AMC: A LEAP OF FAITH SEVENTH STEP

Seventh Step

April 23, 2002
1:17 a.m.
Jung Jin

Over and above the melody I played I felt her presence envelop me, her footsteps light on the floor. I knew the moment that she stood beside the piano, her scent drifting over me, as if I had known it all my life, as if I had known her all my life.

We’re after the same rainbow’s end…
Waiting ’round the bend…
Moon river and me…

The words came back to me now, as I had so often heard my mother sing. I didn’t know it then, what those words meant, but I think I may do now.

I opened my eyes when the song finished and there she was. Awash in soft light, wearing a flimsy robe, her eyes soft and unguarded as she regarded me. I blew a breath out at the vision she made. Her hair flowing behind her, her mouth opened just slightly, no sign of the temper that I had seen twice over, boiling and spilling over her normally controlled facade. And yet she looked like an angel. A fallen one, but an angel nevertheless.

Was I dreaming again?

If so I prayed that this be a dream that I never wake up from.

She sat next to me, silent as a ghost, her eyes searching and questioning though I know not what she seeks. She looked at me as if she knew me, and I realized that I wanted her to. I wanted her to know me.

I wanted her to love me.

I wanted her to take me as I am now, without regard to whom I might have been or to whom I should have been. It made absolutely no sense… I haven’t wanted that kind of acceptance in a long time, had rejected it outright from others, but from her, I wanted it. I needed it. I needed to know that wrong or right, good or bad, that she would still love me.

Something about the way she looked at me made me feel exposed. As if I had just opened up a wound that I had convinced myself had closed up so long ago. The doubts came then, as if I was but a young man again, fearing that I will never be good enough no matter how much I tried. The fear, as well, that I had somehow made myself into someone undeserving and unworthy of the love she would give.

I imagined her future with someone else, someone who would love her with the wholeness that I no longer had, someone who might actually deserve her, and the pain that closed around my heart was so sharp I was tempted to close my eyes to shield myself from her.

As if in doing so I could unlove her.

As if in doing so I could unmake me.

As if I still had a choice.

She makes me want to be another version of myself, one I wasn’t sure was still possible. And it scared me. I had worked hard to be who I am. I had worked even harder to accept who I am.

But what if… she can never accept me?

The questions swirling in my head, I was about to turn away when she reached a hand out to touch my face. I remained frozen, unable to deny myself her touch. Given freely, offered without force.

It wasn’t New Year’s Eve. There was no one else here. We neither had excuse nor reason to be sharing this moment, but we are. In the same space, in the same pocket of time. Here. Still. Now.

I felt her fingers over my forehead, like butterfly kisses smattering over my skin. She ran a hand over my hair, so tenderly it was almost painful and I almost forgot to breathe. The expression on her face made it seem like she couldn’t believe I was here, either. As if I wasn’t real.

I was real, alright. Made of flesh and blood. A mere man, caught in between the shadow and the light and I needed her to save me. I will gather every good part of me left and give it to her in the hopes that she can put me back together again. Into someone new. Someone good. Someone she could love.

I wanted to ask her why she was here, if I woke her, but she kept coming closer, bringing her face temptingly, painfully close to mine. Her eyes were shadowed, from reasons I have yet to know, reasons I was afraid to find out.

My life is borrowed. I will always do what I had always done, what this version of me had always done. I will more than likely hurt her.

Perhaps Hye Soo was right. Perhaps I should relent. Let her have a happy life with someone simpler, someone sinless. Someone not me.

If I was strong enough, I would end this. If I was kind enough, I would send her away. But I wasn’t and I couldn’t. And it will be my undoing.

My breath caught as she pressed her lips to mine, the gentlest of kisses. Offering an answer to a question I dare not ask. I cannot hear her say no again.

I savored the feel of her lips against mine, the sound of her sigh at the contact. My tongue ran over her bottom lip in question, and she opened her mouth willingly, generously. Our tongues met as gently as our kiss started, our breaths tangling together. My hand traveled over her face before resting on her neck, where her pulse was jumping.

Kissing her was addictive, like a drug. I wanted to keep doing it. I didn’t even have to tell myself to slow down and enjoy it… I was already doing that without prompt.

Something about the way she melted into my arms, her mouth in an offering, made me feel like I could conquer everything.  The world. My ghosts.

I broke our kiss and heard her moan of displeasure, smiling against her lips before kissing her cheeks, her chin, the tip of her button nose. I pressed kisses over her beautiful eyes and her jaw, my thumb leisurely stroking her lower lip before I succumbed back to the temptation and kissed her again.

We had kissed before, but she had been right. None of those counted, not when we had this.

I wanted to kiss every part of her, to imprint myself on her, as if in doing so I could brand myself on her heart as well.   I had desired many women, but never had I wanted one more. And not just her body, but her mind. Her heart. Her soul.

I pulled my mouth away and rested my forehead against hers. The kiss was over but I already knew that I would remember it all my life. I had given my body to many before her, always withholding my heart, believing that I no longer had much of one to give to anyone. But she reminds me that I still did have a piece, a small piece, barely recognizable, but it existed… And it only beats for her.

I studied her face in the moonlight, and even now I envied the way the light kissed her, as if seeking her presence. It wove in and around her hair, and her lovely haunted eyes. I pressed my forehead to hers to prolong the contact, as if in doing so I could make only now matter and nothing else.

While I watched her, however, I could almost see her transform, a split second before she guarded her eyes I saw the fear jump back in her gaze. The scars she carried were heavier than mine, weightier than mine. The tension came back to her shoulders, the weight of the past on her back. The uncertainty of what we were, what we have, what our future will be was back in her eyes. And yet, she didn’t run… not like she did last time.

Just like that the dream was over. The moment was broken, I knew this for sure. On her end, maybe. But not on mine. Somehow and someway I will try to create a life for both her and me with the scraps of these moments. It might take a lifetime to do it, but a lifetime I still had.

My life is borrowed, and will forever be. But borrowed or not I will give it to her, if she will accept me.

*****

1:20 a.m.

Gia

“What are you thinking?” He asked quietly, his voice hoarse.

“Nothing,” I said at first, then recanted, “Just… how nice it was to be here with you like this. What are you thinking?”

“About the same,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Among other things.”

I wanted to ask him what else he was thinking about when a niggling feeling stopped me. Too much. Too soon. His eyes continued to roam over my face as if he was memorizing this moment. And me.

“Where did you go?” I asked quietly.

“Taking care of unfinished business,” he said, looking away.

I nodded my acceptance of his answer, knew that I was in no position to pry.

“You’re beautiful,” he whispered, his voice in wonder, almost more to himself than to me.

At his honesty it was my turn to look away. “I know what I am and what I’m not,” I said lightly. “And I’m no beauty. Passable at worst, exotic at best.”

He shook his head no. “When I was in America, I traveled to the deserts in Nevada. Have you ever been there?” I shook my head no. “At first glance it’s barren, empty. It appears like there’s no sign of life at all. But I continued to walk, and every so often, a pop of color would catch my eyes. There were wildflowers. In the desert. Can you believe that?” He looked at me and smiled. “These flowers… They look fragile but they’re sturdy, strong. They were born into the worst conditions, experienced the harshest of elements, and yet they survived. And thrived.”

He took my hand in his and I didn’t pull away. “They weren’t traditionally beautiful like roses, or elegant like orchids. But they were unique, exquisite in their loveliness, because you know that they weren’t sheltered and babied to exist. They made do with the little amount of water they could get, and needed no one to take care of them. They fought for their lives, and that strength and fortitude turned them from something negligible into something magnificent. And the best part? In doing so they didn’t just ensure their survival, but they changed the landscape around them as well.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t know what you’ve gone through. I hope someday you can trust me enough to tell me. But you are one of them. A wildflower, standing proudly in the desert. A beacon of hope where one would not expect to find it. It makes you not only pretty but infinitely beautiful.”

Something about the words he said, the way he said them, touched something inside of me and I felt tears spring to my eyes. He didn’t know me, couldn’t possibly have known how wrong he was, but the sentiment was beautiful, and I couldn’t felt but feel moved.  “You and your words,” I said, teasing, trying to lighten the mood and change the topic. “And you say this after I pick a fight with you for offering me food.” I playfully punch his arm. “Are you trying to seduce me again?” I asked the question offhandedly but when I saw a muscle tick on his jaw, I almost took it back. He was in no mood to be playing around tonight. “I’m just kidding,” I added. “Besides, we’re friends.”

He shook his head slowly before he responded. “I have no intentions of being friends with you. My feelings are unchanged.”

The look in his eyes was so intent that I wanted to run. It made me feel cornered. Trapped. Oh but what a beautiful cage. For one second I wished that I wasn’t the woman that I am, that I didn’t have the past I have. I wished I was someone who can trust this, trust him, and trust myself.

“You know nothing about me,” I said.

“I know enough,” he responded, reminiscent of the first time we fought. “I know I feel things with you that I haven’t felt before.”

His honesty was making me nervous. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from and why he was divulging so much right now. All at once. I almost told him to cut it out, but what he said picked at an old wound and I responded before I could think it through.

“I’m that girl,” I said softly. At his questioning look I continued. “The girl that makes boys do things for the first time.” But never for the good things, I wanted to add but did not. I make them hit girls for the first time. I make them cheat on girls for the first time. I make them forget who they are and who they love for the first time. Though I didn’t say those things out loud, my voice thickened with emotion anyway. “I don’t want to be anyone’s first for anything. Not anymore.”

 

*****

Jung Jin

 

“I’m that girl,” she said so softly I had to come closer to hear her. Her eyes were distant and yet so sad, the feeling so apparent it was almost palpable. “The girl that makes boys do things for the first time. I don’t want to be anyone’s first for anything. Not anymore.”

It was silent for a moment, until she gave me an abashed look. I already knew that it was her way of changing the topic, of moving onto another subject, and though I wanted to know more, I didn’t want push her too hard too quickly and so I allowed her some space. For now.

“Did I wake you?” I asked and I practically heard her sigh of relief.

“No,” she said. “I was awake. I think. Unless this is a really detailed dream. In which case I’ve really gone off the deep end because now I’m conversing in detail with a figment of my subconscious.”

I chuckled lightly and she frowned at me. “What?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I like it when you use these complicated English sentences.”

“You like weird things.”

“That’s true,” I agreed then put a finger to my mouth. “Don’t tell anyone. I’ll lose all my cool points if people knew I was a dork.”

“I like it,” she said. One line, delivered in an almost flat tone, and it went straight to my heart. Her lips curved into a smile and I suddenly felt like I’ve just won the lottery. My eyes fixed on her lips and she tucked a thick strand of hair behind her ear self-consciously. “You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?” I asked.

“That thing… Where you look at me like you’re hungry,” she muttered.

I laughed out right at her obvious annoyance and fought the urge to pinch her cheek because she was just so fucking cute when she’s like this. “I’ll do better,” I said solemnly.

“Make sure you do,” she responded in an altogether haughty tone before she stuck her tongue out at me.

Struck with a feeling of tenderness I could only smile at her and even in the flimsiest of lights I could see her blush, but she didn’t look away.

After what seemed like an eternity of looking at each other goofily, she cleared her throat and stood up. “I probably should try going to sleep now.”

“Yeah,” I said a bit mournfully, sad to see the night end and almost afraid that come morning we will be back to how we were, as if this moment never happened.

“Want to walk me to my door?” She suddenly asked, her hands in the pocket of her robe. She looked as surprised as I felt. “Okay that sounded weird since technically it’s your door and…”

“I’d love to,” I interrupted before she talked herself out of it. She needn’t ask me twice.

She nodded and started walking the short distance slowly, as if she was waiting for me to catch up. I quickened my steps to stand with her side by side before we walked together. We were almost at the guest bedroom door when she spoke again.

“About that kiss…”

“What kiss?” I asked innocently.

“The kiss… Just now…” I looked at her expectantly, hoping with everything that I am that she won’t say it was a mistake.    “Our first kiss?” I asked and thought I saw her blush.   “So it does count as that, then,” she said, relieved. “I will count that as it as well.”  “You should,” I teased. “It was a good kiss.”  “Good?” She asked, sounding almost offended. “Just good?”  “Well, maybe more than good…”  She frowned and I placed my hands in my pockets before I reached for her again.   “Anyway,” she said. “That wasn’t what I wanted to talk about… That kiss…”

“Yeah?”

“I should have asked for permission first,” she said quickly her back to me. “I can’t be penalizing you for something I didn’t do myself.”

“It’s okay,” I said walking so closely behind her I almost bumped into her. She turned quickly around and looked up at me. “You have permission to kiss me whenever you want.”

“Will you expect the same of me?” She asked, suddenly wary.

“No,” I answered. “I will ask you for permission every time until you tell me I need not.”

“So you are going to kiss me again?” She asked and I couldn’t decipher what tone was in her voice.

“Are you giving me advanced permission?”

She mumbled something under her breath.

“What was that?” I asked. I needed all kinds of clarifications with this woman. “Are you saying yes?”

She met my eyes before she replied. “I’m not saying no.”

Shocked and a little dazed from her response I could do nothing but stand there like an imbecile, my mouth hanging open. I tried to form some words but I couldn’t get them out, afraid the best I would come up with was ‘yes, please,’ and ‘now’.

“Well good night then,” she said awkwardly before ducking and going into her room, leaving me as I was, still trying to decide if I heard her right.

It wasn’t until I heard the door latch that I was roused from my reverie and realized that I had been left in the cold again. Too elated by her response I planted a loud kiss on the door before practically skipping to my own room, just inches away from where she would be.

What a night.

 

*****

Gia

I closed the door behind me, my hand holding on to my heart, practically leaping out of my chest.

What the hell just happened? Unable to come up with an answer I found myself leaning against the door for support. My knees felt weak. Did I want him to kiss me again?

I still wasn’t quite sure what came over me, or him. Or why tonight had been different. Was it that I saw a different side of him that swayed me?

Or was it the brokenness in him that I glimpsed that drew me?

The thought was a sobering one, and I found myself replaying what just occurred even as I took my robe off and climbed into the bed. I hugged the pillow close to me and wondered if in the light of day things will be different.

Not quite able to pinpoint which way I wanted it to go, I closed my eyes to escape the questions that I already knew was going to come. But forcing myself to sleep was a near impossible task when thoughts about the man next door continued to plague me. By the time I finally did, it was already dawn and another day had begun.

 

*****

April 23, 2002

7:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

After tossing and turning for a few hours, going over what had happened in my head so much that I had convinced myself that I imagined it all, I rose from the bed reinvigorated yet nervous, ready to see her. If for no other reason than to prove that last night actually happened and that she hadn’t been a) drunk, b) medicated or 3) possessed by another being altogether.

I brushed my teeth and washed my face, was careful to put a suit on, as if in doing so I could regain back some of the control I gave away last night. For many years it had been my armor. As long as I was dressed the part I could play the part. It’s what I had always done and will always do.

I walked out of my room once I was sure that I looked fairly normal and noticed as soon as I stepped out that the guest bedroom remained closed. Trying to appear as if I wasn’t that fussed I paced in front of her door a few times, wondering if she was still asleep.

“Good morning,” I practiced quietly then cleared my throat before adopting a more cheery tone. “Good morning, Gia!” No I can’t do that… She’s going to think I had a lobotomy overnight.

I’ll make breakfast first, I decided. Maybe she won’t complain about being woken up so early if I have food on the table. It’s always worked with my sisters. No reason that it won’t work with her. Nodding to myself about the credibility of my plan, I walked straight to the kitchen and pulled an apron out of the drawer, busying myself with the eggs and the bacon then turned the coffeemaker on, knowing that she’s more cooperative after a dose of caffeine.

I set the table just the way she liked, careful to but both a pair of chopsticks and utensils next to her plate. Though, I had noted recently that she’d gotten more proficient with the metal chopsticks she had such difficulty with in the past.

She’s getting used to being here, I thought, a small smile on my face. She’s getting used to being with me.

My eyes looking over the meal I had prepared I took the apron off and applied another spritz of cologne before finally going back to her door and convincing myself to actually knock. I knocked twice, and she didn’t answer. Knocking again I was surprised not to hear any response. At all. I pressed my ear to the door and tried to listen for any activity inside the room but heard no such thing. No footsteps. No grumbling. No mad dash to the mirror to make sure she looked decent.

There was nothing but silence. As if there was no one home.

Hesitantly I opened her door, almost anticipating that she would be throwing something at me as soon as she sees that I had entered without permission, but it seems that I worried for naught. I breathed a sigh of relief before I furrowed my brows.

Where could she have gone already? She doesn’t usually run until 9 a.m.

The curtains were open in the room, a room I hadn’t entered since she’d been here, the sight of the rain falling steadily against the windows greeting me. I walked in hesitantly, aware that she didn’t like her space invaded, and just as I had done in her hotel room, I found myself looking around the bedroom she had been occupying for almost a month.

I frowned as I looked at her suitcases, still sitting just by the closet, the clothing folded neatly inside. Her beauty products were still in her cosmetic box, all in neat little rows. All of her belongings in one tiny space. Just like how it was in the hotel room.

The bed was undisturbed, the linens just as they were before she came to stay here, down to the tucked corners. The pillows untouched, as well. The bedside table held no magazines or books, no wayward make up. Everything looked impeccable, as if it had never been touched.

She’s very neat.

Perhaps it was just her way, I told myself. Maybe this was how she traveled. Except… a memory ran through my mind. A picture of the loft she was living in when she was in San Francisco. It had been the same there, as well.

Every place she’d been and as if she wasn’t there at all. Just like a ghost.

My eyes continued to travel around the room, making note of every detail.

And there, just like the in the hotel room, there was a sleeping bag on the floor, unrolled to its full length, partially unzipped. Obviously used. On a regular basis if I was to guess, seeing as there was an indent in the pillow where her head would be, as well as a book inside.

Did she use one in San Francisco too? I asked myself silently, though I knew not the reason since I was positive what the answer was.

But… why?

Why would she sleep in a sleeping bag?

Why would anyone choose to do that when there was a perfectly acceptable bed available?

Why did she not unpack?

Maybe it’s the same reason why she always only used plastic utensils and paper plates, the logical side of me responded. The easy answer would be that she was just plain weird. Maybe this could be attributed to some sort of compulsion. A psychiatric disease?

I shook my head. I was no psychologist but I don’t think it’s that.

I sat on the side of the bed, telling myself to think about it. Think about it.

Sleeping bag. Unpacked suitcases.

Who carries both?

I answered my own question with a small smile. A woman who travels. This was easier than I thought it would be. I told myself to continue… if I asked the right questions, then surely I can figure this out.

Why would a woman who has stayed in one place for a period of time still have her bags unpacked?

The answer was clear as day. Because she wants to be able to go, even at a moment’s notice. I mentally patted myself on the back. This was just like a puzzle, and I had always been good with puzzles.

Why the sleeping bag, though?

Sleeping bags are used for warmth. For comfort. For protection.

And the plastic utensils?

Quick clean up. Disposable. Temporary.

So what ties them all together?

The connections were forming, though the lines of my reasoning were not straight and clear. There was the answer here somewhere, though I can’t seem to find it.

Or was it… Perhaps that I didn’t want to?

A woman who needs to feel that she can leave quickly. A woman who needs to feel safe.

