anything to keep Kelsey with me, but with Gia… I would do anything to make her happy. Along with my attraction for her came not only trust, but respect, as well. Suddenly I heard her voice, wistful as she spoke to my sister.
“It’s never happened to me like this before, but I suppose the best description of love I had ever heard was this, ‘Love is friendship caught on fire.”
My hand started shaking while holding the knife, nervous all of a sudden, wanting nothing more than to escape, something I had always done but already knowing that I would not. I already promised myself that I would no longer fight this.
Somewhere in between the sound of her voice and the touch of her hands, I had fallen in love. What had begun as a small flame was now a simmering fire, getting bigger every day, every minute, every second. It could burn even brighter, longer, bigger… and all she had to do was reach out and take it.
The only question now was if she was ready. Because I was.
I trudged into the penthouse, only just noticing as I slipped my feet into the slippers that the light was on in the kitchen, the sounds of Cinema Paradiso in the air. I turned the corner and walked towards the light, only to see Jung Jin standing over the stove, his side to me, unaware that I’d come back. He had the smallest of smiles on his face, his eyes focused intently on what he was doing. My heart started beating hard in my chest, and it was as if time had slowed down as I watched him. Though I had wished it was the opposite, I was surprised to realize that I felt something else when I saw him here.
Relief. Gratitude. The same emotions I had thought I should have been feeling when he told me he was happy about my date. Except now those same emotions were for a completely different reason altogether.
I was about to call out to him, but I didn’t know what to say. Hello almost seemed too casual a word because something was changing. Something about this moment had branded itself in my mind, the sight of him doing something so normal.
The kettle was boiling and there was the smell of food in the air, music playing in the background as if it had always been like this.
The feeling weighed on me now, like a burden. It scared me. His feelings were changing already, as evidenced by the way he reacted to my date. It won’t be long until he realized that I was nothing special, and then he will let me go.
Quickly I put my shoes back on, determined to get the hell out of here. I pressed the elevator button furiously, wishing that it would come faster. After what seemed like a million years, it finally dinged its arrival and I sagged from the relief.
It wasn’t until I heard the sound of the elevator that I even realized she was home. I quickly walked over to the hallway not to see her walking out, but preparing to leave.
How long had she been here?
“You’re home?” I asked, and she turned around, her eyes veiled. She said nothing as she stood there, her expression resolute.
“Yep,” she answered with a tight smile. “I’m back.”
“How did it go?”
“It went better than expected,” she said, her tone light. “I had an amazing time.”
“Then why do you look like that?” I asked. Why did she need to lie to me when I knew that she was stood up? She doesn’t know you know, idiot.
“Like what?” she said, putting her slippers back on, looking resigned.
“Like someone just forgot your birthday.” Without waiting for a response, I walked back to the kitchen and started plating the food. “Anyway, you’re just in time. I just finished making dinner.”
“But I always took care of dinner,” she said, as she came into the kitchen and surveyed the pots and pans on the counter. I had hoped to make her smile, but why did she look even more dejected?
“You were out, so I thought I’d cook.”
Her face hardened even more. “You cooked?”
I nodded. “There’s enough for both of us so you can eat if you want.” With a flourish I lowered my plate onto the table. I watched as she looked at the food, as if tempted, before she spoke.
“I’m not hungry,” she said and I shook my head.
“Of course you’re hungry,” I said. I thought I had said it so softly that she didn’t hear me, but apparently, she did, because the next time I looked at her, she had her hands on her hips, her face already fuming. Uh oh
“What makes you think I’m hungry?” she demanded. “I just came back from a date. Who goes home hungry after a date?”
“Two people,” I answered. “Someone who enjoyed the conversation so much they forgot to eat and someone who got stood up. If you had enjoyed the date, you would still be out. You’re not. You’re home.”
“I’m here.” she said softly. “Not home. Here.”
“You want to tell me what’s wrong?” I asked calmly, sitting down. This was not going the way I planned. I thought that she would be upset, but I didn’t think she would be…
“Nothing’s wrong! I mean, what could possibly be wrong, right?” she said, pacing the kitchen before opening the cupboard and taking a cup out. A real one, not a Styrofoam one, though I am sure she didn’t notice. She poured herself some water. “I’ve been in Korea for almost two months. I haven’t seen my best friend in all that time. I have no job. What could possibly be wrong?”