The answer was right there, trying to evade my grasp. I closed my eyes, telling myself to concentrate on the snapshots of her life that I had seen.

Then like a montage, memories of her saying things, doing things. I knew that I was close. The pieces started clicking together in my head, small details I noticed but never took the time to examine; the way she brought her hands up to cover her face when I grabbed her hand in anger, her desire for freedom, her insistence on never depending on anyone else. And her words…

“I’m that girl. The girl that makes boys do things for the first time.”

“Other women… dream of being swept off their feet. You know what I dream about? Freedom.”

As if the missing piece settled into place, I stood up and opened my eyes, my hand closing into a fist even as I shook my head in denial.

Surely not. It was not possible.

The woman that I know… Could never have allowed anyone to touch her like that. The woman I love was too strong and too willful to allow herself to be treated as such.

I was still reasoning myself out of the only conclusion I could come to, adamant that it could not be so when I heard her voice in my head, her tone flat and resigned.

“The price for wisdom is pain. Humans learn so little from happiness. Pain, however, is a great teacher. It’ll teach you its lessons, whether you like it or not. And certainly regardless of whether or not you’re ready.”

“The thing is, though, is that you can do whatever you want, really. You’re bigger than me, stronger than me. If you really wanted to, you can make me bend to your will.”

I gritted my teeth and clenched my jaw as the realization dawned, fighting the urge to smash my fist into the wall. Rage for a faceless nameless man who dared hurt her that way filled and simmered. Who was it? Her father? Her ex? They are as sure as dead. I will go kill them myself.

I tried to take a calming breath, reminding myself that it was in the past, that she was fine now, and yet it didn’t abate.

Do you know what it’s like to feel so helpless? Her voice asked, taunting, knowing. You don’t know me.

No, I didn’t know, as I walked out of the bedroom without shutting the door. Not until today. I think I finally have an idea now, what she could have been speaking of. Without allowing myself to pause and reconsider, I grabbed my jacket and left.

*****

Gia

It wasn’t until I had ran my first block that the skies opened. It had been overcast when I rose from the bed, the bed that I didn’t even realize I had slept on, but now the clouds had well and completely unleashed its fury. I blinked the water away from my eyes as I pushed myself to keep going, determined to run today. God knows I needed it.

After what happened last night, I needed to clear my mind. Something had been different last night, and I wasn’t sure whether it was one single thing or a culmination of all of them. Was it because he cooked my favorite food? The fact that he managed to stay calm even as I was trying my best to get him riled up, as well? Or was it the way he seemed to know just what to do to make me feel as if even my insanity was sane?

Maybe… maybe it was that I saw another part of him, one that I could relate to. One that I could empathize with. The pain in his face and the doubts in his eyes. He looked like I felt most of the times, except he hadn’t hidden them. I admired him for that, and wondered why he chose to show those emotions to me. And why, of all things, it was that shadow in who I thought he was that drew me. Maybe it was because it was that same shadow in me that I knew so well. It was the part of me that I understood, the side that I had examined and tried to overcome.

Whatever the case may be, the whole thing left me feeling disconcerted. Unbalanced.  But not bad. Not panicked. Not yet.

My legs were aching, my shoes making wet sloshing noises as they hit the pavement, the sound like a staccato. The rhythm kept my mind calm, made me feel safe. As I ran my mind went through every single picture of Jung Jin in my memories… they first came in pieces, the fragments of how we met and all our interactions in San Francisco, then like a constant movie reel, all of our mornings and nights here in Seoul, the images in slow motion.

But what does it all mean? Things may have changed between us, but they haven’t changed with me. I will still have to leave. Sooner or later, this, too, will end. Whether by his will or mine, this will also have an ending.

Don’t think about that now, I silently scolded myself. Trust you to worry about the future when the present was just as undecided.

I was still berating myself that I didn’t realize until my third time passing the garbage heap that I was being followed. Again.

Was it the same culprit? I thought, grateful for the distraction. I ignored the intruder’s presence though I could feel his eyes on me, and heard the sounds he made, convinced that after a while he will give up.

Why me?

Was it because he knew I was a foreigner?

I halted to a stop when the pedestrian light turned red, though as if not anticipating that I would do so, he continued to run. Straight into the stream of cars. I looked up, trying not to panic, and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that the stoplight was still as it was.

Mind your own business, I told myself, Not your problem. He will go. Of course he would. He’s not stupid.

I was arguing with myself, determined to just leave, when he stopped abruptly and turned around, as if looking at me. His brown eyes were gentle and kind, partially covered by long hair, his mouth opening to catch his breath. Even from this distance I could see his body, matted and dirty, shivering in the rain.

The light turned green and he stayed still, unmoving.

“Run!” I yelled and he cocked his head to one side, though he remained in the same place.

What if he doesn’t understand English? The thought hit me suddenly, and I tried to think whether or not I had ever heard or used the word for run in Korean. Though I had learned more phrases from my book, I had not done either.

He was still looking at me, as if asking a question and I shook my head in frustration before making a mad dash to the middle of the road and scooping him up in my arms.

*****

“No, Miss. He doesn’t have a micro-chip,” the veterinarian at the clinic said as he continued to examine the mass of fur in front of him. He shone a light over his eyes and then pulled up an ear to look inside. “He has a slight yeast infection in his ears, though. And if I was to guess from his teeth, he’s about three years old.” He looked at his skin under the fur and smiled. “No fleas. No mange.” I nodded though I wasn’t quite sure what he was talking about. I know nothing about animals. “Besides the fact that he’s a little underweight and obviously needs some grooming, he looks healthy.”

“I didn’t want to know all that,” I said. “I just wanted to know who to return him to.”

“He doesn’t have a collar, so I doubt that he’s anyone’s pet,” he said and I looked at his badge, only to realize that it was in Korean. I can’t read Korean. “He was probably living outside.”

“But… how?” I asked. “Look at him… he’s so little.”

“Even the smallest things know how to survive, Miss…”

“Gia,” I answered and realized that the veterinarian was smiling at me. And that he’s handsome. And young.

“Gia-ssi,” he said. “I’m Park Chun Jo.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, ignoring the way he kept looking at me. I know what I looked like, running in here a few minutes ago drenched from head to toe, shoving the dog in his arms and demanding that he find its owner . “So what do I do now?”

“Well…” Dr. Park said, as if reluctantly. “You can leave him back where you found him…”

“In the street,” I interrupted and he nodded. “Or…”

“Take him to a shelter, where he can get adopted out…”

“That’s good,” I said. “But do all dogs get adopted out?”

“Do they in America?”

“I don’t know,” I said uncomfortably. “Probably not.”

“They don’t here, either.”

“And then what?” I asked. “What happens if he doesn’t get adopted?”

“Then he gets put down.”

I stared at him, aghast, then looked at the dog lying on the examination table, half asleep, unaware that we were discussing his fate. “I don’t like that.”

“That’s why I said you can just put him back where you found him.”

“No,” I said stubbornly. “He’ll just follow me again.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Gia-ssi,” he said. “You can always take him home.”

Home? “Impossible,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry… you must be staying at a hotel, right?”

I shook my head no, my eyes firmly on the dog. “No, I am staying with someone here. Besides, I live in America.” I ran my fingers over the dog’s matted hair to his face, then he nudged my hand and licked my palm innocently, his tail wagging.

“Well, he likes you.”

“I don’t know how to feel about that,” I said, frowning at the dog, which seemed to be smiling at me now. I have to give it to the furry little thing… upon closer inspection, he was cute. Not at all intimidating, as I had pictured him every other time he followed me.

“Think about it,” Dr. Park said. “Take him home and see what you want to do.”

“I don’t even know if Jung Jin’s building allows dogs.”

“Jung Jin?”

“My landlord roommate friend person.” I cringed at the label I just gave. I was pretty sure he was my something… I just wasn’t sure what. “But okay. Just until I can get fliers up. And until I decide what to do.”

He handed me a leash before picking him up from the table and setting him on the floor. The dog gave a little shake of his body before he sat down, panting at me, as if waiting for what we were going to do next.

“Do you have a piece of paper and a pen?” I asked the doctor and he pulled both of the pocket of his white coat. I quickly jotted down Jung Jin’s name and address, and handed it back to him. “That’s where I’m staying. If you can, please send the bill there and I’ll pay it.”

“Sure, sure,” he replied. “How much longer will you be in Korea?”

“I’m not sure yet,” I responded. “It’s up in the air right now.”

“Because of your landlord roommate friend person?” he asked, a little too interested, and I met his eyes.

“No, this has nothing to do with him at all. Anyway, thanks for your help. How lucky that you spoke English. I don’t know how I could have done this conversation using only sign language.”

“No problem,” he said, handing me a card. “He got all his shots today so call me if he has any kind of reaction. Or if you had a question. Just… call me if you need anything at all.”

I pocketed the card and pulled on the leash, something the dog stubbornly resisted. He stayed put with his bottom on the floor, now looking at me in displeasure. I tugged again, and still he refused. I could hear the veterinarian chuckling and I looked at him sheepishly before picking the dog up and making my way out of the door.

I held his little body close to me as I jogged back to the apartment building, wondering what the hell to tell Jung Jin when he comes home. ‘Surprise, you have a dog now’ just didn’t seem appropriate. The dog, completely oblivious to my conflict, fell asleep in my arms even as I was running. In the rain. I continued in this pace until we were in front of the apartment building, and then I stopped.

The furry bundle in my arms opened his eyes just then and looked at me trustingly, as if he knew me already. He looked like he was smiling, too, though I didn’t know why he would be so happy.

“Take that smile off your face,” I said, trying to keep my voice stern. “This is just a temporary arrangement. Don’t get ideas in your head.” He licked my forearm, as if he didn’t hear me. “I mean it.” He continued to stare at me and I sighed. “We are going in. I don’t even know if you’re allowed to be here so I will hide you under my sweatshirt.”

He gave a pathetic cry as I pulled him into my jacket, and I ran into the apartment building with a swipe of my card. Ignoring the doorman giving me a friendly wave, I sprinted to the elevators and entered, wondering how I seemed to find myself involved in these kinds of situations. I don’t understand why I can’t just seem to be able to leave things alone.

As we reached the top floor, I pulled the dog out of my sweatshirt and addressed him directly. “Jung Jin, that’s the other person living here, will more than likely have a heart attack when he sees you,” I told him. The dog kept his eyes glued to my face. “It will be okay, though.”

I pushed the code into the keypad and took a deep breath as we entered the penthouse, and I was already practicing what to say. It seemed that I had been concerned for nothing, though, as Jung Jin appeared to have left already. Breathing a sigh of relief, I put the dog down on the floor and went to the kitchen, taking note of the fact that Jung Jin had made breakfast. I had just placed my plate in the microwave when I looked over at where I left dog to see that he was not there.

My eyes traveled around the living room until I found him. By the big windows. Leg cocked up. Peeing for the entire world to see.

I put my head in my hands as I leaned over the kitchen counter. What the hell was I thinking?

*****

Korean Zombie MMA Yeoksam
Gangnam, Seoul

April 25, 2002
5:00 p.m.

Jung Jin

“Hyung,” Joon said as he tried to catch his breath. “You know I just had, like, a three hour team training session this morning, right?” I threw a hard fist into the punching bag that he was steadying right in front of him. “When you called and asked if I wanted to hang out, this was not what I had in mind. We’ve been doing this for an hour and a half and I’m exhausted! You didn’t even feed me or anything.”

I threw a left jab and then a right hook, not giving him a response. He looked at me in concern but didn’t ask me anything else. I kept on hitting the bag, barely seeing Joon, and he, for his part, remained silent.

I had stayed away from the penthouse last night, what with my thoughts still as unstable as they were after what I had deduced. I kept telling myself that it was still only a theory at this time, that I hadn’t confirmed or negated it yet. I could be wrong. I could… but that didn’t stop the fury that came over me at the thought that anyone would hurt her that way. Even now, just thinking about it for a moment, my eyes went dark and I reached back and threw a right cross, missing the bag altogether and almost landing on Joon’s arm.

He stepped away, surprised, then put his hands up. “That’s enough,” he said. “Do we need to talk about something?”

“No,” I said, shoving the bag back towards him. “No.”

“I think we do,” he said, pushing the bag away as he pulled off his boxing gloves and walked towards a bench, then sat down and looked at me. “You always told me communication works. So let’s communicate. Do you hate the punching bag or me? Because that last punch you threw was pretty damn serious. Like Na Jeong serious.”

“Shut up, Joon-ah,” I said, sitting down next to him and gulping a bottle of water.

“Yah… I hope you didn’t call me out just so you can be all sulky with me.”

I released a breath. “I needed to see a friendly face,” I said. “Sorry I wasn’t at your training this morning.”

“It’s the same every time,” he replied. “No big deal. Though I did wonder where you were. Where were you anyway?”

Where was I? In the hotel room, staring at the ceiling, debating whether or not to ask Gia about her past. A past that she guarded fiercely. She guarded it so closely that she never mentioned anything about it to me. I knew nothing about her but the name of her best friend and the fact that she had a younger sister.

“Were you with Noonim?” Joon asked again.

“No, I wasn’t,” I said. “I was just… busy.”

“Is everything okay, though? With Noonim?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think so. But…”

“But what?”

“You and Na Jeong,” I started. “Like she had a past before you…”

“As we all do.”

I glared at him. “I’m just saying… how did you two approach that whole subject? Like… how did you get her to speak about the past she had without you?”

“I never asked, if that’s what you’re asking,” he responded. “It just kind of happened naturally.” Naturally? I thought with a scowl. Not many things happen between me and Gia naturally. He turned to look at me and caught my frown. “Every relationship is different, though. What works for one couple may not work with another.”

He wasn’t giving me anything to work with or to go from, and I glowered at him.

“But how did it actually come up?” I asked.

“You know,” he said, after a brief moment of silence, as if looking for the right words to say. “I don’t even think that she told me herself about some things in her past until we’ve been together for a month, and that’s after having been friends with her for seven years. And it took me even longer.”

“I could understand why you would take so long,” I commented. “But not Na Jeong… what past could she been hiding that you didn’t know about? You already know her ex, you know her family. Her life is an open book.”

“Not that open, Hyung. She had a brother who died.” His voice was quiet and I looked up at him in surprise. “I knew about him, of course, but I didn’t know enough, Just a mention from other people her and there. Nothing from her own mouth, at least not until she was ready to talk about him. I used to wonder if it was because she didn’t trust me enough to confide in me but then I realized it had nothing to do with me. Painful things are hard to talk about, even to the one you love. Maybe even more difficult to the one you love. Not necessarily because you don’t want to, either, but because talking about painful subjects has a way of bringing you back to the moment it happened, like it wasn’t the past at all. It also has a pesky habit of making you feel like you’re still that same person, like time hadn’t passed.”

“But Na Jeong is so… put together and well adjusted.”

“Women are better at making peace with their pasts than we are,” he said with a grin. “Or at least my woman is. And she did it with such grace.  I did it kicking and screaming, but I eventually got there. And you…”

“What about me?” I asked.

“It took you a few years to even speak about the year you won’t talk about, wherein you lost your girlfriend and almost lost your life then went off grid for six months and I was left to my own devices in Japan, completely unaware of what was happening.” He met my eyes. “You of all people should know that being able to open up like that takes time.”

“Time?” I asked. I knew exactly what he was saying, but the woman I love is a flight risk, literally. Time was not a commodity I had in spades. “I don’t have time.”

He studied my face for a few minutes before he spoke. “Is it bad?” he asked. “What you want to know about Noonim?”

“I don’t know yet,” I said, running my fingers through my hair, unwilling to divulge Gia’s secrets without her consent, and certainly not without any kind of proof. “I’m not sure. Maybe I need to look into it some more.”

“Not a good idea,” Joon said, shaking his head. “There’s a reason why she hadn’t brought it up. People don’t take well to other people digging about their past. If she finds out then you’re toast. And the trust that you had been working so hard to earn will fly out of the window.”

“And I’m supposed to just leave it be?” I asked. How can I do that?

“What difference does it make anyway?” he asked. “Will your feelings change if you knew all the sordid details of her life before you?”

“No,” I answered, adamant. “Not at all. I just want to understand her a little.”

He shrugged his broad shoulders. “You can always just ask her. The worst that can happen is…”

“… she clams up, decides that it’s none of my business and tells me to fuck off,” I finished for him.

“Or she might answer your questions,” Joon said. “And you will have your answers, straight from the source, without resorting to underhanded things to get them.”

As he spoke, I wondered how it came to be that I was listening to my ward for advice. About women. How did this happen? I shook my head at this situation. Life really has changed since that woman came into my life.

“Hyung,” Joon said, nudging my side. “Have I earned my meal now?”

 

*****

An hour and a half later…

 

“Shawn?”

I was pulling my car into the parking space when I impulsively picked up my hand phone and dialed my friend’s number.

“Ethan?” I heard Shawn answer. “I’m not talking to you.”

”Why?”

“I don’t even know why I answered the phone. I thought you were someone else,” Shawn answered, angry. “Dude, I called you fifteen fucking times to ask you for one itsy bitsy little favor, but you rejected six of my calls and then the rest went to a phone that’s been turned off. If you’re going to be that kind of friend… even after everything I have done for you, I don’t need you.”

“You’re in a bad mood.”

“My girl’s giving me the cold shoulder. Again,” Shawn said

“I thought you two were past that,” I said. “How long have you two been going at this?”

“Too damn long. And women can be such sensitive petty creatures. I tried to call her yesterday only to be ignored then sent a scathing email detailing each and every sin that I had ever done unto her. Even if all of them weren’t done without any bad intentions at all. “I heard my friend sigh over the line. “Seriously… Whatever happened to gratitude? Then she says she has a new…” The sentence was never completed before I heard another huff. “Why are you calling anyway?”

“I thought about something,” I said. “Do you remember a long time ago… Just a few years out of uni when you called me in the middle of the night to pick someone up?”

“Yeah,” Shawn  said. “What about her?”

“You never told me what happened. Why did I have to come get her?”

“She was in a bad situation, and I was abroad.”

“A bad situation?”

“Yeah… She was with someone who was abusing her.”

“Like, physically?” I asked, making sure to clarify.

“That among other things,” Shawn said drily. “When something like that happens, it’s never just physical, is it? Emotional, psychological… it all comes as one package.”

“I didn’t know,” I said. “And I never had the chance to ask her.”

“She probably wouldn’t have told you anyway. She didn’t want to tell me, but I threatened to go home with her and ask him myself.”

“Why… Why did she not leave until it was so bad?” I asked and felt immediately bad after doing so. I felt like I had just placed the blame on this woman I had only met once, as if it had been her fault that the situation had escalated. Like rapists blame the women they rape for wearing short skirts or being provocative. Like people who point a finger at others after doing something wrong to them and saying that they made them do it. I was never more aware of myself as a man, and I didn’t like it.

“Things like that don’t just get bad overnight, you know,” Shawn said. “Even I didn’t know that until I had to learn about it, so that I could speak to her. I loved her that much. Abuse is a cycle. It starts out in small ways, things you would never even consider. He isolated her from everyone who loved her, told her she was worthless without him. And then when her mind was convinced that all these things were true, he pounced. A slap, first, then a push, and then a punch.”