“Your time in Korea is almost up,” I said, trying to make her feel better. “You may not have seen your best friend but you two have spoken. And a job is just that. A job. You’re a great nurse… I’m sure you won’t have any difficulties fixing that situation when you’re ready.”
“Why are you so fucking calm?”
The way she just asked that question made me narrow my eyes at her. She was picking a fight, but I wasn’t going to take the bait. “Listen,” I started carefully. “I don’t know what has made you so angry, but you don’t get to speak to me like that.”
“Why?” she asked, lifting her chin in defiance. “Because I’m in your house?”
“Are you going to start taking your clothes off again?” I tried to sound funny, wishing I could erase the frown on her face. It didn’t work.
“Nah,” she said angrily. “I wouldn’t want to burden you with the sight.”
“What ARE you talking about?” I asked and she didn’t respond. “And to what you were asking before, the answer is no. Not because you’re in my house,” I said, chewing on my steak. “Because you might not be able to take anything back that you say. Be careful.”
“I will be whatever the fuck I want to be,” she said, her tone deathly calm. “You don’t get to tell me what to do.”
“You can be as angry as you want,” I said. “But you don’t get to project it at me. And yes, you may speak however you want, but surely I have a say in the manner in which you’re speaking when you’re speaking to me.”
Well, that shut her up. She stayed standing, silent and seething. I forced myself to keep eating, though I was barely aware of what I was putting in my mouth. “Fine,” she said. “You want to eat? I’ll eat.”
“I don’t want you to eat if you don’t want to do it.”
“You either want me to eat or not eat. Make up your fucking mind.”
“You make up your mind,” I said, my voice getting louder. “I thought you were hungry so I offered you food. You said you’re not hungry so I told you it’s okay for you not to eat. What the hell do you want me to say?”
I know I was being unreasonable, intolerable. I know I was picking a fight. It’ wasn’t fair to him, I knew that too. I knew all of this and yet I couldn’t seem to stop.
“You can be as angry as you want,” he said, taking a sip of his wine. “But you don’t get to project it at me. And yes you may speak however you want, but surely I have a say in the manner in which you’re speaking when you’re speaking to me.”
He carried on eating, completely calm and it just made me madder. “Fine. You want to eat? I’ll eat.”
“I don’t want you to eat if you don’t want to do it.”
“You either want me to eat or not eat,” I argued. “Make up your fucking mind.”
Was I still talking about the food? Exactly what did I want him to make up his mind about?
“You make up your mind,” he replied nonchalantly. “I thought you were hungry so I offered you food. You said you’re not hungry so I told you it’s okay for you not to eat. What the hell do you want me to say?”
“Don’t say anything,” I said, leaning my back against the kitchen counter. “Don’t say anything at all. I’ll have you know the date went perfectly.”
The words came stumbling out before I could even think about why I was doing it. Even if I had the time, I didn’t need to examine the reason. I already knew why. I was trying to incite a reaction.
“Oh yeah?” he asked. “Was he good looking?”
“Yep. He was handsome and rich. And funny and kind.”
“Good for you,” he said. “Someone like me, then.”
“Except not you.”
“Just what you wanted.”
“I’m happy for you,” he interrupted as he carried on eating and I watched him, incensed. “Was that the best you got?”
“He was a great kisser.”
I almost saw the minute his eyes narrowed before he recovered. “Great,” he said, drinking the rest of his wine before standing up and putting his plate in the sink. He looked as if he was debating with himself over something before deciding against it. He walked away from me, and I crossed my arms over my chest. He had just disappeared around the corner when he came right back and stalked over to where I was standing, not stopping until he was right in front of me.
“You know what?” he said, his voice low. With his face just inches from mine, I could see the anger in his eyes, his mouth in a tense line. He clenched his jaw and blew a breath before he continued speaking. “The deal is off.”
“You and me. Friends,” he said derisively. “I can’t be your friend. Friends don’t fight like this. Friends have no reason to fight like this. I thought the whole point of this friends thing was that so that we can speak honestly, but I don’t think either one of us is saying what they really mean. I make my living pretending, I don’t want to have to do it with you, too. So let’s cut the bullshit. It’s exhausting.”