“And she didn’t leave even then?” I asked, baffled.

“She loved him. He was a shit, and I would have killed him. But she said he apologized and promised it would never happen again. Until, of course, it did.”

“And she still loved him.”

“Don’t sound like that, Ethan. You know damn well how much easier it is to believe something in the person you love than actually recognize them for what they are. Look at you and Kelsey.”

I dismissed the mention of Kelsey’s name after I noted with some surprise that I didn’t feel the twinge I always seemed to in the past. “What happened to her anyway?” I asked, concerned for this woman who had such a violent past. It wasn’t completely selfish. I needed to hear that she was okay. Because I needed to know that Gia would be okay, as well. “Is she happy?” 

“Yeah,” Shawn said with certainty. “Of course she is. I wouldn’t have believed in her so much if I didn’t love her. And I wouldn’t love her so much if I didn’t know that she was made of stronger stuff. I think she’s with a good man, so I couldn’t even begrudge her that. I’m happy that she’s happy.” 

“Good,” I responded. “That’s good.” 

“Why the sudden interest in this topic, Ethan?” 

“Gia… I think she may have had the same experience. I didn’t realize it was so common.” 

“Not many people do. No one wants to talk about it, do they? It’s not exactly conversation that makes you feel all warm and happy inside,” Shawn said. “Are you asking her about it?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “I’m thinking about it.” Shawn said nothing. “Do you not think it’s a good idea?”

“I didn’t say that… Just…” Shawn said before pausing.  “If your woman did have that experience and she’s as strong minded as you say she is, then it must have been bad.” 

“How much worse could it possibly have been?” I asked, confused. 

“There will be residual guilt, and shame,” Shawn replied quietly. “The stronger her will, the more he would have tried… the harder he would have tried to break her. I would not be surprised if he succeeded. Ask her about it… But I would be careful, if I were you.”

 

*****

8:30 p.m.

Gia

 

I dropped down on one knee onto the floor and looked at his face. Dark brown eyes blinked at me as if in confusion and cringing I hid the brush and scissors behind my back. I tried to find the right words to say and how to say it, reminding myself he speaks no English and that it doesn’t matter anyway. He’s going to get a haircut no matter what.

“I know,” I started. “This is going to hurt me just as much as it hurts you.”

He cocked his head to one side and I tried to look relaxed. The Internet said that animals feed off on human’s emotions, and I didn’t want to worry him.

It’s been more than twenty four hours since I brought the dog home, and already the penthouse looked like a disaster zone. The curtains were drawn and closed, because the dog went crazy at the sight of the outside and started barking like mad. The dog seemed to know to go outside for the most part, I think, but the strange environment had thrown him off and I’ve had to pick him up and bring him to the deck whenever he forgets and starts cocking his leg wherever he feels like. As a result, I had placed newspapers on every surface I could find to avoid any more accidents.

I’m going to need to explain the spots on the deck to Jung Jin. I’m going to need to explain a lot of things. I am so dead.

Thankfully he didn’t come home last night. I was able to buy more time. I would think about where Jung Jin spent the night if not for the fact that I had been so busy. I might be worried that Jung Jin had been warming someone else’s bed had I not been so worried about keeping his penthouse intact. I have too many things to think about to think about him. This is what I keep telling myself.

I darted my eyes to one wall, where the dog had scratched and bitten to try to find his way out. I will have to explain that, too. And why, in the absence of appropriate dog food and unwilling to leave the dog by himself so that I can run to the store, I ended up feeding him and me the leftover eggs, bacon, toast and managed to make some ramen, despite the Korean instructions. Although, the ramen was weird and had black sauce.

Nevertheless… The dog liked it and so did I.

At around four in the morning I laid down on the couch to rest my eyes and when I woke up a couple of hours later, the dog was asleep right next to me, still a tangled mess and smelling like a whole lot of things that I dared not identify.

I fell back asleep and woke up around noon. And then the chaos started all over again. This whole pet business was complicated and difficult.

It took me two hours to even convince him that the bath was not going to kill him. And even when I finally got him in it, the relaxing bath I had planned ended up being a dud. He fought and whimpered, scratched and tried to get out. In the end I got it done, though the bathroom floor had flooded with all the bath water. On the upside he now smelled distinctly like me.

I will have to explain that, too.

And now here I was, with my hairbrush and a pair of scissors, determined to give him a haircut. He peered at me suspiciously, as if I was about to kill him. This would be much easier if Jung Jin was here to help me hold him down. That man is never around when I need him. Like, actually need him.

I had just taken my eyes off the dog for one second. It was just one second and he had evaded me yet again. Sneaky little bugger.

“Dog!” I called out. “Stop hiding!”

I saw a wagging tail weaving around the coffee table legs and ran over to see him cocking his leg again. This time to pee on the side of the couch.

Not again.

With a groan I picked him up by his front legs and held him out in front of me. “Don’t go yet,” I ordered. “Not yet. Hold it in. Hold it in.”

I kept repeating myself to him as I ran behind one curtain to open the door behind it. I had just taken a step on the deck when I felt something warm hit the front of my shirt and quickly looked down.

“Dog!” I cried out and he looked away from me. He knows exactly what he just did. “You marked me? I am not your possession! You can’t mark me!”

 

*****

Jung Jin

As the elevator went up I thought up ways to bring the topic up without making her feel threatened. I didn’t want her feeling pressured to talk about it if she didn’t want to.

She might get sad about it, upset even. She might even cry. I can handle that. I am the expert on tears. God knows I’ve had to deal with them my whole life, and not just from the women I had dated. I can reassure her, tell her that it’s okay. This can bring us closer together.

I had just convinced myself that this will benefit the both of us when the door opened to a dark penthouse, all the curtains closed. The way my sisters always did whenever they needed ‘time alone.’ Almost always when they want to have a good cry. Has she… had a nervous breakdown? In my absence… had she gotten depressed? Should I have called last night and told her I wasn’t going to be home? I shook my head. Women can be so temperamental. It’s a good thing I decided to come back when I did.

I stepped foot inside and almost tripped on a pile of newspapers. What the hell? Every piece of the floor had a newspaper. Was she planning on painting the penthouse? Was this her way of coping? She’s been unlike every other woman I had ever known, but this is very bizarre indeed.

Shaking my head I walked towards the guest bedroom to see how she was doing, noticing that there was a weird smell in the air. Like the smell of wet shoes and old house. Musty with a hint of bergamot, rose and warm vanilla? How strange.

I was about to knock on her door when I saw that the guest bathroom light was on. Before I even opened the door I could see the water seeping out. Was she so upset that she had taken something and fell asleep in the bath? Surely she wasn’t that upset… she wouldn’t do anything so crazy, right? I was only gone for one night.

Taking a deep breath I opened the door tentatively only to see some water in the tub. Fully understandable since most of it was on the tiled floor. As in at least an inch and a half of soapy smelly water was on the floor. But at least Gia was not in the tub. Where the hell was she?

I opened the guest bedroom to see everything as it was yesterday morning, her sleeping bag in the same exact position and everything. She hadn’t slept in here last night. Getting more and more confused I walked back to the living room and saw one of the balcony doors opened, the wind blowing the curtains open.

What the hell is she doing out there? Was she about to… jump?

Ridiculous, I told myself. I’ve watched too many damn dramas. I was still shaking my head when I heard her voice, in the annoyed tone that I have come to expect.

“You marked me?” She asked, irritated. “I am not your possession! You can’t mark me!”

Who the hell is marking her? No one is allowed to mark her but me! What the hell am I saying? I asked myself as I walked out to the deck. All this marking talk… I am not a….

“Dog!” I exclaimed out loud when I spotted her, holding a…. mutt in front of her like a baby, giving it a good talking to. Both the mongrel and his mistress turned to me, identical expressions on their faces. “What the hell is going on?!?!?”

 

*****

Gia

 

“Dog!” I heard Jung Jin say from somewhere behind me and I turned around to look at him, realizing belatedly that it was a bit late to prepare him for the newest arrival at his place. A visitor, really. Just until I can figure out what to do. “What the hell is going on?!?!??!”

“I can explain this,” I started very calmly, trying not to laugh at the horrified expression on his face, getting paler by the minute. “Really… there is an explanation.”

“That’s a dog.” He didn’t seem to hear what I was saying, his eyes fixed on the damp dog in front of me.

“Yes, it is.”

“In my house.”

“Right now, yes. You are correct,” I confirmed. It seemed a bit late to deny the obvious. “Actually, he’s outside your house if you want to be technical about it. But he has been in your house. And he is currently in the vicinity of your house.”

“He smells.”

I huffed in indignation before holding the dog close to me. “He smells a whole lot better now.”

“What is he doing here?”

“Chilling?” I asked lamely. Jung Jin kept glaring at the dog, and I instantly felt protective. “You shouldn’t scowl. He has feelings too, you know. Dogs can sense aggression.”

“I don’t care about his feelings.”

“Hear me out,” I said, putting the dog down on the deck floor. The dog regarded Jung Jin suspiciously before extending his front legs in front of him. He emitted a low growl and I put a calming hand on his body.

“He can’t stay here,” Jung Jin firmly said, his voice holding a this-is-not-up-for-discussion-don’t-argue-with-me tone. “HE STINKS!”

“Now you’re just overreacting,” I said. “He’s perfectly well behaved. He’s sweet and appreciative. He’s such a good…”

 

*****

Jung Jin

I was still glowering at the dog as Gia spoke. He was looking at me like I was a threat. Me! I met his eyes directly, trying or send the message that he will not intimidate me. I reminded myself that this dog looked nothing like the dog that bit me when I was younger. And yet, my heart was racing inside my chest, and not because of Gia, either. I think there’s some tingling in my hands as well.

“… He’s sweet and appreciative. He’s such a good…”

I heard a growl coming from the thing in front of me, amplified to my ears.

Gia was still speaking, but her voice was fading away. All I could hear was the dog’s growling, getting louder now and I struggled to hear what she was saying. My eyes started getting blurry in front of me even as I told myself to keep breathing in and out, the way I had been taught to do whenever I felt a panic attack coming on. It worked on taking control of my fear of heights and it will work now as well. It should work. It has to work.

I was still trying to talk my way through this situation when the dog, as if sensing my fear, moved instantly and ran towards me, ferocious sounds coming from his throat. Before I could pick a strategy, the best of which at this moment was to run back to the penthouse and lock it, I felt sharp teeth clamping on my ankle, over the very expensive socks I just bought.

I looked over at Gia and thought I saw her cover her mouth with her hand, her face growing blurrier even as I kept my eyes on her. Oh no, I thought as I became lightheaded, beset with dizziness. She’s totally not going to think this is cool. Hell, I don’t think this is cool. Really… Really… This… Is… Not… Accep…

*****

“Jung Jin!!!!” I heard her voice say, sounding distant and muted. Like a dream. “Oh my God. I forgot he was terrified of dogs.”

I cringed inwardly. I wouldn’t call it terrified. Just a slight fear, really. More of an inconvenience.

“What do I do? I can’t perform CPR. He has a pulse. What should I do? Should I slap him? Throw water on him?”

I couldn’t help but smile even as I kept my eyes closed. What a dream. She should definitely perform CPR on me. That would include some mouth to mouth. How do I make my pulse stop? Can I fake not having a pulse?

“I need to call a doctor,” she muttered. “But I don’t know any doctors.” She was quiet and I waited to hear what she would decide to do. “Oh! Yes I do. I do know a doctor. Now… Where is his card?”

I heard silence and then the sound of paper crumpling under footsteps walking away from me, but then not even a minute later, softer footsteps walking back to me. I knew she wouldn’t be able to stay away for too long.

I felt something wet on my face. On my mouth to be exact. Internally I smiled even wider. I can’t let her in on the fact that I was already awake. Not when she was so intent on saving my life that she had already begun kissing me without prompt. This dating nurses sure does have its perks. Why didn’t I ever date one before?

I felt the wet sensation on my mouth again, this time a bit more insistently. Wow. She’s really trying. But, I thought as I took a sniff, her breath was a little… Funny. Like a…

“Dog!” I opened my eyes and thought I was going to have a heart attack, remembering everything all at once. On my chest stood the mutt, panting. And waited for the telltale surge of panic to come but it did not. Maybe it’s just when I feel like I was about to be attacked. After all, I had been fine with dogs all my life until I was bitten. Well, I thought to myself as he and I studied each other curiously, this isn’t so bad. He’s kind of cute… As long as he keeps his mouth to himself. I wiped my mouth with a sleeve of my shirt and still he didn’t move. He blinked at me a few times, tail wagging. If I didn’t know better I would think he was smiling.

“You and I are not friends,” I told him and he cocked his head to one side. “Bad dog.”

“Oh, good, you’re awake,” I heard Gia say and I turned my head towards the direction of her voice and saw her walking back towards me. “I called a doctor.” Picking the dog up from my chest, she sat down on the floor next to me and set him down before offering me a glass of water.

Sitting up, I took it and swallowed it in one go, my eyes moving from her to the dog thing next to her.

“We’ll talk about that later,” she said cheerily. “Are you okay?”

“We’ll talk about it now.”

“We saw how Dog reacted the last time you threatened him. I didn’t think you’d want a repeat of the experience so soon.”

“He can’t stay here.” I can’t be passing out on a daily basis. “You saw what he did to me.”

“To be fair, I kind of did the same to you when we first met,” Gia said.

“What?”

“I mean I didn’t bite you…” She said.

“You can bite me,” I said and she ignored me.

“… not in the literal sense anyway. But certainly in a figurative way, and you let me stay.”

“That’s different. You’re a person. You’re a woman.”

“It’s not different,” she insisted, her hand petting the dog’s head. “This is temporary too. He’ll be gone soon, just like me. Your life will go back to normal eventually.”

I ignored what she just said. I didn’t need a reminder. “He can’t stay here.”

“He can’t or you won’t let him?” She asked, her lower lip pouting and I looked away. We were supposed to be having a discussion about her past, not about something as insignificant as that thing.

“He has nowhere else to go,” she said quietly.

“Not my problem,” I said matter of factly. “This is not a homeless shelter.”

“Just for another couple of days,” she said, her eyes pleading with me. “Please.”

I told myself not to soften, but it was the first time she had actually asked me explicitly for anything. And it wasn’t even for her but this thing. She looked at me expectantly before directing an affectionate glance over the dog, now resting his head on her lap. She looked frazzled, and tired, but she genuinely seemed to like him that I couldn’t possibly say no.

“Two days,” I conceded sternly. “I’ll let him stay for two days.” She immediately brightened. “Under two conditions. One… He will be your responsibility…”

“Done.”

“And two, you will need to find him an owner.”

“Fine,” she said, a little too sadly for my liking, but this was a non-negotiable. She said so herself that it was a temporary arrangement. “But I have a condition too.”

“What?”

 

******

Gia

 

“Stop frowning at him, Jung Jin,” I ordered. “He’s obviously feeling your dislike since he won’t stop squirming. And I have a sharp object in my hands. Just one more snip.”

The man gave me a dirty look before turning back to the dog with the same expression. Neither of them looked very happy right now. But at least the dog looked a little better, albeit with some patches of missing hair.

He had a lot of tangles and knots. It couldn’t be helped.

I gently lifted the last knot from behind his ear and he whimpered pathetically.

“Shh,”I said softly, looking straight into the dog’s eyes. “It’s okay. Just one more.” His eyes looked at me sadly and I smoothed a reassuring hand over his rough. “Aren’t you a handsome boy? Aren’t you a good boy?” He merely panted in response and I smiled and then looked at Jung Jin to see him watching me. “What?”

“Why do you speak to this thing nicer than you speak to me?” He asked curiously. “Do you like him more?”

“You’re so petty,” I complained. “Seriously.”

I made the last cut and then sat back and examined my work. Not bad, I thought. Though not as good as the man who was sitting in front of me, still so handsome even with that scowl on his face and a bleeding ankle. My eyes ran over his face, to the impeccable suit and his shoes, now off his feet. Why was it that even in this strangest of circumstances that he could still look so composed?

He ran a hand through his hair and I watched, transfixed. I liked his hair. I liked that it wasn’t as clean cut or as short as one would expect. A bit longer than it should be. Perfect.

“We need a crate,” he said, frustrated. “And a way to potty train that thing. And dog food. What is his name anyway?”

I was so busy watching his mouth as he spoke that it took a minute for me to process what he was saying. “What?”

“What is the dog’s name?” He raised his eyebrows at me as he waited for a response.

“He doesn’t have one,” I said, my eyes still on Jung Jin’s mouth. “Does he need one?”

“Well, what have you been calling him?”

“Dog,” I said softly. Why do Jung Jin’s lips look extra soft today? “I’ve been calling him Dog.”

“That’s not very original,” he commented. “Where did you find him anyway?”

Had Jung Jin always smelled this good? I mean I always liked the way he smelled. But right now I liked it even more. I noticed that he was waiting for an answer to something he asked me, but I couldn’t quite remember what the question was.

“Huh?”

“You’re so out of it,” he said. “I’m the one who walked in on my house completely destroyed by a creature weighing less than fifteen pounds. Shouldn’t I be the one shell-shocked?” He sighed. “You okay? What are you thinking?”

“I missed you last night,” I found myself saying without thinking and wanted to immediately take it back.

“You did?” He asked, grinning broadly. “I missed you, too.”

“I have pee on my shirt,” I said softly, cringing at how awkward I sounded.  His brown eyes were smiling at me and I wondered for a brief second if I ever liked brown eyes as much as I did at this moment.   He blinked at me a few times before letting out a soft chuckle.

“That’s okay,” he said with a slow smile, looking straight at my lips. “I still want to kiss you.”

“You do?” He nodded slowly before scooting closer. “You’re weird.”

“Too weird?”

The teasing tone in his voice made me smile too and I shook my head no. “Just the right amount of weird.”

“Don’t tell anyone,” he whispered.

“My lips are sealed,” I promised.

“Not for too long, I hope.”

We stared at each other for a good long while and I could feel myself blushing.  I had to look away I was so nervous that he would see how badly I wanted to kiss him. Yes… I am definitely rusty.   He reached a hand up to presumably touch my face. He might have leaned over next and finally kissed me. I will never know. Since before he could do either I heard a commotion again and looked at where it was coming from, only to see the dog launching himself on Jung Jin. Again. But this time, on his other ankle.

I guess we all still have some adjusting to do before we can cohabitate in peace.

 

*****

Jung Jin

 

“I can’t believe you passed out again,” she said as I sat down in the kitchen, a coffee cup in my hands. “You are more than ten times his weight. Aren’t you supposed to be tough?”

“Well,” I said. “What’s being tough got to do with being attacked by a dog? Besides, the same thing happened the first time I came into the penthouse.”

“How did you get over it?”

Did I get over it? I mulled the question. “Mental exercises. Lots of psychological conditioning.”

“So… Does that mean that the more you see him you might actually get used to him?” Her expression was so hopeful I almost felt bad.

“He still can’t stay here.”

“Fine.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I still think you’re overreacting. He only attacked you because he was protecting me.”

“From being kissed?” She said nothing else but I saw a small smile form on the corner of her mouth. I will never tire of seeing her smile, especially when it’s a result of something I said or something I did. “Shouldn’t we continue our con…?”

My question was cut off by the sound of the doorbell.

“Oh, that must be the doctor.”

“Why did you call a doctor?” I asked as she stood up to answer the door. “When you’re here?”

“You know,” she said. “How do you know to send me medication for a headache and not have a first aid kit of your own in your house? I am a nurse. I know how to fix things but not without my tools.”

She disappeared towards the elevator bay and I heard her voice, muffled, greet someone. I was still sitting on the chair when she walked back towards me, followed by another person.

“Thanks for coming and bringing me some stuff, Dr. Park,” she said to him, smiling and I narrowed my eyes.

‘Dr. Park’ looked at her with barely disguised interest and I restrained myself from staking my claim.

“It’s alright, Gia-ssi,” the man answered, his English accented but confident, giving her a smile. “I was going to stop by with the antibiotic drops for the dog’s ear that I forgot to give you anyway.”

Gia pulled out a packet of white squares and tape, as well as some antibiotic ointment from the bag and a bottle of drops, along with a syringe.

“What’s the syringe for?” She asked, holding it up for the doctor to see.

“Tetanus shot,” he said, just now noticing me there. His eyes widened momentarily and I smirked. “Is this your landlord roommate friend person?”

“Oh, yeah,” Gia said as she emptied the bag. “Jung Jin, this is Dr. Park. Dr. Park…”

“Please… Call me Chun Jo,” the man said, not even giving her the opportunity to finish introducing us.

“You should let my girl finish speaking,” I said in Korean.

He looked me up and down but didn’t seem all that bothered. “She said you were a landlord roommate friend person. Does she know she’s your woman?”

“Do you want a cup of coffee, Dr. Park?” Gia asked, unaware of our conversation.

“No.” From me. I didn’t want this joker spending any more time here than what was necessary.

“Yes,” he answered. “Please.”

She nodded and made her way to the coffeemaker, Dog trailing her heels.

“Are you really a doctor?” I asked, reverting back to Korean.

“Are you really asking me that?” He asked with a smirk. “I graduated from Seoul University. But I did my undergrad in Stanford, in California. Have you heard of it?”

“I’m a Columbia alumnus myself,” I said. “Have you heard of it?” He didn’t respond. “I didn’t realize doctors made house calls now.”

“They do, when it’s a personal favor.” His emphasis on the word ‘personal’ made me frown. As did his constant glances at Gia. “I asked her to call me if she needed anything. And she did.”

“For me,” I said, trying to erase the look of satisfaction from his face. “She called you out of concern for me.”

“Means to an end,” he said as Gia came back to the table with a cup of coffee.

She sat back down and smiled at both of us, completely ignorant of the tension between me and this doctor.

“Dr. Park, you still hadn’t given me an estimate for your services.”

“What services?” I asked.

“He treated Dog and gave him his shots,” she answered.

“You’re a vet?” I asked sarcastically and watched as the man’s ears turned red. “I thought you were a doctor.”

“Aren’t veterinarians doctors too?” He answered and I liked him even less. I hate people who answer questions with questions of their own. “We’re required to take general medical courses before deciding our specialty.”

“Whatever you say.”

“What do you do?” He asked.

“I’m Kim Jae Joon’s manager.”

“But not Kim Jae Joon.”

 

******

Gia

 

Jung Jin and Dr. Park were glaring at each other across the table and I wasn’t quite sure why. They were both speaking very quickly and in Korean and I shook my head. Now was probably not the time to remind Jung Jin that I didn’t like people speaking in another language in front of me, not when he just agreed to Dog staying here for a couple more days, which, frankly, I was surprised he even agreed to.

“Actually,” Dr. Park said to me. “I was going to come by and tell you that I cleared it with my building. I can take the dog if you’d like.”

“You can?” I asked happily. At least I can trust him with Dog. He’s a vet for goodness’ sake. “That’s awesome.”

“Yup,” Dr.Park said, nodding. I was struck once again how young he looked. And without his white coat, how handsome. Side by side with Jung Jin they were almost of the same broadness of shoulders, though I knew he was a couple of inches shorter. His skin was darker, too. But still… Handsome. He smiled at me, crinkling his eyes at the corner and I couldn’t help but smile back, ignoring the sound of Jung Jin clearing his throat. “You’ll have to visit, though.”

“Of course,” I said. “Can I keep him for another couple of days?” I turned to Jung Jin. “It’s okay, right?”

“Sure,” he said curtly. What the hell is his problem?

“That actually works out perfectly. Because Jung Jin is…”

“Great,” Dr. Park interrupted at the mention of Jung Jin’s name. I just met the doctor and he’s done many nice things for me and Dog but if he hadn’t I would have definitely told him that I hated being cut off. By anyone. “I’ll pick him up in two days. Maybe you can come with us to the park by my…”

“He’s not going anywhere,” Jung Jin interrupted. “We’re taking him.”

“What?” I asked. “But you said…”

“I know what I said,” Jung Jin said, silencing me with a glare. “He’s staying here. That’s final.” Not looking at Dr. Park very nicely he said, his voice low. “So you don’t need to come back here ever again.”

“I still need to pay him,” I said.

“I’ll pay him.”

There was an undercurrent of tension between the two men in front of me and I was baffled. They had never met before so why the instant dislike? And why was Jung Jin behaving this way? He’s normally so charming. So why was he being so antagonistic? Was he… Jealous? Of the doctor and the dog? I know it wasn’t of me and the doctor since there was absolutely nothing there… Sure, I was able to admire Dr.Park on a purely aesthetic level but that was all.

“Dr. Park,” Jung Jin said with feigned courtesy as he pulled his wallet out and gave him a card. “Please send the bill to this address. I’ll settle it. ”

They seemed locked in a battle of wills but in the end, the younger man relented and took it but made no moves to get up from the table.

“Don’t you have to go home or something?” Jung Jin asked and I almost smacked him. He’s being so uncharacteristically rude. “Or other patients to see?”

“Jung Jin,” I said and he turned his irate eyes towards me. “He’ll need to give you the shot.”

“What?” He asked. “Why? You’re a nurse. You can give it to me.”

“I can’t practice in Korea.”

“Don’t they have Good Samaritan laws or something here?” He asked. “Surely you’re covered under that.”

“This is not an emergency, so no,” Dr. Park answered. “I’ll have to give it to you.”

*****

Jung Jin

 

“Stop being such a baby,” Gia said, mere minutes after the veterinarian left.

I was rubbing my arm where I was given the shot, which I was sure that person jabbed into me in retaliation for my having a relationship with her. Oh well.

Finders’ keepers. Losers weep…

“I can’t get to the other bite from down here,” she said as she tried to lift the hem of my pants. She tried to fold it up again. “I thought it was your left ankle but it appears to be a little but higher. Why are your pants so narrow? I… can’t…”

“Should I take my pants off?” I asked and she looked up at me, no shock or bashfulness on her face. She seemed to be considering my offer seriously and I was the one who blushed. I had said it innocently, really, so why was I so embarrassed?

“Yeah, okay,” she said, her voice flat. “That’s probably a good idea.”

It is? Okay, then.

I stood up and took my belt off, my eyes looking over at her to see if she was turning away only to see her watching me, her expression unreadable. I had just unbuttoned my pants when she still didn’t look away and I had to still my hands, now clammy. I shakily grabbed a hold of my zipper and still she made no attempt to look away.

This woman… I don’t know how Joon did this whole living with the woman you love and not being able to touch her thing for so long.  The man is a saint.
“Go away,” I finally said after a few seconds when I saw that she wasn’t going to turn away. “I’ll do it myself.”

“What?” She asked. “I want to help.”

“You’re not helping,” I muttered. “You sitting there with those eyes and that mouth looking at me like that won’t help me at all. So you need to be somewhere else so that I can take my pants off and take care of this. Not unless you want to see something else.”

“I’m a nurse,” she said. “You won’t have anything I haven’t seen before.”

“Just… Go away.”

“Fine,” she said, standing up. “Okay. Holler if you need anything.”

“Anything?” I asked, grinning.

“Forget it,” she said, finally turning away and walked towards the balcony. “Dog,” she called out and the thing actually listened and went to her.

I chuckled as I watched them walk out of the door, then sobered when I realized that I will still have to find a way to bring up what I wanted to talk about in the first place. I was so busy thinking about this that I didn’t even examine what I had just agreed to: a damn dog. A man with a dog phobia owning a dog seemed a bad idea. But then again she seemed a bad idea to me at first too. Shows you how much I know.

*****

April 26, 2002
8:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

 

Today.

I have to do it today. No more waiting. No more waffling.

I would have talked to her last night had she not fallen asleep on the couch, Dog on her lap. It would have been the perfect time as well. I just did her a favor by letting the mongrel stay, scratched her back so to speak, so she would have been more inclined to open up if for no other reason than to repay the favor. The woman was all about give and take, after all.

I silently walked to the living room, trying to ignore the annoying crinkling sounds from the newspapers. I will have to remedy all this when I get out of work later. Already I was preparing a mental list on everything I would have to pick up on my way home.

As quietly as I can I prepared some eggs and bacon for breakfast, and was surprised when Dog trundled over from the couch and made his way to the kitchen, planting himself down on the floor, a safe distance from me. I barely spared him a glance as I went about my morning routine, not stopping until all the dishes have been laid out on the table, making sure to keep the food out of reach from the creature watching me. He’s dreaming if he thinks he’ll eat any of this.

I was about to tell him so, as well, when I saw Gia sit up on the couch, her normally smooth hair tangled up in some places. She rubbed her eyes and then sniffed a few times, as if smelling the food before she met my eyes and gave me a sleepy smile.

“Hi,” she said. “You’re up already?”

“Good morning,” I replied, trying not to stare at her face. No matter how many times I see her like this, it gets me every single time. “Breakfast is ready whenever you’re ready to eat.”

I saw her stand up and fold the throw I had carefully laid on her before setting it back on the bed. Did she even realize that she didn’t need to sleep in her sleeping bag last night? Doubtful, I thought as I watched her stretch unconcernedly, the shirt she was wearing lifting dangerously high over torso, revealing a line of golden brown skin. The jeans she wore rode low on her hips, and I thought I saw a beauty mark over her left flank. I could barely stop myself from licking my lips. That’s… great. Just another spot for me to kiss.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” she said, her eyes looking around, mindless of the fact that I was looking at her as if she was my next meal. “Where’s Dog?”

“Ah… Right here,” I said, pointing to the creature whose eyes are fixed on the plates.

“Dog,” she called out and he stood up before coming to her side.

Together they walked out onto the deck to presumably handle his bathroom business. Strangely the Dog didn’t have any accidents overnight that I could see. Maybe the thing was trainable after all. And why not? People can be trained. So can he.

I sat down at the table with my coffee cup and today’s paper, had only just opened to the sports section when they walked back in. Gia went straight to the kitchen, Dog in tow, and proceeded to fix herself a cup of coffee, before pulling a plate out of the cupboard. A real plate. I smiled even as I kept noting things that she didn’t even realize were changing with her habits.

She walked back to the table, cup and plate in hand and put both on the table. She looked like she was about to sit when her eyes zoomed in on my suit jacket. Before I could ask her what she was doing, she had reached over the table; her bottom lip caught between her teeth, and casually flicked a piece of lint away. I would have been more concerned about how Dog was going to react at our sudden proximity, but I felt her fingers still on me lingering on my shoulder, as if unwilling to pull away. I relished the sensation even as I forced myself to continue chewing on my toast. I felt like Superman, what with the sudden attention.

Something seemed to have happened three nights ago… Something shifted and changed. She seems a lot more transparent, a bit more relaxed. She’s been more open with her thoughts, and had less hesitations touching me or letting me touch her. Maybe that this was how it was going to be between us moving forward. Or at least I hoped so, considering that I was about to broach a subject without knowing how she will react.

Finally she sat down and took a sip of her coffee before dividing her food into two plates. Without consulting me, she placed the smaller plate on the floor, next to her Dog and I frowned. I was trying to feed her. Not the Dog. He’s supposed to eat dog food, for goodness’ sake. Not eggs and bacon.

“Do you have a busy day today?” She asked as she opened her book, just as she usually does every morning.

“Just meetings here and there,” I said, watching as she buttered a piece of toast and divided it in two, dropping the other half on the dog’s plate. “What are you doing?”

“My only goal today is to keep your penthouse intact until you come home,” she said, chuckling. “Maybe I can take him for a walk later.”

“Wait until I get home,” I said. “And we’ll walk him together.”

“Okay,” she said, smiling at me. “I have to say,” she added. “I’m surprised at how well you had reacted to this whole thing, considering. Other people would have been irrational and mad. Thank you for being so reasonable.”

“I can be, once in a while,” I joked. “You’re the one with a temper.”

“That’s true,” she agreed.

Seeing a window for the conversation I wanted to have, I took a deep breath before I spoke. “Have you had much experience with people getting overly angry?”

She looked up at me, her chopsticks in midair. “That’s very random,” she said quietly. “But who hasn’t? People get angry all the time.” She brought the eggs to her mouth and chewed but didn’t offer any more information.

“I meant angry enough to hit you.”

She set her chopsticks down and stared at her plate before meeting my eyes. “Why are you talking about that? Are you asking me if I expected you to hit me?”

“It was just a question.” I tried to keep my voice from betraying any emotion. Tread lightly, I had been told. That’s what I’m doing. I’m doing this for her. It might help if she just talked about it.

“Just ask me the question you want to ask,” she said. “You’re confusing me.”

“Have you ever been hit by a man?” I blurted out, finding no reason to even dance around the topic. I braced myself for her reaction, aware that she might be angry herself.

“Yes,” she said calmly, her voice flat, and I was surprised. The way she spoke didn’t differ as she would when speaking about her day just a few minutes ago.

“Is that why you are the way you are?”

“I am the way I am from most of those experiences, just like you are the way you are because of yours. That experience shaped me, but it does not define me.” She took a drink of her coffee. And picked up another piece of toast. “How did you know?”

“It was just a hunch, until you just confirmed it. I always wondered why you brought up your arms to your face when I had grabbed your arm, why you haven’t unpacked. Just… Things like that.”

She nodded before picking up a piece of bacon and taking a bite. “Was that all you wanted to know?”

“Who was he?” I asked, unable to help myself.

“An ex,” she answered, nonplussed.

Her non-reaction was messing with my head a little. Seeing as that one experience had made such an impact that it still colored what she does today, I would have expected something more. Not sure what exactly, but certainly more than this.

Gone was the girl who showed glimpses of softness, who looked at me almost tenderly; it was as if the woman who kissed me in the moonlight had disappeared and retreated. In her place was the person I first met, wholly fascinating yet untouchable.  I struggled to find a window back into her eyes, to see the slightly unhinged woman I fell in love with… The one who wore her heart on her sleeve, the one who couldn’t pass anyone or anything in need. It was unsettling, seeing how quickly she reverts back into her shell. And I didn’t quite know what to do about it. The surge of anger was quick, surprising. The surge of protectiveness even more so.

“Name.” The word came out in a growl.

“Why?” she asked, her voice dull. “So you can find him and defend my honor?”

“I’ll kill him,” I said. “A man who hits women doesn’t deserve to live.”

She looked at me then, amused. It bothered the shit out of me how her face still bore no expected reaction.

“Too late,” she said. “Someone beat you to it.”

“What?”

“He died, a few years ago, from leukemia.”

“You kept in touch with him?” I asked, shocked. “Why would you do that?”

She shrugged her shoulders but didn’t elaborate further. “I had a role in that as well. People will only do to you what you let them do.”

“Nothing ever justifies a man hitting a woman.”

“Some men think differently. My father thought the same.”

Of course he would, I thought, then realized that she had been obscure about whether he had thought the same as her ex or me. I looked at her as she ate her breakfast calmly, not even betraying any sense of discomfort.  She stayed composed and distant, as if we were talking about someone else’s life.

“What does your best friend have to say about this?”

“Joon?” She asked. “I never told Joon-ie that I had heard from him.”

I would have been glad that she confided something in me that even he didn’t know had I not been bothered about the fact myself. Why wouldn’t she tell her best friend that?

“Anyway,” she continued, “it was forever ago. It was even before I almost got married.”

What she just said made me narrow my brows. “You were engaged?” I couldn’t contain the surprise from creeping into my voice. And a touch of envy, as well, of yet another man from her past. Except this was one she deemed worthy enough to spend her life with.

“Why are you so surprised?” She asked. “I was just like every other woman, you know. Once upon a time and that.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of man won her heart, won it so completely that she would have married him. Once upon a time and that.

“What was he like?” I asked before I could stop myself and she looked at me questioningly. “The man you almost married?”

“He was funny and smart,” she said impassively. “Handsome.”

“I wasn’t expecting that.”

“What?”

“That you only have good things to say about him.”

 

*****

Gia

“Why wouldn’t I?” I asked. “I loved him once. It would be a poor reflection on me if I loved a less upstanding man, especially with my history. Besides, the break up wasn’t just his fault. If anything it was more mine.”

“Why the hell would you think that?” Jung Jin was watching me closely. Too closely for my comfort.

“You’ve let me into your bed, but when will you actually let me into your heart?” Chris asked, standing up and walking towards the windows, his eyes looking ahead. “You still don’t trust me, even after these past few years.”

I sat on the bed, my eyes fixed on a book on my bedside table. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, exactly,” I answered quietly. “I don’t trust anyone.”

He turned sad blue eyes towards me and I pulled myself back, even further from his reach. I can’t let him see how this conversation is hurting me. How I already knew that I was damaged beyond repair without him pointing it out to me.

“You’re here but not really. Even now. Even still.”

“If you give me some more time I can change,” I said. “It takes time.”

“It’s been years. And we’re supposed to be getting married soon. I’m not even sure you really love me.”

“Of course I do.”

“How can you love me if you don’t trust me?” He asked. “Why are we even getting married?”

“Because it’s time. We’re getting older. You said so yourself.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. I wanted to see if you would say it’s because of something else, but you never did.”

“So you’re now doubting if we should because I am not listing out mushy reasons?” I asked. “You know how I am. You knew how I was when you met me. I told you from the get go that if you wanted a woman who will cling to you you are dealing with the wrong woman.”

“I remember what I said,” he replied, voice dull. “And I don’t want you to cling to me. I just want to know that I am your exception.”

“The exception?”

“I thought that with enough time you’ll learn to trust me, that you’ll open up, but…” he picked up his clothes from the floor and started putting them back on. “I’m too tired to talk about this now.”

“Where are you going?” I asked, my voice reeking of desperation. I loathed myself when I’m like this.

“I need some space.”

“Why would you think that?” Jung Jin repeated and I was brought back to the present. The memory in my mind pushed back again.

“He was a good man, and I let him go.”

“No one would go if they didn’t want to,” Jung Jin said. “Just like you can’t make someone stay who doesn’t want to, either. If he was so good what happened?”

“I couldn’t give him what he wanted…”

“So he found it elsewhere?”

“Something like that.”

“He’s an asshole.”

“Except he’s not.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Except it was. He moved on from me and straight into a functional relationship. He’s been married for six years. He wasn’t the broken piece in our relationship. I was.”

“Why do you do that?” Jung Jin asked. “Put the blame on yourself?”

“Why are you getting so mad?” I asked, perplexed. “I would think between you and me that I am the one who has a right to be upset.”