“So what does that mean?” I asked. “You’re going to move out?”
“No,” he said, a smile forming on his lips, his eyes fixed on my face. He lifted a hand and traced my cheek with his thumb and I closed my eyes. Awareness bubbled where he touched me, and I suddenly felt dizzy ‘I told you before… I can handle you. I’m not going anywhere.” He dropped his hand and leaned closer, his voice growing softer. “You should eat something. You get irritable when you’re hungry.”
I opened my eyes to see him grinning at me.
“Eat something,” he urged. “I made it for you. And I hate beans.” He allowed himself one last brush of his hand on my face then walked off and went straight to the door.
“Are you leaving?” I asked. How was it that a man can say that he’s not going anywhere, and then not even two minutes actually go somewhere?
He turned around and flashed me a grin. “Yeah,” he replied. “If I stay I might end up doing something that will really get me slapped. You look beautiful when you’re mad.”
Without waiting for a response, he stepped into the elevator and left the penthouse. It was only when I knew he was well and truly gone that I was able to put a steadying hand on the counter and take a deep breath. My eyes focused on the plate that he had prepared for me, sitting harmlessly on the stove.
It had steak, polenta, and haricot vert.
Everything I had said that I loved to eat. And on the side was a smaller plate, holding the biggest slice of chocolate cake I had ever seen.
I was still chuckling to myself at her expression when I was leaving as I walked out of the elevators. She looked disgruntled and confused, much like how I always seem to feel around her, and it felt good to be able to elicit the same kind of reaction.
I have to celebrate the small victories. Even if it’s at her expense.
The phone rang in my pocket and I picked it up when I saw Shawn’s name flashing on the screen.
“Hey Shawn! What’s up?” I asked, my voice too cheerful even to my ears. I tried to calm myself down but I was so damn happy. ‘Where are you?”
“Home. Where did you think I was?” I heard the suspicion in the question and laughed again. “And what is wrong with you?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, sitting on the bench outside the apartment building.
I looked up at the clear sky and took a deep breath. Winter was finally making its exit, and spring was on the way. My favorite season. A time for rebirth and renewal. Life just keeps getting better.
“I mean,” I heard Shawn say. “You sound so fucking happy you’re freaking me out a little.”
“Well,” I said, wondering if I should share the news. But then again, I thought to myself, why not? They will have to meet at some point anyhow. Strangely this did not make me anxious as it had every other time in the past. Shawn has been my friend for a long time, and has been known to be protective of me. Gia’s tough though… I needn’t try to hide her away any longer. “I should tell you. I’m in love.”
‘WHAT?” There was such incredulity in the response that I grinned. “When did this happen?”
“You know,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders. “I think I’d been falling for a while, but I realized it just now.”
“Dude, are you going to keep repeating what I say?” I asked. “Because that’s going to get old really fast.”
“Did you just say ‘dude’?”
“I wish you two would make your minds up,” Shawn complained. “One minute you’re just friends and then the next you’re in love. I feel like I’m the one going crazy and I’m not even a part of it. As much as I want to giggle like a schoolgirl with you and analyze your ever changing relationship, I’m afraid that’s not why I called.” I heard the tone in Shawn’s voice change, and I knew there was a shift in conversation.
“What?” I asked. “You need another favor for me to do?”
“No… This time I’m doing you a favor.” I waited for Shawn to elaborate, but the answer was not so forthcoming. I had to wait a few more seconds before I heard my friend continue. “Listen… I don’t know who you’ve pissed off, but someone is sniffing around you.”
“How do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“I mean, my office got a call,” Shawn said. “From someone in Kang Holdings, based out of Seoul.” Hye Soo’s company? “They were trying to find out if you were my client, etcetera. As usual, no information about my clients got out but I thought I would give you a heads up anyway.”
“I appreciate it,” I said. “But don’t worry. It’s just one of my associates from here. She invested in my company when I was first starting out.”
“She?” Shawn asked. “I never heard you mention a woman investing in your company before.”
“Yeah… Kang Hye Soo… She’s the daughter…”
“And the sole heiress to her father’s empire,” Shawn interjected. “I know who she is. She’s known in the business world to be cutthroat and very conservative when it comes to taking risks. Why would she invest in a management company?”