“I’m angry for your sake.”

“I don’t need anyone to be anything for my sake. I’m fine,” I said, lifting my chin. “Besides, who else should I blame?”

“Other people.”

“That would be easier, but it’s not true.” I finished my breakfast and my coffee and stood up. “Anything else?”

“What?” Jung Jin asked.

“Was there anything else you wanted to know?”

I grabbed the leash from the kitchen counter and placed it over Dog’s head. I tugged him towards the elevator and thankfully this time he cooperated.

“I’ll see you after work,” I called out to Jung Jin and he didn’t respond. He continued sitting, brooding into his cup, as if digesting all the information I had just given him.

The walls of the penthouse was closing in on me, as any place always did whenever I revisit a scene from my past, and I needed some air.

If Jung Jin hadn’t asked any questions I would never have offered that information. I was very aware of how people’s perception of me changed when they knew how I used to be. Well now he got what he wanted. Will he see me differently?

Do I even care?

The answer might have been the same months ago, the same answer it was for every other person I dealt with. But now, I can honestly say I wasn’t quite sure.

This felt different. This was… Unsettling.

This was the first time that I had spoken about any of this with a man; the first time I had allowed anyone else a glimpse of the ghosts that haunted me still. It was the first time that I had brought back those memories in an effort to help someone else understand me better.

I used to think he was not good for me, but thinking back on my past I think that maybe I had it the other way around. Maybe I was the one who was not good for him.

 

*****

4:00 p.m.

Jung Jin

After spending a largely unproductive day at the office, my thoughts in disarray, I had decided to call it a day and come home. But not before buying the necessary reinforcements to turn my penthouse back to how it was to begin with.

I shifted the bags I carried in one hand while adjusting the box I had in the other. I practically bought the whole of the pet store, from a crate to a bed to the best food there was and toys. I wasn’t quite sure why I bought so much.

I wasn’t quite sure of a lot of things at the moment, a feeling I neither understood nor liked. But one thing I knew for sure was the fact that the furry creature meant a lot to her, and she means a lot to me. So if by keeping the thing around means that I have a higher chance of getting her to stay, then I will do what I must. He had just become my key to a future with her.

She’s already adjusted to being here and I think she was adjusting to the idea of being with me as well. At least she was until this morning.

Before she had put her wall back up I was convinced that we were well on our way to actually being something.  And we may be, still. The road to happiness wasn’t always a straight one, but luckily for both of us I was never one who preferred that road any way. If she could accept my past then I certainly have no problem appreciating the significance of hers.

My phone rang in my pocket and I placed my purchases on the floor before I picked up the call.

“Hyung?” I heard Joon say. “I came by your office and they said you left already.”

“Yeah I decided to come home early,” I replied. “I had something to take care of. What’s up?”

“I got an invitation for a charity ball thing,” he said. “I need you to go in my stead.”

“Why?”

“Na Jeong and I are going to my Appa’s for the weekend.”

“Reschedule your trip.”

“I can’t,” Joon said. “I have games the whole week before and the next two weekends after.”  “So?”  “It’s my father’s birthday. I don’t want to miss it this year. I missed too many already. He’s getting…”

“I got it,” I said. “When is it for?”

“Two weekends from now, or is it three? I’ll bring the invitation to the game tomorrow.”

“Fine.” I picked the bags back up before I remembered to ask something else. “Can I bring a date?”

Joon chuckled on the other line. “Thinking of making it official? That’s a bit unusual.”

“I’m not famous like you,” I said with a grin. “I can publicly make my relationships known.”

“I wasn’t commenting on what you can or cannot do,” he said, amused. “I just meant that you’re not the type to do that.”

“Make relationships public?”

“That… And call relationships relationships. What do you call them usually?” He asked, more to himself than me, and then paused, as if thinking. “Ah… Associations.”

“Did I?”

“Yeah,” he responded wryly. “I have to go. Na Jeong just walked into the door.”

“Yeah. Give her my regards.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I hung up the call and picked the big box before stepping into the elevator, thinking back on what Joon had said. Had I never called relationships relationships? I supposed I hadn’t, but I hadn’t been in anything that would even remotely be considered one in years.

Was this a relationship?  I was thinking about this question as the elevator went up. We were living in the same place, I was in love with her and now… We shared a dog. She’s not in love with me yet, but she will be. I was so close.  If this wasn’t a relationship, I thought to myself as the elevator signaled its arrival, then I wasn’t quite sure what was.

 

*****

Gia

I sat on the couch, mindlessly watching television, tuned into yet another show that I don’t understand. It didn’t matter anyway. I still felt on edge, my nerves raw. Dog had his head on my lap, snoozing peacefully, unaware of the restlessness inside me.

By the time I came back from my run, Jung Jin was gone. It surprised me to realize that I wanted to see him at home.

I wanted him to tell me that he didn’t see me any differently, that I was still the same woman in his eyes. He may not have realized it, but I didn’t normally disclose so much so soon. And when I did do it, I never cared about how someone thought of me afterwards, either. It was always the reason why I spoke about my past like an outsider looking in, because in doing it that way, I could get some distance. I could pretend it wasn’t me. I could move the hell on from the situation as quickly as possible, just as I had always done.

But with Jung Jin…  I realized that I wanted him to see me behind the wall that I instinctively put up. I wanted him to go through the thick fog and still see who I am, to still like who I am.  I didn’t like it. I feel myself liking him more and more every day, despite all my rules.

I’ve been here for too long. I am beginning to think that I could actually stay. It was a dangerous situation. Peril does not suit me. I needed to do something about this situation, before I no longer can.

“Saranghaeyo,” the man in the television tearfully said. I love you. One of the few complete Korean phrases I actually know.

Love.

Did I still believe it something I was capable of? Did I still have it in me to have the mindless optimism of someone who loves?

I vaguely heard the elevator ding, and I gently put Dog aside to stand up. I waited for the bell to ring, signaling the arrival of a guest. Jung Jin doesn’t usually come home until three hours from now. The fact that I knew this part of his life brought a measure of discomfort inside my chest and I pushed it away.

I stood by the couch uncertainly, my fingers fingering the fabric, unknowing of whether or not I should go and greet him or whether I should stay put. Before I could make a decision, the door opened and in came Jung Jin, carrying a giant box and a few bags. Dog, a bit surer of himself than I am of myself, ambled towards him happily, his tail wagging.

I watched as Jung Jin held a hand up to try to stop him from completely getting to him, but Dog just ignored him and kept walking anyway. Jung Jin lifted his eyes to me in mock fear and the expression in his eyes made me giggle.  Surprised by the sound myself I lifted a hand to cover my mouth before he realized it but it was too late.

I knew he heard me when I saw his lips break out into that slow smile that makes my breath catch. I recognized the slow unfurling in my chest, my heart pounding so hard it was almost painful.  His eyes traveled over my face and though we still stood a few feet away from each other, it was as if he was touching me.

I self-consciously tucked a strand of hair that hadn’t strayed from my bun, aware that his eyes were following everything I did.   I made no move towards him, stuck in this same place. I wondered if he would stay that far as well, or if he would come closer.

Which did I want him to do? I asked myself even though I already knew.

*****

Jung Jin

 

She stood a few feet away from me, emotions swirling in her eyes, and I struggled to find the right words to say. After our conversation this morning hello just didn’t seem appropriate. And I love you may be a bit too much.

Dog was sniffing my shoes before he started weaving in and out of my legs. Gia was still watching me, and to break away from her eyes I looked away first and made a show of changing my shoes into my slippers. As I thought, the furry thing was more interested in what I had brought than of me. He curiously poked his nose into some of the bags, and then stepped up and over the box.   He wasn’t so bad. Not really.  At least he didn’t bark.

Dammit.

I had forgotten to call the property management company to find out if he was even allowed here.   Still, I can rectify that tomorrow.

Gia was still standing in the living room, looking absolutely unruffled. I would think she was completely unaffected if I didn’t see her hands picking invisible lint off the couch. Her mutt was still ensconced by the bags on the floor and seeing my opportunity, I walked over to where she stood and wrapped an arm around her waist, only just remembering after I had done so that I had forgotten to ask for permission.

I expected her to scold me, to pull away. I expected her pretty eyes to narrow in annoyance, her mouth pursing in displeasure. I expected her to act just as she had always done, could have and would have bet on it every other time.   But she did none of those things, taking me aback in the process.  She weaved slim arms over my shoulders, standing on tiptoes to bring herself closer to my body. I felt her fingers through my hair, her eyes on my face.

The way she was looking at me coupled with the proximity of her, was making me inane.  She looked like a woman who was begging to be kissed.

I was about to do just that and kiss her until the shadows in the greenish brownish depths in her eyes retreated. Until words were no longer needed.   But as soon as I leaned in the damn dog started barking. Loudly.  Incessantly. The sound, much like the sound of my phone ringing the first night I kissed her, roused her from what I was just about to do.

I could almost see the struggle in her eyes, as if she debated whether to break away or to stay.   She didn’t make a move. She stayed just as she was, enfolded in my arms, even as Dog kept barking possessively. It surprised me and she seemed to be surprised as well.

I know what she would have done, had she acted instinctively.  Just as I knew that it was her choice to stay put. And she did. She chose to stay in this moment, with me. The realization hit me hard, but I didn’t move either. As long as she’s choosing me I will choose her too.

Humbled I could do nothing but press my lips on her forehead, even as I saw the dog tearing into one of the plastic bags. She rested her head on my shoulder and I took a deep breath, realizing the magnitude of this moment.

“Did you have a good day?” Her voice was muffled over my coat. Her question came out softly, quietly, in the way that old lovers speak, as if we had done this before, as if we had done this all our lives.

“Not really,” I said honestly, smoothing a hand over her hair. “But it’s better now.”

*****

Gia

I watched, unimpressed, as Jung Jin dismantled the crate for the third time.

I thought that men were supposed to be better at putting things together than women? I mean, studies have shown that following directions and seeing things materialize from raw materials appealed to the way a man’s brain works.   So why was this man so rubbish at it?

I shook my head as I set down two bowls and two sets of chopsticks.  I pulled out the container of kimchi from the fridge, along with the pickled radish. I placed a chopping board on the counter so that I could watch what Jung Jin was doing while I sliced the radish into pretty little discs.

Dog was at my feet, begging for any scraps I may have wanted to give him.   I narrowed my eyes at him as I gave him a silent scolding. Way to ruin the mood, Dog. I was about to be kissed. I didn’t even think he knew how to bark. But what was I saying? I relaxed my face. Maybe I should be thanking Dog instead.

I broke two eggs over the pot, just as I had seen Jung Jin do many times, wondering what exactly it was that I was looking for to know it was cooked. This whole cooking thing was complicated.

To date I still hadn’t successfully made a pot of rice, but that wasn’t entirely my fault. Jung Jin, presumably to avoid a repeat of the smoke alarm incident, always leaves for work with a pot of rice made and the cooker turned off.

I looked over the counter to see him shaking his head at the instructions, the dog crate back in pieces. I placed the pickled radishes on a plate before bringing it to the table, feeding Dog a little piece. I focused my attention back to the pot in front of me, grateful for the distraction.

What had happened earlier before Dog found his voice, needed to be examined. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Maybe I could just leave it be.

But still, I remembered the way he watched me and knew that he probably cares more than he wants me to know. It’s okay. I don’t want him to know how I feel either. It will be okay.

But Dog…  I looked at the small animal by my feet, sitting on the floor, panting at me. He looked at me trustingly, as if he could rely on me. Sometimes he looks at me like he might even love me already. I shook my head.
I stirred what was in the pot without actually seeing it. I didn’t really plan on being involved with Jung Jin. Things just kind of snowballed out of control.

Luckily for me Jung Jin wasn’t the type to commit either, although for altogether different reasons to mine.   That’s really lucky… Because what we have right now is just an illusion, nothing more. We can be as careless as we want because we are both just existing in each and every moment, knowing there will be an end. It’s what makes everything feel so precious. People never protect anything as fiercely as they did when they knew it was not theirs to keep.

Except … I’m not the careless sort. Nor the living in the moment type of person. Nevertheless, it’s not too late to approach this situation differently.

As long as he doesn’t tell me he loves me it’s not real. As long as he doesn’t say the words, we have no responsibility to each other. I will still leave when I can.

I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I didn’t realize that the noodles had now congealed into one solid mass, that I was no longer able to stir it as easily as I did before.  I didn’t even notice Jung Jin getting up from the floor to grab something from the fridge. It wasn’t until I heard him sigh over my shoulder that I looked down in alarm, only to see the ramen’s edges turning brown, all water evaporated.

Dammit.

This whole cooking thing really isn’t my thing.
*****

Jung Jin

I placed the pot back on the hob as I restarted the ramyun, making note that Gia had already set out the kimchi and the radish. I quickly pulled some peppers and a spring onion, along with the package of mushrooms from the fridge and started chopping them, in an effort to at least make our dinner a little healthier.  If I left the woman to her own devices she would eat ramyun for every meal of every day.

Seeing as she had attempted and failed at making dinner again, I had shooed her back to the living room, along with her stubborn dog, to sit and wait while I prepared our food. I looked over at her now, as she sat down on the floor and picked up the instructions I had abandoned.

Who knew that putting together a crate for a dog was so difficult? Gia read over the paper, teeth into her lower lip, as she usually looked when she’s thinking deeply.  The instructions were in English so I knew she would understand, but if I couldn’t do it, certainly she wouldn’t be able to, either. Never mind that for all my abilities I have never mastered the skill of actually building things. Why did I need to? I was rich enough to buy things already completely pre-made.

I was pouring the ingredients into the noodles and the broth, having added the seasoning a few minutes before, when my hand phone rang. I pulled it out of my pocket only to see Ji Hyun Noona’s name flashing on the screen.   Opening the phone to start the call, I rested it on one shoulder as I tried to stir the ramyun and break the eggs into the pot at the same time.

“Noona… What’s up?”

“Jin-ie, what are you two doing next weekend?”

“Huh?” I asked, tasting the broth with a spoon.

“Your nephew’s birthday had to be moved up by a couple of weeks. Your brother in law has to go for an unexpected business trip that weekend so we’re going to have the party there on Saturday so that we can fly back on Monday.”

“But that’s so soon,” I muttered, realizing that this was the only reason why Gia stayed in the first place. For this party. Because she gave her word to my sisters.  And now it was merely a days away. “Can’t we have the party without Hyung-nim?”

“Jung Jin-ah,” she said. “He’s his father.”

“Fine, fine,” I relented, my mind going a million miles a minute, already trying to figure out what to tell her to make her stay. “We’ll be there.”

“Is Gia around?” My eldest sister asked.

“Why?”

“Uhm, I wanted to say hi,” she responded drily. “You’re acting very weird. Can’t I say hi to your girlfriend?”

“It’s not that, but… Noona… She’s not…”

“Jung Jin-ah, put her on the damn phone. You’re acting like she’s not there. What did you do this time?”

“NOTHING!” I responded hotly. “She’s here!”

I turned around from the stove and almost bumped into Gia, now behind me, sniffing the pot. I shoved the phone towards her and she raised an eyebrow before mouthing ‘Ji Soo?’ I shook my head no and mouthed ‘Ji Hyun Noona,’ instead.

She looked like she was about to refuse, her eyes shooting daggers at me. She wrinkled her nose and appeared to be thinking of what to say. I understood her conflict. I know she hated lying to my sisters.  Even so she gamely took the phone and fixed a smile on her face and I was so grateful I planted a loud kiss on her lips.

Things must really be changing since she didn’t frown at me, not this time. See? We weren’t lying.  Not really. She may not have started out as my girlfriend but she kind of was, now. Who cares about the order of events anyway?

She covered the receiver and spoke to me, her voice in a warning tone. “Kisses don’t fix everything.”

I dismissed her comment and placed the pot of ramyun on the table, before walking back to the living room to resume the crate building. I heard her speaking to my sister behind me, her voice friendly and warm, as she always was to anyone else but me. I would be bothered if not for the fact that she doesn’t kiss anyone else but me.

So yeah… Everyone else can keep her niceness as long as I get to keep her kisses. That seemed a fair deal to me.

The sight in the living room made me stop in my tracks. A crate, completely made, sat in the middle of the floor, Dog already sitting beside it.

But… How? She managed to put this together in one fifth of the time I even spent doing the same thing myself.

I looked back at Gia, leaning on the kitchen counter, as she spoke to my sister. She heard something she found funny and threw her head back as she laughed, the sound echoing through me, making me feel warm and happy.

Amazing, I thought. My woman is amazing. Who needs a woman who can cook when I have one who can build things?   Not me. Not me.

*****

April 27, 2002

1:45 a.m.

Gia

It’s been an hour. Sixty minutes. I don’t know how much long I can take this.

The book Jung Jin bought for me said that dogs are comforted by the crate. So why wasn’t he?

Before that he had been perfectly content sleeping with me on the couch. Has he gotten used to that, then? Maybe my whole routine to habit theory applied to dogs as well; it seemed that it applied to this dog.

What am I supposed to do?

I quickly got up from my sleeping bag before he woke Jung Jin up and walked to the living room. His ears perked up as soon as he saw me, his cries quieting to soft whimpers.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, reaching into the crate’s bars to pet his head. He still had bald spots where I cut off his tangles and he leaned into my hand. “We have to try it this way,” I told him.

All these late and sleepless nights must be affecting my brain because when he cocked his head, it seemed as if he understood everything I was telling him. But I thought he only understood Korean? Although, it seemed we were getting better at communicating with each other. I had thought that he had learned to read body language and sounds, but now I am convinced that he really does know what I’m talking about.

Either way he calmed down as I continued to run my hands over his fur and I sighed.

“Shall I stay here, then?” I asked. “Shall I stay here with you?”

He lay down on his belly, as close to my hand as he could, and placed his head on the dog bed that Jung Jin bought. He looked exhausted, and as he should, as well. He’s been crying non-stop since I had put him in the crate.

It all appeared as if he would do well in the beginning, walking in and out of it as soon as I had put it together, much to Jung Jin’s dismay. But then Dog had watched suspiciously as we began putting the mountain of toys that Jung Jin had bought in there, along with a small fluffy bed shaped like an egg, and the suspicion quickly turned to outright defiance. I had to crawl in there to even get him to come in, and then quickly sneak out.

I lay down on my side across the crate’s bars from him, our bodies pointing the same direction. Resting my head on my arm, I looked at him and kept my hands on his soft fur as his slowly closed his eyes and then opened them again, as if embarrassed to be caught snoozing. I let out a small chuckle. Sometimes he seemed like a person himself. Just like a child would be, rebelling against bedtime.

It wasn’t long, though, until his small body surrendered and he finally closed his eyes, his breaths evening and and slowing down. I watched him for a few more minutes before I let myself close my eyes, as well.

Just for a minute, I told myself. Just until I knew that he was well and truly asleep, that my getting up from the floor won’t rouse him once more. Just… one…min…

*****

4:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

I woke up after a few hours of sleep, my body already used to this routine. It was a Saturday, and yet I still couldn’t sleep in, even though I had nothing to do today except answer a few e-mails and watch Joon’s mid-day game later. I didn’t even have to drive far for that, as they were playing in Jamsil Stadium.

I turned on my side and scrunched my pillow under my head, determined to try to fall asleep again. My eyes closed though my mind was not as cooperative. It was already up and rearing to go. After a few minutes I gave up and got up, pulling my clothes back on, determined to make my way to the gym before the sun even came up and to be back before Gia woke up to have breakfast ready.

Maybe I can convince her to go out on a date today… if she can be persuaded to be away from Dog for any length of time, that is. Maybe dinner and a movie. I mean… how strange was it that we were actually kind of dating without ever having stepped foot outside together for the sheer purpose of getting to know each other better and enjoying each other’s company?

With this purpose in mind, I stalked out of my bedroom, I lingered over her door, wanting to peek in but holding myself back. Even if it wasn’t for anything bad, I didn’t want her to feel burdened by how I felt. I’m trying to take it slow. She was only just beginning to trust me

Nevertheless, I can’t help wanting to check her room to make sure she hadn’t left, even though I knew damn well that as soon as her best friend releases her from her predicament that she would be gone.

I can’t think about that.

All I can do is keep hoping that she had made enough connections here, connections to me and with me, which will actually make her think twice about just leaving. Besides not wanting her to spend any more time with that vet, I think, maybe, that that was what drove me to actually agreeing to the dog.

I was playing dirty… I knew that. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

I shook my head at myself. Where else could she be at 4 in the morning?

I walked to the kitchen to start the coffeemaker, when I looked over at the living room and saw a figure lying on the floor. Gia was on her side, her small hand squeezed through the crate’s bars, resting on Dog’s head. This woman…

She refuses to sleep on a bed, choosing her sleeping bag, instead. She refuses to even sleep on the couch, just so she can keep that furry thing company.

I don’t know what to make of her, wasn’t even sure where to start. I’m not even sure I want to do anything. I love her just the way she is. Quirks and all.

But still… she will wake up hurting if she stayed in that position.

I walked to the living room and gently pried her hand from the crate. Dog opened one eye and regarded me warily, as if he knew exactly what I was doing, then whimpered when I started lifting Gia off the floor.

I ignored his pathetic cries as I walked to the guest bedroom, the woman in my arms resting her head against my neck innocently. She was so trusting asleep, nothing of the defiant and altogether too stubborn woman awake.

I opened the door with a hand, then debated whether I should put her on the bed, where I knew she should be sleeping, or the sleeping bag, where I knew she sleeps. With a resigned sigh, I bent down and positioned her in the sleeping bag, before zipping it halfway up, making sure to cover her feet. I allowed myself a touch of her cheek, and still she didn’t move away. I found myself wondering what she had been like before she had her heart broken, before she had been hurt and felt a small measure of grief.

She must have been something else. I hope that in time, she can find that part of herself again.

I was still thinking about this when I heard the soft whimpers coming from the living room turn into loud cries, Dog wailing like his life was ending and no one cared. Satisfied that Gia was comfortable, I walked back to the living room and sat down by the crate.

“What is with the commotion?” I asked. “Do you not like your crate?”

Dog blinked at me, but made no move to come closer to me or to go farther. He continued to look at me, and I continued to look at him in some kind of a staring contest when he gave a loud bark and started pawing on my hand.

“Shh…” I murmured. “She just fell back asleep.”

He gave another bark despite my request and I grimaced. This dog knew who his owner was and did not hesitate to let me know that he only took orders from her. Fine, then. Fine. If I can’t be his master, then I can be his friend.

I opened the crate and beckoned for him to come, and though he still looked at me doubtfully, his tail was wagging and he walked out. I waited to see if he would paw at the window, the way he always does with Gia when he has to go outside, but he did not.

Not wanting to alarm him I sat myself down on the couch and watched as he meandered around the living room furniture, as if he was looking for her, Unsuccessful at that, he eyed me on the couch before reluctantly jumping up and sitting next to me.

And so there we sat, together but not looking at each other, in silence. It seemed, without the presence of the woman who tied us to each other, neither of us knew what to do. He didn’t beg for fuss from me, and though just a teeny tiny bit offended, I still tried my best not to care at his indifference.

I was not very happy at being ignored in my own house. But at least, I told myself, the thought comforting me in the smallest way, at least he had finally shut up.

*****

April 29, 2002

9:30 p.m.

Gia

“Are you ever going to tell me who you’re staying with?” Junnie asked as I tried to scoop some dog food into a bowl. “Hello???”

“Junnie, hang on,” I said as Dog started jumping up on my leg. “Jeez.., you’re acting like I don’t feed you on a daily basis.”

“Who ARE you talking to?”

“Junnie, shit, hold on,” I said as I walked towards the dining room table, where Dog’s mat was. “I’m trying to feed the dog.”

“Oh, o…” Junnie started before stopping herself. “Hold on, what? Did you just say dog?”

“Here, baby,” I cooed to the dog. “Enjoy your food.” I turned my attention back to my phone call as soon as Dog started eating. “Yeah Jun, sorry about that. What were you saying?”

“I don’t speak to you for a couple of weeks and you got yourself a dog?” she asked incredulously. “You don’t even like watering plants and you got yourself a dog?”

“Junnie, it wasn’t like that…” I said. “He found me.”

“And what if a cat approaches you next? A bird? Are you going to take them in too?” she asked. “Have you forgotten you don’t live in Korea?”

“You’re the one who left me here!”

“To return a jacket, not open a damn menagerie!”

“First of all, I would need more than one animal to even technically be considered anywhere close to having a menagerie,” I said calmly. “Second of all…”

“Does your roommate even know you have a dog?”

“Of course!” I responded, shaking my head at why she would be so worried. “How do you think I got all the dog’s stuff?” She didn’t respond and I started pacing the dining room, not necessarily nervous at what she was about to say, but unsure nevertheless. “Jun?” I asked hesitantly.

“Listen,” she said, sighing. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the fact that you are helping another living thing, but I know you. You know what the matter is, too. What’s going to happen to that dog when you leave?”

Part of me wanted to say that maybe I won’t leave, but I could not make myself do so. Junnie was the last person I should be lying to. She knew me better than anyone else.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Maybe Jung Jin will take care of him.”

“Jung Jin?” she asked.

“My roommate.”

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” she said. “How did you even meet this person?”

“I’ve known him, Junnie. You know of him, too,” I said, finding no more reason to try to hide the truth. “Jung Jin Lee. The manager.”

“You two are living together.”

“It’s not like that,” I said, rubbing my temples before correcting myself. “Well… what I meant was that we didn’t start out living together, but we are now staying in the same place. But we are not living together in the sense that we’re sharing a bed or anything because you know I sleep in a sleeping bag so that’s not even possible. Plus we’re more cohabitating. And sharing a dog. And maybe kissing too.” I stopped speaking as soon as I realized I was babbling and Junnie released a frustrated sound.

“This is so complicated,” she finally said. “You’re giving me a headache. How the hell did you manage to do all this in less than two months?”

“Junnie, it’s okay, seriously,” I said, trying to reassure her.

“It’s not okay,” she said. “You guys can’t be playing house. Someone is going to get hurt.”

“It’s fine,” I repeated. “I’m fine.”

“What about him?” she asked. “Will he be fine when you decide it’s time to go back to America?”

“What do you mean? He knows I plan on leaving. He KNOWS,” I insisted, remembering his words the night of my busted blind date. “He said so himself.” I took a deep breath. “Besides, I’m not even thinking about the future,” I said through gritted teeth, trying to remember if I was saying all these things for her sake or for my own. “Don’t overthink it. We’re just enjoying each other.”

“I just want to know how a woman who can’t stay in one place for any length of time and can’t commit to taking care of any living things, ended up with a dog.” She asked and I didn’t respond. “You don’t know, right?  Maybe… it was the same way she ended up in an accidental relationship.”

“It’s not a…”

“I give up,” she interjected. “I really really hope that one of you knows what you’re doing.”

“Junnie, didn’t you say you wanted me to try something new? Didn’t you imply that I needed to change a little?”

“This… was not what I meant,” she said. Before I could ask her to clarify, she spoke again. “I’m hanging up. I’ll see you soon.”

She ended the call and I was left staring at the phone. I really don’t know why she was so worried. Jung Jin and I are both adults. Neither of us was under any illusions about what this was. I was thinking about this so hard, or more likely reassure myself of this, that I failed to notice that she ended her call with an ‘I’ll see you soon’ until I had no chance to ask her to explain.

What the hell could she possibly have meant by that?

*****

April 30, 2002

3:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

“Dog,” I said sternly to the creature sitting next to me. “We really need to stop meeting like this.”

I had come back to the penthouse after one of Joon’s away games, and the lights were already off. Gia was asleep on the floor, next to the crate. Again. I know she’s trying to get the dog used to it but it wasn’t working. Because just as frequently as she falls asleep next to him, I’m picking her up and putting her back in her sleeping bag, then letting the dog out and the two of us falling back asleep on the couch.

Just as I knew my mental clock would wake me up within four hours of falling asleep, I also knew where I would find her each and every time I woke. And it was always next to Dog.

On the upside it seemed that the mutt was starting to like me a little. He had started out falling asleep a fair distance away from me, a fact I kind of appreciated since I was scared I would end up laying down on him and crushing him. But now, he rests his head on my lap before falling back asleep.

I willed my mind to slow down, and tried not to think about the fact that my nephew’s birthday party was coming up, something I had not told Gia yet. I would say I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t told her yet, except I knew why. I feared that as soon as I told her she would be making plans to leave.

She hadn’t mentioned getting her documents back from her best friend, but I hadn’t asked, either. Maybe I didn’t want to hear her answer. Still, I knew that I would have to do it, and sooner rather than later.  She didn’t strike me as the type to like surprises, and I already had two under my sleeve.

First was that I was in love with her. And second that she would be meeting my parents in a few days.

This whole situation was so complicated, even though on the outside it should not be so. We were both adults. We should be able to talk about all of this in a calm and logical manner. I think that she’s softening… I really, really do, though she has yet to admit it herself. She doesn’t freeze anymore when I touch her and she had even shared a few details of her past with me, but did she feel for me what I felt for her?

I really don’t know. It was this uncertainty that held me back from saying a word.

I closed my lids and rested my eyes, unable to find answers to any of my questions.

*****

“Is this what you do every night?” I heard Gia say softly and I sat upright.

Had I fallen back asleep? Dog was still sleeping peacefully on my lap, uncaring about what was going on around him.

“You’re awake?” I asked then flushed. Obviously she’s awake since she’s speaking to me.

“I thought I was being quiet.”

“I fell asleep early today, since Dog and I went for a long walk earlier. How was JJ’s game?”  She sat down on the couch, on the opposite side of the dog and waited for my response.

“Good,” I said. “They won.”

“He must be an amazing pitcher.”

“You already have a Joon of your own,” I said testily.

I want to meet her Joon person and tell him exactly what I think of him. And maybe shake his hand. If not for him none of this would have happened. I probably owed the man a basket.

“What does that have to do with anything? ” She asked, chuckling lightly. “I didn’t realize you were so possessive of him.”

“It’s not him I’m possessive of,” I mumbled under my breath.

“What did you just say?”

“Nothing,” I replied a bit louder. “Nothing. Hey,” I continued and she looked at me questioningly even as she already started stroking the dog. “Are you ever going to name him?”

I said the question as casually as I could muster, hoping that she didn’t realize that I was asking for something else. I knew what it was I wanted,  a sign that she had both me and him in her plans.

She looked away before she spoke and I tried not to be too disappointed. “You name him.”

“I think I’ll stick with Dog,” I said, trying not to sound dejected.  She nodded at me with a half-smile. “It has a nice ring to it.”

We sat in silence for a good long while before I spoke.

“Do you want some coffee?” I asked.

“Nope,” she responded. “Do you? I can make coffee now with the help of your gadget now.”

“I know,” I said, grinning. “Congratulations.”

She gave herself a pat on her back and I laughed. Dog sat up for a moment, his eyes looking at me then her, as if trying to understand what was so funny, then gave up and sat back down again.

“Thanks for putting me to bed every night,” she suddenly said.

“You mean your sleeping bag.”

“Yeah, that.”

“Can I ask you something?” I hesitated for a second before I went ahead with my question. “Why do you still sleep in that thing?”

“I guess… ” She started, brows drawn. “I guess it’s because it’s what I’d always done.”

“Do you not want to try sleeping on a bed and see if you actually can?” I cleared my throat. “Is it because you still don’t trust me?”

“It’s because of a lot of things,” she said gently.  “But it’s not because of that.”  Her answer genuinely surprised me, but eased my worries some as well. At least it wasn’t because of me.   “I could try sleeping on a bed,” she said softly.  “If you want me to.”

“You would?” I asked and she nodded.

“Joon-ie says that it’s stupid.”  How she can say ‘if I wanted her to’ and Joon-ie’s name in the same breath, I would never know. But if that meant that she might actually try overcoming some of the things that she perceived as issues, then I’m okay with it.

“You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” I said. “I just want to know if I’ll be…” I stopped my sentence when I realized what I was about to say. If I’ll be sleeping in one too for the rest of my life.

I quickly looked over at her to see if she noticed or suspected anything, but it appeared not to have even crossed her radar. I wasn’t sure whether to breathe a sigh of relief or to repeat myself.

She continued to distractedly pet Dog, who was now standing on the couch, shaking out his whole body. He stretched over her lap before stepping over her, then squeezing himself onto her opposite side, forcing her closer to me.

I can’t believe it. I can’t believe that I ever thought Dog didn’t like me. He not only loves me but is a genius as well! He lay back down and stretched out, and Gia shifted in her seat to give him more room, bringing her directly next to me, our sides touching.

I wondered how she would react if I put my arm around her shoulder. To this day it still surprised me that I haven’t been slapped yet. Reaching over my head in a move I hadn’t had to employ since my high school days, I feigned a stretch and a yawn before my arm landed on the seat of the couch.

She blinked at me as if she couldn’t believe that I was really doing this but didn’t stiffen when my arm started inching towards her. I smiled to myself when she continued what she was doing, unaware that I was now trying to devise a way to drop my arm on her shoulder.  My first attempt was thwarted by her leaning over suddenly, to pick up the toy that Dog had dragged up with him and now dropped off the couch.

My second attempt was fended off by her reaching up behind her to pull her hair up in a ponytail. In the middle of my third attempt she turned to me suddenly and gave me a knowing look before shaking her head.

“Are you trying to do something, Jung Jin? ” Her voice had that husky tone again and I had to force myself to breathe. “I thought you were supposed to be a player.”

Before I could formulate a proper response to what she just said, having some difficulty ascertaining if she was insulting me or teasing me, she lifted my arm off the couch and placed it securely around her shoulder. She turned to me and smiled.

“Don’t quit your day job,” she said wryly.  “Happy now?” I could only nod. I had never been happier to get busted. “I don’t know what the fuss is all about.  You’ve had your arm around me before.”

“Only because Ji Soo was here.”

“Not only because of that,” she said and I could only look at her.  She burrowed closer towards me, completely relaxed and I moved my head closer to hers to take a whiff of her hair. She smells like the most delectable thing on Earth.

In the middle of my multiple attempts I hadn’t noticed that Dog has since fallen back asleep, after a few half-hearted attempts at appearing alive. He must be really relaxed as he was lying on his back, his feet up in the air. Cute.

Gia had her eyes closed next to me, and I looked at her lips, wanting nothing more than to kiss her. I feel like we’re new parents without actually having had the enjoyment of creating said child. Still, though,  we had come a long way and I had surprisingly enjoyed every step. Perhaps I actually had more patience than I previously thought.    To keep myself from actually kissing her when she was half conscious, I decided to talk instead.

“Gia…”

“Hmm?” She said, though she didn’t open her eyes.   “My nephew’s party is this Saturday.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll tell them about us then,” I added.  “I promise. You won’t have to worry about lying to them much longer.” 

“Okay.”

Her ready acceptance of everything I was saying made me feel courageous. I should tell her I love her. I had been looking for the perfect opportunity to do so, so why not now? I mean… she was in an accommodating mood tonight. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

“Gia… I…” I started boldly enough, but felt my voice break in the middle, losing all my courage and steam. “I…” Tonight seemed to be the night of failures for me since I couldn’t even seem to deliver this one simple line.  Three damn words and I’m stuttering. “I…”

I realized that I probably shouldn’t be saying this so impersonally. I turned to her so that I could look into her eyes when I realized she had already fallen asleep, her body slack, leaning over my shoulder, her hand resting lightly on my chest. I released a breath as I lifted it and intertwined my fingers with hers, letting myself enjoy this contact. Lightly I pressed a kiss on her palm, and then the back of her hand before closing my eyes myself.

And here I was, just about to confess.

Dammit.

*****

May 4, 2002

5:30 p.m.

Gia

He’ll be okay, I thought to myself as I watched the row of houses pass by outside the car window. He’ll be fine.

He had adjusted well considering the circumstances,  but it was the first time I was leaving Dog at the penthouse by himself. It was a strange feeling worrying for something else besides myself, and knowing that there was someone waiting home for me. It was a powerful thing, that knowledge. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it yet.

In the last three days we’ve cleared the penthouse of all the newspapers once we were fairly certain Dog was potty trained though the deck had been treated with some kind of glaze that would prevent it from staining in case Dog had a stray accident. Jung Jin had movable grass patches placed on wooden beds for Dog to use and even called some contractors and gotten the wall filled and fixed as well. My head practically spun from the amount of activity in the penthouse and at how quickly the man got things done. But then again he had money, and unfair as that may be, money speaks louder than anything else with these things.

I had often said the same of Junnie’s methods, though I’m sure Jung Jin would resent being compared to her in any way, judging from his past reactions, though I failed to understand why.

By all accounts it seemed that Jung Jin had completely embraced being a pet owner, as he had taken on every task voluntarily, if not happily.  But then again he seemed to have completely accepted the domesticated life that we shared, a fact that didn’t surprise me as much as it bothered me. Not exactly the sharing part as much as the domesticating part did.

The thing is… that it was all so comfortable. And so normal. From my experience I had always been told that if something seemed too good to be true, that it usually was. But nothing had ever really been that good for me. And still I found myself waiting.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for what will happen next. I’d spent the last ten years holding my breath, still waiting to exhale. That bothered me a lot in the past.  But even more concerning was that now I actually felt quite the opposite.

Now I find myself wanting to let go.

I wanted to release the breath I’d been holding for too long, even though it was this fact that had kept me going for a decade, even though there had been times when it felt like that was all I had. The thought made me restless, worried.

I was beginning to feel the weight of responsibility,  of accountability, despite what I had told Junnie. It felt like I was wearing clothes that were not quite mine.

Like I was only pretending to be living this life, and it wasn’t really my own.  And now here I was, attending a birthday party for my pretend but sort of something’s nephew, as if it was perfectly okay. As if I could live this life so thoughtlessly.

I was a planner by nature but I could never have planned this.

Jung Jin seemed deep in thought as well as he drove to his childhood home. For my part I was nervous, my hands clammy. As I folded and unfolded them I wondered if his family would see through me.

I smoothed a hand over my skirt as Jung Jin pulled into a long driveway then eventually stopped behind a line of cars.  He placed the gear on park before he turned towards me, his hands reaching for me automatically, almost instinctively by now.