I cleared my throat. “Well… Our relationship hasn’t always been all business.”
“So she invested in you.” Shawn said. “And you’re just telling me this now?”
“I didn’t think it was that important,” I said, dismissing the worry that I heard in Shawn’s voice.
“But… If she was an investor when you were just starting out, that means that you have been dealing with her for at least five years.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “We get along. I wouldn’t worry… It was never anything serious anyhow.”
“Does she know that?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”
“You think so or you know so?” Shawn asked.
“I know so.”
“Except now she’s looking into your investments. Your personal investments.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t for anything shady, like you’re implying,” I reasoned. “Hye Soo is the consummate professional. She never lets emotions get in the way of business.”
“I thought you said you know women,” Shawn commented. “Does she know about Gia?”
“Why does Hye Soo need to know about Gia?” I asked, not making the connection. “The two have nothing to do with each other. They don’t even have anything in common.”
“For what it’s worth, I haven’t even seen Hye Soo in over a month,” I said.
“You started pursuing Gia months ago,” Shawn said, thoughtful. “Don’t tell me you were still ‘seeing’ Hye Soo naked then?”
“Well… When you put it like that…”
“You know what,” Shawn said, suddenly exasperated. “I don’t want to know. Can I give you a piece of advice?”
“You’re going to do it anyway.”
“If you’re serious about Gia, you need to break off whatever arrangement you have going with Hye Soo.”
“Why would I need to break off something that was never even official?”
“That’s precisely the kind of thinking that will get you in trouble,” Shawn said. “And I wasn’t done. You need to break it off with Hye Soo, and you need to do it cleanly.”
“I am a world class athlete’s manager, Shawn. I know how to get my message across. And I’m not breaking off what has been a mutually beneficial relationship when I don’t even know if Gia feels the same.”
“And if she does?”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”
“And if she doesn’t?” I took the phone away from my ear and looked at it, wondering when Shawn started caring so much about my love life.
“Then no harm done,” I said dismissively. “I know what I’m doing.”
“I hope so, my friend,” Shawn said with a sigh. “I really hope that you do.”
Banyan Tree Resort and Spa
“You’re not drinking, Jung Jin-ssi?” Hye Soo asked, as I put my soda water down.
“Nah,” I said. “Not tonight. I’m driving.”
“That never stopped you before.”
Sitting a few feet away from each other from the room we always used, we looked just like we both always did. I studied her face appreciatively… She really was a beautiful woman. She was sitting on the bed, already in lingerie and I heard warning bells go off in my head. The way she was looking at me was making me uneasy, and for a minute I was tempted to ask why she had called Shawn, but then decided against it. There’s no reason to shake things up when she and I were as we always were.
“I used to do a lot of things before,” I said, more to myself than to her.
At this she raised an eyebrow but her face remained polite. Poised. She had her public relations smile on her face, the one that didn’t quite meet her eyes.
“What was up with the sudden call, Jung Jin-ssi?” She asked over her drink, a single malt whiskey from the hotel room minibar that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen her drink in the five years I’ve known her. “And why the urgency?”
“I needed to speak with you,” I responded. “Why did you ask me to meet you here?”
I let my eyes drift out of the windows, to the view of Mt. Namsan just outside. There was steam coming from the in room pool, and there was haziness in the light as I looked at her.
She stood up, still in her heels, and walked over to me, hand reaching out to touch mine. I stuck them in my pockets and hoped that she wouldn’t notice
“Why not?” she said flatly. “It’s what we always do.”
“I know,” I said, drinking my water. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. We need to stop.”
“Stop what?” She asked, sitting herself down on the table in front of me, her voice in feigned ignorance.
“This. What we’ve always done,” I responded, running a hand through my hair. “I’ve met someone.”
“You’ve met other people before.”
“This is different,” I said and she gave me an unamused chuckle.
“This is no different,” she said. “You always do this. You meet someone new and you disappear for a few months. But then you always come back.”
“I don’t always do this.”
“Don’t you?” She asked, standing up and pouring herself another drink. “I’ve known you for five years. The longest you’ve gone with someone new was six months. You like new things, Jung Jin. You like the strangeness of them, the shininess of them. You’re fooling yourself if you think you’re not the same with people. You’re not built for the sameness and mundaneness of an actual relationship.”
“I understand you’re not happy,” I told Hye Soo, meeting her eyes. I had long claimed the same of myself for years, had taken pride in being able to do so. She wasn’t saying anything that I didn’t already know, but it still hit the spot where all my doubts lay. “But if you’re trying to hurt me…”
“I’m not unhappy, and I’m not trying to hurt you,” she said impassively. “I am just stating facts. You are a successful man. You are proud of this, as you should be. But with success comes a price, and yours was that you are unable to commit. You are unable to love anyone else but yourself.”
“Why are you saying this?” I asked dispassionately, her words hitting a tender spot. Adopting an aloof tone, I said, “Really, Hye Soo, I’m disappointed in your reaction. I thought you of all people would be cool about this. You always knew what we were and what we were not. You made those rules, remember? You taught me everything I know about these kinds of relationships. I am grateful for that.”
“There’s the Jung Jin I know,” she said, sounding thoroughly entertained. She sat back in front of me and tried to pull me closer unsuccessfully.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I said flatly.
“This was my point entirely. You came in here looking all flustered, nervous. It was cute for about two minutes, but it’s not you.”
“Stop speaking in riddles, and just say what’s on your mind. You have never been one to dance around your words, Kang Hye Soo-ssi.” I moved my chair away deliberately, turning directly away from her.
“No,” she said, her mouth curving into a steely smile. “That was always more your arena. My point is, that I knew if I pushed you hard enough, that you would revert back to your old ways of speaking and acting. People…” she continued, taking a swallow of her drink. “… always go back to who they really are.”
“So who do you think I am?” I asked, more curious than upset.
“You’re a cold hearted bastard. Ruthless. Charming. Fearless. The master of pretense,” she said without hesitation. “I know what you’re like. In and out of bed. You will stop at nothing to get what you want, to get what you think the world owes you. Some people might have a problem with that but I don’t. You don’t need to pretend with me. I already know who you are. I already like who you are. But then I realize why… because you are exactly like me. We are one and the same.”
“We’re nothing alike,” I responded, trying to keep my voice emotionless. “We’re nothing alike.”
“You don’t have to sound so defensive,” she said, her fingers reaching out to touch my face. I stopped her midair and I didn’t miss the flash of anger in her eyes. “Until a few months ago you were perfectly happy being yourself. Accept it. No one… no one else will take you as you are but me.”
“You’re wrong,” I said.
“I’m rarely wrong. Just like you,” she countered, walking towards the windows, her voice taking on a sultry, provocative edge. “You know it yourself. People like us are not meant to be with nice people who just want normalcy in their lives. You can offer a lot of things, but stability and security aren’t one of them. If a woman wanted that, she’d be better off with another man. You know this. If you cared for her you would spare her.”
“I don’t need your advice,” I said, standing up. “Let’s just stop.”
“Until when?” she asked.
“For now, at least,” I said. “We can be friends.” There it was again. That word. Friends. Her eyes narrowed and I could feel the displeasure seeping out of her.
“We were never friends,” she said, voice dull. “Though I have to say it’s quite novel to hear you speak like this, I am tired of this conversation. Don’t fool yourself, Lee Jung Jin-ssi. Our ending has already been predetermined,” she continued. “You are in the throes of infatuation. You may even think yourself in love with her.” She gave me a knowing look and it made me want to throw my glass against the wall. “That will pass. It always does. You can play the lovesick fool all you want now, but you will always come back to me.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe not. Not if I can help it.”
“When will you ever learn that you so rarely have control over your fate?” She asked, getting up from her seat. “It’s been nice seeing you, though I would have preferred that I saw you unclothed, as I always did in the past.” I stiffened when she leaned down and traced a finger down my face tenderly before giving me a kiss on the cheek. “And yes, you will… It’s only a matter of time. Now get the fuck out.”
April 23, 2002
There was nothing to worry about. I know exactly what I’m doing.
It was already way past midnight when I stepped into the penthouse. It was completely dark but for the moonlight filtering in through the windows and Gia was nowhere to be seen.
I walked to the kitchen to start cleaning up only to see that the pots and pans have already been washed. And the plate that I had prepared for her? Nowhere in sight. I spied a note on the counter, her handwriting on it. I lifted it up and chuckled when I saw that she had written in cursive.