“Are you okay?” He asked, his brows furrowed in concern as he touched my cheek lightly with his thumb. “We don’t have to go if…”

“I’m fine,” I said, though I knew I sounded not quite so fine. “I already told everyone I’d go. We’d brought a present and everything.”

I nodded towards the big package on the backseat, a bicycle we had bought. Jung Jin had insisted that we pool our money together,  seeing no sense in having two small gifts when we can buy a bigger one from both of us. Even my gift had become part of a couple.  I was still figuring out how I felt about that too.

“Omma’s already waiting at the door,” he said, his eyes darting over the windshield.   Jung Jin unclipped his seat belt and got out of the car, then went around and opened my door, putting a hand out, which I took gratefully.

It seemed almost ironic that despite all my relationships,  I had never actually met any of my exes’ parents. Even those of the man I almost married.  That fact alone should have warranted closer inspection at the time, but too wrapped up in my fantasies of being married and too relieved that someone like Chris actually deemed me worthy of marrying, I didn’t even give it second thought.

But now…   I was meeting Jung Jin’s parents while pretending to be in a relationship with him while we were actually in some sort of relationship that I was still denying. This whole situation was a bit too much for me to wrap my mind around.

Jung Jin took the gift out of the backseat before tucking it under one arm and we walked over to greet his parents. He kept my hand firmly in his, and I held on tightly, as if it was my lifeline. I had never been the type to care much about first impressions, but I cared about this.

I wanted them to like me, despite the fact that I had lied to them though they didn’t know that yet. Jung Jin had promised he would put everything to rights today and I wondered if they could actually be persuaded to accept me anyway, as well as why it mattered so much to me.

We approached the couple standing under the arched doorway, the door behind them half opened to reveal a flurry of activity inside. Upon closer inspection I found that his mother was a beautiful and petite woman, not much taller than my own mother,  standing with an entirely too handsome older man. I should have expected so, since Jung Jin and all his sisters were all beautiful.  She was dressed in a pale blue shift dress, her hair pulled back into a smooth chignon, a string of pearls around her neck. Her face was only lined at the corner of her eyes. Laugh lines. A welcoming smile was on her lips, genuine and warm. Here stood a woman who lived her life merrily and happily. She gazed upon me kindly and I gave her a shaky smile.

Her companion had a hand on her back, his handsome face open and unguarded.  His head was covered with salt and pepper hair, combed neatly.  He was wearing a collared shirt with a light sweater over it, his legs in perfectly pressed tan trousers.  I looked at them both, and realized that Jung Jin looked like both his parents, until his father smiled, and the dimple that I loved on Jung Jin made an appearance on his father’s cheek. I was still debating in my mind what the proper way was to greet your pretend-but-kind-of-something’s parents in Korea when Jung Jin cleared his throat.

“Appa, Omma,” Jung Jin started, putting the box he was carrying and resting it against the wall. “This is…”

“Gia-ssi,” his mother said happily, enfolding me into a warm embrace. “I’d heard so much about you. I’m so happy to finally meet you.”

Jung Jin’s mother held me so tightly it made me miss my own mother, and I embarrassingly felt tears burn the back of my eyes. Of all the times to feel emotional, why did it have to be now? I looked away to compose my emotions, not having expected this kind of reception and my gaze landed on Jung Jin’s father, who winked at me as he wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulder. He said something to Jung Jin in Korean that made him smile and I mustered up one of my own.

“Thank you for coming, Gia-ssi,” his father said, his tone low and rumbling, a bit more authoritative than Jung Jin’s,  but just as warm nevertheless. “Please, come in.”

“Everyone’s already here,” his mother said. “All of Jung Jin’s sisters and their families are inside already, along with their children.” She turned to me and looped an arm around one of mine, guiding me into the door. “Everyone but Ji Hee and Ji Soo, of course,” she chattered on. “They’re unmarried. You remember them both?” I nodded and she prodded me more quickly into the door. “They’re not married either but Ji Hee’s boyfriend is here. So stubborn.” I looked at her questioningly, trying to keep up with her conversation.  She was speaking so quickly that I was still catching up. “Ji Hee,” she continued.  “Not her boyfriend. Jung Jin’s oldest brother is here too.  Wait til you meet the children.”

“Ah…” I said, not really coming out with something else better to say.

“Omma, slow down,” Jung Jin said from behind me, intercepting my arm. “You’re going to scare her.”

“Psshh…” she said to him,  smiling brightly at me. “Are you hungry? The food is ready.” Without waiting for a response she turned around to no one in particular and called out. “Everyone, Gia’s here! We can eat!”

“Omma, what the hell am I? Chopped liver?” Jung Jin asked, offended. “Do you not care that I’m here too?”

“You are not so big that I won’t wash your mouth with soap, Jin-ie,” she warned, looking like a tiny fierce queen lording over her kingdom. I could feel Jung Jin deflate under her icy glare and I found myself chuckling at the spectacle.

“What?” He asked me after his mother marched to go into the dining room, where I could already see a veritable feast laid out. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” I responded.  “Just… I think I finally can see why you’re so bossy too.”

He blinked at me before breaking out into another of his devastating smiles and I thought I melted into a puddle on his parents’ immaculate wooden floor. Our gazes collided and locked and it was as if we were by ourselves again, in the little world we had built just for the two of us. I was thinking about how much I wanted to kiss him right here and now when I heard someone clear their throat behind us awkwardly.

“Ah, Jung Jin-ah,” the voice said and I turned around to see another tall handsome man, looking very much like Jung Jin’s father, leaning against the wall. Was this family full of good looking, tall people? With the exception of his mother everyone seemed abnormally… long. “I think you should eat food before you end up eating her.”

“Hyung!” Jung Jin said, embarrassed, before leading me into the fray.

*****

A few minutes later I found out that the person who interrupted us was Jung Yoon, his oldest sibling, married to Mi Rae. I had also met Ji Hyun Unnie’s husband, Ji Min Unnie’s husband and Ji Hee Unnie’s boyfriend. Along with respective partners, I had also met various nieces and nephews, though I failed to remember anyone’s names at this time. There were just so many of them. Having come from a small family myself I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, and that was putting it lightly.

Over the table the conversation flowed amongst parents and siblings, in laws and children. Everyone spoke in English, except for the occasional Korean phrase here and there, no doubt because of both myself and Ji Hyun Unnie’s husband. It was slightly surreal to be in the company of such lively people, who argued and yelled, criticized and teased, albeit lovingly. I did not expect it. The feeling of guilt for having tried to fool any of them resurfaced once again and I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from confessing all my sins at their dinner table.

“Gia-ssi,” Jung Jin’s mother said as Ji Hee Unnie brought me a bowl of rice, nudging me and smiling as she sat down next to me. “Is your whole family in America?”

I nodded. “My family is in the United States, but our extended family is all in the Philippines, though.” I looked over at Jung Jin to see him listening closely, and I only just now realized that we’ve lived together for a month and we never spoke about this.

“And your parents?” She said. “Are they still together?”

I looked down on my plate and clutched my chopsticks. “They are still married,” I answered softly.

“And what does…”

“Omma,” Jung Jin said, sounding uncomfortable.  “Let’s not make her feel like she’s getting interrogated.”

“Araso,” she said with a small grin my way.  “I get ahead of myself. I apologize.”

“It’s okay,” I mumbled, taking a bite of the noodles before helping myself to some kimchi, to the delight of everyone at the table. “This is delicious.”

All the women beamed at me and I self-consciously looked down. They’re so happy watching me eat. Such nice people.

“So, Gia-ssi, how long have you and Jung Jin been together?” His mother asked, passing me a platter of short ribs.  I kept my eyes on my plate, aware that if I met her eyes she would likely suss out that I was lying. Mothers always seemed to have that ability.

“Ahh…” I said, a little uncertainly.

“Omma,” Jung Jin said,  pressing my hand under the table and giving me a reassuring squeeze. “We…” he coughed and cleared his throat nervously. “We… we…”

I kept my eyes on him as he struggled to get the words out, knew that was it not for me he would have just gone along with the lie as long as possible.  I also knew that he had sensed my discomfort and was trying to protect me from having to confess myself. He took a deep breath, as if bracing himself for the collective reactions, and I heard Ji Soo’s voice in my memory.  

“…I wouldn’t put it past him now to lie to us, but the Oppa I grew up with wouldn’t have, and I guess for a second, or maybe more than a second, I actually believed that he was capable of deceiving us. And the thing is… though he’s super cool now, I would still be disappointed if he lied to any of us. As I’m sure Omma and the rest of our sisters would be. Not necessarily about the not having a girlfriend part, but about the lying.” 

“We…” Jung Jin attempted once more, sounding resigned, his ears already getting red. “We…”

“We, we… for God’s sake, Jin-ah,” Ji Min Unnie snapped. “Just spit it out.”

“We…” Jung Jin was still hesitating and I think I understood why. He was a man who didn’t care much about other people, but based on what I know of his family and their dynamics, I had the feeling that he cared more about  what they thought of him more than he’d even be willing to admit.

“We got a dog!” I said brightly, to the amusement and shock of everyone at the table.

*****

Jung Jin

It was minutes after the birthday song had been sung, after the cake had been partitioned and eaten.

The little girls had cornered me and goaded me into playing tea time with them, and so here I was, waiting for the ‘tea’ to be ready, accompanied by various stuffed animals of differing sizes.

Gia was somewhere else in the house, kidnapped by my sisters right after the meal. She had looked like a deer caught in the headlights at first, a wholly expected reaction to my large and loud family. But what had been unexpected was how quickly she warmed up to them and how well she fit in. Better, it seemed, than I ever did. Or better than I did when I was younger anyway.

Surrounded by headstrong, opinionated and outspoken family members all my life I had spent most of my childhood being the quiet and shy child, an anomaly within the Lee clan. Many times my Omma had wondered if I was one of her children at all I was so different from my siblings.

Even now, sometimes it still felt like they saw me as the black sheep of the family, with them having made all of their professions in stable and dependable careers and with my constant propensity to shy away from relationships.  Jung Yoon Hyung was a lawyer by trade and married when he was in his early twenties.  All my sisters hold degrees in various sciences, and all but one were happily partnered up. The only one closest to me in personality was Ji Soo, who opted instead to major in music, but she was not single by choice. Had I not been so good in business I might have pursued music as well. But burdened by expectation and lacking the courage to not conform, I opted to stay safe and do what was expected of me, which was probably why I rebelled so much against the idea of being with anyone just to please them.

I knew that had I confessed the lie about myself and Gia that my family would have placed the blame solely on my head. I’ve seen the way they have been looking at me over the last few years, the way it’s changed from concern to genuine confusion. Though I was positive my parents weren’t quite sure about the sordid details of my life, I could sense their bafflement with me. It was why though I loved my family to death and I knew it was that same love that made them worry so, I tended not to visit as often as I wanted, even though I lived in the same city.

It must have been that indecision that Gia had sensed, that made her interrupt while I worked towards telling the truth. I can still remember how my siblings’ mouths widened, as well as my parents’, at the declaration that we were now proud owners of a pet. It was almost comical, how their reactions were.

I’m pretty sure they were thinking about the same thing I often find myself wondering about as well: how did I, someone who has always been historically afraid of dogs, end up as the owner of one? Damned if I know. Damned if I care. Dog was not just my dog, but ours. The first thing that we have ever shared together.

I chuckled to myself as I sat myself down onto the floor, my nieces all around me.

“Jung Jin Samchon!” Ye Jin, my oldest niece said in Korean as she placed some plastic plates holding plastic cakes and biscuits between us. “Thank you for coming to our tea party! ”

My youngest niece sat across the floor for me, holding a teddy bear in her arms somberly, waiting for instruction from her big sister. Her expression was pensive and serious, reminding me of how Gia looked most days,  and I made a face at her and elicited a gap toothed smile. Next to her sat my second Noona’s younger child, a little girl only a year older called Ga In.

I softened as I studied both their faces, looking very much like my older sisters, looking very much like me. I wondered if I had a daughter if she would look like them. The Lee blood ran strong and deep, and I knew that I and my siblings could never be confused to belong to another family. So it was an almost definite conclusion that all my children would resemble us as well, even with non-Korean blood, as evidenced by Ji Hyun Noona’s kids, who were half Taiwanese themselves. My children would all be multi-lingual as well, what with an English speaking mother and my speaking Korean. They would grow up speaking both.

What the hell am I thinking about? I asked myself. And why was I thinking about this now?  I shook myself silently, reminding myself that I have never once considered having a child. Ever.

In recent years I hadn’t even considered having a relationship. But a child… A child meant commitment for life, and anything that implied anything-for-life was something I had always shied away from. But I think I might be persuaded to have a child.  As long as it’s with Gia. Only with her.

For a brief moment I imagined her as a wife and as a mother, with her never-ending well of kindness. I imagined that our children would have her temper, as well. She would be a beautiful mother. And the world certainly could use more people like her. I stopped myself before my brain ran away from me.

Our future together was still up in the air… I haven’t even confessed my feelings yet. She hasn’t said a word about her feelings either.  We were dealing with each other on a day to day basis, something that I was an expert in.

Why worry about the future when it hasn’t arrived yet?  Life is all about the now.  I can control the present. I could make the present bow to my will. The future was too gray and not guaranteed at all.

Ye Jin came back to her sister, her cousin and me, wearing a tiara on her head, interrupting my thoughts. It was just as well. The way my mind was going I would be proposing before the night was even over.

“One for you,” she said to her sister, placing a smaller tiara on her head. “One for you,” she continued as she fastened a tiara in her cousin’s hair. She walked over to me with a smile and another tiara. “And one for you!”

“I have to wear this?” I asked as I perused the silver tiara in my hands. She nodded at me with a big smile. “But my head might be too big!”

“Uh uh…” She shook her head. “Only princesses are allowed at this tea party and you can’t be a princess without a crown!”

Her sister looked at me then with a small smile even as she sucked on her right thumb.  And resigned I lowered my head so that Ye Jin can fasten the crown on my head. The smiles that bloomed on all their faces superseded the awkwardness I might have felt and I relaxed, stretching my legs in front of me and crossing them together.

Within a few seconds Ye Jin came back with a teapot and proceeded to pour the imaginary tea for her and the other princesses. I clapped my hands together in enthusiasm as she did the same with my cup then drank the air noisily before asking for a second serving.

All the girls giggled and I winked at all of them.  I had just poured myself a third serving of airy tea when my oldest niece spoke, her tone serious.

“Gia Eemo is nice,” she said.

I nodded at her. “Yeah, she is.”

“She’s pretty, too.”

“That’s true as well.”

“Do you like her?” She asked.

“Yeah I do,” I responded. Why lie? And to children no less?

“Do you love her?” Their three faces were looking at me expectantly and I nodded.

“Yes. I love her a lot.”

“Samchon,” my second niece said, as she walked over to me and placed her arms around my neck, “do you love her more than you love me?”

I debated with my answer. Should I tell the truth or another version of it? Realizing that there would be no winning if I told the truth, I decided to go with the safe response. Girls can be notoriously jealous when they feel threatened.

“I love all my girls equally,” I whispered and she rested her head on the crook of my neck.

I breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing I needed was the women in my life wanting me to quantify my love for them or, God forbid, asking me to put them in ranking by order of priority.  My two other nieces descended on me just then and I heard the shutter of a camera. I turned around quickly to see Ji Hyun Noona standing by the doorway, camera strap around her slender neck.

“I never thought I’d see the day I would actually catch you wearing a tiara,” she said drily before sitting down next to me and nudging my shoulder. “I mean you were always kind of a princess when you were a kid, crying all the time, but I never expected this.”

“Noona,” I said with false irritation.  “Shut up.”

I reached up to my head to take the tiara off when she shook her head at me.

“It’s a good look,” she said. “Don’t take it off.”

“Yeah, Samchon,” her elder daughter agreed. “Don’t take it off!”

“Fine, fine.”

I looked at my sister as she cuddled with the girls,  as beautiful now as she was when she was younger, more, actually if I was being honest.  Marriage and family suited her to a tee, a far cry from the slightly rebellious girl she once was, trying to find her place in the world, declaring to the world that she would never ever marry. In that sense we were more alike than we ever acknowledged,  though I was sure she had it harder. Being an independent woman was tough in a world still dominated by men. The more I knew Gia the more I appreciated the women in my family. They had all struggled in the same way, though for different reasons.

As if feeling my eyes on her, she turned to me with an inquisitive gaze. “What?” She asked. “You’re looking at me like you’ve never seen me before.”

“Nothing,” I said. “You look good. Settled.  Happy.”

“I am good,” she said, almost annoyed. “Who knew happiness would become me?” She gave a little laugh before turning her eyes back to me. “So do you. You look very happy.”

“I do?” I asked and she nodded.

“I am happy. It’s a weird feeling.”

“I know what you mean,” she said. “I’m glad you and Gia came today. You know the whole family misses you.  And Omma… you don’t even know how many times she changed her outfit and how many times she asked all of us to taste what she was cooking she was so concerned that Gia wouldn’t like it. She was so happy that she was coming. Thanks for that.”

The gratitude in her voice made me feel a little guilty. To my family for lying and to Gia for using my family to try to get her to imagine a life with me, to get her to imagine a life here. I knew that she wanted to live her life without ties, but I wanted her to consider it. I thought that maybe, if she met my family, if she liked my family, that she could be persuaded to envision sharing something more permanent in her life. With me.

I didn’t quite realize how important it was to me that she met the people who knew me, that she met the people who loved me, until I was filled with an almost overwhelming joy and warmth seeing her in my family’s fold, laughing at something they said, trying all the food that my Omma had meticulously prepared for all of us. She even sang along as we all launched into the birthday song, and clapped with the rest of us as each present was opened. She already belonged and she didn’t even know it.

“She’s beautiful, you know. And I’m not just saying that because of how she looks,” my sister continued and I looked at her. “I meant that she’s a beautiful person, inside and out. Ji Hee and Ji Soo rave about her, about how intelligent she is, how kind she is. And no one could have borne being in such and bizarre situation, meeting our parents for the first time, no less, with such grace and humor.”

“I know,” I agreed. “She’s amazing.”

“And so warm, too, and genuine,” she said. “No ounce of insincerity. She says what’s on her mind, but always respectfully, but still I can tell she doesn’t just do it to impress people, which, of course, makes it more impressive.”  My eldest sister chuckled suddenly, as if just remembering something.

“What, Noona?”

“Don’t get mad,” she said, “but I kind of gave her a hard time when we first met.”

“You did?” I asked, surprised and she nodded.  “It was before she told us who she was.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, amused. “What did she say?”

My sister watched the girls as they reconvened in another corner of the room,  all whispering amongst themselves and then shook her head as if she was just struck by a long forgotten memory.

“Sorry,” she said. “They just reminded me just now of how Ji Min, Ji Hee and I were when we were younger and how it pissed you off so much to be left out.” She sighed. “I told Gia she was a very small person, or something to that extent. I wasn’t being offensive, just observant. You should have seen her, though.”

“What did she say?”

“She lifted her chin all stubborn like then said flatly, and I would never forget this, ‘it’s not my fault you’re all freakishly tall.’ I thought I was going to explode in laughter but I knew she would just get madder.”  I could picture the whole scene in my head and gave a chuckle.