I probably should have told her that I can’t read script. Still I recognized the first letter and counted the letters that followed, and was able to deduce that she had written her thanks. I should have been ashamed at how happy even one word made me, my reward for an hour’s worth of work, but I wasn’t. I was too happy to be ashamed. She ate what I had made.
I took a bottle of wine out, and sat on the couch with a glass. I leaned back as I drank, my thoughts composed. Surely I deserved a drink after dealing with two women’s ire, though the two of them could not have shown it any more differently from each other.
Gia’s anger builds and builds, simmers and stews, and after the explosion… nothing. Quick to forget. Quick to forgive. It was almost as if even in anger she was fully cognizant of her actions and her words. Already knew which points she would need to apologize for later on. The woman knew how to pick her battles and fights the ones worth fighting. Even if the loss was imminent and unavoidable.
While Hye Soo… even in her fury she was cool and composed. Hers was not an anger that fades that fast. She fights to win, always to win. A battle that ends in loss is not worth her effort. She bore grudges just as deeply as I do, but in this she will have no choice.
She will get over it. They all do.
Hye Soo is too smart to allow a professional relationship to wither away because we were no longer sleeping together. She liked having things her way, and I hurt her ego. Her pride is bruised and she’s understandably irked. I had no doubt, however, that in time she will be back to her usual self. And none would be the wiser.
And I… felt fine.
The things she may have bothered me at first, but upon closer inspection, they did not bother me now. She was only reiterating things I already knew and I had already accepted a long time ago. She thought to shake me, to shame me and make me hesitate, but I was too far gone for that. I had already passed the point of no return, now that I had fallen in love.
I was under no illusions about what intentions prompted Hye Soo to give me ‘advice’ about my relationship with Gia. I knew the things that drove her: pride and challenge. I also knew that she was not so magnanimous that I for one second believed that she actually cared. And even in the off chance that she did, it was not her job to worry about Gia. It was mine.
I finished my third glass of wine and looked out at my city. I had mentioned before that I stayed in the penthouse as a reminder that I conquered my fear of heights… and that had been true. More than that, though, it served as a constant reminder that I always conquered my fears, tackled all my obstacles head on. I was proud of this, as I felt I deserved to be. We all only have but one life to live, and we have to ensure that we get what we want during that time.
Otherwise, what was the point?
I closed my eyes but for a moment, exhausted from the day, fully content that I had done the right thing, and in the right way.
Six years before…
The smell of death was in the air, even in the thick smell of the forest that surrounded us. It hit my nostrils as soon as I took a deep breath, a relieved breath, an unexpected breath.
Was I alive or dead? I grappled with the thought for a minute, wondering if I should open my eyes.
I took a deep breath as I tried to ward the bile that now rose up in my throat away. Even so the tears that burned the back of my eyes persisted. I searched my mind for a memory… any memory.
There was the hazy glow from the emergency lights on the aisle, and the silence before our plane waged a battle against the sky. I had tightened my seat belt for the third time and tried to contain the panic and fear that was bubbling inside me. And then there was a keening cry, a child, inconsolable, incomprehensible of the fate that was about to befall us.
Was I dead or alive? Which did I want to be? I was still trying to think, my brain functioning slowly when I felt the tiniest sensation.
The feel of my heart, skittering in my chest, as adrenaline continued to pump through my body. And a few seconds later, pain. Deep, sharp pain, coming from my left hand and left thigh. The pain was constant, constricting, and the feel of it was enough to remind me that I was still alive. It blinded me, choked me.
And then… nothing.
I woke up with a start, my hands shaking. Just as I had for the last six years. Unable to leave that night behind, nor the people who shared that night with me.
The memory doesn’t come as often as it did in the immediate aftermath of the crash, but it still came too often than I liked. It was probably the reason why I can’t sleep longer than a few hours at a time. It was best not to provoke temptation when the memory was ingrained in my mind, ready to pounce. Still in some ways I didn’t mind that I had a dependable and constant reminder of how I became the person I am now. And why.
Two hundred and twenty three people. And only one spared. By some weird circumstance I did not end up in the business seat as I was promised, ending up instead in the most undesirable section of the plane. Way in the very back, closest to the restroom, in the aisle seat no less, though that was just a cruel coincidence. What I had believed to be an unfortunate twist of fate had saved my life.
I had taken it as proof that I was meant to survive. It was my permission to become a man who lived only for the present, with no thoughts of tomorrow. I was living on borrowed time, a future built upon those whose lives had been lost. And I owed it to them to make mine count.
It was the reason why I never give up, even when the odds are stacked against me. It was why I always persevere even when the battle seemed lost. All of the things I do. All of the things I am, boiling down to one event.
It had been my savior from the heartbreak of betrayal, was the blessing in disguise in the wake of my pain. Love was only just a small piece of life. The icing on my cake. An embellishment, but no more.
I wondered now what might have happened had I not been in the crash, whether I would have taken Kelsey back as I had been tempted to do. Whether I would have married and had children and lived a simple, ordinary, and forgettable life. Would I have remained as naive as I was then? Might that have been better to the man I am now?
I walked over to the piano that sat in the corner of my living room, a lone reminder of the person I had been. I hadn’t played it since before I learned of Kelsey’s betrayal, a lifetime ago, a different Jung Jin ago. I doubted that I still remembered how to, just like I had long forgotten how it felt to be the old me.
I flexed my hands as I sat down and opened the cover, the ache in my left hand acute, as it always was after one of these dreams. I laid my fingers on the ivory keys, unsure of where to go. Then as if like magic, my fingers started moving to a dance that only they remembered. A forgotten memory back to life.
As if I had the answer in me all along, they traveled up and over the keys and played the first piece I had learned as a child. I marveled how after all this time, they still knew how to do it. Even without practice or reinforcement. I wondered what other things I had locked up in my memory, hoping to banish them away for good, just as I had myself.
Could going back to who I was be as simple as well? Was that what I wanted?
No, I thought. The image of myself had evolved over the years and that person is but a memory. The work in progress with me as the final piece. The memory may haunt me, but it also created me. Still, though, the pain of betrayal ran deep, but not more so than the guilt of having my life spared when others’ had not.
My fingers slowed as I finished the song but then launched again into another without pause, my mother’s favorite song, one she had sang to me as a child, the one thing that echoed in my mind when I was at death’s door. It had been my salvation, then.
I kept my eyes closed as the familiar melody poured out of my fingers. But even as I continued to play, I felt the air thicken with awareness and tension and knew I was no longer alone.
She was here.
April 23, 2002
I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag, two hours after Jung Jin left, two hours after I ate the food that he made for me, wondering what I had been thinking, picking a fight over something so small, something that didn’t even happen.
I have reached new heights of ridiculousness. What the hell is wrong with me?
I wasn’t like this, not for a decade, at least. It’s like the younger me had found her way back to my body and was making me do these things. I hadn’t let my emotions get the better of me in a long, long time. Picking fights? Baiting the man? I don’t even know what to say. I must have looked like a fool.
I’ll just talk to him, I thought. I’ll just talk to him in the morning and explain. That I was having a bad day. That I was just …
My thoughts faded away as my eyes closed.
The sound of music roused me from my semi-conscious state and I found myself getting out of my sleeping bag and walking slowly towards the door. I thought it had been from the CD player in the living room, but it was too soft for that. I pressed my ear to the door, already recognizing the chopsticks piece that children learned to play, the sound bringing a smile to my face.
I tightened the belt of my robe around me and padded barefoot to the door and made my way out, walking straight to the living room.
Jung Jin was in the dark, sitting by the piano, his head bent low. The moonlight filtered through the open curtains, bathing him in soft light, making the scene in front of me almost like a dream.
Was I dreaming? Did I perhaps fall asleep after all? I could feel the warmth of the wood under my feet, as I did the collar of my robe rubbing against my skin. This was no fantasy.
But … he looked like a dream to me.
He seemed oblivious to me altogether, as the melody he had been playing drifted away and he launched into another one without pause. I only had to hear the first line to know what the song was. It had been one of my favorites since I first saw the film, back when I was in middle school. Long before life had taken over, back when I still believed in love.
The tempo that Jung Jin was playing was not the same as it had been in the film, though. He played this version slowly, lending it a melancholy feel. I approached him and he seemed not to notice, his eyes closed, his fingers sure and confident.