“Yeah, that sounds like her. Why would you say that anyway?”

“You have to understand,” my sister responded.  “I thought she was another one of your women.”

“What women?” I asked innocently.

“Don’t do that,” she warned. “You are a horrible liar.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Again, you’re terrible at lying. You should stop doing it.” She sighed. “Did you not think I know that since Kelsey that you’ve just been playing around?” I didn’t respond.  “I never told you but I bumped into Kang Hye Soo a few years back, and she pretty much told me that you two were involved in some kind of thing. I had hoped you wouldn’t fall into her clutches, but you always did do whatever you wanted.”

“Hye Soo and I were never that serious.”

“I disagree,” she said sternly. “I think you may have been smitten with her for a while. Long ago. Before you became who you are now. I alway knew you were soft…”

Was I? I thought back on my early days with Hye Soo to realize that maybe there was an ounce of truth to what my sister was saying. I was infatuated and dazzled, honored that of all the men who came into her life, men with better pedigrees and more money,  that I was the one she chose to sleep with.  It didn’t matter that it was all done in secret.  She still chose me. 

I wasn’t quite sure when it all changed, when my infatuation turned into acceptance of what we were and what we weren’t. But I’m glad it did.

“… Why do you think I was so fixated on finding a good woman for you?” My sister asked. “Hye Soo would have accepted you, I know that, but she would have accepted only the version of you she had molded, not who you really are.”

“People change, Noona,” I said. “It wasn’t all her doing.”

“The accident changed you,” she said softly. “As it was expected to. No one goes through anything like that without it having some kind of effect.  But now… now I think I see the little brother I always loved. Gia brought you back, and I’m grateful for that, if for nothing else.”

“I love her.”  My sister looked at me in understanding before she smiled.

“I know.” She wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “I’m going to give you a piece of advice and I hope you listen to me closely.”

“I always listen to you.”

“No, you don’t,” she said. “But I hope you’re listening to me now. Women like Gia, will have higher expectations. Not in material things, mind you, but in other things. She’s a good person, and she would expect her partner to be no less, either. She won’t just consider the way you are with her as the definition of who you are, but the way you interact with the world and the others around you. She will judge you not by what you do for people who can give you things but what you do for people whom you can’t get anything from.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“I know you don’t, but you will,” she said. “Don’t fuck it up or you’ll never be her boyfriend for real.”

I turned a surprised look her way. “Noona..”

“You two have done an amazing job pretending to be in love,” she continued quietly. “Though I’m sure it wasn’t an act at all, not from your end anyway. She’s a tough girl, exactly the type of woman who I would want for you, but she also seems to carry something heavy on her shoulders.  She’s going to make your life more difficult before it becomes easy. Make sure you remember that she’s worth it.  And that you are, too. You deserve to become the man I always believed you could be.”

“But… how did you…”

“How did I know you were lying?” She interrupted. “The way you kissed her.  It’s not the way that old lovers kiss. I didn’t miss the part where you hesitated, even just briefly. And what did I tell you? You’re a horrible liar.”

“Does anyone else know?”

“If by anyone you mean Omma then no,” she said. “None of our other siblings know, either. But then again I always did know you better.”

“Are you going to tell any of them?”  She shook her head no. “Why should I tell them anything when there is nothing to tell? A girlfriend is just a label. You are already in love with her. She feels some sort of way about you, though she may be a quick slower to admit it. If she didn’t she wouldn’t be here.”

“She’s here because she promised you guys she would come.”

“It wasn’t our faces she was watching as you struggled to speak, but yours. What she said there, what she did there… she didn’t do that for us. She did that for you.”

“You think so?” I asked, trying to sound less hopeful but failing. My sister caught this and she gave me another smile before she got up.

“Yep. She definitely feels something,” she said. “But something tells me she’ll fight it and you. Give her time.”

“I don’t have time.”

“Things will happen as they are meant to. You just have to let go.”

“I’m not very good at letting go,” I said reluctantly.

“I know,” she said sympathetically. “But you will have to learn how to.”

*****

Gia

I looked at the picture on the wall, one of several framed photos in the hallway of Jung Jin’s parents’ house.

This was the same one from Jung Jin’s album, of him in Peru, except this one was the panoramic shot, revealing more of the breathtaking scenery around him, and his left leg, covered halfway by a bandage.

Though I had seen it before I still had the same reaction to this photo as I did the first time I saw it, though now I also wondered what the bandage was from.

“That is one of my favorites too,” a voice said next to me and I jumped in surprise. I turned to where the voice came from and saw Jung Jin’s mother, looking at the picture with a small smile.  “It’s a beautiful picture,” she continued. “I had traveled there myself when I was younger, with his Appa.”

Silently I thanked the heavens that I reviewed the terms that Koreans used for family members before I came today.  “Thank you so much for your hospitality today,  Mrs. Lee,” I said honestly. “I don’t think I have ever felt more welcome.”

“Please,” he said. “Call me omonim.”

“Omonim?” I asked and she flushed with pleasure before nodding.  What a nice woman.

“We thought we lost him,” she said, pointing to Jung Jin’s bandaged leg. “Would you believe he was in bad accident just months before?”

“He was?”  She nodded.  “Was it serious?”

Jung Jin never told me any of this. It was disconcerting to find out little bits and pieces about his life this way.

“He was in a plane crash,” she said and I turned to her, surprised. “Everyone died but him.”

“I didn’t know,” I admitted. “It must have been hard for him and for all of you.”

“I’m not surprised he hasn’t told you. I can still remember the phone calls, trying to find out if he survived. Knowing that there was a greater possibility that he did not,” she said. “I was inconsolable. His father came back from a business trip in Europe, and we all held vigil here until we got the news.” 

I stayed silent, unknowing how to respond. I would never have thought that there was this chapter in Jung Jin’s life. There was so much I still didn’t know. So much I have yet to understand. 

“He was in bad shape. He broke his leg, severed a nerve on his hand, had a few fractured ribs, a deflated lung. He had his whole body covered in tubes and bandages, a couple of those chest tubes as well.  He was in an induced coma for a month. The doctor said that he would not have been able to survive the pain.”

My heart squeezed inside my chest, wondering how much of this Jung Jin remembered, how much of it shaped who he was now. All of a sudden I felt sorry for all my cruel words and harsh judgment of him. I always prided myself on giving people a chance, of trying to understand where they coming from before I came to a conclusion, but I had not done the same for him.

“We were told there had been a high probability that he would never walk again. ”

“But he did,” I said. “He did walk again and he recovered completely. You must be proud. It was probably helpful that he had so many people who loved him supporting him.”

“I’m sure it would have been had he actually allowed us to help,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure that he didn’t mean to shut you out,” I tried to say reassuringly. “But there are some battles a person has to fight alone. This was probably one of his.”

“Can I be candid, Gia-ssi?” she asked suddenly.

“Of course,” I said. “Of course.”

“For a long time we thought that he had merely made you up,” she admitted, almost sheepishly. “It’s not our son’s way to be in a relationship.”

“Somehow I knew that already,” I said and she chuckled.

“We should have been harder on him really, but since we almost lost him, we let him gets away with practically everything. I will apologize in advance.”

“He’s turned out pretty well,” I said to her.

“I’m sure he can be a bit frustrating at times, but he’s hard working. Determined.”

“I like that about him.” I was being honest. I did like those things.

“He pushes himself more than any of us ever did. Survivor’s guilt, they call it,” she said softly, looking back at the photograph. “That’s what the doctor had warned us about. Everything Jung Jin does is shaped by the guilt he feels for being the only one who survived. He wants to make sure that the second chance for life was not wasted on him.”

“I understand,” I said,  a lot of things finally making sense.  Jung Jin was a man who planned nothing because he already knew what it was like to have been so close to death. I was a woman who planned everything because I had been close to death too, though from a different perspective.  Talk about being as different as night and day. Our perspectives in life could not come from farther extremes.

“I knew you would,” his mother said before a voice came from the kitchen, sounding remarkably like Jung Jin’s father. “I have to go. My jagi is calling me.”

“Jagi?” I asked. Her please was calling her?

“Ahh… I forgot, you don’t speak Korean,” she said. “Jagi, shortened for jagiya. It means my honey, my sweetheart. A term of endearment for young lovers. Jung Jin’s Appa made me promise that I call him that sometimes.”

“So it doesn’t mean please?” I asked,  confounded.

“Where would you get that from?” She asked, shaking her head. “You know what? I don’t think I want to know. That boy… I told you… Jung Jin gets away with a lot.” She turned back to me with knowing eyes. “I think, though, that those days will soon be over.”

“What days?”

“The days when he gets away with everything,” she said with a delicate shrug of her shoulders. “Welcome to our family, Gia-ya. I’ll make sure to pack up some food before you go. Ji Hyun told me you liked Korean food.”

“Ahh, that’s not exactly the case. More like I’m a horrible cook.”

“Really?” She asked with a low chuckle. “I should have known Jung Jin would be given such a fate. Don’t worry, for all his faults, my son can cook. He can clean, too. And do the laundry and dishes.”

“You really don’t have to sell his merits to me, Omonim. I am fully aware of his strengths.”

“I’m glad,” she said, squeezing my arm. “I’m glad.”

She walked away in the direction of the kitchen and I allowed myself one last look at the picture.  I should feel guiltier about lying to her, as well, except I don’t feel like anything I had said had been a lie. I may not be his girlfriend, but I was his something.

Still, I realized that there was more to Jung Jin than met the eyes and it surprised me. How much more was he hiding? And why?

I heard his chuckle coming from one of the rooms and I peeked in, only to see him sitting with Ji Hyun Unnie, speaking quietly.  He was wearing a tiara, more relaxed than I had ever seen him. My heart felt awash by emotion as I watched him with his sister, surrounded by his nieces, looking content and carefree. It made me want to smile too. It made me want to become part of this, and him.

Had he not survived I wouldn’t have met him. Had I not survived none of this might have happened.  Was this what people called destiny, or was it just another strange coincidence?

I didn’t know the answer.  I’m not really sure I wanted to.

But somehow I get the sinking feeling that I was about to find out. Regardless of whether it was what I wanted.

*****

Jung Jin

I knew as soon as I leaned back against the wall, Ji Hyun Noona still next to me, that we were no longer by ourselves.

My nephews had since then entered the room and were now ensconced in a video game. My nieces were sat all around them, watching as they played. I was enveloped by activity and noise all around me, a common enough occurrence in my parents’ house, but it was not that but something else, someone else, that had caught my attention.

I felt her by the door before I even saw her. My subconscious knew when she was close even before I could confirm it. I could feel her eyes on me, instinctively by now, and I stood up.

The woman I love was standing by the doorway, and I caught her expression before she realized that I was walking towards her. Her eyes were soft, dewy. Her face open and tender. She looked at me like I was someone she cared about deeply but didn’t understand.  She appeared to be waging a battle in her mind and I wasn’t quite sure why.  As soon as I was close enough to her I studied her face, concerned.

Was this a bit too much? Had I pushed too hard too soon?

“Is everything okay?” I asked, tilting her chin so that I could look into her eyes and have a better gauge as to what she was feeling.

She leaned her face into my palm and I brushed the pad of my thumb against her cheek. I saw her eyes as she guarded how she felt from me but she didn’t pull away. It still surprised me how little she resisted these days.  And how much I liked it.

“Jagi…” she started and I tried to keep my face straight. I will never be forgiven if she finds out that it does not mean please as I had told her. I don’t even know why I lied about that. “… does not mean please.”

“Really?” I asked innocently.  She held a finger up.

“Shhh,” she said, her voice stern. “Do not say any more.”

“Are you mad?” I asked.  She might be mad but I really can’t get a clear handle on things right now. My brain starts short circuiting as soon as she’s around me.

She chuckled lightly. “No. But you can’t lie to me again.”

“Okay,” I agreed. That was easy. “I prom…”

She took a step closer to me and wrapped her arms around my neck, pressing her body to mine, effectively cutting me off. I wondered what the hell has happened, why she was doing this now, if this was still part of our act.

But no one was looking, it was just her and me. The air around me stilled, as if caught in this moment as well.  She brushed a hand over my cheek and I could feel her fingers as her gaze lingered on my face. She touched me tenderly, and I felt my heart clamp in my chest, unable to say a word.

The last time she had done this was when she was drunk off her head in soju and thought I was a dream. Except she wasn’t drunk now. And I was real.

But yet she looked at me the same way, and I could have sworn I was the one who was dreaming.   She rested her head on my chest, and I held her tighter, as if to reassure myself that this was really happening. As if I could convince myself and her that she and I could do this for the rest of our lives.

“Jung Jin,” I heard her say softly, her breath warm on my chest.

“Hmmm?” Beset with the desire to declare my love for her for all the world to hear and afraid that I would do just that, I could barely eke out the question, not trusting myself to speak.

“Make me no promises.”

Her tone was soft, heartbreaking, the words of one who’s had her trust broken one too many times. I felt something tighten in my chest and I could only nod above her head. We stayed standing that way for mere minutes, her heart and mine beating in one synchronized rhythm. I thought I saw my mother and sisters all looking from behind one wall but their heads had disappeared so quickly when I looked over that I was convinced I had imagined it all.

“Jung Jin.”

“Hmm?” .

“I never ever thought I would ever see you wearing a princess crown.”

I chuckled before I took it off, meeting her eyes, entirely too entertained. She was trying hard to be lighthearted but I could feel her worry. The shadows in her eyes stared at me insistently, difficult to ignore and impossible to ignore.

“You ready to go home?” I asked and she gave me a solemn nod.

“Yeah,” she said. “Let’s go back.”

I tried to shrug it off, well aware that she has never once referred to the penthouse as home. But tonight, it stung more than it usually did. It served as a reminder that she deemed all this… as finite and temporary.  I clenched my jaw as the heavy feeling of dread settled on the pit of my abdomen.

She was still in my arms… so why did it feel like she was already pulling away?

*****

10:00 p.m.

Gia

I keep on fallin’

In love with you…

Sometimes I love you, 

Sometimes you make me blue… 

Alicia Keys’ voice broke through the silence in the car, a CD that Jung Jin had popped in before we even left the house, one that had gone unnoticed earlier because of my nerves. I pressed the fast forward button, the lyrics a little too close to home, and then leaned back on my seat, my eyes directed outside the windows.

I had a good time, but I was exhausted. Thoughts were racing through my mind, though I was trying my best to make them stop. I was lost in my memories and my thoughts that I didn’t zone back into the song until it was already past its first stanza and stopped myself from cringing.

You know I’d fight for you but

How could I fight someone who isn’t even there

I’ve had the rest of you now I want the best of you, 

I don’t care if that’s not fair 

Cause I want it all Or nothing at all

There’s nowhere left to fall

When you reach the bottom it’s now or never

Is it all?

Or are we just friends 

I quickly pressed the fast forward button again, shaking my head. The distinctive strains of Enya’s song came on and unknowing as to how to change the setting back to radio I just decided to turn the music off with a huff.

“What’s wrong?” Jung Jin said as he braked at the red light.

“What is this CD? I asked.

“Greatest Hits of 2001. They’re love songs,” he said with a sheepish smile.

“More like let me go bury my head in drink and contemplate how fucked up my life is songs,” I muttered to myself.  Even the damn CD was against me, mocking me with their words of love and devotion.

“What did you just say?” He asked.

“Nothing.”

“Are you okay?” I could feel his eyes on me, studying for a reaction and I squirmed in my seat.

“Yeah. I’m fine.” I heard my voice and scolded myself. I knew I sounded curt, short.

Today’s festivities had worn me out. The kindness and acceptance that his family had shown me, every little thing I had learned about him, they all threw me off guard. It bothered me how much I enjoyed my time with him as he was with his family. He seemed a different man with them. Or was it me who saw him differently now?

For one second I wondered what they thought of me. If I had convinced them of our act.

But then I realized that I hadn’t needed to disguise myself and my reaction to him. How was I supposed to be a woman who was only pretending to care more for him than I did in front of them when I was already a woman who cared more while still pretending to care less?

My gaze strayed back outside the windows. I was driving my own self crazy. At this rate I will not be able to remember which role I was supposed to be playing.  Or if I was playing anything at all.

I was an actress, and a bad one at that. How dare I even try to bend anyone to think what I want them to when I can’t even do the same to myself?

There was a war waging inside my head, questions and thoughts descending and colliding against each other. In between all the uncertainties the one question that persisted was what it was about him now that attracted me so, afraid that it was the shadows I glimpsed in his eyes. There had never been a greater magnet to me than the flaws of another person.

I shifted in my seat uncomfortably.

I couldn’t help but think back on the many times I caught him looking at me, especially when he thinks I was not paying attention. The wonder still hadn’t receded in his eyes. It should make me happy. But it didn’t.

I looked over at him only to see his eyes focused directly ahead, his face relaxed, a small smile on his face. My eyes wandered to his left thigh, where his mother said he had been injured, and wondered if it still hurt. Annoyed at myself I stopped that line of thinking.

I had always found damaged, broken men irresistible.  Another one of my many weaknesses.

And yet, looking at him now, no one would ever know how hard he must have fought to regain back some control of his life. How hard he must have fought to prove that he deserved this chance.

Against my will, a feeling of warmth passed over me and suddenly I felt everything all at once. I would say I didn’t know why it felt like my heart was waking up from deep slumber but I did. I knew the reason why after what seemed like an eternity I was now feeling a maelstrom of emotions.

I was falling in something with him.

Despite what I keep telling myself. Despite everything I allowed myself to tell Junnie. Despite the fact that I won’t even say it out loud now, nor acknowledge it as such, in this exact moment.

The thought made my abdomen churn, made me want to vomit a little. It was not the way I wanted to be.

The emotions continued to ebb and flow, making me feel like I was about to burst out of my skin. This was not the comfort that I had known for a decade. I identified the emotions one by one, as if in doing so I could regain some control back.

The salty taste of apprehension. The frisson of anticipation. The heavy pressing of doubt. Little bursts of tenderness that felt remarkably like something . But… over and above all of those, threaded through the all the other emotions, something thick and dark, coloring and overtaking everything else: the, murky, nauseating taste of fear.

I closed my eyes as I tried to catch my breath. The time that I had been dreading but was certain would eventually come was here.

I was convinced that when I opened my eyes the panic would have subsided. But it did not. It continued to grow and spread, and I could almost feel myself getting paralyzed by it.

I looked over at Jung Jin to see him still unaware of what was going on inside me. I tried to breathe a sigh of relief but it still felt like I was choking.

“Stop the car,” I ordered, willing my voice to stay calm, though the trepidation was audible even to me.

“What?” Jung Jin asked. “Why? We’re almost home.”

“Just. Stop.” Each word was punctuated by a breath, my throat closing in on me, as were the walls of the car. My heart was skittering in my chest and I needed to get out.

The car braked abruptly as he pulled to the side of the road.    I could feel him looking at me concernedly, a question in his eyes. I knew what he was going to ask. But I wouldn’t be able to answer him since I didn’t know myself.

Am I okay?

No. I’m not okay. I’m not okay.

Not even bothering to take my purse from the foot well of the car, I grabbed hold of the door handle and opened it. Without telling Jung Jin what was going on, I did what I always did, what I always knew to do.

This has never disappointed me. This has never failed me.

I ran.

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