But it was not his fingers, but his face as he played, that has captured my attention, the light softly caressing his cheekbones. Afraid to break the moment, I stayed standing, almost afraid to sit next to him, didn’t want to wake myself up if this was a dream. I whispered the words of the song silently, soundlessly, words that I knew by heart as the piece reached its crescendo.
Two drifters, off to see the world…
There’s such a world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waiting ‘round the bend…
Moon river and me.
His fingers slowed even more as he finished the song, then opened his eyes and released a breath. I did, as well. As if only just now noticing that he had an audience, he looked at me standing next to the piano and gave me a lopsided smile. I found myself smiling back though I didn’t know why.
In the absence of noise, silence had always seemed loud to me, stifling. But now, even without the music, it seemed gentle, nurturing… comforting almost. I could feel my heart pounding, could almost hear it, and I found myself praying, not that he may not hear, but that he might. I wished that he could see through the wall that I’d built, that he had the strength to bring it all crashing down, and to do so in a way that it’s annihilated and forgotten, as if it never needed to be there.
The thought I was stuck in something that wasn’t real made me brave. I sat next to him on the bench and studied his face. This scene was eerily familiar, just like every other time I dreamt of him before I came to Seoul. Strange, though, because those dreams have stopped, and yet, here he was again. Except not quite how he always appeared in my dreams.
The man sitting next to me had shadows in and under his eyes. They spoke to me of pain,
pain that I think I know, as well as fear, the same fear that has become my friend. There was heartbreak in those eyes, wariness and doubt. He looked at me now like I was the light he’d been waiting for, like I could somehow save him.
He was wrong. I was no one’s salvation. Not even my own.
That didn’t stop me from reaching out a hand towards him, and he remained still, unmoving. I smoothed my fingers lightly over the line on his forehead, the touch feather soft. I brushed a palm over his hair, just as he had done for me many times before. He didn’t disappear, as I thought he might. He felt solid. Real.
I cupped his jaw with my hand and brought our faces closer together. When his lips were but a breath away, he appeared as if he wanted to speak, but I couldn’t let him. Because it didn’t matter.
Not here. Not now.
We sat together in complete silence, and try as I might to utter words out, that effort was in vain. Between our lips was a question, and though I wasn’t quite sure what the answer was, I think I might be ready to find out.
I felt him draw a breath as our lips met, the sensation both new and familiar. His lips were gentle, coaxing, heartbreaking in their tenderness. His hand, as gentle as the fluttering of a bird’s wing, lingered over my cheek, his thumb barely grazing my skin, as if afraid to touch. His fingers traveled to my neck then trailing over my collarbone, each touch delicate, reverent.
That I would be touched in such a way brought tears to my eyes. It was both exquisite and painful, to be held like this. As if I was someone to be cherished. As if I was someone to be loved. As if I was someone unsullied and untainted, a brand new person. Shiny and worthy.
The tenderness with which he was touching me made me feel ill at ease, and I moaned into his mouth, wanting the urgency that I once received from him… needing it.
But he resisted, kissing me slowly, languidly. His tongue met mine slowly, lazily, making me sigh, his taste addictive. Delicious. He broke the kiss and I moaned in protest, but then I felt his lips on my cheeks, on my chin, on the tip of my nose. He kissed my eyes and my jaw, rubbing a thumb over my lower lip, looking at me searchingly, before he reclaimed my mouth with his.
The way he was, the way we were, made me want to lock this moment away in time, never to be forgotten. If I was being honest, I would admit that I wanted to stay in this moment forever, to stay with him in this moment for eternity.
However, eternity and forevers were not meant for one like me, and after what seemed like a moment too soon, I opened my eyes just as he pressed his forehead to mine. I looked at his face, his gaze studying me intently, and it was then that I knew. This was no longer just about hormones or chemical reactions. Tonight I knew that despite all my efforts at pushing him away, we still ended up in the place that I feared most of all, where things are real and fragile and hearts can be broken.
Under the light of the moon, in a strange place far away from where I had come from, in the presence of a man I didn’t quite understand, I had come full circle. There would be no undoing this, at least not for me.
I should have left a long time ago, I told myself, but now it was too late. I should have taken the chance when I had it, as soon as I had it. Now, I feared that when the time comes that I wouldn’t leave.
Not because I was no longer able to, but because it was no longer what I wanted.